Small Wars Journal

Insurgency Disruption for the Planner

Tue, 07/24/2012 - 6:33am

Lima Company, 3d Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment operated in Safar, Garmsir District, Helmand province Afghanistan from August to November 2010.  Safar was previously a Taliban held stronghold until Operation ROADHOUSE II began on July 31st of that year.  In the three months that Lima Company operated in Safar, we came to refine our understanding of counter-insurgency.  Eventually we molded a traditional clear, hold, build strategy into "local" disruption.  This article will attempt to explain what disruption is to an insurgency and Improvised Explosive Device (IED) warfare.  This article will complement the forthcoming article, "Insurgency Disruption for the Warfighter."  It will focus on theoretical broad based aspects of disruption in counterinsurgency.  Disruption for the Warfighter focuses on disruption tactics and limited planning for the junior leader. 

Disruption by doctrine is a tactical mission task in which a commander integrates direct and indirect fires, terrain, and obstacles to upset an enemy’s formation or tempo, interrupt his timetable, or cause his forces to commit prematurely or attack in piecemeal fashion. By definition this sounds appropriate for a conventional fight, but it can be applied to an un-conventional battlefield as well.  The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that disruption in a counterinsurgency means adopting the insurgent’s own tactics to defeat them.  Disruption in counter-insurgency means to avoid searching for the enemy and instead frustrate his efforts by forcing him to search for you as you randomly strike to inflict loss and then melt away.  Disruption in counter-insurgency strays from our accepted practices of getting up close to the populace and likewise sacrifices a very important tenet of this type of warfare.  Despite this apparent shortcoming, disruption serves a vital task in facilitating a successful counter-insurgency by enabling our accepted practices of clear, hold and build to succeed elsewhere on the map.  That is, in one place a unit can be conducting disruption operations, and in another more conventional COIN. A disruption mentality makes it difficult for the enemy to find and engage our forces while drastically diminishing the effectiveness of his use of IEDs.  Disruption is best used as the natural progression of tactics in an insurgency, which should first disrupt and then clear, hold and build.  In my opinion, insurgency disruption means to use direct and indirect fires to destroy the integrity of the insurgent forces and capabilities without decisive engagement.  Examine scenarios from the enemy’s perspective and you should be able to envision an effective strategy to defeat him.    

The first step in adopting disruption as a campaign plan is to accept the belief that no insurgency is truly national.  What may be an insurgent’s belief, tactic or fear in one area of Afghanistan may not be the same in another.  If that holds true, then one counter-insurgency strategy in one end of Afghanistan will not necessarily work elsewhere.  Insurgency is fought at the lowest level, so breaking tradition in planning to fight it becomes a necessity.  Many company commanders have adopted and accepted the need to create a campaign plan at their level.  The notion of a captain creating a campaign plan would no doubt seem absurd ten years ago, but is a reality of today’s style of warfare.  Walk a mile or two in Afghanistan between outposts and you will traverse different economies, tribes, grievances and many other socio-economic realities.  Terrain and situation will always dictate.  As a result, the individual sitting on the terrain and watching the situation with their own eyes has to create a long term vision and plan based primarily on those two factors with guidance from higher instead of the traditional planning emphasis on higher guidance with terrain and situation influencing.  In this article, I argue that one option for a campaign plan is the use of disruption. 

Understanding the Situation

Figure 1

Analyzing the overall strategic ends, ways and means of insurgents in Afghanistan is the best way to understand enemy intentions at the tactical level.  A good tool for the prospective counterinsurgency planner is the attached ends, ways and means worksheet shown in Figure 1 which is my personal opinion and not an official U.S. strategic document.  As company commander prior to actions in Garmsir, I never did this analysis.  A year after completing my deployment to Afghanistan, I conducted this analysis using this guide.  Analyzing these ends, ways and means leads to the logical conclusion that the overall end is a fundamentalist Islamic government in Afghanistan.  The ways to achieve this is an isolation of the U.S. backed Afghan government.  The means to this end are Taliban kinetic operations. 

Following an Ends, Ways and Means analysis, the next tool of use to the prospective COIN planner is a Center of Gravity chart pictured in Figure 2 which again is my personal analysis.  This is a useful enemy analysis bridge between intent and vulnerability.  Using this particular quad chart we input our understanding of Critical Capability (CC), Center of Gravity (COG), Critical Resource (CR) and Critical vulnerability (CV).  This particular example concurs with the previous Ends, Ways and Means chart in that casualty infliction is critical to success.  Additionally, the critical vulnerability of that objective is that the critical resource needed to cause it can either be avoided or interdicted. 

The next tool available to a prospective planner is a METT-TC and problem statement worksheet shown in figure 3.  This tool is best used at the lower tactical level with a focus on someone's particular Area of Operation (AO).  Using this tool, a COIN planner would fill in their mission statement under current situation and their commander's intent endstate under endstate.  The rest of the chart is filled in using what you know (current situation) and what you want (desired endstate) with conditions being a catch all of factors that get in the way of desired endstate.  Finally, a COIN planner adds in his problem statement based on what he just wrote in the rest of the evaluation.  As the problem statement is an educated guess, the method often leans toward the bias of planner.  This particular example leans toward lines of communication as if the planner had a predisposition toward an IED threat.

From the METT-TC analysis we come up with our critical planning factors based on the concerns located within the worksheet.  It is best to come up with only seven or eight factors to maintain a focus of planning.  Numerically placing them in order of importance as shown in Figure 4 is also effective in guiding your early planning toward a course of action.  Since previous planning tools indicated Insurgent goals revolved around inflicting casualties, the number one planning factor here is the reduction of casualties. 

War consists of a series of campaigns.  Campaigns consist of a series of battles.  Battles consist of a series of engagements.  At the lowest level (the engagement), we generally accept casualties if it means winning the engagement.  We may also accept losing individual engagements if it means winning the battle.  This thought process generally works in conventional war but it can be challenged in unconventional wars.  What if the casualties were the battle?  If the Center of Gravity analysis of the Taliban is true, then merely inflicting casualties on coalition forces is essentially their battle.  These casualties can eventually result in a defeat of the U.S. national will, which would lead to an isolation of the Afghan government.   That being the case, our tactics and perhaps even strategy are not suited to address this type of enemy.  The enemy conducts operations with the sole purpose of inflicting casualties while we accept casualties with the intent of winning a battle that our enemy is not even fighting. His battle is our casualties. 

The Department of Defense now understands enemy doctrine using what is called the Contemporary Operational Environment (COE). The COE doctrine takes for granted gradual enemy adoption of U.S. Maneuver warfare doctrine.  This COE doctrine is just as applicable in understanding our current insurgent adversary (The Taliban).  In today’s COE, an enemy can defend for three separate purposes: Destroy, Preserve, or Deny.  When a modern enemy defends to destroy, they attempt to eliminate our ability to continue operations while preserving their own combat power.  Defense to Preserve aims at protecting key elements or resources of the enemy from destruction.  Defense to Deny aims at restricting our access to an area.  The Taliban in Afghanistan follow these same principles at the tactical level.  At the strategic and operational level their purpose is clearly to Defend to Destroy. They successfully defend to destroy with each casualty they inflict because that casualty IS the battle. 

In a COE defense, the enemy has several zones of action which include:  Disruption zone, Battle Zone, Support Zone.  The disruption zone is that battlespace in which the enemy seeks to use direct and indirect fires to destroy the integrity of our forces and capabilities without decisive engagement.  I propose we (the counterinsurgents), adopt this definition as our own “Insurgency Disruption” task.  This definition describes the disruption tactics proposed in this paper.  The battle zone is the battlespace where the enemy seeks to fix and/or destroy our forces through simultaneous or sequential application of all elements of combat power.  The support zone is battlespace designed to be free of significant enemy action and permit the effective logistic and administrative support of forces.  The Taliban do not require a battle zone because they intend on defending to destroy and winning a strategic victory.  Therefore, the disruption zone extends throughout Afghanistan while their Support zone remains safely in Pakistan.  A COIN planner looking closely at the first set of planning tools combined with a knowledge of the COE can draw a valid conclusion as to what is the operational objective of today's insurgent (The Taliban).

A logical conclusion from the previous analysis is that the enemy operational objective in Afghanistan is to make us bleed.  The question then becomes what are we bleeding:  red blood or green cash?  When a warrior is wounded or killed by an IED there is an immediate loss of combat power, lifelong devastating effect to their family, and short term psychological effect to their comrades who are still operating in that combat zone.  That warrior also comes with costs more difficult to quantify.  There are years of expensive training leading up to the moment that warrior is killed and expenses continue through a variety of benefits the next of kin receives.  A fifty dollar IED can inflict massive economic as well as psychological second and third order effects against us.  Looking only at the tactical ramifications we can easily be tricked into acknowledging IED attacks as merely “tactical disruption,” when in fact they are strategic disruption, because they chronically sap our economic and national will.  This strategic disruption can be very successful, which makes it extremely difficult to ignore.  Even when the enemy “fails” in our eyes, he wins.  When our warriors safely step out of a Mine Resistant Ambush Proof vehicle (MRAP) unharmed after having rolled over an IED we claim tactical victory while ignoring strategic defeat.  Although no warrior on the ground today would sacrifice one of their men for a piece of equipment, the harsh reality is that a fifty dollar IED disabling or destroying a 900,000 to 1.4 million dollar IED proof vehicle is still cash being bled, and constitutes eventual strategic defeat. 

Lima Company's AO  happened to be on the Southern extent of the Battalion AO, with the area beyond controlled by Taliban.  There was no permanent presence by U.S. or coalition forces.  Each of the four maneuver companies from 3d Battalion 1st Marines were aligned in AO's from North to South with the South extent of the AO yielded to the Taliban.  The Battalion incrementally pushed further and further South, taking away previous safe-havens from the Taliban.  The battalion continued to stretch its presence out further South gaining ground, but not gaining additional manpower.  By Lima Company seizing the furthest AO, which included a large expanse of uncontested Taliban territory, a "disruption" company campaign plan was almost a necessity.  In the Northern portion of the Battalion AO, companies could weight more heavily on Hold and Build whereas the Southern portion would need to Clear and Hold.  Opting for "disruption" as a company campaign plan differed from the norm but was still within the "spirit" of COIN doctrine.  Some could say it strayed from conventional wisdom, however, conventional wisdom is not always the best way to fight an unconventional war.  At the time Lima Company began operations, we were without the benefit of all previously mentioned analytical theories and merely relied on planning assessments of our individual AO.  By doing this we still stumbled into a realization that "disruption" as opposed to clear, hold and build was ideal for our part of the battlefield.  However, it is still a mistake, for any leader or planner to fail to calculate the enemy's strategic and operational objectives as shown earlier no matter how far down the operational chain that leader is.  I believe it is also a mistake to merely accept a generic intelligence road to war analysis as a substitute. 

The modern counterinsurgency manuals published by the Army and Marine Corps are excellent guides for understanding and conducting that sort of warfare.  Yet, similar to past manuals, the greatest flaws reside in many of the people who read them.  As if they were carved on stone tablets (or in FM 3-24), certain laws and counterinsurgency considerations are almost slavishly adhered to by many without regard to the intent they once conveyed, examples being that we "must": 1) Gain support from the population , 2) Isolate the insurgents from the populace, 3) Secure the populace continuously, 4) Flood the area with patrols. These ideas may be good most of the time, but they fall short of becoming the magic bullet if you accept the enemy Center of Gravity analysis, which points to Taliban strategy aimed solely at causing U.S. casualties or bleeding us of red blood and green cash.  The aforementioned U.S. counter-insurgency fundamentals will come at a cost of blood and cash, but should normally achieve an operational or strategic victory... except if our enemy IS NOT seeking to gain support from the people.  If our enemy's primary goal is to inflict casualties, then the once unquestionable laws of counter-insurgency no longer apply.  Winning the hearts and minds of the local populace may be irrelevant if the Taliban do not need popular support.  After all, can we possibly win a hundred percent of support from every village, in every district, in every province?  For our enemy to continue a campaign which aims at routinely inflicting casualties, instead of chasing us from the ground, they only need to keep a small percent of that support in certain villages, districts, and provinces.  The enemy also has the advantage of being able to re-locate at will while we are tied down protecting those villages we have won over (and by default, promised to protect in accordance with established doctrine)

The next step a potential COIN planner needs to deal with is the transition from "understanding" the enemy to designing an "operational approach" against him.  One operational approach in a counter-insurgency is the tactic of "disruption."  Simply put, insurgency disruption is counterinsurgents using the insurgent's tactics.  Fighting an insurgent with insurgent tactics means occasionally putting aside traditional Marine Corps tactics.  You would be hard pressed to find a leader of Marines who believes you respond to enemy contact by anything other than fire and maneuver against the enemy.  To use insurgent tactics against the insurgent, you must often disregard conventional Marine Corps wisdom and become devious and underhanded.  A good disruptor in an insurgency is not the man ready to fight the tough guy at the bar.  He is the guy who apologizes to the tough guy, goes outside and slashes his tires.  As previously stated, the enemy's objective in Afghanistan is to inflict casualties.  Thus, to counter that, the main effort should be avoidance of those casualties with the secondary effort being the elimination of the insurgent.  This will degrade insurgent operations which buys time for other adjacent units to continue with Clear, Hold and Build.  In a retrograde this will buy time to allow units to slowly remove themselves from the battlespace.  In Safar, Lima Company learned to refuse the enemy bait of fire.  When the Taliban fired on Marines first, it was because THEY had the advantage.  The enemy either had a terrain feature between them and their targets, or had IED’s set precisely where their prey would counter-attack.  They most assuredly had a motorcycle nearby to make their getaway from slow moving, heavily armored and nearly heat exhausted Marines in the attack.  So why attack?  I am not advocating a "search and avoid" mentality which one might mistakenly read into this.  I am advocating that disruption in an insurgency achieves results with brains more so than testicular fortitude.  One can only achieve overall victory in any war with boldness and courage.  However, achieving victory is NOT in the definition of disruption.  Insurgency disruption is a phase on the road to victory.  

Marines have so many other options when they are given tactical license to be creative.  With a conventional mindset of marching to the sound of the guns, we almost immediately commit to swatting flies with sledgehammers.  By committing to disruption, combat patrols hide rather than march around showing their "presence" thereby denying the enemy precious scouting and planning necessary to execute ambushes.  Limiting our presence in villages to less frequent unpredictable events while laying in ambush elsewhere, we negate their IED effectiveness while unbalancing and unhinging their operations.  If Marines are expected to disrupt then every time any sized unit operates it must understand what disruption means as part of the commander's intent.  Disruption must be planned, put into an order format, rehearsed and inspected.  If not, Marines will always default to locating, closing with and destroying the enemy even under disadvantageous circumstances.  Our system of awards is a perfect example of that culture.  As stated in COMUSMARCENT's policy guidance on awarding the combat distinguishing device for personal awards, an individual's actions must be "bold and decisive." A person is considered bold and decisive with the presence of gunfire, explosions, and generally a casualty or two.  Do explosions, gunfire and casualties indicate things are going well in an AO?  Are "bold and decisive" the ideal traits for outsmarting an insurgent?  

The psychological impact of our disruption operations was effective.  By fighting when we chose, we made the Taliban feel vulnerable. Gunnery Sergeant Andrew Jones, Third Platoon Sergeant, Lima Company noted that "We did not get attacked from the enemy until after two months from the first breach into Safar.  The enemy had no clue on what or where we were in the AO due to the amount of patrolling and all the night recon and movement we did.  Most units go in to an AO and do not patrol at night due to the IED’s in the AO but over time when you work and move and can control your AO you can make anything work." (Email interview, April 2012) Eventually, the Taliban in villages we contested rarely appeared with weapons.  Lone motorcycle mounted unarmed scouts would ride into a village and ask locals if the Marines were in the fields.  Whether or not anyone knew for sure they would always answer yes so the Taliban would go away and not come back again that day.  By that act alone we defeated the enemy.  The Taliban did not have the will to operate in our area that day and chose to go elsewhere.  Captain Michael Chand, Executive Officer of Lima Company noted that "The enemy was not prepared to have a company employ a multitude of methods in order to defeat the IED threat." (Email interview, April 2012) One could argue that an area was quiet because the enemy just did not feel like fighting.   However, what drives the enemy decision?  Is heavy fighting in a unit’s Area of Operation necessarily a compliment during an insurgency or guerilla campaign?  Are daily and weekly firefights against a unit because it just happens to be in a tough area?  Is any area so valuable to the enemy they can-not afford to lose it and move a mile or so down the road?  Or does heavy fighting and multiple contacts illustrate the enemy condemnation of that leader and his plan?  If you are in agreement with the early planning tools in this article that indicate the insurgents' strategy is to cause casualties and break the national will, then they can easily afford to lose ANY ground.  Similarly, for a practitioner of insurgency disruption, no piece of ground should be truly essential.  Only by us "investing" in holding and securing ground can the insurgent hope to continue to cause casualties and achieve his strategic aim.  With insurgency disruption we should not worry about who owns what ground or focus on measures of effectiveness based on insurgent control of areas.  By ignoring these well established COIN measuring tools we undercut the insurgents and free ourselves up to hunt them down rather than chase them.  Psychological defeat of the insurgent can soon follow primarily because physical success is no longer achievable. 

Throughout operations in Safar Bazaar from August to October 2010, Lima Company found and destroyed 129 IEDs.  A total of 12 IED's found Lima Company resulting in three killed and three wounded.  The vast majority of those IEDs were located within the 500m by 600m bazaar, the main objective of the operation.  Hundreds more were still outside the bazaar area long after Lima Company turned over the battlespace. The location of those IEDs were either known, or at least highly suspected.  They remained untouched because disruption meant first eliminating the emplacers and then reducing IEDs when coverage of the area can be relatively assured.  Of the 12 IEDs that found Lima Company, five of them were against vehicles conducting deliberate clearing operations that normally the mine roller struck and resulted in no casualties.  Three IEDs were against personnel also conducting deliberate clearing operations and resulted in no casualties.  Two IEDs were against EOD teams attempting to neutralize and destroy, which each resulted in casualties.  Two IED's were against personnel and vehicles moving on patrol and resulted in a casualty.

Disruption in Counter-Insurgency is just one tactic and not the magic bullet to eliminating casualties or winning the war.  Lima Company was not the battalion main effort for success in Garmsir, Afghanistan.  We were merely the company at the end of the AO that led into Taliban territory.  The main effort for success fell to the companies further to our North who were holding and building.  Yet it is my point that disruption is necessary to get to that phase whether it be sequentially or geographically.  If one believes they are in the Clear/Hold phase and they are taking regular casualties, then I believe a change to disruption would make a difference.  The crisis for a leader will be the never-ending fight between what is more important:  mission accomplishment or troop welfare?  This article hopefully highlighted the fact that both are the same in an insurgency. 

About the Author(s)

Major John Kenneley is the former Company Commander of Lima Company 3d Bn 1st Marines and has previously deployed with 1st Bn 8th Marines, 2d Bn 6th Marines and 2d Bn 4th Marines.  He is currently serving as an Observer Trainer with the Joint Staff,  J-7, Joint Training Branch.


I admit to being skeptical when I saw the title and read the first couple of paragraphs. Disrupting insurgents is nothing new, special operations forces and others have been disrupting insurgents aggressively for years. However, it can be argued that we didn't disrupt the insurgent's strategy which is what Maj Kenneley is proposing as possible approach in some situations. He makes several good points throughout the article, such as the improbability of winning over "all" of the population to our side and even a small percentage of locals who support the insurgency can create U.S. casualties that will have a strategic impact over time, especially if progress isn't apparent.

My only criticism of the article is that it only identifies two protagonists, the Taliban the U.S.. How do the Afghan security forces fit in this approach? If neither U.S. or Afghan security forces are securing the populace, how will that impact the overall security environment?

I'll suggest we take the Maj's proposal a step further in some situations and direct U.S.forces to have little to no contact with the civilian population. Let the Afghan security forces do that, and use our superior technology and forces to disrupt insurgents on the periphy. As MAJ Kenneley wrote, none of these approaches (or any other) apply in all situations, maybe not even most, but I'm glad to see some independent thinking actually take place. It is a nice contrast to the constant praising of our COIN doctrine.

Now maybe an article on how insurgents can and do counter our doctrinal approach to COIN.