Learning From Today’s Crisis of Counterinsurgency
SWJ Discussion with Dr. David H. Ucko and Dr. Robert Egnell about their book Counterinsurgency in Crisis: Britain and the Challenges of Modern Warfare (Columbia University Press, October 2013).
David H. Ucko is Associate Professor at the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington DC and an adjunct research fellow at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London He is the author of The New Counterinsurgency Era (Georgetown UP, 2009), and co-editor of Reintegrating Armed Groups after Conflict (Routledge, 2009).
Robert Egnell (PhD London) is Visiting Associate Professor and Director of Teaching with the Security Studies Program, Georgetown University. He is currently on leave from a position as Associate Professor at the Swedish National Defence College.
War is about politics, and politics is about people; it follows that war is intimately tied to the people over or among whom it is fought. This relationship is only reinforced by the global trend of urbanization, which suggests that most operations will be conducted in built-up or at least inhabited environments, where the local population cannot be ignored, but more often must be co-opted or even protected against attack.
- -Excerpt from the book
SWJ: Why is there a need to rethink counterinsurgency? Do you see this concept as overly focused on the past?
David Ucko: The need to rethink counterinsurgency may seem absolutely bizarre in light of the many books and journal articles published on the topic in recent years. But along with many excellent studies and insights, this decade of studies has also given rise to established camps, conventional wisdoms and many, many myths. What we want to do with this book, using Britain as a case study, is shatter some of those myths, question the received wisdom, and arrive at a treatment of the topic that emphasizes that which is important but also recognizes that which can be very harmful.
Robert Egnell: One of the basic research questions motivating this project was: if the British are as good at counterinsurgency as it often claimed, how come they struggled so profoundly in Basra and Helmand? To answer this question we needed to look back at history to see if the legacy of British counterinsurgency was ever really that accurate. This is a critical question for many reasons, not least because the British counterinsurgency experience has informed how the rest of the world understands this term.
David Ucko: And looking forward, one of the points that comes out in the book is that counterinsurgency is again in danger of being pushed off the table. It is in crisis. Thus there is also a need to rethink this topic in order to salvage the valuable lessons learned over the past 10-15 years. This exercise is particularly salient given the high likelihood of encountering many of the challenges seen in Iraq and Afghanistan also in future interventions. So we have a duty to learn from our past, particularly as there is still much about counterinsurgency, about war, and about strategy, that is poorly understood.
SWJ: What is the relevance of post-9/11 counterinsurgency campaigns for future Western expeditionary operations? What are the challenges you expect to see repeated in future campaigns? Is the past a prologue to the future?
Robert Egnell: In a simplified version, General David Petraeus already answered this question: “the counterinsurgency era is not over [because] the insurgency era is not over.” So long as the operating environment looks as it does today, so long as the character of conflict looks as it does today, the lessons at the tactical level of the last ten years remain highly relevant. Even if we can debate the concept of counterinsurgency and its application today and tomorrow, the lessons of operating in urban environments, foreign languages and foreign cultures will be relevant also in the future. Expeditionary powers cannot escape these challenges. It is not going to get easier: how to engage with a civilian population, how to establish and maintain civil order, how to collect and process human intelligence, how to operate in a foreign environment, how to provide basic services. These are challenges that are here to stay with us as we move forward.
David Ucko: Beyond these common operational challenges, one of the most pressing lessons from the cases discussed in the book is the need for greater strategic thinking. This sounds like a cliché these days, and becomes a catchall explanation with little substance. But despite great talk about the need for strategy, I don’t think the term or the art is widely understood. Looking at what happened in the last ten to fifteen years – whether we call it counterinsurgency, war, contingency operations, it doesn’t really matter – the ability to craft and implement a viable strategy is absolute, for any power involved in any kind of expeditionary operations. This is the relevance of the post-9/11 expeditionary operations and our book seems to place counterinsurgency within this strategic context. There are great lessons from these campaigns and we would be absolutely foolish to dismiss them as aberrations just because we don’t like the word “counterinsurgency.”
SWJ: You both seem to question the ability of the UK to remain prepared for full-spectrum warfare. Can the UK today balance a conventional superiority with a proficiency in counterinsurgency and stability operations?
David Ucko: The British Army has always prided itself on its ability to prepare for big wars and adapt to “small wars” as needed. One of the questions examined in the book is whether this posture was ever realistic. Douglas Porch has one answer: he sees Britain’s many colonial adventures as ruinous sideshows, causing great harm to the military’s conventional abilities. Well, you can turn that on its head by noting that Britain never institutionalized its small wars lessons. Institutionally, it never internalized the lessons or let it affect its force structure or fundamental fighting units. Instead, it was able to rely on a colonial system that is no longer in effect and on the ability to re-learn the needed skills again and again with each new campaign. To the degree that such adaptation was possible, it was because the British military faced “small wars” at a fairly high rate. But certainly, the British military was never the Jack-of-all-trades that it describes itself as.
The implications are quite troubling for the future, given that back in its hey-day, Britain had an entire colonial system to support its expeditionary army, whereas today the military is, comparatively speaking, on its own. On the basis of current trends, the future for Britain is not that of a great power, and the future of its military is not that of a leading expeditionary force. It will therefore need to justify its relevance in the international system and international stage through coalitions and I think our book provides precautionary lessons about what this will mean, both for strategic effectiveness and for Britain’s place in the world.
Robert Egnell: One of the great lessons of the past decade is how enormously resource-intensive these operations are. For Britain and other small and medium powers this means having to think twice about their involvement, particularly where the aim is societal transformations and state-building. It goes beyond working in a coalition, as even then the requirements can be exceedingly demanding. In Iraq, for example, Britain assumed control of four provinces but as our book demonstrates, it never had the means necessary – or the political will – to sustain this type of commitment. So in the future, for Britain’s contributions to be effective, they will need to limit the area of operations and the political ambitions of what they are trying to achieve and also think more seriously about how to join forces so as to do more with less.
SWJ: If coalitions are the future of European expeditionary operations, should NATO be the framework of first resort for coming interventions? Should NATO remain in the counterinsurgency business, preserving counterinsurgency-related capabilities and skills?
David Ucko: NATO cannot and should not be a stand-alone counterinsurgency organization. It is not the right tool. At the very least, it needs to partner with other organizations, regional and international, to assume such an enormously challenging task. Let us not forget that NATO is a military alliance and whereas it can dabble in civilian affairs at the tactical and operational levels, it needs to be complemented by political actors and a political process, seeing as counterinsurgency is at heart a political phenomenon. So the whole idea that NATO was going to save Afghanistan, one might say, was a solution of desperation – of last rather than first resort, to use your words. Should NATO maintain and retain counterinsurgency capabilities? Yes, absolutely, so long as NATO maintains any expeditionary ambitions. But let’s not put too much faith into the counterinsurgency capabilities of a consensus-based alliance, whose military readiness and political constraints represent massive problems.
No, for future campaigns, the first place where we should be looking for partners is within the host-country itself. What this will require for those nations that seek global influence is an ability to partner with local institutions. This talk of partnering and of the “indirect approach” is in danger of becoming a mantra all in of itself, but despite plenty of talk I don’t think the requirements and the challenges have been fully thought through. We are talking about creating enduring networks, relations with regional organizations, with the armies and police forces of those nations most likely to be affected by conflict. It is a way of doing more with less, a more effective way of dealing with contemporary security challenges. And usually in this kind of endeavor, the crux is typically achieving the diplomatic leverage to have an actual effect, to avoid the tail-wagging-the-dog scenario that is so typical of the “indirect approach”. In other words, the indirect approach is no panacea. The more you look into precedents, be it El Salvador or Dhofar, the more challenging these types of endeavors will appear.
Robert Egnell: I would like to challenge the premise of the question because when you ask what direction NATO should take, you implicitly assume that you can create a set of resources perfectly adapted for conventional warfare and another set of resources for counterinsurgency or stability operations. When we talk about creating two sets of resources, I think this ignores the character of contemporary conflict, specifically its hybrid character. The Americans always liked the idea of an invasion force followed by a stability force. This sort of specialization would be great if the character of conflict followed this sequence: first fight it out and then do peacekeeping and stability operations. Not only does such an approach fail to reflect the contemporary character of war, but it also ignores the fact that the enemy has a say regarding the way conflicts will play out. Also, no country beyond the US will have the resources necessary to create two separate forces and capabilities. The US can scarcely do that, and for reasons just mentioned it would probably be a mistake. The key lies in anticipating the likely challenges of the contemporary security environment, determining where the balance of capabilities currently resides and finding ways of working with partners in a realistic way and without diluting overall responsibility for reaching campaign objectives. It is not easy, but with proper intellectual investment, it is probably less difficult than going it alone or muddling through.
David Ucko: One critical area for intellectual investment is the ability to raise the professionalism and standards of foreign security forces, both police and military. The challenge of operating and partnering with local forces has been constant throughout the last 15 years. What these operations have indicated is that it is not enough to train these forces at some isolated academy or training center; you need to actually partner, live, eat, be with them night and day, even at the epicenter of violence. Any notion that indirect engagement of this type will be risk-free or easier is quite wrong and misleading; this is a critically complex yet valued capability – one that Britain, because of its history and ability, could concentrate on.
The other alternative for NATO is to retreat awkwardly to old comfort zones - to return to permissive peacekeeping as in Kosovo and Bosnia. The 1990s are sometimes remembered wistfully as a time when “Europe knew what it was doing”, when no one questioned its morals or motives. But this nostalgia is highly misleading and represents substantial risk. The reason the operations of the 1990s panned out as they did had more to do with the politics of the countries that intervened, than with the politics on the ground. Certainly in Haiti, Kosovo and Bosnia, intervening powers succeeded in hovering above the politics on the ground, and therefore we remember these campaigns as more permissive than they actually were.
SWJ: The 1999 “Blair doctrine” (the Chicago speech calling for a doctrine of international community) provided to some extent the strategic framework and rationale for post-9/11 British expeditionary operations. Seen in light of the British performance in Basra and Helmand, was the Blair doctrine ever sustainable? Is it sustainable today, as we move forward? It seems as if the political ambitions are still there, yet the resources are lacking.
Robert Egnell: There is a tremendous mismatch between British ambitions and resources. And this is not likely to be resolved anytime soon. Financially, there is no room for serious military investments, yet even so British politicians are also unlikely to lower British ambitions and join the ranks of other European middle-tier powers. At least the last Strategic Defence and Security Review showed no such signs of moderation. Of course, stepping down from that pedestal is hard for a country where many still take pride in Britain’s history as a great power and perceived ability to continue to punch above its weight.
David Ucko: Let’s not forget that Blair’s comments made sense within the context of the time, a moment of apparent Western hegemony, when it felt politically powerful, believed it had the required technological edge, and when the apparent permissiveness of successive operations made it all look so easy. One thing that we’ve learned from the last few campaigns is that it is not enough to have good intentions (after all, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”) and that technological gadgetry is no substitute for strategy. So we can no longer speak bombastically of policing the world, of assertively enforcing solidarist norms wherever they are breached. Even the “responsibility to protect” as we’ve seen in Syria stumbles on our limited resources and will. Certainly, Britain can no longer automatically assume itself to be one of the leading contributors to any international action to maintain peace and security. Syria again looms large. Instead, Britain needs an honest discussion about what is able to do with the resources that it has or wants to spend.
Robert Egnell: What is fascinating here is that we seem to have reached the end of mass-scale interventions for the purpose of state-building. I would nevertheless argue that this does not imply an end to expeditionary operations or interventions in foreign countries. The reason is that the popular calls for humanitarian interventions and other operations conducted for liberal purposes do not appear to be waning. Politicians therefore have to wrestle with the contradictory pressure of “never again” versus humanitarian incentives to “do something”. Libya offers a good example: my sense is that there was limited political interest in an intervention before popular humanitarian concerns, or outrage even, pushed for some sort of military response, for “doing something.” Syria awoke similar pressures, but these have been avoided to date as almost everyone understands the Pandora’s box that an intervention might open. But the world will be a very different place where the West is just OK to sit back and watch.
It is also very important to remind ourselves that in Afghanistan and Iraq, the intervening powers anticipated relatively swift and uncomplicated campaigns. These were limited interventions but then of course one thing led to another. They evolved into the massive state-building campaigns that we remember them as today. This was never the original intention. So the question as we move forward is how to intervene and be effective yet avoid an escalation into something far greater and resource-intensive than we bargained for. It is a discouraging basis for strategic effectiveness but unavoidable in an era of austerity and frayed nerves.
David Ucko: The pottery barn rule (if you break it, you own it) will definitely continue to shape the debate on intervention for years to come. In a post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq world, at least in the next few years, we will be far more likely to break things than claim ownership. Libya is case in point. NATO succeeded quite well in delineating its responsibility in those terms. The problem of course is when the consequences of not owning it come back to haunt us. In Libya we can see the regionally destabilizing forces unleashed after the successful intervention. Does this mean that we shouldn’t have gone in to begin with? It is a balancing act and a very difficult question to answer, both strategically and morally. In Syria, would the Islamist forces of the resistance be empowered by any potential intervention… or is it more important to signal to the world that chemical weapons cannot be used without punishment? The notion of prioritizing, the act of sequencing, trade-offs – all these are inherent to the art of strategy. We need to relearn and practice this art. To simply lead by mantras (“no more Iraqs”, “no more interventions”) will lead to pure ruin. It reminds me of when President Clinton telegraphed to the world that he would under no circumstances deploy ground forces to Kosovo: OK you have responded to your electorate, but what does this do for your strategic effectiveness and what message does it send to your current and future adversaries?
SWJ: You have mentioned the indirect approach and there is much talk today about its virtues. Looking back at Dhofar, at El Salvador, and the Philippines, can we isolate key structural enablers that make success more likely?
Robert Egnell: Analysts like to talk about “indirect approaches” or “limited interventions”, but the question is “approaches to what?” What are we trying to achieve? What is our understanding of the end-state? In a recent article published in Joint Forces Quarterly, I sought to challenge the contemporary understanding of counterinsurgency by arguing that the term itself may lead us to faulty assumptions about nature of the problem, what it is we are trying to do, and how best to achieve it. When we label something a counterinsurgency campaign, it introduces certain assumptions from the past and from the contemporary era about the nature of the conflict. One problem is that counterinsurgency is by its nature conservative, or status-quo oriented – it is about preserving existing political systems, law and order. And that is not what we have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, we have been the revolutionary actors, the ones instigating revolutionary societal changes. Can we still call it counterinsurgency, when we are pushing for so much change?
Dhofar, El Savador and the Philippines are all campaigns driven by fundamentally conservative concerns. When we are looking to Syria right now, it is not just about maintaining order or even the regime, but about larger political change. In Afghanistan and Iraq too, we represented revolutionary change. So, perhaps we should read Mao and Che Guevara instead of Thompson in order to find the appropriate lessons of how to achieve large-scale societal change through limited means? That is what we are after, in the end. And in this coming era, where we are pivoting away from large-scale interventions and state-building projects, but not from our fairly grand political ambitions, it may be worth exploring how insurgents do more with little; how they approach irregular warfare, and reach their objectives indirectly.
David Ucko: You mention Dhofar and it is an interesting campaign for many reasons. One of the key turning points in Dhofar was the development of a campaign plan that was executable, that tied ends and ways to means, and that was able to galvanize a government and a population. A significant factor of this campaign plan was the reforms enacted to bring more of the population to the side of the government, to mobilize them. Before this could happen – before the coup and change of leadership – it really did not matter how militarily and tactically proficient the security forces might be. Large parts of the population had been so utterly alienated by absolutely bizarre restrictions on movement and other repressive policies. It took the coup, and the reforms by the new leader Qaboos bin Said, to change the strategic direction of the campaign and thereby give meaning to the military advances and security gains. So the implication for the indirect approach is that we must go further than the technocratic building of a military, in numbers or in skills, and think also – most fundamentally – about the campaign plan that these forces are to support. Regardless of our “approach” – direct or indirect – intervention requires sound strategic judgment, the ability to identify and exploit key opportunities, and to draw up a campaign plan that responds to the politics of the situation. This is the most important, but also the most undervalued aspect of interventions.
Robert Egnell: Both of us are really talking about popular mobilization – a fundamental requirement that is not sufficiently well captured by terms like “population-centered” counterinsurgency. The 21st century liberal state-building understanding of “hearts and minds” not only downplayed the coercive elements of past campaigns. More importantly, I would argue that the conceptual separation between population-centric operations and regular military activities indicates that we really do not understand how to apply force as a tool for political legitimacy or authority. You can’t buy support, you can’t earn it just through kindness, and you certainly cannot gain it – for the host-nation government – if security is not in place. Competent military operations in support of stability and security for the local population is the way to increase legitimacy and authority for military organizations – not digging a new well or handing out backpacks filled with toys.
David Ucko: I agree that mobilization is key. If you can’t mobilize in a counterinsurgency, you will lose. It is not even about having the support of the population; you can have that support and still lose. You need to harness the support, build on it, empower it, and give it direction, so that the people become a partner, not just a beneficiary. It is not enough, in other words, simply to be kind or extend peripatetic services to a then-grateful population; they must be given reasons to participate more directly in the counterinsurgency, either by standing up village guards or joining the security forces or sharing intelligence with the government, and so on. The state can rarely win these contests on its own. So the ability to mobilize, and by extension, the ability to read and respond to the political grievances fuelling the insurgency, is a critical enabler. Of course it sounds far easier than it really is.
Robert Egnell: When we talk about strategic enablers, I want also to emphasize the civilian aspect of operations. The US, or a Western coalition of the willing, has by far the most powerful military resources in the world. Military capacity is not the main problem. Instead, what is missing and what the British Empire used to have is a civilian machinery, a grass-root cultural understanding. The historiography of British counterinsurgency tends to underplay the role of civilian infrastructure in managing the nonmilitary lines of effort (reconstruction, governance, basic services, for example). In the past, these were most often carried out by host-nation structures together with colonial administrators who had decades of experiences within that particular political and cultural context. There is very little of that today, although interesting exceptions are found in the engagement work of Special Forces around the world.
Although Western states are currently building up cadres of state builders and SSR teams, these components cannot be compared with the colonial structures of the British Empire. At the same time it is also very difficult to ascertain exactly what capacity we need. What kind of knowledge is needed to build a stable and functioning state in, say, the Central African Republic? What kind of people with what set of competences need to be involved? What kind of resources would be needed? These question of civilian capabilities are as, if not more, important than the number and skills of the deployed military personnel, but they have received far less attention.
SWJ: Where was the civilian part of the equation in Basra and Helmand? How did we lose them?
David Ucko: The civilian contribution to these types of operations was not sufficiently well understood or valued, so when it came to their deployment they were nowhere to be found. The investment never happened. Instead, Western governments have put too much faith in the ability of the military instruments, maybe because of a general misreading of past campaigns as fought and won by military forces.
There is another interesting aspect to highlight here. Throughout the 1990s the UN played a far greater role, allowing Western military forces to stick more narrowly to their remit. This was the case in Kosovo where KFOR supported UNMIK, in Sierra Leone where the British military supported UNAMSIL and the local government. These types of operations show an ability to partner with other institutions – UN, regional organizations, or host-nation – so that the intervening power could focus on only one phase or component of the campaign, thereby limiting its obligations and commitments. The pattern shows also the ability and the opportunity to transfer demanding follow-on responsibilities to competent partners with greater staying power. In Iraq there was no equivalent. The structures that were in place were purposefully dismantled through de-Ba’athification. In Afghanistan, although the UN played a greater role, it was still nowhere close to the operational setup seen in Bosnia or Kosovo. We went in under the assumption of playing basically the same role as in these previous campaigns and found ourselves dealing with the whole lot. These things help to explain the lack of activity on the civilian side.
SWJ: In light of what we’ve seen in the recent past, both in the 1990s but also after 9/11, about the need for closer relations between civilian and military instruments, are we going to be better at this as we move forward? Have we learned the right lesson?
Robert Egnell: This debate can be traced to the 1990s and the concept of civil-military coordination, or CIMIC. This was a military term denoting the importance of coordination but it was also a framework for the pursuit of military or security-oriented goals. The humanitarian community ran away from this concept because they didn’t want to be seen as working for military tactical aims. It then evolved into the idea of a “comprehensive approach,” or “integrated missions,” which as mentioned has mostly been about rhetoric rather than action. Serious civil-military coordination at the important strategic and operational levels simply has not been implemented in the operations of the last decade in any meaningful way. The UK Post Conflict Reconstruction Unit and S/CRS in the US were both institutional responses to this challenge. But they were placed in the corner of DFID and the State Department respectively, with very little funding. Bureaucratic politics is about money and status. If there is no real flow of money following these institutional changes, nothing is going to happen. Despite some improvement with the Stabilisation Unit in the UK, the fundamental problem remains unsolved. We are still far from a truly joint civil-military strategic process of conflict analysis and planning.
Now, if Iraq and Afghanistan could not galvanize the right type of change, it is unlikely that matters will improve much over the next decade, although everyone agrees that change is needed. It’s been attempted in the UK with the pooled funding where you put a bag of money on the table and create institutional incentives for interagency sharing and cooperation. This is a step forward, something that blurs the lines between departments and avoids the worst stovepipes, because if you share the money, you probably also need to share the bureaucracies to translate the money into effective operational resources and activities.
SWJ: FM 3-24 and the British COIN manual are both rooted in the golden age of counterinsurgency. These past cases, like Malaya for example, provide principles and context. Are these counterinsurgency principles still applicable today? To what extent are they context-driven or context-specific?
David Ucko: In general, it is very difficult to argue against the classic counterinsurgency principles: yes, the operations should clearly be intelligence-led, the insurgents should be separated from the population, you need to learn and adapt, and so on. These principles are basically self-evident. What the principles do, however, is indicate the outlines of your typical armed political contest for power and influence. Further, to military organizations beholden to the use of force as a decisive war-winner, the principles indicate that there is more to these campaigns that needs attention: the need to mobilize populations as well as eliminate the enemy, the need to find creative political solutions to the grievances that fuel the insurgency. This is what the principles point to. They are relevant as ever, but they will not substitute for a campaign plan or a strategy. They will only be the building blocks for such a thing.
They also need to be applied in context. When we say “political primacy” we know what this principle meant in Malaya, in Northern Ireland or whatever. But how does one understand political primacy in Basra in 2003, or in 2006? Who were the established authorities, what was the political objective that military operations should follow? The vacuum in terms of policy made this principle very difficult to uphold. So, context is the ultimate factor and the ability to adapt to the context is the foundation of a campaign plan, which is the basis of strategy.
Robert Egnell: When we look for principles and learning from history, we tend to look for similarities. As important as that is, we still need to look carefully for differences as well. And there are some very important differences between the counterinsurgencies of the past and those of today. One key difference relates to the expeditionary nature of current campaigns. In past years, counterinsurgency campaigns may have been launched to maintain control of national or colonial territory, whereas today counterinsurgency tends to support less-than-cooperative but wholly sovereign “host government.” The aims of operations are also different. Malaya was about orderly withdrawal from a colonial possession. That is entirely different from invading a country (like Afghanistan) and seeking societal transformation. What do these differences mean? Not that we can’t learn anything from the past, or that the principles have lost meaning. The sound and rather commonsensical principles of the golden age apply not only to counterinsurgency, but to a broad range of military operations. The question is how we apply them to each context.
SWJ: Over the years we became proficient at the clear and hold sequences. Are we better today at the build part?
Robert Egnell: We are better, but are we good? Some of the civilian organizations have accepted their lot of acting in support of counterinsurgency operations, they have learned a lot and also cooperate better now than before. But there is still a fundamental mismatch between most civilian agencies and their military counterparts about the nature of the mission and the objectives being sought. Is this a campaign guided by security considerations or by humanitarian impulses? This touches upon the very word “counterinsurgency,” which sits far less well with your average civilian development agency. Yet without these agencies on board, the build phase will always be very difficult or at least be separated in critical ways from the campaign objectives that are being sought, often at an excessive cost.
David Ucko: Since one of the by-products of the build phase is to improve the livelihood of the local population, the entire phase is sometimes misconstrued as a humanitarian exercise, a charity drive, designed to make people feel better. That denies the build phase of a strategic rationale. If you lose sight of the strategic rationale, you may quickly fall into the trap of doing everything for the local population, rather than mobilizing it to do things for itself. No doubt have we learned something about this in the last ten or fifteen years, but I still wonder about the Western ability to filter its humanitarian impulses through the required strategic lens - not just how it benefits us but what actually works, what actually is effective. It is perfectly understandable: when you have a responsibility or an ability to help, you rush in and do that. You don’t want to think strategically about it. Yet as any number of studies have shown, it is not enough to extend material or technocratic support: you need to situate such assistance within a local context that contributes to the campaign objectives and renders it sustainable. I wonder whether we are able to think or act in these terms.
Robert Egnell: I am really quite skeptical about the possibility of bridging this gap between civilian and military organizations. I think so much of the modern society is built on a distinction of war and peace, between military and civilian organizations and domains, that any attempt to bridge that gap will be seen as ruining, potentially, the fabric of our society.
David Ucko: The only way to bridge that gap is when your state, your nation, is on the line or is in an existential danger. That is why these counterinsurgency fights have to be owned and controlled by the governments that are actually at risk. If the US or UK governments were faced by a domestic insurgent group, one that mounted an existential threat, you would hope to see better coordination between civilian and military agencies to do whatever was necessary to survive. The problem is that we insert ourselves in foreign battles and try to do this as an outsider, as one of our extra-curricular activities – not as our main effort. We should not conclude from this that we can and should never involve ourselves as a third party, but when we do we need to do better at convincing those we help that, ultimately, it is their head on the line, not ours.
SWJ: Having in mind the global trend of urbanization, do you see the counterinsurgency principles as applicable to domestic policing, in stabilizing feral shantytowns or urban slums?
David Ucko: Yes and no. Yes, because counterinsurgency has everything to do with mobilization, with engaging a population, and understanding what drives its behavior. In other words, counterinsurgency is a process of getting to know the local structures, the local networks, politics, preferences, fears, aspirations, outsiders, insiders, the whole ecosystem – and then developing a strategy, along with local partners, to reach common objectives. Such actions can be relevant especially in places where the state has lost its footing – like the slums and favelas – where it must re-intervene to reclaim control.
Yet there is also a distinct limit to any transference of this type. Counterinsurgency is after all warfare; there is no getting away from that. People are killed in very brutal ways, sometimes at a very high rate. If we would apply these counterinsurgency techniques blindly to a domestic context, we will end up with very questionable results, in terms of civil liberties, authorities and bloodshed.
Also, even if we can apply the security component to domestic contexts and achieve some lull in violence, what do you do with the reform component that is so central to counterinsurgency? Thomas Marks has made the critical point that counterinsurgency is “armed politics.” So what happens to the political part in a domestic policing action? It isn’t really the police force’s jurisdiction but unless the political problem at the heart of these matters is addressed, over the long term you won’t solve the security problems either. Much as in expeditionary campaign, there must be a political solution that gives security gains their strategic meaning.
Robert Egnell: I would go back to the problem of terminology. What happens when you call a police action in a Paris or Stockholm suburb, dominated by disaffected youth, a counterinsurgency campaign? We would most likely be in deep trouble if we did that. And perhaps this is a problem also with the expeditionary military campaigns and interventions. If you call it “counterinsurgency,” it summons a number of key assumptions and ideas about the nature of the conflict and the adversary that are not necessarily helpful. So the challenge will be to learn what we can from counterinsurgency without letting this rather problematic term poison our future campaign. Perhaps we need to come up with a different term that applies these principles and retains the important lessons without necessarily invoking the word “counterinsurgency.”
David Ucko: The solution of course is to rely less on terminology and to reacquaint ourselves instead with strategic thinking and principles. The process of studying a threat group very carefully, understanding its sources of strength and its vulnerabilities, and then crafting a response that aligns ends, ways and means – well it sounds simple, but this fundamental approach to operations, whatever their name, should be sufficient. The problem is that when the military has gone through that process historically, it has typically forgotten about some aspects – aspects that our counterinsurgency doctrine seeks to remind us of: the political nature of the problem, the limited utility of force, the difficulty of achieving decisive results, and the difficulty of measuring progress accurately.
SWJ: Currently FM 3-24 is in the process of being revised. With your book on the “crisis of counterinsurgency” in mind, what would be your advice for the writers of FM 3-24? What do they need to change or re-assess?
David Ucko: The doctrine is not the problem. Sure, it is far from perfect but it is good enough. Institutionalizing, embracing and teaching the doctrine is where the problem really lies. Still, if I were to make one recommendation to future doctrine writers, particularly as any counterinsurgency field manual is today likely to meet with a very hostile response, it would be to make fewer assumptions about the nature of insurgency, and to start instead with a strategic estimate of the problem. Teach commanders and politicians to assess the nature of the problem, before instructing them how to craft a response. They need to be able to grasp where this organization gains its strength, how it operates, and why it will win, and then craft a solution based on that assessment, rather than automatically revert to slogans like winning hearts and minds or population control. In my studies, I have found that the most successful brigades in Iraq started their tour with an intensive and rigorous study of their area of operations, its people and politics, before crafting a plan that responded to its particular dynamics.
Robert Egnell: I will always argue for the limitation of doctrinal publications, and in this particular instance rather than rewrite FM 3-24, it would perhaps be more useful to merge and integrate the counterinsurgency doctrine with the one for stability operations. Irregular warfare and stability operations have many similarities that often seek to tackle the same set of problems. As David highlighted, commanders need to think more freely about the nature of the problem and their solutions. A multitude of specific doctrines for predefined conflict types is not the way to achieve that intellectual flexibility.
David Ucko: Another alternative that I have long toyed with is to simply stop using the term “counterinsurgency” and to talk more honestly about war and war-to-peace transitions. The only problem I have with that remedy is that, left to their own devices, in talking about war, many organizations will revert to an all-too reductive understanding of this phenomenon. So long as this remains the case, we need counterinsurgency doctrine to remind ourselves of the full complexity of such endeavors. Counterinsurgency provides a corrective to the view of war as militarily decisive, apolitical and wholly distinct from peace. For example the principle of political primacy is a reminder that the main aim is not to kill or capture the insurgents but to address the causative factors of violence. And as the grievances and conditions that fuel the insurgency are often economic and social in nature, it follows that the response must cater to the essentially political nature of the problem. This is the contribution of counterinsurgency doctrine. It is modest, because the principles and guidance provided are often banal. But it can also be invaluable, given the standard of traditional military thinking on war and the likelihood of re-encountering the challenges of counterinsurgency in other land-based wars. Whatever term we use or do not use, the complexity of third-party interventions will remain so we best learn from our mistakes and our experiences, so as to know more and be more wise next time we are asked to act.