“Numerous countries and regions face or will face insurgencies; and undoubtedly, it will be in our interest to help at least some of those countries counter those insurgencies, even if we do so in ways that do not involve large military footprints.”- General David H Petraeus (Rtd)
Whilst the costly engagements of Iraq and Afghanistan look set to herald a return to the ‘proper business of soldiering’, or major combat operations, for the armed forces of the west, the messy undertaking of counterinsurgency (COIN) operations cannot simply be discounted by military planners, no matter the unlikelihood of being called to carry them out in the near future.
Whilst debate rages over the ‘death’ of COIN, it is inescapable that contemporary thinking on the subject has been dominated by one notion; that winning the popular support, or ‘hearts and minds’, of the local population should be the principle aim of any such operation. Supposedly a long implemented doctrine of the British military and made famous by General David Petraeus in US Field Manual (FM) 3-24, the theory goes that the successful execution of this public diplomacy can facilitate a situation which allows for the separation of the people from the insurgents, so that the latter can be deal with individually. So accepted is this school of thought that it has even entered the consciousness of insurgent thinking (‘fun days’ organised by ISIL in Syria being a prominent recent example). These groups however have a critical advantage over the militaries of democratic states -no electorates to answer to when such COIN practice fail to produce favourable results within an acceptable timescale and material price. Hearts and minds are not quickly won over, nor cheaply done so, especially when this aim is undoubtedly coupled with the necessary application of lethal force against certain irreconcilable individuals. The need to understand and adopt local customs, ever expanding programmes for encouraging favourable perception and sometimes unavoidable problems with implementation (such as having to work with corrupt security forces and politicians in Afghanistan) only exacerbate such difficult balancing act. In the wake of the drawn out and bloody engagements of Iraq and Afghanistan the issue appears to be not that ‘hearts and minds’ COIN approach doesn’t work, but that it doesn’t work within the confines bestowed upon the militaries of democratically accountable states i.e. before war fatigue and economic exhaustion at home set in.
Does the failure of this public diplomacy-centric model then equate to the necessary abandonment of any future commitment to COIN operations entirely? Military historian Martin van Creveld argues that only two historical examples can be viewed as successful COIN operations and give rise to precedents worth following, neither of which put any particular emphasis on winning ‘hearts and minds’. The first, derived from Hafez al-Assad’s suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 in fact decrees the exact opposite. Here the insurgency was crushed by excessive brutality, exaggerated ruthlessness and critically played on the fear rather than support of the local population. Such approach is understandably outside the remit of western COIN practitioners. The utility of the model is also somewhat diminished by its failure to yield similar success for al-Assad’s son in 2011.
The other instance van Creveld cites is the intelligence driven, British success in Northern Ireland. However, the methodology is just as well exemplified by the more recent ‘industrial-counterinsurgency’ executed by former US general Stanley McCrystal and his Joint Special Operations group in Iraq from 2004. The crux of the model is that excellent intelligence coupled with superbly trained and disciplined troops can equate to an efficient ‘COIN machine’ able to overwhelm insurgent networks and take them apart quicker than they can regenerate themselves. The approach however has not received the considerable attention the wider approach it supplemented in Iraq and therefore gives rise to a number or critical question. Is it possible to apply this method on a larger scale? McCrystal’s promotion to Commander of U.S. and NATO Coalition Forces in Afghanistan produced an uncertain result to this end. Does the success of the approach in the suburbs of Belfast and Baghdad lend itself only to urbanised theatres? How does integration need to be executed with intelligence gathering organisations? Such questions must be addressed if we are to ensure that the lessons we take from the hard fought conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan are the right ones.
It is worth remembering however that COIN can only be as successful as the strategy it supports. In Afghanistan where the objectives eventually included replacing the established government and fundamentally changing the nature of society, there exists reasonable scope to argue that we had stepped outside the bounds of traditional COIN operations. The experience may therefore be an unreliable barometer of the success of either approach but what can be extrapolated is that there are models we don’t want to fight our counterinsurgencies by and are unlikely to give further ground for proving to. Put simply, we no longer have the heart ourselves to employ COIN to try and win over those of others.
Simon Copeland holds an MA in International Security Studies from the University of Leicester, and is currently working as an intern for the ICCS
Image source: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Michael Larson.