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September 30, 2009

Both Extremes Wrong on Counterinsurgency

As President Obama faces his moment of truth on Afghanistan, we again hear differing views on how the war should be fought. There are two extremes that are both wrong and need to be corrected.

The error made by some on the right is that our forces are hampered by overly restrictive Rules of Engagement, and if we only "took the gloves off" our military would win.

There are two errors made by some on the left. One group says that we can adopt the "small footprint" strategy or reducing our forces and fight the war through targeted raids and precision airpower. The other group says that military progress can only come after political progress.

In addition to the links provided below, my source is everything I've written on this blog from early 2007 on, so for background go to "Categories" at right and see the posts for Afghanistan and Iraq.

I'm also not going to argue the case for winning in Afghanistan here, as that is a subject for another post. As such, I would ask commenters to restrict their remarks to a discussion of strategy and tactics.

Error on the Right

You don't have to go far on the Internet to find a conservative complaining that our forces are hampered by restrictive Rules of Engagement. ROEs "determine when, where, and how force shall be used." They determine when troops can shoot on their own and when they cannot, and when they need to ask for permission from above, and when not. They might say, for example, that troops cannot shoot at anyone they see carrying an AK-47 but can shoot at someone carrying an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade launcher). They may say that troops can keep a round in the chamber, or not.

No doubt some of the concern comes from our experiences in Vietnam. There, we will recall, pilots were prevented from attacking anti-aircraft sites while under construction, having to wait instead until they were fully operational. They were forbidden from attacking shipments of war material being offloaded from Soviet ships in Haiphong harbor where they were still easy targets, instead being made to wait until the war material was transported and dispersed in warehouses much harder to find and hit. On and on.

Whatever the rightness or wrongness of these ROEs, what is almost always forgotten is why they were put into place. The reason was the fear of killing Soviet nationals and thus starting World War III, which in turn might have led to a nuclear Armageddon. The experience of the Korean War was fresh in our minds, where we turned an eight month victory into a three year slugfest because Gen. MacArthur foolishly ignored warnings not to move our troops too close to the Yalu river despite repeated warnings from the Chinese that doing so would force them to enter the war. When they did the U.S. military suffered one of it's worst defeats, and in the end we were barely able to hold on to the south.

The "surge" in Iraq was about two things; the first was sending more troops and extending their stay in theater. Specifically, five additional brigades were sent and everyone's stay was extended to 15 months. The second part was a change in strategy. It is this second part that is of importance to us here.

In October of 2005, then-Lt.Gen. David Petraeus was brought back from Iraq to take charge of a new group that was charged with developing a new counterinsurgency strategy. In December 15, 2006 they released their finished product, the U.S. Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24. It is a public document, and can be purchased from Amazon or other booksellers, or if you google for it you can find sites wher eit can be downloaded as a pdf document.

FM 3-24 was the culmination of an intense study by many scholars, both military and civilian, of all insurgencies in the past few hundred years. Perhaps it's most commented on section was the Zen-like "Paradoxes of Counterinsurgency" that start on page 47. Those on the right would do well to reflect on them:

1-149 SOMETIMES, THE MORE YOU PROTECT YOUR FORCE, THE LESS SECURE YOU MAY BE. Ultimate success in COIN (counterinsurgency) is gained by protecting the populate, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations must be conducted, risk shared with the populace, and contact maintained...These practices endure access to the intelligence needed to drive operations. Following them reinforces the connections with the populace that help establish real legitimacy.

1-150 SOMETIMES, THE MORE FORCE IS USED, THE LESS EFFECTIVE IT IS Any use offeree produces many effects, not all of which can be foreseen. The more force applied, the greater the chance of collateral damage and mistakes. Using substantial force also increases the opportunity for insurgent propaganda and to portray lethal military activities as brutal. In contrast, using force precisely and discriminately strengthens the rule of law the needs to be established. As note above, the key for counterinsurgents is knowing when more forces is needed - and when it might be counteproductive....

1-151 THE MORE SUCCESSFUL THE COUNTERINSURGENCY IS, THE LESS FORCE CAN BE USED AND THE MORE RISK MUST BE ACCEPTED This paradox is really a corollary to the previous one. As the level of insurgent violence drops, the requirements of international law and the expectations of the populace lead to a reduction in direct military actions by counterinsurgents.

1-152 SOMETIMES DOING NOTHING IS THE BEST REACTION Sometimes insurgents carry out a terrorist act or guerrilla raid with the primary purpose of enticing counterinsurgents to overreact, or at least to react in a way the the insurgents can exploit - for example, opening fire ion a crowd....

1-153 SOME OF THE BEST WEAPONS FOR COUNTERINSURGENTS DO NOT SHOOT. ...While security is essential to setting the stage for overall progress, lasting victory comes from a vibrant economy, political participation,and restored hope. Particularly after security has been achieved, dollars and ballots will have more important effects than bombs and bullets. There is a time when "money is ammunition." Depending on the state of the insurgency, therefore, Soldiers and Marines should prepare to execute many nonmilitary missions to support COIN efforts. Everyone has a role in nation building, not just Department of State and civil affairs personnel.

The reason that these doctrines are successful is also spelled out in FM 3-24; that the only way to beat an insurgency is to get the population on the side of the counterinsurgents. You cannot shoot your way of an insurgency, as you cannot kill insurgents faster than the enemy can recruit them.

Again, FM 3-24:

A-26 Once the unit settles into the AO (Area of Operations), its next task is to build trusted networks. This is the true meaning of the phrase "hearts and minds," which comprises two separate components. "Hearts" means persuading people that their best interests are served by COIN success. "Minds" means convincing them that the force can protect them and that resisting it is pointless. Note that neither concerns whether people like Soldiers and Marines. Calculated self-interest, not emotion, is what counts. Over time, successful trusted networks grow like roots into the populace. They displace enemy networks, which forces enemies into the open, letting military forces seize the initiative and destroy the insurgents. (much more here)

A-60 ...Whatever else is done, the focus must remain on gaining and maintaining the support of the population. With their support, victory is assured; without it, COIN efforts cannot succeed.

The point of ROEs, therefore, is to keep civilian casualties to an absolute minimum, and thus keep the population on our side. Whether anyone likes it or not, people today are far more sensitive to civilian casualties than they were in the past. Long gone are the days of World War II where on or shortly after D-Day, the allies could kill 15,000 and 20,000 French civilians, and no one raised an eyebrow.

Note that I am not arguing for or against the specifics of what General McChrystal has put into place in Afghanistan. It is possible that the more restrictive rules that he has instituted go too far and need to be loosened. My point here is that most of what I hear in this vein is mindless blather from people who have no idea what they're talking about.

Aaron MacLean, writing at The Weekly Standard, sums it up:

...counterinsurgency is a difficult and brutal business of convincing the local population that the monopoly on violence belongs to you, the counterinsurgent, and you alone, that only you can protect them, and that it is in their interest to identify the insurgents to you. Then, based on that intelligence, the counterinsurgent kills. In situations where killing one or two insurgents risks civilian casualties or -- frankly, more importantly -- the perception of civilian casualties, then it is often in the counterinsurgent's interest to hold fire and break contact, and bide time for a better situation. This remains true even when friendly troops are at risk.

Errors on the Left

Some today say that we should bring most American troops home from Afghanistan and fight the war through targeted raids and precision airpower. What these people evidently do not realize is that this is exactly the losing strategy we employed in Iraq in 2004-6.

During that time we kept our troops on five large bases and sent them out on raids. This earned them the contempt of the population, because as often as not the raid hit the wrong house and terrified innocents. As discussed above, whether anyone likes it or not people are very sensitive to this sort of thing, and we an rationalize it all we want with "well do you like al Qaeda better," but it is what it is and we have to deal with it.

This was studied by Gen Petraeus' team as they developed a new counterinsurgency strategy, and one of their conclusions was that

A-24 The first rule of COIN operations is to establish the force's presence in the AO (area of operations).... This requires living in the AO close to the populace. Raiding from remote, secure bases does not work.

In addition, I have watched just about every press briefing by a U.S. combat commander from Iraq and Afghanistan, and they hit on these principles time and again. In particular, see

Iraq Briefing - 04 Feb 2008 - "We do not drive or commute to work"
Iraq Briefing - 22 Feb 2008 - "We are Living with the Population"

Living among the population builds credibility, as the counterinsurgents are seen as sharing the same risks that are faced by the people. "Are you staying this time?" was the question asked of our troops when they arrived as part of the surge. When they said "yes," the people opened up and provided the quality intelligence that is required to root out the insurgents without harming innocent civilians.

The other thing we heard from the left was that the surge wouldn't work because political progress had to come first. Petraeus' study of insurgencies proved that just the opposite was correct; that political progress could only come after the population was secured. The reason for this is pretty simple; in the hierarchy of needs, people always put their physical safety first. When you're in danger of being killed, things such as the ability to elect your leaders, or even what we in the West call "essential government services," pale in significance.

A related fallacy is the idea that the way to defeat a strong insurgency is not through American troops but through building up the local indigenous security forces. While in the long run this is surely the answer, in the short term it doesn't work. From 2005-6 the Rumsfeld/Abizaid/Casey strategy was to build up the Iraqi security forces and for American troops to keep as low a profile as possible. Indeed, Gen. Casey's theory was that it was the presence of U.S. forces that was fueling the insurgency and that getting them out of theater as soon as possible was one of the keys to success.

This essentially set up a race, because while we were recruiting and training a new Iraqi security force the insurgents were recruiting and training forces themselves. By late 2006 it had become clear that the we had lost the race, as the insurgency was getting out of hand and the country slipping into civil war (or there already, according to some).

The fact is that once an insurgency has gotten to a certain point it is impossible for the government to tamp it down without outside help. Insurgencies almost always catch everyone by surprise, and this one proved no different. Foreign forces allow the government breathing space to get its act together. The goal during this stage is to "stop the bleeding." Again, FM 3-24

INITIAL STAGE: "STOP THE BLEEDING" 5-4. Initially, COIN operations are similar to emergency first aid for the patient. The goal is to protect the population, break the insurgents' initiative and momentum, and set the conditions for further engagement.

We often hear that the political progress and the development of indigenous security forces is taking too long. And indeed we must do everything we can to speed the processes up. More, it is certainly recognized that in the end, foreign forces cannot win the war:

6-1 Success in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations requires establishing a legitimate government supported by the people and able to address the fundamental causes that insurgents use to gain support. Achieving these goals requires the host nation to defeat insurgents or render them irrelevant, upholding the rule of law, and provide a basic level os essential and security for the populace. Key to all these tasks is developing an effective host-nation (HN) security force.

In the end, counterinsurgency is a difficult process that takes many years to successfully pull off. It's often a frustrating progress, and our commanders occasionally say so. The problems, however, are all part of the standard "friction of war" that Cautzwitz spoke of, and there is nothing that is an insurmountable obstacle.

And again as I and our commanders have said so often, we are not out of the woods yet in Iraq and the country can still fail. But the important lesson is that without the surge Iraq would certainly have failed, with it the country stands a chance.

As I wrote so often in early 2007, what was done was done. The mistakes of the past are behind us and cannot be undone. Arguing about past strategy is useless if one's only objective is to score political points.

I sincerely hope that President Obama does the right thing and sends the additional troops to Afghanistan that General McChrystal has apparently requested. Doing so won't guarantee success, but not doing so guarantees defeat.

Thursday Update

It might make sense to fight al Qaeda in Afghanistan using special forces and airpower alone of it was a simple terrorist group. However, it is not a simple terrorist group like the PLO, ETA, IRA, or even Hamas, but an insurgency. Rather than explain why myself please go to the experts who can do it better than I can:

How Not to Defeat al Qaeda by Frederick W. Kagan & Kimberly Kagan

Countering Global Insurgency by Lieutenant Colonel (Dr.) David Kilcullen

Posted by Tom at September 30, 2009 9:00 AM

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This will be interesting and is very important, I agree that the issue is too politicized at this moment and Obama must do more to sell the long term policy to the left (he did campaign that he would increase the focus and intensity in Afghanistan).

Another serious weak link is the Karzai government, which 'won' the recent election with too much fraud. We can do our very best, but if they don't stand up and do things that deserve the support of the populace, we are doomed even with the best policy.

Gen Petraeus gave an excellent speech in San Francisco (gasp, shock horrors, liberals live there!!!) that shows the complexity in Afghanistan that goes beyond increasing troop levels, and he speaks about the to de facto nation building and the importance of non-military soft power, especially when it comes to helping building a functional civil service in the country. If we don't help the Afghans get their act together with better political institutions, and the capacity to provide basic civil services (garbage pick-up, electricity, police, sewage, reduced corruption, etc.) all the counter insurgency work won't go far as there is no viable government to support.

I listed to this on a train in China on my mp3 player, very interesting and I highly recommend it:

07/09/09 World Affairs Council of San Francisco
General David Petraeus

Posted by: jason at September 30, 2009 12:23 PM

Thank you for stopping by, jason, and I'll listen to that speech.

You, and Gen. Petraeus, are of course right in that winning in Afghanistan is about more than troop levels. We also need to change strategy, something I thought I'd made clear in the post but must not have.

When the surge for Iraq was announced opponents said that it was simply sending more troops to do the same thing. Had that been the case, it would have been a futile effort and I would have opposed it too. However, the additional troops were coupled with the new counterinsurgency strategy outlined in Field Manual 3-24 along with some command-level changes instituted by then-Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno that I don't have time to get into here.

Certainly the government in Afghanistan is a problem. As the saying goes, "if we do Afghanistan right, in X years it will become a third world nation." Field Manual 3-24 spends some time on this.

And just so we're clear, we are making an effort. Provisional Reconstruction Teams accompany coalition forces. Are there enough? No, there never is and never will be enough money for this or anything else anyone wants to spend money on.

The point is that we shouldn't expect too much from the Afghans. Mark Steyn relates this story:

The last British governor of Rhodesia, Lord Soames, was asked on the morning after the 1980 vote that brought Robert Mugabe to power about reports that there had been polling irregularities, and that the election was "flawed". He replied: "Good God, man. This is Africa, not Surrey."


Posted by: Tom the Redhunter at October 1, 2009 8:25 PM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 10/02/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Posted by: David M at October 2, 2009 10:57 AM

Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, I'm one of those that say that the Taliban have read our book and are using our ROE to their advantage and of course to our disadvantage. I've heard that they only buy the best laptops and batteries and are on the internet enough where some are getting addicted to it.

BTW...here is something you might not have seen.

A decisive blow

Papa Ray

Posted by: Anonymous at October 5, 2009 10:11 PM

Thanks for stopping by, Papa Ray.

I actually had read about that action by The Black Watch. My hat is off to them.

Certainly I know that the insurgents know our tactics and try to use our ROEs to their advantage. General Petraeus knew it would happen too, as did everyone else involved in writing FM 3-24 and/or implementing the surge in Iraq.

That the insurgents do so changes nothing that I wrote. It is still to our advantage to implement ROEs and limit our use of force.

Posted by: Tom the Redhunter at October 7, 2009 9:35 PM

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