Insurgencies are nothing new. History is littered with examples of insurgencies and counter insurgency operations - some successful, some not. But have we learnt anything from this history?
A counter insurgency operation (COIN Op) differs vastly from a conventional or semi-conventional operation in that the enemy (insurgent) is usually not recognisable as he/she moves, as Mao Zedong put it, “like a fish in the water”.
Without a distinctive uniform to aid identification, security force troops are confused and unsure of whom exactly they are fighting. In turn, this can manifest itself as frustration, leading to the excessive use of force and firepower, thus simply strengthening the insurgents’ cause and turning the local population against the soldiers as they become the indiscriminate casualties of the conflict. This, along with the poor treatment and abuse of the local population, will result in a situation where anger and numbers will eventually count against the security forces.
An insurgency is not a stand-off between two armies opposing one another. It is an ideology opposing an army. It does not adhere to the classical principles of the advance, attack and so forth. Instead, it will resort to anything that will further its aims, including terrorism, crime, fear and violence. Inevitably, this leads to the belief that the insurgent has the initiative as he is able to choose the time and place and strike at will, and then blend into the population. Whereas this holds some truth, especially in the early stages of the insurgency, it does not imply that the security forces have to surrender the initiative and become reactive.
But there are several reasons why an insurgency may be viewed as “lost”. These reasons can trace their origins back to the failure of strategists and planners to recognise the potential for an insurgency and to consider or appreciate the worst or most dangerous case scenario that can result due to their strategy or plan. The end result is that the flawed operational concept or plan becomes a constantly changing plan without a clear focus. It is this lack of focus that throws the security forces off balance, leads to casualties and intoxicates the insurgent with success. In turn, this creates the perception amongst the local population that the insurgent is indeed the stronger power.
Security forces need to understand the importance of isolating the insurgent from the local population. Whereas this requires a dedicated and realistic “hearts-and-minds” policy, this policy is doomed to failure if the security forces do not understand the culture, traditions, values and beliefs of the local population. This requires that all members of the security forces are educated about the local population. Without this knowledge, the security forces will misread the insurgents’ political and military strategy and subsequently its aims and objectives.
Furthermore, if this education and understanding is lacking, it will be nigh impossible to recruit and train loyal local population members into a force that will willingly do battle with the insurgents. Instead, the security forces will simply be training and arming the future insurgents.
The operational concept needs to make provision for numerous factors that will most definitely influence its execution. But, in my opinion, the following factors ought to be near the top of the strategist’s list of factors for consideration:
1. Intelligence (historic and current and how this will influence the operational concept)
2. Understanding the local population’s beliefs, values, traditions and so forth
3. Educating the security forces prior to insertion or deployment.
The use of landmines and IEDs by insurgents is nothing new, either. The South African Defence Force, along with the Rhodesian Army, learnt how to counter and negate these insurgent weapons decades ago. These lessons, along with the adaption of tactics, seem to have been lost in the modern COIN ops arenas. Likewise, concepts such as “ink spot strategies”, “area domination”, “small team operations” and so on seem to have been grossly neglected.
Of great importance is also the political will of the government fighting the insurgency and how this political will manifests itself by equipping the security forces. Inadequately equipped forces or a lack of essential equipment will inevitably lead to a drop in security force morale and their will to counter the insurgents. Additionally, casualties will escalate and have a negative influence on the national will to fight or oppose the insurgency. Subsequently, this simply enhances insurgent intoxication.
Numerous windows of opportunity present themselves when fighting an insurgent force. Failure to identify these windows and exploit them can be detrimental to the overall strategy. Whereas the insurgent lacks the discipline, weapon systems and military strength to engage the security forces directly, an indirect approach to defeating the security forces becomes the order of the day. Part of this indirect approach involves the engagement of the media to help influence the political environment they are operating in.
As long as we continue to misdiagnose the environment and ignore or subject the local population to abuse humiliation, the insurgent will retain the initiative. The end result will be a constantly changing strategy with a lack of focus where the security forces are kept off balance by their own flawed strategy.