For War’s Counterinsurgency, a How-to Guide

Posted June 28, 2010 at 4:12pm

At a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing, Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) asked Gen. David Petraeus whether the U.S. military had the best counterinsurgency force that the world has ever known.

Without hesitating, Petraeus, who last week was appointed the new commander in Afghanistan, answered, “Yes.”

Such a subtle exchange may not seem like much to the public, yet savvy observers must realize the magnitude of that acknowledgment. It took nearly a decade and thousands of casualties for counterinsurgency strategies to reach the important rooms at Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon.

Petraeus was one of the few military leaders who championed counterinsurgency, and David Kilcullen, Petraeus’ former adviser, worked tirelessly behind the scenes to promote the approach.

And now Kilcullen, a military strategist from Australia, has collected his years of scholarship and research in the newly published “Counterinsurgency.”

The book follows Kilcullen’s “The Accidental Guerrilla,” this time explaining America’s years in the Middle East after the “surge” in Iraq. It is compulsory reading for anybody who wants to understand the type of enemy there.

Kilcullen suggests: “If you have not studied counterinsurgency theory, here it is in a nutshell: this is a competition with the insurgent for the right and ability to win the hearts, minds and acquiescence of the population.”

Most importantly, Kilcullen offers readers a clear manual for fighting insurgents.

Basically, he argues, do not send large numbers of troops traveling in large tanks or armored vehicles. Rather, move about in small, agile units determined to capture elusive insurgents through the use of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

And after the process begins, insurgents will “either emerge into the open, where we can destroy them using superior numbers and firepower, or stay quiet, accept permanent marginalization from their former population base, and suffocate. This puts the insurgents on the horns of a lethal dilemma.”

Kilcullen goes on to outline other steps to defeat an insurgency, which include: “build your own solution — only attack the enemy when he gets in the way” and “remember the global audience.” He adds, “Assume that everything [U.S. troops] say or do will be publicized, and befriend the media.”

Ultimately, Kilcullen urges military leaders to see counterinsurgency as an art, not a science, with soldiers thinking creatively during ground missions. These troops must assimilate quickly to the tempo around them and, above all, “keep the initiative.” He writes, “If the enemy is reacting to you, you control the environment. Provided you mobilize the population, you will win.”

One of the most elusive goals in modern warfare has turned out to be the capturing of alleged insurgents. Indeed, cynics claim that there are many grand theories as to why people would pick up weapons to fight an enemy. And, for decades, war experts have tried to create a comprehensive manual for how to fight these insurgents with large militias.

Yet, despite this nifty guide, most would agree that the war in Afghanistan is worsening for the U.S. and NATO troops. As former President George W. Bush found out during the “war on terror” and President Barack Obama now realizes in his overseas contingency operation, Afghanistan remains as exasperating as ever.

June is on pace to become the deadliest month for the U.S.-led international force in the nearly nine-year war, and U.S. casualties could increase in the coming months, according to Petraeus and other top officials.

Famously called the “graveyard of empires,” Afghanistan, a country with robust poppy cultivation, is not so forgotten anymore. Kilcullen decries the degree to which critics of the war categorize it as Obama’s Vietnam.

The author claims that unlike in Vietnam, insurgents in Afghanistan lack the local support necessary to be a viable force and rely mainly on external backers for funds and supplies. “In Vietnam, the insurgents preyed on local populations for funds and supplies to enable the insurgency,” he writes.

Regardless of whether it’s a Vietnam, Afghanistan remains an intractable problem, and one that probably won’t be resolved any time soon.