Counterinsurgency Theory, Sort Of
There's an interesting article by Eric P. Wendt based on counter-terrorism experience on Basilan describing operations against the Abu Sayyaf. One of the major keys to success, in the author's view is not the destruction of enemy output but it's infrastructure.
While it is important to target all four areas shown in Leites' and Wolf's model, it is helpful to liken internal and external support to a well that provides the overall supply of water. The water flows from the well through the spigot (the infrastructure), which translates it into output (guerrilla patrols, bombings, etc). The output can be equated to water coming out of a faucet. Attacking the output involves engaging trained, organized and equipped insurgents, or their planted bombs, in battle. Such attacks against insurgent output are resource-intensive and often carry a high price in blood.
While attacking the output is a necessary portion of COIN, it must be a supporting effort and not the main effort. Attacking output as the main effort in COIN is equivalent to trying to stop the flow of water by slapping at it as it comes out of the spigot. If we throw ever-increasing resources against the output, we will slap the water even faster, but we are doomed to failure. Attacking output as the main effort in COIN has failed throughout history, and it will fail during the GWOT.
The unconventional approach to COIN must address all areas of the Leites and Wolf model, but the main effort must be to attack the cadre or infrastructure. In conventional war, we can make direct attacks against troops in the field (output), but in COIN, we cannot directly attack the members of the infrastructure, because we cannot easily identify them.
Instead, we must first work indirectly, through, by and with the local internal supporters and population, using the correct carrots and sticks so that the population will identify and expose members of the local insurgent infrastructure for us. Once they have been identified by the local populace, the infrastructure members can be killed or captured. When we work indirectly through the local populace to identify members of the infrastructure, we are correctly stopping the insurgent flow of water by turning off the spigot. Targeting the members of the local infrastructure must be the main effort in COIN.
The whole article emphasizes the use of developing local structures to defeat the enemy. Politics and public diplomacy, to use the word du jour, is the main weapon in counterinsurgency. One striking omission in the paper is the lack of discussion of the role of the media in any campaign. The campaign in Basilan was conducted outside the glare of media scrutiny, a factor which other battlefields of the GWOT -- even Afghanistan -- share to degree because of press preoccupation with Iraq.
The interesting question is what effect a closely involved MSM will have on the task of working "indirectly, through, by and with the local internal supporters and population, using the correct carrots and sticks so that the population will identify and expose members of the local insurgent infrastructure for us". Two people with a possible opinion on the subject are Max Boot and Robert Kaplan. Boot's views on the efficacy of small footprint interventions are well known. At a symposium at the Council of Foreign Relations Kaplan spoke to issue of media involvement directly.
KAPLAN: First of all, Iraq, whether you supported the war beforehand or not, was never a model for how we want to do things all the time. It’s not a paradigm. You don’t send in 140,000 troops just on the—you know, on the spur of the moment. So in terms of what’s the paradigm, I believe the paradigm is small footprint—you know, preventive maintenance; that the smaller the mission—you know, the more under the media radar screen it is, the more the U.S. taxpayer gets a bang for his buck.
Kaplan used the particular subject of Abu Ghraib to illustrate how media coverage alters politics, which -- remember -- is the key element in counterinsurgency.
So there was anger within the military, at the military. But after about five or six weeks after the story broke, there was terrible anger against the media. Now, there wasn’t anger against the media at the beginning because it was a legitimate, big story. It was wise that it was uncovered, obviously. But after six weeks or so, when it continued to be covered at the same level—and you had the Army doing great work in Najaf and Karbala, going from a battle rhythm of fighting in the morning to getting electricity started in the afternoon; that’s where, I think, Staff Sergeant Ray won his Medal of Honor—you know, you had some stuff that would make the greatest Hollywood movies, and it was relatively not being covered, you know, in proportional comparison to this, which was already a six-week old story with relatively little new coming out. At that point, the attitude towards the media was horrific.
It would be interesting if someone could write a theoretical guide to counterinsurgency which took into account the effect of the media on operations. One interesting possibility is that the reason small footprints preferred by Boot are more efficient than big footprints is that they prevent a war from being politicized by a media circus. Sometimes the word circus is literally apt. Recently in East Timor, competition between two rival TV networks captured how the ringmasters works. Channel 7 got a film clip of the Channel 9 correspondent setting up an interview and subsequently aired the bombshell. The film clip
shows host Jessica Rowe interviewing East Timor taskforce commanding officer Brigadier Michael Slater. "I'm wondering how you feel about your safety given that you've got armed guards there standing behind you, armed soldiers," Rowe says.
"Jessica, I feel quite safe, yes," Brigadier Slater says. "But not because I've got these armed soldiers behind me that were put there by your stage manager here to make it look good."
The Jessca Rowe-Slater incident was enlightening because it suggests that since the media is part of the battlefield, the coverage of the media must be a vital part of the entire picture. The curious over-reaction by the MSM to embedded bloggers -- questioning their legitimacy, their "objectivity", their professionalism, etc -- recollects nothing so much as the effect of garlic or a Cross on a vampire. Reflecting on it, I think the reason is that bloggers often do what the Channel 7 did to Channel 9 in the incident above. One unnoticed fact -- you can check it out -- is that blogger Stephen Vincent was the only Western media person killed in Iraq in 2005. The statistical unlikeliness of that fact has always bothered me. But from the viewpoint of the Ba'athist insurgency it would make sense to target the anyone who could cover the media. After all, the regular media works through stringers and must maintain "access"; it's got to sell stories, etc. As Eason Jordan reminded us, the regular media has long had relationships with the Ba'ath. If the media is a weapon then it makes sense to eliminate threats to that weapon. Just hypothetically.
The other interesting thing is how well the Wendt model works going the other way. An insurgency can little hope to defeat American "outputs". The Armed Forces as such can't be defeated in action. Instead an insurgency attacks the faucet, not the water. How? "Indirectly, through, by and with the local internal supporters and population, using the correct carrots and sticks". Just hypothetically.