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    How to Lose a Counterinsurgency: Part I

    PART I: Kill Civilians

    The Senate Armed Services Committee is apparently very concerned about our rules of engagement in Afghanistan. Before they confirm General David Petraeus to the Afghanistan command, they want to make sure that he will loosen up those rules of engagement to allow more airstrikes and more artillery strikes. He has made soothing voices to the effect that he will be sure not to hold back the heavy firepower too strictly.

    As soon as you're worried that your counterinsurgency troops aren't using heavy enough firepower, the counterinsurgency strategy is all but dead. I could easily write a thousand tedious words explaining why, but I would like to offer this image instead.

    The Senators' concerns seem to have been specifically prompted by the Rolling Stone article that brought down General Stanley McChrystal. In addition to featuring a number of shockingly undisciplined and insubordinate remarks by McChrystal and his aides, that article includes a number of complaints of the strictness of McChrystal's rules of engagement from frustrated rank and file soldiers who'd prefer to "get [their] gun on." While I've criticized McChrystal's strategy and believe (based mostly on the results in Marja) that it's failing, the problem isn't that McChrystal is too squeamish about accidentally blowing away civilians. "Too careful about killing civilians" can really never be the problem with executing a counterinsurgency. But a reflexive desire to do more shooting, whether that reflex is expressed by grumbling soldiers on the front lines or anxious lawmakers in the capital, is a sign that the counterinsurgency strategy hasn't been fully accepted or understood. The goal of a counterinsurgency is to protect the civilian population and build up political support on the ground. Killing Afghan civilians achieves all of the key counterinsurgency goals, but it achieves them for the Taliban.

    Our British cousins have generously provided us with a clinic on how to lose a counterinsurgency. In fact, they demonstrated those lessons for us in person, at great sacrifice, over two hundred years ago. Consider that knowledge base part of the United States' national starter kit. Since we seem to have lost touch with those lessons, I'd like to celebrate the Glorious Fourth (in part) with a short series of posts reviewing a few of the military tutorials left by Generals Gage, Howe, Clinton, Burgoyne, and Cornwallis, with generous underwriting by George III.

    Am I really comparing George Washington to the Taliban on Fourth of July weekend? The political, philosophical, and moral answer is to that question is No, No, and Hell No. I take proud, patriotic delight in the Revolution's success, and I want to see the Taliban utterly destroyed. But the military history answer to that question is: Sadly, Yes. I wish to God that the situations didn't look so much alike. But in each case you have a highly trained, superbly equipped and deeply professional force of soldiers facing an ideologically-driven local opponent, largely composed of irregulars, across a large land area full of rugged terrain. The analogy isn't perfect; no analogies are. But in some ways, we have it harder than Gage, Howe et al. had it. Washington's army was much more conventional than the enemies we're fighting, and thus easier to defeat by conventional means, and the cultural gap between the British occupiers and British-American rebels was almost nothing. Howe and Washington had thousands of times more in common than we have with our Afghan allies, let alone with our enemies.

    It's tempting of course, to view the situations as different because the Continental army fought for noble principles that we admire, and the Taliban fight for a fanatical ideology that we despise. But if we're thinking about how to win a war, we can't yield to that temptation. On the ground, the difference between soldiers fighting from deep commitment to a good idea and soldiers fighting from deep commitment to a bad idea is nothing at all. It doesn't matter that the Taliban only think that they're right. What matters is that they do think they're right, and they act on that. The British didn't think the American rebels were right; most didn't even think that the rebels were acting from sincere principle. And that mindset was part of the British problem.

    Let's consider the illustration of the Boston Massacre again, and try to see it from the British point of view. Most Americans learn about this in grade school as a piece of outrageous, unmotivated bloodthirst, which is certainly how it looked to people in Boston. But the British soldiers viewed themselves as protecting themselves from a dangerous mob, and their position was reasonable enough to get the soldiers acquitted. They were in fact, surrounded by an angry crowd, and it was impossible to know how serious a danger that crowd posed. If Crispus Attucks looked aggressive to them, it's because Crispus Attucks actually did look aggressive, and he was angry as hell. There had been daily brawls between soldiers and Boston crowds for the previous three days, and it looked like only a matter of time before a British soldier was badly injured or killed. The soldiers had marched into the crowd on March 5 to rescue a private who was surrounded and under attack by a whole gang of infuriated locals; their mindset going in was about protecting the corps. And eventually their commander, Capt. Thomas Preston decided to err on the side of protecting his troops. He wasn't going to wait for one of his men to get hurt or killed before he decided that the mob was really dangerous. When in doubt, bring your own men home alive. The rest is history.

    Captain Preston's logic is exactly what the Senate has been urging on General Petraeus. The soldiers who chafe at McChrystal's strict rules of fire would prefer to serve under a Thomas Preston themselves. And truth be told, there are lots of junior officers in Afghanistan and Iraq right now, charged with leading their own troops through confused and dangerous streets, following the Preston handbook. In their position, charged with their responsibilities, I would probably do the same. Threats are hard to identify until too late, some attacks come from people who seem like civilians, and the American officers want to protect their own men. The duty to their own troops is much too basic, too fundamental, to deny. Better to make a reasonable mistake that kills a civilian than any mistake that kills one of your own, the logic goes. I don't know how I would tell a captain or lieutenant leading a patrol anything different.

    The problem is that those mistakes don't seem reasonable to the home team. When civilians from your own city or town or village get killed by soldiers, you don't say, "Well, it was an easy mistake to make, and those soldiers are under a lot of pressure." Nobody sees the heavily-armed foreigners as the ones whose safety is in jeopardy. And nobody ever forgets or forgives.

    Of course, from the other side of the Atlantic, what matters is bringing your own troops home safely. Half a dozen civilians killed in Boston didn't make much impression in London, but having a British soldier killed would be a huge problem. It's natural to count your own losses first, and to forgive mistakes made in the name of protecting the boys on the front line. It's hard to feel deeply about a few regrettable accidental deaths on the other side of the world. But a few civilian deaths in your neighborhood is just flat-out murder, a bloody massacre, and there's no dealing with the people who ordered it. Captain Preston and his men got acquitted in Boston, but even their lawyer didn't have any sympathy for them. His letters always refer to their actions as simply "the massacre," and he became one of the loudest, most radical voices for independence. His name was John Adams.

    One last lesson from the bloody events of March 5, 1770: it was only March 5, 1770. It was three years before the Boston Tea Party, five before Lexington and Concord, six before Washington forced the British out of Boston. But the Massacre was firmly on New Englanders' mind the whole time. Washington just had to say "March 5" to get his troops fired up. They never got over it. They never moved on. And that's the sobering lesson for us, seven years into Iraq and almost nine into Afghanistan: what happens early matters. Events from early in an occupation can change the direction course of events in powerful ways, and those events can't be reversed easily. The strategy that you should have used in 2002 isn't necessarily available in 2010. There's no do-over button. Things happen, they have consequences, and you have to deal with them.



    Great article and an excellent analogy. But I wonder if you're leaving out a piece. You insightfully address the strategic consequences of civilian casualties on the overall conflict, but you don't mention the strategic consequences of military casualties. In addition to the sentiments of the occupied population, the occupiers must also contend with the sentiments of their own people, and military losses can quickly sour popular support of a foreign initiative. Consider, for instance, how Black Hawk Down affected the U.S.'s presence in Somalia and its pre-9/11 foreign policy in general.

    And in additition to civilian support, you have to deal with militarly morale. Casualties affect morale of course, but so does the belief that the military leadership is putting soldiers lives at unnecessary risk.

    These considerations don't take away from your point about the strategic cost of civilian casualties and I don't disagree with your thesis, but they do suggest that to defeat an insurgency, you've got to strike some sort of balance, and finding the right balance is very difficult, perhaps even impossible.

    We often hear about successful insurgencies, from the American Revolution to the various rebellions in Afghanistan, but no one speaks much about successful counterinsurgencies. (Tamil Tigers? Shining Path? Chechnyan nationalists?) Too often, I fear, such suppressions work simply because they are brutal and relentless. What successful model of counterinsurgeny is the U.S. following? Iraq?

    True enough, G. Of course, you can't expose your troops to too much danger.

    The insurgents' strategy is, of course, to kill as many occupying troops as they can. So the strategic goals, like the available means, are asymmetrical. The insurgents want to kill enough counterinsurgents to make them give up before the counterinsurgents can win over the populace and achieve political stability. The counterinsurgents want to win over the populace and achieve political stability before before the cost of occupation (especially the human cost) becomes unbearable.

    This requires more posts, and I'm planning a minimum of two more. The key points are that the countersurgency needs to build momentum early in the game and needs a viable political partner on the ground who can effectively govern if the situation is stabilized.

    The most successful American counterinsurgency is probably the Philippines, which was absolutely brutal but which, to the best of my recall, didn't kill random passersby in Manila.

    The goal is to make the general public feel that they're safer and better off with the occupiers' side, rather than the insurgency. if you're killing civilians, you will never gain enough support to win, and the insurgency will keep gathering strength against you.


    Re Dr. Cleveland's comment that the insurgency in the Philippines "didn't kill random passersby in Manila," I do recall that the  Muslim " Moros" in Mindanao, Jolo and other island far to the south of Manila  did engage in the practice of mass killings of innocent civilians. We get the term "running amok" from their pactice of charging into a crowd and of non muslim filipinos and slashing furiously away at them with the "kriss" or "braong"  Ritualistically prior to  the act they would bathe, cleanse their fingernails and put on a clean white robe in preparation for their entrance into heaven where  they would enjoy the company of a number of virgins. Supossedly they wrapped their testicles in leather strapping the would be then soaked in water to shrink around their privates causing pain that would drive then crazy and inure them to any blows that they migght encounter. Apparently ordinary bulluts could not stop a cahrging Moro and  the U.S Army brought the .45 caliber pistol  to the Philippines specificall as a means of stopping these individuals

    Thanks for the comment, Miguel.

    But I did not say that the insurgency did not kill random passersby. I said, very clearly, that the COUNTER insurgency did not kill random passersby. My point is not that the Moros did not kill civilians. My point is that the American occupiers did not.

    And the occupiers, who were not killing the populace at random, beat the insurgents who were. I'd say that goes to my point.

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