Printer Friendly

Two sides of COIN.

Chapter 1 of FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, opens with an anonymous Special Forces officer's famous quote that Counterinsurgency (COIN) "is the graduate level of war." According to the field manual, an insurgency is "an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict." Conversely, COIN is defined as "those military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency."

This type of warfare is "graduate level" because insurgency is primarily a political problem, and as such, requires a political solution. People resort to violence when they decide their prospects of peaceful change are no longer feasible. In a March 1962 speech, President John F. Kennedy noted, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." However, conventional military forces structured for war against other state militaries are not very suitable to deal with insurgencies. In most cases, an army of sociologists, economists, and civil engineers would be more appropriate than an army of tanks, cannons, and gunships. Since no such army of social engineers exists, governments resort to the only organized structure with the discipline and manpower to do anything, and this is inevitably their militaries.

A proper organization designed and equipped for combating insurgents would necessarily be oriented towards the people whose hearts and minds are the disputed areas in the struggle. Such an organization would necessarily have to focus on building. infrastructure, promoting commerce, creating jobs, and improving the health and well-being of the civil population to assure their support for the embattled government, to prevent them from throwing their support to the insurgent cause, and to win back those civilians who have already cast their lot with the insurgents. Counterinsurgency is, after all, state building. Finally and most importantly, the counterinsurgent organization must address the political problems that caused the insurgency in the first place if they hope to resolve it.

These are hardly the tasks soldiers are trained for, but there is one area of vital importance that a military force, and in some cases, only a military force can address. This is security, because it is from security that all other developments in COIN can follow.

Security is the very first priority of any counterinsurgent force. It must be established in an area before any other nonmilitary measures can even be attempted. The insurgents must be driven from an area and prevented from returning. Only then will the social, political, and economic measures taken by the government begin to be felt and results established for all to see. Sometimes the insurgents will take control over an entire area, such as a city or a region. But insurgents do not need absolute control of an area to advance their objectives. They only need to disrupt the flow of business or the comfort of the people in the area to get their point across and to undermine the authority of the government. Many times their objective is just that--to put on display the weakness of the government and its failure to protect its constituents and to cause people to question their leaders' abilities and resolve. When people lose faith in their authorities, they look to another source of order, and the insurgents plan to fill this void.

Terrorism then becomes a favored tactic of the insurgents as a method of instilling fear into the people and highlighting the ineptitude of the government. Attacks can be sophisticated and spectacular, such as the destruction of key infrastructures like factories, bridges, and transportation hubs to bring about discomfort to the people and a loss of revenue to the government. Attacks can also be low tech, such as bombings of key targets like police stations and government buildings or assassinations of police officers and municipal officials. But terrorism can also be directed at the people--a massacre in a crowded area or targeted assassinations of people known to have cooperated with the authorities. The result is always the same: the people draw inwards and refuse to cooperate with the counterinsurgents out of fear for their own lives. Such passive resistance to the counterinsurgents still helps the insurgency. Insurgents also hope to cause the counterinsurgents to respond harshly, therefore alienating and angering the people and forcing them over to the insurgents' side. The counterinsurgents must not be lured into this trap.

After being caught between two warring sides, civilians will eventually just crave some form of order. Most people just want to survive and resume their lives as if there was no conflict. The civilians, who are the key to the entire effort, will sit on the fence through the course of the struggle waiting to see which side will prevail. Civilians always support the winner, but they wait until it becomes evident who will win. This is why it is vital that the people be shown that the insurgency cannot win and that it is inevitable that the government forces will be victorious. This is a task only soldiers, not social workers, can accomplish. Once again, security is paramount to the war effort.

The civilians of the contested area simply want to live in peace and will support whichever side that offers them the best chance of survival. Again, this is why it is absolutely vital to convince them the insurgents have no chance of winning the struggle. They must be shown that the counterinsurgent forces can and will protect them. To do this, security must first be established and maintained to the point where the civilians can conduct business as usual. Once the people decide the insurgents have been beaten, they will open up to the counterinsurgents and offer valuable intelligence which can be exploited to arrest insurgents and seize their equipment. One victory will compound another until the entire insurgent organization collapses and they are forced out of the area. However, it is not enough simply to expel the insurgents from an area. They must be kept out. They must be prevented from infiltrating back in and restarting their campaign of terror and subversion. Aggressive patrolling must be maintained to keep the insurgents out as the social side of counterinsurgency does its work. This is a job that only the military can be trusted with until competent police forces are established.

There are many ways to stratify an insurgency. Paraphrasing FM 3-24, no two insurgencies are alike. But as methods for the tactical employment of troops pertain, there are two kinds of insurgencies: urban and rural. Urban insurgencies obviously take place in the cities and highly populated areas, and rural insurgencies occur in the countryside, often in rugged terrain with scant or widely dispersed populations. Insurgent activity in each area will affect the equipment, tactics, and disposition of troops the counterinsurgents employ against them. Because of the nature of these environments, the distribution of the population within these, and the character of insurgent attacks in these areas, the tempo and scope of operations in each area will be different.

In urban areas, the insurgents attempt to blend anonymously into the larger civilian population. This can be an advantage as well as a disadvantage for the insurgent. As the counterinsurgent has to comb through the masses, as if searching for a needle in a haystack, the insurgent has the problem of not putting all of his eggs in one basket, lest his whole network be compromised in a single bust. The urban insurgent must contend with the difficulties of mustering a sizable combat element from individuals scattered throughout a city if he wants to stage large attacks. First are the obvious logistical problems of armed individuals attempting to move themselves, their weapons, and equipment to an agreed upon location across town, through checkpoints and without being confronted by roving security forces at any moment. Secondly, the activity of counterinsurgent forces mounting random house searches and neighborhood sweeps make it not only difficult but stupid for insurgents to keep large weapons in their homes. In addition, the counterinsurgents have probably quarantined the city, controlling all of the entrances and exits with checkpoints and inspections making insurgent resupply difficult. Lastly, the sheer number of people in a city can cause an air of distrust among insurgents, forcing them to operate in small numbers of close associates they can trust.

Urban insurgents, forced to work in cells of only a few members, often resort to terrorism, because this is simply the easiest and most efficient way for them to resist. Their supply of weapons can be disrupted, forcing them to rely on what they already have, what they can capture from the counterinsurgents, and what they can produce at home. The spectacular attacks against counterinsurgent patrols with heavy weapons are more and more unlikely as the conflict in the city continues, giving way to bombings, indirect fire, and sniper attacks. The insurgents just don't have the manpower or the equipment to fight these sophisticated and sustained battles, but they can chip away at security forces bit by bit before blending back into the civilian population. As a result, urban insurgent actions are less often battles than they are strikes--an improvised explosive device (IED) set off on a counterinsurgent vehicle, a single sniper shot at a soldier manning a post, a few mortars or rockets lobbed at a police station, a burst of fire on a policeman from a drive-by vehicle. The insurgents mount quick, short attacks before the counterinsurgents can respond and then disperse and blend in among the people again.

Like a policeman, the counterinsurgent soldier must be alert and have a sixth sense of things. He must exercise good judgment on when to open fire. He must be aware of the civilians that inhabit his battlespace so as not to accidentally kill a bystander, which could create more insurgents. As such, many of the most effective weapons in a conventional army's arsenal are rendered useless in the urban setting. Tanks are severely handicapped in cities even in conventional war. Mechanized vehicles are confined to roads where IEDs are, and narrow streets or alleyways are impassable to them. Furthermore, the mechanized Infantry cannot stray far from their vehicles which require dismounted protection. Artillery may be widely used for illumination, but adjusting high explosive artillery shells in a city full of people and then dropping hugely destructive fire-for-effect missions will inevitably have a short round that falls on the wrong people. A single artillery battery could provide all of the indirect fire support needed in a city for illumination purposes. The rest may as well be made into Infantry.

Due to the severe restrictions placed on military organizations, most conventional military forces are inapplicable to operations in these settings. Much of urban counterinsurgency is police work, not only protecting and serving the rest of the population from the insurgents but also using keen intelligence gathering and disseminating services to track down, penetrate, and shut down insurgent cells and networks. The counterinsurgent soldier's mission will be to walk the beat, displaying his presence and providing overt security to the population. This is in direct contrast to his insurgent opponent who hides among the population and can strike seemingly at any time. However, the counterinsurgent's overt presence also makes him an easy target to the occasional sniper or bomber, causing his superiors to weigh him down with protective equipment. Though the equipment undoubtedly limits his range and restricts his movement, this may have to be tolerated in an urban environment because patrols are short. Typically, the urban counterinsurgent's patrols are only a few hours long before going back to his patrol base.

Urban insurgencies are very difficult and require a highly sophisticated skill set that are simply not found in conventional militaries. Urban insurgencies require more of a law enforcement approach than a military approach. In my opinion, an urban counterinsurgency should be avoided in most cases; however, the fact is that most urban insurgent movements fail. They are easy to isolate, and as such, logistics are a problem for them. But it is usually their adoption of terrorism as a main tactic that causes the civilian population to abandon them. The counterinsurgent's main priority in the city is to provide security and protect the population.

Insurgencies in rural areas represent a stark difference. Insurgents may try to blend in with the rural population, but this is not as important as it is in cities. Some rural insurgents operate far away from populated areas, in essence separating themselves from civilians. In fact, some rural insurgents operate in large units like conventional military forces. They often utilize heavy weapons and employ textbook infantry tactics from institutional military field manuals. They move freely in their regions, often patrolling their own areas of operations on a schedule like an institutional military. It is typically those insurgents in rural areas that offer sustained battles of higher intensity to the counterinsurgents. Though terrorism can never be ruled out as an insurgent tactic, the rural terrain lends to guerrilla warfare. Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, defines guerrilla warfare as "military and paramilitary operations conducted in enemy-held or hostile territory by irregular, predominantly indigenous forces."

As such, COIN operations in rural areas take on a more military approach than in the cities. With the civilian population widely dispersed or even nonexistent, the counterinsurgent force can bring some of its conventional weapons, such as artillery or close air support, to bear.

The difficulty for the rural counterinsurgent comes in dealing with the wide spaces he has to cover. COIN operations--whether in urban or in rural settings--are, to use a well-worn cliche, like searching for a needle in a haystack. In cities, the sheer number of people is the hay, and in rural areas it is the great spaces of often very rugged terrain. The counterinsurgents must be everywhere at once simply to deny space to the insurgents. This is the hard part because it is so impractical. Very rarely throughout history has a counterinsurgent force had enough troops to be everywhere, so forces should be divided into small units to spread troops out far and wide. Oftentimes, outposts of company strength and smaller will be scattered out into areas of solitary or overlapping influence. These units must be easy to resupply or be self-sufficient, so they must be kept simple.

This is difficult because conventional military structures are not organized to be so spread out, and the logistics required to sustain these forces can be more than the supply chain is capable of delivering. Furthermore, supply lines are a favorite target of insurgents, and no counterinsurgent force can keep extensive lines of communication open. It is a fool's errand to attempt to do so because in COIN operations the only ground you own is the ground beneath your feet. Once you move out of sight of the ground you just cleared, it is no longer cleared. To continue to waste time and resources constantly clearing and re-clearing such ground only works to the insurgent's favor. This is why overland resupply is discouraged if waterborne or airborne methods are available.

Rural COIN operations require lots and lots of simple formations that are scattered across the land and can operate independently and be easily sustained in the field. The optimum organizations of these troops are found in light Infantry formations, specifically in long-range reconnaissance and short-range ambush patrols. They are mainly squad and fire team-sized units capable of operating in the field for days at a time and have the sole mission of trying to make contact with insurgent forces. Their main method of contact will be by ambush and chance encounter. Since the objective is to establish contact with the enemy, the longer they are on patrol and the more ground they cover, the more chances they have of making contact with the enemy. These troops will be constantly on the move. Likewise, these troops need to be lightly armed and lightly equipped. The heavy body armor worn by urban counterinsurgents is counterproductive in these settings. In fact, boonies may have to be worn rather than helmets. Heavy weapons are impractical as well because of their size and weight; the gross amounts of ammunition required to feed them also inhibit movement.

In my opinion, rural insurgencies offer a more appropriate military response than those in urban areas. But this is not to say that every rural insurgency is favorable. Some rural areas are unfavorable due to their sheer size, terrain, or climate. Each must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some situations are beyond the limit of a military to control or are not worth the effort to pacify.

Urban and rural operations are the two sides of COIN that an army must be prepared to fight in at all times. But there are definitely some areas of overlap. Some very basic tactics, techniques, and procedures can be utilized regardless of setting. First, counterinsurgents should conduct night ambushes every night at likely IED emplacement sites in order to kill/capture bomb layers and discourage use of IEDs. Second, they should conduct random house searches on every daytime patrol to discourage people from hiding weapons/building IEDs in homes. Third, conduct random vehicle searches to discourage the enemy from moving weapons by car. These snap vehicle control points should be short and fast, perhaps just a few car searches at a time before moving on. This is so the enemy does not find out and dispatch a vehicle-borne IED. Fourth, counterinsurgents should use indirect fires to illuminate suspected areas of enemy activity even if no friendly units are observing them. This is to make the enemy think they are being observed and discourage them from activity. Also, counterinsurgents should make a list of on-call targets of likely areas where a patrol may make contact just in case a patrol needs immediate suppression or illumination. Furthermore, they should establish on-call targets of likely enemy mortar/rocket launch sites to be able to respond to an attack and discourage enemy use.

These are just a few of the very simple things the counterinsurgent can do to shut down insurgent activity in an area. By preventing the insurgent from operating against him, the counterinsurgent is seizing the initiative and being proactive rather than reactive. This makes it hard to be an insurgent and may cause him to lose faith and give up.

Lastly, regardless of the setting, the political, social, and economic parts of COIN are undeniably important. This includes encouraging and assisting in commerce and the growth of the local economy and trade between neighboring towns. When business is good and people are making money, there is less of an incentive to join the insurgency. Unemployment and dissatisfaction breeds insurgents. Simple projects and public works like building wells, roads, collecting trash, establishing medical clinics, etc., not only provide jobs and improve living conditions but also build trust. These efforts often take the necessary steps to address the problems at the root of the insurgency.

But the best way military forces can facilitate this growth is first and foremost by providing security. This always has and always will be the purview of the Infantry. Unlike some of the other branches, there will always be a role for the Infantry in a COIN environment. Follow me!


SGT Michael Hanson served with A Company, 1st Battalion, 161st Infantry. He previously served in K Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. He has been published in the Small Wars Journal and the Marine Corps Gazette. His article "COIN Perspectives" won the 2009-2010 Colonel Francis Fox Parry Award for Combat Initiative. He can be reached at
COPYRIGHT 2013 U.S. Army Infantry School
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Hanson, Michael
Publication:Infantry Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2013
Previous Article:Locating, closing with, and incapacitating the enemy.
Next Article:TOW ITAS Collective Skills Trainer.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters