#CCLKOW this week turns to the matter of confronting insurgency. Seemingly beaten to death, I would submit that the subject is in fact in need of some rigorous thought, especially as there are clearly two defined schools of strategic approach, broadly characterized by their different focuses. Where one is concerned to fight the insurgency as manifest, the other seeks to undermine the terms of its strength to vastly reduce the intensity of the conflict, or anti-insurgency and counter-insurgency. Understanding the difference between the terms and consequences of different strategic approaches is important given that with the geo-strategic landscape and the role of rapid communications we may find ourselves in a time when might, as expressed in destruction, no longer sufficiently or reliably translates to right. Rather, might applied to the resolution of root causes is an alternative path to right that deserves better and more serious attention against the changing landscape of conflict. So, read the piece and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.
The subject of confronting an insurgency being less in favor these days seems to me to present the best opportunity to examine it with a bit more dispassion, and hence more rigor. In particular, here I would like to consider how we use COIN. As it stands, COIN is used broadly to describe all approaches to warfare against an insurgency. However, I find this unsatisfying as there is significant divergence in what people mean by this term. To rectify this problem, I propose new terminology to distinguish between strategies which make the use of force against the rebellion the primary effort versus those that seek to undermine and eliminate the sources of support to the rebellion first thus reducing the scope of direct confrontation. Both envision scenarios which seek attrition, it is simply the means in each which differ. However, I believe there is an importance to this difference, and I think terminology which recognizes it is thus necessary. To describe these distinct approaches I use anti-insurgency and counter-insurgency accordingly, or AINT and COIN.
For clarification, a few points of terminology must be settled. (1) To begin, when I speak of insurgency, I mean a conflict within governed space against the standing order. Those in opposition are characterized by a committed cadre at center, are generally weaker than the forces of the prevailing order, and often resort to asymmetry and other alternative and low cost/low training means. While they may enjoy popular support, it is enough that the population simply be neutral to apathetic. With respect to the pivotal terms of this essay, I will offer that my understanding of this distinction between anti- and counter- goes back to an old lecture on terrorism in my early academic days that has stuck with me for its clarity and utility. In brief, it sorted the approaches to dealing with terrorism into the two categories depending on the focus of effort, whether at dealing with acts and actors directly by fighting terrorists in the act and seeking them when not, or at undermining their ability to organize and act to reduce frequency, efficacy and numbers of attacks.
If you were wondering about the title, this is where the odd construction becomes relevant. The “it” and “this” refer to two pieces written by others which illustrate the two models. They are important here because the first, on AINT, inspired the conceptualization, and the second motivated the writing in this moment. Very interestingly, they are both by British authors, representing two ends of the security spectrum and long traditions of service. The AINT article is a theoretical description of the model by William F. Owen, formerly of the British Army and currently active in the field of military affairs. (2) The second is a blog piece on neighborhood policing by an anonymous but currently serving British police officer of significant experience, Nathan Constable. (3) While it may seem unorthodox to use a policing example to describe a strategic approach insurgent conflict, the principle, parties and activities are similar enough for these purposes. Where the absolute scale of force and violence may differ, I believe that plotted relatively they are sufficiently comparable. Thus, as a good enough comparative, I will go further to add that in this case the conceptual box is safely, and I hope fruitfully, exceeded.
Turning to the first piece, in Owen’s “Seek and Destroy,” the AINT model is clearly explicated. As a counter-insurgency strategy, I cannot disagree with it more. However, under the AINT construct, while I may not agree with its utility, I must similarly recommend that it is an entirely correct construction. The opening sentence is unambiguous: “The purpose of this article is to argue that the destruction of the enemy’s forces lies at the heart of countering both terrorism and insurgency.” (p. 12) If the end is compliance with the status quo, this will be achieved by attrition, and more specifically by fighting the insurgent force in order to kill or capture its members. Elimination of the rebellion in arms will eliminate the rebellion. That is iconic AINT.
For COIN, the Nathan Constable blog on neighborhood policing includes a vignette fully describing the contours of the countering model. His piece deserves to be read in its entirety, but for our purposes here a brief synopsis of the relevant portion will suffice. The circumstances of the case were a local police force dealing with significant and recurrent problems of anti-social behavior (the “insurgency”) that demanded police resources without improving by their interventions. Watching this approach fail to do more than “stick a plaster on” the ritual disturbances (the “insurgent activity”), he shifted course.
This adaptation meant considering the problem in other terms. Using intelligence gathering to understand the nature of the disorder and its causes, who might be the ringleaders, and what motivated the presence of the larger numbers of participants, the author describes how he and his police force changed their approach to the problem. Learning that many of the participants in the trouble were at a loss for anything better to do on a Friday evening, the police reached out other agencies and organizations to create sport and other entertainments for local youth so that they had safe spaces to spend an evening. As well, to reduce the influence and draw of alcohol, they worked with local businesses to eliminate or reduce sales to those under 21. Although the cadre of troublemakers remained (the “committed cadre” who drive the insurgency), without the broader participation of other youths (the rank and file who give the movement its force) these numbers were more easily dealt with by traditional policing methods. More importantly, the broader results of this combined effort away from the point of conflict was a reduction in the number of calls to police for that area and an overall improvement in the quality of life for the community as previously unpleasant to unsafe spaces were reclaimed and the youth had positive attractions for their energies. That is, by countering the problem rather than continuing to fight the obvious manifestation it was more enduringly solved.
It should be clear these two approaches vary significantly in principle and in practice. As played out at the level of conflict and war when considering insurgencies these differences are important and manifest at every level, from political to tactical. While it is certainly not necessary in practical strategic terms to choose one at the complete absence of aspects of the other, representing as they do very different philosophical perspectives on the conflict and its proper resolution, the likelihood is that one or the other will dominate. That is, if presented with the same situation, Owen and Nathan Constable would, according to their models, design very different strategies to achieve the ends of peace and order. These differences matter in costs and consequences, and must be considered in detail in deciding which should be chosen, because despite Owen’s claim, the efficacy of one over the other, is not an “obvious and enduring fact.” Where force of arms has come to dominate Western conceptualizations of warfare, this preference is not necessary in war.
Given this, the question for this week’s discussion is broad, intended to drive consideration of the terms of each approach and debate their relative merits against historical or hypothetical cases. Simply, it is:
When and where is each the more practicable approach and why?
Add your thoughts on Twitter at #CCLKOW.
(1) These are the product of a wide reading across history and military affairs. They are attributable to many and none. I can offer no real credit, but neither is there anyone else to blame. These are, simply put, my definitions.
(2) Owen’s piece was published in Infinity Journal, Issue 2, Spring 2011, “Seek and Destroy: The Forgotten Strategy for Countering Armed Rebellion,” pp 12-15. It is freely available to those willing to sign up with the journal.
(3) Due to my unorthodox interpretation and application of the case, I chatted with Nathan Constable regarding my use of the blog. He was curious to see the alternative application, and forwarded supporting public documentation of the events — news articles which provide detail on the circumstances and the steps taken by local police and naming the officers involved. I have no need or intention to identify him, but for the purposes of this essay the verification of the events only added weight to my thinking on it.