Counterinsurgency vs. Countering Irregulars

Michael Cohen, on a recent village razing noted by Joshua Foust of Registan:

[I]t’s a far cry from what COIN advocates were saying a year ago. Then US/ISAF destruction of property was a bad thing because it “creates more insurgents.” Today, destroying property, not such a bad thing because we helped the people whose homes were destroyed to rebuild them i.e. building trust. It’s perhaps another example that COIN advocates tend to define COIN by whatever definition furthers their arguments at that exact moment.

The debate is currently ongoing on Twitter, where Foust observed that “From the outside, I have the sense that whatever soldiers do is being defined as COIN, regardless of action.”

This is an analytical problem in addition to a policy one. First, “COIN” as we understand it is a very recent body of military doctrine. Although it has antecedents in 19th century military campaigns, it is essentially a Cold War-era form of military science that has crystallized (at least in US military experience) as a distilled product of certain 1940s-1970s French and British military experience. What it represents in practice vs. rhetoric is a loaded topic that divides historians and analysts. But it does, especially in the US reception of it, bear imprints of rhetorical Cold War anticommunism—both in the relatively liberal US conception and the messianic call to global war against subversion seen in Galula and Trinquierer.

“Countering irregulars”–i.e guerrillas, brigands, mad mahdis, and such groups is as old as warfare itself, a point frequently made by William F. Owen during Small Wars Council debates. COIN falls under this tradition, but the two are not necessarily interchangeable. COIN advocates make the argument that COIN doctrine provides a better route for countering irregulars than other, older methodologies. Their detractors disagree.

In practice, however, there is little analytical purity to be had. Moreover, even within the framework of one war many typologies of conflict can be observed–the US Civil War was mainly an interstate war with significant irregular components and proto-COIN elements. Adding another level of analytical noise is the political purpose of COIN doctrine. As Gulliver observed on Twitter, official COIN doctrine is often used as strategic communications either abroad or domestically. So things that aren’t COIN are dubbed to be COIN and things that are COIN are assumed not to be because they do not mesh with a touchy-feely image sometimes put out.

To make things a bit simpler, perhaps it might be wise to point out that COIN is a very broad and ill-defined concept that also serves as a frame for Western conceptions of modern counter-guerrilla operations. It has room for tanks and human terrain teams. In many places around the world the conditions that Galula described don’t really exist anymore. In the future we might not even use the word “COIN” to describe our operations.

What hasn’t changed is the basics: a strategist trying to suppress a guerrilla movement should take note of the policy objective, the “facts on the ground,” and the means available. History and theory can frame the cognitive space that guides this determination but not suggest correct answers. In short, give the Floating Clausewitz Head his daily allotment of burnt offerings.


Crime Wars

I’ve been leafing through the new Center for a New American Security report, Crime Wars, which heavily cites John P. Sullivan and Robert Bunker’s stuff. If you’ve in DC, come to their rollout event tonight. I can’t make it, unfortunately, but it sounds like it will be quite the discussion.

Chain Links

  • One big part of contemporary urban operations is counter-sniper technology (C-Sniper) that allows troops to more quickly verify the source of a shot. Now, it looks like the same technology–albeit greatly expanded–is being utilized in counter-gang operations in the US (h/t John Robb).
  • If you’re in California, check out Milken Institute’s annual “State of the State” conference. I still have the forlorn hope (even though I’m in DC now) that CA can be salvaged.

Criminal Insurgency Goes Mainstream

Violent drug cartels increasingly resemble an insurgency with the power to challenge the [Mexican] government’s control of wide swaths of its own soil, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday.” Sound a bit familiar?

Now that Secretary of State Clinton has described the Mexican drug cartels as a criminal insurgency, it is safe to say that the concept of criminal insurgency that Max Manwaring, Ivan Briscoe, Hal Brands, Steven Metz, Robert Bunker, George Grayson, Shlok Vaidya, John Robb, and John P. Sullivan and me have written about has gone mainstream. A small (but analytically wide-ranging) group of people have pointed this out over the last four years , and an even smaller group of people forecast the potential for this to occur since the early 90s.

So now the hard task remains of devising policy solutions. An excellent place to start is to read some of Hal Brands’ monographs at the Army War College. RAND also has some sterling policy stuff on Mexico as well.

Machete Review, of Sorts

People have been asking me what I think about Machete, as John P. Sullivan and I have written a lot on Mexican drug cartels and criminal insurgency. Unfortunately, I have no substantive thoughts. What I do have, however, is a bitter rant.

Robert Rodriquez, why the hell is SALMA HAYEK not in Machete? Yes, Jessica Alba and a scantily clad, gun-toting Michelle Rodriquez in a pirate eyepatch was very good. But was it really too difficult to have Salma Hayek in that movie, even for a five minute cameo–instead of Lindsay Lohan? Geez…..It’s not like Mr. Rodriquez is unfamiliar with Hayek’s acting.

if you want to see something actually intelligent written about Machete, check Alex of i-Con’s blog post.

Power, Ethics, and COIN

A while ago, there was a very strong debate about the role of terror tactics and authoritarianism in counterinsurgency. Ink Spots’ Gulliver quite sensibly dispensed with the myth of “Roman COIN” by pointing out the obvious: whatever advantages authoritarian states have in counterinsurgency are balanced out by the excesses those states often indulge in.

I’d like to also point out another massive flaw with the “Roman COIN” argument: what wins war is neither touchy-feeliness nor brutality. It is power. The strawman in COIN debates is the confusion of power with brutality. The Romans did not frighten the barbarians because they were more brutal, they cowed their enemies into submission by crushing them and demonstrating the futility of resistance. Likewise, the key to Sri Lankan victory was not terror tactics but the marshaling of extensive political and military power to isolate and destroy the Tamil Tiger para-state. Technology, tactical science, and economic and military resources allowed the Europeans to enforce their will on the peoples of the Americas. Those who can draw enough power to win and utilize it accordingly usually are successful.

The instrumental use of terror as a part of power is undoubtedly present in many external and internal conflicts. But it is not crucial for a democracy to resort to terror to win, and autocracies do not derive as large of an advantage from it as some may believe. The problem is that the purposeful use of power is being confused with terror. Armies that give free reign to their soldiers to engage in barbarous activities or try to use terror instrumentally are with few exceptions bands of ragtag militias that break whenever they fight an opponent who can fight back. Following the letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions is not only a moral imperative but also good from a strategic and organizational perspective.

Trying to imitate a cartoonish image of the Imperial Roman army in Gaul will not help us win our wars. Listen carefully to Conan’s words in his spiel–this is as far from the “tea drinking” strawman stereotype as you can get but there is nothing in his monologue that suggests the usage of terror. He is talking about using power to win. If we are not able to use our political and military power to either crush outright or frustrate our adversaries, then we will lose–it is as simple as that.

The Allure of the Quick Victory

Two good items on a similar theme. First, Major Michael Burgoyne (of Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa fame) has a great article on the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) movement in Peru and how the failure of the government to exert political as well as purely military control has allowed them to come back.

Second, Major Niel Smith has a similar article casting some skepticism about the exportability of the “Sri Lankan Model.” He explains how exactly the Sri Lankan government achieved victory, and while pure destruction (and not caring what the outside world thought) was a good deal of it, the real causes were the effective isolation of the battlespace and the professionalization of Sri Lankan combat forces.

Just because COIN is not warm and fuzzy does not mean that a rote focus on one measure alone works. In COIN—like every other kind of war–strategists use engagements for the purpose of war. In a war of erosion (which most irregular wars are), it is difficult to achieve an instant decision.