Small Wars Journal

Rethinking Western COIN: Lessons from Post-Colonial Conflicts

Mon, 12/14/2015 - 10:14am

Rethinking Western COIN: Lessons from Post-Colonial Conflicts

Octavian Manea

Small Wars Journal interview with Dr. Russell W. Glenn, associate professor with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University. He is the author of Rethinking Western Approaches to Counterinsurgency: Lessons from Post-Colonial Conflict (Routledge, 2015) published in April 2015.

Dr. Russell W. Glenn was a senior defense analyst with RAND from 1997 to early 2009 at which time he joined A-T Solutions as a senior analyst, this after completion of his military career.  Recent research includes a study of the 2014 Operation Protective Edge in Israel and Gaza and a volume on the Australian approach to mission command completed in partnership with twelve other authors.  Both are forthcoming in 2016.

What are the trends, both societal and in warfare, that make you conclude not only that COIN is not dead, but that it is here to stay with us and have strategic relevance in the 21st century security environment?

Insurgency will be with us until everyone is satisfied with their governors or all accept standing processes for peaceful transitions.  COIN is not a choice; it is a response to insurgency (or, conceivably, the threat of an insurgency) and will therefore be with us throughout the 21st century and beyond. What will evolve – is constantly evolving – is the nature of insurgency (and, by extension, counterinsurgency).  Perhaps the future will bring extended periods of government by inter-governmental organizations such as the UN, ASEAN, or contract organizations contracted to provide some or all leadership and services currently conceived of as government responsibilities.  Efforts to replace or undermine these bodies could then constitute insurgency in terms not generally thought of in current thinking.

What has changed in terms of contemporary COIN compared with the colonial legacy of counterinsurgency? At the same time what remains relevant and overlaps with colonial COIN?

The answer to both is “a great deal.”  Colonial era counterinsurgency, which we can take in this context to mean COIN as practiced in the decades immediately following World War II, saw longstanding governments in place – those of the colonial powers – meaning that both insurgents and counterinsurgents were at least somewhat familiar with each other and the environment in which they operated.  Understanding by both sides was by no means perfect, but the learning curves for counterinsurgents should have been less, even for those who arrived in a colony for the first time, as they by and large had trusted advisors who were experienced (if somewhat biased).  Practices such as forced resettlement were more feasible than at present despite the poor reputation they had from the Boer War and US COIN in the Philippines, those experiences having also provided lessons that the British in Malaya, say, could draw on to good effect.  Resettlement remains controversial; increases in population and urbanization further act to impinge on its practicality.  And, to add one more observation regarding differences, the ubiquity of not only professional media but that of social means counterinsurgents today have little hope of controlling public consumption of information regarding their activities. That insurgents, and their supporters, “broadcasting” social media often have but limited interest in sticking to the truth during their messaging further complicates challenges in this arena.

As for what remains relevant from those decades past, the need for an orchestrated whole-of-government – and now in the 21st century comprehensive approach – COIN effort is crucial (the latter incorporating the activities of relevant NGOs, IGOs, and commercial enterprises in addition to joint, multinational, and whole of government representatives).  Gerald Templer recognized this when he co-located police and military intelligence as did the Big Three leaders of RAMSI in mid-2006.  Templer reportedly also required his military, police, and political leaders at each echelon to meet regularly over a drink so as to provide the opportunity for coordination.  Compare that with the embarrassing tensions and outright counterproductive US DoD and DoS behaviors in the Balkans and Iraq: the significance of leadership excellence and synchronization is only too clear.  The words “orchestrated” and “synchronization” are deliberately chosen here.  Cooperation is insufficient; ideally joint, multinational, whole of government, and comprehensive approach activities will be fully integrated in the service of COIN objectives. It is the cocktail of military might, political support, effective justice system, and aid from partner nations and civilian organizations that comprises effective operations.

What are the domains where an insurgent should be expected to compete with a sovereign authority?

What are the domains in which the insurgent would not seek to compete?  The question is less which domains than the extent to which an insurgent has the capacity to compete in each, the aforementioned emergence of social media being a prime example, that of maneuver in the economic realm being one no less crucial.

What do the eight COIN campaigns analyzed in your recent book show about the ability of host-nations to put together comprehensive civil-mil approaches and about their ability to orchestrate and integrate other necessary civilian lines of operations?

Joint was embryonic when I was a lieutenant.  We in the US and many partner militaries have made great strides since, but inter-service competition still undermines operational effectiveness even after several decades’ passage.  The same might be said of multinational, though the conditions there are very different given that command and political relationships are more complex than in single-nation multi-service instances.  Whole-of-government – what we in the US often call “interagency” – orchestration of efforts remains elusive to put it mildly, and a truly comprehensive approach is even more remote.  We could take steps to dramatically influence the first. Having a single source of funding for campaigns and operations such that all government participants would have to justify how their actions support the common cause would be a tremendous step forward, one obviously requiring significant changes to current funding procedures.  The second – integrating NGOs and the like – would require no little compromise as participants’ objectives would sometimes but only slightly overlap.  There are also obvious intelligence sharing issues given past experiences with deliberate infiltration of such organizations by insurgent or other threat representatives.

The traditional frontiers between terrorism, insurgency, and criminal activity are blurring. Are these merging? Or can we talk more of a hybridization? FARC and RUF are closer to what recently has been called criminal insurgencies (in referencing the Mexican gangs) while today ISIL seems to capture all these tenets in addition to that of behaving like a conventional army.

I am not a fan of expressing current threats as “hybrid.”  That said, “hybrid” is an effective term for communicating the character of such approaches to politicians and others who might be less familiar with the nature of conflict. Threats today may have capabilities, those more distantly in history did not, but the integration of multiple approaches when servicing objectives has ever been characteristic of conflict.  Communist insurgents in pre-Lenin Russia robbed banks and used other forms of violence to support their insurgent goals just as the FARC, Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups have long blended insurgency, criminality, legitimate behaviors, and additional approaches in pursuit of their sought-after ends. 

Our post-Cold War models of COIN were very much population-centric. But what can we learn about the center of gravity of the criminal insurgencies like FARC and RUF?

Our post-Cold War COIN doctrine was and remains population centric.  There are campaigns for which that should be a predominant element.  The error lies in believing such is inevitable as the cases of the FARC, RUF, and Harold Keke’s Guadalcanal Liberation Front (GLF) in 2003 Solomon Islands make clear.  Narcotics, diamonds, and other resources largely freed the FARC and RUF from dependence on popular support.  Harold Keke’s GLF burned an entire village on southern Guadalcanal island (barring the church) when two of its young men were found taking pictures, something Harold found unacceptable.  It might be said the RUF in Sierra Leone did need support from the population to an extent – e.g., as bearers, under-aged fighters, and sex slaves – but it was not popular support in the sense of that voluntarily given.  In such cases it is counterproductive to believe that the adversary’s center of gravity is popular support. It may not be a center of gravity for any participant.

Most considering counterinsurgency have moved away from the red herring of “the population is the center of gravity.”  Some portions of a population might be centers of gravity, but to plan and operate under the assumption that an entire population is such is counterproductive. Resources dedicated to achieving or maintaining popular support need to be carefully targeted.  No politician would spend his or her time and money attempting to win over every voter.  To do so would waste assets on those obviously firmly in another candidate’s camp. The same thinking should apply when it comes to counterinsurgency. Available resources are far better allocated in seeking to influence those on the fence or already somewhat predisposed to counterinsurgent objectives. Nor will the savvy counterinsurgent fail to commit some of those assets to others seemingly fully committed to the COIN cause.  To do otherwise invites losses when members of such a population segment see the less committed receiving benefits they do not.

You emphasize that population is not always the center of gravity. But in post 2002 Sierra Leone we see this emphasis on new stakeholders by empowering and bringing in core audiences that were not part of the political system, groups that were at the fringe of the society. In time they became the stakeholders of a new order. COIN should be about shaking the status-quo too, trying to create a foundation for stability.

I like to believe in multiple centers of gravity. A portion of the population can be the center of gravity for one or more of the participants, for some insurgents but not others, or for some of the counterinsurgents but perhaps not others. It is critical to maintain consideration of that as a possibility. The danger is the aforementioned: accepting that the support of population always constitutes a center of gravity. At the strategic level in Sierra Leone, the RUF center of gravity was arguably the economic bases the group controlled (diamond mines among them), not the population. Portions of the population might be a center of gravity at one echelon – at the tactical or operational level for example – or in specific part of the country but not elsewhere.

Successful COIN cannot seek merely to maintain the status quo.  Insurgencies arise for reasons, reasons that can be more or less legitimate. Rarely will a return to the status quo ante address underlying grievances or support for the movements capitalizing on these grievances.

What can be learned in terms of influencing the local host government, in terms of governance reform? Most of the time our assumptions about the behavior of the host nation government are too rosy. The reality showed a more complicated reality with patronage networks able to capture the state for their own interests and using the state in predatory and extractive ways. Can these local ways be changed?

This gets at the latter part of your previous discussion point: does COIN inherently involve challenging the status quo? The “local host government” is in actuality many people and many parts of government at many echelons.  Keeping those familiar with local procedures and requirements in their positions is the desired norm if said individuals are competent and not unacceptably corrupt.  The difficulty comes when that is not the case, a situation that Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere have demonstrated is too often the case.  The Philippines was extraordinarily fortunate in having Ramon Magsaysay as a military and political leader in the aftermath of World War II.  The country was very much unfortunate in suffering his untimely loss in a plane crash.

Solutions are far from straightforward.  The case may be one of selecting the least bad course of action (COA) from a set of unattractive COA when it comes to an external counterinsurgent supporting indigenous leaders. The external counterinsurgent must establish standards of performance and ensure they are understood by both its own representatives and public and private officials throughout the threatened country.  Parties funding and otherwise supporting the counterinsurgent effort must maintain coercive means to ensure those standards are met as did Canada and others in not providing funds to corrupt Sierra Leone leaders in the decades immediately following that country’s independence.  Sovereignty should not be tolerated as an excuse for abuse of authority. Failing to maintain such coercion in the external counterinsurgent’s quiver and drawing on it when necessary is even less defensible if one accepts interpretations of sovereignty as residing in the people and not governments.

To what extent is the civic action advocated a long time ago by Magsaysay and General Edward Lansdale an integral part of the current COIN legacy of Philippine?

Civic action is a far more complicated challenge than some realize.  Improperly exercised, it can do more damage than good [e.g., see the research I was fortunate enough to support on behalf of USAID: Evaluation of USAID’s Community Stabilization Program (CSP) in Iraq, The many problems confronted during USAID’s early work in Iraq only begin to hint at the magnitude of that challenge.]  Which are more effective, for example: major infrastructure projects helping thousands or millions but taking years to complete or smaller efforts with near-immediate impact that aid but a few?  What conditions make one or the other or a combination of these more beneficial to counterinsurgent ends…or should an external counterinsurgent undertake such projects at all?  The British in Sierra Leone and Australians in Solomon Islands were relatively conservative in this regard, avoiding massive fund expenditures and thereby limiting the costs of their commitments while avoiding some of the mistakes the above report and others looking at Afghanistan bring to the fore such as introducing technologies that are beyond the capacity of the receiving country to maintain.

What lessons from these recent COIN campaigns would you see applicable in the fight against ISIL? In the end, any military defeat of this proto-state will require a whole of government approach to deal with the existential and governance grievances of the Sunni population.

ISIL is a somewhat different breed of cat than most insurgencies confronted since the Second World War.  That said, it is greatly the result of government failings in Baghdad and a superb example of why in insurgency no less than conventional conflict it is – paraphrasing Michael Howard – essential not to get it too badly wrong.  Keeping Maliki in office in the face of dubious election results was an opportunity missed given the established sectarian policies of his government. 

What lessons from recent campaigns are applicable?

Regardless of how effective non-combat COIN initiatives are, there will be some at the extreme left of the Continuum of Relative Interests that must be physically neutralized.  (The Continuum of Relative Interests is a social threat spectrum with adversaries at the far left and allies at its right; see pages 63-64 in Rethinking Western Approaches to Counterinsurgency  or its original presentation on pages 98-101 in Street Smart: Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield for Urban Operations, available for free download at  Identifying funding sources and denying them to the opponent is critical.  Lessons of value in defusing the effectiveness of ISIL’s social media employment might be taken from Israeli efforts to do the same in their cyber battles with Hamas and other groups.

In my graduate school, I chose for my post-conflict reconstruction class to study the Sierra Leone intervention. I was amazed by how many of the steps taken in that particular campaign had a COIN flavor: the whole of government approach at the core of General David Richards mindset, with the crucial role played by the Department for International Development (DfID), with investments in SSR efforts or in building trust between the reformed security structures (both police and army) and their constituencies-the citizens. However, in very few places this campaign is named and considered as a COIN campaign. So how would you see the relevance of the COIN framework for a textbook SSR campaign or a stability operation?  

I find trying to neatly categorize campaigns somewhat counterproductive.  Sure, for teaching and training purposes it is helpful to have categories of conflict such as insurgency, stability operations, irregular warfare, conventional operations, and the like to aid in understanding what each presents in the way of characteristics and challenges.  As I hopefully make clear in the book, however, spending time on whether campaign X is COIN, counterterrorism (CT), or a beast of some other nature is of little value. Virtually any campaign, operation, or war has elements of various conflict types.  Understanding those types is important in finding solutions to their challenges, but realizing how the many elements of each interact is at least equally significant.  As Rethinking mentions in its discussion of COIN in Colombia, US funding in support of the Colombian government was initially parsed in terms of COIN and CT.  Funds used for CT were not to be used in support of the former.  It took the Colombians to make it clear to US lawmakers that such isolation of threat types was absurd.  COIN and CT provide but some of the approaches an insurgent group might employ, and they do so with no definitive lines between them.  The same is true of what we might learn from the very effective British COIN/stability operation/nation building/whatever-you-want-to-label-it campaign in Sierra Leone. There were sufficient insurgency and counterinsurgency elements involved that labeling the undertaking a COIN campaign is completely justifiable.  But let’s not let the label impede our understanding of how that campaign can offer lessons in realms other than those focusing on insurgency or counterinsurgency.

What does the Sierra Leone case bring to your set of COIN cases?

David Richards showed considerable initiative and a boldness that I think is absolutely essential to COIN. A good counterinsurgent commander has to show initiative. He or she has to have the personality for it and – if not the overt political support – at least a political understanding that grants flexibility in decision-making. It seems the Blair administration was willing to cut Richards the slack necessary to succeeding in Sierra Leone.

Richards had a small professional force and used it wisely. He assumed risk in sending some of his best officers to assist the United Nations so that he could bolster their planning and decision-making capabilities. He decentralized and even dispersed some of his forces to have a greater impact in multiple places. Richards understood that the professionalism of a small group can go a long way. Tactical dispersion was therefore tolerable because he could back remote units by calling on rapid reaction forces if necessary.

He also needed to bring together very different types of capabilities, like UN and former breakaway groups from the Sierra Leone Army. These extended his capabilities in the short term while establishing the foundation for stability in the longer run. He and Sierra Leone leaders also incorporated people in the government who were not the wisest choices from the standpoint of immediate effectiveness and efficiency but were wise selections from a perspective of representing various opposing groups. Richards understood that the benefits of having those individuals’ participation outweighed the loss of efficiency in government operations as long as they were not too corrupt or disruptive. It was a way of creating stakeholders. He gave them a stake, thereby helping to neutralize the forces over which they had influence.

There will inevitably be elements seeking to challenge the in-place government after departure of an external counterinsurgent force. That force needs to signal it is willing to return and reestablish security when conditions require. The return of British forces to Sierra Leone was a highly visible reminder that the UK was a committed guarantor of the peace it had played a great part in restoring. The same happened in Solomon Islands and East Timor with Australian-led coalitions. This willingness to return should be conditional, however. An external counterinsurgent may believe in-place authorities no longer merit such support, a situation that might be attributable to that counterinsurgent’s earlier failures as is at least in part the case in Iraq today or unfortunate evolutions in the newly threatened government.

So strategic patience and commitment is essential in COIN?

Strategic patience is good, but restraint is also called for. Staying with our example of Sierra Leone, the British did a good job of setting objectives and operating within the bounds of those objectives. They didn’t make promises they were unable to keep. They essentially attempted to re-establish stability. They weren’t looking to introduce significant physical infrastructure capabilities that weren’t previously in place as the U.S. tended to do in Afghanistan and to a lesser extent in Iraq. The focus in Sierra Leone was primarily on building human capacity/social infrastructure rather spending millions on physical infrastructure.

So it is a matter of both strategic patience and restraint in addition to commitment. At the same time, you absolutely have to maintain the earlier-mentioned coercive capability. This doesn’t mean coercion will inevitably need to be exercised, and it should likely be exercised only selectively when called for. The British sought to limit corruption in Sierra Leone. They recognized the requirement to create a viable, legitimate government as a minimum condition for preventing a return to violence. As external counterinsurgents, they kept strings on select elements of government by maintaining embedded representatives where necessary. Funding was curtailed or reduced when a component did not perform to established standards. Local leaders who abused funding were removed. Patience and restraint meant objectives were established, propagated, and by and large maintained for a decade or so.

This process constituted what we might call a “soft consistency.” That is, there was a need to retain an ability to adapt, retaining flexibility and ensuring that not everybody was treated the same. There was not blanket punishment if one part of the government performed well while another did not. Rather, those out of line suffered the consequences of coercive maintenance where others did not. External counterinsurgents have to retain means of influencing local government officials until they demonstrate the capability to prevent a renewal of insurgency’s underlying causes. There was not enough in the way of the US retaining such coercive capabilities in Iraq or Afghanistan.

State-building or nation-building? Can these choices be really avoided in COIN? Building institutions and human capacity may be essential to create a foundation for sustainable peace. On the other side an expeditionary counterinsurgent may need to take measures in order to create progress for incentivizing a political reconciliation and a political community, between Sunni and Shia (in Iraq), or between citizens and the state security institutions (like in Sierra Leone). Shouldn’t an expeditionary COIN have both in mind?

Nation-building was certainly not what the British accomplished in Mesopotamia (later Iraq) during and immediately following World War I or Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In both cases they deliberately favored minorities with which they as colonial leaders felt they could more easily work. They turned to a Sunni minority in Iraq, that Tamil in Ceylon. It was a colonial strategy that encouraged division by putting one segment of the population in charge and thereby bestowing on it a vested interest in remaining in power. Cooperation with colonial representatives rather than establishing relationships with other indigenous parties was the means of maintaining favored status. Today’s counterinsurgent should not make a similar mistake by focusing only on building a state, i.e., building government capacity alone. It should also contemplate the feasibility and desirability of building a nation. This is key when attempting to create a socially in addition to politically-cohesive entity. Of course building a nation must be considered a feasible course of action before committing to such an approach.

The US-led coalition certainly didn’t find itself in charge of a nation when they assumed responsibility in 2003 Iraq. As is only too obvious in retrospect, they instead confronted a country with disparate groups groups of Sunnis, Kurds, Shia, and others with cleavages ultimately capitalized on by ISIS. We’ll need to do both state-building and nation-building if we truly seek to create a long lasting, stable, viable entity. The two are inseparable. While in the short run you might be able to get away with building state capacity alone before departing, the in-place government is likely to suffer severe consequences in the longer run. There were some simply foolish decisions made by US authorities regarding Iraq. Why did the US not allow Maliki to be replaced when election results demonstrated he had not won his second election? The alternative leadership might have been little different in the long run, but Maliki had proven himself a sectarian leader hardly in keeping with building a nation. The risk inherent in allowing for a transition would have been a worthy one.  Retention was instead a concrete step constituting a counter to serious nation-building.

The point is that we need to look at counterinsurgency from both state-building and nation-building perspectives, considering them not two parts but instead components of a whole.

In writing about how the Omani handled the Dhofar rebellion, James Worall concluded that “COIN should not be thinking as a binary activity, either on or off. (…) the process of state building itself, in all its variations, is in fact institutionalization of a COIN strategy for long term.” This is particularly an aspect that was lost in the post surge Iraq. But it is a lesson that doesn’t seem lost in Sierra Leone. Is this a key understanding to have in mind in order to avoid the relapse of insurgency? Why is this lost from the institutional memory of public elites?

We in the US, Australia, and most other Western countries don’t tend to think in terms of domestic counterinsurgency because we live in viable, secure states. We have heterogeneity but there is nonetheless a sense of nation. Such is not the case if you are the leader of Iraq, Afghanistan, or many other less fortunate countries. Those leaders cannot assume theirs is a nation. They need to constantly practice both state and nation-building. The British have made tremendous strides forward in Northern Ireland, yet it would be foolish to think there is no longer a possibility of sectarian violence returning. They continue with their counterinsurgency campaign despite violence having dropped to no more than that one would expect of routine criminal activity.  They recognize that counterinsurgency inherently encompasses a broad range of objectives and activities both during its most violent phases and probably for quite an extended period thereafter. A counterinsurgency campaign continues – or should continue – as long as core grievances exist. The longest and most difficult phase may be when armed insurgents no longer pose the primary concern.

What prevents the relapse of insurgency?

The inability or unwillingness to address those underlying grievances risks resurrection. Grievances are not the only causes of an insurgency. Insurgency is not going to happen without the leadership necessary to ignite the tinder. But you can expect an inflammation when you don’t address those grievances and leadership is in place or in the wings. It is vital not to mistaken insurgents’ operational pauses for victory, nor – to reinforce the point just made above – to believe that defeat of today’s insurgent forces constitutes the end of a counterinsurgency campaign. The latter is where “unwillingness” is most likely to rear its ugly head. Counterinsurgencies tend to be long, expensive in terms of money and lives, and frustrating.  Early departure by external counterinsurgents or declarations of victory prior to sufficient suppression of grievances are politically expedient but strategically shortsighted. As colleague David Maxwell is fond of reminding us, it is wise to think in terms of “success so far” rather than ultimate success when it comes to counterinsurgency. Articulated slightly differently, “progress” rather than “success” is the wiser description until those grievances have truly been put to rest and the government in place promises to be one unlikely to inspire their return.

Look at the rise of ISIS. The government in Baghdad was blatantly sectarian and we in the coalition tolerated that state of affairs. The fact that there was dispossessed group – one of significant size, capability, and possessing viable leadership – means it should little surprise that we have seen the return of insurgency. As long as you have factional differences that remain unaddressed, as long as the central government lacks a monopoly on the use of legitimate force, and as long as there are leaders ready to inspire those believing their grievances are legitimate, you are going to face the threat of insurgency.

Counterinsurgency success is attainable. Most in Northern Ireland are now committed to creating a cohesive community. The promise of sustained progress and eventual success is far greater because of British strategic patience, decades of restraint, and commitment to building a nation. Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, and southern Philippines are among those contingencies in which there is considerable promise of continued counterinsurgent progress. We can learn much from these and other campaigns considered in Rethinking Western Approaches to Counterinsurgency, to include that essential lesson of not presuming success as long as grievances and potential for insurgent leadership remain.  

ISIS is at the nexus of insurgency and proto-state. It provides public goods, it protects its population, it’s a response to core Sunni grievances in relation with both Damascus and Baghdad. Bombing here and there while important will not change the fact that ISIS is deeply rooted in Sunni communities and their grievances. What do your COIN cases suggest that we need to have in mind in order to fight ISIS effectively? Should the international community reverse engineering ISIS strengths on all these fronts (protection, governance, grievances)?

We need to avoid getting carried away and granting ISIS greater legitimacy than is merited.  Christopher “Dudus” Coke and Pablo Escobar provided security of a sort and other public services in Kingston, Jamaica and Medellin, Colombia, respectively. Gangs in a number of cities worldwide do likewise today. They no more do so for the public good than does ISIS serve those residing in areas it occupies.

There are a number of lessons the eight counterinsurgencies considered in Rethinking might offer when considering the ISIS insurgency. Most obvious is a point already made: “the population” is certainly not the center of gravity for either insurgent or counterinsurgent forces in Iraq.  There might be considerable support for the group amongst some elements of the Sunni population, but many are the other segments, Sunni and otherwise, which are persecuted, poorly served, or have other reasons for providing ISIS little support. Winning – or maintaining – the support of these various groups may have value for either the insurgents or counterinsurgents, but such support will not itself resolve ongoing challenges. Arguing that portions of the Sunni population in ISIS occupied areas comprise one or more strategic centers of gravity for both insurgent and counterinsurgent is arguably a more viable approach. The insurgents’ success in generating support is at least in part attributable to the sectarianism, corruption, and other flaws in previous or present Iraqi and Syrian governments.  It is likely that long-term resolution of these conflicts will not be forthcoming until underlying dissatisfaction receives substantive attention.

Let’s be similarly careful in not lending too much weight to what the military alone will achieve.  These are not cases like those in recent Chechnya and Sri Lanka where the largely unrestrained use of force eventually precipitated counterinsurgency victory…at least in the immediate term (at tremendous cost in noncombatant lives and welfare). International nation state forces are supporting counterinsurgent or insurgent movements in Iraq and Syria. Yet one might ask, “Supporting what?” This external military support might help in containing an area falling under sway of insurgents, but both short-term and longer-term resolution will remain unattainable in the absence of a viable approach incorporating those elements of government able to resolve grievances, provide security for all rather than just select groups, and build nations. Another possibility is to assist in creation of federalized sub-states acceptable to their citizenry. Post-Dayton Accords Bosnia is hardly the ideal, but it is unquestionably a superior state of affairs to the violence that wracks Iraq. Addressing grievances and achieving agreement between disputing parties is far easier in the absence of war.

These are but two insights we might draw from the cases considered in Rethinking. There are many others, too many to do other than touch on a few. Is democracy really the best way ahead in either Iraq or Syria in the near term? Might we not argue that an overzealous pursuit of a Western-type democracy in Iraq is partially at fault for bringing such flawed leaders to office? Would it be unfair to remind some of our Western leaders that an in-place authority must earn our support, that mere occupation of office does not constitute sufficient reason to back an individual or party? We seem to recognize such is the case in Syria yet worse than merely ineffective heads of government continued to receive US support in Iraq and Afghanistan well after they showed their true stripes. It would likewise be worth recalling that maintaining sufficient leverage over those receiving our aid could mitigate abuses by those in power if we continue to find ourselves helping rebuild government capacity in these or other countries.

And we should again remind ourselves that COIN is by no means dead. Counterinsurgency will exist as long as does insurgency. Ongoing conflicts demonstrate that insurgency is not only alive but constantly evolving and continuing to pose an unwanted threat to many of the world’s millions.

Megacities are proliferating globally. As are the slums and the shantytowns inside them as well as the deep grievances and gaps between communities. By 1969, 11 of every 12 city Catholics lived in Ulster’s slums while unemployment was the highest in UK. Does this Northern Ireland’s snapshot provide a warning for the future?

“The Troubles” existed long before 1969 and the concentration of Catholics in Northern Ireland’s less desirable communities. Gerrymandering of voting districts, inequitable allocation of public services, Stormont’s sectarian politics, and many other factors underlie problems that plagued the north of Ireland in the latter decades of the 20th century.  To attribute causation to concentration in low-income, high unemployment communities would be badly misconstruing the situation.  That concentration was more reflective than causative. 

However, the broader question of whether slums are potential sources of unrest and insurgency is an interesting one.  That they can be what I call “other-governed” areas is evident in the previous references to Coke and Escobar in Kingston and Medellin respectively. That they can provide safe havens for insurgents was apparent in Tamil Tiger use of supportive elements in Colombo, Sri Lanka communities prior to several of the insurgent group’s high-profile strikes against national government targets. Nairobi slums house members of and those sympathizing with Al Shabaab. Gangs control public transportation and manipulate politicians in a number of Africa’s other major urban areas. Could these slums be flashpoints for national insurgencies? Certainly, and the larger the slum, the easier it is for subversive activities to remain beyond the reach of government authorities. But activities in contiguous urbanization are more easily contained by regimes willing to use force, regimes that can also deny necessities such as water, food, medical care, power, or exercise other means of control. Myriad eyes and ears make insurgent counterintelligence difficult. The counterinsurgent undoubtedly needs to take the challenges inherent in urban slums into account during its operations, but those challenges are likely going to be part of larger problems rather than its sole focus.  Consider Saddam City in Baghdad. Certainly not a nice neighborhood, it was rarely if ever the primary concern of the coalition post-early 2003, nor would have solving that slum’s many issues ended the insurgency.

About the Author(s)

Octavian Manea was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University) where he received an MA in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced  Studies in Security Studies.