Training Host Nation Forces for Population-centric Counterinsurgency

Training Host Nation Forces for Population-centric Counterinsurgency

Barnett S. Koven

The initial, 2006, publication of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency (COIN) Field Manual, FM 3-24, received extensive attention. It inspired ample discussion among both practitioners and academics, was the topic of myriad symposia, and was even republished by a major university press in 2007. Interest in the manual was not limited to the U.S. Numerous developed countries, including France, Spain, and the UK produced their own versions of FM 3-24 in short order. Developing country forces similarly became aware of and often adopted the manual’s dictates. During extensive field research in Peru for example, I observed that both senior military officers responsible for developing Peruvian COIN strategy as well as more junior officers and NCOs tasked with carrying out COIN at the operational and tactical levels were familiar with the core tenants of population-centric COIN as elucidated by FM 3-24. Peru, in particular is an interesting case as Peruvian forces adopted a U.S.-inspired doctrine w/minimal input from U.S. forces. As such, examining this case helps to illustrate where developing country forces are readily able to adapt to the demands of population-centric COIN on their own and what persistent barriers remain. This enhanced understanding of developing country forces’ abilities to adjust to the requirements of population-centric COIN will enable U.S. train and equip mission to better target their scares resources to areas where host nation forces need the most assistance and where they are most likely to have a positive impact.

Getting COIN training for host nation forces right is especially important given that even as the number of conventional wars decline, instances of intrastate dynamics such as insurgency and civil war are on the rise. Unfortunately, recent U.S. training efforts have come up short. This is not surprising, when one considers the complexities involved in COIN and the difficulties that even advanced forces such as the U.S. experienced. Specifically, Tactics in Counterinsurgency, FM 3-24.2, which seeks to translate the doctrinal lessons of FM 3-24 into tactics that can be implemented at the brigade, battalion, and company levels notes that commanders must be equipped to handle “diverse issues such as land reform, unemployment, oppressive leadership, or ethnic tensions.” It further notes that, COIN “places a premium on tactical leaders who can not only close with the enemy but, also negotiate agreements, operate with nonmilitary agencies, and other nations, restore basic services…orchestrate political deals, and get ‘the word’ on the street.”

Given the complexity of COIN operations and the requirement that military forces engage in activities that they have not traditionally been involved in or trained for such as land reform, substantial adaptation must occur in six broad areas in order to facilitate population-centric COIN. First and foremost, senior political and military leaders must be committed to making substantial changes in order to enable the adaptation necessary to implement this type of COIN doctrine. Absent this commitment, changes in the other five areas are unlikely. In addition to high-level commitment to the strategy, reforms must be made to enhance unity of effort, improve intelligence capacities, expand military presence and basing in contested areas, ensure that officers and NCOs are flexible in their approaches and able to take tactical initiative, and curtail military corruption.

As indicated, buy-in from senior political and military officials is crucial. If high-level commitment to a population-centric approach to COIN and the adjustments necessary to implement it are absent, success is highly unlikely. Unfortunately, research suggests that even in cases where host nations were highly dependent on foreign support for COIN efforts and where a substantial threat that the government would fall to the insurgents existed, U.S. and British efforts to encourage the host nation to embrace certain tenants of population-centric COIN failed miserably absent organic political will. In short, if domestic political elites and senior military officers are not invested in the strategy, there is little U.S. train and equip missions can do to change that and scarce training resources ought to be directed to other countries where they are more likely to have a positive impact.

Assuming there is organic domestic interest in and support for the changes necessary for the adoption of population-centric COIN doctrine, efforts to increase unity of effort among security forces, intelligence services, and civilian governmental entities are required. The complexities of this type of COIN strategy necessitates a whole of government approach. Integrating the disparate military services, police forces, and intelligence capacities is relatively easily accomplished. This is the case since all share a similar, security-focused, purpose and usually have a pre-existing history of close collaboration. In Peru, a joint command was created to incorporate army, navy, marine, air force, special forces, and intelligence personal engaged in COIN under a unified commander and joint staff. The Peruvian National Police were subsequently added. Similar successes have occurred in other cases. In Colombia, the National Police are considered part of the ‘Public Force’ comprised of both police and military forces. The police are under the control of the Ministry of National Defense and not the Ministry of the Interior. In Afghanistan efforts have also been made to ensure collaborative planning among the army, police and intelligence service. While Peru was successful in greatly enhancing unity of effort among its security forces without extensive foreign assistance, in all three examples, collaboration between the security services and civilian government entities that are essential to tasks such as governance reform and development assistance has been extremely limited. In short host nation forces do not need extensive assistance to enhance unity of effort. Though what assistance that is offered in this regard should be directed to encouraging collaboration between security services and civilian government ministries and agencies.

In addition to unity of effort, intelligence is critical to overcoming the fundamental problem of COIN, the ‘identification problem.’ Unlike traditional set-piece battles, insurgents do not wear uniforms and blend into civilian populations. As such, superior intelligence capacities are required to enable the counterinsurgent to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants and apply military force only against insurgents. Following the same model used for integrating their security forces, Peru developed the Special Joint Intelligence Brigade to incorporate each military services’ and the national police’s intelligence apparatus under a single command. Importantly, the brigade includes improved reporting structures that ensure that military planners receive actionable intelligence reports that are produced by fusing the products of the various intelligence services. To increase their intelligence capacities, Peruvian forces looked to Colombia’s experience with intelligence reform. While extensive U.S. collaboration undergirded Colombian reform efforts, Peruvian forces were able to adopt a similar approach absent extensive collaboration with U.S. forces. Although, some cooperation with Colombia did occur. Again, while major intelligence reforms do require political will, they can be accomplished without the need for extensive U.S. assistance. To the extent that foreign assistance is required in this regard, triangulated security cooperation is likely to be more efficient than direct U.S. support.

Another critical area where host nation forces can, if desired, affect substantial changes on their own relates to military presence and basing. A sustained military presence and engagement with the local population in contested areas is crucial to the success of COIN efforts. This will often require the deployment of additional forces and the construction of forward operating bases. Peruvian forces embarked upon an impressive base-building campaign wherein dozens of new bases were constructed and existing bases renovated during a four year periods between 2012 and 2015. Building new bases and deploying additional forces is a task that even militaries that are not used to population-centric COIN have pre-existing experience in. Construction efforts can also be contracted to local builders. As such, it is unlikely that these efforts will require extensive U.S. support. However, in cases where U.S. forces are attempting to standup host nation forces to take over counterinsurgency operations begun by the U.S., local forces may benefit from bases previously constructed by U.S. forces.

Whereas host nation forces can make substantial progress on their own in the aforementioned three focus areas, foreign assistance is especially necessary in two interrelated areas tactical initiative and flexibility, and corruption. Relative to the U.S., recruits for developing country forces tend to have lower levels of education. This problem is compounded by relatively less investment in professional military education and training. Given that FM 3-24.2 requires tactical commanders to engage in a wide range of complex activities, this is especially concerning. U.S. train and equip missions have often focused on increasing unit-level tactical proficiency. Indeed, in Afghanistan NATO ran a combined arms training course. While the aforementioned example targeted field grade officers, efforts to train NCOs and junior officers for the complex tasks required by this type of COIN doctrine could prove especially fruitful in improving the tactical skills and the level of flexibility required for COIN missions. Foreign training, exchange programs, and especially joint operations also help to improve the professionalization and morale of host nation security forces. And of course, morale is a critical component of combat power.

By improving the professionalization of host nation forces, this type of training will also help curtail military corruption. Insurgencies are often fueled by narcotics and lootable natural resources. These dynamics can also breed military corruption. In the Peruvian case, General Wilson Barrantes, compared deploying the Peruvian military to confront a narcotics-fueled insurgency to utilizing “four street dogs to guard a plate of beefsteak.” Certainly, increased professionalization is not a panacea solution to corruption, but it does help. U.S. assistance efforts could also be directed towards enforcement and the administration of military justice as a means to further curtail corruption.

Assuming buy-in from senior political and military officials, host nation forces are often capable of adapting to improve unity of effort, intelligence collection, and military presence and basing largely on their own. Scarce assistance resources are likely to be most useful in assisting local forces to improve tactical skills and flexibility, and to moderate corruption among the armed forces. If senior leaders are not committed to the necessary reforms, U.S. assistance is not likely to have a major effect and it may make sense to redirect resources elsewhere.

SWJ Editor’s Note: During 10 months of field research in Peru, Barnett S. Koven researched and wrote an article entitled “Emulating US Counterinsurgency Doctrine: Barriers for Developing Country Forces, Evidence from Peru,” which was published in the Journal of Strategic Studies. The genesis for this subsequent article is a recent SMA SOUTHCOM Lecture Series briefing in which he began to translate the specifics of the Peruvian case to more generalized lessons for U.S. efforts to stand-up host nation forces for population-centric counterinsurgency.

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