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Irregular War

by Ejaz Haider

Ejaz Haider

A Pakistan Army vehicle patrols Rawalpindi. Farooq Naeem—AFP

A Pakistan Army vehicle patrols Rawalpindi. Farooq Naeem—AFP

The nightmare of military commanders.

Since 2002, but more intensely after 2007, Pakistan has suffered the fallout of what has come to be known as its war on terror. The country has lost security forces personnel as well as civilians in this war. Debate has raged over the genesis of this war. Some call it ideological; others, reactive. Some are convinced that the use of force is the only way out while others argue that force has only begotten more violence and the only solution is to talk to the groups that have declared war on the state. I call it the fight-talk binary. It is somewhat ironic that a situation which has developed its own complexities can only be responded to through a binary but it also manifests a paradox: when a problem becomes wicked, requiring multiple strategies, people resort to Occam’s Razor, a principle that trades simplicity for complexity. Instead of multiplying entities, they go for what is simple and straight.

This is exactly what has happened. Those who talk about fighting, the use of force, forget that use of force must translate into utility of force. Those who talk about talks as the only option forget that talks succeed only when backed with credible force. But despite the binary, both clubs have a commonality: both want peace. It’s a difference of approach, not of the goal.

Below, I review some of the more known counterinsurgency (COIN) theories that have been drawn from lessons learnt in the field and, in turn, have informed some of the COIN efforts in recent years. This is by no means an exhaustive review. The idea, however, is to see why it is so difficult to fight insurgencies. In a subsequent piece I’d like to put to test Pakistan’s approach to the war it has fought and is fighting.

The Nightmare Begins

Ask any military commander what an easy war looks like and one is likely to get an answer along these lines: battle lines are defined; there is a front and a rear; the enemy wears a uniform; he is the “other.” You fight, you can win or lose, or the conflict can get stalemated. But whatever the outcome, the front is always identifiable. That’s the war Pakistan trains for, as do all militaries. Now, it is fighting a different kind of war, an irregular conflict in which the zones of war and peace become enmeshed. In such a war there’s no defined battle space. The adversary can strike anywhere, anytime. The state and its military have to fight among the people and in Pakistan’s case, its own people.

Call it what one might, counterinsurgency, irregular war, low-intensity conflict or a combination of insurgent and terrorist tactics, this kind of conflict—at least since the Spanish guerrilla war against Napoleon Bonaparte, but more in the last five decades—has accumulated much theoretical literature. General Rupert Smith has gone to the extent of saying that “War no longer exists.” This is how he puts it: “Confrontations, conflicts and combat undoubtedly exist all around the world … and states will have armed forces which they use as a symbol of power. Nonetheless, war as cognitively known to most non-combatants, war as battle in a field between men and machinery, war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs: such war no longer exists.” (The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World; p1).

Today, we fight a different kind of war. While there are many aspects of it, cyber, biological and others, we shall focus on COIN. Interestingly, COIN might have gone out of fashion by the time the United States invaded first Afghanistan and then Iraq, but the fact is, in the words of Ann Marlowe, the Vietnam War “was fought by commanders deeply versed in the tactics, techniques, and procedures of counterinsurgency (COIN)—much more, in any case, than their counterparts were on September 11, 2001.”

Yet, both the French and the American militaries lost that war despite the fact that “counterinsurgency theory enjoyed a special vogue in the 1960s: it was certainly more fashionable and better understood … Especially among military officers, COIN was more roundly known during this era than at any time up until the release of Field Manual 3-24 in December 2006.” (Marlowe)

Facts corroborate this. The work of David Galula, arguably the most influential writer with his Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, and John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam prove this. Both writers have exercised much influence on the theory and practice of COIN. So, where, then, does the problem reside? Precisely in what they have identified: the center of gravity (COG). In this kind of war the COG is the people, the population among which a COIN force fights. But it’s the same population that allows the insurgent his asymmetric advantage. The problem: how does a COIN force first neutralize the insurgent’s asymmetric advantage and then score its own on the adversary?

The theory lays down possibilities. Galula proposes what he calls four “laws” for COIN. The COG is the people. Their support is essential. Galula proposes that getting peoples’ support requires pulling in that active and friendly minority in the larger population, which can help the COIN force in reaching out to the neutral majority. This is not an easy task because support from the population is conditional and cannot be taken for granted. Just like the COIN force would target the minority not friendly to the insurgent, the insurgent would start by intimidating and, when necessary, punishing this population. This part of the population must, therefore, be protected if it is to support the COIN force and help it reach out to the majority. The operations needed to relieve the population from the insurgent’s threat and to convince it that the COIN force will ultimately win are necessarily of an intensive nature and of long duration. They require a large concentration of efforts, resources and personnel. The insurgent has to be driven away and the COIN force must be able to strengthen its presence by building infrastructure and developing a long-term relationship with the population.

This refers essentially to an area that is under occupation and where a foreign force is trying to gain or regain control. The case of the Pakistan Army is very different because it has to operate in its own territory. Also, it is applicable to areas within own territories where large parts of the population may be alienated from the state. The COIN force has to do this area by area, using a pacified territory as a basis of operation to conquer a neighboring area, what has come to be known as Ink Spot Strategy.

Galula, therefore, contends that victory in COIN is not merely the destruction of the insurgent forces or groups or, where it may be the case, his political organization, though doing so and leapfrogging from one area to another, is important. The crucial task, the ultimate test for the COIN force, is the permanent isolation of the insurgent from the population. The strategy of dislocation forms the backbone of any operations against the insurgent. In conventional warfare, strength is assessed according to military or other tangible criteria, such as the number of divisions, the position they hold, the industrial resources, etc. In irregular warfare, strength must be assessed by the extent of support from the population. This is true for both the insurgent as well as the counterinsurgent. This has often proven difficult during COIN and CT operations in the Pakistani context because of the religio-political narrative used by the insurgent groups.

In recent years, David J. Kilcullen, chief strategist of the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism of the U.S. State Department in 2006, described a framework for interagency cooperation in counterinsurgency operations as resting upon three pillars: Security, Political and Economic. Within the “conflict ecosystem” these factors must interact to achieve the overarching goal of Control.

But Kilcullen knows that this ecosystem is complex and not easy to handle: “It includes many independent but interlinked actors, each seeking to maximize their own survivability and advantage in a chaotic, combative environment. Pursuing the ecological metaphor, these actors are constantly evolving and adapting, some seeking a secure niche while others seek to become ‘top predator’ or scavenge on the environment. Some actors existed in the environment before the conflict. They include a government, ethnic, tribal, clan or community groups, social classes, urban and rural populations, and economic and political institutions. In normal times, these actors behave in a collaborative or competitive way: but now, due to the internal power struggle, they are combative and destructive. The relatively healthy competition and creative tension that sustains normal society has spun out of control, and the conflict threatens to destroy the society.

“This new state of the environment also produces new actors. These include local armed organizations, and foreign armed groups drawn into the conflict from outside. Often, that includes intervening counterinsurgent forces … Foreign terrorists are also increasingly ‘swarming’ from one conflict to another in pursuit of their global agenda. In addition, the conflict produces refugees, displaced persons and sometimes mass migration. It creates economic dislocation, leading to unemployment and crime, and creating armed groups such as bandits, narcotics traffickers, smugglers, couriers and black marketeers.”

It is in this ecosystem that a COIN force has to operate. What makes it so difficult is the fact that the counterinsurgent is not outside this system “looking in at a petri dish of unsavory microbes.” He is inside it and is part of the combative environment. So, he too has to maximize his survivability and influence and extend the space he controls. “But unlike some other players (the insurgents, for example)” the counterinsurgent’s “intent is to reduce the system’s destructive, combative elements and return it to its ‘normal’ state of competitive interaction.”

This is no mean feat as Kilcullen’s chart of the conflict ecosystem denotes. He does try to neaten it up by presenting the figure of his three pillars and how they must interact in “unity of effort” rather than “unity of command” but accepts that this is not an environment that can afford entirely soft, non-lethal responses. It is a matter of life-and-death and “there is no known way of doing counterinsurgency without inflicting casualties on the enemy.” At the same time, and this is the rub, “killing the enemy is not the sole objective—and in a counterinsurgency environment, operating amongst the people, force is always attended by collateral damage, alienated populations, feuds and other unintended consequences. Politically, the more force you have to use, the worse the campaign is going. Marginalizing and out-competing a range of challengers, to achieve control over the overall socio-political space in which the conflict occurs, is the true aim.”

Kilcullen considers the three pillars to be of equal importance, because they need to be developed in parallel. If that does not happen, the COIN effort becomes unbalanced: too much economic assistance with inadequate security, for example, simply creates an array of soft targets for the insurgents. Similarly, too much security assistance without political consensus or governance simply creates more capable armed groups. In developing each pillar, progress must be measured by gauging effectiveness (capability and capacity) and legitimacy (the degree to which the population accepts that the actions of the government/COIN force are in its interest).

But this requires mastering the environment through information. “Within this ‘three pillars’ model, information is the basis for all other activities. This is because perception is crucial in developing control and influence over population groups. Substantive security, political and economic measures are critical but to be effective they must rest upon, and integrate with a broader information strategy.” The main objective of Kilcullen’s model “is not to reduce violence to zero or to kill every insurgent, but rather to return the overall system to normality—noting that ‘normality’ in one society may look different from normality in another.”

What is important to flag is that Kilcullen accepts that his three pillars framework is a theoretical model and “thus a brutal oversimplification of an infinitely complex reality.” Neither does it offer a template. It merely presents a broad framework.

Martin van Creveld, one of the foremost writers on defense and strategy, is skeptical of much of the literature on COIN operations because, as he argues, it has mostly been penned by losing militaries and, therefore, is of little value. In fact, he calls doing so absolutely indispensable. (The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq, 2008, New York: Ballantine, p. 268). So, why do powerful militaries fail against weaker enemies in COIN operations? Van Creveld argues that it is important to identify a key dynamic that works to the disadvantage of the militaries in any COIN operations. He uses the metaphor of killing a child. It is of no consequence if the fight has been started by the child or even if the child is armed. An adult in such a fight would feel that he is acting unjustly if he harms the child. On the other hand if the child ends up harming the adult, the latter would look foolish. The adult is caught in the dilemma of whether the fight is even necessary. Therefore, “by definition, a strong counterinsurgent who uses his strength to kill the members of a small, weak organization of insurgents—let alone the civilian population by which it is surrounded, and which may lend it support—will commit crimes in an unjust cause.” That is not the child’s concern “who is in a serious fight with an adult [and thinks he] is justified” in using whatever means may be available to him. Van Creveld argues that the issue is not whether the child “is right, but because he or she has no choice.”

This leads to a simple fact. While the counterinsurgent has every reason to try and end the conflict as quickly as possible, it is in the interest of the insurgent to prolong it because wearing down the stronger side is the key to the insurgent’s success. To explain this point, Van Creveld quotes Ho Chi Minh’s second-in-command, Dang Xuan Khu, from Primer for Revolt: “The guiding principle of the strategy for our whole resistance must be to prolong the war. To protract the war is the key to victory. Why must the war be protracted? … If we throw the whole of our forces into a few battles to try to decide the outcome, we shall certainly be defeated and the enemy will win. On the other hand, if while fighting we maintain our forces, expand them, train our army and people, learn military tactics … and at the same time wear down the enemy forces, we shall weary and discourage them in such a way that, strong as they are, they will become weak and will meet defeat instead of victory.”

Time thus becomes of essence in COIN operations. Van Creveld’s two successful cases are British efforts in Northern Ireland during The Troubles and the Hama massacre by President Hafez el-Assad’s government, which demolished the growing strength of the Sunni Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the networks it was trying to put together for a revolt against the minority Alawite government of now late President Assad. For Van Creveld the “core of the difficulty is neither military nor political, but moral”—essentially, how far is a military prepared to go to hurt the presumably weaker adversary who is the child in a fight with an adult and relies on that asymmetry and turns it to his advantage.

There are two methods. The first is to have first-rate intelligence. This will have multiple levels but must come from those who understand and know the conflict environment. Given that a government can manage that, the counterinsurgent force must be trained to an extremely high degree of professional competence so that it can take advantage of this intelligence and operate in a way that its use of force is translated into utility of force—i.e., it knows when to use force and to what extent. This would not only ensure effectiveness against the insurgent but would also help reduce damage to the population whose support is vital for the ultimate success of the COIN campaign. The mix then is use of force and constraint. But this also means that the COIN force is likely to lose men. Van Creveld gives the example of General Patrick Walters, British commander of troops in Northern Ireland. Walters approached the issue not with the intention of killing terrorists but ensuring that fewer people on both sides are killed. In fact, as Van Creveld mentions, the ultimate kill ratio was three-to-one in favor of the terrorists and yet General Walters was successful in achieving the overall objective.

But this first method requires many tough prerequisites: superb intelligence, highly trained professionals, both soldiers and policemen, and the politico-military decision to avoid, at all costs, a scorched-earth policy. What if a military doesn’t have all or some of these prerequisites? This is where the second, extreme method comes in, exemplified by Assad’s decision to tackle Hama after the Muslim Brotherhood engaged and killed members of the Syrian military and police. The Brotherhood had networked in Hama and in the countryside but its center of gravity remained the city of Hama. Assad tasked his brother Rifaat with one army division and its support elements. Rifaat charged in with tanks and heavy artillery after cordoning off the city and literally razed the city to the ground, including the city’s central mosque, a symbol of Brotherhood ideology and revolt, and turned it into a parking lot. Estimates differ on the number of people killed, ranging from 10,000 to 25,000. Such was the brutality of the campaign that it completely cowed the majority Sunni population of Syria and broke the back of the Brotherhood until recently.

The essence of the second method Van Creveld argues can be simply listed as five rules, which he thinks could have been penned by Niccolo Machiavelli.

There are situations in which cruelty is necessary, and refusing to apply necessary cruelty is a betrayal of the people who put you into power. When pressed to cruelty, never threaten your opponent but disguise your intention and feign weakness until you strike.

Once you decide to strike, it is better to kill too many than not enough. If another strike is needed, it reduces the impact of the first strike. Repeated strikes will also endanger the morale of the counterinsurgent troops.

Act as soon as possible. More lives will be saved by decisive action early, than by prolonging the insurgency. The longer you wait, the more inured the population will be to bloodshed, and the more barbaric your action will have to be to make an impression.

Strike openly. Do not apologize, make excuses about collateral damage, express regret, or promise investigations. Afterwards, make sure that as many people as possible know of your strike; media is useful for this purpose, but be careful not to let them interview survivors and arouse sympathy.

There are many other aspects of COIN theory because an insurgency survives on the back of support from the population, control of some resources (funds), ideological core, coercion, etc. Moreover, theory can deal with different aspects separately, but COIN operations do not have the luxury of compartmentalizing the phenomenon. Also, while Galulal, Nagl, Kilcullen and, recently, Capt. Emile Simpson’s works deal with COIN, we have seen efforts move from COIN to counterterrorism. CT is an effective tool but it cannot dominate physical, ideological and socioeconomic space being a reductive concept. That is where COIN comes in.

Yet, it should be evident from COIN theory that identification of what needs to be done is precisely what makes practicing the theory so difficult. Most COIN literature agrees on two basic themes: the insurgent needs to be dislocated from the context which strengthens him, not just in a physical sense—effective use of terrain by him, etc.—but in an ideological or sometimes politico-ideological sense; two, the population must be protected from any punishment the insurgent can mete out to it while the government is in the process of clearing the insurgency-hit area and expanding its writ.

Going by these two basic benchmarks, Pakistan’s COIN efforts can, at best, be described as a partial success. But this finding must be qualified. The Pakistani military is fighting its own people, not just in some areas in the northwest—which shares a long, porous border with Afghanistan where a coalition of 43 states is fighting another insurgency, and failing—but also facing a terror campaign in the major urban centers.

Three factors are important to note in terms of looking at the ‘success’ graph. When the military deployed to FATA in early 2002, it was ill equipped and ill-prepared to fight the kind of war it has since had to fight. Its resource base has not really expanded since then even though its ability to fight has definitely improved. Not only did it lack the resources for a costly COIN effort, at least in the initial years the objectives and timelines were not of it’s choosing.

The second factor deals with the question of the extent to which a state like Pakistan can—given its many constraints—address an internal threat, despite notching partial operational successes, when that threat is also determined by exogenous factors, in this case the insurgency in Afghanistan that shows no signs of abating?

Thirdly, how effectively can a state put down an insurgency when the insurgent groups, in order to relieve pressure on themselves, can mount terrorist attacks across the country and do so effectively because their ability to recruit people to their cause is greater than the capacity of the state to preempt and respond to such a threat?

The last factor, in many ways, is the most important because it points to the manner in which Pakistan has developed as a state and society and how that evolution has dovetailed with the security policies pursued by the state. There is a vast and growing corpus of literature on this evolution within Pakistan and, generally, in the Islamic world. In Pakistan, the Islamization begun by prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and later by the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq has resulted in an environment where large sections of the population do not believe in the concept of a nation-state and have developed a supra-state mind-set, reducing the ability of the state to enforce law of the land. Add to this the state’s traditional threat perception, the civil-military imbalance which has resulted in the inability of the civilian enclave to take charge of formulating a national security strategy, and we have ended up with a ‘hard’ but weak rather than a ‘strong’ state.

Any study of Pakistan’s COIN and CT efforts must bear in mind the multiple constraints of the state. It is not enough to identify that which Pakistan has not been able to do. More important is to identify (a) what it has been able to do and (b) why it has not been able to do what it is still required to do. Given the constraints, Pakistan’s operational part of COIN has, mostly, proved more successful than such efforts by other militaries in Afghanistan. The question is whether operational successes, the capture of physical space, can be used as the benchmark for success? This is what we shall come to in a subsequent piece.

This piece is the first part of a two-part series on Pakistan’s counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations and the state’s ability to effectively combat the extremist threat posed by the Pakistani Taliban.

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1 comment

humayun ghauri March 26, 2014 - 10:32 pm

The terrorist is thriving on two counts.1-First is the state lethargy in clarifying its ideological stance.The state needs to go for a new social contract.Unless and until the state relegates its posture of a state religion, it would be next to impossible to isolate the terrorist.The state itself is strengthening up a discourse of hypocrisy, which the terrorist is capitalizing upon.2- Secondly our political front and presently dominant leadership poses itself as cowardly to confront this national calamity squarely and boldly. Our political actors/leaders posture themselves as friends of the state enemies.Instead of cowing down to unauthorized and illegitimate force, the leaders are supposed to submit to the national and peoples’ interests.There are glaring examples and cases where the terrorists are playing tactics of softness toward certain political groups and entities.Through an effective national discourse, it is of utmost necessity to expose and dislodge these opportunists and self servers from vantage posts and positions.


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