Small Wars Journal

The Political Officer as Counter-Insurgent

The following is a summary of an article that will appear in Volume 9 of the Small Wars Journal online magazine to be published in July. Dan Green works at the U.S. Department of State in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism. He served a year as a political advisor to the Tarin Kowt provincial reconstruction team in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, for which he received the DOS's Superior Honor Award and the U.S. Army's Superior Civilian Service Award. He also received a letter of commendation from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Bush administration or the DOS. Mr. Green is currently mobilized by the Navy and will be serving in Iraq as a tribal liaison officer. His latest article, Counterinsurgency Diplomacy: Political Advisors at the Operational and Tactical Levels was published in the May -- June 2007 issue of Military Review.

The Political Officer as Counter-Insurgent

By Dan Green

Politics and Insurgencies

Counter-insurgency efforts have taken on an increasingly important and vital role in the U.S. strategy to defeat global terrorism since the attacks of September 11th. A key aspect of today's conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and, historically speaking, a fundamental difference between fighting conventional wars and insurgencies is the role of politics and diplomacy. Unlike conventional warfare where "military action . . . is generally the principal way to achieve the goal" and "politics as an instrument of war tends to take a back seat", in unconventional warfare, "politics becomes an active instrument of operation" and "every military move has to be weighed with regard to its political effects, and vice versa." At their core, insurgencies are about political power struggles, usually between a central government and those who reject its authority, where the objective of the conflict is the population itself and the political right to lead it. Thus, the center of gravity in this type of warfare is not the enemy's forces per se, but the population where "the exercise of political power depends on the tacit or explicit agreement of the population or, at worst, on its submissiveness."

Due to the centrality of politics to this type of warfare, counter-insurgent forces must craft a political strategy that is sensitive to the needs of the population, seeks to secure their loyalty to the government, will mobilize the community to identify, expel, or fight the insurgent, and extends the authority and reach of the central government. To achieve these goals, a government must have "a political program designed to take as much wind as possible out of the insurgent's sails." If done effectively, the political strategy will have succeeded in "separating the insurgents from popular support" so they can be killed or imprisoned by the government's security forces. If a political plan is implemented poorly, or not at all, insurgent forces will capitalize on the grievances and frustrated hopes of a community to entice them away from the government and to the political program of the insurgent. The community may then actively assist the insurgent, providing him with a safe haven to rest, re-arm, re-equip, recuperate, and re-deploy to fight another day. In the long run, because this conflict is not about how many causalities counter-insurgent forces can impose upon the insurgents, but upon the will to stay in the fight, foreign counter-insurgents tend to grow weary of the amount of blood and treasure they must expend to defeat the insurgent. Though the insurgent could conceivably lose every military engagement he has with counter-insurgent security forces, he can still win the war if the political program of the government does not win the population over to its policies, plans, and initiatives.

Politics and the Global War on Terror

Any political strategy to defeat al Qaeda, its affiliates, and the insurgencies we face in Afghanistan and Iraq has at least three levels to it: strategic, operational, and tactical. While large parts of any national strategy are well beyond the scope of this essay and are often, unfortunately, quite contentious, my primary focus in this paper is on how we conduct tactical diplomacy and politics and on those aspects of operational plans that are integral to a province or city-level counter-insurgency strategy. My goal is to empower political officers, whether they are members of the U.S. Department of State (DOS) working at a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) or a member of the U.S. military designated to handle political matters, with the conceptual tools, practical knowledge, and "tricks of the trade" they will need to perform the incredibly important role they will play in a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy. The responsibilities of a Political Officer in an insurgency environment are enormous, challenging, and absolutely vital to our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the U.S. military has quite ably adapted itself to the insurgency challenge, those of us at the U.S. Department of State need to follow their example and adapt to the challenge of unconventional warfare. We need to make politics and diplomacy central to a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy at the tactical level.


Would part of the unfortunate contentiousness at the strategic level be that the bulk of the DoS has never acknowledged that there is anything worth fighting for in Iraq, and has proved remarkably useless on the entire ME for some years? Ya think?