09 Feb 2011 @ 8:31 PM 

COIN Primer: Mission Command And Understanding The Operational Environment


We know that we want to move the internal struggles inside a country away from violence (warfare) and into (or back into) the political realm. We’ve had a general look at what insurgencies consist of, why they start and what fuels them. We know that the existence of sanctuaries don’t ensure insurgent success, but are practically necessary for insurgents to have any hope of success. We know that the military/security line of operation is only one of three main lines of operation. We know that a well-developed insurgency is, at its roots, a competition to govern. So how do we resolve the insurgency without the collapse of the government and the complete take-over by insurgents?

Counterinsurgents cannot stand still and wait it out. They cannot simply continue upon their course without continuous movement and adjustment to conditions on the ground and in the population. They must choose actions and take them. Every counterinsurgent chooses actions and takes them, but a significant number of them (3 or 4 out of 10) are unsuccessful. Is there a pattern of behavior that counterinsurgents establish that is successful versus those that aren’t?

First, the counterinsurgent must understand the roots of the conflict. Usually, insurgencies don’t carry a head of steam where there is effective governance and plenty of it. The counterinsurgent must take a really good look at what the weaknesses are of the system he or she is trying to support. Sun Tzu pointed out that a combatant must understand not only his enemy, but also himself. A counterinsurgent must understand what his strengths and weaknesses are and he must be honest about it. The counterinsurgent must also understand the environment, both physical and societal, in which he operates. Finally, understanding insurgencies in general, he must understand the insurgency he faces.

While there are commonalities in insurgencies, every insurgency is obviously different. A counterinsurgent must understand the particulars of the conflict. In Afghanistan, for instance, we created a vacuum in government followed by the construction and installation of a government from, more or less, scratch. This was done in a nation where the society had been existing amidst conflict for decades. The previous “government” was scarcely a government at all. There was ongoing warfare from 1979 to the present. The only thing the previous government maintained was law and order, administering swift, often brutal justice for any offense. The economy was a shambles. Infrastructure that had once existed had largely crumbled. Electricity was scarce. Education was minimal for boys, nonexistent for girls. Communications were horrible. Local warlords still held sway in parts of the country. Remnants of the old regime still held out in isolated areas.

While Afghan society had enough coherence to hold its basic fabric together, it was often at the most basic levels of that fabric; the family. Traditional resiliencies, the influences that kept Afghan society flourishing, were severely damaged at each local level. At the national level, there was very little coherence. The fledgling government took years to push influence out into areas that had been, at least nominally, cleared in 2002 of the influence of the previous regime. In the meantime, those influences seeped back in or never completely left.

Being a politically-motivated internal war, the goal is political, and all politics is local. Therefore, insurgency is local. Counterinsurgency needs to be localized, and cannot be adequately performed at a national level in the absence of acceptable local governance. That is why we have so many problems measuring nation-wide progress. In order to measure things, we need to choose and analyze metrics.

National metrics are exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to choose and measure. Metrics indicating success in one discrete area may or may not indicate measurable progress or loss in another discrete area. Afghanistan is a patchwork of valleys and villages. This insurgency is more localized than most, not less. Leadership at the national level needs to look at each area and measure it by the metrics that are meaningful for that particular area. It is difficult to put the pieces together at the national level to create a mosaic that makes sense. There are various and sundry depictions of the conflict, many varying wildly from others. These are constructed by utilizing whatever metrics support the argument of the individual making the argument. It’s difficult to impossible to know which depictions to trust.

This difficulty in producing a coherent picture does not lend itself to centralized command and control. That is why COIN doctrine talks about something called, “Mission Command.” Mission Command means that the local commander, at the lowest level possible, has command over the decisions made at the local level. He is most likely to understand how the pieces of the puzzle are arrayed locally. He is most likely to understand the complex, three dimensional chess game being played against the influences of the insurgent.

We know that the local commander, given Mission Command, must come to understand himself (including his allies), the insurgency and the local dynamics (terrain and society) that set the situation he must deal with. This is a tremendous amount of information. In Afghanistan, we have seen a number of initiatives designed to help the commanders gather and analyze this information. The Human Terrain System, for instance, is an effort to bring the science of anthropology to bear on understanding the intricacies of local society. But a military commander has the largest number of information gathering assets of any of the counterinsurgents in the area; foreign counterinsurgents, anyway. Local Afghans will already possess most of the information that the rest of the counterinsurgents will find helpful, but they usually do not know what to do with it or don’t have the resources.

So, using every source of information available, the commander, at the lowest level possible, must develop a “picture” of the environment in which he operates. He gathers information, but there is so much of it that it is hard to separate out meaningful information from the white noise of the information flow. It’s like trying to paint a picture of the rocks under a waterfall just by the way the water is falling. That’s why the commander needs to take a methodical approach to not only gathering, but also in organizing and correlating the information he can gather to put together a comprehensive picture of the operational environment and its challenges. It’s a job never ends, because while the terrain will change little or not at all, the society will constantly change. People will gain and lose influence. People will die and others will take their places. With the societal aspect in constant flux, the commander must track the changes and adjust as necessary.

Keep in mind that this commander is only on the ground for about a year. When he leaves, his successor needs to have the same information. Military commanders are used to organizing tactical information in certain ways. For instance, tactical graphics on a map are consistent. If one walks up to a tactical map in nearly any area, he can understand the tactical information on that map because he knows what those map symbols mean. There is an entire book on Operational Graphics. When it comes to depicting the things that affect societies, there are no standard map symbols. Commanders have organized this information as they have seen fit, but that doesn’t mean that it is easily understandable to those who follow them. A standard method of organizing and correlating the information is necessary. This not only makes the information easier to understand, but a relatively standardized format means that the incoming unit will be able to easily understand it as well. It will be what they are expecting to see.

Our doctrine lays out specific elements of information that are recommended for counterinsurgents to understand in order to obtain this grasp on the local situation. The COIN Training Center – Afghanistan has taken the two recommended sets of information and cross-referenced them. This system has now been signed off on by COMISAF, COMCENTCOM and the SECDEF. This system takes the analysis of ASCOPE (Areas, Structures, Capabilities, People and Events) and crosses it with PMESII (Political, Military/Security, Economic, Social, Infrastructure and Information).

Each column is referenced against the other. So, when we are looking at Areas, for instance, we look at Political Areas, Military/Security Areas, Economic Areas, Social Areas, Infrastructure Areas and Information Areas. What does an Information Area mean? In Afghanistan, it may mean an area of radio station coverage. It also means areas of cell phone coverage. Those are just examples. The end result is that people have a consistent way of painting the picture that is consistently read by others who see it.

How does the commander collect this mass of information? He uses all of his assets. If he has HTS available, for example, he discovers what they are best at and tries to use the information that they can give him. However, he does not necessarily control the HTS or any of the other actors. He does control his own troops, and so he generates PIR’s (Priority Information Requirements), IR’s (Information Requirements), and FFIR’s (Friendly Forces Information Requirements) based on where he sees information gaps and then he relentlessly pushes those out and gathers the results. This focuses troops on actually being sensors. If the commander explains why he needs the information, the troops have a deeper sense of purpose and a more realistic sense of what they are actually trying to accomplish. Plus, understanding the commander’s intent gives young leaders the chance to find ways to contribute. They can act more appropriately in the absence of orders as well.

Noncommissioned officers can then reinforce the things that are important to counterinsurgents. Discipline has one purpose; to ensure discipline on the battlefield. In a counterinsurgency, the battlefield doesn’t always include combat, but every action or inaction is combat. Drill and ceremonies, that visual example of military discipline, was initially developed to use directly on the battlefield. It was training. Now it is an outward symbol of discipline, but marching formations are not used in combat. Uniformity and other regulations are made to instill the discipline that can be put to use in combat, the only place where it really, really matters. It is how soldiers can do unnatural things in stressful, dangerous situations. We usually think of this in relation to kinetic combat, but it also has meaning in non-kinetic counterinsurgency operations. NCO’s enforce standards, and when the commander is generating standards based on his needs in counterinsurgent combat, the NCO’s can understand and enforce those standards. The sidewalk discipline of garrison life must then morph into the battlefield discipline needed to be successful on the ground. The appearance of uniforms means nothing in the face of failure in the valleys and villages of Afghanistan. Commanders and senior NCO’s who understand and focus military discipline in Afghanistan gather and organize tons of information.

Masses of information need to be analyzed. The commander and NCO’s discussed above are at company level and below. The higher up the “food chain” you go, the more separated from the nitty gritty reality of the “eaches” you are. This is not how battalion and brigade commanders are trained to function. In maneuver warfare, the more information the higher level commanders possess, the better they can maneuver and influence the battlefield. We have developed magnificent tools for commanders to see exactly what is going on at the individual vehicle level. He can see where it is and he can check on what it is doing. He can control it if he wants to. In counterinsurgency, a battalion commander interjecting himself directly at the tactical level can be disastrous. At best, you have the least informed person in the chain making the tactical decision. The principle of Mission Command is critical. Violating this principle can have debilitating effects.

So what are higher headquarters good for in counterinsurgency? Platoons have nearly zero analytical horsepower. Companies have very little. Company level intelligence support teams (of various acronyms) were developed to help solve this problem. Battalions have more information crunching assets, and brigades have significant analytical capabilities. Lower echelons are awash in information, but creating a useful picture out of it is difficult at the lower level due to the lack of analytical capability. Higher echelons support lower echelons by providing the ability to analyze information and convert it to useful products for the lower echelons to make use of according to Mission Command. They help the lower level commander to visualize his operational area. The battalion and brigade commander need to be able to recognize poor counterinsurgency behavior when they see it and provide adjustments as necessary, but they should not be dictating the actions of subordinates in the same manner as they would in a maneuver fight.

Once a thorough understanding of the operational area is obtained, the counterinsurgent mission commander begins to decide upon his actions.

Tags Tags: , , , ,
Categories: Afghanistan, analysis, COIN, doctrine, Stability Operations
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 09 Feb 2011 @ 08 50 PM


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