10 counterinsurgency commandments from Afghanistan

world | Apr 16, 2007 | By Greg Mills

From Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, Colombia to Kashmir, Congo to Iraq, the question of how to deal with insurgency is being asked. Finding the answer has so far involved scrutinizing past campaigns from Algeria to Zimbabwe, and especially Malaya and Vietnam.

These have produced a set of lessons, centering at their most creative on the importance of public diplomacy in winning hearts and minds, and the need to slowly extend governance and prosperity through “ink spots” of relative stability, employing unity of effort by nations and institutions. In Afghanistan, during the tenure of the ninth International Security Assistance Force (ISAF IX) deployed between May 2006 and February 2007, this evolved into Afghan Development Zones (ADZs), providing a focus of development spending and security effort.

But scrutinizing the past has limited benefit in dealing with the modern, complex insurgency. The nature of the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan has changed from the time of Malaya and Vietnam, for example, from two dimensional (national/colonial government vs. the insurgent) to three dimensions, where the insurgent faces a national government but with a complex range of multinational governmental and nongovernmental actors involved in the security and development effort. Additionally, the globalized, media-savvy nature of today’s insurgents contrasts with their bottom-up, cellular organizational structure. The former allows them unparalleled access to sources of support, recruits and marketing, while their operational structure both provides security and assists it in replicating itself and its actions without active leadership oversight. Thus domestic insurgencies have to be confronted internationally and in many dimensions with unprecedented demands for intelligence gathering and analysis, interoperability and flexibility, and cultural sensitivity and understanding.

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, security, governance and development instruments are unlikely by themselves to offer the solution to end the ongoing violence. Both countries increasingly serve as a magnet and spark for radical Islamists. While there is a need to employ such instruments towards wider objectives, it has not been made clear what those objectives are beyond winning the war on terror.

Contemporary Constraints

Although the nature of the modern insurgency is generically different from the historical experience, some of the problems faced by security agencies in dealing with it remain the same as those of an earlier generation.

Putting Boots on the Ground. Past insurgencies have been won by troop saturation, ensuring a visible force presence and enabling borders to be sealed. While high-tech surveillance offers a modern force multiplier, there remains no substitute for boots on the ground. In Afghanistan as in Iraq, in an insurgency you cannot afford to concentrate and sequence combat power as you can do in general war. The enemy has shown that it can instantly react to adjustments and exploit the opportunities that arise when force levels are reduced or when coalition troops move out of an area. It is what officers refer to as the balloon effect: You squeeze one end, and the enemy moves to the other.   

Securing Adequate Intelligence. To paraphrase George Orwell, today we have information on everything but knowledge about much less. High-tech capability helps the intelligence-gathering exercise and can be a force-multiplier, but has its limits. The lack of knowledge of the situation in remote areas such as the Panjwayee district in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province illustrates the limitations of digital Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) systems such as eavesdropping, satellites, Predator and other “eyes in the sky”. The modern insurgency is, in the words of an American officer stationed in Afghanistan, “a b



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