Simply stated, the main goal of the counterinsurgent is to bring conflict back into the political end of the spectrum and out of the realm of warfare. Political conflict through participation is the goal, even if there is a robust opposition movement. As long as violence is no longer a political tool, and the existing framework (government, constitution?) remains in place, the counterinsurgent is successful.
First of all, who are the counterinsurgents? Commonly, they are usually thought of as combat forces, but that is not true. They fall, simply, into one or more of three main lines of operation; Military/Security, Political (or Governance) and Development. Certainly the host nation government’s job is to counter the insurgency. We always think of the host nation military and other security forces, but what of the “line ministries?” We have already seen that it is a competition to govern, so they are to be included. What about foreign forces? We assume that the foreign military forces are counterinsurgents, but what of the other arms of foreign policy? What about IGO’s (International Government Organizations) like the UN? Government organizations (GO’s) such as the US State Department and USAID are counterinsurgents as well, but they may not see themselves as defined by this term, preferring the stability label. They often think of counterinsurgents with the combat label, too. Nonetheless, they are counterinsurgents. They are political and development counterinsurgents as opposed to those in the military/security fields.
Host nation government ministries and security forces are active counterinsurgents, or should be. Citizens who in their hearts want to support the government, or who want to see the government succeed, are unofficial, largely unmobilized counterinsurgents. Part of the job of the active counterinsurgents is to mobilize as many of these unmobilized counterinsurgents as possible. Trinquier wrote extensively about his concept of how to actively organize these unofficial counterinsurgents. Galula approached the subject more indirectly, discussing how the government needs to succeed in the competition to govern, bringing more active support from unofficial counterinsurgents by improving governance. Some have identified the tipping point in various counterinsurgencies as the “moment” when these unofficial counterinsurgents began to mobilize to action in significant numbers. “Action” does not necessarily mean picking up arms. It may mean the willingness to make a phone call, or to participate in or attend a local shura. It may mean letting their female children attend school. It may mean avoiding supporting the insurgents.
Members of the international community fall into two groups; counterinsurgents and unaligned humanitarian organizations. Unaligned organizations jealously guard their neutral status. They are NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations) whose charters lead them to attempt to provide humanitarian services, such as medical services, in order to alleviate the suffering that populations are subject to in a war zone. They are unlikely to coordinate or share information with active counterinsurgents, but they are quite likely to consult frequently with insurgent leadership in order to gain access to populations held under insurgent sway or influence. They will not travel with counterinsurgents, but they will accept the protection of the insurgent. Counterinsurgents find this enormously frustrating, and it sometimes appears that the NGO’s are in bed with the insurgents. But counterinsurgents need to be realistic about it. Counterinsurgents will not, as a general rule, prevent access to NGO’s, whereas insurgents may not only prevent access but murder the NGO’s employees. The maintenance of neutrality, seemingly almost in favor of the insurgents, can be the difference between life and death.
NGO access is also often the extent to which insurgents are able to provide, or claim to sponsor, social services to the populations they “serve.” Again, the provision of social services has not been demonstrated to be a significant factor in the success of either insurgents or counterinsurgents, although counterinsurgents may put a lot of effort into providing social services in the (apparently mistaken) belief that this will sway populations. This is a common misinterpretation of the hated “hearts and minds” phrase.
The word, “victory,” is hard to define in an insurgency. Reading examinations by historians of various resolved insurgencies, it is remarkable how frequently the tipping point, or even the modality of how that tipping point was reached, is identified differently by different historians. Just take a look at the differing examinations of the Iraqi “surge narrative.” Even the defeat of the Malayan insurgency by the British has been subject to different historians reaching different, sometimes conflicting conclusions. In any case, insurgencies don’t end in obvious victory. There is no flag-raising. There is no triumphant moment when a platoon reports having reached the final objective, that resistance has ceased, and that the main follow-on forces are in sight, ready to consolidate their hold on the key terrain. None of that exists in a counterinsurgency operation. The word, “victory,” may only be used well in retrospect. The word, “success,” better describes what will be seen in the near to mid term.
When you set out on any endeavor where success and failure are possibilities, if you don’t have a goal in mind, it’s hard to even construct the plan. First, we must look at the causes and conditions that either gave rise to the insurgency or enabled it to develop. While instability does not always give rise to insurgency, instability will always be a feature of insurgency. We know that we have a domestic political situation which has entered the realm of warfare, and we know that conducting stability operations will be necessary. So you have an idea of what you’re there to do… or do you?
You have to understand what you’re in for.
There have been insurgencies against well-established governments, but the insurgency in Afghanistan is not one of those. There was no government after the Taliban vacated those offices. With the help of international assistance, whose individual national responsibilities were largely outlined in Bonn, a new government was constructed from the top down.
Remember, at the point of the Bonn Agreement no one, with the possible exception of the native Afghans involved in the process, whose numbers were limited, really knew what the internal problems in Afghanistan were/are. No one knew what the needs of the average Afghan were except in very broad human terms. Faced with the need to create an entire government from scratch, the western nations took a very western, top down approach. There appeared to be plenty of time to push governance out into the provinces, and it was assumed that there was no real competition to govern. The armed component appeared to be a counter-terror fight; stomping out brush fires of warlordism or Taliban leftovers, not a budding insurgency.
In retrospect, it could have been anticipated. However, the urge to lay blame for failures in the early stages shouldn’t be heeded. When we are too busy laying blame, we are not learning. This is about learning, not blaming. So, where we are is that we didn’t anticipate the emergence of an insurgency and tried to manage what appeared to be residual violence perpetuated by armed leftovers from the previous regime.
Having been established with the help of western democracies, the legitimacy of the government itself is in question. This is a consistent feature of insurgent IO (Information Operations, or their narrative); that the GIRoA is illegitimate, a puppet of the anti-Islamic west installed to subjugate the Afghan people to nefarious ends. Again, this doesn’t have to be true; just plausible in the minds of the receiving audience. In Afghanistan, this is plausible in the minds of enough people that this part of the insurgent narrative has not faded. It is also not diminished in the minds of those who have come into contact with corrupt elements of the Afghan government, whether it is ANP shaking them down for a few hundred Afghani at a checkpoint, a minor functionary demanding baksheesh for doing his job or a judge accepting a bribe to release a guilty man from the promise of justice.
All of this presents a significant challenge. How do the counterinsurgents bring the conflict back into the political end of the spectrum and out of the realm of warfare? Isn’t that the $64,000 question? It would seem if it were all that easy to define, we would have done it by now.