The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Friday, August 19, 2005

Doubly Negative

In pessimistic testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institute criticized American counter-insurgency operations as "directly contrary to the principal lessons of counterinsurgent warfare" (COIN):

The crux of a traditional counterinsurgency strategy is never to reinforce failure, but always to reinforce success. As Mao Zedong once wrote, the guerrilla is like a fish who swims in the sea of the people—thus, if you can deprive the guerrilla of support from the people, he will be as helpless as a fish out of water. The goal of a true-COIN campaign is to deprive the guerrilla of that access. The COIN force begins by securing a base of operations by denying one portion of the country to the insurgency. This portion can be as big or as small as the COIN force can handle—the bigger the COIN force available, the larger the area. Within this area, the COIN force provides the people with security, in all senses of the word. In Iraq, this would mean security from insurgent attack as well as from ordinary (and organized) crime. In so doing, the COIN force creates a secure space in which political and economic life can flourish once again.

Ideally, the COIN force would pour resources into this area to make it economically dynamic and take advantage of the security the COIN campaign has provided, both to cement popular support for the COIN campaign and to make it attractive to people living outside the secure area so that they will support the COIN campaign when it shifts to their region.

The increasing attractiveness of these safe areas also solve the intelligence problem that COIN forces inevitably face. Ultimately, there is no way that a COIN force can gather enough intelligence on insurgent forces through traditional means to exterminate them.

Instead, as the British learned in Northern Ireland, the only way to gather adequate information on the insurgents is to convince the local populace to volunteer such information, which they will do only if they are enthusiastic supporters of the COIN campaign and feel largely safe from retaliation by the insurgents. When these conditions are met, the counterinsurgents enjoy a massive advantage in intelligence making the further eradication of the insurgents easy, and almost an afterthought.

In addition, the COIN forces use these “safe zones” to train indigenous forces who can assist them in subsequent security operations. Once this base of operations is truly secure and can be maintained by local indigenous forces, the COIN forces then spread their control to additional parts of the country, performing the same set of steps as they did in the original area.

Mr. Pollack is critical of the U.S. Army's attempts to seek out the enemy on his own ground, believing that regardless of their tactical success they can never lead to strategic victory.

Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, writing in the Washington Post, is also pessimistic, this time about the capability of the Iraqi infantry now being created:

But this light infantry force does not constitute an army. It will not be able, whatever its numbers, to conduct a counterinsurgency by itself for many years, and it will not be able to do so at all unless certain critical deficiencies are remedied. For example, it appears that efforts to establish Iraqi logistical elements are lagging badly behind the formation and training of light infantry units. Iraqis thus rely on coalition logistics when they must move from their home bases -- or, more commonly, they simply do not move from those bases at all. Their transportation assets are minimal, and so they lack the ability to project their forces within Iraq. As a result, they would not be able to concentrate force rapidly in particularly violent areas or to destroy insurgent concentrations quickly.

In sum, Mr. Kagan points out that the Iraqi army will be unable to pursue the aggressive course of action, the same course which Mr. Pollack argues is futile. This confluence of weaknesses suggests a powerful positive strategy for the U.S., which can leave "true COIN" to a largely Iraqi force (bolstered by a few tens of thousands of American soldiers) while the bulk the of remaining U.S. presence plays whack-a-mole with the Syrians and Saudis in the west country.

I am unable to determine whether our famously mute administration has actually advocated this policy.