Understanding Counter Insurgency; COIN
Forgive me for starting with the very basics, but I do think they need to be stated. My experience of COIN is fairly extensive and, like the US, I have seen it from both sides i.e. fighting against insurgents, and assisting an insurgency. If there is a counter insurgency; there has to be an ongoing insurgency for it to counter. If there is an ongoing insurgency, it can only thrive if the insurgents have one or more grievances to create a cause. If there is a cause that has created insurgents, who have resorted to the use of force, they would only take recourse to violence if they have come to the realization that, without violence, their grievances have not been attended to.
Once this is stated, if even a child were asked to pick one word that identifies where the problem stems from and what needs to be addressed to resolve it, the child will pick:—-invariably; grievances!
If grievances are the root cause of insurgencies; and insurgents have resorted to violence, merely because they cannot be heard without it, can their grievances be resolved, or the insurgency quelled by the use of force? Obviously not!
In fact, if COIN is to succeed, it can only do so, if I might use a phrase coined by someone else, by ‘out-governing’ the insurgents.
One conclusion we can reach here is that force (or the military) is not a ‘counter insurgency strategy’. In fact the use of the military can, far from winning the war against insurgency, not even win battles; which does not imply that it plays no role in COIN; merely that, all it can do is to buy time so as to; either offer an opportunity for negotiations or create conditions favorable for negotiations. Regretfully, the latter is invariably misinterpreted to imply a defeat of the insurgents, so that the state using force can negotiate from a position of strength. Two examples come to mind; one of each kind, I will start with the latter.
In the 1980s, the IRA was bombing the streets of London. Without going into the details of how, British intelligence managed to penetrate the IRA and began targeted killings of mid to upper level IRA leadership. The IRA leadership immediately went underground. As soon as it did, the British government sought a negotiated settlement; subsequently, individuals with a price on their heads (for terrorism), sat with the British PM to negotiate Ireland’s future.
Three things worth noting in this example:
- British forces did not retaliate by bombing Irish civilians but penetrated the IRA to target its leaders. It was the vulnerability of the IRA leadership that brought them to the negotiating table. Before an Irishman (or woman) jumps on me, I am fully aware of the centuries of English repression and cruelty. This statement pertains solely to the recent past.
- Since it involved a penetration of the IRA, it took many years to happen.
- while IRA and Sein Fenn may have resorted to terrorism against some Irish citizens also; they actually did represent the genuine aspirations of the people.
The second example is that of China, a country I visit fairly frequently. In 2009, days after my wife and I flew out of Urumqi, the capitol of the Chinese province of Xinkiang, there was a revolt by the Uigher tribe. Chinese state forces reacted promptly, suppressing the revolt by force, killing over 150 and injuring numerous others. Immediately, thereafter, representatives of the provincial government met with the Uigher leaders at their residences, made a list of their grievances and immediately took steps to remove them. Once again, the Uigher leadership represented the aspirations of the people.
The next year, when we visited Urumqi, it was as if there had never been a revolt.
The US COIN strategy revolves around the use of force, in fact relies upon excessive use of force; which is why it is doomed to fail. I have written in sufficient detail in earlier articles, on the situation in Afghanistan and the activities of US forces which resulted in creating those conditions, not to have to repeat them. Suffice it as a reminder that, once again, Taliban have begun to represent the aspirations of a sizeable portion of Afghans.
In Pakistan, we are faced with a different set of circumstances. The most significant one being that our insurgents rule over the territory(s) they control, merely by the use of force and do not represent the aspirations of the people. So, to that extent, the use of force against them is more easily justifiable.
Pakistan military also, therefore, has frequently resorted to excessive use of force but it has been focused; targeting known militants, after confirming locations based on ‘reliable and actionable’ intelligence. The Pakistan military can boast two successes: Swat and South Waziristan, SWA.
Our problem is that, having created a politico-administrative vacuum by employing the military to oust the Pakistani insurgent Taliban (as I explained in an earlier article, not all Pakistani Taliban are insurgents against Pakistan; some are merely supporting the Afghan insurgency against US occupation of their land), the government just refuses to govern the reclaimed territories!!
By way of a few examples: Sabaoon (a Pushto word, meaning the crack of dawn and signifying hope) is a model venture in Mingora, Swat. It is a school run by a lady psychiatrist attempting to reclaim and rehabilitate young children whose minds had been corrupted and had been trained to become suicide bombers. Started in 2009, she has had remarkable success. Almost 50% of her students have returned home to lead normal lives. But the problem is; this was the brainchild of, funded by, and run under the aegis of the Pakistan army! No one at provincial/central government level has even attempted to emulate this sterling example!
The Pakistan army is holding between 1500 to 2000 Taliban prisoners captured during the Swat and SWA operations, since 2009. By all legal standards, these individuals are in ‘illegal custody’! But, what can the army do? The political government is not prepared to take custody of them, let alone initiate legal proceedings. The Pakistan army refuses to follow the sterling example set by the US in trying terrorists by a kangaroo military court. They can’t let them go. They won’t kill them. So, they continue to languish in illegal custody!
While Balochistan is beyond the focus of this study of COIN, it does provide another example of the point I am trying to make. One very legitimate complaint of the Baloch youth is that they have no access to affordable quality education and, therefore, are unable to compete against the youth of other provinces. Once again, in 2008, the army opened the only affordable school providing quality education to the Baloch youth in Quetta, Capitol of Balochistan. I believe the army plans on opening another in the interior at Khuzdar. Not enough; but a beginning. Once again, no one is prepared to emulate the army’s effort.
Today, when political administration has finally moved into Swat and surrounding areas, when faced with the most minor of crises, the civilian administration refuses to accept responsibility, seeking instructions from the senior-most accessible army officer; usually the local unit commander, a Lt Col!
Nonetheless, Pakistan is still better off than Afghanistan, even if the army is having to fill ALL aspects of COIN. It would be even better off, if the US didn’t feel compelled to stoke unrest within Pakistan.
US and the new ‘Democratic World Order’
This portion is inspired by the following incident. I came across an excellent article by Anatol Lieven titled, “A mutiny grows in Punjab” (the article may be found on google by searching for the title), a British analyst, whose writings I have always found to be informed, logical, well-reasoned, and dispassionate. I highly recommend this article because it brought to light one of my failings. When I wrote on the US army’s invasion of Afghanistan, I began by formulating a political aim for the invasion, which would then be translated to a military aim. A typical military mind, limited in scope and vision! Anatol dwarfed me, by raising his level of reasoning to the ultimate, the real aim i.e. ensuring enhanced security for the citizens of its state! He reasons, of course that the present US policy will result in the opposite.
I posted Anatol’s article on Facebook (those interested can access my pageto check responses to my post. Noteworthy are Peter Hoss, an American analyst. He writes, “It sure is a long article and I have not read it all. Based on his other articles and his narrative appears to be the same in this article too, I think he does not fully understand what is in play here. Let me say this as clearly as I can and hope it helps you figure this out too. The US would not allow anything to stand between the solutions it has in the area. And this is about the whole area and not just Pakistan alone. The current thinking in the US is that the Pak army is the hurdle that the US has to cross. Many in the US believe and I tend to agree with that the army and Pakistan are not inseparable. Contrary to what the Pak army thinks, the army is not Pakistan. It is an institution that has outgrown it’s utility for the people of Pakistan as well as the US in the area. The army has to be cut to size and in US assessment, weakening or even the destruction of the army would still leave Pakistan in a manageable state. I hope you get the point.”
Please note the arrogance. The US has decided that “the Pakistan army has to be cut to size” and its “weakening or even the destruction of the army….” Wow! Wow, wow, wow, and wow!
Now Peter is not an ordinary American, easygoing, likeable, peace-loving, like most of those who will read this. He represents the dark side of the US; the arrogant, bigoted side. He represents the people whom Bertrand Russell characterized as the ‘most dangerous in the world’, those who ‘know theyare right’. And we, in Pakistan, should know, we have a few of them here too! But Peter also represents the US; your administration, Obama, the Pentagon, and the CIA.
They are the ones who know what is best for ALL peoples all over the world and are prepared to impose their views on everybody. These are the people who have girded their loins, in all moral righteousness and have taken US forces into Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now also to Africa and the Middle East.
I wonder if any of you, see the similarity between these and our equally zealous religious bigots here, who also know exactly what we really need and are equally zealously prepared to impose their will on us? I wonder which of these two is the more dangerous for the World. Russell obviously can’t help with that question, so my choice of the more dangerous one lands on whichever of the two is more capable of delivering on the threat of imposing its will! Guess who?
Whenever I teach a course at any university, I find some excuse to quote from the American Declaration of Independence. That very moving document; which I consider to be a ‘must read’ for all students of the world, irrespective of age. The document that points out the ‘that all mankind is born equal, with certain inalienable rights… among them; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. Your forefathers chose to part ways with ‘mother UK’ to seek independence because a tyrant imposed his will upon you. Today you are the tyrant who wishes to impose his will on everyone in the world!
Not many years past, the American people had a ‘collective conscience’. I was still in my teens when I witnessed the American people, marched together to seek equal rights for African Americans. I can vividly recall the instance of a man immolating himself on the wall of the Pentagon, to protest against the atrocities being committed in Vietnam. “LBJ, LBJ; how many kids did you kill today?” still echoes in my ears—and this slogan did not refer to the death of American kids, but to those dirty, filthy, illiterate, Vietnamese kids. Lyndon Baines Johnson, a good president, who did more for civil liberties and equal rights than Kennedy might have been able to; but because of his Vietnam policy, you forced him into announcing that he ‘would neither seek nor accept his party’s nomination to run for another term in office’.
Sadly, even that collective conscience has died. Today you can read reports of thousands of kids being killed by US forces, wherever they go and yet raise the victory sign for your troops and your commander in chief, who orders their deaths.
The US is obviously no longer anything like the Republic the American forefathers dreamed of. It began to change after the First World War, the change accelerated after the Second World War when the US emerged as the largest and strongest economy, and after the break-up of the Soviet Union, the US just kept rolling downhill at an incremental pace. I wonder when the US will stop. I hope it does so before bankrupting itself as well as the rest of the world.
In the 1950s, Amaury de Rhinecourt, a Frenchman published a book titled ‘Coming Caesars’. In this book he drew parallels between the ancient Greek and Roman Republics on the one hand, and Europe and the US on the other. Without narrating his arguments, he concluded that the US would return itself unto Caesar, while Europe is likely to remain a Republic for longer. Remarkably prescient, with one small difference; there is not a single Caesar ruling the US, the US is more akin to an Oligarchy.
I also get the feeling that the US has redefined the meaning of the word democracy; finding different meanings applicable to the US and the rest of the world; and it is certainly no longer, ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people’! For the US, it remains a ‘government of the people’ but by and for the Oligarchy’. While for the rest of the world it is ‘government of the US Oligarchy, for the US and by the US’.
Pakistan is in big, big trouble; but I see dark clouds on the horizon in each direction. They’re all blowing from the US and yet the US also remains under clouds!
Perhaps it is time for the people of the world, including the US, to awaken to the looming threat and prevent World War III and total destruction, or an unprecedented economic meltdown with its attendant chaos!