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Six Requirements for Success in Modern Counterinsurgency
Martin Myklebust and Tom Ordeman
In recent counterinsurgency operations, Western military forces have been slow to adapt, and slow to adopt lessons learned in comparable prior conflicts. By undertaking a detailed study of two such conflicts – the Algerian Revolution of 1954-1962, and the Dhofar Rebellion of 1970-1976 – six overarching lessons for success and failure in COIN operations were revealed. In the following essay, these lessons are detailed, informing recommendations for both policy-makers and warfighters engaged in future conflicts of these and other comparable types.
With the end of the Cold War, the United States and its allies found themselves in possession of unparalleled conventional military prowess based on the combination of professional military forces and revolutionary advances in military technology. As a result of Western military interventions in such theaters as Latin America (Grenada 1983, Panama 1989), the Persian Gulf (1991, 1998), the Horn of Africa (1992-1995) and the Balkans (1995, 1999), forces opposed to the West have largely shifted their methods away from conventional warfare. Unable to close with and defeat conventional forces on a traditional battlefield, state and sub-state actors have adopted both ground tactics and overall strategies increasingly reminiscent of such insurgencies as the Soviet-Afghan and Vietnam Wars. In recent years, asymmetric conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have proved challenging for Western forces whose doctrine and equipment have been carefully optimized for potential conflicts against other conventional armies, and whose societies have a low tolerance threshold for long, costly campaigns.
Of course, insurgency is an ancient method of engaging in the Clausewitzian clash of wills between one group or another. From Rome's campaigns against the Celtic and Germanic tribes, to the imperial British operations during the Anglo-Afghan and Boer Wars, history is rife with examples of clashes between armies and insurgents. Although such classic examples may provide lessons within the Clausewitzian "logic" of war, the fluid "grammar"[i] of warfare directs strategists to focus their examinations on modern counterinsurgency (COIN) campaigns - both successful and unsuccessful - to evaluate the critical elements a COIN force must employ in order to prosecute successful COIN campaigns.
With these factors in mind, this study consider on six major requirements for successful COIN operations in a modern context. Specific examples illustrating these six requirements derive from two specific case studies. As an example of success, the relatively neglected 1970-1975 Dhofar Rebellion in Oman has been chosen. France's unsuccessful 1954-1962 Algerian campaign provided an apt case study in COIN failure. While numerous COIN campaigns would have been relevant, the conflicts in question offered clear, distinct examples to illustrate the six critical requirements for modern COIN success.
This analysis has been informed by a variety of classic and contemporary sources on the topic. These included military doctrinal literature, academic sources on both insurgency and specific conflicts, and the writings of recognized insurgent and guerrilla leaders of the recent past. Inter alia, together with Sun Tzu's admonition to "know the enemy and know yourself"[ii], Clausewitz's “trinity”, and his guidance on understanding "centers of gravity",[iii] especially informs the observations below.
The core philosophies informing this analysis are derived from the concept of population-centric COIN, and the Maoist model of guerrilla warfare/insurgency. Population-centric COIN, as espoused by such strategists as David Galula, David Kilcullen, and David Petraeus, involves fighting the insurgency not by focusing on killing insurgents themselves; but rather, by assisting the host nation government (HNG) in meeting the economic, security, and political needs of the population, thus denying the insurgent the popular support necessary to continue the insurgency.
Meanwhile, the Maoist model of guerrilla warfare/insurgency establishes a methodology marked by undermining the sitting government through guerrilla or terrorist attacks, gradually building strength through a constantly growing support base within the population, and eventually replacing the sitting government once enough strength has been amassed. Population-centric COIN encompasses the current COIN doctrine within Western militaries, while many non-Communist insurgent groups have adapted the Maoist system (and, to a lesser degree, the Guevaran "Foco" theory) to fit their own objectives.
Overview of Case Studies
By 1954, close to a million of pieds-noirs (ethnically Europeans), lived in Algeria. A colony since 1830, Algeria was by definition a part of France by 1954. As Algerian nationalism rose and increasing unrest among the population created tension, the pieds-noirs felt abandoned by the administration in Paris. The war was complex; it was another bloody chapter of French decolonisation, the French forces experienced resistance of magnitude, and France risked a coup d’état. While our illustrations focus on the insurgent movement of the Front de la Libération Nationale (FLN, also known colloquially as "fellagha", Arabic for "bandits") and the general revolutionary insurgency movement in Algeria, it is the case that the parallel movement among the pieds-noirs themselves constituted a form of insurgency that further complicated the situation in Algeria.
As the Algerian War was drawing to a close, another insurgency was arising in the southern Omani province of Dhofar. The conflict accelerated in 1970 when provocateurs from the neighboring communist state of South Yemen, armed and trained by Moscow and Beijing, played upon Dhofari discontent stemming from the reign of Sultan Said bin Taimur. The resulting insurgency of the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Arabian Gulf (and later, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman) - known colloquially as the "adoo", Arabic for "enemy" - threatened to put the Strait of Hormuz and a strategic Western ally in the Soviet orbit - nine years before the unexpected Islamic Revolution in neighboring Iran would further jeopardize the key energy shipping lane. The British intervened to help the heir, Sultan Qaboos, to depose his father, after which Omani forces - assisted by Britain, Imperial Iran, Jordan, and Pakistan - embarked upon a unified campaign of development, modernization, COIN, and reconciliation.
Requirement #1: A Credible Local/Host Nation Government Counterpart
"Success in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations requires establishing a legitimate government supported by the people and able to address the fundamental causes that insurgents use to gain support. Achieving these goals requires the host nation to defeat insurgents or render them irrelevant, uphold the rule of law, and provide a basic level of essential services and security for the populace."
- FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 Counterinsurgency Field Manual, 2006[iv]
Insurgencies are built upon popular grievances with the HNG. HNGs that are seen as illegitimate, corrupt, or ineffective contribute to passive or active support for insurgents from among the local populace. If the HNG is seen as legitimate, fair, and effective at addressing the basic needs and grievances of the populace, the insurgency will not receive the recruits, logistical support, and popular approval it needs to succeed.
Algeria: A Host Nation Identity Crisis
Contrary to Tunisia and Morocco, former French colonies which were granted sovereignty in March of 1956, Algeria was regarded by the French government and people as an integral department of France. "L’Algerie, c’est la France!" was a well known and frequently stated notion that defined French political strategy of the 1950s. Thus, instead of handling the challenges alongside a host nation, the policymakers approached the campaign as an internal governance issue within the French state. There was, therefore, a disconnect between the French policymakers' perception of Algeria, and the contemporary concept of a "host nation" within the classical model of an intervention between states.
The French had a certain situational awareness in relation to tendencies within the Algerian government, but not when considering political movements in the more critical rural areas; these became the heartland of the FLN. The FLN defined its war, with its precision and skills, aimed at two fronts: the French authority and the Algerian people.[v] The result was that both the European French government, and the local Algerian government, lacked credibility with the local populace.
The Algerian War came at a difficult time in French history. Poor French administration of the country and its resources in the aftermath of defeat in Indochina resulted in grave effects on the war in Algeria. The French political and military establishments suffered in economic terms, as well as in public opinion and related force endurance, all of which are critical to success in COIN operations.
Owing to these factors, the French government chronically underfunded development and governance programs in Algeria and repeatedly failed to deliver on promises of economic and social reforms, further undermining French credibility among the pieds-noirs as well as the indigenous populace. French efforts to pacify Algeria were further complicated by the ill-fated 1956 Anglo-French operation in the Suez Crisis.[vi]
While the French government and its local counterpart lacked this credibility, the FLN enjoyed widespread credibility among the local populace. Despite numerous setbacks and missteps on their part, the FLN narrative became increasingly resonant among the indigenous population with every excess committed by French troops.
Dhofar: Eliminating Questions of Legitimacy
Sultan Said bin Taimur was universally unpopular in Muscat and Oman, which were treated as two different political units. A great deal of the animosity among the Dhofaris and the rest of his subjects stemmed from his austere administration of the nation, combined with the particular marginalization of Dhofar in national affairs.
With British support, Sultan Qaboos deposed Sultan Said in in July of 1970, eliminating the argument of regime illegitimacy. Sultan Qaboos immediately established the unified Sultanate of Oman to eliminate the political distinction between the capital and the interior. Sultan Qaboos was also half Dhofari himself, complementing his existing lineal mandate with an ethnic and regional legitimacy.
Perhaps as critical to the success of the COIN campaign was Sultan Qaboos' training and experience. As Sultan Said's sole heir, Sultan Qaboos learned civil administration from the British, trained at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and served in West Germany as an officer with the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). Upon his accession, Sultan Qaboos embarked on an aggressive campaign of modernization, development, and reconciliation to eliminate the grievances fueling the insurgency.[vii]
Sultan Qaboos' perceived legitimacy as a monarch and growing credibility as a governor and administrator were critical to the success of the ensuing COIN campaign. At present, he not only remains in power, but remains widely popular amongst the citizens of Oman.
Requirement #2: A Coherent Mission and Operational Mandate
"The government must have a clear political aim: to establish and maintain a free, independent and united country which is politically and economically stable and viable."
- Sir Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency[viii]
Insurgencies exist due to particular conditions that are unique to each conflict. A COIN campaign must be designed to address the specific conditions that inspire insurgents and their supporters to initiate and continue the conflict. Counterinsurgents should avoid "mission creep", i.e. the assignment of additional goals beyond the immediate mandate of ending the insurgency. This often requires knowledge of the human terrain in order to understand which solutions are appropriate to the local populace, and which are beyond the scope of the counterinsurgent's mission and resourcing.
A Constantly Changing French Mandate
The Algerian uprising became a protracted war, composed of many intricate stages. While the war shifted directions as time passed, French forces did not manage to meet these changes in a satisfactory way. During the war new sets of insurgent modus operandi emerged, forcing the COIN force to adapt. The conduct of COIN turned progressively more complex, and new FLN tactics imposed changes on French strategy.
Besides the tactical aspects of adapting military doctrine, French relations with neighbouring states affected their campaign in Algeria. One example of this was the arrest of FLN leader Ahmed Ben Bella, which took place in the absence of any preferable alternative. Instead of an assassination (which had been ordered), Ben Bella was arrested, revealing the FLN relationship with Morocco.[ix] This, in turn, soured relations between France and Morocco at several levels, making it more difficult to accomplish strategic goals such as controlling the flow of FLN personnel and resources in the border regions.
Regarding a viable exit strategy, the French intervening forces had little relevant experience from which to draw. This deficiency influenced the campaign long before one could see an end to it. As David Galula notes: "lack of doctrine and experience in what to do after a military operation, among other things, precluded a clear-cut French success".[x] Even though it will always be complicated to plan and predict the time frame for any military operation, a thorough analysis of possible exit strategies is necessary.
These factors, combined with those mentioned above with respect to host nation credibility, led to frequent shifts in both military and political strategies, resulting in a constant revision of objectives and a progressively less coherent mission. As the French could never settle on a clear vision for an end state in Algeria, a long-term strategy for reaching that end state became impossible. This failure on the part of the French policymakers played a direct factor in the 1961 mutiny among French forces.
By contrast, the FLN mission and mandate was coherent and simple: to expel France from Algeria.
Setting Realistic Goals in Dhofar
The Sultan's of Oman's Armed Forces (SOAF), with supporting forces from Britain, Pakistan, Imperial Iran, and Jordan, shared a unified mission. A whole of government approach was applied to address specific civil grievances with development and improved local and national governance. This was combined and closely coordinated with the military objective of detaining and reconciling Dhofaris, killing hardcore insurgents, and interdicting insurgent logistics. The COIN mandate was simple, specific, and carefully coordinated.
As Ian Gardiner notes, the mandate in Oman was not to turn Dhofar into the equivalent of a British county. Instead, the unified COIN campaign set goals that were both realistic given the available resources, and appropriate to the location in question. Mission creep was avoided:[Sultan Qaboos] may not have been democratic but he was accountable in an indirect way. The lesson of what happens when you are not responsive to your people's needs had been taken fully on board. Sultan Qaboos was a benevolent autocrat who, with the freedom of action that his victory allowed him, has gently but surely advanced his country on a liberalising course towards more directly accountable government. We were not expecting instant democracy to emerge out of the victory on the jebel. But we knew that Qaboos would slowly ease things forward at its own pace.[xi]
The SOAF and allied forces enjoyed the benefit of a specific, unified mission that balanced the capabilities and duties of those involved to undermine the insurgency in an efficient, effective, and permanent manner. This unity of effort and simplicity of purpose proved critical to their ultimate success.
Requirement #3: Control of the Physical and Human Terrain
"Twenty counterinsurgents per 1000 residents is often considered the minimum troop density required for effective COIN operations; however as with any fixed ratio, such calculations remain very dependent upon the situation."
- FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 Counterinsurgency Field Manual, 2006[xii]
"Conduct toward the civil population ought to be regulated by a large respect for all the rules and traditions of the people of the zone, in order to demonstrate effectively, with deeds, the moral superiority of the guerrilla fighter over the oppressing soldier."
- Ernesto "Che" Guevara, "Guerrilla Warfare", 1961[xiii]
"[T]he strongest weapon which the mujahedeen enjoy - after the help and granting of success by God - is popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq, and the surrounding Muslim countries. So, we must maintain this support as best we can, and we should strive to increase it[.]"
- Ayman al Zawahiri, letter to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, 2005[xiv]
"I don't get intelligence off a satellite. Iraqis tell me who the enemy is."
- General James N. Mattis, USMC
Insurgents thrive on freedom of movement, which is facilitated by knowledge and control of the physical terrain, and ability to benefit from the human terrain. In order to succeed, counterinsurgents must have a large enough force to deliver security in urban and rural areas. The counterinsurgent force must also have a strong familiarity with the human terrain. This requires the counterinsurgent force to build relationships with the local populace in order to gather information while providing the local populace with a non-abstract alternative order to that of the insurgent force. A crucial corollary to the physical terrain includes mobility, provided in the modern operating environment (OE) by helicopters and surface (ground or water) vehicles that are appropriate to the OE (mountain, desert, jungle, etc.). Crucial corollaries within the human terrain include social knowledge of language, culture, local individuals and groups, and the relationship of individuals and groups to one another.
A French – Algerian Culture Gap
Prior to the war, the accepted status quo in Algeria was defined by an overarching security vacuum, owing to poor French provision for security forces and law enforcement personnel. As stated previously, French situational awareness of the political and security situation in Algeria, particularly in the rural heartland of the FLN, suffered from French complacency owing to their longstanding presence.
The size and features of the physical environment, and the number of security force personnel required to cover a single préfet adequately, was immense; in fact, it was well beyond the grasp of the handful of security personnel provided by the French authorities. A security vacuum was, therefore, inevitable. As such, this aspect of the Algerian security situation clearly play a central role in understanding the difficulties that were to come.[xv]
The French forces’ lack of "own" security personnel in the Algerian countryside resulted in sparse access to intelligence-valuable indications in the early stages of the campaign, despite reports of escalating unrest from Algerian police. Basic procedures of intelligence collection and processing were not followed,[xvi] and the counterinsurgency began on the wrong foot, never to recover.
Complex physical environments in the OE characterised and affected French COIN operations. Even though many French policymakers and troops knew the Algerian geography, it was all very different from Indochina. Algeria's mountainous heartland, long coastlines, and urban environments offered a set of treacherous challenges. As such, Algeria became "a different war". Sophisticated French forces were forced to abandon new, specialized tactics and equipment developed after World War II, and return to traditional light infantry disciplines such as patrolling and scouting in order to cope with the challenges in the Algerian OE.
Control of the physical and human terrain is a zero sum game. Because the COIN force failed to control either, the FLN were able to influence both deeply.
Securing Territory, Securing Support
Though constrained by logistics and manpower in Oman, the SOAF and its allies were able to deploy enough personnel to control the physical terrain. With a combination of native Omani soldiers, Baluchis recruited from southwest Pakistan, and an officer corps consisting primarily of seconded British officers, the SOAF consisted of four main regiments that were able to rotate in and out of combat operations in Dhofar. Control of the physical terrain included providing security for villages, conducting targeted patrols to disrupt adoo operations, and establishing fortifications to disrupt adoo supply trains. These controls denied the free use of the physical terrain to the adoo.
The SOAF simultaneously targeted the human terrain. A deliberate "hearts and minds" campaign included such measures as medical and veterinary services, increased access to education, infrastructure projects, and economic investment. Adoo who surrendered were offered both amnesty and the opportunity to join the Sultan's payroll as members of the regional militias, known as the "firqat". British forces assigned by the MoD or seconded to the SOAF learned to speak Arabic, learned and respected local customs, and embedded with the SOAF, either as seconded personnel or as advisors. The COIN forces nearly all spoke the local language fluently and practiced Islam, or spoke the local language adequately and respected the local culture. As we shall note later, this campaign was in direct contrast to the philosophy and conduct of the insurgents.[xvii]
By controlling the physical terrain with appropriate tactics and equipment, and by controlling the human terrain with appropriate civil affairs and cultural knowledge, the SOAF and their allies were able to undermine popular support for the insurgency.
Requirement #4: An Effective System of Logistics
"In counterinsurgency, there is frequently no distinction between forward and rear, especially when logistic bases form a hub and spoke system. In an era of 360° resupply operations, logistic troops have to be appropriately trained to enable them to ‘fight logistics through’; they must be as capable as their teeth arm counterparts."
- British Army Field Manual Volume 1 Part 10, Countering Insurgency, 2009[xviii]
"The guerrilla soldier must never forget the fact that it is the enemy that must serve as his source of supply of ammunition and arms."
- Ernesto "Che" Guevara, "Guerrilla Warfare", 1961[xix]
Regardless of whether or not insurgents are supplied by a foreign patron, insurgent forces will seek to raid counterinsurgent supplies, and to disrupt counterinsurgent operations. Effective logistics is critical to counterinsurgent success. This includes vigorous force protection for supply trains and logistical storage depots to mitigate the risk of insurgent attempts to destroy or acquire supplies.
Enabling Insurgents with Poor Interdiction
As a result of the longstanding French settlement of most of North Africa, Algeria's economy and infrastructure were relatively well established, and force had been utilized there before. Despite this fact, the COIN force experienced a lack of resources, hampering their ability to operate effectively. Even though the short distance to France was favourable, the features of the OE, with all its specific challenges, became a limitation for the French forces in terms of resupply and effective tactical communication. The COIN campaign suffered from the French government's failure to resource the military, civil affairs, and governance efforts.[xx]
On the other hand, and owing to the French failure to control the physical and human terrain, the insurgents possessed sufficient freedom of movement to maintain their momentum: lightly equipped, and able to move as civilians, the FLN possessed the ability to move personnel and materiel among the civilian populace. They experienced the advantages of a "classic" insurgency.
Interdiction and Efficiency
The SOAF enjoyed logistical success on two different fronts.
First, the SOAF's own logistics were carefully managed. Contrary to modern campaigns, the COIN campaign in Dhofar had a limited budget. Limited supplies were carefully coordinated by meticulous supply officers and delivered primarily by Bell 214 and Westland Wessex helicopters, and by Short SC.7 Skyvan airplanes, to remote outposts that were typically inaccessible by road. Supplies were appropriate to the conflict, and distributed to allow troops to operate effectively despite often austere conditions.
The SOAF simultaneously conducted effective interdiction and denial operations against PFLOAG/PFLO logistics. Patrols disrupted adoo supply movements, while the establishment of the fortified Hornbeam, Damavand, and Hammer Lines running from the coast into the mountains made adoo logistical transportation increasingly difficult as the conflict continued. The SOAF also made expert use of both land mines and pre-registered indirect fires targeting to disrupt known adoo supply lines. As a critical element of foreign support to the PFLOAG/PFLO was weapons and materiel, the inability to move these supplies reliably severely hindered the insurgents' efforts.[xxi]
Requirement #5: Control of Information, Effective Information Operations
"However, despite all of this, I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma. And that however far our capabilities reach, they will never be equal to one thousandth of the capabilities of the kingdom of Satan that is waging war on us. And we can kill the captives by bullet. That would achieve that which is sought after without exposing ourselves to the questions and answering to doubts. We don't need this."
- Ayman al Zawahiri, letter to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, 2005[xxii]
Insurgents counter numerical inferiority with information, often inaccurate information, which is critical to influencing the sentiment of the local populace. COIN forces must actively counter this effort. This includes disseminating information about insurgent crimes and excesses, being prepared to immediately dispel insurgent accusations or claims of victory.
An Information-Conscious Adversary
The FLN possessed a well-developed and structured network for spreading information and propaganda, both in rural and urban environments. Even though these activities were expensive, the FLN managed on sparse resources. A well-known characteristic of asymmetric warfare, solid information operations demand money. Besides all the other expenses the Algerian insurgents had to manage, they were able to conduct efficient information operations (IO).[xxiii] By combining IO with guerrilla tactics and the utilization of terror as an instrument, the Algerian insurgents achieved an unbeatable grip on both rural and urban areas of operations.
FLN tactics fed into an overall strategy of safeguarding their own information, collecting critical information about French forces, and controlling the narrative among the populace. In terms of addressing challenges tied to information operations, the Algerian insurgents utilized specific organizational frameworks and, critically, operational security, making it difficult for the French to map insurgent networks. One example was the FLN tactic of insulating their personnel: each operative knew only the identity of his immediate senior, and his two immediate subordinates, in order to prevent one operative's detention from disrupting the entire network. FLN operatives were also known to use noms de guerre.
In modern COIN operations, the conduct of information operations is not unfamiliar. In modern Afghanistan, the Taliban have managed to utilize the same kind of dynamic combination of insurgency disciplines.[xxiv]
The French, for their part, tried to counter this tendency. L'organisation Rurale et Urbaine (ORU), the rural and urban organisation, constantly worked on a unified effort towards securing the cornerstone of an insurgency: winning the people. By targeting the villages at its residences, e.g. in the mountainous, densely populated areas in Kabyla, the French intended to address the locals.
Failure to control the physical and human terrain contributed to an overall French failure in the realm of information, including intelligence collection and narrative control. Owing to frustration from seeing both that the insurgents had a solid grip on the populace, and that it was difficult to distinguish between insurgents and innocents, the French turned to extreme measures.[xxv] These measures created a negative spiral of effects which became impossible to reverse. By employing intimidation and torture, the French compromised fragile intelligence collection processes – and lost the support of both the Algerian populace and the international community. In all actuality, the French likely lost the war at that very point.
Winning Hearts and Minds
In Oman, the SOAF and their allies excelled in two key aspects of information operations: collection of intelligence, and dissemination of information.
While signals intelligence was limited, aerial intelligence of both the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) and of Dhofar itself was accomplished by using English Electric Canberra PR9 light bombers re-tasked for aerial photography. Of much greater importance was human intelligence (HUMINT), which was available from the cooperative populace, and from co-opted former rebels who were intimately familiar with both the physical and human terrain. These former rebels were folded into the aforementioned firqat militias, and operated as auxiliaries and scouts in support of the SOAF itself. Of critical importance in the HUMINT effort was the ability of not only the native Omani SOAF personnel, but also of the seconded British personnel, to speak Arabic.[xxvi]
Also of great importance was the ability to control the narrative among the populace. SOAF psychological operations efforts successfully highlighted adoo reprisals against the local populace while simultaneously showcasing the Sultanate's development campaign, notes former British Army veterinarian Andrew Higgins.[xxvii] Of great importance was the SOAF's success in publicizing the atheist nature of the adoo's Marxist ideology, a critical incongruity in a region dominated by devout adherence to Ibadhi Islam. British personnel attributed unit successes to the local national forces in order to build trust in the national institutions, as well as esprit de corps among the Omani military personnel.
While military doctrine appropriately separates intelligence and information operations, the key lesson from Dhofar was the overall control of information: reliable HUMINT and other forms of intelligence were cultivated and applied with stunning success, while the IO campaign controlled the narrative and gave the Dhofaris the moral and intellectual justification to support the COIN forces.
Requirement #6: An Ineffective/Illegitimate Insurgent Force
"Because guerrilla warfare basically derives from the masses and is supported by them, it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and cooperation."
- Mao Tse-tung, "On Guerrilla Warfare", 1937[xxviii]
"We don't want to repeat the mistake of the Taliban, who restricted participation in governance to the [Taliban] and the people of Kandahar alone. They did not have any representation for the Afghan people in their ruling regime, so the result was that the Afghan people disengaged themselves from them. Even devout ones took the stance of the spectator and, when the invasion came, the amirate collapsed in days, because the people were either passive or hostile. Even the [Taliban] themselves had a stronger affiliation to their tribes and their villages than their affiliation to the Islamic amirate or the Taliban movement or the responsible party in charge of each one of them in his place. Each of them retreated to his village and his tribe, where his affiliation was stronger."
- Ayman al Zawahiri, letter to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, 2005[xxix]
"No war is over until the enemy says it's over. We may think it over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote."
- General James N. Mattis, USMC
Insurgents are prone to ineffectiveness. This can take many forms: goals or beliefs that are inconsistent with the values of the local populace (Dhofar Rebellion), foreign insurgents attempting to insert themselves into local matters (Anbar Province, Iraq; Afghanistan), or disproportionate violence (Anbar Province, Northern Ireland). COIN forces must be prepared to seize opportunities provided by the insurgents themselves.
A Blueprint for Insurgency
The French COIN force got many things right in Algeria; however, its adversaries were extremely well organized and funded. The FLN became such an effective movement in conducting an insurgency that its model has been followed by other groups eager to achieve similar outcomes.[xxx]
The FLN became famous for employing three different disciplines of theatre control. First, it employed guerrilla warfare as a technique, with all of the standard operational procedures specific to that style of fighting. Second, it used terrorism as a tool of political influence. Third, it established a parallel political administration (sometimes referred to as a "shadow state") while the war was ongoing.
The narrative component of the FLN insurgency was so strong that all central parties of the organisation were convinced that victory, and by that an independent government, would prevail.[xxxi] This, in turn, led to the pre-planning of a critical strategy to achieve the desired end state; in fact, “desired” is a misnomer, as the FLN nurtured an organizational philosophy in which its victory was inevitable. During the war itself, this political consciousness among many echelons of the insurgency made the movement even harder for the French forces to defeat.
The Doomed Adoo
Ian Gardiner makes the following generous concession about the PFLOAG/PFLO:
The real success of the 'losing side' lies in the extent to which, through their efforts and their sacrifice, they forced their opponents to adjust their own attitudes and approaches in order to beat them. By this yardstick, the Dhofaris were hugely successful. They forced the removal of a hated ruler and brought about the transformation of their country in a way which even the most farsighted of them could not have imagined in 1965.[xxxii]
At the same time, none would consider the adoo to have "won" in any military or political sense of the word. At the outset of the Dhofar Rebellion, the PFLOAG/PFLO enjoyed an advantage which, in all fairness, should have been decisive. In mid-1970, the war was theirs to lose. The COIN force of the SOAF and its allies waged an effective COIN campaign, but its success was due in large part to adoo failures and missteps.
Typical of insurgents, and particularly insurgents of the revolutionary Communist model, the adoo were keen on dominating the populace through fear, repression, and violence. As mentioned previously, the adoo also deprived themselves of legitimacy by subscribing to a supposedly "universal" ideology that was politically, socially, and economically incompatible with the traditional culture of the local populace. The adoo also failed on a more tactical level; for example, poor weapons maintenance (particularly of grenade fuses) contributed to their stunning defeat by a mere handful of British and Omani personnel at the Battle of Mirbat in 1972. The insurgents also failed to adapt their tactics, as well as their overall strategy, to undermine the COIN campaign waged by Sultan Qaboos and his allies..
Had the adoo adopted a more moderate ideology and less brutal methods - for example, an Arab nationalist model like the ones that took hold in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Libya in the decades prior - the monarchy may very well have collapsed, with devastating results for the Omani people. Instead, the adoo undermined their own agenda with their brutality and incompatible philosophy. In a few short years, Sultan Qaboos and his allies were able to overcome the seemingly insurmountable disdain for Sultan Said amongst the populace.
Strategic Observations and Additional Best Practices
In addition to the six requirements already listed, there are several additional "best practices". While these do not meet the "requirement" level for successful modern insurgency, there are historical examples in which these tactics, techniques, and procedures contribute significantly to the likelihood of success in COIN campaigns.
First, clear understanding of the salience and applicability of the Clausewitzian Trinity is necessary. Contrary to the assertion of such prominent COIN commentators as Martin van Creveld and Ralph Peters[xxxiii] that insurgencies undermine the Clausewitzian Trinity, the rise of sub-state actors is a mere caveat. The Clausewitzian Trinity remains accordingly legitimate with respect to the political establishment, military, and population of both the host nation and, in the case of military coalitions, the nations sending forces to participate in the conflict. The caveat answering this criticism exists merely to note that sub-state actors - who are typically attempting to overthrow and replace the sitting government - must also establish a stable Clausewitzian Trinity between insurgent political leadership, combatants, and their potential host nation constituency. HNG forces must maintain the support of the host nation populace, and military assistance (MA) forces must maintain the support of their own populace - support which was notably absent the longer the French were in Algeria.
Second is a caveat to the need for a COIN campaign to focus on achieving support from the host nation populace. While the people in the rural areas of a state are often dependent on predictable agricultural outcomes, they are also the most exposed to insurgents’ use of force. The case of an insurgency from below emphasizes the value of training and arming local manpower in order to prevent insurgents from establishing control over the rural population.[xxxiv] Such an initiative at grassroots level is favourable in many ways as seen throughout this study. It is also worth noting that this will not succeed without regular support from a major armed force, as the French supported the harkis in Algeria and the Sultan's Armed Forces supported the firqat in Dhofar. As both Mao and modern Western military doctrines agree, guerrillas and/or irregulars are not an end unto themselves, but rather, a predecessor or adjunct to a capable HNG regular force.
Third is the constant need to remember and reiterate a clearly defined strategy, in close connection with and adapted to the desired political outcome. Mainstream media sources are often keen to highlight when politicians or commanders discuss a "political solution", inferring from such statements that the use of military force is a mistake. Instead, such statements merely restate that military force is a tool of policy, and is applied to secure political objectives. By its very nature, the use of military force represents the application of coercive means which are, in theory, directed toward political ends.
The nature and character of most military organisations is known to be distinctive in comparison to other professional organisations.[xxxv] The fact that these organisations are hierarchical by nature represents both possibilities and limitations in terms of ability to change and adapt to complex tasks, like those associated with COIN. While the greatest strengths may be a clear chain of command and a disciplined organisation, they may pose limitations in terms of adapting to unexpected scenarios and modus operandi – in the short term. As is clear in this paper, the utilisation of special operations forces (SOF) is often successful due to their ability to work independently over time. The question is, however, how to conceptualise such qualifications in a larger setting? As these case studies demonstrated, flexibility and non-traditional turnover are both demanded in order to succeed in COIN campaigns. In the case of military units, this is very much a question about the soldier or leader and his or her qualifications. In terms of succeeding in COIN, John Nagl [xxxvi] points out that the sub-level commanders, often distant from their home base due to provincial efforts, must be trusted and given authority to command their troops in a manner that is effective in their OE. This may involve specialists leaving sophisticated capacities and conducting foot patrols to get a grip on the local conditions, as well as functioning as “intelligence sensors”. To do this in an effective manner over time, higher echelon leaders need to state a coherent COIN doctrine that takes the aforementioned requirements into account, and rely on their subordinate leaders to implement this, and to stick to it in the long run. The will and ability to adapt is crucial for any actor involved in COIN operations. No matter what the starting point will look like, change in modus operandi will likely be required over time (fighting an insurgency is extremely time consuming). While the ability to adapt military organisation will vary from actor to actor, it is paramount to identify when the culture for a flexible organisation is established, and how to overcome institutional culture at a later stage. A challenge here is that despite a will to change, the ability to change is not there: certain trends are so deeply rooted that they are hard even to detect.[xxxvii] Only by creating doctrinal frameworks that accommodate flexible approaches toward small wars and creating a military organisational culture that denies groupthink phenomena can actors approach the requirements for successful COIN operations.
In traditional Western military doctrine, the perception of the commander’s intent is clearly defined. Any initiative or effort from a military force is tailored to meet specific demands, to produce a desired outcome.[xxxviii] Further on, in more demanding environments than the regular military OE, interaction between the planning phase and execution phase of operations is crucial.[xxxix] Only by managing this dynamic environment and trust in officers can one succeed in the COIN environment.
Last, there is a need for an appropriate balance between the use of conventional forces and SOF. A topic unto itself, many modern campaigns have relied heavily on SOF and, out of convenience, often employed them in missions outside their normal specialties. French forces in Algeria made little use of SOF elements (apart from the use of Foreign Legion paratroopers as shock troops), in part because the concept was in its infancy at the time. By contrast, British forces in Oman relied heavily upon the Special Air Service, but these forces were used for a narrow mission set, rather than as a one-size-fits-all solution to every challenge. In modern conflicts, the elite and adaptable nature of SOF units has been treated as license to apply them as an all-purpose "multi-tool", rather than as a "scalpel", within a wider conventional order of battle. As a best practice, this temptation should be avoided.
In conclusion, these case studies and the lessons they provide suggest four underlying points.
First, conflict will continue, both in the Middle East and elsewhere. In many of these conflicts, one or more participants will continue to operate as insurgents. In 2001 and 2003 respectively, lessons from prior COIN campaigns - both successful and unsuccessful - were not readily accessible, and leaders were slow to study them and adopt their readily available lessons. In future conflicts, COIN-based or otherwise, a repeated failure to apply these lessons in the early stages of an engagement will cost lives and undermine efforts to bring about a timely and sustainable end state.
Second, both case studies are apt examples of contemporary events producing a long-term effect. The Algerian Revolution contributed to decades of political violence, a lengthy civil war, and the rise of Islamist terrorism that continues to impact North Africa. The successful campaign in Dhofar had the opposite effect, and Oman has been spared the uprisings and sectarian violence of its neighbors. Regardless of a particular political or religious ideology, this focus on the long-term ends must inform the actions taken by decision-makers, regardless of the type of conflict in which they are engaged. In short, COIN efforts taken in the present day produce lasting impacts, for good or for bad.
Third, COIN campaigns are most often associated with conflicts that have "gone hot", so to speak - this is to say, they are perceived as a type of war because they are undertaken when other efforts have failed. Recent global events - most notably in Mali and Algeria - indicate that, in potential problem areas, the old adage that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" can also be applied to COIN. COIN-based solutions to violent conflict can and should be applied wherever possible to latent conflicts in order to prevent them from breaking out into insurgent conflicts in the first place.
Finally, the Clausewitzian "logic and grammar" bears one last mention. The coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq have fought their engagements differently according to a new "grammar" of warfare, but their success and failure rest on the same principles that lost Algeria for the French, and saved Dhofar for Oman.
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About the Authors
Martin Myklebust is a former Norwegian Army officer. He served one tour supporting ISAF operations in Afghanistan. His research focuses on the collaboration between terrorist and criminal networks.
Tom Ordeman, Jr. is an American risk management specialist. In addition to several positions in training and risk management in support of several DoD commands, he spent fifteen months forward-deployed as an antiterrorism advisor in Kuwait.
Both are members of the Strategic Studies postgraduate program at the University of Aberdeen in Aberdeen, Scotland. The authors wish to acknowledge the significant assistance of Mr. James Wyllie.
[i] von Clausewitz, Carl; On War, Book VIII: Plan of War, Chapter 6B: War as an Instrument of Policy; http://www.clausewitz.com/readings/OnWar1873/Bk8ch06.html#B
[ii] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter III: Attack by Stratagem.
[iii] von Clausewitz, Carl; On War, Book IV: The Combat, Chapter 9: The Battle; http://www.clausewitz.com/readings/OnWar1873/BK4ch09.html
[iv] FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 Counterinsurgency Field Manual; Headquarters, Department of the Army; Washington, D.C.; 2006; Chapter 6: Developing Host-Nation Security Forces.
[v] Duquesne, Jacques: "Pour comprendre la guerre d'Algerie". Perrin 2001. p. 93.
[vi] Horne, Alistair; A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962; New York Review of Books; 2006, chapters 4 and 7.
[vii] Higgins, Andrew; With the SAS and Other Animals: A Vet's Experiences During the Dhofar War 1974; Pen & Sword Military; South Yorkshire; 2011.
[viii] Thompson, Sir Robert; Defeating Communist Insurgency; Chatto & Windus; London; 1966; pages 50/51.
[ix] Burleigh, Michael; Blood and Rage – a Cultural History of Terrorism; Harper Press; 2008. p. 17.
[x] Galula, David; Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice; Praeger: 2006. p. 84.
[xi] Gardiner, Ian; In the Service of the Sultan: A First Hand Account of the Dhofar Insurgency; Pen & Sword Military; Barnsley, South Yorkshire; 2007.
[xii] FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 Counterinsurgency Field Manual; Headquarters, Department of the Army; Washington, D.C.; 2006; Chapter 1: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency.
[xiii] Guevara, Ernesto; Guerrilla Warfare; 1961; Chapter 3: Guerrilla Tactics.
[xiv] al Zawahiri, Ayman; Letter from al Zawahiri to al Zarqawi; 2005, http://www.ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/CTC-Zawahiri-Letter-10-05.pdf.
[xv] Galula, David; Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice; Praeger: 2006. p. 34: "... the territory was notoriously underadministered on the eve of the insurgency, not because the civil servants were incompetent but rather because the bureaucratic establishment had no relation to the size of the country and its population."
[xvi] Galula, David; Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice; Praeger: 2006. p. 35.
[xvii] Gardiner, Ian; In the Service of the Sultan: A First Hand Account of the Dhofar Insurgency; Pen & Sword Military; South Yorkshire; 2007; Kindle edition, location 1533/4322.
[xviii] British Army Field Manual, Volume 1 Part 10, Countering Insurgency; 2009; Section 5: Logistics
[xix] Guevara, Ernesto; Guerrilla Warfare; 1961; Chapter 4: Warfare on Favorable Ground.
[xx] Galula, David; Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice; Praeger: 2006. Page 65. Galula points at relevant aspects of ways of administration and logistics in times of peace and war, and how this reperesented challenges for the French forces in COIN operations.
[xxi] Monick, S.; Victory in Hades: The Forgotten Wars of Oman 1957-1959 and 1970-1976, Part 2: The Dhofar Campaign 1970-1976; Scientia Militaria, South African Journal of Military Studies, Vol. 12, Nr 4; 1982; p. 2.
[xxii] al Zawahiri, Ayman; Letter from al Zawahiri to al Zarqawi; 2005.
[xxiii] Galula, David; Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice; Praeger: 2006. p. 9: "the FLN budget at its peak amounted to $30 or $40 million a year, less than the French forces had to spend in two weeks."
[xxiv] Kilcullen, David; The Accidental Guerrilla; Hurst & Company, London: 2006. p. 49.
[xxv] Faligot, Roger et al: “Histoire secrete de la Ve republique”. La Decouverte, Paris. 2007. Page 41: Remy Kauffer on commandos using torture in Algeria.
[xxvi] Gardiner, Ian; In the Service of the Sultan: A First Hand Account of the Dhofar Insurgency; Pen & Sword Military; South Yorkshire; 2007; Kindle edition, location 595/4322.
[xxvii] Higgins, Andrew; With the SAS and Other Animals: A Vet's Experiences During the Dhofar War 1974; Pen & Sword Military; Barnsley, South Yorkshire; 2011.
[xxviii] FMFRP 12-18 Mao Tse-tung on Guerrilla Warfare; Headquarters United States Marine Corps; Washington, D.C.; 1989 (original publishing 1937); Chapter 1: What is Guerrilla Warfare?
[xxix] al Zawahiri, Ayman; Letter from al Zawahiri to al Zarqawi; 2005.
[xxx] Connelly, Matthew; A Diplomatic Revolution; Oxford University Press: 2002. p. 279: "when the ALN marched in a victory parade through their main base in Morocco, Nelson Mandela was there to see them, having come to learn revolutionary strategy and tactics... And when they finally entered Algiers in triumph, Yasser Arafat was in the crowd cheering. ... Soon, Algiers became known as the "Mecca of the new revolutionaries".
[xxxi] Jacques Duquesne; "Pour comprendre la guerre d'Algerie". p. 95.
[xxxii] Gardiner, Ian; In the Service of the Sultan: A First Hand Account of the Dhofar Insurgency; Pen & Sword Military; Barnsley, South Yorkshire; 2007.
[xxxiii] Peters, Ralph; The New Strategic Trinity; Parameters; US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Carlisle, Pennyslvania; 1998; pp. 73-79.
[xxxiv] Quinn, Joe and Fumerton, Mario A.; Counterinsurgency from Below: The Afghan Local Police in Theoretical and Comparative Perspective; NATO/ISAF; 2010; http://www.isaf.nato.int/article/caat-anaysis-news/counterinsurgency-from-below.html
[xxxv] Neilson, Gary; Results: Keep What's Good, Fix What's Wrong, and Unlock Great Performance: Crown Publishing, New York. 2005.
[xxxvi] Nagl, John; Learning to eat soup with a knife: Counterinsurgency lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 2002.
[xxxvii] Nagl, John; Learning to eat soup with a knife: Counterinsurgency lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 2002. p. 219.
[xxxviii] FM 5-0 The operations process; Headquarters, Department of the Army; Washington, D.C; 2010: 2-90: Here the field manual clearly states what the commander’s intent must comprise to meet the demands, as well as describing success criteria in ongoing operations.
[xxxix] Alberts & Hayes: “Planning – Complex Endeavours” The Command And Control Research Program, Washington, D.C.; 2007, Page 144.