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 18 Dec 2010 @ 11:18 PM 
 

Strategy and Tactics in COIN

 

I have recently returned from a 15 month tour in Afghanistan working for the Counterinsurgency Training Center – Afghanistan. I traveled extensively over the East and Southwest Regions, including a fair amount of time spent in Helmand Province. I found it to be expeditious not to blog during most of my tour, as it would have interfered with my full time job and prevented me from being able to accomplish some things that I am very proud to have been a part of. I am returning to the conversation regarding Afghanistan having witnessed and learned much.

COL Gentile has (nearly four months after the fact) commented on my last post. Here is what he had to say in comments:

Insurgencies may be local, but STRATEGY should determine if our response to it if any, should be local. By stating such things like “all” Coin must therefore be local too you commit us to an operational template of clear, hold, build in expeditionary form and along with Old Blue the promise of reenacting David Galula and his counter maoist template in the modern troubled spots of the world.

You guys still dont get it; I am not talking the tactics of Coin, I am talking about the Strategy that should decide if and when and how it should ever be put into place.

Sure Blue, deploy the E card; but just remember Hans Delbruke had no military experience whatsoever yet provided one of the most cogent criticisms of the Prussian military of his time. Yet for you, in how you assert the fact that you have been to Afghanistan therefore know more than others, and the rest of us should just shut up and bow to your experience when we dont agree with you.

Come on my friend, get a clue.

gian

It’s as good an invitation back to the fray as can be found at this point. So here I go…

I agree that strategy determines whether or not to employ counterinsurgency as the approach for resolving an issue. However, if you are faced with an insurgency while working with a developing country, it’s a little hard to justify a different approach, even if your role is simply an advisory one. Just as when a partner country is attacked conventionally, as in the Gulf War, the response is then conventional.

That is, assuming that you choose to respond. We could have chosen to tolerate the fall of Kuwait to Iraq’s invasion and just shrug it off. We found this to be unacceptable and so the response was a forcible eviction of the Iraqi forces from Kuwait. COIN would not have been an effective approach to resolve this issue once the decision was made to evict the Iraqis. Just so, once the decision has been made to support the host nation in defeating an insurgency, COIN would be the methodology of choice. So, yes, strategy does determine the employment of COIN. Once that course has been selected, in COIN it is a short throw between strategy and tactics, as there is not a lot of operational art in COIN.

In maneuver warfare, brigade commanders tell battalions where to go and what to do. Battalion commanders tell companies where to go and what to do. Neither usually dictates exactly how to do what they are tasked with doing, but the subordinate elements have pretty precise direction about what they are to achieve as part of the larger plan. For years, we have worked to employ technologies that give higher commanders more and more ability to see and control to the minute level should they choose to. Blue Force Tracker, for instance, gives higher echelon commanders the ability to see to the individual vehicle level what is going on and, if desired, to direct the movements of individual elements. We have seen this in Afghanistan, such as when individual illumination missions have been overridden by a Colonel over 100 Km distant.

I stand by my assertion that insurgency is a political problem. It is the spot on the political scale where the social contract breaks and politics turns violent internally. This is as opposed to an open insurrection (the French word for insurgency is “insurrection,” but in English we do not use the words interchangeably), where there is a popular revolt. An insurgency is typically a smaller political element, the members of which refuse to submit to what we would describe as a legitimate government. We could devolve at this point into a discussion regarding legitimacy, but that would be a digression, so we will skip it. The point remains that insurgency is a political situation turned violent.

That being said, we all accept the statement that, “all politics is local.” If we accept that, then it is manifestly true that, since insurgency is a political problem, then all insurgency is local. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to take it to completion; then all counterinsurgency is local.

While the Joint world does not accept, doctrinally, that COIN is a subset of Stability Operations, the Army and Marine Corps seem to understand that it is. In other words, you can do Stability Operations in the absence of an insurgency. I would submit that, applied properly and in a timely fashion, Stability Operations may forestall the progress of a nascent insurgency. By addressing the grievances of a population, fewer people will be willing to kill over them. It’s not what you are willing to die for; it’s what you are willing to kill for. Failing that, an insurgency develops. More people are willing to kill over their perceived grievances. Now all you need is leadership to direct that willingness and… voila… insurgency.

But each of these potential insurgents has his or her own motivations. Those motivations are personal and therefore local. They are political. So, we have a partner country that is beset by an insurgency and we choose not to abandon them to their fate… for whatever our reasons are. The strategy is pretty much chosen at that point. Either you are or are not going to do counterinsurgency. Now the choice is to what extent do you employ your own forces. Perhaps this is what the Colonel means by “strategy.” You can do an advisory and assistance role, or you can engage in COIN operations with your own forces in addition to or in place of the host nation forces. In the case of Afghanistan, a developing government and lack of governmental security apparatus led us into committing more forces in direct action against the insurgency. What we didn’t understand was how to perform Counterinsurgency Operations, much less Stability Operations. You cannot do COIN in a vacuum. It simply doesn’t work that way. You must do Stability Operations as well.

Why must you do Stability Operations when you are conducting COIN? Because COIN is, by definition, to counter the insurgency. It is focused on reducing the insurgency itself. In order to address the fundamental causes and conditions that produced or fuels the insurgency, the grievances of the people must be addressed. These are political in nature, but include development and economic opportunity. Just as Stability Operations conducted effectively and early enough may forestall a full-blown insurgency, diffusing the progression of anger to the level of lethality, so in recovering from an insurgency the effective conduct of Stability Operations take the recovery to the next level. What needs to be addressed? Well, that depends on the causes and conditions in each locality. It varies. There is no fixed solution. It is a process that must be arrived at through knowledge of each local area and discovering what the people there need in order to not be willing to take up arms in pursuit of whatever it is that they are riled up about. And, for those who are not and would not be insurgents, to commit to actively supporting the government and not supporting or tolerating the insurgents in their midst.

Okay, so we’ve arrived at our strategy. Now, there are particular problems of command in COIN. One is that all of these wonderful technologies for micromanagement of tactical resources are available. But there is little or no operational maneuver occurring. Units are typically given an Area of Responsibility (AOR). The lower the element, the more local the AOR. The most important work in COIN is done by lower echelon elements. Companies and platoons make all the difference. You are not slamming a battalion or brigade into a breach in a line. You are sending squads and platoons into an area where some of the residents are willing to kill in order to gain or maintain control over their fellow residents. What those squads and platoons do make a ton of difference. They make all the difference.

Who understands the discrete AOR? Can a battalion or brigade commander understand what is happening at the village level, in detail, in each discrete AOR in his command? Probably not. So, for a battalion or brigade commander to dictate the actions of companies and platoons is generally counterproductive. All of this wonderful technology that enables a field grade officer to manipulate units to the lowest level provides a capability that is rarely productive in COIN… and yet it is often exercised.

So if the role of a battalion or higher officer is not to control the precise actions of companies on the ground, then what do commanders do? Supervise and enable. Supervise means that a higher echelon officer needs to recognize garbage when he sees it and how to direct that it be set back on course. Enabling means providing that which the lower echelon units need but do not possess on their own; like analytical horsepower. Decision support, not decisions (followed by support for decisions).

COIN is information intensive at the lowest level, and yet the lower down the chain we go, the less ability we have to organize and correlate large quantities of information. One of the most effective things I have seen was at Task Force 1 Lancs in Nad e Ali, Helmand Province. The 1 Lancs (1st Duke of Lancaster) Cultural Advisor (CULAD), a British Captain by the name of Ann Seton-Sykes, assembled large quantities of information and organized it into products that helped the company commanders to visualize aspects of their operational areas. She produced overlays that showed land ownership and the areas of influence of various elders, among other very useful information. This took raw data gathered by the type of constant, intensive reconnaissance that COIN necessitates and put it into a format that was most useful to the guys who were selecting and implementing operations on the ground. It helped the company commanders and platoon leaders to visualize the political realities on the ground upon which they operated every day.

The results that the Lancs were achieving were impressive. Perhaps I will do a post dedicated to what I saw achieved in that one area of Helmand. Regardless, they are a brilliant example of a higher headquarters enabling rather than controlling directly the actions of counterinsurgents on the ground. Perhaps that is what the good Colonel is referring to as strategy; command strategy. If so, he has raised an excellent point, and so I must thank him for the topic of a post.

Tags Tags: , , , ,
Categories: Afghanistan, COIN, COINdinistas, COINtras
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 18 Dec 2010 @ 11 18 PM

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Responses to this post » (11 Total)

 
  1. Max in Paris says:

    At war there are principles, but few.
    Napoleon.

  2. elf` says:

    “It is the spot on the political scale where the social contract breaks and politics turns violent internally.”

    Yeah. About that…

    I really wish this weren’t true. But Rauf was the tipping point.
    I don’t think we can avoid it now.

    Take care Sir. And I think it’s wise to stay close to home.
    Or run like Hell.

  3. Deutschi Deutschmann says:

    Just a short comment on Gentile: Hans Delbrück [sic!] fought in the Franco-German war of 1870/1…

  4. WOTN says:

    Well said Old Blue.

    Let me address one of the comments from Gentile.
    No, those that have not been on the ground in Afghanistan, fighting beside Afghans, against this enemy, cannot truly understand the culture and complexities.

    One aspect of that difference in thought is that old men having sex with young boys is not considered homosexuality there.

    Independent study before and after such an on the ground experience certainly helps, but the Afghans think in a very different manner and that can not be fully comprehended by reading books alone. It is why, after nearly a decade of study and after two tours, I still consider myself a “student,” and not an expert.

  5. Alex Rukundo says:

    Not a combatant or soldier but tend to agree that for any strategy (ANY) to work, it must be adaptable to suit local nuisances or it will all be in vain. One of the reasons the “Surge” succeeded in Iraq was not purely due to the fact that there was a new COIN manual being implemented, rather after a certain period of time when US/ UK/ Allied Forces started understanding local nuisances, knowledge and intelligence, was it then possible to flood areas to seize, build and hold, whilst protecting populations. Note, however, alot of pre-work went into this- meaning better access to intelligence and the modus operandi of insurgent groups, turn-coats who were tired of fighting, better force/ army knowledge of how to behave infront/ with the locals (who inturn trusted UK/ US forces and hence gave then info/ intel), better experience with guys who had been there 2-4 Tours and knew terrain, streets, areas (without necessarily relying on Googlemap and Satpix); Iraq government assistance/ aggressiveness/ assertiveness and lastly geo-political realignment from most of the countries arrayed towards Iraq (Iran, Syria, Turkey, Saudi/ Gulf states, Al Qaeda itself). Remember the US/ UK proactively and aggresively went after Al Qods, Iranian Intel, Syrian baathists and intel and took the war to their doorstep(this made them understand they were playing with fire).

    The Afghanistan surge will only work if all the above action and understanding is realised with a caveat that the people are distinctly different, non-Arab and fiercely tribal as opposed to the Iraqis who were pretty much Westernised or civilised to a large extent.

    Finally, deadlines and too much public detail about operations (kinetic/ covert), Allied modus operandi as well as lack of strategic depth in countries that are currently gunning for UK/US to fail, will also limit quick success- they need to be dealt with thoroughly and aggresively.

    God Bless you guys.

  6. Sat Anlage says:

    awesome blog, do you have twitter or facebook? i will bookmark this page thanks. lina holzbauer

  7. J.R. says:

    Good to see you made it back in one piece, and thanks for sharing your insights.

  8. James says:

    Blue,

    This is probably the best COIN article I have read in a long, long time. Thanks for sharing your insights and articulating them so clearly.

  9. Çelik Kapı says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights and articulating them so clearly

  10. membrain says:

    Welcome back Blue. Excellent piece. It’s good to see you writing again. Thanks for all that you’ve done and are doing.

  11. OldSoldier54 says:

    Dang! That is good reading!

    A belated welcome home to you.

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