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Options for Maintaining Counterinsurgency Capabilities in the Great Power Era

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Options for Maintaining Counterinsurgency Capabilities in the Great Power Era

Harrison Manlove

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which ran from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.

Background

The 2017 US National Security Strategy (NSS) identifies the return of great power competition as a strategic threat to U.S. interests across a variety of domains. Challenges to U.S. military and economic power are meant to “change the international order…” that the U.S. has overseen since the end of the Cold War. The NSS acknowledges the ability of near peer competitors to operate “below the threshold of open military conflict…”. In addition, the NSS identifies the need to “sustain our competence in irregular warfare…” in a long-term capacity[1]. This “competence” most certainly includes COIN, or the employment of various means of national power by a government to counter an insurgency “and address its roots causes[2].” DoD’s 2018 National Defense Strategy identifies “Long term strategic competition with China and Russia” as “the principal priorities for the Department…[3]” Both of the above mentioned documents indicate how non-state threats have slowly moved down the priority list.

Significance

Recent decisions by U.S. President Donald Trump and the DoD to drawdown forces in a variety of conflict areas seem to reflect a desire to realign U.S. force posture to counter near-peer competitors in both Europe and Asia, and bolster conventional military capabilities. In December 2018, President Trump directed U.S. forces in Syria to withdraw, while simultaneously halving U.S. forces deployed to Afghanistan over several months as peace talks continue[4]. U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) and General Purpose Forces (GPF) U.S. forces have spent almost two decades advising and training foreign forces as a function of COIN efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and others. Last fall, U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) was directed to drawdown SOF missions on the continent over a period of three years[5]. SOF in Africa suffered a highly-publicized loss of troops in the 2017 Tongo Tongo ambush in Niger, while SOF personnel were also killed and wounded during an attack on their outpost in Somalia last year[6].

Option #1:  U.S. SOF Addresses COIN Threats Through Direct Action

Risk

SOF conduct countless direct action missions, or “Short-duration strikes…”, against insurgent and terror groups in multiple countries across theaters like USAFRICOM and U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM)[7]. American deaths during these operations has proven damaging for domestic opinion on global U.S. operations, exemplified by the 2017 deaths of four American Special Forces soldiers in Niger. An uninformed public, a largely opaque DoD concerning SOF missions and their specific purpose, and U.S. military roles within those missions, has created a wider civil-military gap. This lack of clarity has brought some American lawmakers to call the Niger scenario “an endless war” where “We don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world militarily and what we’re doing[8].” These lawmaker opinions underscores concerns about the scale and cost of worldwide U.S. military involvement and its impact on SOF personnel. In addition, raids often do not solve the political or economic challenges within COIN and can become a whack-a-mole strategy for targeting an insurgency’s network.

Gain

The GPF often take the brunt of the task involved in conducting major COIN operations. Recent moves by the U.S. Army to retool brigade combat teams from infantry roles to Stryker and armored roles is one of the clearest examples of the “pivot back to the near-peer fight[9].” SOF addressing COIN threats through direct action drastically reduces the overall need for GPF on the frontlines in COIN and frees them up to focus on the near-peer fight.  Additionally, while direct action does not address the factors driving the insurgency, it does succeed in disrupting insurgent formations and presents metrics to Washington D.C. that are more easily understood than the more esoteric quantification of “winning of hearts and minds.”  Funding for U.S. Special Operations Command was given a massive hike to cover personnel increases to maintain a reliance on SOF[10]. SOF in Africa often operate under the Section 127e authority that allows SOF to accompany partner forces on missions, staying behind at the “last position of cover and concealment.” This has been touted by USAFRICOM Commander U.S. Marine Corps General Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, as “high payoff with low risk to US forces[11].” Direct action is relatively low-cost and, under 127e, also provides SOF the ability to directly control partner forces during operations to achieve US objectives.

Option #2:  Specially Trained non-SOF Units Address COIN Threats through Security Force Assistance

Risk

Global military engagement may be spreading U.S. forces too thinly if a near-pear conflict were to breakout. Since the 9/11 attacks, a focus on COIN and counterterrorism has resulted in U.S. deployments to 40% of the world’s countries[12]. The U.S. Army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) deployed to Afghanistan in early 2018 to train and advise Afghan forces. Insider attacks by Afghan Taliban insurgents posing as members of the Afghan military have taken a toll on that deployment and highlight the potential dangers of a continued U.S. military presence there[13]. In mid-2018, the 2nd SFAB was established and is also slated for deployment to Afghanistan in 2019. SFABs could pull troops and resources from DoD’s ability to train and prepare for near-peer threats. DoD personnel involved in arms transfer, security assistance, and short-term military-to-military engagement programs are meager within the context of broader defense spending, but might offer an area for DoD to repurpose personnel and funding to critical capability gaps like artificial intelligence (AI) and cyber warfare.

Gain

While military force is often the preferred method in COIN, an emphasis on non-kinetic means for DoD could provide better results at a much lower cost. The defense budget for fiscal year (FY) 2017 brought major reforms to security assistance authorities and organizations, a problem that had previously plagued those initiatives. Security assistance programs allow small teams of DoD personnel to train partner forces in basic military tactics and provide weapons training[14]. DoD spending as part of the foreign assistance budget totaled out to $6.4 billion spent worldwide in FY 2018, which includes these programs. Total spending for the foreign assistance budget in FY 2018 was $17.6 billion[15]. In comparison, the war in Afghanistan alone cost $45 billion in 2018, a little under half the $100 billion spent every year during the war’s height between 2010-2012[16]. DoD training with partner militaries is relatively inexpensive when compared with other DoD programs and deployments, and “builds relationships with friendly foreign forces, improves interoperability with and indirectly contributes to building the capability of key allies through exposure to United States tactics, techniques, and procedures…[17]” Capacity-building conducted by specially trained units could better enhance opportunities for partner forces to provide security in COIN conflict environments. The Army’s SFAB model appears to be a comprehensive training force, standing in contrast to the ad hoc approach used throughout Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. This option could alleviate pressure on SOF to manage similar missions on a global scale that would continue to strain overworked equipment and personnel.

End Notes

1. “National Security Strategy of the United States of America.” The White House. December 2017. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf.

2. United States. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Washington, D.C.: Joint Chiefs of Staff, April 2019. 54.

3. “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.” January 19, 2018. May 2, 2019. https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.

4. Gibbons-Neff, Thomas, and Mujib Mashal. “U.S. to Withdraw About 7,000 Troops From Afghanistan, Officials Say.” The New York Times. December 21, 2018. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/20/us/politics/afghanistan-troop-withdrawal.html.

5. Browne, Ryan. “US to Reduce Number of Troops in Africa.” CNN. November 15, 2018. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/15/politics/us-reduce-troops-africa/index.html.

6. Sonne, Paul. “U.S. Service Member Killed, Four Others Wounded in Somalia Attack.” The Washington Post. June 08, 2018. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-special-operations-soldier-killed-four-service-members-wounded-in-somalia-attack/2018/06/08/39265cda-6b5f-11e8-bbc5-dc9f3634fa0a_story.html

  1.  United States. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Washington, D.C.: Joint Chiefs of Staff, April 2019. 66.

8. Callimachi, Rukmini, Helene Cooper, Alan Blinder, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff. “‘An Endless War’: Why 4 U.S. Soldiers Died in a Remote …” The New York Times. February 20, 2018. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/02/17/world/africa/niger-ambush-american-soldiers.html.

9. South, Todd. “New in 2019: From Tanks to Strykers, Major Brigade Combat Team Conversions Are Coming This Year.” Army Times. January 02, 2019. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2019/01/02/new-in-2019-from-tanks-to-strykers-major-brigade-combat-team-conversions-are-coming-this-year/.

10. South, Todd. “Special Operations Command Asks for More Troops, Biggest Budget Yet.” Military Times. February 27, 2018. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-army/2018/02/23/special-operations-command-asks-for-more-troops-biggest-budget-yet/.

11. Morgan, Wesley. “Behind the Secret U.S. War in Africa.” POLITICO. July 02, 2018. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.politico.com/story/2018/07/02/secret-war-africa-pentagon-664005.

  1.   Savall, Stephanie, “This Map Shows Where in the World the U.S. Military Is Combatting Terrorism.” Smithsonian.com. January 01, 2019. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/map-shows-places-world-where-us-military-operates-180970997/.
  2.   LaPorta, James. “U.S. Soldier Killed in Afghanistan Was Highest Enlisted Soldier Supporting Army’s New Adviser Brigade.” Newsweek. October 04, 2018. Accessed May 3, 2019. https://www.newsweek.com/afghanistan-soldier-killed-attack-us-1104697.
  3.   Elliot, Adriane. “U.S. Security Assistance Soldiers, Nigerian Army Partner to Combat Terrorism.” Army Values. December 13, 2017. Accessed May 3, 2019. https://www.army.mil/article/198066/us_security_assistance_soldiers_nigerian_army_partner_to_combat_terrorism.
  4.  “ForeignAssistance.gov.” Foreignassistance.gov. May 3, 2019. https://foreignassistance.gov/explore.
  5.   Pennington, Matthew. “Pentagon Says War in Afghanistan Costs Taxpayers $45 Billion per Year.” PBS. February 06, 2018. Accessed May 3, 2019. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/pentagon-says-afghan-war-costs-taxpayers-45-billion-per-year
  6.   “Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 President’s Budget Security Cooperation Consolidated Budget Display.” Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller). February 16, 2018. Accessed May 3, 2019. https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2019/Security_Cooperation_Budget_Display_OUSDC.pdf

About the Author(s)

Harrison Manlove is a Cadet in the U.S. Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps at the at the University of Kansas and is currently studying History and Peace and Conflict Studies. Harrison has also written for The Strategy Bridge, where he examined Russia’s strategy in Syria and the Middle East. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Comments

Question:

Having suggested, below, the two counterinsurgency models that we seem to need/seem to require in times of great power competition (and, indeed, in "unipolar moments" as well?), to wit:

a.  The "we (the foreigners) are the revolutionaries" model -- seeking to overthrow and replace the natives', "status quo," political, economic, social and value institutions and norms.  (We're are obviously playing "offense" here.)  And:

b.  The "they (the natives) are the revolutionaries" model -- seeking overthrow and replace the foreign-installed, "status quo," such attributes.  (We're are obviously playing "defense" here.)   

Based on my such suggestions -- which by design -- hopefully causes us to "drill-down" on the "revolutionary" and "counter-revolutionary" aspect/nature of our such missions/efforts/strategies, etc. --   

Based on these such suggestions, should we say that:

a.  Our military personnel (of whatever kind, type, stripe and/or combination thereof; to include but not limited to GPF, SOF, etc.); these

b.  ARE NOT who we should be sending out to achieve these such "revolutionary" and "counter-revolutionary" requirements?

Explanation:

In this regard, and as an alternative in certain respects, consider the following from the Old Cold War:

"... The Communists follow a pattern of active and aggressive promotion of their goals, while the United States and allied countries have used unconventional warfare primarily for the protection and safeguarding of their interests. 

Among the techniques used (by the communists) to implement revolutionary warfare strategy and to attain their goals, the selection of cadre, organization, deification of the masses and psychological impregnation are the most important. Leaders, speakers, propagandists, activities, organizers, officers, volunteers and others are trained. Revolutionary cells are established to control different circles and organized groups in all sections of society. Parallel communists hierarchies are organized starting with the cell of a local committee to the central communist party. This becomes the party's invisible machine by which unions, sport, and cultural associations, veteran societies and others are controlled. The conflict embraces all segments and groups of society and, in fact, is concerned with every single aspect of social activity. It is and must be a fight for the minds of the people. That side which is victorious in this aspect of the struggle is virtually assured ultimate victory.  

It must be understood that the success of the (communist) revolutionaries is not due to the application of new principles of warfare, or psychological warfare, or to the technical efficiency of the revolutionary forces and their tactics, or to the terrain, in spite of their importance. These factors, no matter how favorable, would not be sufficient for success. The number of warriors armed with rifles and hand grenades also is not the decisive factor. The decisive factor is more in the nature of power. And the success of the revolutionaries, in this regard, can primarily be attributed to two extraordinary factors, namely, their closeness and appeal to the populations -- that is their ability to win over the populations -- and their ideological conviction."

(Items in parenthesis above are mine.)

http://www.jstor.org/stable/1034145?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents 

Bottom Line Thought - Based on the Above:

Based on COL Bjelajac's thoughts in the quoted item I provide immediately above, and with regard to our "revolutionary" and "counter-revolutionary" requirements/missions yesterday as well as today, should we not be deploying:

a.  Primarily non-military -- and indeed primarily non-American/non-Western personnel -- who, in fact and rather, 

b.  Are natives of the lands that we are sending them back to; this,

c.  After we have trained and indoctrinated them to such a high degree that: 

d.  Their "ideological conviction" (to our way of life, to our way of governance and to our values, attitudes and beliefs) is so amazing as to inspire even Americans/westerners here at home?  (And, thus, are up to the task of inspiring -- likewise but in this case specifically for our revolutionary and counter-revolutionary purposes -- their own countrymen and women?)

(In this light, of course, the question becomes:

a.  Not one of MAINTAINING insurgency and/or counterinsurgency capabilities [actually revolutionary and/or  counter-revolutionary capabilities]; this, in the Great Power Era or no, but instead:

b.  One of properly ESTABLISHING -- possibly for the very first time -- these such necessary and required capabilities?)

My comment below (based on Kilcullen's "Counterinsurgency Redux") suggests two "counterinsurgency" models:

a.  One, which is designed to HOLD ON TO (significantly via its "client governments") the political, economic, social and value changes that an imperial power, long ago, had established in other states and societies.

(This counterinsurgency model, for example, would apply when the populations of "imperially-controlled" states and societies acted as "revolutionary" entities, seeking to change the political, economic, social and value institutions and norms -- the foreign "status quo" -- that an imperial power, some significant time before, had established in their countries.)  And:

b.  One which is designed to ACHIEVE (often through a newly installed "client government") the political, economic, social and value changes that the imperial power, as yet, had not been able to bring about in certain other states and societies.      

(This counterinsurgency model, for example, would apply when the imperial power, often through its newly installed "client government," acted -- itself in this case -- as the "revolutionary" entity, seeking to change the long ago established "native" populations' political, economic, social and value institutions and norms/their  "status quo.")

Question:

Given that BOTH of these such counterinsurgency models would seemed have been important in our last period of great power competition, to wit: the Old Cold War:

"The United States and the Soviet Union face each other not only as two great powers which in the traditional ways compete for advantage. They also face each other as the fountainheads of two hostile and incompatible ideologies, systems of government and ways of life, each trying to expand the reach of its respective political values and institutions and to prevent the expansion of the other. Thus the cold war has not only been a conflict between two world powers but also a contest between two secular religions. And like the religious wars of the seventeenth century, the war between communism and democracy does not respect national boundaries. It finds enemies and allies in all countries, opposing the one and supporting the other regardless of the niceties of international law. Here is the dynamic force which has led the two superpowers to intervene all over the globe, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes openly, sometimes with the accepted methods of diplomatic pressure and propaganda, sometimes with the frowned-upon instruments of covert subversion and open force."

(From Hans Morgenthau's "To Intervene or Not to Intervene")

Based on this such "fact of great power competition"  light, must we not, therefore, retain -- or establish if necessary -- BOTH of these such "counterinsurgency" capabilities, to wit:

a.  The "revolutionary" GET SOME MORE kind (see my item "b" above).  And: 

b.  The "counter-revolutionary" HOLD ON TO WHAT YOU'VE GOT kind (see my item "a" above)?

My discussion on these matters has two parts. 

In Part I (herein using Kilcullen's "Counterinsurgency Redux") I compare recent "offensive" counterinsurgency with the "defensive" counterinsurgency which was characteristic of earlier times.    

In Part II (given great power competition) I discuss whether counterinsurgency should return to its earlier/older "defensive" nature and roots.  

Part I:

As Kilcullen notes, in his "Counterinsurgency Redux" below, counterinsurgency, post-the Old Cold War: 

a.  Took on an OFFENSIVE, EXPANSIONIST, AND INDEED REVOLUTIONARY WARFARE "WEAPON" nature and status and, thus, 

b.  Took on a nature that was the exact opposite of its more DEFENSIVE character of "classic" counterinsurgency -- which held sway in earlier times.

BEGIN QUOTE

... in classical theory, the insurgent initiates. Thus, Galula asserts that “whereas in conventional war, either side can initiate the conflict, only one — the insurgent — can initiate a revolutionary war, for counterinsurgency is only an effect of insurgency”. Classical theorists emphasize the problem of recognizing insurgency early. Sir Robert Thompson observes that “at the first signs of an incipient insurgency…no one likes to admit that anything is going wrong. This automatically leads to a situation where government countermeasures are too little and too late”. But, in several modern campaigns — Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya, for example — the government  or invading coalition forces initiated the campaign, whereas insurgents are strategically reactive (as in “resistance warfare”). Such patterns are readily recognizable in historical examples of resistance warfare, but less so in classical counterinsurgency theory.

Politically, in many cases today, the counterinsurgent represents revolutionary change, while the insurgent fights to preserve the status quo of ungoverned spaces, or to repel an occupier — a political relationship opposite to that envisaged in classical counterinsurgency. Pakistan’s campaign in Waziristan since 2003 exemplifies this. The enemy includes al-Qa’ida (AQ) linked extremists and Taliban, but also local tribesmen fighting to preserve their traditional culture against 21st century encroachment. The problem of weaning these fighters away from extremist sponsors, while simultaneously supporting modernization, does somewhat resemble pacification in traditional counterinsurgency. But it also echoes colonial campaigns, and includes entirely new elements arising from the effects of globalization.

END QUOTE 

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e7f3/f7fd5e525d6dfe177357a894839bc770348b.pdf  (See the bottom of Page 2 and the top of Page 3.)

Part II:

The information in our paper above, for example in its beginning paragraph provided immediately below, identifies that (a) "great power competition" is (b) our most significant :conflict environment" today:

BEGIN QUOTE 

The 2017 US National Security Strategy (NSS) identifies the return of great power competition as a strategic threat to U.S. interests across a variety of domains. Challenges to U.S. military and economic power are meant to “change the international order…” that the U.S. has overseen since the end of the Cold War. The NSS acknowledges the ability of near peer competitors to operate “below the threshold of open military conflict…”. In addition, the NSS identifies the need to “sustain our competence in irregular warfare…” in a long-term capacity. This “competence” most certainly includes COIN, or the employment of various means of national power by a government to counter an insurgency “and address its roots causes.” DoD’s 2018 National Defense Strategy identifies “Long term strategic competition with China and Russia” as “the principal priorities for the Department…” Both of the above mentioned documents indicate how non-state threats have slowly moved down the priority list.

END QUOTE 

This being the case --- and given that "changing the international order" is the suggested goal of our such great power competitors -- then must we not, now and accordingly,

a.  Abandon our OFFENSIVE, EXPANSIONIST AND REVOLUTIONARY WARFARE "counterinsurgency" models and associated efforts (to wit: eliminating the alternative ways of life, the alternative ways of governance, the alternative values, etc. of the outlying states and societies of the world, and replacing same with only our own, often alien and profane, such attributes) and

b.  Embrace/re-embrace the DEFENSE "counterinsurgency" model -- which would seem to be common to "great power competition" times such as now?

(Or, indeed, is not a combination of these such OFFENSIVE/EXPANSIONIST and DEFENSIVE/"HOLD WHAT YOU'VE GOT" counterinsurgency models required; this, in times of great power competition such as today?)