Wilf Owen, noted Clausewitzian and Editor of Infinity Journal has a provocative new piece up at SWJ Blog:
The population is not the prize. The population are the spectators to armed conflict. The prize is the control the government gains when the enemy is dead and gone. Control only exists when it is being applied, and it exists via the rule of law. The population will obey whoever exercises the power of law over them. Power creates support. Support does not create power. This is the source
of great confusion.
….In general terms killing the wrong people (civilians) may undermine the political objective being sought. Whether it does or does not will be the policy context. How proportionately, precisely or discriminately lethal force is applied will be dependant on the tactics employed. Thus Rules of Engagement (ROE) are those limitations on lethal force and military activity that armed forces use to ensure that force does not undermine policy.
….All the new counter-insurgency theorists concede, some killing is required but to quote FM3-24 while necessary, especially with respect to extremists [killing] by itself cannot defeat an insurgency. Again this makes no sense, unless as part of a defence mounted to preserve the idea that you cannot kill and capture your way to success. Those who are extremists do not become apparent or may not even exist until the ranks of the enemy have been thinned by death, desertion and surrender. Until lethal force is focused on the enemy, the extremists may not be apparent, and who is and is not an extremist is irrelevant if they are clearly armed and thus a legitimate target within the ROE.
Killing and capturing are important, because lesser forms of operation aimed at disrupting or dislocating while useful, may allow the enemy to survive. Dead and captured cannot return at some later date to re-contest any issue they see fit. Warfare against irregular forces is won in a similar way to warfare against regular forces. The only major differences is that force usually has to be employed far more precisely, discriminately and proportionately. This is because lethal force will be applied close to or within a population that you are politically/legally required to protect. The other difference is that lethal force will be focussed at the individual level. This is a general distinction from that of fighting regular forces where operations would seek to defeat units and formations in part or as a whole.
The case of Algeria, during the 1990’s with the battle between Islamist rebel-terrorists and a radical Arab-socialist dictatorship provides some support for Owen’s ideas regarding killing and the separation of opponents into extremists and moderates. The government, which applied force with minimal constraints, did succeed in killing off the leadership cadres of the FIS, GIA and MIA faster than they could be properly developed, leaving leadership in the hands of either younger, more radical but less experienced men or causing the groups to accept government amnesty.
Algeria of course enjoyed several advantages that the West lacks in places like Afghanistan – the Algerian rebels were isolated from the outside world and enjoyed minimal foreign support and the Algerian dictatorship conducted operations without regard to the laws of war in a media blackout, getting a pass from the international community because the behavior of the rebels was even worse. In Afghanistan, the center of gravity of the Taliban movement is the support of Pakistan’s ISI whch is using them as proxies to drive ISAF out of Afghanistan and the kind of punitive raiding into Pakistan to decimate Taliban manpower is forbidden by policy.
Spencer Ackerman offers a spirited rebuttal to Wilf Owen:
…. Where to begin. Sometimes, as in nearly all counterinsurgency fights, the counterinsurgent cannot easily distinguish the insurgent from the civilian. That’s not always because of poor tactical intelligence or ignorance of a foreign culture. It’s because the guy who gives his old cellphone to his cousin so his old neighborhood friend can use it to construct IEDs for the guy paying a good going rate — quick, is he an insurgent or not? If you can’t immediately answer, Owen’s argument falls apart.
Even if you unflinchingly decide the guy’s an insurgent, killing the guy can easily inspire the whole neighborhood to rally to the insurgents’ cause. Quick: do you kill the guy so you can approach the Magic Number of dead insurgents that assures you victory? Or does not killing the guy take you further away from the Magic Number?
I know, I know. Counterinsurgency is OVER. Whatever context, wisdom or experience led people to consider it a least-bad option ought to be ignored. Its unsuitability for Afghanistan has rendered the entire enterprise inert. What, you didn’t read that National Journal piece?
My only comment here is that Pop-centric COIN is only one brand of COIN that fits some situations better than others. I suspect much of the time in the near future, US military forces will be limiting themselves to FID, largely for budgetary reasons, and the host nation may see COIN differently than our current doctrine prescribes.