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In the first chapter of Victory Among the People, Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff General Sir David Richards asserts ‘If we needed reminding, the major UK interventions in the first decade of the twenty-first century have reinforced the simple truth: the principal task for security forces in COIN is to secure the population from violence’. This article does not enter the debate whether or not this is indeed the ‘principal task’ of security forces in a counter-insurgency war. This may be right. The intention of this article is more basic. It is to argue that far from being a ‘simple truth’, securing the population as the principal task of security forces is a recent, Anglo-Saxon orthodoxy, promoted by US doctrine and parroted by America’s most faithful ally, the British. It is not shared and certainly not practised by most European allies, even in the same war. It has been followed by other Anglo-Saxon allies, in limited ways and with limited success, mainly because the contingents of these countries have been small. More widely, it cannot be described as a universal counter-insurgency doctrine practised from Peru to Thailand. Lastly, and with no little irony, the country that promoted the doctrine has recently begun to show signs that it is no longer enthusiastic about becoming embroiled in intractable conflicts, still less in securing some other nation’s population, and is returning to ‘push-button warfare’ – to use the 1950s phrase – or bombing your enemies, from a distance, at a time of your choosing, and preferably with an unmanned drone. Some turnaround.
It’s not British
British experience of ‘small wars’ over two centuries has been second to none so it is to be expected that this experience eventually produced a significant body of official and unofficial literature on fighting insurgencies and rebellions. It is worth noting in passing that for the larger part of Britain’s imperial history it did not. The notion that putting down a Sikh rebellion, for example, required doctrine, would have struck a contemporary as odd.
The 1909 Field Service Regulations and 1934 Notes on Imperial Policing are two early doctrinal works, influenced in part by Colonel Charles Callwell’s popular Small Wars and Major General Sir Charles Gwynn’s Imperial Policing, which are cited as important examples of early British counter-insurgency doctrine. The near-constant insurrectionary state of Ireland and the 1919 Amritsar massacre were two sores that coloured these works. The cardinal principle of minimum force has its genesis in the fiasco at Amritsar when British soldiers massacred 379 protestors.
In the post-war period, when communist revolutionary warfare seemed to pose the biggest threat to Western powers, the Army updated its doctrine in Keeping the Peace (1959) and in the 1969 and 1977 editions of Counter-Revolutionary Operations. Works like Low Intensity Operations, written by the retired General Frank Kitson, were seminal in guiding British military thought during this period, as was Sir Robert Thompson’s Defeating Communist Insurgency (1966). The experience of Northern Ireland forced a re-evaluation of this doctrine and resulted in the 1995 Counter-Insurgency Operations, the last major doctrinal work before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The important point about this corpus – apart from the 1995 manual – is that it was written when a British government had an inescapable legal obligation to ‘secure the population’, or to police the population as would have been understood at the time, because it was the legal authority, or was in the process of transferring that authority to a previous colonial charge. The three great principles that fall out of British counter-insurgency – minimum force, political primacy and unity of effort – naturally reflect that colonial experience. ‘Securing the population’ is not emphasised in any of the works. This is partly because it is a self-evident function of government, and partly because British counter-insurgency practice consistently, and legally correctly, vested ‘securing the population’ in the police forces. Military forces were for killing or capturing insurgents.
Nor is it European
At the time of writing, 49 nations are participating in the Afghanistan War, including all 28 NATO countries. The most successful region has been the Italian-Spanish Regional Command West (measured by incidence of violent acts, civilian and security force deaths, and reconstruction). Why have the Italians and Spanish succeeded where the rest are floundering? Clearly, a lack of widespread support for insurgent or militia movements in Western Afghanistan is a decisive factor, but it is not the only factor. Neither contingent has attempted to ‘secure the population’ (or start gun fights with local fighters, as the British did so disastrously in 2006). The opposite has been the case. The last time the British were in Herat they became embroiled with the locals and destroyed a number of the city’s historic towers, an act of cultural vandalism that has not been forgotten. The Italians and Spanish were never going to follow that route. Instead, both have deliberately maintained a low profile, away from Afghan civilian centres, and both have focused on training and reconstruction. It has paid off. In 2010, a Spanish journalist team reporting for the El Pais Sunday magazine was surprised that it could freely wander the streets of Herat and be greeted in a friendly manner by Heratis. They were given the explanation that the locals liked the Spanish because ‘they don’t shoot at Afghans’ [author’s translation]. This is only one anecdote but it cannot just be dismissed by Anglo-Saxons. To argue that there is nothing to learn from the Italian-Spanish approach to counter-insurgency in Afghanistan may be arrogance.
The difference between Anglo-Saxon counter-insurgency practice and the practice of nations in the other Regional Commands is also evident. Mostly, this is a measure of the tiny contingents offered by the ‘minnows’ (as well as national caveats). Are the Czechs really ‘securing the population’ in Logar Province? Or the Koreans in Parwan Province? Or the Latvians in Maimanah? To argue that they are defies credulity. These nations are mostly represented by reinforced company-sized outfits operating in hundreds of square miles. The reality is that the minnows are engaged in ‘military tokenism’; they focus on a few worthwhile projects; and they are necessarily limited to small areas. This is not criticism. Many have performed commendably.
Broadening the survey somewhat it becomes clear that ‘securing the population’ is a modern Anglo-Saxon counter-insurgency doctrine. During the 1960-70s, Central and Latin America suffered an irruption of insurgencies, from Nicaragua to Argentina. Governments fighting these insurgencies (some abetted by the United States fearing Communist infiltration through the back door), did not secure the people. Rather, they killed the people, or at least rojos (‘Reds’) supporting the insurgencies. In kind, this approach to counter-insurgency was no different to British ‘butcher and bolt’ operations in Afghanistan in the late 19th century. The reactionary strategy worked. Aside from the particular exceptions of Colombia and Peru, insurgency on the South American continent was snuffed out. This same punitive approach has been followed by other countries, Sri Lanka and Burma for example, with a decisive outcome in the former case.
Where did ‘securing the population’ come from?
Undeniably the most significant piece of doctrine drafted in a generation is FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency (2004), authored by General David Petraeus and an able cast of bright staff officers. This military doctrine manual entered the New York Times bestseller list, a unique achievement. FM 3-24 became the precursor to the British version, Army Field Manual Volume 1 Part 10 – Counterinsurgency Operations (2009). Many sections of the American manual borrowed from previous British doctrine and personalities like the former SAS commander, Major General Graeme Lamb reportedly influenced Petraeus, but to all intents and purposes, AFM Vol 1 Part 10 is FM 3-24 in a different cover. The two Anglo-Saxon military forces were and remain in lockstep, as ever, and at the heart of the counter-insurgency doctrine espoused in these manuals is the mantra ‘the prize is the population’.
To proponents of this doctrine, the Iraq ‘surge’ is a great example of ‘securing the population’. General Petraeus the architect of the surge, through no fault of his own, was mythologized, as was the ‘surge’. Myth-making invites myth debunking, which swiftly followed. To critics, the success of the Iraq ‘surge’ is greatly over-stated. In simple terms their argument is this: the Iraq ‘surge’ would never have worked without the ‘Sunni Awakening’ but the converse is not true. The ‘Sunni Awakening’ may have succeeded anyway, without a US military ‘surge’. Wherever truth lies, it should be acknowledged that ‘securing the population’ is not without its critics.
The problems with ‘securing the population’
The most obvious argument against ‘securing the population’ is that the population has frustratingly not wanted to be secured. In Iraq and Afghanistan, locals have wanted Western soldiers to clear off (but leave your dollars behind, as Afghans joke). This is entirely unsurprising. Western forces aggressively entered two Muslim countries. The chances that these military adventures would end in fraternal embraces were always remote.
Numerous polls have been conducted over the years in Afghanistan. To cite specific numbers would only invite someone to quote a counter-statistic. The most comprehensive and consistent poll has been the annual and dense Asia Foundation report. The author can only assert that trawling through these reports it is far easier to make arguments that nothing is being won - and certainly not the prize of the population - than to make the counter arguments that progress is measurably evident.
A second strong argument (specifically to surges intended to secure populations) is the counter-proof of Afghanistan. There has been no comparable outcome as a result of the ‘Obama surge’. No matter how hard the Anglo-Saxon ISAF countries have attempted to secure the Afghan rural population, it remains very difficult to prove that this strategy has succeeded in any meaningful way. It is easier to argue the opposite case, for example, by using the crude measure of civilian deaths that continue to manifest year-on-year increases. Exactly the same frustrations fill page after page of analysis of the Pentagon Papers examining the ‘Pacification’ strategy of the Vietnam War.
The reference to Vietnam is a deliberate cue. The third argument is that we have been here before. Observed through a long telescope it is difficult to peer at Afghanistan and not wonder whether someone is attempting an exercise in ‘Vietnam Take Two’. Every aspect of the current Anglo-Saxon counter-insurgency strategy has roots in Vietnam: Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), pacification, the Marine Combined Action Platoons (CAPs), Clear and Hold, Find and Fix, the special force Phoenix program, the railliers (Viet Cong re-integrees), the Popular Forces, the panoply of advisory and assistance initiatives, the economic and military aid programs, and not least, the maddeningly fraught relationship between the US Embassy and South Vietnam’s succession of leaders. From 1960 – when the VC irrupted after a dormant period – there was unanimity that the war was going to won or lost in the countryside. What followed was a grand and tragically doomed experiment in attempting to ‘secure the population’. In the end, the naysayers were proved right.
Vietnam has haunted Washington’s deliberations over Afghanistan – how could it not? Under the current Democrat administration, the signals have become unmistakeable. America is getting out, responsibly and with dignity, but she is getting out. Libya was a pointer. ‘Boots on the ground’ is no longer viewed with any enthusiasm. Securing truculent locals in Third World countries is rapidly dropping down the list of US foreign policy objectives. It is not in America’s self-interest, and it has proved difficult to demonstrate that it has been in the interest of the ostensibly secured locals. Let’s move on.
This article has sought to argue that ‘securing the population’ is a recent, Anglo-Saxon counter-insurgency doctrine, championed by the United States and copied by allies like the British. It is far from universal, even in NATO. Whether or not this is the right way to go, it is also evident that the bitter experiences of Iraq and the unfinished war in Afghanistan have made the United States drift away from its own counter-insurgency doctrine and towards what amounts to a stand-off, remote-control, counter-terrorist doctrine. Donald Rumsfeld, who always advocated ‘war-lite’, may be smiling in his retirement. ‘Securing the population’ is not the ‘simple truth’ of counter-insurgency.’