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Irregular Warfare Isn’t Going Away, Thai Counterinsurgency Lessons Matter
Despite America shifting its national security focus from global terrorism and insurgency to conventional, near peer threats such as Russia and China, Irregular Warfare (IW) isn’t going away. Official US national security strategy will still aim to counter global movements such as ISIS and al Qaeda, Foreign Internal Defense (FID) will remain a key US Special Forces mission, and IW will continue to be a part of Russian, Iranian, Pakistani, and Chinese hybrid warfare strategies. Unfortunately, America’s IW track record has been lackluster despite scores of military and intelligence innovations, incredible human sacrifice, and undeniable gallantry in the field. IW continuing education for the US defense sector, then, is critical. Lessons from foreign counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts remain important to the professional military education (PME) system, and for the edification of our politicians. Here, then, are didactic counterpoints to a US military officer’s examination of , published on 29 September 2017 by West Point’s .
Four Administrative Points
1. The Thai Way of Counterinsurgency compares the similarities and differences of three insurgencies the Thai have fought/are still fighting:
- The communist COIN, 1965-86
- The 1st southern insurgent COIN, 1980-98
- The 2d and current southern COIN, 2004-present
Each war has its own chapter where the enemy situation, the at-risk population, and the government’s strategy and operations in the field are addressed, compared, and contrasted.
2. Contrary to the reviewer’s observation, The Thai Way of COIN breaks ground well beyond first two chapters, particularly via its two-part conclusion and keynote sections in each chapter by including COIN vignettes on such subjects as:
- the nexuses between insurgents and the population
- identifying, dissecting and then exploiting insurgent ideologies
- the weaknesses and strengths of different types of kinetic operations
- the criticality and complexities of amnesty programs
Having offered these counterpoints, there is no mistaking FM 3-24’s venerable status and proven usefulness in COIN. It is an excellent field manual, and its authors are some of the keenest IW experts in the world.
3. The Thai Way of Counterinsurgency relies on a subjective comparative analysis of the three wars mentioned to reveal how the Thai conceptualize, coordinate, plan, and execute COIN. This approach was adopted from two angles:
- The conceptual model analysis concept proffered by the esteemed CIA analyst, Robert M. Clark
- An altered version of David Kilcullen’s innovative “Three Pillars of COIN” concept
The result was multiple patterns of Thai COIN regarding strategy and coordination, plus security, political, and economic operations. The reviewer’s assertion that the book’s analyses fail because the “validity theory” wasn’t used is folly. There are multiple types of analytical theories that apply in comparative cases such as this, and rigidly adhering to a single diagnostic model abandons flexibility. It reduces our ability to learn about why wars happen, how they unfold, and why they are won and lost. If we follow the reviewer’s analytical lead, then we are doing the critical thinking equivalent of sticking to a single offensive tactic in every battle, like “hey diddle-diddle, straight up the middle.” It is a recipe for disaster.
4. Contrary to the reviewer’s assertion, Thailand’s 80s-90s insurgency was indeed a real insurgency, a real war. The operations were real. The casualties were real. If Americans assert that a partner nation’s war is/was insignificant – based on the academic missives of Sweden’s Uppsala University and DC’s Council on Foreign Relations think tank – then we will fail at war. It is essential that we Americans see an insurgency for what it is, not for what a think tank or university project has declared it. We must also understand how a host nation perceives an insurgency, and how a rebel group perceives its own struggle. Not taking this approach can cause politicians, policymakers, strategists, and operations planners to make egregious errors – witness General Westmorland’s inadequate Vietnam War strategy, and the Obama Administration’s decisions to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan at indecent intervals.
So, are there lessons from Thailand that might help America re-think its lackluster IW policies and strategies? Absolutely, there are.
Politics Leads the Military
The Thai’s overall approach to COIN is: “politics leads the military.” Politics leads the military means that political tools and political warfare are central to the fight and are used more than kinetic warfare, although the latter is 100% essential to making the political aspect of this equation work. (More on this below.)
Back to politics leading, the Thai realize that it is the ideology of the insurgent and the method of “” that is the most critical aspect of counterinsurgency.
The Thai understand, for example, that you cannot kill your way out of an insurgency. All the best targeting in the world and the most efficient capture or kill programs alone will not change the mind of an entire insurgent movement. The Thai believe it is best to go to the source of the fire – the insurgent ideology – and reduce it to the point that it has little appeal. Accordingly, in COIN, the Thai believe that a counter political warfare movement has to be constructed, fielded, and expanded in order to facilitate a win. This policy makes commander’s intent, doctrine, and strategy (end goals, ways/methods, and means) all lean political.
Politics leads the military has led to some highly successful political COIN programs such as the Village Scouts. A communist COIN era program, the Village Scouts came from a combination of mimicking the Boy Scouts’ methods of creating unit integrity (but in this case, at the village level, which then expanded nationally,) and the communist methodology of village infiltration, revolutionary cell establishment, and cell growth/expansion. Ultimately, the Village Scout program created a grass roots, counter communist political movement. It grew bigger than the communists, it was more fervent, and it proved decisive in helping defeat the insurgents.
In the 80s-90s COIN, the Thai created political parties for ethnic Malay Muslims who had many political reasons for revolting, which defanged part of that rebellion. They also created both elected and appointed positions for local Malay Muslims, so they could, 1) join the government, and, 2) have some say over local administrative affairs, budgets, public works projects, etc.
In the current war, the Thai have scores of political programs, among them tutorials by moderate imams from the Middle East to teach proper Islam and counter the spread of radical Islamist jihadist interpretations of the Koran. And then there are shura-like councils where local Muslim leaders can meet government officials and discuss grievances and problem issues that, if addressed, can improve local society. This, in turn, can improve local living conditions, which can promote government legitimacy, all of which ideally diminishes conditions that help fuel insurgency.
Another political program the Thai have applied in COIN was amnesty. This is a difficult pill to swallow for any COIN effort anywhere in the world – witness the current amnesty controversy in Colombia for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – but the Thai and their Theravada Buddhist penchant for forgiveness and karma have made it work. Amnesty programs have included citizenship and vocational training, jobs programs, and a sort of probation status for certain offenders.
Good governance, or government legitimacy – or at the very least, legitimacy over the insurgents – is another political program the Thai promote. In this regard, they have enacted anti-corruption programs in each of their COINs to get rid of bribe taking and scam-artist government personnel, no small feat since corruption is deeply imbedded in the Thai system. Because of this last point, however, COIN anti-corruption programs surge and then fade in Thailand. They never seem permanent. Other government legitimacy programs include – and double as – economic and social programs such as village level poverty relief, medical missions, agricultural projects, and economic revitalization plans of districts and provinces. Again, these latter projects highlight the nexus between economic and political ways and means.
None of these political programs work without kinetic operations, in particular, focused, intelligence driven kinetic operations. Kinetics is necessary, so say the Thai, to make political war have an impact. The Thai understand that trying to reason with a methodical, radical-thinking, ideologue of a man shooting at you with an AK-47 is imprudent because he has the upper hand regarding violence. The Thai believe that the insurgent’s kinetic upper hand needs to be significantly eroded in order to reason with him. Or capture or kill him. “Jimmy the rebel” will not consider talking about peace, or reasoned politics, or amnesty (with job/economic benefits,) unless he is kinetically pressured to do so. “Jimmy” has to have his insurgent cell severely injured. His insurgent buddies, “Tommy,” and “Bill,” and “Johnny” have to be captured or killed to have him reconsider his ideology, his movement’s end goals, its leadership, and its methodologies. He must see his movement fail to gain ground or lose ground.
The Thai are firm believers in local force programs, which is another juncture between kinetics and politics. Since the Thai understand that insurgency is people’s war – that insurgency is, at its core, a local affair (and then expanded, nationally) – they realize that the insurgents weaponize the population against the state, so the Thai seek to steal the population back and weaponize them against the insurgents. In doing this, they are using a bottom up approach and also protecting the population from the insurgents. Here, it is the insurgents’ “ground game” the Thai seek to play. This approach has produced a series of village security team (VST) programs in each Thai COIN.
VST programs stand up security teams out of specially chosen villagers. Their overall job was/is to, 1) identify village level insurgents, then 2) capture, kill, drive out, or convert them, and 3) provide a permanent security/police-type presence in the village to keep insurgents from returning.
Just as important, the VSTs have provided, 1) a village linkage to the government, which made the government-citizen bond more effective, and 2) a pillar of government legitimacy at the village level. VSTs were none too effective when they were poorly trained, when their mission was limited to static guard duty, and when they were under armed, poorly led, corrupt, and paid little. Read more by the author on Thai VSTs here: “Thai Village Security Lessons for Afghanistan,” Small Wars Journal, 3 August 2010, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/thai-village-security-lessons-for-afghanistan
Another pivotal local force program the Thai used was the Tahan Phran (pronounced “tuh-han pran,” sounds like “can,”) or, literally, “Soldier Hunters.” These were the Thai government’s local force, Direct Action paramilitary units. Their job was to, 1) collect intelligence on insurgent personnel and/or formations, and, 2) capture or kill them. Because they were paramilitary, they operated outside many, but not all, government norms and behaved as the guerillas did. Essentially, they were the state’s guerrillas and have been described as “getting a gangster to go after a gangster.”
The Thahan Phran were originally conceived to be deployed in the same areas they were recruited from, so their knowledge of the local physical and human terrain provided an edge that fostered effective DA that helped defeat the communist and 80s-90s era insurgencies. The Thahan Phran occasionally suffered problems and scandals, however, when, like the VSTs, they had weak leadership, lackluster training, and poor discipline. Deployment in areas where they were not recruited from also tremendously dulled their effectiveness. In these cases, the Thahan Phran were counterproductive in COIN.
Wrapping it Up
Anyone reading The Thai Way of COIN – or other, more revered COIN books/articles such as Jeffrey Race’s War Comes to Long An, Kalev Sepp’s “Best Practices in Counterinsurgency,” Richard Clutterbuck’s The Long, Long War, or William Matchett’s Secret Victory: The Intelligence War that beat the IRA, among scores of others – should come away with definite, clear-cut lessons to apply to other COIN situations. And while some of these issues are indeed discussed in FM 3-24, they are completely useless unless they are followed. This is one reason continuing PME is so important; so we don’t become stale in our knowledge and approach to IW.
As a final note, the Thai have achieved none of these successes quickly or efficiently. COIN is difficult, murky, and requires sophisticated thinking. But it is certainly doable. The Thai have stumbled through years of heavy suppression, sub-par coordination, and merely halfway addressing the ideology of their insurgent enemies before they achieved enlightenment. Accordingly, The Thai Way of Counterinsurgency is not a COIN silver bullet. Nor is it by any means perfect. Maybe, however, we Americans might listen to the Thai and learn something from their trials and tribulations and apply some of them in IW zones such as Afghanistan, a conflict that has, so far, bested us.