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Thoughtful and wise, but too demanding to be of practical value
on March 18, 2014
This is a manual written by and for the United States armed forces on how to fight and (hopefully) win counterinsurgency (COIN) war. It was prepared while the war in Iraq was raging at its bloodiest, but it is not limited to that particular conflict. Although written with the assumption that it will be used by the American army invited by some foreign government into their country to help them fight some local insurgency, this manual can be used by any COIN force.
The manual is written in clear, plain, straight to the point language, but is not dry or boring either. If you are looking with some academic essay packed with fancy intellectual words on how to wage COIN war written by some retired general, go look elsewhere.
The manual argues that successful COIN is not a war, but half police investigation and half humanitarian relief. Fighting and killing insurgents is counterproductive. It might be necessary, but dead insurgents become heroes and martyrs for their cause. In any case, insurgents can recruit new members faster than you can kill them, so other approaches are needed.
The problem with COIN as it was waged in the past was that insurgents were portrayed as barbarians, terrorists or common criminals. Consequently, governments fought them with barbarism of their own. This usually failed. One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Government’s heavy handed methods alienated the general population and brought them more and more into the insurgent camp. The result was that insurgents would eventually win, or the insurgency was crushed but rebellion and resentment would simmer under the surface, thus requiring the government to permanently maintain the terror machine in place.
Violence is no longer a viable strategy for moral and practical reasons. The manual instead recommends a two-pronged strategy of COIN forces peacefully integrating with the local communities and aiding them by listening to their grievances, maintaining law and order, fixing basic civic services (running water, garbage collection, etc.) and helping in economic development. This alone should remove a lot of grievances and anger that fuel the insurgency. At the same time, the COIN forces, through their presence on the ground and extensive dealings with the locals, acquire valuable intelligence. This intelligence is in turn used to combat the insurgents.
Insurgents, and this is of capital importance, must be fought with honor (hard as it might be to swallow), with all that it entails. They should not be treated as barbarians or unlawful combatants (whatever that means). They should be located and identified using police investigation methods, arrested, interrogated without the use of torture and then given a fair trial. This is of course not always possible, but when combating insurgents, the army should show as much restraint and respect as possible. Calling in artillery strikes, bombers, or spraying the whole city block with machine gun fire (all of which often happened in Iraq) solves the problem in the short run, but makes things much worse in the long run. A lot of infrastructure gets destroyed, a lot of innocent bystanders get hurt and a lot of sympathy goes to insurgents and their cause, even though technically speaking it was them who provoked the reprisal.
The authors do admit that COIN is hard to win. Even if you follow everything that the book says, you still might lose. Even if you win, insurgents are unlikely to just go away. Their dieharders will keep on fighting, but without public support they will come to be regarded as criminals and terrorists. They might remain as a thorn in the government’s side, but they will no longer pose a threat.
So what do I think of this manual? I agree with it in the sense that I fully believe that these methods and techniques are the best way to wage COIN. However, they are too demanding and unrealistic.
The first problem is that soldiers engaged in COIN have to be master investigators, negotiators, social workers, politicians, policemen, civic service bureaucrats and business promoters all rolled into one. On top of that, they must be gifted with Zen-like patience and calmness. When their friends and allies get murdered by insurgents, as it is bound to happen, they must resist the temptation to give in to the (very natural) feelings of vengeance and continue to treat insurgents with certain basic level of respect and honor.
How many people do you know who possess all these qualities? I never met such a person, not even when I look in the mirror. I am willing to imagine that such individuals do exist somewhere, but how many? COIN requires tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of personnel. With so many people involved, it is only a matter of time before someone somewhere loses his patience and responds to barbarism with barbarism of his own. Soon others will follow suite and it won’t take long before the war spirals into the moral black hole that COIN warfare usually becomes.
But there is also a second problem. For insurgency to become popular, it must paint itself as a champion of the common people. To do that, insurgents must convince the populace that they will address their grievances. And for that to work, there have to be grievances to begin with. But where do these grievances come from? Almost always they are caused by the local government’s ineptitude, corruption and policies. For COIN to work, the COIN forces have to, according to the manual, address and resolve these grievances as much as possible. The problem here is that this is likely to bring them into conflict with the ruling government.
Take the case of El Salvador as example. (El Salvador is mentioned few times in the manual.) The insurgency in El Salvador in the 1980s was Marxist in its ideology, but the vast majority of common Salvadorans didn’t care in the least about Karl Marx or Communism. They followed the insurgents because they could no longer stand the crushing poverty and tyrannical rule of the Salvadoran government. Their country was at that time ruled (and still is) by a small, greedy, power hungry, racist, ultra right wing group of elites who lorded over the masses like some Medieval aristocrats lording over peasants. The abysmal conditions in El Salvador were created partially through government’s corruption and incompetence, but also in large part because of its deliberate policies.
To properly fight the Salvadoran insurgency, American forces sent there would have had to reform the Salvadoran government and political system, making it more democratic, egalitarian and (gasp) socialist. Needless to say, the elites lording over Salvador would have never allowed that to pass. Not that the Americans even tried. To them Salvadoran insurgents were not freedom fighters but “Commie terrorists.” So, COIN in Salvador took the form of violence, terror and repression on massive scale, plus death squads.
What I just said about Salvador applies to almost all COIN operations everywhere, and not just those waged by Americans. If a government sends its men and women to a foreign country to help the local authorities to quell an insurgency, it is because they have a stake in the conflict and want to preserve the status quo. And if they want to preserve the status quo, they will not attempt any meaningful reforms.
So just what is my suggestion? I do realize that I might sound confusing. On one hand I am saying that the manual is correct in its assumptions and teachings, but at the same time I am saying that it is impractical. Am I saying that COIN should be waged in the good old fashioned way—violence and terror on massive scale without restraint?
God forbids. No.
I would say first and foremost that COIN wars (and all wars in general) should never be waged to begin with. Wars damage everyone they touch, even the winner. Their economic, social, political and military costs outweigh the cost of maintaining peace. But if you do find yourself waging a COIN war, the manual should be followed as much as possible. Its high and demanding standards might be impossible to be followed one hundred percent, but maybe they can be followed twenty-five percent? It is better to follow good teachings only in part rather than not at all.
And if you are not of the sentimental type (“sentimental” is usually a synonym for loving and respecting other human beings and not wishing them harm), then look at it from practical point of view. In the past, insurgents were fought with violence and terror. It almost never worked. Quite often the insurgents won anyway and the losers walked away morally tainted. When the insurgents lost, the local population often felt angry, bitter and cynical towards their government, and the fighting would resume a generation later or so. If you wage COIN war according to this manual and still lose, at least there will be less hate left behind. At the very least, maybe that will stop a new war from starting somewhere down the road.