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“How Counterinsurgency Has Changed Across the 20th and Into the 21st Century”?
The straightforward approach to evaluating how counterinsurgency had evolved across the 20th and into the 21st centuries would commence by evaluating the successful approaches to some of the early insurgencies of the 1900’s. Against this we could chart a course of lessons learned, then forgotten, and later relearned. We would recognise some enhancements and adaptations to suit the emerging insurgencies at various times. This would eventually lead us to the modern counterinsurgency publications, which have emerged in the wake of what were commonly accepted as disastrous attempts to quell insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. While this might prove to be a good history lesson, much of the enduring nature of successful counterinsurgency practice might be lost in the process.
Instead, this paper will focus on the modern doctrine crafted in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, its foundational basis and its adequacy to cope with a new form of globally networked and ideologically based insurgency. With scrutiny, it should become apparent that current practices have eclipsed modern doctrine and now reflect some revolutionary thinking in terms of defeating the global insurgency. This paper will suggest that modern counterinsurgency practice is fighting a new insurgency with new tactics based on old principles. In so doing we shall see how counterinsurgency has changed across the 20th and into the 21st centuries.
The Modern Doctrine
Frank Hoffman, a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Research at the National Defense University (NDU) in the US, believes that the new US field manual on Counterinsurgency (FM 3-24) is a long step forward, reflecting our current understanding of this increasingly complex mode of conflict (2007: 84). This publication, issued in 2009, establishes doctrine for tactical counterinsurgency operations at the company, battalion, and brigade level. Based on lessons learned from historic counterinsurgencies and current operations, FM3-24 defines the operational environment of counterinsurgency and covers planning for tactical operations and working with ‘Host Nation Security Forces’ (Department of the Army 2009: viii).
Of course, the US is not alone in developing counterinsurgency doctrine; the British Army publication, issued later in the same year, bears remarkable resemblance in substance[i]. It is the more comprehensive US doctrine, which has been described as probably the most influential piece of doctrine in the last twenty years (Griffin 2014), that will serve as the principal basis for this paper’s evaluation of modern counterinsurgency doctrine.
Modern Counterinsurgency Doctrine - New Concepts, or Old Lessons?
Hoffman (2007: 71) points to the inclusion of a number of ‘classical school’ examples of insurgency included in FM3-24, underpinning its foundational basis for counterinsurgency, particularly the writings of Robert Thompson and David Galula[ii]. He, like Jones and Smith (2010: 101), criticises the fact that many of the principles expressed in the manual are rooted in the ‘classical’ counterinsurgency. They assert that texts authored by Cold War theorists and practitioners, whose frame of reference was defined by wars of national liberation and the Maoist model of guerrilla warfare, are outdated and ill suited to modern insurgencies. According to this argument, today’s insurgencies, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan, are not like those that came before, they are, variously and at once, less hierarchical, more globalised, and more focused on the media and information domain (Nagl & Burton 2010: 123). Accordingly, the reference point for evaluating whether modern counterinsurgency doctrine is a bald recitation must commence by assessing these classical schools.
The ‘Classical Schools’ of Counterinsurgency and the Population-Centric Approach
In terms of assessing the evolution of counterinsurgency, can it be said that current doctrine resembles the approaches of the early authors cited in FM 3-24? During the 1960’s a French military Officer, Galula, advocated a population-centric approach to counterinsurgency built from the bottom up (1964: 51 & 95-96), where he sets out the following strategy (1964: 59):
- Concentrate sufficient forces to destroy or expel the main body of armed insurgents
- Detach sufficient troops to oppose his return in the villages and towns where the population resides
- Control the population in order to cut off its links with the insurgents
- Destroy the insurgent political organization
- Establish new provisional local authorities by election
- Test those authorities by assigning them various concrete tasks. Replace the ‘softs’ and the ‘incompetents’, while giving full support to the active leaders
- Assist the development of a national political infrastructure
- Win over or suppress the remaining insurgent
The strategy espoused by Galula flows from his four principles (1964: 55-59), which are reiterated in FM 3-24 (2009: 3-9):
- The support of the population is necessary for the counterinsurgent as it is the insurgent
- Support is gained through the active minority
- Support from the population is conditional
- Intensity of efforts and vastness of means are essential
These strategy and the four principles bear significant resemblance to the approach used in Afghanistan for a 2009 Operation Kalay, seeking to establish village stability based on the ink spot approach using the shape-clear-hold-build-enable mode (Verret 2013: 114). Together Galula’s writings seems to reflect the ‘hearts and minds’ approach, which despite having such prominence in the counterinsurgency discourse during the last decade, actually has its genesis in the earlier insurgency in Malaya. Attributed to General Sir Gerald Templer[iii], during Britain’s apparently successful counterinsurgency campaign in Malaya from 1948–1960[iv] (Dixon 2009: 353), this phrase is generally associated with a less coercive approach, which emphasises the importance of using ‘minimum force’ in a population-centric approach to counterinsurgency (Enterline 2013: 187).
Templer’s strategy for counterinsurgency, latterly published by his subordinate Robert Thompson, is also referred to in FM 3-24 as part of the foundational basis for modern counterinsurgency doctrine (2009: 3-9). Here, Thompson is credited with the five principles for successful counterinsurgency:
- The need for government to have a clear political aim
- To function within the law
- To establish an overall plan, whereby all political, socio-economic and military responses were coordinated
- To give priority to the elimination of political subversion
- To secure the government’s base area before conducting a military campaign
Again, unsurprisingly, the five principles espoused by Templer and Thompson point to a political and population centric solution, with the military response being very much the subordinate aspect of counterinsurgency. These principles, however, were written post factum, and it is questionable if they capture the true approach in Malaya.
The Strong-arm Approach to Counterinsurgency
While the ‘Hearts and Minds’ approach seems seductive and appeals to a general sense of reluctance to use excessive force, there is a suggestion that the campaign in Malaya was less ‘carrot’ and more ‘stick’. Commentators like David French suggest that outright brutality was often a hallmark of British operations of the time, including Malaya (2012: 745). Dixon (2009: 368) believes that the Templer’s use of the term ‘hearts and minds’ during the campaign in Malaya may serve to conceal the extent to which coercion and repression was used by the British, which included, inter alia, the forces resettlement of 500,000 ethnic Chinese, mass arrests and internment, and the death penalty for carrying arms and hanging prisoners as criminals. In light of this understanding of the approach to Maoist insurgency in Malaya, it could be said that that the approach involved a population-centric approach, which attempted to protect and win support from the general population, while retaining a willingness to use robust force against insurgents and their support base.
This willingness to adopt a very aggressive posture towards insurgents and their support base is also evident in earlier insurgencies of the 20th century, a period which opened with the insurgency of second Boer War. Facing imminent defeat, the Boers adopted guerrilla tactics rather than submit to British demands to cede their independence (Downes 2007: 428). What followed was a scorched-earth policy, burning down the farms of all those who supported the Boer cause, and forcing154,000 Boer civilians, mainly women and children, into concentration camps with appalling conditions (Gillespie A. 2011: 154). Most interestingly, this policy of isolating the support base was accompanied by the introduction of small formations, known in this conflict as ‘flying columns’ to pursue the insurgents with significant success (Downes 2006: 433).
The use of concentration camps prompted much public criticism in Britain and the practice did not follow the British Army when it met its next insurgency, this time in Ireland. Nonetheless, the use of robust force against the civilian population was also adopted in Ireland, as was the continued use of one-or-two platoon-strength foot columns to adopt tactics mirroring those of the enemy. These patrols, which could move undetected for several days at a time, proved militarily effective and resulted in something approaching the collapse for the insurgent ‘flying columns’. While in strictly military terms the British forces were not defeated, the failure to effectively control large tracts of the Ireland brought the authorities to the negotiating table with the insurgents and the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 ensued (Townshend 2008 :25-26).
With the outbreak of insurgency in Palestine in the late 1920’s, Britain was poised to repeat its failure to grasp the essential requirement for a politically based, population-centric approach. The inability of the British to retain control of many major towns during the Arab Revolt was evident for long stretches, including, for about five days in October 1938, the Old City of Jerusalem (Hughes 2010: 6). By way of response, some British Forces resorted to what was referred to as ‘exemplary force’, which was effectively counter-terror, resulting in the High Commissioner lamenting what he described as “the Black and Tan tendencies” (Townshend 2008: 32&33). While the outcome of the insurgency in Palestine was not favourable to the British, the lessons were not lost on this occasion. Indeed, some of the individuals, including the Chief of Police, were transferred directly to Malaya, where the lessons of Palestine were put into practice, resulting in the relative success mentioned above.
Looking back to the modern doctrine, on a superficial level, therefore, the ‘clear, hold, build’ strategy espoused in the modern doctrine is merely an adaptation of the earlier writings of counterinsurgency, developed in the early and mid-20th century.
Modern Counterinsurgency Doctrine – Evolutionary, Revolutionary or Just Restatements?
The central criticism of the reliance on ‘classical schools’ of counterinsurgency asserts that the classical writers, such as Galula and Thompson, would be startled by the complexity of Afghanistan and Iraq and the distinctly broader global insurgency of the long war (Hoffman 2007: 71).
However, on a deeper reading of FM 3-24, it readily appears that there is greater appreciation and application to modern manifestations of counterinsurgency. This watershed is exemplified in its recognition of current operational environments, such as population explosion and increased urbanisation, technological developments and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (2009: 1-6 – 1-14). FM 3-24 also has regard for religious fundamentalism[v] and the demand for energy, water, and food for growing populations combined with climate change and natural disasters, which will compound already difficult conditions in developing countries.
It seems, therefore, that the modern doctrine bases it strategies on a ‘classical’ foundation, but recognises and adapts them for the modern environment of counterinsurgency. To fully understand the extent to which modern counterinsurgency doctrine has evolved since the Maoist period, it is necessary to evaluate the substantive adaptations of the classical theories to react to the modern counterinsurgency environment.
The modern battlespace is far more complex and frenetic in terms of the actors in the field. Disparate amalgams of insurgent forces, such as the opposition forces currently in Syria, the impact of foreign based diasporas and the presence of a spectrum of international agencies from the UN to humanitarian actors, all under the ever-present media scrutiny, provides for a level of operational complexity unknown to early counterinsurgency strategists. However, this complexity is not ignored in the modern doctrine, as Appendix B to FM 3-24, entitled ‘Social Network Analysis and Other Analytical Tools’ provides a powerful threat evaluation tool for commanders and staffs to make decisions and develop plans and orders in the complex modern operational environment[vi].
One of the principal differences between earlier insurgencies and those being encountered today is the information dimension. Modern communications, easily accessed and adapted to enhance insurgent capabilities, are a significant force multiplier. Again, FM 3-24 provides for ‘Information Engagement Operations’, even suggesting they form Lines of Operation[vii] in conceptual planning for counterinsurgency[viii].
The impact of increased urbanisation, particularly in the developing world is not lost in modern counterinsurgency doctrine either. In the modern insurgency, distance is exchanged for density (Hoffman 2007: 76), and insurgents can operate within the hodgepodge of a metropolis with the support of criminal entities and external global actors, such as Al Qaida Core. Contrary to the views of Hoffman, the modern tactical approach in FM 3-24 devotes considerable attention to counterinsurgency offence and defence in the urban environment in chapters 5 and 6[ix].
It appears, therefore, that many of the criticisms levied against FM 3-24, to the effect that it is overly reliant on classical doctrine and fails to have regard for the modern counterinsurgency environment are ill-founded. This said, good doctrine may express best practice, but is the doctrine reflected in the practice on the ground? Having navigated the course of counterinsurgency through its evolution to the publication of modern doctrine, it is necessary to look more closely at the operations currently being undertaken, to see where this evolution has led.
‘Surge’ or Shift? - The Current Approach to Counterinsurgency
Against the criticisms of the policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the current approach seems to be shifting towards the suggestion that the defence community need a very different way of thinking about and understanding insurgency strategies and operation (Metz 2008: 110). The US approach to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan has been characterised by the notion of a ‘surge’ in recent years. In a publication from late 2013, Lt Gen Karl Eikenberry (2013:1) assesses the US attempts of protecting the population of Afghanistan as having been a failure. Recognising this as the first principle of counterinsurgency, he asks whether the local population in Afghanistan are protected from criminal narcotraffickers, local police chiefs, or government officials. He also asks what should be done about tribes that turn to the Taliban for help in fighting more powerful tribes with patrons in the Kabul government and also the complex cases of ethnic violence with roots dating back a century or more. While it appears that the population-centric approach is firmly recognised in modern counterinsurgency, efforts to bring it to fruition have fallen short on the aspirations in this most recent conflct.
This failure by US forces to secure the population of Afghanistan brought about the realisation that such security is best achieved by indigenous people. This realisation has been the basis for the belated transfer of authority to the Afghan authorities and echoes the views of writers such as David Kilcullen, who believes that, especially in traditional tribal societies, an emphasis on local partnerships and local security forces that protect communities and guard against extremist presence is essential (2009: 271).
Current approaches to counterinsurgency have also recognised and grasped the importance of the digital age. Many militaries are developing capabilities to pursue the counterinsurgency battle in cyberspace, such as the U.S. Cyber Command (USCYERCOM), which conducts information operations such as computer network exploitation (CNE), computer network attack (CNA) and Cyber IPB (CIPB). Such activities complement intelligence operations to capitalise on the existing use of the internet by insurgents, thus aligning the classical intelligence focussed counterinsurgency doctrine, recognised as far back as Ireland in the 1920’s, with the manifestations of modern insurgencies (Pendall, Wilkes and Robinson 2013: 4).
Perhaps the most notable shift in modern counterinsurgency is the approach which strives towards a strategy of ‘disaggregation’. This approach seeks to dismantle, or break, the links in the global jihad. In his much cited article from 2007, David Kilcullen notes the relevance of traditional counterinsurgency techniques to modern insurgencies but asserts that the approaches in the 1960’s cannot be applied to today’s problems in a simplistic fashion because counterinsurgency, in its ‘classical’ form, is optimised to defeat insurgency in one country, not counter a global insurgency (2007: 606). He believes that dozens of local movements, grievances and issues have been aggregated into a global Jihad by the use of a series of ‘nested interactions’. The policy of eliminating the individuals providing the links severs the network connections between the various conflicts, such as the killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi in 2012, has been the predominant focus in turning global Jihad into a series of disparate conflicts (Schmitt 2012).
Thus, we see advances beyond the approaches specified in modern doctrine. Now, the counterinsurgency fight has entered the information domain, the global insurgency is being disaggregated and a strong arm approach against insurgents is complimented by a population-centric approach aiming to empower national security forces to protect their own people.
Rather than focus historically on the development of counterinsurgency doctrine, this paper focussed on current doctrine, which has grown out of modern insurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan and the global fight against Al Qaeda. We recognised its formative basis in the ‘classical school’ counterinsurgency theorists and evaluated some of the criticisms of its overly retrospective outlook. In so doing, we identify some enduring principles of successful counterinsurgency practice extant since the early 1900’s.
The world of war has changed greatly over the past century and, with these changes, insurgencies have evolved demonstrating greater breadth and complexity. This has required modern doctrine, crafted in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, to respond to a new form of globally networked and ideologically based insurgency. On review, it becomes apparent that the modern doctrine captured the changes to counterinsurgency across the 20th century and also recognised the emerging changes as it braced against its 21st century manifestation. By standing on a strong doctrinal foundation, current counterinsurgency strategy has adapted to incorporate revolutionary approaches in response to the ever evolving insurgency threat.
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[i] The doctrinal approach adopted in FM 3-24 advocates a ‘Clear, Hold, Build’ strategy, while its UK equivalent describes their approach as ‘Shape, Secure, Develop’.
[ii] David Galula (1919–1967) was a French military officer and scholar who was influential in developing the theory and practice of counterinsurgency warfare.
[iii] later Field Marshal
[iv] The UK Counterinsurgency Manual (2009) make considerable reference to Thompsons approach to counterinsurgency in Malaya, along with numerous other British campaigns since 1900.
[v] The UK Counterinsurgency Manual (2009) also makes numerous references to Religion, most pertinently in Para 3-15 in respect of understanding the human terrain.
[vi] The British Army Filed Manual on Counterinsurgency, 2009, also provides extensive guidance on understanding the human terrain, see Para 3-12.
[vii] Referred to as Lines of Effort (LOE) in Chapter 3, Para 3-37.
[viii] Provision for Information Operations also permeates the British Army Filed Manual on Counterinsurgency, 2009. See Para 4-20 as an example.
[ix] Also reflected in Para 8-B-6 of the British Army Filed Manual on Counterinsurgency, 2009.