When the political leadership commits the armed forces to a conflict or a war, one would assume that the “homework” was done ... and that the scope of the mission would not be misleading. Once the political commitment has been made, the military’s primary mission is to end the conflict or war as quickly as possible – not to change its mission before it has achieved its aim.
It is, therefore, with great interest that I have been reading numerous articles and blog postings on recent conflicts and wars, especially those relating to Counter Insurgency Operations (COIN Ops). What strikes me as odd is that there are some authors who regard these types of operations as “new” and who, in turn, are calling for a “new” approach and doctrine to combating an insurgency – an approach that assumes the primary role of the military is to “build the nation”.
Insurgencies are not a new military phenomenon and they are common-place in Africa. Revolt against the constituted authority is often encountered by people who wish to replace the government with one of their own and for reasons of their own.
Most of the African insurgencies are – or have been - associated with megalomaniacs who want nothing but total power ie, Savimbi, Kony, Mugabe, Sankoh, Taylor and others. These “leaders” will stop at nothing to achieve their aims and, once in power, will do everything possible to cling to power. Their primary weapon becomes terror against the local population in order to force their support – or subdue them. This can include murder, rape, torture, kidnapping of children, plunder and so forth.
Insurgencies are also launched by proxy forces to further the aims and ambitions of one government against another. This gives a level of deniability and ensures that political aims are furthered without committing government forces to the conflict or war. Africa has numerous examples of proxy forces – usually supported by foreign powers - engaged in such conflicts and wars.
Nation building and ceasefires will not end these conflicts. They never have and they never will. Nor will negotiation achieve anything much apart from gaining time, unless done from a position of complete strength.
The armed forces are there to conduct military operations, operations that will involve killing those that are trying to destabilise the government and terrorise the local population with armed force. Once committed to the conflict or war, the political leadership should do everything possible to support their armed forces – and accept that killing will take place. For politicians to change the military’s mission mid-stride shows a lack of certainty, poor political planning and a lack of honesty, political leadership and direction.
Ironically, when the troops accomplish their mission with aggression, they are condemned by the very politicians who sent them there and they are tried and found guilty in the media. Have those that are so quick to point fingers not realised that “war” is synonymous with death, killing and destruction?
Committing the armed forces to a conflict implies that there will be casualties. It implies that the armed forces must kill or capture the enemy and break its ability to continue the conflict or war. It also implies that there will be civilians caught up in the conflict. Whereas collateral damage is to be minimised at all costs at all times, the reality is that it is sometimes unavoidable.
The attempts by the political masters to develop new theories of war based mainly on a lack of understanding and experience results in poor strategies, fraught with political interference and unworkable RoE. This problem is amplified when these so-called plans are hatched with little or no intelligence or when the political masters hint that the enemy will be rapidly overcome once hostilities commence. It seems as though some senior officers are only too happy to accept the constraints placed on their forces – and exacerbate the misleading beliefs on the enemy - in order to protect their military careers and further their own political ambitions. The greatest danger to the armed forces is when the military leadership wants to play politics, build nations and call for ceasefires – and forget to give military leadership to their men.
Conversely, the enemy has one but one aim: take power by inflicting the maximum casualties to the armed forces and use the media to give them the publicity they need. The enemy knows this will, additionally, lead to a weakening of resolve and morale on the homefront.
The actions and tactics the insurgents carry out will be aimed at preventing direct contact with the military whilst ensuring maximum attrition of the armed forces – and coercing the local population. To achieve this, use will be made of sabotage actions, ambushes, raids, pseudo-operations, landmines, stand-off mortar bombardments, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), torture, kidnappings, terror and so forth.
The armed forces may recruit members of the local population to assist them in countering the insurgency and to act as not only soldiers but as guides, interpreters, trackers and so on. However, a lack of sophistication by the COIN forces’ approach to the local society and its culture, traditions, religion and so forth will present an ideal opportunity for exploitation by the insurgent forces. Furthermore, poor vetting practices will allow insurgents into the ranks of the COIN forces, biding their time to strike from within thus furthering effecting morale and increasing distrust.
If politicians lack the intelligence necessary to formulate their plans and the political will to see the end of what they have committed to, deny the troops the equipment needed to accomplish their mission(s) and continually interfere with military missions and military strategy, true military success will be a very difficult to achieve. But even this hard slog will have been in vain if the political backbone and integrity is missing.