The End of Counterinsurgency and the Scalable Force
by George Friedman, STRATFOR
Reviewed by Dr. Sam Holliday, Colonel, USA (retired)
In this article written for STRATFOR, George Friedman continues a post-Vietnam debate recently reported in the New York Times (28 May 2012) as "West Point Asks if a War Doctrine Was Worth It." One side of the argument calls for employing many agencies of government in order to transform a culture as a means to eliminate an insurgency. The other emphasizes light military forces focused not on the population and nation building but simply on eliminating the insurgents, their weapons, and their facilities—at war’s end leaving the local society much as they found it. The State Department clearly has an interest in that strategic choice.
Friedman, along with many others, incorrectly maintains that the purpose of counterinsurgency (COIN) operations is to transform an occupied society into a liberal democracy in order to undermine insurgents. In fact, COIN tactics emphasize neutralizing insurgents, and the tactics are very effective when performed by local forces. On the other hand, the tactics are ineffective, costly, and protracted when "foreigners," be they from another country or from a central government seeking to control the locals, attempt to use them. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, COIN operations would only have been practical if performed by district and province leaders, rather than by the central governments or by those from other countries.
COIN might be, as Friedman states, "one strategy by which a disproportionately powerful force approaches asymmetric warfare." But that only works in a police state in which all opponents are killed or imprisoned--something that the U.S. is not willing to support.
Friedman is partially correct when he refers to employing "small units with close links to the occupied population to defeat a larger conventional force." These "small units" or "guerrillas" are only the violent parts of networks within a population. It is the networks that must be neutralized. If the population is seen as "occupied" the conflict has already been lost. Irregular Warfare (which is asymmetric) has to be seen as a struggle for the support and loyalty of the population.
Irregular Warfare is a struggle between opponents attempting to build a common sense of identity (usually nationality). The correct U.S. policy should be to determine whom to support and then do whatever can be done covertly to see that those the U.S. supports are able to establish stability at the local level (districts and provinces). Values, attitudes and convictions based on identity are usually stronger than economic incentives. Conventional armed forces are unable to provide local security against insurgents willing to kill. Friedman correctly says the type of governments other countries have is not a matter of U.S. national interest.
The current debate over COIN opens the door to a careful consideration of when COIN should be used and by whom. However, that door has been open for over 50 years; preconceptions of the foreign policy establishment (both civilian and military) about economic and political development have prevented us from going through that door. Let us hope we can go through it this time.