Implementing a Population-Centric COIN Strategy

Implementing a Population-Centric Counterinsurgency Strategy

Northeast Afghanistan, May 07 -- July 08

by Major Nathan Springer

Download the full article: Implementing a Population-Centric COIN Strategy

This paper will examine the successful implementation of population-centric counterinsurgency strategy in northeastern Afghanistan through the lens of my experiences executing it in my area of operations as an Army Troop Commander from May 2007 -- January 2008 and as the Squadron Fires Effects Coordination Cell (FECC) Officer in Charge, responsible for the squadron's application of non-lethal effects in the northern Konar provincial districts of Naray and Ghaziabad and the eastern Nuristan provincial district of Kamdesh. I will recount how my unit, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry, 173rd ABCT, arrived at the decision to apply a population-centric strategy and will outline the differences between an enemy-centric and population-centric focus, the transition points between the two strategies and within the population-centric strategy, and implementation of the population-centric strategy by line of operation. Finally, I will describe a battlefield calculus in terms of the time, patience, and personal relationships required to immediately empower the traditional Afghan leadership and population, from the village and the tribal levels on up, and at the same time marginalize and isolate the insurgency.

I have had the privilege of deploying to both Iraq and Afghanistan where I witnessed the implementation of two disparate strategies within the context of the War on Terror. My first deployment, OIF II in 2004-05, was set in Iraq's Sunni Triangle within a Squadron Area of Operation (AO) that stretched from Samarra north to Tikrit. My Squadron implemented an enemy-centric strategy. The enemy-centric strategy worked well in the most volatile central and southern portions of our expansive AO but we failed to recognize the situation was different in our northern AO. I didn't know it then but our Squadron missed a potentially game-changing 'transition point' in that portion of our AO. A transition point is a key juncture where the operating environment necessitates the implementation of a new strategy or the adaptation of an existing strategy to accommodate the fluid conditions on the ground. It would take a deployment to Afghanistan in 2007-08 and the implementation of a population-centric strategy for me to fully digest this and to assign full relevance to transition points, whether they represented a 180 shift from a wholly enemy-centric to a population-centric strategy, like our missed opportunity in Iraq, or the simple recognition of the transition points within our population-centric strategy in Afghanistan.

Download the full article: Implementing a Population-Centric COIN Strategy

Major Nathan Springer, U.S. Army, is Chief of Operations of the U.S. Army / U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.

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Brent:

Nate

I know it is a bit late, but I would like to drop in on your conversation with Mike. I enjoyed reading your narrative. One of the more important, simple, and understated themes of you paper is that COL Kolenda created a command climate that enforced understanding the "situation" before moving onto the mission statement. Although our Army doctrinally prescribes to the 5-paragraph operations order format, which deliberately places situation before mission, I think many units and commanders decide how to act or what their mission will be before they truly understand the situation. These are the units that "hit the ground running," only often the wrong way. The next logical step after understanding the situation, as you point out, is remaining perceptive to when the situation changes, or as you say, "transition points" emerge.

My further comments are not meant as a critique of any sort, but as food for thought . . . and comment. I do not find it appropriate to classify counterinsurgency strategy as being either enemy-centric or population-centric. For me, at the end of the day and if we are truly trying to counter an insurgency, our strategy is enemy-centric - let me clarify. It would seem that most people qualify enemy-centric COIN as being attrition-based, or focused on a decrease in enemy and material - and maybe, perhaps, breaking the enemys will by killing enough of him. I qualify enemy-centric as attacking or destroying the enemy, his strategy, his will, his capabilities, and/or a combination thereof. One can attack an enemys strategy, will, or capabilities in many non-lethal ways. For example, one might attack insurgent alliances, the insurgents image among the people, or one may even take away an insurgents will by accommodating him to a degree.

You, your peers, subordinates, and command obviously employed many creative, non-lethal, so-called population-centric methods during your counterinsurgency fight and you did not do so within a vacuum. You were acting against competitors (the enemy, which may consist of many types and flavors of criminals and insurgents). You formulated and continued to refine a strategy to establish the endgame that you wanted to achieve and to prevent your competition from realizing their own preferred endgame. Id call that enemy-centric. But, since FM 3-24 uses neither term I guess it is still open for debate. I happen to think though, that some commanders out there - not your unit - carry the population-centric idea to the point where they do not think enough about how they are specifically trying to defeat the insurgents strategy in their AO.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.

Brent Lindeman
MAJ,SF
Student: CGSC- Ft. Belvoir

So Andrew, you subscribe to Napolean's "running score" principle? Me too. Until we arrive at an understanding with all but the hard core Taliban, they'll continue to bleed us in blood and treasure - all to the delight of AQ.

To: Zev,
You should try reading Rupert Smith "The Utility of Force". He was a senior British Army officer who concluded that war is an aspect of politics, not vice versa. Hence force is a means of influencing people, but which still requires arriving at a conclusion that carries legitimacy and consent. I think he would disagree with most of what you say - as do I!

MAJ Springer,

Still not excited by the phrases enemy and population centric, since we are generally required to do both simultaneously to some degree (the degree varies based on a number of variables), but your article put them in a unique and meaningful context. Thanks for writing this.

Bill

Hi Nathan,

Thanks for the reply, and I apologize. I forgot to start my last post with a bit of praise before I added critique. I'm glad that you wrote this essay, and I will recommend it to others.

I appreciate the clarification. Looking back, I think we're saying the same things. The transition point seems to be key. In a expanded view of our decision making process, we can use decision points to combine:

1. Break points-when an insurgency takes over an area (Zaganiyah Iraq 2006)

2. Tipping points- when the harshness of an insurgent's governance outweighs the grievances of the host nation (Anbar 2006)

3. Transition Points- the conditions set that the population is effectvely isolated from the insurgency to the point that negotiations, reconciliation, and ownership can occur (NE A'stan 2008)?

Currently, we use terms such as Clear, Hold and Build. The British used "mopping up" to describe the period in Malay from 1954-1960. I'd prefer something a bit more detailed- shape, clear, hold, integrate, reconcile, and transition.

Thoughts?

v/r

Mike

MikeF -

You missed an important point in the paper..

Our Squadron AO was hardly permissive and included Kamdesh district, Nuristan Province (COP Keating) which you reference as a denied area.

"Additionally, in the further denied areas in and around Nuristan, two patrol bases were overrun causing significant coalition casualties."

The Troop based at COP Keating, Kamdesh district and the Infantry Company based near Kamu, Kamdesh district fought fierce battles our first summer. (See diagram depicting this on page 5)

There came a point where the insurgency had been cleared enough to transition. They reached a transition point in their AOs. The first summer compared to the second summer was significantly different in the AO in terms of TICs and kinetic action.

This all happened in the highly volatile area you reference. Dialogue, creating 100 man shura's in Kamdesh, use of non-lethal assets to empower traditional leaders,...it worked in Kamdesh.

This is hardly a silver bullet strategy that can only be applied to a permissive environment. That is the whole thesis here.

Each AO requires a different approach. In order to do this, we must understand each operating environment... where our unit begins its mission in time and space. In my example B Troop and B Company started in an enemy focused environment. All they could do was fight our first summer. C Troop, based in Asmar was in a more permissive operating environment...My Troop, based at Naray, was somewhere in the middle.

Appreciate the discussion everyone!

MAJ Springer

Major Nathan Spinger's article is a great example of how to conduct small wars in certain areas; however, the conditions present in his area of operations when he arrived facilitated this approach, and it should not be seen as a "silver bullet" response. In this case, his area was influenced by elders that were willing to cooperation with American forces. His story is complimented by Greg Mortenson's Stones into Schools.

Contrastingly, Captain John G Gibson's "After Action Report: Nuanced Diplomacy in Zerok, Afghanistan" (CTC Sentinal, May 2008) tells a different story about a less-permissive environment during the same time period and just a short drive away. Captain Gibson eventually achieved the same results, and he concluded that "war in districts such as Zerok is slow and messy indeed" (p.22) Additionally, in the further denied areas in and around Nuristan, two patrol bases were overrun causing significant coalition casualties. We cannot discount the events surrounding Nathan's efforts.

This critique is not to take away from Nathan's case-study, but rather to broaden the study. Personally, I'm a fan of Col Kolenda's methodology and approach, but I would submit that we need to get rid of the terms "enemy-centric" and "population-centric." Instead, as noted by Templer in Malay, "these programs reflected a DUAL strategy of control and accommodation- control of the those people and resources which could fuel the insurgency and accomodation to those popular aspirations which were seen as helping rob the insurgency of its political apparatus...But, the enhancing of social, economic, and political opportunities was part of a carrot-and-stick approach designed at least partially to offer the adverse impact of a system of pervasive counter-insurgency controls" (pp 53-54)*. The former was unpopular in Malay, Iraq, and A'stan, but they prove necessary at times when you are fighting a determined enemy that believes in his cause.

Again, the correct approach just goes back to METT-TC and finding the proper fit for one's area.

v/r

Mike

*R.W. Komer, "The Malayan Emergency in Retrospect: Organization of a Successful Counterinsurgency Effort," Rand, February 1972

MG Paul Vallely has some excellent questions for our civilian and miitary leadership today. He also has some excellent answers -- all of which involve abandoning once and for the self-destructive, self-defeating, not to mention masochistic, strategies of "counter-insurgency" (COIN) doctrine and nation-building.

As Gen. Vallely points out: "The COIN principle is not based on winning; it is based on political whims and is not a true tenet of warfare. Warfare is, and always should be, about WINNING."

Winning this specific war against forces impelled by Islamic ideology calls for unconventional measures, Gen. Vallely writes, not the conventional actions followed by lengthy occupations such as we have seen and are seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such an unconventional war doctrine, as he writes below, "heavily leverages the core capability to break enemy states, target and destroy the enemys capability to bring harm to America" -- what Gen. Vallely has long advocated as the "unheralded" Global Lily Pad strategy.

Get this through the Pentagon's head and maybe we'll get somewhere.

From Gen. Vallely's Stand Up America blog:

Why do the United States and its military/political leaders and strategists still languish in failed strategies from World War II to the present?

Fact: Jihadists with small arms and IEDS in faraway places cannot harm the United States so there is no reason to order massive armies that require large and extensive bases and massive logistical support to fight them on their home turf. But that is the essence of failed "counterinsurgency" (COIN) strategies that have bewitched US military political leaders.

Yes, we have made great and innovative technological advances in weapons systems in the air, sea, and ground, in communications, in advanced intelligence systems and command and control systems.

Yes, we have operational war planners at all levels of command, senior policy and politicos in the White House and Department of Defense, a National Security Team and a multitude of military commands positioned around the globe to guide and lead us in national security. But where are the common sense and rational senior General and Admiral Strategists that we have trained and schooled to be innovative, aggressive and win our nations wars quickly and decisively? I rarely hear any of them talking about the valued Principles of War that successful combat leaders in the past have used to achieve success and victory. They cannot even talk in terms of victory, winning and bringing the troops home. Or maybe, they do not want to for politically correct reasons at home.

Unfortunately, American leaders are increasingly trying to transform this force into one optimized for counterinsurgency missions (when, in fact, we are not, in my opinion, fighting insurgencies but rather, Islamic Jihadis and a fomenting global Caliphate) and conventional war followed on by long-term military occupations. Track back if you will to Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq, and Afghanistan.

It is true that not all political goals are achievable through the use of military power. However, "victory" in war appears lost in the world of political correctness and appeasement. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan - often seen as proving the necessity for COIN-capable forces as well as a commitment to nation-building -- demonstrate in reality that the vast majority of goals can be accomplished through quick, decisive joint military operations. Not all political goals are achievable this way, but most are, and those that cannot be achieved through conventional operations likely cannot be achieved by the application of even the most sophisticated counterinsurgency doctrine either.

We cannot seem to be able to discern between the differences in conventional and non-conventional warfare. The war against mainstream Islamic Jihadist forces and a sick ideology has been, and will continue to be, one requiring unconventional solutions. This is a point that the White House and the Pentagon fear to call this war against a pronounced ideology. It is not a war on terror as we first analyzed; it is a war against people subscribing to Jihad and a derived ideology from the Koran that has evil global intentions as much as the Nazis and Third Reich.

Why can we not understand that our military is for national security, defending our country and defeating our enemies before they bring havoc and harm to our citizens? Why can we not understand how important our resources are in terms of our trained Armed Forces and assets of our country and not to drain them across the globe in futile nation building operations but to leverage the military to counter threats to our country? And, as well, to realize and understand in a profound way that you cannot Nation Build in an area of conflict until the enemy is defeated.

The COIN principle is not based on winning; it is based on political whims and is not a true tenet of warfare. Warfare is, and always should be, about WINNING. Once the war is won, then, like Japan after WWII, real and substantive changes can be enforced. We were able to change Germany and Japan from tyrannical forms of government into thriving democracies with real constitutions and a real change in thinking of the indigenous peoples.

A fundamental challenge in devising a strategy for the use of future American military power is that the world has literally never seen anything like our capability. The U.S. today has military capabilities at least equal to the rest of the world combined. There is virtually no spot on the globe that could not be targeted by American forces, and at most a small handful of countries that could thwart a determined U.S. effort at regime change - and some of those only by virtue of their possession of nuclear weapons. This is the driving point; why are we so worried about what others think? Did these so-called allies not have to be bailed out numerous times for their failed thinking? Why do we want to kowtow to the same intellectual vacuity that caused the greatest conflicts on earth?

As a consequence, the U.S. must adopt a national military strategy that heavily leverages the core capability to break enemy states, target and destroy the enemys capability to bring harm to America. Such a strategy could defeat and disrupt most potential threats the U.S. faces. I will discuss in detail, in later follow-up articles, where the strategy of joint strike operations and the unheralded "Global Lily Pad" strategy prove to be the best method for success.

While Americas adversaries today may prefer to engage the U.S. using proxies and develop radical Islamist organizations and jihadists, there is no rationale in declaring to the people of the United States that we are in a long war and accept that as a reason to not achieve a quick and decisive victory. It appears we fight more in agreement with the so called United Nations, allies, and the likes of China and Russia than to stand up for own sovereignty. It is time to relegate these so-called allies to the sidelines. Let them wail and whimper as we achieve the success that is necessary; wiping out and neutralizing radical Islamism and nation states that support it.

Because our capability is so novel, American strategists lack a clear framework to guide the utilization of this force. They have sought to match capabilities to conceptions of the use of force from a different era, one in which the Cold War made regime change unpalatable due to the risk of escalation and that tended to make localized setbacks appear as loses in a perceived zero-sum competition with the Soviets. Like Reagan, it is time to call their bluff. They know we hold the big cards, so why are we so timid? This only fosters eastern thought that placation is a sign of weakness. A weakness they will turn into an asset and a political card to play to the uneducated masses they control.

Phrasing it another way, insurgents with small arms and homemade explosives (IEDS) in faraway places cannot harm the U.S. and there is no reason to fight them directly. Based on superb intelligence, we can launch required strike operations from any number of secure global sites and bases. True, these radical Islamic forces pose a major terror threat abroad and at home but we can defeat those efforts as well. The American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan - where insurgents have been able to build and deploy more than 80,000 IEDs while under occupation - calls into question the ability of occupying forces to root out terror networks without hitting the sources and sanctuaries that supply them like Iran.

Many describe our efforts as helping to recruit more fighters and more ideologues. This is no way to stop all the threat to our homeland. The only true way to stop that threat is to give them what they respect; pure force of arms and will. Otherwise, they sit in their sanctuaries and count up the moral victories they have achieved, and embolden future efforts. However, significant threats to the U.S., ranging from the military capacity of regional powers to weapons of mass destruction development programs to significant terrorist infrastructures, can be targeted and destroyed by conventional and unconventional military capabilities.

Again, we must stop thinking like westerners, and understand the way our enemy thinks. A lily pad is much more preferable because it gives them no moral high ground to propagandize, but at the same time instills sheer terror in their hearts as they guess at what is coming next. Force of will and resolve is required by our leaders that our enemies indeed respect and understand. Only when we understand that one objective of Global Jihad is imposition - by force or by stealth - of Sharia (Islamic law) and the other is the re-establishment of the Caliphate/Imamate), can we even begin to formulate the enemy threat doctrine and strategic concept to DEFEAT THE ENEMY and WIN the GWOJ (Global War on Jihad).

Nathan,

First I would like to say thanks for putting together a great article. It reflects many of my experiences in Khowst Province in '03-'04. I am currently at SAMS and am researching the effective use of CERP by operational forces. I will use many of your examples as evidence to support a methodology I developed for CERP project selection. (or "development projects" as you described in your article). It is a product of my experience and has been refined with the input of many of our peers.

The central premise of my research is the following methodology: to be effective, CERP projects must: "I"dentify correctly the needs of the local populace, "N"est within the higher headquarters and local government stability and reconstruction priorities, "V"alidate legitimate local power structures, "E"mploy local labor and supplies, be "S"ustainable by local government after completion, be "T"imely in both initiation and completion, and analyzes intended and unintended "E"ffects. The INVEST-E construct serves as a tool for commanders and their designated practitioners to properly select projects, increasing the effective use of CERP funds.

Would you say this accurately reflects your experiences as well? I would be interested in any input that validated this or assisted me in modifying it.

jason.condrey@us.army.mil

Cheers,

Jason

Mike F-

I think your right..we are saying the same thing. Opinion on definitions:

Honestly I think Clear, Hold, Build still fits the bill. It is basic and easy to visualize, understand, and use for planning and campaign design.

I do think a unit's 'transition point' (or points) needs to be closely evaluated. As I said in my paper, I think I've been part of more than one organization that missed its transition point during the deployment. If we don't acknowledge the campaign plan we deploy with may be 90-180 degrees different than the strategy needed for progress at month 7, then we cannot expect to recognize the transition point required to alter the campaign plan during the deployment.

Integrating 'transition point' analysis into campaign design would help us anticipate the possibility of a transition point / points during the deployment and identify what indicators exist that will guide us those critical decisions.

Jason - I really like the acronym INVEST-E. It is simple and helps the Soldier / Leader work through the important details / 2nd and 3rd order effects of their limited CERP dollars. Critically important when our CERP dollars are the most powerful non-lethal asset a young leader possesses in many cases.

-Give me a call on this!

Nathan,

I just gave your essay a third read. It gets better every time. Words mean things and the title and first two paragraphs initially threw me off a bit as a reader. Population-centric counter-insurgency is a contentious term in this forum; however, I'm a big fan of Greg Mortenson and COL Kolenda. Plus, you're an airborne RSTA guy so I had to consider to reconsider. As an editor, I would have advised you to title the piece Transition Points in Small wars: Learning when to Engage in Conversation. Just something to consider.

To summarize, you made some strong points that I hope others will pick up on.

1. Talk to the people. Practice ACTIVE listening.
2. Learn discernment and when to trust.
3. Learn to work behind the scenes particularly in big meetings.
4. Work with the tide and not against it. When possible, put the children in school.

If you have the opportunity, I would suggest that you try to contact the elders that you worked with, have them read your words, and offer a reply from their perspective.

Again, good job.

To everyone else, read this essay.

v/r

Mike

MikeF -

Great advice - I like your recommended title...if fact I'd change it today if I could.

Also agree on the 'population centric' point you made...I think 'population focused' may be the better term / description. In fact, I moved to 'population focused COIN environment' in my latest article.

Appreciate all the great feedback.

Nathan,

I'll post one more time here and then contact you off-line. Hopefully, our discussion will encourage other field-grades with 2-4 tours to tell their stories, and the Major's Revolt will continue :). Additionally, in our real jobs, I'm in initial discussions with the XVIII Corps in attempts to establish a Small Wars School at Bragg to work ICW the 82nd and NC National Guard, and I'd like to work in collaboration with your office at Leavenworth, the SF boys at Bragg, and the NPS Defense Analysis Department in Monterey. More to follow on that off-line.

So, you have the beginnings of a good case study that you could easily expand into a master's thesis or PhD dissertation if you choose. In this essay, you showed wisdom and intuition gained through your past experiences progressively and aggressively applying theory to practice and lessons learned in order to help tame your wicked problem through creative and innovative solutions. Next, as others told me (and continue to tell me) over and over, you have to define your audience. Who are you trying to reach? What do you want to tell them? I've chosen to start writing to Cadet/LT/CPT Few. So, what would you tell the young CDT/LT/CPT Springer on how to gain insight into his future environment without the hard learned lessons of actually doing the work? Currently, you've told us WHAT you did. Now, you have to expand to explain HOW you did it in your unique environment and situation. That's your challenge on how to articulate and describe to others that will go but have not yet done it.

As you stated in talking with Haji Mohammad Salam , "I always felt that he knew more than he was letting on." I know the feeling. In your case, you were dealing with hardened men that engaged in conflict their entire lives. They fought the Russians in their youth, and they won. They come from the backwoods of the ends of the Earth. They can easily run circles around an ill-prepared Army officer and use us for money, power, or prestige. In many ways, small wars are similar to poker. Well, you played in the World Series of Poker, and now you get to tell your secrets of success.

My case study is Zaganiyah, a small town nestled along the Diyala River Valley in Iraq. As I expand on the details, I'm focusing on exploring the following questions as it pertains to my experience and study in small wars, If it helps you, then great. If not, then disregard.

1. How does our experience in Zaganiyah compare and contrast with FM 3-24, Counter-Insurgency?

2. Is the concept of winning/controlling the "hearts and minds" of a population and seperating them from an insurgency sufficient to achieve our national interest or is it a paternalistic, elitist concept derived from past colonial experiences?

3. What measures must be taken to break the enemy's will to fight? Simultaneously, what measures must be taken to ensure a lasting peace?

4. What exactly is the social contract, and how does it persist when pre-existing norms, beliefs, and values collapse? Given the constraints of human condition, Is there a better way?

None of these answers are easy, and the debates can be highly emotional and contenious at times. I think that's a good thing. For instance, Gibby, MAJ John G. Gibson, that I cited in my initial post, is one of my best friends, and I know the tough time that he had in your former Area of Operations. We learn by trial and error, hypothesis and test, but each mistake is costly- a grave marker at Arlington or a childless mother in Nuristan. With that, I would suggest that aggressive debate on what works and what doesn't work is of significant importance.

To whit, the debate over Pop-Centric and Enemy-Centric COIN is a distractor in my mind, and in your case, it takes away from the real message that you want to say. It's just small wars. Like in football, sometimes you run, sometimes you pass. It depends on the situation, but it's still football. Consider that for a bit.

Okay, I think that I've exhausted my relevance here :). Hope this helps, and don't worry, I'll ask you to return the favor in critique and criticism of my future essays.

To everyone else, my name is Major Mike Few, and I approve this essay :).

v/r

Mike

Absolutely exquisite article...I hope policy makers read this very provocative work!

Nathan,

Great essay. I am working on a case study of the requirements for effective and efficient stability and reconstruction in Iraq, Afghanistan, and future operating environments (probably Africa). Like you I am drawing on my personal combat experience in Afghanistan (02-03), Mosul and Baghdad, Iraq (05-06), and the breadbasket of Diyala north of Muqdadiyah, Iraq (08-09) just down the river from where Mike Few was in Zaganiyah. My approach is took look at the resources and techniques used in successful population focused efforts, then determine if the Army needs to continue down the road it is on, or if we (Federal Government) need to develop and stand up a new force designed specifically for these types of operations. Look forward to your next article.

v/r,
Jeremy

Hi Jeremy,

Nathan and I are working a co-authored paper right now on leader engagements in small wars. Based on your background, you may be well-suited to contribute. Shoot me an email to my ako (mike.few).

Mike