Insurgency 101

I have to get something off my chest. It really is time for a good ol’ kvetch. There once was a time when you could simply fill out a form for a magazine subscription, send it to the postman with your credit card details and in less than a fortnight, your lovely new magazine would land on your doorstep. You could unwrap it from its plastic sleeve and just start flipping. You could fold it into a roll and bring it along wherever you went. This was what I looked forward to when I ordered Newsweek. I could not have been happier, but then, in less than a month, Newsweek/Daily Beast’s editor, Tina Brown, announced that they were switching to a digital format. Basically Newsweek wasn’t really going to exist anymore. However I had paid for my 26 issues, and I still expected to get them. However, after three digital issues, I tried to read my fourth, only to be greeted with demands to use log in names, passwords and entry codes. Whereas before, the only barrier to reading enjoyment was the sheer banality of ripping open plastic; now you have to remember your dog’s birthday and hope to the Lord that your first answer is correct, otherwise Newsweek requires you to wait an hour before attempting another log on. In short, I wanted to strangle the next person I saw eagerly sliding their greasy finger on a shiny screen bestowing the virtues of online formats. No, there is nothing as easy as picking something off the shelf, or from your mailbox, and just reading it without playing extraneous memory games. There should be another way. We deserve another way!

Ok, enough of that!

One book that I highly recommend is Jason Burke’s 9/11 Wars. The book neatly condenses all the conflicts, political upheavals and terrorist incidents of note that took place during the early 2000s. He devotes many chapters to the Iraq war, which for the first four years was badly managed; however he acknowledges the important role played by General David Petraeus, who in February 2007 took command of Multi-National Forces in Iraq and set about applying rigorous counter insurgency strategies (COIN) that had been devised during the 1950s and 60s. Petraeus along with a writing team composed of Lt. General James F. Amos and Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl et al. set about producing Field Manual 3-24 , which was released in December 2006, as a redraft to the Field Manual (Interim) 3-07.22. This mighty tome was fundamental in aiding US efforts to finally claim the upper hand in the battle against Iraqi insurgency. It laid out tactics and doctrines in asymmetric warfare that characterised the kind of war that they were up against.

In the manual, the writers acknowledge the work of David Galula, who in 1964 wrote Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. As US forces clamoured to regain control of Baghdad, which had become embroiled in sectarian violence, Galula’s work along with a number of COIN theorists from the 1960s offered many important lessons. Journalist Ann Marlowe has written an excellent monograph on Galula’s life and writes at length about his impact on FM 3-24. In her words, “Without the insurgency in Iraq, we may never have heard of David Galula”.

But who was he? Marlowe mentions that there is little biographical information available, yet what we know is that in 1919 Galula was born in the Tunisian town of Sfax to a Jewish merchant family. He earned his baccalauréat in Casablanca and went on to attend France’s most elite military academy the École Spéciale Militaire de St. Cyr in Brittany. There Galula studied colonial warfare and would later spend time as both a captain and major in Algeria. Galula was imbued with the ideas of counterinsurgency theorists such as the father of French counterinsurgency, Charles Lacheroy who devised “psychological action” and Roger Trinquier who wrote “Modern Warfare”. In his career, Galula travelled extensively and in 1945, he was sent to Beijing as a French military attaché. He learnt to speak English and Chinese, but in 1947 whilst on a visit to the western part of the country he was captured by Chinese Communists. It was during this time that he became intimately acquainted with Maoist theories on fighting an effective revolutionary war. What was critical to asymmetric warfare, according to Mao was that the enemy is able to “move among the people like a fish in water”. Later Galula would comment that the insurgent or the enemy holds no territory, and refuses to fight for it. He is everywhere, and nowhere.

During the late 1940s and early 50s, France was still getting over the devastating impact of World War 2 and its citizens were in no mood to engage in another war in faraway Indochina. The defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 was regarded as a trauma for the French military and it was one that many in the establishment did not want to see repeated in other territories. The French were also keenly aware that they needed to develop effective methods against low intensity warfare. Once the US was saddled with the role of protector in Southeast Asia, it was President John F. Kennedy who believed that work needed to be done in order to address the problem of insurgent movements. He was inspired after visiting Saigon with his brother Robert in 1951, where he learnt first hand of atrocities committed by the Vietminh.

Later during the Vietnam War, commanders such as General William C. Westmoreland adopted strategies that would be the antithesis of Galula’s theories. He sought to wage a war of attrition to wear the enemy down and seek out the Viet Cong in “search and destroy” operations. He showed disregard for theories of COIN, but this, according to Dr. John A. Nagl, was symptomatic of the operational style of US forces at the time. It was inflexible and sclerotic. The body count became a metric for perceived progress on the battlefield, while the Viet Cong were prepared to be flexible in their encounters with US forces.

However there were attempts to initiate a successful pacification programme. First of all, Westmoreland’s successor Gen. Creighton Abram’s moved away from the policy of “search and destroy” and prior to that Robert Komer was sent to Vietnam in 1967 in order to help win “hearts and minds”. He was given the title chief of pacification, and during his time there he worked with the CIA (which was in favour of COIN innovation) and set about implementing the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) programme. This involved ensuring security for civilians, in effect isolating them from ‘enemy’ forces; destroying the infrastructure of the Viet Cong and finally winning the sympathy of the Vietnamese people. But according to Komer, it was all “too little, too late”. In a report for RAND, he argued that: “Instead of adapting our response to the unique circumstances of Vietnam, we fought the enemy our way – at horrendous cost and with tragic side effects – because we lacked the incentive and much existing capability to do otherwise”.

When troops moved into Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein in 2003, the guiding principles for US forces were based on conventional warfare techniques. One of the anomalies to come out of the Vietnam War was the inability of US commanders to devise appropriate counterinsurgency strategies that could be applied in future combat zones. Therefore, American troops had expected and were trained for a conventional war from the outset, but quickly events would spiral out of control. Therefore the approach that was frequently adopted was “enemy-centric”, rather than “people-centric”.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Americans chose to live in heavily fortified installations or what are called “forward operating bases”. Troops travel during the day and head back to camp at night, and in the end, says David Kilcullen, locals tend to regard soldiers as “aliens who descend from an armored box”. US troops had to learn on the job about how to approach their surroundings and over the course of the first four years, the country slowly descended into hell. American soldiers were caught in the middle of a tussle as Sunnis and Shiites worked to assert control over parts of the country.

However as part of the famous surge and with ideas from the new field manual, soldiers would have to live among Iraqis and be available to their basic needs. Petraeus helped to establish a network of joint security stations in Baghdad neighbourhoods. In 2007 it was decided that 20-25 thousand new troops would be deployed to Iraq as part of the surge. While in June 2007, there were estimated to be approximately 1500 security incidents per day, by August 2008, the number had fallen to under a hundred. There is little wonder why Petraeus became viewed as the “Mr Fix-it” of the military. An aura of invincibility surrounded him and this would only be shattered through his later peccadillo of having an affair with his biographer Ms. Paula “bionic” Broadwell. His acts of contrition have nevertheless been for the most part warmly received, although it has put a chink in what many considered to be a flawless career. However after Stanley McChrystal resigned as commander in Afghanistan in June 2010, Petraeus attempts to pacify Afghanistan in the same way as was achieved in Iraq proved less successful. More importantly, there is much criticism over the beliefs that Petraeus is single-handedly responsible for turning the situation around in Iraq.

In COIN strategy, there truly is no “one size fits all” approach and it takes a tremendous amount of resources that need to be harnessed for a specific environment. It is also expensive and time-consuming. As Fred Kaplan notes in his book “The Insurgents”, despite the initial success that the Americans enjoyed through initiating the surge, “Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki had no interest in getting his act together”. In other words the Iraqi elite on the ground failed to stick to strategies that had helped bear fruit. There is now ample reason to believe that the country is ripe for a civil war and there is evidence that the US may become involved, especially given the spread of jihadism into neighbouring Syria.

Back to the Future

During the mid 20th century, France was confronted with back-to-back colonial wars: first in Indochina and later in Algeria. Both conflicts would test France’s resilience. Yet the experience of the French would provide the Americans with invaluable lessons; although it would take time to acknowledge them. Both France and the US would fall prey to the axiom that “might makes right”. The nature of revolutionary warfare would turn this on its head. According to Galula, in this type of war, the insurgent has the strategic initiative and has the ideological power of a cause.

In Indochina, the French underestimated the will of the Communists and the Vietnamese to be rid of colonial rule. The Communists were able to offer a nationalist narrative and an idealised vision for the future. According to Professor Douglas Porch, in Algeria, the rebels who formed the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) at first did not have a nationalist message to offer, but given the sheer ferocity at which the French tried to crush the insurgency, it was not surprising that more and more Algerians rallied behind the FLN. Galula outlines in “Counterinsurgency Warfare” that apart from a cause, the insurgent can thrive if they can take advantage of administrative weaknesses in the counterinsurgency camp.

In one of Galula’s other notable works Pacification of Algeria 1956-1958, he makes the case for a “population centric” approach to addressing revolutionary movements. He believed it was necessary to isolate insurgents from the rest of the population. The well-being of residents is crucial, whether it is providing jobs, housing, food or security – they will be more willing to cooperate if it is clear their interests are being looked after. In other words counter insurgency becomes a competition for government. Galula writes in “Counter Insurgency Warfare” that the “exercise for political power depends on the tacit or explicit agreement on the population”. Guerillas depend on the complicity of the population and they will attempt to destroy the links between them and the counter insurgent.

The counterinsurgent has other options at their disposal. They can act directly against the leaders of the insurgency who are on the verge of carrying out an attack. Also leaders are crucial for the ability of a revolutionary movement to get off the ground. It is also possible to infiltrate an insurgent movement or try to encourage the population to provide intelligence. However people will not speak unless they feel safe and believe they will not face retribution. It is important to gain the support of individuals or minority within the population who are opposed to the insurgents and can be motivated to support the cause of the counterinsurgent.

The trouble for the French was simply that the brutal tactics employed by the French against Muslim Algerian communities served to drive a wedge between the population and the French. One of the key theoreticians of “psychological warfare” was Colonel Charles Lacheroy, who proposed that populations be placed in camps and that contact should be cut with neighbouring countries. Galula was completely opposed to the idea of relocating communities, as it only helped to split the insurgency into smaller units. However cutting off communication between Algeria and its neighbours certainly helped to curtail support granted to the FLN.

When the war moved to the capital Algiers and other built-up urban areas, the nature of the conflict grew increasingly internecine. The cost of the war was an enormous headache for the French government, since during the peak of the conflict, it was spending $30-40 million in two weeks, while the FLN spent the same amount in one year. The FLN also had plenty of willing sponsors both close to home and abroad. Galula believed numerical strength also played an important role. The French needed to muster up a ratio of 10-20 counter insurgents for every insurgent in order to be effective. More importantly, Galula believed that when it comes to COIN, its practitioners have to ask themselves the question, can they sustain their operations? Galula believed that successful COIN or at least the only way to claim victory was if the insurgent could be permanently isolated from the population, but this isolation had to be maintained by the population itself.

In the end, while the French managed to absorb many of the lessons of revolutionary warfare, which went for all soldiers in the field, the political class in Paris or more crucially Charles de Gaulle decided to make way for Algerian independence. His decision was poorly received by many in the military and it prompted many to join the resistance movement the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS). Galula on the other hand was reportedly unhappy about the army’s growing involvement with politicking and in 1962, he chose to resign from the military. In the same year he took part in a RAND symposium that has become legendary as it brought together many of the world’s leading COIN theorists. During the early 1960s, he took up a number of jobs, but first went to Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, where he became friends with the likes of Henry Kissinger, and even William Westmoreland who helped him find accommodation. Later he went to work for a multi-national manufacturer of long-range radar equipment and even went to London to work as part of NATO Air Defence Ground Environment Consortium. Not long after, he started to complain of health problems and it was discovered that he was suffering from lung cancer. He passed away not long after at only 48. Nevertheless, his ideas have become firmly galvanised in the minds of military strategists and forces the world over. In his career, he held firm to the belief that one must be open and never stick to the script, as in warfare adaptation is everything.


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