'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Counterinsurgency Remixed

Back to the future: what now for the COINquistadors? 

Talk from Andrew Exum that COIN and in particular FM 3-24 is set for an overhaul. It's an interesting blog post. Then follows the announcement proper of an open-sourced approach to the revised manual, here

Hearts and Minds: About to be relegated to the annals of military history?

I think COIN identifies the problems, that is, it asks the right questions, but perhaps not all its answers are correct. Prine, Burke and Few at SWJ wrote a piece on how FM 3-24 could be rewritten, so there are some ideas out there and there have been narrower manuals since, most notably FM 3-07. The resistance or reluctance, perceived but perhaps not actual is because this is recent doctrine, and in doctrine, as a set of rules, if one part is overthrown or revised, it suggests that all is fallible and there's a risk that the whole edifice could come crashing down. Look at the problem in relativity right now with the faster than light particles. 

In the UK there has been an ambitious attempt to syncrete civil and military spheres within a single publication, JDP 3-40, Security and Stabilisation: The Military Contribution, featuring input from the Insurgency Research Group at the Department of War Studies, King's College London, eminent strategists such as Colin Gray and indeed, from Dr David Kilcullen. It's a manual designed to 'sit above' (Hew Strachan's words) the army's doctrine on COIN and even comes with a 67-page 'guide' (.pdf here) to the publication, 'not an alternative' but 'complimentary' in case you need extra context whilst perusing your copy of JDP 3-40.

Since it represents a prolonged doctrinal engagement with the field as such, condemning COIN and FM 3-24 to the waste-basket of military history is myopic in a strategic landscape that's so uncertain and may require intervention at any time to prevent escalatory threats. It's a competition now between revision and abandonment with champions on both sides but COIN doctrine is of immense worth precisely because it has seen battle. 

As an analogy, the counterinsurgency operation is like an NFL campaign - after a run of indifferent results, the critics speak out. They blame the coach. But some observers question whether it's the coach or the players. Indeed, then the criticism gets divided. Is it the coach and his tactics; is it the coach giving tactics that the players cannot implement; is it the players not implementing the coach's tactics. The point is, critics look at COIN doctrine, look at the results and immediately blame that doctrine, but we require nuanced interpretations of how doctrine is distilled into combat. It's so easy to criticize and write off doctrine - the skill is in implementation, in problem-solving. Asking the right question is difficult, the right answer is more so.

There are concerns with revision. For example, FM 3-24 is a military field manual but COIN requires a large civilian segment. As such, it's difficult for the military doctrine to represent an overarching COIN doctrine, something which it is seen to represent. FM 3-24 isn't really a COIN bible, it's a COIN bible on the military aspect. If you try and process COIN solely through the military then you create an artificial relationship, an unwanted relationship, between the external military and the civilian population. You want to coalesce civilian state institutions, but the military controls the money and thus acts as judge, jury, and everything else. Thus there's never any relationship between the civilian and the state; the state becomes redundant.   

Even JDP 3-40, which having been published in November 2009 represents recent UK defence thinking is little more than a distillation of previous U.S. FMs. At some times becoming so florid as to be vague, it no more solves the issue of money than its 'predecessors'. It's positive to assert the need to 'Employ Money as a Weapon System. Use a targeting board process to ensure the greatest effect for each ‘round’ expended, and to ensure that each engagement using money contributes to the achievement of the unit’s overall objectives' (4A-2) but the idea of an "engagement using money", as the civilian population continue to press for remuneration isn't going to assist the deployed officer. 

The Great Error

Later in JDP 3-40, a subheading addresses 'money' specifically and it is here that the authors are culpable of at the least naivety. Lesson One in the memorable Fog of War from the 85-year old Robert S. McNamara was "empathize with the enemy". Well, empathize with the population, too.  

The first line from JDP 3-40 in the money section, after the obligatory FM 3-24 quote ("some of the best weapons for counter-insurgents do not shoot" - perhaps a little confusing to the soldier who has been intensively trained in how to kill using various small arms) from the addition that she gave to the republication of FM 3-24 by the Chicago U. Press, is this:

"In the battle to influence decisive actors, the judicious use of money can help persuade both individuals and groups to accept the authority and legitimacy of the host government." 

This is wrong. Since the foreign soldiers don't speak Pashto, Dari, or Farsi (there's a pronounced Iranian influence in the region although you have to scrape at the surface to find it) and since they are in no way acting as if subordinate to the government, if ISAF give out money, it legitimizes the foreign occupation but marginalizes the government. I'm going to write more on this, in scholarly prose, in a later journal book review, but think about how the Afghan views ISAF. ISAF bombs your house, you go to ISAF for money, they give you some. How is that legitimating the host government? To the Afghans it says, "The government play no part in this monopoly on violence." 


Finally, as Chairman of the JCS Martin Dempsey said recently, counterinsurgency is defined by the actions of the adversary. Let's not forget that Taliban Afghanistan was a pariah state, so who really knows them? Who understands the refugee camps in Baluchistan? "Know your enemy" is the often quoted Sun Tzu. But the Taliban were alien to us. The guiding ideology was called "Deobandi" but how far is this religious-based group guided it? We went in blind and to some extent we still are blind.  


I think that the central element of COIN, that of the military engaging with a host population, given the threat that the United States faces from 'failed' states is a vital one. The future scenarios for engaging a host population are myriad, and whilst counterterrorism ops with UAVs and proxy forces on the ground are ascendant, the 'cultural turn' created a valuable repository of thought. Gian Gentile concedes as much, here in Parameters, 2009, 39(3), p.6: 'Population-centric COIN may be a reasonable operational method to use in certain circumstances, but it is not a strategy.' The last words go to LBJ, 10 March 1964, trying to understand how to sell Vietnam to the public he murmurs: "This morning Senator Scott said, 'The war which we can neither win, lose, nor drop, is evidence of an instability of ideas, of floating judgements, [and] our policy of nervous conciliation which is extremely disturbing.'

Further reading:

Maybe the excitingly titled, "Confronting the Hydra: big problems with small wars", Lt. Col. (Aus) Mark O'Neill.

Incidentally, I think Josef Ansorge at Cambridge has undertaken research which considers the extravagant number of references to "hydra" in the war on terror and what this may mean for the discourse. But I could be wrong.  

I've been reading:

William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, The Ugly American (Norton, 1958)

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