According to The U.S. Army Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual an insurgency is “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government.” FM 3-24 continues with, “political power is the central issue in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies: each side aims to get the people to accept its governance or authority as legitimate.” Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) advocates propose fighting insurgents with small cadres of highly-trained infantry, avoiding the large footprint of earlier generations of war created by command and control echelons above the company. Even if the 4GW proponents are correct on the tactical level, their proposed methods will not be successful in defeating an insurgency strategically as 4GW does not offer a legitimate alternative to the insurgents at the strategic or national level.
William S. Lind, the architect of the 4GW concept, argues for units to become “true light infantry.” He writes, “virtually all Fourth Generation forces are free of the First Generation culture of order; they focus outward, they prize initiative and, because they are highly decentralized, they rely on self-discipline.” Discipline is a key issue here; a company commander only has the authority to punish soldiers up to the (U. S. Army) rank of Sergeant (E-5). This is to protect not only the soldiers, but to give the commander the ability to maintain order and discipline commensurate with his position and abilities. A company is usually composed of only three to four officers, and they have little ability to conduct an investigation without disrupting combat operations. Conflicts of interest and difficulty finding an impartial investigator with such a small pool of officers in such a close environment are other challenges. That is why a company commander only has the ability to investigate minor offenses and only for the lowest-ranking soldiers. Clear, codified, equitable discipline is one of the features that separate a military from a street gang or an insurgent movement.
Lind wants to remove echelons of control “to flatten” the command structure: “However, on a Fourth Generation battlefield tactical control above the company level is seldom needed…Light infantry should be able to "live off the land" for prolonged periods and in almost any part of the world.”
Unless Lind is advocating looting, a violation of the UCMJ, Article 103, these small teams would end up spending most of their time trying to hunt or forage for food. Lind does provide a solution: “It [4GW forces] should be trained and equipped to use cash to draw on the local infrastructure for most of its needs.” Lind expects a company to handle most of its logistical needs with a minimum of support from a higher echelon, in other words, Lind is advocating an autonomous company.
H. John Poole, another disciple of 4GW, goes even further. Poole advocates using fire teams (a 3-4 man team) to perform deep interdiction to deny an enemy maneuver room, destroy minor camps, supply areas, and staying in place for up to three months at a time. In this scenario, how is it possible that the team effects the capture of prisoners? Would the team have to allow surrendering personnel to escape? How would enemy causalities be treated? Would the team leave enemy wounded, and how would that be portrayed to the media and world-wide? Whatever flaws there may be with 4GW, the biggest one is with legitimacy.
A Western democratic government is considered legitimate if its rule is primarily derived from the consent of the populace. An illegitimate government would be one that ruled by coercion. Legitimate governments are inherently stable. They engender the popular support required to manage internal problems, change, and conflict. A lack of legitimacy in a constituted government results in a lack of popular support, and an end to the government’s actions.
Conrad Crane proposes six possible indicators of legitimacy:
- The ability to provide security for the populace.
- Selection of leaders at a frequency and in a manner considered just and fair by a substantial majority of the populace.
- A high level of popular participation in or support for political processes.
- A culturally acceptable level of corruption.
- A culturally acceptable level and rate of political, economic, and social development.
- A high level of regime acceptance by major social institutions.
While this is a good guide from a western view of what constitutes a “legitimate” government, not every group in the world would agree, and legitimacy is in the eyes of the beholder. What was legitimate in earlier times may now be unacceptable, what is legitimate in one area of the world is not in another.
Insurgencies that are trying to develop legitimacy have integrated themselves locally into the social and political fabric of societies worldwide. They establish a “shadow government,” first addressing the needs of the local populace. Insurgents establish themselves as organizations capable of addressing the everyday problems of the local population. Insurgent groups have set up schools, medical clinics, sports clubs, and programs for free meals. Hamas and Hezbollah have also become powerful political parties within their respective governments. The key difference is that to be seen as legitimate, the insurgent only needs to appear legitimate in the area they are operating in and in accordance with the mores of the local populace. Atrocities committed by insurgents, even if they were reported could be easily ignored. International opinion matters little to an insurgent organization that is local, and is not subject to, or concerned with, international laws.
The national government, on the other hand, has to appear legitimate at the international level, the national level, and at the local level. At each level there may be different beliefs as to what does or does not constitute “legitimate” governance. The counter insurgent has an even more difficult time, as they must be seen as “legitimate” in their home country, the host country, internationally, and at the local level. There is a difference in what actions and processes are seen as legitimate by these successive levels and the counter insurgent must not only be cognizant of these expectations and restrictions, but abide by them as well.
The 4GW method of COIN does not properly account for legitimacy. Following the 4GW method, insurgent groups will be able to use the need for legitimacy by the counter insurgents to disrupt operations. If a charge is made that the 4GW forces have committed an atrocity, there will be a lot of interest in that story by outside groups. The media will want information, and human rights groups will bring political pressure for a full and complete investigation to be conducted, something a company commander will not have the resources to do. If the alleged atrocity is not investigated properly, regardless of the veracity, legitimacy for the operation and popular support at all levels will be at risk. The insurgents will be able to use the incident as a rallying cry against the counter insurgent forces. The lack of a full and complete investigation will give credence to their claims, and there will be allegations of “cover ups” and “obfuscation,” by those sympathetic to the insurgent cause. Outside neutral groups, like NGOs and the media, will not be able to quickly and easily refute these allegations, further reinforcing the insurgent’s claims. These claims harm the legitimacy of the counter insurgent operations and degrade popular support. Without popular support the U.S. Army would be forced to leave, allowing the insurgents to reoccupy the area. Tactically the insurgents may have been beaten at every turn, but strategically they have won. Given the proposed structure of 4GW forces, small 3-4 man teams, out of direct contact with higher headquarters for extended periods of time, with a minimum of command oversight- how would an investigation occur? How would media requests be handled, or investigations by human rights NGOs? How would the team or the company even be able to demonstrate that they were not responsible for the alleged crime? Do 4GW adherents believe that the US Army would be given the benefit of the doubt by the international press?
The current mass of command and control, while cumbersome and at times inefficient, exists to protect the soldier and to allow him to conduct his mission with minimal disruption. To try and strip that away to a “lean fighting force” is to invite tactical success, but strategic failure. With the loss of a robust command structure and the protection it brings from outside agencies, it will be easy for the insurgents to portray soldiers as cold-blooded killers, rampaging throughout the land with no oversight and no regard for international law, the UCMJ, or legitimacy. Without the appearance of legitimacy popular support will erode, without popular support counter- insurgent forces will be forced to cede the battlefield to the insurgents.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, or any other governmental agency.