Small Wars Journal

We Need a Stakeholder-Centric Counterinsurgency Doctrine

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We Need a Stakeholder-Centric Counterinsurgency Doctrine

Octavian Manea

Small Wars Journal interview with Karsten Friis, Senior Adviser and Head of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs’ Research Group on Security and Defense. He previously worked for the OSCE in Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, as well as for the Norwegian Armed Forces in Oslo and in Kosovo. His main area of expertise is security and defense policies, international military operations, civilian-military relations, cyber security, as well as the political developments in the Western Balkans. More on stakeholder-centric counterinsurgency can be found here.

Everyone is running or pivoting away from counterinsurgency (COIN). The never again school is highly influential these days. On the other side major trends in the security environment – urbanization, the proliferation of ISIS and AQ inspired insurgencies – indicate that the death of COIN is premature. How do you see the future and the relevance of COIN for the West?

It depends what you mean by COIN. Of course we will be countering insurgencies in the future. The question is about the means and ways to do so. We often talk about a population-centric vs. an enemy-centric approach in the COIN debates, where the former, simply put, seek to win hearts and minds of the civilian population, whereas the other seek to incapacitate the enemy in a more conventional way. Both have the same goal, to establish a viable government, although they differ in the means and ways of getting there. The former was probably naïve and simplistic, but the latter doesn’t seem to secure a stable victory either. We therefore need to look beyond this dichotomy, and retain the insights and lessons learned from the last decade of warfare. Overall, in these kinds of conflicts the military cannot win in a traditional sense. It can control the situation by weakening the insurgents to such an extent that others (civilians) can build a positive peace process.

What are some of the specific lessons and insights of the last decade of warfare that should be preserved and built on?

The armed forces need to systematically obtain contextual and cultural situational awareness. This is not about how to drink tea and be polite, but about understanding the local political dynamics. Cultural intelligence is much of the same. This was increasingly done in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is part of population-centric COIN. The recognition that everything we (as external forces) do will impact on local power balances is crucial and a necessary recognition in future small wars operations.

Classic counterinsurgency (Galula, Thompson, Fall, Kitson, Komer) played a major role in shaping COIN doctrine over the past decade. How should COIN change or be re-conceptualized in light of the complex campaigns waged in Iraq and Afghanistan?

It matters a lot if you are a government fighting insurgents in your own country or an external force deployed to support a host government. This is a crucial point. Some of the earlier theories were based on the first scenario. For a government fighting within their own borders legitimacy and support of local leaders is a precondition for a sustainable victory. The approach by externally deployed COIN forces must be different. They appreciate and value local support and legitimacy for the sake of force protection and intelligence gathering, but it’s not a precondition for military success to the same extent as for the host nation forces. This was often confused in the mentioned interventions. Western troops were seeking to win local hearts and minds, instead of helping host nation forces achieve this. It is important to remember that the initial campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq never were designed for post-conflict and was thus not set up for dealing with a growing insurgency. That locals may rise up if you dismantle the governance structure in place should be part of the contingency planning from the start.

Stabilization operations were a key focus of the past 25 years. The Balkans in the 1990s as well as the Iraq and Afghan campaigns in the 2000s generated the reality that triggered the adaptation of the Western military establishment beyond their conventional Cold War reflexes/mindsets. But whether we talk about peacekeeping, post-conflict reconstruction or counterinsurgency don’t we have some overlap here in terms of operational traits and instruments that we need to keep in mind? In the end, they all occur amongst the people and there is a clear need for whole-of government approaches or understanding the motivations of local communities. Do we have a common spectrum here?

To some extent. Peacekeeping or stabilization operations in benign security environments, such as Kosovo, require a soft approach, with minimal armor. In places like Helmand, where there are enemy forces attacking you, the military approach must be very different. But it is interesting to note that UN Peacekeeping is becoming increasingly robust, just look at the so-called ‘intervention brigade’ in the DRC. The mandate from the UN in this case is more offensive than the NATO ISAF-mandate was. And in Mali, there is a large intelligence component in the UN mission. But they also share a challenge: despite all the political praise for comprehensive or integrated approaches, this has proven very difficult in practice, both in the UN-context and in Afghanistan. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is often deeply conflicting perspectives of the purpose of the interventions.

What does the literature and the practice of post-conflict reconstruction, peace-building and SSR contribute to our understanding/reframing of COIN?

This literature is rich but also analytically critical. It has shown that Western ‘best practices’, and liberal ideas about democracy and free market may be difficult to transfer to war-torn societies. Some efforts, such as premature elections, can actually increase tensions and contribute to renewed violence. To achieve sustainable peace, some of the main causes of the conflict need to be addressed, and a balance of power between the main stakeholders must be in place, as the level of distrust tends to be very high. This can seem commonsensical, but have often been forgotten in the past. For COIN, as in other forms of warfare, a strategic end-point will always have to be a political, negotiated solution. You cannot eradicate all enemy forces. Hence, war-fighting should be planned to support this end. In this reading, military force is instrumental in changing the calculus of the different stakeholders in order to compel them to negotiate and compromise. Then you need to understand the objectives and grievances driving the adversaries.

State-building or nation-building? Can these choices be really avoided in COIN? Building institutions and capacity may be essential to create a foundation for sustainable peace. On the other side an expeditionary counterinsurgent may need to take measures in order to create progress for incentivizing a political reconciliation and a political community, between Sunni and Shia (in Iraq), or between citizens and the state security institutions (like in Sierra Leone). Shouldn’t expeditionary COIN have both in mind?

Academically we distinguish between states and nations. The latter is usually referred to as people, an ethnic group etc. (e.g. the Kurdish nation), while states usually have several such groups within its borders. Nation building is unlikely to be fruitful, if that means nationalism or ethnic belonging based upon exclusion of other groups. However, state building or a form of social or political contract between central authorities and other groups is a precondition for any state to function. Therefore state- and institution-building has been the ‘solution’ offered by the UN and many others for decades to create stability after wars. However, in COIN, as practiced in Afghanistan, institution building was regarded as a means to prevail in the war. The most bizarre example was the ‘government in a box’ idea; that you could just bring in some civilians who would offer services for the people, and thereby build confidence and trust and make them turn against the Taliban. Institutions can be built, but the main ‘glue’ in a society must be in place first, a political settlement, distribution of power, checks and balances, and (re)distribution of resources. If not the institutions (like the Iraq Army) will collapse once under pressure.  In the end any political construct needs some level of trust between the groups coexisting within the same borders. It can be very low like in Bosnia but it is still there. The state is hardly functioning because the social agreement remains very week. Another big problem that we have is that we are rather impatient. We want to do the job very quickly and leave while these processes take decades. We don’t have strategic patience.

What can be learned in terms of influencing the local host government, in terms of governance reform? Most of the time our assumptions about the behavior of the host nation government are too rosy. The reality showed a more complicated reality with patronage networks able to capture the state for their own interests and using the state in predatory and extractive ways. Can these local ways be changed?

I think most observers agree that we tried too much simultaneously in Afghanistan, ending up doing everything half way. You cannot e.g. educate female police officers if they are not welcome on the streets yet. From a military perspective I guess it is easier to be agnostic about our partner’s values, i.e. the host nation government and forces. As long as its human rights’ record is relatively decent, we can cooperate well. However, Western states and the UN are usually engaged in other dimensions of an intervention, trying to impose good governance, transparency, gender balance etc. I think it is a need to scale back somewhat on all this and focus on the basics first, as mentioned: stability and balance of power between main stake holders. As we see an increase in state collapse – in Northern Africa and the Middle East in particular, military and civilian resources should ideally be calibrated in a more strategic and targeted way, which may imply living with and dealing with states not complying with what we normally would not call ‘good governance’. There is also a need to do expectation management. These problems will not be solved in a heartbeat and thus more realistic goals should be called for.

The current COIN theory is highly state-centric as well as population-centric. Should we go beyond these core features - a more dynamic/flexible understanding of the centers of gravity in a COIN campaign?

Yes. We have argued in favor of what we call a ‘stakeholder centric’ COIN. The center of gravity is the forces engaged in the conflict. A solution will need to include them, they cannot be excluded. Even jihadist movements with a global ‘brand’ tend to often be largely locally based and fuelled. They can therefore potentially be reconciled into a local solution. If you want to have a sustainable peace then some kind of a legitimate political construction is needed. There will have to be some kind of political agreement where some of the grievances of the insurgents are addressed. You need political and cultural intelligence to understand the environment, who are they, why are they fighting. The political strategy that the COIN operation is supporting should address all these features in order to formulate a political solution once the opponents were weakened enough and are ready to negotiate. In most societies you can talk about stakeholders. They could be warlords, religious leaders, elders, people that represent constituencies that are essential to achieving lasting societal stability. A COIN operation should therefore be stakeholder-centric so the focus should be aimed at all the relevant societal stakeholders that may impact on a future political agreement. The goal is not that of re-engineering a foreign society, but more along the lines of facilitating/enabling a political process that is representative of the main political stakeholders and political forces.

What does winning mean in a stakeholder-centric COIN operation?

It means forcing, compelling and convincing the insurgent – and other stakeholders - to accept to engage in a process leading to a sustainable political solution. There are many steps along the way, but the end state of the campaign is a peace-agreement that addresses main concerns of the stakeholders and the drivers that fuel the conflict. This should be the overarching effect the military campaign should aim to contribute to.

Legitimacy remains the big prize. COIN and insurgency are often defined in terms of competitions for legitimacy. How should legitimacy be conceptualized/operationalized? As a function of good governance, of being responsive to the needs of the local people, of local norms and customs?

As mentioned, legitimacy should be of the local state, not the expeditionary forces. Any political construct, state or kingdom, rest on a form of social contract. But it is a modern Western thing that we have ‘one-(wo)man, one vote’. Many societies remain patrimonial, like it or not, where legitimacy stem from elders, regional leaders, religious leaders, warlords or others. Legitimacy is thus not necessarily the liberal definition of it, but rather a mutual recognition between the stakeholders in a conflict, that they need to deal and relate with each other. External forces and diplomats can help forge such recognition and legitimacy, but cannot be part of it. It must stand also after we exit.

Shouldn’t external forces remain on the ground to police and secure the balance of power between the main stakeholders? Sometimes it could be the critical variable able to bring the stakeholders together. It was the missing part in the Libya intervention, but a necessary component in stabilizing Sierra Leone during the 2000s.

Absolutely. A COIN campaign may be followed up with a stabilization force of some kind. Such a force can police the peace accord and – if needed – put pressure on parties not adhering to the agreed accords. External forces have often proved vital in such post-war situations.

You emphasize the notion of stakeholders and of a stakeholder-centric type of COIN. Isn’t this a practice that was emphasized in Iraq during the surge?

Yes, to my knowledge it was. And cash was one of the tools, not democracy. The problem of course was that the Sunni tribes were later marginalized by the Shia/Kurdish government of Maliki and thus the efforts of bringing them in was lost.  Whatever will replace ISIL in the future in these areas will have to rely on the same Sunni tribes to secure stability. And they will want something in return, such as influence and recognition in the capital. The marginalization of the Taliban in the Bonn agreement is another example of how to alienate a large constituency that came back to haunt us.

But can a stakeholder-centric approach really avoid some of the activities usually associated with state-building (investing in SSR) or with population-centric COIN?

The main difference is that population-centric COIN applies soft tools to win the local population over, while stakeholder-centric COIN will focus on the relevant leaders. This may imply protecting certain tribes (or other groups) at the expense of others, but the key is to be aware of the political implications of this. At other times it may, for instance, be advisable to weaken a warlord militarily before engaging him in a political process. This is very different from not winning hearts and minds of civilians. SSR and similar programs should come afterwards, after the peace agreement, as a way to make the peace agreement more robust and stable. Occupying forces may alter domestic politics dramatically, and the longer they stay, the more impact they may have. Again, the most important thing is that the armed forces are aware of these effects of their operations, and take local politics into consideration in their military planning.

About the Author(s)

Octavian Manea was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University) where he received an MA in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced  Studies in Security Studies.


Modified and added to from my original offering:

In the mission to transform the outlying states and societies of the world more along modern western lines, the U.S./the West -- finally -- has come to understand that:

a. Our "universal values," etc., do not exist/are not sufficiently powerful enough to, on their own, achieve the task at-hand. And, thus, that:

b. Our "soft power" is anything but.

This such understanding, then, becomes the basis for moving forward:

a. More along "hard power" lines; for example, along lines associated with political warfare and unconventional warfare employed in the service of same. And, specific to our article here:

b. More along lines which accept that INTERIM MEASURES AND APPROACHES will be needed to -- ultimately -- (rather than immediately as per "universal values" concepts of old) achieve our grand political objective of transforming outlying states and societies more along modern western lines.

It is as per these latter matters, I suggest, that we find our interviewee, Karsten Friis, noting the following:


This literature is rich but also analytically critical. It has shown that Western ‘best practices’, and liberal ideas about democracy and free market may be difficult to transfer to war-torn societies. Some efforts, such as premature elections, can actually increase tensions and contribute to renewed violence. To achieve sustainable peace, some of the main causes of the conflict need to be addressed, and a balance of power between the main stakeholders must be in place, as the level of distrust tends to be very high.


Note here -- and as per my thoughts above -- that our interviewee readily acknowledges:

a. That the ultimate goal is to transfer our liberal ideas and practices, re: democracy and free markets, to war-torn (and, I would suggest, other outlying) states and societies,

b. That this cannot be achieved quickly and/or easily (as per our now-defunct "universal values"/"soft power" concepts). And, thus:

c. That "interim measures and approaches" may need to be adopted to help achieve our such objectives; for example,

d. As per his recommended "stakeholder-centric" counter-insurgency approach.

As can be gleaned from the interviewee's following quote, however, let there be no doubt -- in your military and/or civilian mind -- that the ultimate goal/objective of the U.S./the West, re: these such "interim" endeavors, remains to transform these states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines.


From a military perspective I guess it is easier to be agnostic about our partner’s values, i.e. the host nation government and forces. As long as its human rights’ record is relatively decent, we can cooperate well. However, Western states and the UN are usually engaged in other dimensions of an intervention, trying to impose good governance, transparency, gender balance etc. I think it is a need to scale back somewhat on all this and focus on the basics first, as mentioned: stability and balance of power between main stake holders.


Again, thus, to see that (a) the stakeholder counterinsurgency approach is designed only as an interim/preliminary measure ("focus on the basics FIRST") and that (b) transformation of the state and its societies, more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines, remains the true and ultimate objective of the "Western states and the UN."

In general, I have two problems with these such "interim measures and approaches" suggestions:

1. At this late date, does anyone not understand that "the main cause of the conflict" -- which "needs to be addressed" -- are not "internal" matters re: these states and their societies. But, rather, (a) the U.S./the Wests' determination to transform outlying states and societies more along alien and profane (think, for example, "secular") political, economic, social and value lines and (b) much of the Rest of the World's determination to ensure that this will not happen. (In this regard, this conflict resembles significantly the Old Cold War of yesterday with, today, the U.S./the West now [a] having assumed the "expansionist" role previously held by the Soviets/the communists and, thus, [b] having assumed many of the exact same "conservative" problems, and enemies, that the Soviets/the communists had back then.)

2. Thus, these "fig leaf/these "stalking horse" interim measures and approaches -- that we seek to employ in a world where global information and communications have televised the U.S./the West's massive "expansionist" efforts and designs for over a decade now -- these such "interim measures and approaches" are likely to prove useless/unusable -- as they are likely to fool no one, and especially not the critical "resisting transformation" stakeholders.

This suggesting that our belief that these such "interim measures and approaches" might be utilized, shall we say, to "pacify" the stakeholders and "prepare the ground" for our later/follow-on "transformative" efforts; these such beliefs, I suggest -- and much as with the "universal values" and "soft power" beliefs which preceded them -- -- these may likewise find themselves being filed under the sad category known as "wishful thinking."