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This article was published in the July 2005 volume of the SWJ Magazine.

Reinventing the Counterinsurgency Wheel

Just as early philosophers sought answers to questions concerning the essence of life, for over two thousand years military strategists and theorists have sought answers to the most basic questions on warfare. To this end, men such as Sun Tzu in the 4th Century B.C.E. with The Art of War, and General Carl Von Clausewitz in the 19th Century A.C.E. with On War completed works that remain the standards by which all military thought emanates and is compared, and from which nearly every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine are taught. Similarly, men such as General Sir Frank Kitson[1], Sir Robert Thompson[2], Ernesto Guevara[3], and Chairman Mao Zedong[4] each completed seminal works on insurgency and counterinsurgency in the 1930s, 60s and 70s that should be utilized in the same manner and with the same respect as Clausewitz; however, receive little attention from military theorists and concept writers today. As the military struggles with the application of limited resources against a seemingly endless demand for troops and leaders prepared for the rigors of counterinsurgency operations, countless persons have been tasked to investigate the fundamentals of insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN) as the military services struggle to produce new COIN doctrine[5] for our troops engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Just as no one would dare assert that they could articulate conventional military theory better than Sun Tzu or Clausewitz, no one should assume that any document produced will be more helpful or well-articulated than those already available by Thompson, Kitson, etc. on insurgency and counterinsurgency, and thus cease all efforts to reinvent the wheel and needlessly expend limited resources.

As one whom has regular contact with foreign officers representing nations with force contingents in Iraq and Afghanistan, I often get the opportunity to question my foreign peers as to their perceptions of ongoing operations in Iraq and US military doctrine/theory as a whole. Inevitably, I receive comments on how well read and well-educated the US officer corps is in comparison with our allied peers, and how envious others are on the premium we place on Professional Military Education (PME). What is remarkable about this is that the books and experiences that we as Americans study/review the most are those written by and about Europeans in counterinsurgency operations. While imitation remains the highest form of flattery, do we borrow liberally from our allies and there experience when writing doctrine? Of course not, we choose to start fresh, and attempt to write something “new” in hope that these “new” thoughts will somehow “fix” the “new” problems and challenges that face us in Iraq and elsewhere in the GWOT. The knowledge necessary for our leaders to successfully operate in the Iraqi insurgency is not as elusive as the media or others want you to believe. What our troops require is a simple understanding of Guevara’s FOCO insurgency, and review of documents written by Thompson and others nearly 40 years ago.

Insurgency and “The Cause.” At the risk of insulting the most knowledgeable insurgency theorists reading this article, let us review the situation in Iraq, and apply Thompson and Kitson’s counterinsurgency fundamentals in order to review their continued validity. For the purpose of this article, we will utilize Dr. Thomas Mark’s definition of insurgency as an armed political movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government, or separation from it, through the use of subversion and armed conflict.[6]  First, yes, Iraq is an insurgency, but not for the reasons you may think, nor for very much longer by conventional standards. Iraq is a matrix of insurgent groups, the most prominent of which represents a FOCO insurgency, or one that forgoes the Maoist political indoctrination of the population in favor of small bands of guerrillas that attempt to achieve military success against State forces.[7] Because of this, they do not need to clearly articulate an alternative political vision, and in fact, will be more successful if they do not.  Always remember what Chairman Mao said, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” thus a clearly defined political program is not necessary from the outset.  Violence and confrontation become the cause. Wounding the pride, power, and prestige of a nation and people that you believe have undervalued your personal and cultural worth, and emasculated your religion becomes the cause. Thompson warns there is always some issue, which has an appeal to each section of the community, and, even if dormant, an inspired incident may easily revive it in acute form.[8] Have we not witnessed this as a result of the Abu Ghurayb incident, fighting around the Shrine of Ali, failure to fulfill promises, or with reports of the desecration of the Koran? Kitson said it best in 1971, when he wrote, insurgents start with nothing but a cause and grow to strength, while the counter-insurgents start with everything but a cause and gradually decline in strength to a point of weakness.[9] Has this held true in Iraq or Afghanistan?

 In Iraq, what may tip this FOCO insurgency into a semi-failed State scenario is the continued and unhindered flow of foreign fighters into the country. Once these 3rd country nationals become a majority, this will no longer be an insurgency. To counter this “jihaadist cause” or movement, one must ask as Thompson instructed in 1965, what is the appeal of the insurgency, and why are young men in particular attracted to its cause? [10] Thompson further asked, how do guerrilla forces survive, and even threaten to prevail over, large-scale conventional forces supported by countries whose power, wealth and good intentions are seemingly invincible?[11] Though written in 1965, are these questions no longer valid as applied to the Iraqi Insurgency? If your answer is yes, they are still valid, then ask yourself, why have you not heard these articulated before now?

Thompson asserts that there are three main forces that influence the people of a country: nationalism and national policies, religion and customs, and material well-being and progress.[12] If we accept these as the factors we must influence in order to be successful in Iraq and Afghanistan, what does this mean? What this means is that in Iraq, the Coalition must convince 99% of Iraqis to forego any differences they may feel as Kurds, Shia, and Sunni in order to pursue the common good of being Iraqis first. It means that we must convince millions of Sunni that there best option is to submit to the majority rule of two disparate groups that they have collectively raped, murdered, and subjugated since 1979. What it means is that we must now convince a people that was artificially slammed together into a nation called Iraq after WWI, and thus never had the opportunity of self determination, that their best option remains with the other groups in a nation called Iraq. Iraq is NO different than the former Yugoslavia, Trans-Jordan, Palestinian Mandate, or Czechoslovakia in this manner.  Next, it means that we must convince them that not only do we (the coalition) respect Iraqi and Islamic society, but that they should respect each other’s cultures as well. I cannot imagine that it could be so difficult rectifying the 1300+-year-old split between the Sunni and Shi’a, or demonstrating our heart-felt concern from behind the walls or inside many of Saddam’s old palaces, natural symbols of democracy. Finally, we must convince them that whatever perception they might have, our first priority is to ensure their material well-being, thus ensuring that they are as safe in person and property as Americans. This continues to be the most difficult of all the difficult tasks listed above. First, the infrastructure in Iraq is primitive bordering on non-existent. Thus turning on sewage plants, drinking water treatment stations, and electrical production facilities has proven difficult. Violence remains an issue; however when put in the context of the number of homicides or attempted homicides in the US, the figures in Iraq are not unacceptable.

Now that we know what to focus, we must determine on whom to focus? While an admitted fan of Gladwell’s idea of connectors, mavens, and salesmen,[13] I will stick with Kitson and Thompson, and refer to the groups they call naturals, the converted, and the deceived.[14] Has anyone ever heard of insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan referred to in these terms? Probably not, but you have most likely heard the terms extremists, radicals, Jihaadists, or terrorists.  Extremists and terrorists are most likely naturals, or individuals that have been indoctrinated with a level of hate and violence that makes them impervious to new ideas or to question the validity or merit of their actions. To these individuals, terror is acceptable to achieve their desired end state. Jihaadists are individuals that have been converted or convinced that they should put down their plow or pen in order to pick up a weapon and join the crusade against the West. These include those who convert because of abuse or perceived abuse of power such as that which occurred at Abu Ghurayb Prison, or that was reported to have occurred at the detention facility board Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba. The deceived are comprised of folks from the above categories, but also from those that fall victim to propaganda or are misled into action. These folks usually contain a disproportionately high number of young people, the less educated, and those who wish to fight authority.  Included within the ranks of the deceived are those that have committed one act of subversion or a single act of hostility, and have now been convinced that there is no turning back and that they are wanted men by the naturals and converted. Once this happens, the deceived become converts.

 Principles of COIN.  Thompson clearly articulates his COIN theory with the following five principles:

1.      The government must have a clear political aim: to establish and maintain a free, independent and united country which is politically and economically stable and viable.[15] Ask yourself, what is our aim in Iraq? Is it a free-democratic Iraq from which we have unconditional access to hydrocarbons, or is it a free-Iraq congruent with the present free-Saudi Arabia and free-Pakistan? How do we expect to unite a country that has only been united since the end of World War I, and was only done so by the British for greater access to hydrocarbons? Keep in mind that through Operation Southern Watch and Operation Northern Watch, we encouraged the cultural and societal division we now witness in Iraq by establishing three Iraqs within one.

2.      The government must function in accordance with the law.[16] When defining rule of law, we must ask ourselves, whose law and what law? Furthermore, how does one adhere to the rule of law with no functioning judiciary? How does one expect to convince the majority of the citizens in Iraq, the Shi’a to accept a secular system of law that is alien to them, regardless of the amount of say-so they have in the process now versus under Saddam? In Afghanistan, should we have an expectation that farmers will not grow heroin in order to feed their families simply because we cannot control the demand for it internally? How has this expectation or course of action worked in Latin America? Well, one only needs to ask the ex-Presidents of Bolivia and Ecuador, or the soon to be ex-President of Peru. Should we expect warlords that maintain larger forces than the national forces of Afghanistan to submit to the will of individuals who have neither the will nor muscle to make them comply? Here in the US, does the average citizen believe that the detention facility is in accordance with the rule of law?

3.      The government must have an overall plan.[17] Though we have been engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, and spent hundreds of billions of dollars, could the average American clearly articulate what our plan is in these countries? Could the average soldier tell you more than that our plan is Iraqification? If you can’t tell what the plan is, can you assess how it is progressing? Could the average American tell you what the plan was in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Guatemala, or El Salvador?  If not, why not? Is it because you lack the appropriate information to formulate an answer? If so, does this not violate principle number one, the government must have a clear political aim that surely has been clearly articulated? How does this overall plan account for the influx of foreign fighters or general border control? If it is not reasonable for us to secure our own borders from illegal immigrants, should we expect it to be reasonable in Iraq?

4.      The government must give priority to defeating the political subversion, not the guerrillas.[18] What is our priority in Iraq, is it not to defeat the insurgents by kill/capture missions and large decisive operations such as Operation Phantom Fury and Operation Matador? Does this not violate this principle? Are these missions consistent with Thompson’s four phases or clearing, holding, winning, won operations?  If Iraq is truly a FOCO insurgency with no real political aim, then the key becomes defeating the subversion period, and not the guerrillas. How do you defeat the subversion, you remain in a perpetual state of offensive operations that creates the dilemma in which the guerrillas expend resources simply trying to survive. You create an environment where survival becomes the insurgents’ main goal.

5.      In the guerrilla phase of an insurgency, a government must secure its base areas first.[19] Ask yourself do you think Baghdad is secure? Next, if we define the home base as the entity known as Iraq, how secure are the borders? Again, we find ourselves in violation of the most basic principles of COIN. If we utilize the Afghanistan example, ask yourself, how much of the country do we actually have physical control over? If one can only secure 75% of a country, should we not expect the insurgency to continue without end? In Colombia, the insurgents maintain entire sections of the country under their control. Is this the “success story” we want to utilize for an example of how to do things in Afghanistan and Iraq? How safe are our national borders from physical and psychological attack?

Conclusion. There is a growing perception among US and foreign officers that due to the fact that we have not achieved a total success in restoring civil order, rule of law, and absolute security in Iraq, that many theorists have begun asserting that this is due to the new threat, new challenge, newness, etc. that now confronts us. It is inconceivable to these people that what we are seeing in Iraq has happened countless times throughout history to other dominant nations. This is of course senseless, as we face nothing “new” in Iraq in regards to COIN, and therefore, continue to try to develop the wrong cure for the wrong diagnosis. Based off this assumption, we need to search for answers in documents published by the USMC such as FMFRP 12-18 Mao Tse-tung on Guerrilla War and FMFRP 12-25 The Guerrilla and How to Fight Him as well as documents listed above. For all those that believe Thompson is outdated, I ask only for you to review this one fact. Before deploying to Iraq in January of 2004, I purchased a used copy of Defeating Communist Insurgency for $30. A colleague of mine tried to purchase the same book this past week, or 18 months later, and copies, if you can find one, are now selling for close to $100. You draw your own conclusions.

Maj Adam Strickland is a US Marine Corps infantry officer recently returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom where he served as a company commander in 1st Marine Division.  He is currently serving as a senior analyst with the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab researching Small Wars and urban operations issues.


[1] Kitson, Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency, and Peacekeeping – 1971 and Bunch of Five - 1977

[2] Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency: Lessons Learned from Malaya and Vietnam - 1965

[3] Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare – 1960

[4] Mao, On Guerrilla Warfare - 1937

[5] Currently the US Army is working on FM 3-07.22 Counterinsurgency Operations, United States Joint Forces Command on the Stability Operations Joint Operating Concept, and the USMC on developing a Counterinsurgency Concept.

[6] Dr. Thomas Marks, “Insurgency in a Time of Terrorism, Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International, Volume 11, No. 2,2004, page 47.

[7] Note to the Reader: When Castro and Guevara headed for the Sierra Maestra Mountains to begin launching attacks against Bautista’s Cuban forces, their group consisted of only 16 insurgents.

[8] Thompson, page 21.

[9] Kitson, page 29.

[10] Thompson, page 13.

[11] Thompson, page 13.

[12] Thompson, page 63.

[13] Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point, 2003.

[14] Thompson, page 35.

[15] Thompson, page 50.

[16] Thompson, page 52.

[17] Thompson, page 55.

[18] Thompson, page 55.

[19] Thompson, page 57.

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