Winning the war - Part V: The military role

Posted by Richard Thursday, 26 June 2008 , ,

At this stage, where one is addressing the role of the military in defeating an ongoing insurgency, it is helpful to define what is meant by an insurgency. This is best done by contrasting it with conventional warfare.

In the latter case, one can look at the northern European theatre in World War II. There, in planning and executing the liberation of occupied territories and the defeat of Nazi Germany, the objectives of the campaign – in broad terms – was fairly straightforward. It was to engage and defeat a clearly defined – and identifiable – enemy, rolling forward progressively taking possession of enemy-held territory and occupying it. The ultimate objective was to bring down the German government, precipitating the surrender of all hostile forces.

Following cessation of hostilities, there then followed a period of military governance, the primary aim of which was no more than maintaining law and order, pending a gradual transition to civilian authorities who were then engaged in economic and political construction. As a final stage, power was handed back to newly constituted civil government of the defeated nation.

In an insurgency, the contrast could not be more extreme. The "invading" forces are not at war with the government of the nation in the territory they occupy – they are acting in support of it. There is no clearly defined enemy and there is no demarcation between hostile and friendly territory. There is no front line and, crucially, there is no formal – or any - cessation of hostilities.

Instead, while the war continues, the processes which in conventional warfare take place after the hostilities have ended have to be carried out simultaneously. In other words, there is no neat division between "winning the war" and "winning the peace" – the two have to go hand in hand. Furthermore, each aspect depends on the other, in a continuous reinforcing loop.

It is here, perhaps, that the perception and strategies in Afghanistan are wrong. Much of the thinking, it seems, is still compartmentalised along the lines of conventional warfare, with the same division of labour as between the military and the civilian agencies. First, the military goes in to occupy an area. It repossesses it from the "enemy" and then imposes "security", allowing the "reconstruction" teams, the aid agencies and the civil authorities to do their work.

However, such a strategy is not wholly wrong. The picture of the insurgency painted is too simplistic. There are, in fact, two "insurgencies". One is, in effect, an invasion by external forces, the Al Qaeda and other factions, based in Pakistan and elsewhere – largely foreign fighters. Dealing with them in some ways approximates the conventional war model and conventional means can be successful.

On the other hand, there is the domestic insurgency – albeit reinforced or aided by external agencies. In this case, the "enemy" is the population of the area occupied. Killing the enemy – or forcing its "surrender" under such circumstances, is not an option. There is no obvious – or any - way of winning a military battle and the normal metrics of conventional warfare simply do not apply.

In this environment, it is readily and constantly acknowledged that there is no military solution. Received wisdom is that the military can only "hold the ring" giving space and time for a political solution to evolve.

However, within the context of the discussion and analysis in the preceding parts, this wisdom may not hold up. The underlying assumption in the standard model is that the "invading" force – in the case of Helmand, largely British forces aided by the ANA – acts as the "liberator", opening the way for the writ of central government and the "rule of law" – and all the benefits that supposedly accrue from this transition.

If, as we suggest, though, the transition brings not benefits, but insecurity and economic harm – to a significant proportion of the population – then the forces which see themselves as "liberators" will be regarded very differently by those whom they are supposedly liberating. Their very act of liberation makes them the enemy.

The continued presence of the occupying forces then makes them targets, the eventual aim of the population being to drive out their foe. Even if the bulk of the population does not actively participate in the insurgency, it will not support the government forces and those whom they see acting as their agents. They thus provide Mao's classic "sea" in which the foreign and local ideologues - the "fish" – can operate.

The response of the occupying forces then creates further instability and reduces any such "benefits" as may have accrued – such as new roads, irrigation schemes, etc. - thus reinforcing the perception that they are the "enemy" – a classic example of negative feedback.

To suggest that there is a different way of doing things, however, verges on arrogance. In many ways, the process of transition is bound to be painful and disturbance is unavoidable. The Afghanis, whether they like it or not, are being presented with a situation that is going to get worse before it gets better.

The central government, backed by the coalition forces and their governments are holding out the prospect of gradual improvement, and are thus inviting participation in what they present as a joint venture. Unfortunately, the population – or some elements of it – may see developments in a different light, almost in terms of "things are going to get worse … before they get even worse".

Putting this altogether, it seems that the essential need for the successful prosecution of this counter-insurgency campaign is to address the negative feedback loop. Populations which are brought within the remit of the central authority must deduce – from their own experiences – that their change in status is largely beneficial. In specific terms, individuals and communities must gain in prosperity, from which then improvements in standards of living then accrue. Currently, for large sections of the population, this is not the case.

The difficulty for the military, of course, is that the measures needed to bring this about do not lie within their immediate control. They can only work within the political framework dictated by the central (host nation) government, as influenced by the governments of the coalition forces and donor nations.

That said, the military do themselves have enormous influence. They can point out to their governments the conditions which must prevail for them to succeed, and also make it clear that, without those conditions in place, they cannot succeed.

To an extent, therefore, they can force policy. Then, by working within a policy framework which they themselves have assisted in developing, they can direct their energies to making it work. In other words, the military need to become, if you like, the "enforcers" and "facilitators" of national policies, not merely the "holders of the ring", a benign but essentially detached force that regards the civilian administration as something separate, outside their scope.

In terms, then, what policy does the military need, to set the framework in which they can successfully operate?

Here, we are almost back where we started. Above all else, Afghanistan is a "rural" country in that by far its most important industry is agriculture, an industry which employs directly and indirectly the vast bulk of its workforce and sustains easily 90 percent of the population. The politics of Afghanistan, therefore, are the politics of agriculture. Fix the agriculture, and you fix the nation.

Looking at this from both a macro-economic scale, and from the perspective of Helmand province, the pressing need is to rejoin the province to the rest of the country, allowing it to function as an integral part of the national – and through that – the international market.

Staying with this for the moment – we will look at other issues later – several tasks immediately spring to mind. The first is "communications", by which is meant roads. The case for a major road-building programme is made superbly by David Kitchen in a long piece in Small Wars Journal, who points out the strategic, tactical, political and economic benefits of such a programme.

The points have already been well-taken by both the Kabul government and development agencies. In April 2008, a contract was signed for a $100 million highway project in Afghanistan "intended to dramatically reduce travel time from Kabul to border areas near Pakistan's volatile tribal region of North Waziristan".

This is a 60-mile stretch of road which will link the provinces of Khost and Paktia to Afghanistan's "ring road," which will eventually circle the country. Crucially, one of the primary justifications for this project is its economic impact. The road is intended to reduce travel time between Kabul and the Khost by four hours, making it much easier for agricultural produce from the border areas to be transported elsewhere in the country.

Nor is this an isolated project. Since Nato involvement in Afghanistan began, over 2,500 miles of roads have been completed and, in the Helmand province, a start has been made on a major Gershk-Sangin-Kajaki road-building project, a 55-mile road to the strategic Kajaki dam which itself is being redeveloped to bring electricity to 1.7 million people in southern Afghanistan.

Although the bulk of these projects are not directly financed by the UK, the lesson has not been lost on the British. After the recapture of Musa Qala last December, one of the priorities has been the town's road building programme.

Nevertheless, we do not get any sense at all that road building is by any means amongst the first priorities of the British government or its military – or indeed that road building is a military function. As a small indicator, we see the disposal by the MoD of unused armoured wheeled tractors, yet these would be a valuable asset for use in road building (and other construction tasks) in hostile areas.

The point here is that there seems to be the compartmentalisation – or separation of functions - of which we complained earlier. The military seem to regard their role as to bring security to an area, creating the conditions whereby civilian agencies can move in and attend to "reconstruction" tasks. Unlike the Americans (and Canadians), they do not seem treat road-building as a counter-insurgency tactic in its own right.

Yet, pace David Kitchen (above), the driving of a road (or improvements thereto) through a contested area is something which the insurgents cannot afford to ignore. It creates a "target" against which they are forced to intervene, giving the military an opportunity to defeat them in detail. After all, one of the major problems in counterinsurgency warfare is bringing the enemy to battle on your terms, and such works create precisely that opportunity.

Furthermore, not only is the enemy drawn out on terms set by the counterinsurgency forces – distracting them and diluting their resources and thereby weakening the efforts on other targets – there is a better chance of forcing combat in uninhabited or sparsely populated areas. This, on the one hand, reduces the potential for collateral damage and the ill-will that causes. On the other, it presents the military as defending an asset valuable to the community – action more likely to meet with approval than taking over an occupied village in order to provoke enemy action.

For our Army, therefore, we need something akin to the US Army's combat engineers, equipped specifically for road building and in sufficient numbers to undertake major works and provide their own routine security.

Needless to say, reliance just on a road-building strategy will not win a counterinsurgency campaign and nor, on its own, will it achieve the economic aim of connecting farmers to their markets. As Ahmad Zia Massoud, first vice-president of Afghanistan once, rather sourly put it, "Millions of pounds have been committed in provinces including Helmand for irrigation projects and road-building to help farmers get their produce to market. But for now this has simply made it easier for them to grow and transport opium."

Much, much more needs to be done, other diverse and important activities in which the military needs to be involved, some in a leading role, others on the periphery. We will look at more of these in the next part.

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