Sunday, August 13, 2006

Unconventional Tactics in Counterinsurgency Operations

I'm not done parsing my thoughts about the trip to gulf coast, but I wanted to expand on my comments in Meredith's blog about conventional military strategies and insurgency conflicts. (Most of this is actually edited from a paper I wrote... sorry.) There are military historians named Samuel Huntington and John Nagl (this book by Nagl is especially good) who each describe insurrectionary violence as specific to the latter half of the 20th century. The annihilating violence that characterized the two world wars made intergovernmental warfare prohibitively risky. Moreover, advancements in communicating quickly over long distances helped avoid violent conflict. By the end of the 1950s, the cold war between the USSR and United States had become a struggle over, “economic development, military build-ups, scientific achievements, and diplomatic successes.” Meanwhile, underdeveloped parts of the world (Latin America, parts of Africa and Asia, the Middle East) began to break free of their colonial powers. Nagl cites the portability and power of weapons and the mobility of the media as factors contributing to this nascent form of war. These insurgency wars are not fought over the same things intergovernmental wars are fought over (such as, “disputed boundaries, unsettled claims, and irredentist hopes,” per Huntington). They are fought over the right to govern, and over the sympathies of the general population. In such conflicts, conventional tactics can be ineffective or even counterproductive.

While there is not much variability in intergovernmental wars, insurgencies are “launched by the most varied groups…[they] seem to exist in an almost endless variety of forms.” Moreover, the insurgency may be comprised of multiple, largely autonomous groups. Nagl and Huntington each also identify the general population (“the target group”) as being an integral component of an insurgency war. Specifically, each side of an insurgency war seeks the target group’s sympathy or cooperation (or, seeks to end its support for the other side), a theory of waging war effectively realized by Mao Tse-Tung. Insurgents may use violence to coerce the population into supporting their effort. The populace may also come to support the insurgency through the actions of the counterinsurgent forces. Sergio Catignani describes Israeli tactics that have produced a high degree of collateral damage as galvanizing support for the Palestinian insurgency.

Nagl identifies two methods for fighting insurgencies, the direct and indirect (or conventional and unconventional) approaches. The direct approach fights an insurgency with the same goal of enemy attrition as in conventional, intergovernmental war. The American General William Westmoreland summarized this approach as striving, “To hurt the enemy across the spectrum of his efforts until he concluded that he could not win.” The indirect approach presupposes the importance of the general population to sustaining both an insurgency and a government. A retired Brigadier-General in the Israeli Army, Schlomo Brom, suggests that since the goals of intergovernmental and insurgency wars are different, the strategy a military takes in fighting them should likewise be different. “In [insurgencies] there is a totally different benchmark, which should be built on the analysis of how it can be stopped, not on how it can be won.”

A retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, John Paul Vann was in Vietnam in the early 1960s as a civilian advisor to the military. He advocated gathering intelligence and forging alliances by talking to the Vietnamese people. He also did not believe that those Vietnamese who could assist the effort were likely to approach an American institution. He encouraged the American officers he encountered to drive themselves to area hamlets and witness conditions and identify problems themselves. Nagl says the recommendations of Vann, and other like-minded people, were blocked before making it to the Joint Chiefs.

Similarly, an American Special Forces unit fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have eschewed the regulations of what they call “Big Army” and, among other things, grown beards. Major Kevin Holiday says such “accommodations with the local culture and values” have helped him gain the “endearment and respect” of the local province’s population and leaders. He describes his appearance as earning him credibility he may not otherwise have as an American soldier in Afghanistan. Lieutenant Colonel Marcus Custer speaks of disconnect between Pentagon regulations and the day-to-day realities of fighting an insurrection.

Big Army just doesn’t get it… It doesn’t get the beards, the ball caps, the windows rolled down so that we can shake hands with the hajis and hand out PowerBars to the kids…Big Army doesn’t understand that before you can subvert a people youĂ‚’ve got to love them, and love their culture.

There are at least two substantial benefits of unconventional tactics. They can discourage the population’s support of an insurrection and also provide opportunities for intelligence gathering. Sergio Catignani observes that insurrections, “for the most part, must be resolved politically.” Summarizing a report that came to be known as the “Vietnam lessons learned study,” Nagl writes, “political aspects were more important than winning conventional military battles… In short, the report validated the concept that military operations should support civil affairs objectives.” Speaking to Defense News, Colonel Mike Formica identified the motivation of civilians to take roles in the Iraqi insurgency as being economic, not ideological. “If an alternative means of earning money is provided for the emplacer and the triggerman [of IEDs], they can take them out of operation, Formica said.”

Acting on this theory, American Special forces fighting the radical Islamic group Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines in 2002 conducted population surveys upon arriving in Basilan. “For Army Special Forces… there was only one important question: What did they need to know about the people of Basilan in order to kill or drive out the guerrillas?” What they found was that the majority of the terrorist group’s civilian support was in the region with the fewest government services. Subsequently American forces dug wells, built roads, piers and an airstrip. International relief agencies, teachers and medical personnel returned to Basilan. Private contractors improved other elements of the infrastructure. This work was not merely for the benefit of American forces; it produced a sense of trust for the American presence, and also information about guerrilla activity from the villagers.

Intelligence resulting from unconventional tactics need not result from civilian participation. Writing about Russia’s counterinsurgency efforts in Chechnya, Mark Kramer notes that a lack of Russian soldiers who speak the Chechen language has prevented the translation of intercepted rebel communications. While a conventional war would also benefit from such skills, in an unconventional war being able to communicate with the local population can elicit actionable intelligence. Robert Kaplan ends his article observing an American counterintelligence officer, with a translator, questioning an Afghan after a raid on a suspected Taliban compound.

Each question elicited a long conversation between the man and the interpreter. It was clear that the counterintelligence guy was missing a lot. He didn't speak Pashto beyond a few phrases. Here was where the American Empire, such as it existed, was weakest.

Kaplan echoes John Paul Vann in his conclusion that this man is unlikely to, “trust this most recent band of invaders passing through his land, invaders who could not even speak his tongue.”

To be sure, the use of force is a necessary adjunct to unconventional tactics. Major Holiday acknowledges that at least some part of his success in Afghanistan has been due to American military primacy: “Ever since the 5th Group was here, on ’01, Afghans have learned not to tangle with the bearded Americans.” Conventional strategies, however, will not defeat insurgencies alone. The stalemates the Russian and Israeli armies find themselves in testify to this.