Numbers count in counter-insurgencyPosted: 15/06/2012
By Brigadier Ben Barry, Senior Fellow for Land Warfare
How do British and Indian views of counter-insurgency (COIN) differ? How much are they the same? During a recent trip to India, I had the chance to contrast and compare experiences. Joining India’s Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) in a roundtable discussion with the faculty of the Indian Army War College and the students of their Higher Defence Orientation Course, I shared my analysis of the lessons from British stabilisation operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I pointed out that in Northern Ireland, the British had controlled the relevant state levers of power, whilst in Iraq and Afghanistan they were junior partners in US-led coalition and NATO operations. They also had to manage a sometimes difficult relationship with increasingly assertive and less malleable host-nation governments. The environment was extremely complex and subject to great friction and uncertainty. The strategic, operational and tactical levels overlapped with a political dimension. Both wars became increasingly unpopular at home.
In Iraq after the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s forces in 2003, the presence of US-led coalition forces failed to have a positive impact on Iraqi citizens. This not only rapidly eroded any support that may have been given by the Iraqis but also created the conditions for the Sunni insurgency and the rise of Shia militias. So a stabilisation mission became war in a broken country. The US-led transition strategy had failed by the end of 2006, and it was only the combination of Sunni tribes rejecting al-Qaida and siding with the US, and President George W. Bush’s decision to send in a ‘surge’ of more troops, that prevented an overall defeat for the coalition.
The story of Britain’s war in southern Iraq is both complex and contentious. While it was not Britain’s finest hour, nor was it a national military disgrace along the lines of the fall of Singapore.
I also drew provisional lessons from the as-yet-unfinished war in Afghanistan. Often characterised as ‘nation building under fire’, operations there confirm that the classic principles of insurgency and counter-insurgency still apply. These principles include: the primacy of politics; addressing the root causes of the insurgency; making progress across all areas of governance and development; retaining legitimacy and operating within the law; and the value of propaganda to the insurgents and ‘information operations’ to counter-insurgency personnel.
Iraq and Afghanistan also confirmed that numbers count – not only in having large numbers of boots on the ground, but also in training, mentoring and integrating with indigenous armies, militias and police (including attaching advisers and operational mentors at every level from defence ministry to infantry company). Success at all levels requires the ability to integrate not only traditional fire and manoeuvre but also a wide variety of other effects and agencies, including reconstruction, development and information operations. This saw supporting capabilities, such as language and cultural awareness, become as important as more traditional military capabilities.
But the last decade also reaffirmed that fighting is the core military capability. Many Western armed forces spent much of the 1990s achieving results in the Balkans simply by ‘being there’. The Shia uprising in Iraq in 2004 made it clear that against opponents determined to fight, armed forces who were unable to fight, or whose governments were not prepared to allow them to fight, were of little utility. This was also the source of considerable tension within NATO concerning national contingents in Afghanistan whose restrictive rules of engagement and national political caveats greatly reduced their utility.
Major General Rajiv Bhalla, the War College Commandant, agreed that numbers counted in COIN. For example, the total number of security forces in the Indian region of Jammu and Kashmir approached 500,000.
Gaining and maintaining public support was also key. The minimum-force approach was essential, he said. The default setting was to use small arms only. Heavier weapons and airpower had a role, but only in extremis and under tight control through rules of engagement and command approval procedures. But the Indian army should only be used inside the country as a force of last resort, hence the use of police and various paramilitary forces against various internal insurgencies.