Motto: “The ability to simultaneously have an affinity for and sensitivity to the people and their concerns while aggressively pursuing insurgent fighters has produced a unique type of Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine; adroit at waging war, they are equally capable at building local councils, constructing schools, and mediating tribal disputes”. Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster
You have extensive experience on the ground at a PRT in Afghanistan. Does counterinsurgency work?
Absolutely. I think counterinsurgency works based on my experience and is better than any other alternative strategy. When I say counterinsurgency I do not mean only counterterrorism direct action raids (although that is a part of it), or only clearing operations (although that is an element of it). What I mean is that a sustained population protection posture that enlists the community in its own defense, and that wants to be protected, is, on average, more successful than any other approach.
Who from the classic COIN practitioners influenced your philosophy of countering an insurgency the most?
I would say that David Galula’s books were incredibly influential to me. I was reading Galula’s books, The Pacification of Algeria and Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, when I was in Fallujah in 2007 and a lot of the things he talked about were being implemented on the ground. Once Coalition and Iraqi forces started to provide population protection for the city in a sustainable way that also enlisted community residents, it had a major, immediate, and palpable effect. Besides creating a physical distance between the insurgency and the people it had a more important impact in creating a psychological break for them as well where there was hope for a new and safer future. And I was reading about the same thing in Galula’s book on Algeria that widely explained what we were also doing in Fallujah. Bernard Fall was also highly influential for me. One of his insights was that the fighting element of the insurgency was simply “a tactical appendage of a far vaster political contest and that, no matter how expertly it is fought by competent and dedicated professionals, it cannot possibly make up for the absence of a political rationale”. He helped me understand that we needed to find a counter-political rationale to defeat the insurgency and to advance a political strategy that encouraged the people to support their government, that we needed a positive, enduring political program in order to secure the loyalty of the people to their government.
Are their broad historical experiences still valid today?
Yes, I think so. One of the great principles in this type of work is that humility and humbleness are important when it comes to analyzing a situation on its own terms. But having a conceptual toolbox of past experiences also available to you is also important so you can try alternative and possibly competing approaches. There is no silver bullet in counter-insurgency and you cannot simply take the lessons from one insurgency and apply them directly to another. But it is extremely helpful to have these things in your mind.
“You can’t kill your way out to victory” became the hallmark of a cultural organization that until 2007 was perceived as being too conventionally minded and too kinetic. Has the U.S. Military succeeded in balancing this culture of being too enemy-centric and becoming more comfortable with the drinking-tea side of the spectrum?
The idea of balance between kinetic and non-kinetic approaches is very important but we also need to appreciate how the insurgency fights, so it could be predominantly kinetic or non-kinetic although it is constantly changing. I would think that in general we are far better now than we have ever been in conducting counterinsurgency operations. But the roots of reform are very shallow and the institutions of the U.S. Military, State Department and USAID are still very much focused on conventional warfare, conventional diplomacy or conventional development. You cannot just overcome the institutional interests and their way of looking at the world even if we had a decade of war. However, I am hopeful that some of the lessons of the past decade will be institutionalized. The real challenge is that, regretfully, the central tendencies of our bureaucracies and their old ways of thinking only adapted to the unique demands of insurgency through either failing, a slow evolution based upon individual-level lessons learned, or through simply good leadership that took a while to emerge.
What makes an effective expeditionary civilian counterinsurgent effective on the ground?
You have to have a strong leadership presence, a natural curiosity about the population and their concerns, an engaging personality, a good smile, in good physical shape, you have to be open minded, conceptually complex in order to understand the human terrain, familiar with small unit tactics, and have a background in political and social science because, at the end of the day, you have to develop an understanding of how politics at all levels works. And keep in mind the words of Julien Bryan quoted in “Britain and the Arabs: A study of Fifty years” (John Bagot Glubb): “when you break bread with people and share their troubles and joys, the barriers of language, of politics and of religion soon vanish. I liked them and they liked me, that was all that mattered”.
How crucial is understanding local politics and leaders that are the key centers of gravity in their communities?
You absolutely have to understand local politics in order to navigate and leverage factions, family connections, tribal ties and personal friendships. This is vital to understand. For example, you need to be able to discern the dynamics of tribes and factions and the sources of conflict the insurgents exploit to separate the people from their government. You have to be comfortable with talking to tribal leaders, to genuinely want to understand their needs, the history of their problems, and how their relationships work. You have to work simultaneously to have a good relationship with both the leaders and the population. If there is a soldier at a checkpoint, for example, he is the reality for most of the local population about what the U.S. government is all about. And sometimes, how you are perceived in the eyes of the local population is more important than how you are seen by local politicians. However, having a good relationship with the local population is not the only goal. At the same time, it is highly important to improve governance and to limit the predatory behavior of local government officials as part of a political strategy to defeat the insurgency.
You are a critic of the nation-building models and theoretical constructs that have been used in these wars and were largely developed in the safety of national capitals. Could you describe the organizational mindset or framework that sent on the ground development officials, policymakers and soldiers unprepared for the task of counterinsurgency?
All of our institutions are oriented around conducting conventional warfare, conventional diplomacy, conventional intelligence gathering, and conventional development. We have lost some of the frontier and immigrant mindset that has made our country great. The problem is that our officials are products of their conventional experiences and they process new challenges based upon this familiar institutional framework. We have created these theoretical constructs and tried to implement them using the bureaucratic structures and experiences of our government that were acquired in the well ordered world of traditional, formal, state-to state relations. We tend to throw money at problems, to have a force protection mindset and to be risk adverse in terms of putting our personnel in harm’s way and by doing that sometimes we prevent solutions (large FOB vs. living among the population), and we tend to embrace high technology solutions. We have a short-term mentality for our approaches instead of long-term solutions for long-term problems. For example, because of our surface level and generally simplistic understanding of Afghan history, early in the war, we supported a warlord strategy in many parts of the country which totally alienated the population since the warlords were often corrupt and abusive. This decision greatly contributed to the resurgence of the Taliban in 2006.
How critical is the development part (robust good governance, reconstruction efforts) in the counterinsurgency spectrum?
Good governance is essential. But good governance is not only about having a competent mayor or a city council. It depends also on the orientation of the population towards the insurgency. Do they see them-as liberators, freedom fighters or enemies? If the population is oriented against the insurgency an approach focused on providing good governance and reconstruction efforts could be very effective. If the population is opposed to you and doesn’t want you there, it won’t work as well and may be impossible.
How do you assess the US efforts in creating sustainable self defense communities?
It is an excellent idea. They work very effectively, they are legitimate in the eyes of the community, locally oriented, they provide an employment opportunity for the male population and consolidate the coherence of the community against the insurgency. At the end of the day, the idea of having local communities participate in their own security could become the model for a long term strategy of protecting Afghans.
How do you win the loyalty, the support of the local people? How do you earn their trust?
A lot depends upon how and why you invaded the country. If you are seen as liberators then you already have a wealth of goodwill to capitalize on. The crucial element going forward, however, is enlisting the whole community in good governance, development, and security efforts. I think it is essential to quickly grow a locally-based, bottom-up government as well as a set of security services and not be hijacked by predatory officials or officials of convenience. It is essential to privilege your manning in the country so that people with an affinity for the local population are empowered. It is also essential to craft a political strategy that prompts the people to support their government as well as marginalizes the insurgency. It is also important to resource this completely and for the long-term.
What kind of development and reconstruction projects do you prioritize? How do you avoid creating a culture of entitlement?
In many respects, we exported aspects of our own culture of entitlement to Afghanistan and Iraq. Their behavior is as much a reflection of us as it is a commentary on the local population. I believe you have to be as closely organized as you can to the insurgency you face which is to say locally-based, long-term, blending civil and military approaches seamlessly and tightly organized from the village-level up to the national level. This is completely contrary to how our bureaucracies are organized but it will, in my view, work better than any other alternative.
In your experience, under what conditions would a community or a village choose a side? Which are their core driving motivations?
I think it all begins with the strategic orientation of the population to the foreign counter-insurgent. Are we seen as liberators or something else? Additionally, how do the locals see the insurgents? In Afghanistan, the population knows what the insurgents can offer and we are seen as liberators. That being said, local communities are very pragmatic. They don’t like the Taliban, but if we aren’t going to help them defend themselves, they will sit out the conflict. We have to enlist the community in its own defense with locally-based, well paid, vetted, and accountable security forces. We may have to play the role of tribal mediator and even conduct some village-level politics to make sure the local forces are representative, legitimate, and relatively honest. We can do it, we are doing it, and it is working.