Counter Insurgency (COIN) is a topic that is currently the subject of hot debate. Its leap to prominence stems from the hard lessons currently being learnt by the forces engaged in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, DRC, Yemen and so forth. Ironically, we seem to be continually thinking up new names, phrases and terms to ascribe to this not-so-new method of doing battle.
Although no universally accepted definition of an insurgency exists, it is commonly accepted that it is a movement with a specific political aim. In achieving its aim, the insurgent movement can resort to violence or to non-violence. But ultimately, the movement is dedicated to using either subversion (active or passive) or armed actions to overthrow a constituted government with the aim of replacing it with their own form of government – with the support of the local population. Guerrilla warfare and acts of terror and intimidation are simply two of the methods the insurgents will regularly adopt to achieve their aim.
There is however nothing new about an insurgency, apart from the weapons availability and technological ability of some insurgents. From my own limited experience, Angola, Sierra Leone and Indonesia were examples of insurgencies where violent actions were employed by the insurgents to overthrow or pressure those governments. But it appears as though a whole new cult-following has been established when it comes to countering insurgency and no cognisance is given to the lessons that have already been learnt and are clear to see. These lessons very clearly point out that an insurgency can be defeated.
Effectively countering the insurgency does not require a dedicated COIN army. It requires a conventionally-trained army doing conventional warfare correctly. This training, with its discipline and fire control, allows for flexible operation plans and an easy adaption to different tactics, techniques and procedures and adds operational flexibility. The army, however, needs core competencies in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations as well as in counter-terror (CT) operations. But it does not need to change its entire posture.
The success of the army will depend on:
• Its ability to gather intelligence. This requires focussed HUMINT operations and not massive technological operations. The HUMINT targets include operational plans of the insurgents, bases and hide-outs, their logistical supply lines, where IEDs/landmines are being manufactured, etc. These critical factors will not be identified using technical means. However, to get to successful HUMINT operations requires sound intelligence strategies and thorough planning.
• Its understanding that the spoils of the conflict are the minds of the local population. A lack of cultural respect and tradition, heavy-handed tactics against innocents, collateral damage and so forth will simply increase the flow of recruits to the insurgents.
• Combined arms competencies to allow for effective operations
• Its ability to influence the local population by means of operations other than war.
An insurgency is however a progression phase of the conflict and is not the main conflict. As such the insurgency lays the groundwork for a future phase of war.
Following the development of conflict, especially in the African context, it can develop in the following phases:
• The mobilisation of the people against real or perceived oppression
• A phase of armed struggle utilising the operational environment – both the political environment and natural terrain. This is usually in the form of guerrilla warfare and may include acts of terrorism. However, soft targets are of primary importance to show results and get mass media attention. It is this phase of war that is referred to as an insurgency and the fight against it as counter-insurgency. Engagements are of short duration and the insurgent will then melt away into the bush and blend into local population concentrations
• Mobile warfare aimed primarily at rear areas with the aim of cutting supply lines and capturing arms and ammunition. This is not a phase where AFVs are employed but should rather be viewed as a phase in which the insurgents mount large-scale operations. Vehicles may be used to deliver them to close proximity of their targets.
• Conventional warfare – a phase where mass support from the people has been given to the insurgent movement – a phase where numbers and anger will tell .
There are many very valuable lessons pertaining to the effective neutralisation of insurgencies. But, one of the most important issues to take note of is that ultimately, the armed forces will find themselves caught in a clash of cultures. Failure to understand, plan and effectively utilise this factor to their advantage will lead to a long, hard war-of-attrition – and allow the insurgents to realise their strategy.
Perhaps it is time we revisited the lessons we have already learnt and somehow forgotten about.