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Summer Essay Campaign #18: “Room to Breathe – How the Military Supports Civilian-led Counterinsurgency”

To Answer Question 2: “Beyond stale slogans (i.e. “hearts and minds” or “money is a weapon”), what practical tasks does counterinsurgency entail at the tactical and operational level?”

By First Lieutenant Sarah Grant, USMC

The updated FM 3-24, issued in May 2014 and now called “Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies,” locates insurgency within the category of irregular warfare and describes it as “a struggle for control and influence, generally from a position of relative weakness, outside existing state institutions.” It further defines it as “the organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region.”[i] Let’s take particular note of that last bit, about insurgency being about political control. Insurgents aim to upset the status quo and assert an alternative vision for the proper distribution of power and resources in society (what politics is all about).

Although devoted Clausewitzians would point out that all wars are waged for political objectives, insurgency and its antithesis counterinsurgency are political not just in aim but also in conduct. The effectiveness of the methods used by both insurgents and counterinsurgents is ultimately decided in the social and political, not the military, realms. Insurgencies cannot be defeated in a military sense unless every single participant is identified, located, and captured or killed.[ii] And even then, the grievances that drove those individuals to subvert the current order will likely remain, to be repossessed by others in the future.

The focus of a counterinsurgency campaign should not be destroying the enemy in a physical sense, although that is often an intermediate goal prescribed to the military, but instead resolving the grievances that motivate the insurgents and create pockets of subversive sympathies within the wider population. Given those conditions, the primary role of the military in counterinsurgency as well as other stability operations requiring a whole-of-government approach is to establish and maintain security.[iii] This requires a capability to directly target insurgents and their safe havens when possible and deemed worth the risk, conduct cordon and search operations, and assist host nation forces in their efforts to project the presence and legitimacy of the supported government.

It is imperative that those engaged in the military aspects of counterinsurgency, at all levels of operation, understand clearly both the political vision on behalf of which they are fighting and the opposing vision. If tactical actions are not fully nested with the overall political objectives, they will at best constitute wasted effort and at worst be fatally counterproductive. In conventional warfare, tactical success is primarily defined as the destruction/neutralization/surrender of a localized opposing force and the lines between the tactical, operational and strategic levels are more distinct; in counterinsurgency, tactical success has little meaning independent of the larger political objectives. A unit may have killed or captured x number of insurgents, eliminated x number of weapons caches, and limited the adversary’s freedom of movement, but those actions in and of themselves have little value; what matters is how they alter the political calculus.

Tactical tasks prescribed to war-fighting units in a counterinsurgency effort can run the gamut, from transportation and security support to medical outreach projects, to clearing and securing safe spaces for key leader engagements, to training host nation security forces, to conducting direct action raids against enemy personnel, materiel, and facilities. These tasks will vary significantly through the shape-clear-hold-build-transition framework outlined in FM 3-24, and traditional friendly, enemy, and terrain oriented tasks will be mixed in with population-oriented tasks.[iv] They key is to choose and sequence tasks so as to further the overall political, and not just military, objectives.

Tactical success, then, should be measured in terms of how military actions reinforce the legitimacy of the governing authorities and facilitate the conduct of necessary social, political, and economic activities. Are local roads clear for civilian traffic or are they potentially littered with IEDs? Does the populace feel safe enough to go to school, the market, the polling station? Do locals put themselves or their families at risk by cooperating with security forces or government representatives? Is critical infrastructure vulnerable to attack? Does the threat of assassination constantly loom over the heads of politicians, police officials, and businessmen? Are local security forces and political authorities competent, engaged, and trusted by the populace? There is room in this evaluation of effectiveness for enemy kill/capture counts, but again, only if such data points are tied to greater considerations such as those described above.

Although military actions predominate in the shape, clear and hold phases of counterinsurgency, the potential for success in counterinsurgency ultimately rests in the hands of the civilian entities the military supports. Victory in counterinsurgency is not for the military alone to achieve. Rather, our role is to reinforce to the insurgents the dire costs of continuing to fight rather than pursue a non-violent course of action, and provide the breathing room necessary for governance activities and reforms to take hold.[v]

[i]   FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5, “Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies,” 13 May 2014.

[ii]  For an example of an attempt at this sort of military victory, take a look at the 2008-2009 offensive by the Sri Lankan Army against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). As a side note, both sides are currently under investigation by the UN for war crimes committed during this phase of the conflict.

[iii] See JP 3-07, “Stability Operations,” 29 Sept 2011.

[iv] For Marines, see MCDP 1-0, “Operations,” 9 Aug 2011. For Army, see ADRP 3-90, “Offense and Defense”; ADRP 3-07, “Stability”; and ADRP 3-28, “Defense Support of Civil Authorities”.

[v]   For a moderately successful example of tactical military actions creating an incentive for insurgents to seek a non-violent resolution, look at developments over the last decade in the conflict between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.