Many books and manuals have been written about counterinsurgency strategies. But looking at the current situations in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, it seems that either nobody has read any of these writings, or the given advice is wrong or not applicable.
It is often said that to understand counterinsurgency, one first has to know insurgent’s point of view. Having been a guerrilla fighter myself and having interviewed a number of insurgents from the war in Syria and Iraq for a study on radical Islam, there are several aspects of counterinsurgency that seem to be misunderstood – not only by the public, but by militaries as well. Here are some key points to consider.
Air strikes damage assessment
When it comes to fighting an insurgency, air strikes don’t work the same way they do against a conventional army. Although it is indeed impressive to watch the big explosions on our TV screens, when the dust is settled surprisingly many insurgents come out of the rubble alive. “The bigger their bombs the deeper our caves” says the guerrilla.
If the purpose of these air raids was to cause panic or to lower the morale of the enemy, it seldom works. You can’t “shock and awe” someone who is not afraid to die, but on the contrary desires to do so on the battlefield. Never underestimate the resilience of your opponent: As late as of March 2016, after having been on the receiving end of a massive air campaign, the Islamic State in Iraq was still capable of launching armored assaults against Kurdish positions.
Tactics vs strategy
Unconventional wars are often won by tactics rather than strategy. The insurgent’s only strategy is to win the war. In order to successfully combat guerrillas, a military force has to have very capable and flexible infantry squad and platoon commanders. This is the infantry’s war, not that of the generals. Still, NATO’s militaries are very inflexible and it takes them forever to plan and to execute even a small size operation. To change this more autonomy must be given to smaller units.
In an unconventional conflict, the participants have to learn to apply unconventional methods. “Out of the box” thinking is not enough. The soldier or law enforcement officer also has to learn to act against his or her intuition.
This includes ignoring enemy activity because of a religious holiday, or condoning drug trade and other illicit activities in order to make deals with local warlords. This type of behavior comes naturally to the insurgents, but might be hard to accept for a Western professional career soldier. The aim is not to make the world a better place, but to win the war. Instead, counterinsurgency should tackle the political roots of the problem: What is driving locals into the arms of the insurgents?
Allies or political lackeys?
It is appalling to see how the United States and European treat their allies. This observation is especially true for the Afghan National Army, but extends even to smaller NATO partners that were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. Although it is widely acknowledged that winning the sympathies of the local population is a key element to a successful counterinsurgency strategy, this will be difficult to achieve when the local military is not fully respected.
For the Iraqi Army, the problem is more that of training and recruitment. Both armies in Iraq and Afghanistan appoint high grade officers with the aim of trying to “respect the ethnic/religious diversity” of the country. This thinking has turned out to be disastrous.
This issue is not only about morale support and training; If you’re relying on local allies to bear the brunt of the fighting, they should receive the best equipment that is available. This has been especially true in regards to the Afghan forces. The Afghan National Army (ANA) Main Battle Tanks (MBT), Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV), and most helicopters are Soviet made. Even their Special Forces (SF), although having somehow better material, can’t compare with Western SF.
Instead the ANA is expected to do the job with obsolete Soviet era arms. There is a military principle that commands that the units that go to battle always get the best equipment. This should always apply to NATO’s local allies.
Waging an unconventional war requires a different type of intelligence from the one when fighting against a conventional enemy. Guerrilla operations and movements cannot be easily spotted. Often the insurgents are well camouflaged or operate in disguise. Therefore human intelligence is an absolute necessity. It won’t be enough to just listen to the enemy’s radio communication or rely on aerial or satellite images in order to learn their intentions. Inside sources within the organization are needed. And the best air force with the most advanced technical capabilities is ineffective if there is no intelligence on targets available.
Currently most information that the coalition possess about ISIS originates from deserters, who repented joining the organization, and their testimony is often biased; this leads many people to underestimate the military capabilities of ISIS. Most “repenters” played only minor roles in the Islamic State organization and therefore the intelligence they provide is of little value.
Time is the most underrated factor in unconventional warfare. Western politicians often expect positive results immediately. A guerrilla is not in a hurry. They are in for the long haul and can keep their head down and wait for better days.
There is often a gap between the moment a counterinsurgency measure is taken, and the time its effects are seen. For example, one might shut down the enemy’s supply lines, but it will still take weeks or months until this measure diminishes the enemy’s capability to wage war.
On the other hand less insurgent activity is not always the result of a successful counterinsurgency strategy. There are plenty of unrelated reasons why the guerrilla have stopped fighting, some of them as trivial as a wedding or the need of additional manpower to bring in the crops. In other instances, political crises in neighboring countries, fluctuations in international small arms trade, and regional conditions could revitalize a dormant insurgent force. The counterinsurgency forces might retreat from this “pacified’ region only to find out later that the enemy is still there.
Patience is demanded. Often the right military decision is made, but it shows no immediate effect. Western military planners often consider themselves as surgeons; their operations are described as “surgical cuts”. However, the war against insurgents asks for oncologists treating cancer patients.
The lower the intensity of an unconventional war is, the more the war “slows down”. At the lowest end, individuals and isolated cells that have pledged their alliance to a radical organization are conducting terrorist attacks in the United States and Western Europe. Years can pass before such persons finally begin to act. Planning and preparing those attacks can take months. The countermeasures to prevent those acts are usually the most time consuming. Don’t expect quick results in fighting urban terrorism.
A serious and thorough reform of the local counterinsurgency forces should include setting up an intelligence network which produces actionable intelligence from reliable sources, but also a need to introduce “soft’ measures like de-radicalization programs that will inevitably take time, personnel and money. Momentary battlefield “successes” and wishful thinking will make it more difficult to allocate the proper resources to do that. However, without making these changes, all victories against radical Islamic groups will turn out to be only temporary and meaningless.
Roland Bartetzko served in the German Army, the Croatian Defense Council (HVO) during the Bosnian War and with the Kosovo Liberation Army (UÇK) during the 1999 Kosovo War. Last year he published a study about radical Islam in Kosovo. Bartetzko has a university degree in law and is currently working for a law firm in Pristina, Kosovo.