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Irregular Warfare Isn’t Going Away, Thai Counterinsurgency Lessons Matter

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Irregular Warfare Isn’t Going Away, Thai Counterinsurgency Lessons Matter

 

Jeff Moore

 

Despite America shifting its national security focus from global terrorism and insurgency to conventional, near peer threats such as Russia and China, Irregular Warfare (IW) isn’t going away. Official US national security strategy will still aim to counter global movements such as ISIS and al Qaeda, Foreign Internal Defense (FID) will remain a key US Special Forces mission, and IW will continue to be a part of Russian, Iranian, Pakistani, and Chinese hybrid warfare strategies. Unfortunately, America’s IW track record has been lackluster despite scores of military and intelligence innovations, incredible human sacrifice, and undeniable gallantry in the field. IW continuing education for the US defense sector, then, is critical. Lessons from foreign counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts remain important to the professional military education (PME) system, and for the edification of our politicians. Here, then, are didactic counterpoints to a US military officer’s examination of The Thai Way of Counterinsurgency, published on 29 September 2017 by West Point’s Modern War Institute.

 

Four Administrative Points

 

1. The Thai Way of Counterinsurgency compares the similarities and differences of three insurgencies the Thai have fought/are still fighting:

  • The communist COIN, 1965-86
  • The 1st southern insurgent COIN, 1980-98
  • The 2d and current southern COIN, 2004-present

Each war has its own chapter where the enemy situation, the at-risk population, and the government’s strategy and operations in the field are addressed, compared, and contrasted.

 

2. Contrary to the reviewer’s observation, The Thai Way of COIN breaks ground well beyond FM 3-24 first two chapters, particularly via its two-part conclusion and keynote sections in each chapter by including COIN vignettes on such subjects as:

  • the nexuses between insurgents and the population
  • identifying, dissecting and then exploiting insurgent ideologies
  • the weaknesses and strengths of different types of kinetic operations
  • the criticality and complexities of amnesty programs

Having offered these counterpoints, there is no mistaking FM 3-24’s venerable status and proven usefulness in COIN. It is an excellent field manual, and its authors are some of the keenest IW experts in the world.

 

3. The Thai Way of Counterinsurgency relies on a subjective comparative analysis of the three wars mentioned to reveal how the Thai conceptualize, coordinate, plan, and execute COIN. This approach was adopted from two angles:

  • The conceptual model analysis concept proffered by the esteemed CIA analyst, Robert M. Clark
  • An altered version of David Kilcullen’s innovative “Three Pillars of COIN” concept

The result was multiple patterns of Thai COIN regarding strategy and coordination, plus security, political, and economic operations. The reviewer’s assertion that the book’s analyses fail because the “validity theory” wasn’t used is folly. There are multiple types of analytical theories that apply in comparative cases such as this, and rigidly adhering to a single diagnostic model abandons flexibility. It reduces our ability to learn about why wars happen, how they unfold, and why they are won and lost. If we follow the reviewer’s analytical lead, then we are doing the critical thinking equivalent of sticking to a single offensive tactic in every battle, like “hey diddle-diddle, straight up the middle.” It is a recipe for disaster.

 

4. Contrary to the reviewer’s assertion, Thailand’s 80s-90s insurgency was indeed a real insurgency, a real war. The operations were real. The casualties were real. If Americans assert that a partner nation’s war is/was insignificant – based on the academic missives of Sweden’s Uppsala University and DC’s Council on Foreign Relations think tank – then we will fail at war. It is essential that we Americans see an insurgency for what it is, not for what a think tank or university project has declared it. We must also understand how a host nation perceives an insurgency, and how a rebel group perceives its own struggle. Not taking this approach can cause politicians, policymakers, strategists, and operations planners to make egregious errors – witness General Westmorland’s inadequate Vietnam War strategy, and the Obama Administration’s decisions to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan at indecent intervals.

 

So, are there lessons from Thailand that might help America re-think its lackluster IW policies and strategies? Absolutely, there are.

 

Politics Leads the Military

 

The Thai’s overall approach to COIN is: “politics leads the military.” Politics leads the military means that political tools and political warfare are central to the fight and are used more than kinetic warfare, although the latter is 100% essential to making the political aspect of this equation work. (More on this below.)

 

Back to politics leading, the Thai realize that it is the ideology of the insurgent and the method of “people’s war” that is the most critical aspect of counterinsurgency.

 

The Thai understand, for example, that you cannot kill your way out of an insurgency. All the best targeting in the world and the most efficient capture or kill programs alone will not change the mind of an entire insurgent movement. The Thai believe it is best to go to the source of the fire – the insurgent ideology – and reduce it to the point that it has little appeal. Accordingly, in COIN, the Thai believe that a counter political warfare movement has to be constructed, fielded, and expanded in order to facilitate a win. This policy makes commander’s intent, doctrine, and strategy (end goals, ways/methods, and means) all lean political.

 

Politics leads the military has led to some highly successful political COIN programs such as the Village Scouts. A communist COIN era program, the Village Scouts came from a combination of mimicking the Boy Scouts’ methods of creating unit integrity (but in this case, at the village level, which then expanded nationally,) and the communist methodology of village infiltration, revolutionary cell establishment, and cell growth/expansion. Ultimately, the Village Scout program created a grass roots, counter communist political movement. It grew bigger than the communists, it was more fervent, and it proved decisive in helping defeat the insurgents.

 

In the 80s-90s COIN, the Thai created political parties for ethnic Malay Muslims who had many political reasons for revolting, which defanged part of that rebellion. They also created both elected and appointed positions for local Malay Muslims, so they could, 1) join the government, and, 2) have some say over local administrative affairs, budgets, public works projects, etc.

 

In the current war, the Thai have scores of political programs, among them tutorials by moderate imams from the Middle East to teach proper Islam and counter the spread of radical Islamist jihadist interpretations of the Koran. And then there are shura-like councils where local Muslim leaders can meet government officials and discuss grievances and problem issues that, if addressed, can improve local society. This, in turn, can improve local living conditions, which can promote government legitimacy, all of which ideally diminishes conditions that help fuel insurgency.

 

Another political program the Thai have applied in COIN was amnesty. This is a difficult pill to swallow for any COIN effort anywhere in the world – witness the current amnesty controversy in Colombia for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – but the Thai and their Theravada Buddhist penchant for forgiveness and karma have made it work. Amnesty programs have included citizenship and vocational training, jobs programs, and a sort of probation status for certain offenders.

 

Good governance, or government legitimacy – or at the very least, legitimacy over the insurgents – is another political program the Thai promote. In this regard, they have enacted anti-corruption programs in each of their COINs to get rid of bribe taking and scam-artist government personnel, no small feat since corruption is deeply imbedded in the Thai system. Because of this last point, however, COIN anti-corruption programs surge and then fade in Thailand. They never seem permanent. Other government legitimacy programs include – and double as – economic and social programs such as village level poverty relief, medical missions, agricultural projects, and economic revitalization plans of districts and provinces. Again, these latter projects highlight the nexus between economic and political ways and means.

 

Kinetics

 

None of these political programs work without kinetic operations, in particular, focused, intelligence driven kinetic operations. Kinetics is necessary, so say the Thai, to make political war have an impact. The Thai understand that trying to reason with a methodical, radical-thinking, ideologue of a man shooting at you with an AK-47 is imprudent because he has the upper hand regarding violence. The Thai believe that the insurgent’s kinetic upper hand needs to be significantly eroded in order to reason with him. Or capture or kill him. “Jimmy the rebel” will not consider talking about peace, or reasoned politics, or amnesty (with job/economic benefits,) unless he is kinetically pressured to do so. “Jimmy” has to have his insurgent cell severely injured. His insurgent buddies, “Tommy,” and “Bill,” and “Johnny” have to be captured or killed to have him reconsider his ideology, his movement’s end goals, its leadership, and its methodologies. He must see his movement fail to gain ground or lose ground.

 

Local Forces

 

The Thai are firm believers in local force programs, which is another juncture between kinetics and politics. Since the Thai understand that insurgency is people’s war – that insurgency is, at its core, a local affair (and then expanded, nationally) – they realize that the insurgents weaponize the population against the state, so the Thai seek to steal the population back and weaponize them against the insurgents. In doing this, they are using a bottom up approach and also protecting the population from the insurgents. Here, it is the insurgents’ “ground game” the Thai seek to play. This approach has produced a series of village security team (VST) programs in each Thai COIN.

 

VST programs stand up security teams out of specially chosen villagers. Their overall job was/is to, 1) identify village level insurgents, then 2) capture, kill, drive out, or convert them, and 3) provide a permanent security/police-type presence in the village to keep insurgents from returning.

 

Just as important, the VSTs have provided, 1) a village linkage to the government, which made the government-citizen bond more effective, and 2) a pillar of government legitimacy at the village level. VSTs were none too effective when they were poorly trained, when their mission was limited to static guard duty, and when they were under armed, poorly led, corrupt, and paid little. Read more by the author on Thai VSTs here: “Thai Village Security Lessons for Afghanistan,” Small Wars Journal, 3 August 2010, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/thai-village-security-lessons-for-afghanistan

 

Another pivotal local force program the Thai used was the Tahan Phran (pronounced “tuh-han pran,” sounds like “can,”) or, literally, “Soldier Hunters.” These were the Thai government’s local force, Direct Action paramilitary units. Their job was to, 1) collect intelligence on insurgent personnel and/or formations, and, 2) capture or kill them. Because they were paramilitary, they operated outside many, but not all, government norms and behaved as the guerillas did. Essentially, they were the state’s guerrillas and have been described as “getting a gangster to go after a gangster.”

 

The Thahan Phran were originally conceived to be deployed in the same areas they were recruited from, so their knowledge of the local physical and human terrain provided an edge that fostered effective DA that helped defeat the communist and 80s-90s era insurgencies. The Thahan Phran occasionally suffered problems and scandals, however, when, like the VSTs, they had weak leadership, lackluster training, and poor discipline. Deployment in areas where they were not recruited from also tremendously dulled their effectiveness. In these cases, the Thahan Phran were counterproductive in COIN.

 

Wrapping it Up

 

Anyone reading The Thai Way of COIN – or other, more revered COIN books/articles such as Jeffrey Race’s War Comes to Long An, Kalev Sepp’s “Best Practices in Counterinsurgency,” Richard Clutterbuck’s The Long, Long War, or William Matchett’s Secret Victory: The Intelligence War that beat the IRA, among scores of others – should come away with definite, clear-cut lessons to apply to other COIN situations. And while some of these issues are indeed discussed in FM 3-24, they are completely useless unless they are followed. This is one reason continuing PME is so important; so we don’t become stale in our knowledge and approach to IW.

 

As a final note, the Thai have achieved none of these successes quickly or efficiently. COIN is difficult, murky, and requires sophisticated thinking. But it is certainly doable. The Thai have stumbled through years of heavy suppression, sub-par coordination, and merely halfway addressing the ideology of their insurgent enemies before they achieved enlightenment. Accordingly, The Thai Way of Counterinsurgency is not a COIN silver bullet. Nor is it by any means perfect. Maybe, however, we Americans might listen to the Thai and learn something from their trials and tribulations and apply some of them in IW zones such as Afghanistan, a conflict that has, so far, bested us.

 

About the Author(s)

Jeff Moore, Ph.D., is the chief executive officer of Muir Analytics, which assesses insurgent and terror threats against corporations. Dr. Moore is author of two books: Spies for Nimitz: Joint Military Intelligence in the Pacific War, and The Thai Way of Counterinsurgency. He is also the purveyor of SecureHotel.US, a terror risk assessment product for hotels the world over.

 

Comments

PeterPiper

Fri, 11/09/2018 - 10:49am

 

Dr Moore has written an important piece because it challenges the most fundamental COIN mistakes that the US has made from Vietnam until today.  Policies, programs, perceptions and analysis have been misguided for more than half a century. And they continue to be. Dr. Moore's tip of the hat to the Petraeus COIN FM 3-24 seems to damn it with faint praise in light of his analysis, despite calling it "venerable".

FM 3-24 is a worthy bookend for Gen. McChrystal’s August ‘09 report listing 11 key objectives that informed the subsequent US Joint Forces COIN manual. Both were essentially laundry-lists. And then there is the DEA's imaginary claim of success against the Shining Path in Peru (Peruvians did it not DEA), and L. Paul Bremer's disastrous de-bathification program. And all of this history was built on Vietnam experience such as John Paul Vann's concept paper for the CORDS program in Vietnam that was part of all the misguided projects of the US "pacification" effort such as Strategic Hamlets, or our nightly jungle excavation project called H&I fire, or turning the effective Census Grievance program into Phoenix, etc., etc.

Unlike the US military, it seems that the Thai military has learned from their own COIN experience in the South. According to Moore they have learned that "...you cannot kill your way out of an insurgency...[that] capture or kill programs alone will not change the mind of an entire insurgent movement...[and that] it is best to ...[reduce the insurgent narrative] to the point that it has little appeal."

Moore shows that the Thai have developed a strategy that aims at effective "...security, political, and economic operations." That is i) keep the peoples' lives secure, ii) let them choose where to live, what to do and who to lead them, and iii) protect their commerce and wealth with fair rules (law).  All another way of saying "life, liberty and property" a trio that was first expounded in political philosophy by William Penn in 1680 and then in the next century by John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and (by their vote) all our founding fathers.  Not bad company.

As a  footnote, I spend a year serving with the Thai Army in Vietnam, and since anyone reading these comments obviously reads the SWJ you might take a look at my SWJ piece from a few years ago on COIN:

http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/succeeding-in-afghanistan

 

Peter F. Schaefer

 

Bill C.

Tue, 10/30/2018 - 10:07am

Note that -- in the context I have offered here (see my thoughts below) --

a.  "Irregular warfare" is the only means by which the populations of the world (to include populations in the U.S./the West now also it would seem?)

b.  Confronted with demands that they "modernize" (to wit: abandon their present way of life, way of governance, values, etc. -- and in the place of same -- adopt more international/more "globalist"/more global economy-friendly such concepts);

c.  Irregular warfare would seem to be the only means by which these populations can effectively fight back/can effectively resist these such -- unwanted -- "transformational" demands.

Thus, from the "global" perspective that I offer here, we certainly should not expect to see "irregular warfare" go away; this, given that it is only by way of "irregular warfare," might we agree, that:

a.  The populations of the world 

b.  Thus confronted with a demand that they "modernize,"

c.  This, so as to better provide for the wants, needs and demands of, shall we say, the global economy (and the global elite -- that profit most from same?);  

d.  This is the only way these such populations can resist -- can fight back -- so as to prevent these (whether absolutely necessary or not) "reforms" from being realized?

(Q.E.D.?)

Part I:  The (Global) Problem:

The title of our article above begins "Irregular Warfare Isn't Going Away."  One would have to agree that this is perfectly correct; this, given the -- now clearly "global" -- clash between:

a.  Those that seek to "modernize" their own, and other, states and societies (requires, today, that one compromise/abandon one's traditional identity, way of life, etc.) and those that:

b.  Refuse to do this.  (With the Brexit, and the election of President Trump, this such "refuse" group now clearly includes -- not only for example Islamic populations and groups -- but indeed now many populations and groups within the U.S./the West also?)  

From the "global" perspective offered here, one can easily see why:

a.  Those "insurgents" in the U.S./the West -- who have recently revolted against the political, economic, social and/or value "change" demands being pressed upon them by "global community" advocates -- why these such folks now seem to:

b.  Resemble (as "insurgents" shall we say?) those in the Greater Middle East and elsewhere -- who, likewise, seem to have rejected these exact same "change" demands? 

Part II:  The Global "Fix"/the Global "Cure" (i.e., "fixing" the U.S./the West -- along with the Rest):

Herein, to reflect (with, re: the U.S./the West, certain reservations and exceptions of course) upon the Thai Counterinsurgency Model and such things as:

1.  Politics Lead the Military.   "The Thai believe it is best to go to the source of the fire – the insurgent ideology – and reduce it to the point that it has little appeal. Accordingly, in COIN, the Thai believe that a counter political warfare movement has to be constructed, fielded, and expanded in order to facilitate a win."

2.  Kinetics:  "The Thai understand that trying to reason with a methodical, radical-thinking, ideologue of a man shooting at you with an AK-47 is imprudent because he has the upper hand regarding violence. The Thai believe that the insurgent’s kinetic upper hand needs to be significantly eroded in order to reason with him."

3.  Local Forces:  "The Thai are firm believers in local force programs, which is another juncture between kinetics and politics. Since the Thai understand that insurgency is people’s war – that insurgency is, at its core, a local affair (and then expanded, nationally) – they realize that the insurgents weaponize the population against the state, so the Thai seek to steal the population back and weaponize them against the insurgents."

(A definition of the term "Davos Man" may prove helpful here:

"Davos Man" is a neologism referring to the global elite of wealthy [predominantly] men, whose members view themselves as completely "international".

Davos men supposedly see their identity as a matter of personal choice, not an accident of birth. According to political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, who is credited with inventing the phrase "Davos Man", they are people who "have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the élite's global operations".

In his 2004 article "Dead Souls: The Denationalization of the American Elite", Huntington argues that this international perspective is a minority elitist position not shared by the nationalist majority of the people.)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Economic_Forum )

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

a.  Looking for the "global movements" that all the nations of the world must be most concerned with today?

b.  Then look no further than the "global revolt" against, shall we say, "globalism?

From the beginning of our article above:

"Official US national security strategy will still aim to counter global movements such as ISIS and al Qaeda, Foreign Internal Defense (FID) will remain a key US Special Forces mission, and IW will continue to be a part of Russian, Iranian, Pakistani, and Chinese hybrid warfare strategies."

Let me suggest that the "global movement" that the U.S./the West that the must be most concerned with today, this may be the global movement against, shall we say, "globalism:"

BEGIN QUOTE

There’s panic in the skyscrapers. A popular revolution against globalism is underway, and Britain has struck the first blow.

To the dismay of political, financial, and media elites, the country has chosen to put identity and sovereignty above a plus-one-or-minus-one change in GDP, and vote to leave the hated European Union. As with the USSR, the attempt to superimpose a manufactured civic identity over proud nation-states with rich and complex histories has run against the grain of human nature. The elites, so wrapped up in statecraft and economics, never paused to consider basic human psychology.

It’s not just Britain, you see. The revolution against globalism is, well, global. Britain may be leading the charge, but insurgents and rebels from D.C to Berlin are also hard at work tormenting their elitist overlords. Fired up by Britain’s example, eurosceptics across the continent are now demanding their own referendums. It’s a Berlin Wall moment.

END QUOTE 

https://www.breitbart.com/social-justice/2016/06/24/the-end-of-globalism/

Yes, I know, this is a quote from a very questionable and controversial source. 

But let's get past that and see if the matters presented therein are, (a) in fact, true and if, accordingly, (b) the revolt against globalism is, in fact, the "global movement that the U.S./the West must be most concerned with today."

("Insurgents," as per the "global movement" concept described above, being understood to be those both outside the U.S./the West [for example, the Taliban, ISIS, the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, etc.] -- and also those inside the U.S./the West [for example, those who voted for Trump and the Brexit] -- all of whom seem to be fighting to prevent their preferred way of life, way of governance and values, attitudes and beliefs from being [further] compromised; this, so as to better provide for, shall we say, the global economy/the global [or if you prefer the "international"] community.)

Question:

If my above suggestion of the "global movement that the U.S./the West must be most concerned with today" is, in fact, correct,

Then how might "The Thai Way of Counterinsurgency" help us to overcome this such an "global movement?"

(Kilcullen, of course, would tell us, in his "Counterinsurgency Redux," that those that are pressing for political, economic, social and or value "change" [for example, so as to better provide for the global community/the global economy], these such folks are the true insurgents.  Whereas, those who -- against this such global onslaught -- are fighting to retain [or to regain] their more traditional political, economic, social and value norms -- THESE such "resistance to change" folks are, in fact, the true counter-insurgents.

http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/uscoin/counterinsurgency_redux.pdf   See the top of Page 3.) 

 

Thanks, Sir. Much appreciation from someone with your background and experience. Item of interest for you, perhaps: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/anatomy-of-victory-why-does-the-united-states-lose-wars-tickets-51516331735?aff=eemailordconf&utm_campaign=order_confirm&utm_medium=email&ref=eemailordconf&utm_source=eb_email&utm_term=viewevent