Developing the strategy to fight an insurgency in a third country should be based primarily on the assessment whether that conflict is in the national interests of the state considering such an action. However, if the State itself is engaged in such a conflict within its borders, it would naturally be in its interests to end the conflict as soon as possible. In both instances, this will require a significant shift in terms of strategy, doctrine and tactics.
Whereas COIN operations can buy time, prevent the whole-sale slaughter of civilians, allow the insurgents to be hunted down and destroyed, success is ultimately dependent on political reform and the establishment of a system of effective service delivery. If the government attempting these reforms is deemed incompetent or corrupt, the locals will be lost to the insurgents.
COIN campaigns tend to be protracted campaigns with the local population as the main target for insurgent propaganda and recruitment. Whereas the COIN forces should focus on clearing, securing, influencing and retaining/holding areas under the influence of the insurgents, the insurgents will attempt to reduce the operational footprint of the security forces whilst creating the perception that they have the larger operational footprint. In turn, the insurgents and their supporters will attempt to use the media to create the perception that the insurgents are “everywhere”. To build on this perceived footprint, insurgents will conduct bold raids/strikes into so-called safe areas such as bases, convoys and so forth.
By creating a safe area in which civil-military actions can successfully take place will provide a firm base for security forces to operate from into the adjacent area. This will, furthermore, allow the security forces to keep “one foot on the ground”, maintain initiative and momentum and not be caught off balance. If the traditional ink-spot strategy is followed, similar actions ought to take place before moving on the next area or “spot”. But, civil-military actions are doomed to failure if the local population does not accept and “buy-in” to the concept. Getting locals to buy-in to any concept is problematic if they are not homogenous in terms of ethnic and racial make-up.
It is vitally important that the local population feel that they are secure, not “the enemy” and not “conquered” by the security forces. This requires that security forces are well-versed in the customs and traditions of the locals in the area they are operating in in order not to offend or alienate the locals. Failure to abide by this very basic requirement will result in resentment from the locals and a desire to see the security forces leave their area. In turn, this may result in the locals siding with the insurgents. The insurgency may then become an insurrection.
Actions against the insurgents must be decisive, swift and ruthless. This requires both good intelligence and the deployment of small reconnaissance teams that are able to locate and call air support or fire force-type units to swiftly engage the insurgents. This will provide the security forces with the basic principles of flexibility, mobility, momentum, initiative and decisive actions. But, force levels need to remain high in secure areas to prevent the insurgents from enlarging their footprint into safe areas. To achieve this, security forces require the correct training, discipline and leadership.
Strategic communication lies at the core of successful command. Commanders ought to recognise the fact that every action, however small, will generate an effect on the operation and this effect will impact on the local population. This effect will alter perceptions and to many locals, perception equals the reality of the world they live in. When the locals realise that there is a desire to improve their lot, they will often start providing the security forces with intelligence on the insurgents. Others, who may have actively supported the insurgents, may also change their perception of the government and the security forces.
Counter insurgency campaigns are primarily foot-soldier campaigns. Whereas vehicles play a major role in the campaign, they should never be used as “mechanised forces” unless absolutely necessary. Vehicles create targets for IEDs and landmines and where possible, trooping and deployments should be achieved by the use of helicopters. The tendency of the modern soldier to want to remain on or close to a vehicle also reduces the footprint of the security forces in terms of area domination and restricts them to certain areas or channels. But there is a danger that this tendency or laziness may permeate through to base protection, guard duties and other essential protection services. In turn, this will embolden the insurgent to conduct strikes at security force bases and outposts.
Night operations are equally important in COIN ops. Again, these operations should not be conducted by vehicle-borne troops as vehicle noise and lights can be seen over great distances and alert the insurgents who can either prepare ambushes, lay IEDs/landmines or simply exfiltrate out of the area. Security forces need to remember that the night is neutral and can be exploited by either party.
The importance of the elders/chieftains who exercise control over the local population should never be negated or ignored. If these traditional leaders are not integrated into the civil-military plans, these programmes will fail and give initiative to the insurgents. When these programmes are underfunded, undermanned, lack control and focus, they are doomed to failure. Penny-pinching does not win a COIN conflict.
Incentive programmes towards the local population such as rewards for actionable intelligence as well as protection and support for insurgents who lay down their arms need to be considered.
Poor strategies, a lack of leadership and focus as well as the incorrect deployment of security forces will fail to isolate the insurgents from the local population. This is due to the fact that insurgents remain unidentifiable until the population turns against them. This is the crux of any successful COIN campaign.
Without a definite national interest, a coherent strategy and poorly led, trained and equipped troops, the COIN conflict will become a graveyard for those engaging in it.