Insurgency and Counterinsurgency

NATO Lisbon Summit August 2008

By Lieutenant-General Jonathon Riley CB DSO PhD MA FRHistS

Lt Gen JP Riley

In counterinsurgency, short engagements and battles are not decisive except at the lowest tactical level; it is the campaign that is decisive rather than the battle. However, campaigns take time to unfold and modern societies, unlike their insurgent opponents, are impatient. The spirit of the age is one of instant gratification, and the idea that the defeat of an enemy may take years simply encourages a hostile or shallow media to equate deliberate progress with disaster. Connected to this, the broadening of the information realm has made control by governments, in a way that was still possible even during the Falklands War, impossible. In the absence of the means to garner public support, even small numbers of casualties on intervention operations owing nothing to vital national interests can humble governments.

War among the people

Counterinsurgency is, indeed, ‘war among the people,’ a phrase coined by Rupert Smith in his seminal book The Utility of Force. Smith sets out the view that in wars today, forces developed for industrial-age warfare against states are increasingly, although not exclusively, used for non-industrial wars against non-state actors. War has changed from being a matter of comparative forces doing battle within the context of strategic confrontation, to battle between a range of combatants using different weapons and asymmetrical methods for reasons that have little to do with the interests of nation states.

Smith is of course drawing on his own experience of service in the British Army. After 1945, that army maintained a standing conventional force of 55,000 troops in Germany, with others committed to reinforcing it or deploying to the Baltic. This was its main effort. It also maintained forces for conventional interventions elsewhere, like the Falklands. But from the last phase of colonialism through to the campaign in Northern Ireland, there was always another army: the army fighting counterinsurgency operations in places like Palestine, and Malaya. Soldiers, especially in the infantry, regularly put their armoured vehicles into mothballs, retrained and went off on tours of duty in these operations. So too, the doctrine and staff training of the army had to prepare commanders and staffs at all levels for these unconventional campaigns. Thus right up until the 1990s, the notion of doing a range of tasks across the spectrum of conflict came quite naturally. We may of course have ended up doing neither really well.

This was not the experience of the U.S. Army, which concentrated after Vietnam on rebuilding itself solely for the conventional fight. Faced with a changing situation in Iraq after 9/11, however, it has shown a remarkable ability to adapt structures, forces and weapon systems planned for confrontation with the Soviets to the demands of warfare against a host of modern enemies. Indeed it has undergone three transformations since Vietnam and it has moved from a doctrinal position of ‘we do not do counterinsurgency or nation building’ to ‘no-one does it better.’ It has moved from a marked aversion to casualties in the 1980s and 1990s to an absolute conviction that casualties must be accepted when vital national interests are at stake; and, in so doing, it has reverted to ‘normal’ U.S. thinking, amply demonstrated during both World Wars and in Korea and Vietnam. It has taken on new equipments, formulated a new doctrine, taught this throughout the organisation and put it into effect, gripped the integration of civil and military effects, and mobilised large elements of its reserves - and all the while fighting two major campaigns.

At the same time, the British army has struggled to maintain the wide collective experience it gained in Northern Ireland and apply it to new theatres. In Northern Ireland, for example, we lived with the IED threat, developed intelligence at every level, and operated comprehensively and successfully against the networks. However, the fact was that seven years of cease-fire in Northern Ireland and our flirtation with UN peacekeeping in the 1990s had bred a whole new generation that had not lived and breathed that experience. The Army had developed corporate amnesia and had to start all over again with the business of learning lessons the hard way. What may be happening at present is that rather than a new type of war supplanting state-on-state conflict as Smith and others seem to be suggesting, the two are coexisting as they always have done – the Cold War obscured this – and it is the balance that is shifting. If you doubt that state-on-state war is over, consider Russia versus Georgia. In both the Iraq and Afghanistan case, a successful invasion rapidly destroyed the enemy’s conventional forces and the country was occupied – occupied not for exploitation, but to bring the supposed benefits of Western liberal democracy and development to a failed or failing state. However, significant sections of the occupied country’s population did not quite see the benefits of what were to them alien, Godless, notions. These sections were initially those who had lost out through the invasion: the Sunni Ba’thists in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

A period of regrouping followed the initial defeat, and then a counter-offensive was launched to eject the occupiers. The losers were soon reinforced by those Islamic extremists whose objections to the occupation were not so much material as spiritual. With them came foreign jihadi reinforcements, arms, money and expertise – expertise gained through a long war against Israel. This rapidly turned a counter-offensive into an insurgency, and the insurgency quickly learned that confronting the occupiers head-on would lead to destruction. They therefore did what the weak have always done when faced by the strong: avoided trials of strength unless on very favourable terms; exploited the vulnerabilities of the occupier, especially in the minds of the home population; used propaganda; and adopted the indirect method of attack – in other words, what is now termed asymmetry.

The virtual realm

Asymmetry is apparent in both the physical and virtual realms and it is the latter I want to address first, because the broadening of the virtual realm of information has certainly changed the face of insurgency and counterinsurgency beyond recognition in the last ten years. It has of course benefited insurgencies, enabling them to transmit their messages and to develop technology exchange. The Taliban’s self-styled Emir of Afghanistan, Abu Al-Yazid, was an excellent example until his death earlier this year. His web-site (still kept running by his acolytes long after his demise) is updated every four hours in five languages and is, of course, unconstrained by the requirement faced by government sources, to tell the truth.

Today, the exchange of expertise can take just a few days to show results on the groundIronically, Al-Yazid was, for several years, known for his penchant for hanging anyone engaging in activities connected with globalisation.

An illustration of the acceleration of technology transfer is the fact that during the 1980s, it would routinely take six months for techniques developed in Palestine to reach the IRA or vice versa. Today, the exchange of expertise can take just a few days to show results on the ground. Anyone can search the internet and find details of how to construct an improvised explosive device, how to reach Afghanistan and join the jihad, how to become a suicide bomber – and much else besides.

From this we must understand that information is power; and how we apply it will help determine our success or failure. It is a weapon of mass effect and can, if used incorrectly, result in friendly fire. It has to be targeted at very different audiences, who may interpret the same message, or various actions, in different ways, and often we are far from clear about the nature of those audiences and their likely reactions, with the subtlety required and with the explicit linkage between messages and actions. Above all, a modern military commander must be able to explain what he is doing, because his principal business in complex modern emergencies is not activity-led operations like framework security, but rather a relatively small number of intelligence-led operations.

Some of these will be aimed simply at producing further or better intelligence; others at destroying or capturing particular objectives or people. They may be aimed at setting conditions for nonmilitary activities, like democratic elections or reconstruction.

All will be in some way associated with particular decisive points in the campaign. But we in the military continue to make things difficult for ourselves: the firewall we erect between information operations and media operations seems to me to make little sense in this multi-media world of ours. In a counterinsurgency I question whether we should be using such terms as ‘psychological operations’ (Psyops) and ‘information operations’ (IO) at all; it is far too easy for trouble-makers among the insurgency and in the international media to present what we do as manipulation.

If you accept the notion of connection between words and deeds, it seems to me fundamental that whatever message is being put out by IO and Psyops – or by the engagement of key leaders – has to be matched by what is seen in the media. We know that the media gets things wrong – through misinformation or disinformation – nevertheless most people believe what they see in the media and it is therefore vital that any commander does his best to ensure that whatever story is put out to the media and then by the media is true, and therefore credible. The internet too seems to have credibility beyond what it deserves, all the more dangerous because of the speed and quantity of information which it carries. It is essential to get our messages out and dictate the agenda; if we do not it will be dominated by the enemy’s version, or the media’s version.

We also have to be fast with our messages. Winston Churchill said that “a lie gets halfway round the world before the truth has got its pants on.” Governments are bureaucracies, and therefore centralised and slow. In democracies at least, the days are gone when governments or leadership elites could control information and thereby control populations: advances in IT and telecommunications have shattered any monopoly of control over information and at the same time, the merging of these once separate areas has brought the ability to reach larger audiences.

The mobile phone is part of the equipment of any self-respecting insurgent or terrorist, and any insurgent attack can be recorded and broadcast. In Afghanistan, as in many parts of the world, cell phones are commonplace. In the most remote areas, people may still grind their corn by water-power but they communicate by solar-powered cell phone. Our strategic communications need to be able to exploit this, not to have to react to it and its effects.


In the glare of modern media and with an enemy whose large network of scouts, equipped with cell phones, can watch our every move, large-scale sweeps end up achieving little except disruption. At worst, they lead to the arrest and internment of large numbers of the wrong people who are then a captive audience for the agents of jihad. In trying to do better, the military forces of the U.S. and its allies have found new uses for old toys, especially in the field of intelligence, which remains one of the key aspects of successful counterinsurgency. The Nimrod aircraft, for example, was procured as a Cold War maritime patrol aircraft; for the past six years it has been used as a valuable surveillance platform able to loiter for extended periods and identify pinpoint targets.

In our training for the conventional war we expected in Europe, we often stressed the need for high tempo in relation to our opponents: whoever makes, implements, reviews and sustains decisions fastest will surely win. On that basis, the best is the enemy of the good. Questing for certainty in the uncertain fog of war will merely hand the advantage of tempo to the enemy – so better to make a decision based on partial information and thus gain the initiative.

secure the population during an insurgency and separate the insurgents from the populationBut counterinsurgency is the exact opposite of this. For one thing, the enemy has a very different view of tempo: he will rely on time, not speed, to wait us out, soak up the punishment in societies which may have a very high tolerance of violence and death, and rely on the impatience of Western societies. For another, we have to take full account of the legal and media implications of the modern world. Every care must be taken to avoid civilian casualties, for example, or be able to justify them if they are not avoidable. The trial is likely to be conducted by the media, using the enemy’s version of events rapidly delivered and enthusiastically endorsed by the UN and other well-meaning agencies and NGOs. Given these factors, we are obliged to quest for certainty. Where destructive force is applied, it must be applied on the basis of excellent, multi-source intelligence and every commander must be his own intelligence chief to a greater degree perhaps than ever before.

The opponents of governments and states today are not just other states, but non-state groupings, whose command structure, as far as they can be said to have one, operates in the virtual realm. We are as likely therefore to be attacked in the virtual realm as in the physical. May I suggest that we need to have a rules of engagement profile which matches the enemy’s modus operandi in every sphere of conflict if we are going to operate successfully whenever and wherever we need to do so.

Force densities

It was always drummed into me that to secure the population during an insurgency and separate the insurgents from the population, there has to be a certain density of security forces – and this is critical. Achieving this density is a key factor in tipping a counterinsurgency campaign towards a decision. Historical norms tell us that government forces – military, police, border guards, auxiliaries – should number one for every fifty of the population in insurgent-affected areas. In Northern Ireland, with a population of just over a million, of whom about half were affected by insurgency, Britain maintained 20,000 regular troops, another 10,000 in locally recruited battalions and 20,000 police and police reservists – and did this for twenty years, with commanders, staffs and intelligence agencies on long tours of duty.

Iraq’s population is estimated at 31 million, of whom nearly sixty per cent live in areas that were affected by one or more of the Iraqi insurgencies. It was not until Iraqi force-generation, combined with a surge in U.S. troops, produced a headline figure of 600,000 personnel, made up of Coalition forces, Iraqi Army and police, Kurdish Peshmerga and local auxiliaries, that this density was reached and then surpassed.

Afghanistan’s population is estimated at about the same but spread over a much wider and harsher geography, a more complex mix of ethnicities, a far stronger and more complex tribal system,

greater poverty, less well developed infrastructure and no developed resource base. Again, at least half the population is living in areas affected by Pashtun insurgency, warlordism, well-armed, organised criminality or the activities of the intelligence services of at least one and possibly two hostile neighbouring states. As of late 2009, the security forces numbered a total of 265,000. The 2010 U.S. surge has increased the figure by 40,000, but for a short period. Across the border in Pakistan, the population of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas numbers eleven million and Pakistani Government forces about 100,000. The ratios fall far short of what is needed: no wonder success continues to be elusive. Successive U.S. commanders of ISAF have repeatedly pointed out the need for 400,000 security forces, in line with historical norms, for a sustained period.

insurgentsThe consequences are severe, because an insufficient force density allows the insurgency freedom of movement. In Afghanistan, for example, the insurgency is characterised by a proliferation of small groups, generally with defined areas of operation and highly mobile. Having been unable to defeat U.S. and NATO forces in head-to-head combat and with nothing to offer the population except a return to the highly unpopular Taliban rule of the late 1990s, the insurgency’s operations use the lack of government and coalition force cover to dominate provinces without actually occupying territory. Through their activities the insurgents seek to exercise an all-pervading influence over local communities, paralyse government, and undermine popular will and morale.

In operations against the security forces, the favoured techniques the IED, often in combination with direct or indirect fire. With freedom to manoeuvre comes the freedom to implant IEDs at will, usually under cover of darkness. We often view the IED as a discrete element of the campaign – it is not. It is the product of a network, and we need a networked approach to deal with it both technically and tactically – but the single most important means of dealing with it is not some piece of wizard technology – it is being able to dominate the ground: all day, all night, all year round. In addition to force densities, border control is important: failure to secure the borders will give insurgents capabilities to stage attacks, even if force densities are high enough to control an area.

Security sector reform

Explicit in any successful counterinsurgency is the need for indigenous security force generation, to produce the sort of densities of security forces needed, along with the continuity and familiarity with the geography, social anthropology and political economy of an area. The aim must be to allow the host nation to take charge of its territory and solve its own problems, in its own way. This does depend on the host nation government being effective, accountable and acceptable to the majority of its own people. Beyond that short-term aim, it has to be recognised that a national army has a considerable part to play in nation building. In most states, and particularly in new ones, an army is regarded as part of the essential attributes of statehood. Military power is a symbol of national prestige, and no proper state can do without it. Moreover, armed services can be a powerful instrument of national unity.

In the chaos of a civil war or violent insurgency, or in the aftermath of regime change, a new Army may be one of the only nationally organised, functioning institutions that does not reflect faction interest. It has to be a-political, capable of deployment anywhere, and truly accountable through civilian control – not something that has featured before in places like Iraq or Afghanistan or much of Africa. Care must be taken in setting up these control mechanisms, not to create a force that is so cohesive that we are merely setting the conditions for a future military coup d’etat.

SSR in Iraq and in Afghanistan has been closely integrated with security and stabilisation operations. Essentially it has three strands: first, force generation, by a security transition command composed of specialists from a multi-national coalition but under the authority of one lead nation. Next, fielding of the force through partnership between indigenous forces and Coalition units, supplemented by embedded specialist teams leading to joint operations; third, organisational, systemic or institutional reform aimed at the creation of major headquarters, the higher management of defence, staff training, and systems for managing people and equipment. This last is highly important and often the poor relation, but SSR is not simply about training and arming people. It is about creating an indigenous system which will do that for itself.

As with elections, the results of SSR have not always been entirely what was envisaged, but that said, the principle must be the right one. In Iraq, the penny dropped quite rapidly as far as the re-formation of the Iraqi Army was concerned; it has taken much longer in Afghanistan. The Afghan Army is being asked to double in size over a five-year period, take on novel technologies, produce an educated body of officers capable of running its own institutions and fight a determined enemy simultaneously. I doubt that the British Army could do as much.

Law and order

Another area vital to success in counterinsurgency that was badly neglected early on in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is police reform. In a COIN operation the police must hold the ground that military forces clear. In any case, the police should be the agents of everyday security on the streets, not the military. While it will be necessary for policemen to deal with the development of law enforcement and institution building, the military will almost certainly have to deal with building the paramilitary skills required. Paul Bremer, the U.S. Administrator of Iraq from May 2003 to June 2004, received considerable criticism for disbanding the Iraqi Army; in fact, he had no choice, for the Army had already disbanded itself. The failure had been that of Coalition messaging during the invasion. However, the force that gave problems in Iraq was not the one that was broken down and rebuilt, but the one that was not: the police. Police reform was removed from the one body that could have achieved it rapidly, the U.S. Army, and given to various civil agencies, who did little or nothing until David Petraeus took back ownership of the problem.

What must also be taken into account in developing police forces and the accompanying legal and penal systems, is that in modern insurgencies, we face a nexus of insurgency, criminality and violent ideological extremism. Our COIN doctrine sets out the requirement to separate insurgents and terrorists from their sources of support, physical and moral. One of those sources of support is their finance and the nexus is a major source of finance. The nexus matters, because the evils feed off each other: violence creates insecurity, the absence of the rule of law and plenty of willing participants, while criminality provides money to buy fighters and to corrupt legitimate governance; and it provides access to the cheap weapons so readily available on the world markets. The nexus is one of the factors that gives longevity to wars, produces corruption and collusion between opposing parties for criminal purposes, blurs the distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, and makes the humanitarian desire to protect civilians and minorities terminally difficult.

Afghan National PoliceIt seems to me that in almost every modern and post-modern campaign, we have encountered the nexus and yet each time we do so, it takes us by surprise. We respond to it on a case-by-case basis, instead of treating it as an integral part of the threat. Our responses tend therefore to be localised, limited, and legalistic. In the past, when faced with this sort of problem, we have changed the law to make our responses effective: look at Malaya, Northern Ireland, Columbia. The interdiction of narcotics illustrates rather bleakly the current struggle to adapt to a changed world; and the way that human rights law, which protects individuals, can be used to protect criminals and insurgents and so undermine the needs of collective security for states and peoples.

International law prohibits military attacks on civilians and civilian objects even where both might properly be described as criminal, therefore in Afghanistan and elsewhere, military forces cannot attack narco traffickers and producers unless they are demonstrably insurgents. If we are serious about attacking the nexus, therefore, there may need to be a fundamental legal shift that describes narcotics or other commodities – like diamonds in Sierra Leone – within a defined area as insurgent war materiel, liable to attack as if it were a stock of weapons or explosives.

Governance, government and civil effect

Faced with all these problems, fierce opposition and insufficient resources, coalition governments and forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have had to find other ways to reach a decision. In part, they have done this by modifying their aims. The goal of the coalition in Iraq, having ejected Saddam Hussein, was originally described as being to bring stability and democracy to the country. It rapidly became apparent that it would be very difficult to deliver both.

Political pressure led to the introduction of democracy being the first requirement, and this arguably had the result of delaying the achievement of stability. Much energy was diverted into the business of elections – in a country without any tradition of democracy or any recognizable system of political parties. In Afghanistan, the same priorities were applied, leading to rapid elections which, as in Bosnia and Kosovo, merely entrenched the undesirable individuals who happened to hold power at the time, because they had the means and the will to oblige citizens to vote in a particular direction or face violent reprisals.

However, after six years of effort – a remarkably short period when compared with historical insurgencies – it is arguable that a decision has been reached in Iraq. It has taken time, much effort and a huge expenditure of blood and treasure. But it seems unwise to write off the notion that a counterinsurgency campaign cannot achieve decisive results, and to conclude that the notion of a decisive campaign and, within it, a tipping point after which the end result is inevitable, is no longer viable. The jury is still out in Afghanistan. It is entirely possible that, over the past two years, we have seen a surge by the Taliban, and that, without a sustained counter-move by NATO, we will find the tipping point was reached during last year’s rigged election, but in favour of the wrong side.

And what of the eighty per cent non-military effort required to run a successful counterinsurgency? Much emphasis is placed on the development of the physical infrastructure of statehood; I want to urge caution about military involvement in development.

Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and DevelopmentWhere stability is poor, the military can and must play a leading role in providing essential infrastructure or services, and in such circumstances, lead organisations like PRTs. But we should not fool ourselves this does much to win the war – it often only results in frustrated expectation among the population – or that in itself it will bring stability.

Stability is the product of security and good governance. The military can and must bring security, but must not usurp the role of aid agencies or government in providing good governance. Pursuing well meaning but often misguided construction activities outside the construct of stability merely provides targets for the other side. Properly targeted and tied in with programmes to generate the trained people and systems to occupy construction projects, construction activities can certainly be used to further the development of governance and security. Beyond that however we enter the realm of development, which is for governments, business and professional agencies. The military are amateurs at this and we must learn our place: when we plan a complex strike operation we do not call in a bunch of development geeks to do it for us; the converse is also true.

I also believe that, while international efforts may do much to develop the institutions of central government and governance, the development of civil society and infrastructure programmes that change people’s lives for the better is usually most successful at a local level. Give a local community ownership of its own development and the chances are it will be sustainable. If you need to be convinced, compare what has been achieved in Afghanistan by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development in partnership with locally based NGOs and local communities, with big ticket programmes imposed from outside which, like the Kajaki Dam, may often simply provide opportunities for criminals to control and tax power supplies, or divert irrigation to drug cultivation. Let us, however, never confuse civil effect with civil participation and especially not civil service participation. There remain roles for the military – especially professionally qualified reservists – and for the private sector in this business.

In Iraq, with its well-established infrastructure, strong tradition of central authority, well-educated population and enormous oil wealth, ownership of the non-military lines of operation has been largely achieved by the host nation, despite the continued inability to form a central government. In Afghanistan, the situation is quite otherwise. With none of those advantages, the host nation has looked to foreign donors to provide civil support. The contribution of the U.S. aside, that support has been patchy. If counterinsurgency really is eighty per cent non-military, this failure to help will contribute to a decision – but the wrong one.

Lt Gen Dr. Jonathon Riley was Deputy Commander of NATO ISAF 2007-2008 in Afghanistan. He is currently a visiting professor at King’s College London.

This text is a concise transcription of his keynote address at the CIHM Congress (organised by the Netherlands Institute for Military History) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, August 2010

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