Motto: “While the central problem of international relations in the 20th century was states that were too strong (Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union), the primary problems of international relations in the 21st century are states that are too weak (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico). The weak states rather than strong ones are the greatest threat to our security and the smooth functioning of the international system. We must find ways to improve governance in the Arc of Instability to diminish the desire of the disenfranchised and dissatisfied--those who see themselves as the victims of globalization--to destroy the whole system.”
Have we basically relearned, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the old lessons and principles in countering an insurgency? Are the broad historically proven principles of countering an insurgency, still valid guidelines for today?
History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. I am currently teaching a course at the US Naval Academy on the history of modern counterinsurgency campaigns. And it is interesting to see how the same principles continue to present and reassert themselves, that the same mistakes are made early as armies adapt to the challenges of counterinsurgency and they learn the same lessons time and time again. They learn lessons like the importance of being keenly sensitive to the human terrain, of understanding its hierarchy of needs, of comprehending the culture, the ethnicity, the religion of the insurgents and of the population. Protecting the population is the key to success. It is important to get the population on your side in order that you can derive intelligence from them on who the insurgents are. It is important that you reform governance to give people hope that if they do side with the government and the counterinsurgents, their lives will be better. It is important to provide inducements to the insurgents. Very rarely are you going to kill or capture every insurgent, although you may coerce some of them away from the fighting. All of those lessons could be drawn from the headlines of the past few weeks on the fight in Afghanistan. I am increasingly convinced that the classic historically tested counterinsurgency principles broadly apply across cases and they continue to apply today, although with variations for the particular country, region, ethnicity, and grievances faced by the population.
In a time when U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations is the US military in danger of being purged again of COIN know-how?
This is an incredibly important question. I do think that the danger exists, but I feel reassured given the experience of the people leading the American military, like General Martin Dempsey who has multiple tours in Iraq and understands the problem firsthand, or General Ray Odierno who has many years of service in Iraq, and I think they are determined not to let that happen. Even as the Air Force and Navy in particular focus on the Pacific, the Army and the Marines will hold on to these lessons that have been purchased at such a cost and will preserve them for the next time. And this time is not over yet. We see a return to classic principles with Secretary Panetta’s announcement that he wants to move to an advisory focus in 2013 in Afghanistan. Classic counterinsurgency principles are going to continue to be applied for a number of years in the Afghan theater. I am hopeful that we are not going to burn the books again.
Do you expect that the small wars, “the savage wars of peace” are here to stay with us as a core feature of the future security environment?
I do very much think that we will fight this kind of war again in my lifetime. There are many factors making conventional war much less likely, but making irregular warfare more likely. We see increasing pressure on governments caused by the Arab Spring and a number of insurgencies in that region; in some cases we supported the insurgencies, in other cases we supported the government. I think that those trends are likely to continue and perhaps accelerate. As much as we might prefer to be able to escape from the savage wars of peace, I am afraid that they are going to have an interest in us for years to come.
In a time when more and more critics are convinced that the West would do well to avoid large scale COIN campaigns in the future, is it reasonable to expect that the future campaigns will look more like “the British SAS campaign in Dhofar”? A sort of “COIN lite”?
Certainly, I think we have every reason to hope that that is the case. And I think that we should develop our capability to do the so called “light footprint” COIN with advisers for both phase zero operations to try to prevent the need for a full scale regime change operation, but also an expanded advisory apparatus for phase four operations to be able to more rapidly turn over responsibility to host nation security forces.
Should the Special Forces be the critical capability for waging COIN lite?
The short answer is yes. My concern is that the demand for that capability is going to exceed the supply of Special Forces available to do it. For a number of years, I have advocated the creation of additional Advisory Capacity in the conventional army. I am unconvinced that the Army is going to meet that demand. Lt. Gen. David Barno is making the argument that that capacity should reside with the Special Forces because their organizational culture is better suited to train and employ those forces. I am still hopeful that the conventional army will accept this mission to meet what I expect to be a continuing and increasing demand, but that remains to be decided.
What are the core skills of an effective counterinsurgent (of a COIN practitioner) that should be preserved in the US military organizational culture? What makes an effective counterinsurgent?
The list is long. But language skills should be a top priority. Of course we can’t tell where the next campaign will be, so I think that we must make a continuing investment in language skills across most of the developing world. We need to develop empathy for the challenges faced by these military forces and a capacity to develop their skills sets. There is a lot of unmet demand for security force assistance around the globe which I think we will continue to need. At the same time we should understand that effective counterinsurgents are good at meeting conventional war fighting challenges as well. We need soldiers that are able to adapt from conducting a shura with village elders one minute to conducting high-intensity combined arms operations the next. So we must find the right balance of general purpose forces able to compete anywhere in the spectrum, but we also need to develop additional advisory capacity.
Should FM 3-24 be radically changed? Or just refined? There are many critics who point out that FM 3-24 should be purged of its outdated colonial foundations.
I’ve been digging back into FM 3-24 and reading it again. The biggest question that we have to come to terms with as we rewrite the FM is whether its foundation on the promotion of host nation government legitimacy should be preserved. The manual was written at a particular point in time when democracy promotion was a key tenet of American foreign policy. And the two most important counterinsurgency campaigns that we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan were campaigns in which newly created democratic governments were struggling. I am unconvinced that that is the right model, that the only way to achieve legitimacy is through democracy promotion early on in a counterinsurgency campaign. I think that this is the most fundamental question we have to come to terms with.
The other question I think we must deal with is one related to information operations. We said that information ops was the most important line of operations in a counterinsurgency campaign, but we provided next to no instruction on how to implement that line of operations. And that was largely because the responsibility for information operations does not necessarily reside inside the Department of Defense. I don’t think that the U.S. government has answered that question yet.
Third, I am going to go back to security forces assistance. The instructions on how to do that were underdeveloped. We still haven’t fully come to terms with this issue and decided how important security forces assistance is going to be and, in particular, whether we are going to build more dedicated force structure to do it. This needs revision as well, not just doctrinal revision, but force structure decisions that probably must be made before we can rewrite that chapter properly.
But should the main strategic goal of the expeditionary counterinsurgent still remain the legitimacy of the host nation government?
I think it should, but I’m not convinced that that legitimacy can only be conferred through democratic elections. In Asia, we’ve seen a number of countries develop institutions that met the needs of their populations under autocratic governments and that developed into democracies after generations of steady, patient work. I think it is possible that we put the cart before the horse in Iraq and Afghanistan, imposing democracies on societies that had not developed the institutions—especially the judicial systems—that are necessary for democracy to function. So I think FM 3-24 got “legitimate governance” right as the objective we should be seeking, but decisions above the level of the Department of Defense meant that democracy was imposed before the countries involved were ready for it.
Do you see the “whole of government approach” as the only right way to fight and defeat an insurgency? Are there any alternatives to the whole of government approach? Is it really just about out-administering the insurgent?
I do think that the host nation government has to provide a better deal to the population than the insurgent does. The foundation of that is security, but there is also the need to provide justice, economic opportunities and basic public services. At the end of the day, the key terrain in an insurgency is not a physical space, but the political loyalty of the people who inhabit that space. And gaining the loyalty of the population requires the difficult process of improving the ability of a government to secure its citizens and developing its capacity to provide essential services. The big challenge I think we face here is that even when we were engaged in two very large counterinsurgency campaigns simultaneously, we did not build the expeditionary capacity we needed in America’s civilian instruments of power and therefore an awful lot of those tasks (assistance in the areas of politics, economic development, information operations, and governance) ended up being done by uniformed military. I am concerned that we will again in the future have to rely upon our Soldiers and our Marines to do an awful lot of what really should be civilian tasks, but that we have not yet decided to build in sufficient size and strength in the civilian instruments of American power.
Having in mind the predominantly civilian tasks of a counterinsurgency campaign, shouldn’t we rephrase or convert George Clemenceau’s famous dictum (“war is too serious a matter to entrust to military men”) into “war among people is too serious a matter to entrust to military men”? As Galula pointed out “essential though it is, the military action is secondary to the political one, its primary purpose being to afford the political power enough freedom to work safely with the population”. And as Douglas Ollivant said “armies are only really good at building other armies”. Not to provide governance or public services.
I agree with Galula, and with Ollivant. Unfortunately, as a nation we have not sufficiently invested in State, USAID, and the Department of Justice to build the expeditionary capacity needed in the areas of Governance, Economic Development, Essential Services, and Information Operations. At the end of the day “it takes a network to defeat a network”, in the words of retired General Stan McChrystal. But if we haven’t made those investments at a time when there was a consensus in Washington that these capabilities were desperately needed during two counterinsurgency campaigns, we’re unlikely to build them in peacetime—and thus we’re likely to need the military to maintain some ability to perform them for the next time, because there is always a next time. “Never Again” is not a method.
Does COIN fail in environments where the government is too weak or unable to credibly project itself on the whole national territory and unable to compete successfully in winning the allegiance of the local population? At the end of the day the most successful COIN campaigns--Malaya, Oman, Colombia--ended up having effective administrative structures.
If you have a strong effective government with the support of the people the insurgency would never get started or wouldn’t last very long. Insurgencies are problems that afflict weak governments. For the government to win it has to provide a better alternative and a more hopeful future to the population than the insurgents do. This is one of the reasons that the counterinsurgency campaigns take so long. The government and its allies must develop the capability to secure the population and build a sustainable system of governance. I think that one of the key concerns that we have in Afghanistan is that the Afghan government has simply not been improving rapidly enough at a time when the American people and our allies around the globe are increasingly suffering war fatigue. It is hard to continue to sacrifice your blood and treasure to help another country that doesn’t appear to making an honest effort to improve itself.
What would you respond to the many critics that point out that pop-centric COIN is just a "collection of tactics" and techniques not a strategy in itself?
I would say that they missed the first chapter of the FM 3-24. The strategy is to strengthen the government while weakening the insurgents in order to reach an end state in which the government with minimal outside assistance can defeat internal threats to its security. There are a number of tactics required to achieve that, both the killing and capturing of insurgents, strengthening host nation security forces, and improving governance. It all adds up to diminishing the strength of the insurgency, increasing the capabilities of the government and its forces and reaching a crossover point where the host nation forces can carry on with minimal outside assistance. We are about to test this hypothesis in Afghanistan over the course of the next two years.