The concept of Counterinsurgency
Classical and Neo-Classical Approaches to COIN
The British Plan for Helmand
Examining Strategy and Intelligence
Post-Bonn Political Context and Ethnicity
NATO COIN strategy and US counterterrorism policy
The relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan
At the heart of British counterinsurgency strategy is the “hearts and minds” (HAM) campaign which seeks to create space to advance political solutions leading to peace and stability. However, British strategy, embedded in the Joint UK Plan for Afghanistan, failed to win “hearts and minds” in Afghanistan and can be seen to have failed. This article defines failure as the inability to set the conditions for “fostering the political process, establishing security, and stimulating economic development” (British Army Field Manual, 2009). It seeks to analyse what went wrong: examining strategy, application of COIN principles, context and resources. The paper contends that the principles outlined by Robert Thompson (1966) are a prerequisite to the execution of a successful COIN. The paper asks: did COIN fail through a departure from Thompson’s principles, or under-resourcing, or the political context in Afghanistan, or the impact of US and NATO roles, or all of these factors. After a thorough investigation the findings are clear: Although the Joint UK Plan for Afghanistan adopted Thompson’s principles, the study has revealed complete departure from those classical principles, causing challenges for the British COIN. The study has also demonstrated that the British failed to win HAM in Helmand because they could not provide security to advance political solutions leading to peace and stability due to tactical mistakes, limited resources, incompetence of Karzai’s government and ethnic undercurrents, the US counterterrorism mission, and the relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan. The British were demonstrably under-prepared, under- resourced, and lacked a clear and achievable strategy to deliver COIN success in Afghanistan. These factors indicate a departure from Thompson’s principles, leading to a complete failure in Afghanistan.
The dominant British army narrative postulates that, after centuries of counterinsurgency (COIN) operational experience, British operations have been largely successful by comparison with US operations in Vietnam or French campaigns in Algeria (Thornton, 2005, p. 26). At the heart of British COIN is the “hearts and minds” (HAM) campaign which seeks to create space to advance political solutions leading to peace and stability. However, British strategy failed to win “hearts and minds” in Afghanistan (Exum, 2009) and can be seen to have failed. This paper defines failure as the inability to set the conditions for “fostering the political process, establishing security, and stimulating economic development” (British Army Field Manual, 2009). It seeks to analyse what went wrong: examining strategy, application of COIN principles, context and resources.
The paper contends that the principles outlined by Robert Thompson (1966) are a prerequisite to the execution of a successful COIN. Therefore one aspect of this study is to investigate whether there was a departure from the rules and maxims laid out by Thompson in the Helmand campaign. A second line of enquiry is into resources, including troop numbers, available to the Army in Helmand. A third area is the political context of post-Bonn Afghanistan in relation to Thompson’s principles, including an assessment of ethnicity within the country. A fourth line of enquiry is into the relationship of NATO COIN strategy and US counterterrorism policy in Afghanistan, followed by analysis of the relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan.
In order to formulate these arguments, the study will integrate the following four research aims: research aim one (RA1) establishes the meaning of insurgency and the concept of counterinsurgency; RA2 evaluates the debate between Classical and Neo-Classical COIN theories; RA3 outlines British policy for Helmand; RA4 critically analyses the factors that have undermined the British COIN in Helmand province. The paper is structured correspondingly.
The British Army Field Manual (2009) provides a classical definition of insurgency as “an organised, violent subversion used to effect or prevent political control as a challenge to established authority” (p. 5). David Kilcullen defines insurgency as a battle to control political space, between a state or group of states and non-state actors (Kilcullen, 2006b, p. 112); often a popular uprising which emanates from, and is conducted through, pre-existing social networks such as tribe, family, political and religious parties, and occurs in “a complex social, informal and physical environment” (Kilcullen, 2006a, p. 2).
The concept of Counterinsurgency
Counterinsurgency, contrastingly, is a comprehensive civilian and military effort to defeat and contain insurgency and to address core grievances (Anderson, 2014, p. 941). These civil- military efforts, according to the British Army Field Manual (2009), are military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological and civic actions taken to overcome insurgency. There is academic consensus that the success of COIN relies largely on the counterinsurgent’s ability to win over the civilian local population (Anderson, 2014, p. 941). Major Verret (2013, p. 95) of the Canadian Army argues that the military is only one of many weapons in the counterinsurgent team’s arsenal that is required for a COIN strategy to succeed; consequently it is necessary to discover the root causes of the struggle. These root causes are usually socio- political and economic grievances that combine to instigate the insurgency (Verret, 2013, p. 96). Resolving the grievances, though, requires integrated efforts of all the various civil- military agencies.
In his seminal work, David Galula lays the ideational foundations of counterinsurgency framework, and contends political primacy over military force. Galula took the view that political/civilian to military efforts should be in the proportion of 80:20 (Galula, 1964, p. 63). Essentially, military action becomes auxiliary in HAM operations. The military’s role is to prevent insurgent activities and to guarantee civil-political players the space and freedom to work effectively with local populations. Galula underscores the role of the military, suggesting that counterinsurgency operations necessitate highly mobile and lightly armoured infantry in large numbers, though counterinsurgents must desist from heavy and indiscriminate weaponry because it alienates the local civilian population (Galula, 1964, p. 65).
The local population is imperative in this strategy: according to the Canadian Forces doctrine (2008, pp. 1-14), “the primary strategic centre of gravity is the civilian populace.” This implies that every action of the counterinsurgent should be directed towards the local population in order to gain popular support for the legitimate government. The local population will often be divided into three groups: a neutral or passive majority, and active minorities for and against the cause (US Department of Army, 2006, pp. 3-24). Therefore all insurgencies will have both an active minority against the insurgency, and also an active minority that supports the insurgency. Effectively, the main battlefield will be to win over the neutral majority of the population, as illustrated in the graph below.
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Source: Extracted from Verret (2013, p. 97).
The ability of the counterinsurgents to shift popular support towards the legitimate government relies on their ability to isolate the insurgents from the population, hence securing the population should be accorded the priority in a COIN operation. The ensuing paragraphs evaluate the contending theories of COIN and set the theoretical parameters for counterinsurgency operations.
Classical and Neo-Classical Approaches to COIN
Research reveals that the classical principles outlined by Robert Thompson (1966) are essential for the successful execution of COIN operations (Nagl, 2005, pp. 28-29). Based on experience of COIN campaigns as a British officer in Malaya and Vietnam, Thompson developed a series of principles and established distinct stages of counterinsurgency which are applicable to all COIN operations. These principles are condensed into five fundamental principles: firstly, the government must have a clear political aim to establish and maintain a free, independent and united country which is politically and economically stable and viable. This can be achieved through reforms designed to restore government authority and eradicate corruption (Thompson, 1966, pp. 51-52). Secondly, the government must function in accordance with the law. Thompson underlines the rule of law and asserts that “a government which does not act in accordance with the law… cannot expect its people to obey the law,” otherwise it will create opportunities for the insurgents to present feasible alternatives to the local population (Thompson, 1966, pp. 52-53).
Thompson’s third principle states that the government must have an overall plan. Military operations produce short-term results because they are unsupported by civilian follow-up actions (Thompson, 1966, p.55), hence the government’s plan must have a civil-military balance characterised by ample coordination between the agencies in all areas. Additionally, the civil-military plan must advance progressively, one district at a time, not inadequately dispersing resources along a broad front. Fourthly, the government must give priority to defeating political subversion, not the guerrillas. This emphasises separating the population from the insurgents to deny supplies, recruits and intelligence to the insurgency (Thompson, 1966, p.56). Fifthly, in an insurgency guerrilla phase, a government must first secure its base areas. In order to prevent the proliferation of political subversion in insurgent areas, the government must endeavour to curb the insurgents’ capacity “by securing its own base areas and working methodically outwards from them” (Thompson, 1966, p.57). In securing a base, precedence should be given to key populated and more developed areas which represent the centre of economic and political strength. These five principles, simply termed the “clear-hold-evaluate the contending theories of COIN and set the theoretical parameters for counterinsurgency operations.
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- University of Portsmouth – School of Social Historical and Literary Studies
- woes british helmand province counterinsurgency campaign afghanistan