01 Feb 2011 @ 2:29 AM 

COIN Primer: What, Really, Is An Insurgency?


In 2007-2008, I would have described the grasp of COIN by Army units as a “buzzword” level of competence. They knew the buzzwords and applied them in more or less the proper places to describe their operations as “COIN Operations.” This did not mean that they were actually doing COIN, just that they were applying the new terminology to explain their actions. In 2009-2010, I would describe the knowledge as more of a “pop-culture” level of understanding. There are still a lot of misconceptions, but more units are doing a lot better with it, and employing techniques that are much more advanced than those of two and three years ago. That’s a good thing. Education has improved, training has improved and both are continuing to improve. A lot more cross-talk is going on between the military and civilian organs of our government. Even the Afghans are catching on. At least, some of them are. Yet the American people are still at a loss as to what COIN really means.

No one is explaining it very well, and while there are bits and pieces out there, some of which are darned good, there is a lack of an overall understanding that would help people to recognize what they are looking at and how to demand better information about it. So, what is counterinsurgency?

Counterinsurgency is, literally, opposing an insurgency. Of course, that seems manifest, but there are different approaches one could take to oppose an insurgency. First, we must understand what an insurgency is, how it starts and what sustains it. We can use any number of examples. We have a good example in Afghanistan, though, and so we can use that.

First, insurgency is a political issue turned violent. It is not a general uprising. It occurs when a group of people that cannot be described as a popular rebellion fails or ceases to engage in the political process, breaks the social contract and turns to violence as a political tool. They become willing to kill. In Afghanistan, for instance, the insurgency comprises about one tenth of one percent of the population. This varies, of course, from location to location, but as a percentage of the overall population of Afghanistan, that’s what we wind up with. Violence is how such a small minority can have such a tremendous impact on the general population and the fledgling government. Violence and the threat of violence are used for specific purposes but they are, in the end, oriented on a political goal.

Normally, resort to violence in a civil society is called, “criminality.” However, in the political context, it is warfare. Warfare is violence used to political ends. Therefore, insurgency is a form of warfare. But it must not be forgotten that the end goal is political in nature.

Secondly, insurgency is a competition to govern. The insurgency seeks, eventually, to replace the sitting government with one of their own choosing. Often insurgent leaders seek to rule themselves. We see this as a feature of both the Taliban and HiG leadership in Afghanistan. Whatever the goal of the leadership personally, the end goal is to destabilize the government and, either by popular uprising or by becoming strong enough to unseat the government by force, to replace it.

Insurgencies often start small. In a governed country, an insurgency may start as a grievance towards the government or the standing social system. It does not require widespread support. It can be small and it can be very focused in its demographics. In the early, latent or incipient, phase, the insurgency gathers strength, support and materials necessary. It also becomes more organized. In countries with existing governments, such movements are often often overlooked until it is too late. The transition from the latent or incipient phase into what Mao called the “Strategic Stalemate Phase” is often the first “wake-up call” to the government indicating that there is a challenge.

Keep in mind, if the government works to address the grievances, the cause of the insurgency may lose steam. This can be done most easily in the earlier stages of the insurgency. In later stages, the degee of destabilization may be too great to deliver on changed policies.

The Strategic Stalemate phase, sometimes called the “Guerrilla Warfare phase,” includes violence, whereas the Latent phase may include very little if any violence. During the Strategic Stalemate phase, the insurgent is too weak to take on government security forces openly. The insurgent must control his loss rate because his group is small. The insurgent does this by choosing when and where to engage in ambushes, bombings, IED attacks. These attacks are designed to achieve an effect, but the ultimate audience is the population. The government must be destabilized, disabled and discredited in the eyes of the governed. This will convince the population that change is inevitable if not desired. An enabling goal would be to appeal to the population to join in a more popular uprising or revolution. This result can develop at any time and will often result in the rapid fall of the government.

One of the challenges the government has at this point is in identifying the insurgents. During this phase, insurgents often wear no identifying material sign that they are insurgents. They do not wear uniforms. They look like everyone else. They may or may not be indigenous to the area they are operating in. Often, leadership elements are not indigenous but the part-time fighters upon whom they rely to fill their ranks are. These indigenous fighters fight for a number of reasons, such as ideology or opportunity. For disenfranchised youth, for instance, it may give them opportunities to make money, to belong to something powerful that is bigger than themselves, or even to join the new “ruling elite.” Regardless of the reason why they joined, they are hard to identify from the mass of population that is not taking part in the insurgency. This is why the analogy has been made that the insurgents are fish who swim in the water that consists of the population.

Violence is used to disrupt and delegitimize the sitting government and to intimidate the population. It is used to support and further the overall message that the insurgency sends to the population. This, their narrative, is a key. It is what gives the insurgency its identity and discriminates it from the government. The insurgent realizes, since his goals are political, that an ongoing “conversation” must be had with the population. It does not have to be a two-way conversation, but the insurgent does listen to the concerns and fears of the population so that it can appeal to and even shape those perceptions. It is a consistent barrage of messages that are all “on-message.” It does not have to be true, only plausible. Tales of government abuses, corruption and malfeasance raise suspicions or reinforce existing grievances among the population.

The insurgents in Afghanistan have a national-level theme, but in each area the particulars of the message are tailored to the specific conditions on the ground. They address the specific weaknesses of the government locally, including the various personalities and conditions as well as the legitimate or perceptive concerns of the local population.

The majority of people will attempt to remain “above the fray.” In Afghanistan, fence-sitting is a tried-and-true survival technique. The insurgent seeks to convert some to their cause, but failing that will seek to at least freeze them on the fence. In all, if the insurgent can separate the people from their government either through active or passive support for the insurgency, that is best for the insurgent; but freezing them in place will do. Ultimately they seek to dissuade the population from continuing to accede to being governed by the government. They will seek to influence the population to accede to insurgent governance. Developing the perception that it time to give up on the government, or at least that it is too dangerous to support the government, is a key goal.

Mao did not write the book on insurgency, the principles of which have existed for thousands of years. He did write a book on insurgency, though, and laid out a pretty effective plan for staging one. This is the “Maoist model” of insurgency. Now, most of us tend to think of “Maoist insurgency” as necessarily having a communist ideology, but that is not necessary. The methodology is universal, and can be applied independent of the specific ideology carried by the insurgents themselves. It is simply a set of observations of insurgency and organizing the resulting principles into a set of guidelines to stage an effective insurgency.

One of the criticisms of our current COIN doctrine is that it was designed to counter Maoist insurgency. Well, it turns out that the insurgency in Afghanistan is remarkably Maoist in its actions and its perceptions of itself and its methods. In fact, communications intercepts in Afghanistan have often included insurgents speaking to each other in the same terms that Mao used. In the world of “open-source warfare,” the insurgents have studied from the masters.

One of the precepts that Mao wrote of was the necessity for identifying where the sitting government was weakened in its capacity, either physically or functionally. Physically incapable means that the government has no presence or real capacity to provide governance. Functional incapability may be due to incompetence or corruption. This weakness, or these weaknesses (as is often the case), must not be inconsequential. They must have meaning to the people and make a difference in their functional lives. They may be created or exacerbated by violence. If good judges are rare and there is a good judge, kill him and make way for an incompetent or corrupt one. Then, provide what the government cannot. Out-govern the government. This should be based on the strengths or perceived strengths of the insurgents.

Do we see this “Maoist” approach in Afghanistan? Absolutely. Here in the west, we think of government as a three-legged stool. The legs are the Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial. Well, in Afghanistan, the Executive and Legislative have their own challenges; but the weakest leg is the Judicial. Afghanistan has a horrible problem with their government court system. At the Bonn Conference, the responsibilities for assisting in the development of the various organs of a newly-created Afghan government were divided up. For instance, the US took the lead role in the development of the Afghan National Army. The Germans took the lead role in the development of the Afghan National Police. The Italians took the lead role in the Judicial branch. That hasn’t gone so well. The Judicial system in Afghanistan is beset by both incompetence and corruption. That’s why the easiest, and often the first in any discrete area, way to out-govern the government is to provide courts for both criminal complaints and dispute resolution.

It also removes one whole leg of the three-legged stool of governance. Now the insurgent begins to construct his own stool to replace the broken one.

Providing such a parallel justice system is effective because there is great demand for “justice.” The insurgent courts are seen as being far less corrupt than the government system, where the rich get their way and those who cannot pay bribes are marginalized. This brings legitimacy to the insurgency as a government and is known as “shadow governance.” The Judicial branch (or leg) is not the only branch under attack. Each province and many districts have a “shadow governor.” Some are little more than figureheads. Some are capable of a great deal of administration. “All politics is local,” and insurgency, being a political problem, is localized. A national insurgency gains strength through a series of localized successes.

The insurgency can be successful in toppling and replacing the existing government in any phase, but if it is not successful in either the Latent or Strategic Stalemate phases, it will seek to eventually move into what Mao called the “Strategic Counteroffensive” phase, or what is called “War of Movement,” or “Maneuver Warfare” phase. This is when the insurgent has gained enough strength, and his opponent is weak enough, that the insurgents can mass forces and begin to seize territory and clear it of all government influence. The insurgency in Afghanistan has attempted on several occasions to move into Phase III operations in localized areas. These attempts to mass forces have generally resulted in serious loss to the insurgents due to the American ability to mass firepower quickly. This is the primary reason for the insurgents’ consistent demand that, order to engage in negotiations, foreign troops must first leave. It is possible that in the absence of foreign troops, the Afghan government could be easily overwhelmed in a number of areas in Afghanistan.

It could be said that the operations in Helmand have forced the Taliban to regress into Phase II operations in areas such as Marjah after having been the de facto government there for a period of time. The insurgency will flex backwards and forwards through the various phases as needed for success or survival.

Structurally, insurgencies include not just militants, but being political at their core, they also include political and support functions. Some of the participants in each of these areas will devote their full efforts to these functions. They are the hard-core “cadre.” Many will be part-time insurgents or supporters. Each participant has his own set of reasons for participating, much as each voter in the United States has his or her own set of concerns upon which their voting behavior is based.

In Afghanistan, the insurgency consists of, to a certain extent, members of or adherents to the previous regime. It started as soon as the Taliban fell from power, but took time to convert and manifest itself as an insurgency. Some outlying areas were never truly cleared of Taliban influence. In the vacuum created after the fall of the Taliban and before the government was able to establish itself, the insurgency gained power in the outlying areas. As the government sought to extend its influence, violence ensued. Having lost every vestige of a functioning government, there were no skilled administrators to run the various ministries. For various reasons including incompetence, corruption took hold in the fledgling Afghan government and continues to provide fuel for the fire in Afghanistan.

Grievances, the presence of leadership available to direct this anger into action and a weak (or perceived to be weak) government provides the breeding ground for insurgency. We see each of these present in Afghanistan and we also see how the insurgents have learned the lessons of Mao in organizing and running an insurgency.

Tags Tags: , ,
Categories: Afghanistan, ANA, COIN
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 31 Jan 2011 @ 05 23 PM


Responses to this post » (3 Total)

  1. Alex Rukundo says:

    This would be appropriate to ask….is what’s happening in Egypt and what happened in Tunisia, insurgency?

    Are insurgencies popular-led, or are they person-led?

    Is an insurgency necessarily armed or can it be an action against, without again necessarily looking at a foreign power/ occupier or incumbent presidency (who by extension are supported by foreign powers)?

    Last, is popular-people-power the new future of war and how are governments prepared to settle these conflicts, if they are?

    The above would go a long way in analysing what the future of battle-spaces are going to be and whether it is freedom and democracy that will deter such insurrections and whether the West will be insulated from such, if it is around people-power/ action.

    Look forward to some insights.

  2. JV says:

    Well done. That was probably the best, most complete, easily understandable synopsis of the issue I’ve read.
    I still cannot understand, even after seeing it firsthand in OIF, the ability of a small number of violent insurgents to cow whole villages into silence. It’s not like weapons are scarce in either Iraq of AFG, so why does it take so much for the people to fight back? Of course I’m an American and a Marine, so I’m probably far more disposed to fighting for my beliefs than the average schmoe.

    When I was in Iraq, I thought the best IW campaign we had going was the PR for the Iraqi Police and SOI. PsyOps was throwing posters up everywhere trying to present them as patriots protecting their families and countrymen. The biggest problem was an emphasis on SWAT type images vs friendly street cop, but they were trying hard to demonstrate the improvement in professionalism. It was also tough to connote “friendly” when everyone wanted to hide their identity from the terrorists with a mask at first. It seemed to be working, and they were working on broadening the message to other government workers (firemen, etc) to get away from the “guns and violence” message.

    But none of that will work until you can clean out most of the corruption. Even clean cops won’t help if the lawyers and judges are dirty.

  3. Tom Reynolds says:

    Very well written, I agree that no one is explaining it well. I count myself as one who has been struggling to wrap my mind around the Afghan conflict. A great primer, I liked it so much I posted a link to the article on Basetrack 1-8. I think it’s helpful for folks that have loved ones in theater and the general public to have a context to understand what our military and civilian assets are doing there and why it is being done the way it is. I’m not saying we are necessarily doing it well, but hopefully with a better understanding of the nature of the conflict we’ll do better. Thanks.

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