November 17, 2007

COIN Book Club, No. 3

Those who were interested in counter-insurgency prior to, say, 2003 or 2004 often found used books to be a topic of conversation. Anyone have a copy of A Savage War of Peace? You found Galulafor how much? And, has anyone see a copy of The Centurionsfor less than $200?

Charlie's first foray into the used COIN book market was Robert Thompson's Defeating Communist Insurgency.Fortunately it, and many other titles, have been made newly available in the last few years (though, as AM mentioned, The Centurions remains oddly elusive). Robert Thompson was a senior civilian advisor in Malaya during The Emergency, and subsequently advised the US effort in Vietnam. That tour was sadly short lived. What's most striking about his book is not so much the details of the Malaya campaign (Clutterbuck's, The Long Long Waris probably better on that front), but the idea that counter-insurgency as requiring a detailed understanding of the insurgent organization itself to have any chance of being successful.

Unlike Galula, Thompson does make that point explicitly. In some ways, though Galula and Thompson are often paired (Charlie has G/T written throughout her dissertation notes), the more accurate pairing is really Thompson and Mao, who shares his organizational concerns. He lays out in clear detail (with wire diagrams!) how insurgent groups are organized, and how that organization dictates their relationship with local civilians. It is only once that relationship is understood, that the counter-insurgent can begin designing the hearts-and-minds campaign that Thompson made famous.

Some books are straightforwardly revealing; others are remarkable more for what they bring into relief. Today, Defeating Communist Insurgency is decidedly the latter. In following his detailed logic from insurgent organizational structure to counter-insurgency campaign, the reader is almost implored to ponder how insurgencies today differ from those Thompson fought. He provides the best starting point for all COIN campaigns: the insurgent organization. Whether his responses are well-suited today depends on the degree to which modern insurgent groups share the same political objectives and dependence on the local population as did Thompson's communists.

Dave Kilcullen argues that, in many ways, they do not. Counterinsurgency Redux highlights differences in modern insurgencies at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. These are not academic nitpickings: Kilcullen convincingly argues that modern conditions dramatically affect how counter-insurgents should go about fighting their campaigns. There are essentially two broad axes along which modern insurgents diverge from their classical ancestors:

1) War aims. As Kilcullen succinctly states,

[modern] Insurgents favor strategies of provocation (to undermine support for the coalition) and exhaustion (to convince the coalition to leave Iraq) rather than displacement of the government. This is a “resistance” insurgency rather than a “revolutionary” insurgency.

If insurgents aren't interested in governance, they are also uninterested in genuine popular support. This makes coercive strategies more expedient and less politically troublesome. As a result, they are even less encumbered than usual in engaging government forces. They can do so without regard to civilian casualties and without diverting resources toward establishing parallel governance structures.

2) Operating environment. As students of counter-insurgency well know, most colonial-era insurgencies were rural. Insurgents took cover in the jungles, mountains, and elsewhere in the periphery. But no longer:

Cover and concealment are far greater in the urban jungle of Baghdad with its no-go areas and sectarian slums than in the open desert outside the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys. Incidents in Iraq cluster in urban centers or areas of suburban sprawl around Iraq’s major cities.83 The insurgent, as in classical theory, continues to hide amongst the population. But in urbanized societies (like Iraq) or countries with under-populated mountains, deserts and forests (like Afghanistan), the cover is in the cites.

This change in venue has serious tactical implications. Cities offer the best media and cellphone coverage, allowing insurgents key IO victories. It also renders many traditional COIN population control techniques obsolete, making it ever harder to separate the insurgents from their civilia support base. (Kilcullen also notes that in many cases, insurgents are now rather wealthier than the civilians they live amongst, changing the logistical relationship between the two.)

Ultimately, Kilcullen's observations are stronger than his solutions. Perhaps that is not surprising only a few years into this new, long war. And while frustrating, it leaves the door wide open for witty, young counter-insurgency scholars to begin to parse the differences between the classical and modern campaigns. And hopefully avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.