COIN 101

Ejaz Haider

Counterinsurgency (COIN) operations are the bad dream of any military commander; add to them counterterrorism (CT) ops and the situation becomes a nightmare. Many reasons for this, but one, the very basic, stands out: in COIN, there is no front and no safe rear. The enemy can be anywhere, strike any time; at will; melt away; hunker down to wait for an opportunity; strike again and melt away.

In a particular area, and within a particular population, he has the advantage of terrain, internal lines and kinship, religious and linguistic bonds. In urban areas, dense populations help him. He can lose himself in the local population and remain tightly coupled with the non-combatants, making identification extremely difficult. Corollary: the military, despite superior force and equipment, cannot pack the punch. A punch needs a cheek; the insurgent/terrorist, through surprise, dispersal and evasion, makes finding a cheek to land the punch nearly impossible.

In military terms he enjoys asymmetric advantage. Any successful operation(s) against him would require a COIN force to first blunt the insurgent’s asymmetric advantage and then secure their own asymmetric advantage over him. In today’s irregular war – a term that subsumes insurgency, terrorism and low-intensity conflict – the insurgent can, and does, combine latest technologies (internet/cell and sat phones, GPS, fast travel etc) with low-tech infantry and field engineering tactics and innovations (sneak attacks; raids, ambushes, use of IEDs etc) for force-multiplication effect.

The idea is to raise the cost of COIN/CT ops. The introduction of the suicide bomber, the ultimate smart bomb, since Lt-Col David Galula wrote his COIN manual, has made COIN even tougher to deal with. By upending the security paradigm, based on self-preservation, the suicide bomber can inflict a huge physical and psychological cost on COIN forces and the populations defended by them at a very low cost to the insurgent forces (a suicide jacket costs less than USD100!). But most of all, the real cost extracted by the suicide bomber is killing social trust, the basic bond that keeps societies together. At every checkpoint on the roads, entering any office, hotel, bank, prayer place and any building, one is a suspect until thoroughly frisked and declared clean.

So how does one go about COIN/CT?

The Israeli case is one example, an easier one. Wall-in the suspect population. In most other cases, especially in Pakistan, that is not possible. In fact, Pakistan presents the biggest COIN/CT problem faced by any state. Here’s why.

It has a population where large sections lean towards the insurgent/terrorist’s cause; this population has been indoctrinated by the state itself over 3 decades; it is this population which the state now has to both defend and faces the challenge from (this is a unique situation and existing COIN/CT literature does not deal with such a situation); getting to the insurgent/terrorist in this population is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. It also means one insurgent/terrorist taken out is not one less but perhaps two more.

One thing should be clear. COIN is not just about using force. The military cannot just bull in because, as already said, there is no defined front. The operations in FATA and the Malakand Division were, in some ways, more conventional than COIN ops – capturing territory from the insurgent forces. That was the easier part. What has happened next, or more properly, has not happened, is the development of an effective COIN doctrine beyond capturing territory and deploying troops to the affected areas.

There are four levels at which an effective COIN doctrine has to operate: political, strategic, theatre and tactical. While the theatre and tactical levels at which force is being used, or will be, have thrown up some results, thinking at the higher levels has shown no improvement.

At the political level the state has to deal with both exogenous and endogenous factors. If we accept that use of force must be grounded in a strategy of dislocation – making the insurgent irrelevant to the population from whom he gets succour – then it is as important, in fact more, to deal with what kind of syllabi are being taught at schools as it is to focus on military operations; also, how can the religious seminaries, working along denominational lines, be streamlined. It is a matter of record that nothing much has been done on either count, despite occasional bluster by governments, first Musharraf’s and now this.

It is difficult enough to deal with the existing number of insurgents/terrorists. To do nothing to cut off their supply of recruits is criminal.

Secondly, because the current problem is owed to a combination of the state’s security policy and indoctrination, shouldn’t there be a visible effort by the state to rethink those paradigms?

Thirdly, the state has to undertake those political measures that enhance its legitimacy. No state can fight for itself effectively if the contract that brought it into being has weakened. The state is fighting at multiple fronts because its legitimacy is being challenged by multiple actors, some on the basis of religion, others on the basis of sub-nationalisms underpinned by political particularisms. Almost no effort is being made to address this all-important question.

Fourthly, at the operational level (theatre and tactical), while COIN/CT efforts have improved, they are still short of what is required and urgently. There are equipment and training deficiencies which need to be addressed IMMEDIATELY.

Fifthly, the use of force or the threat of its use is just one element in COIN/CT ops. The most important role has to be played by the civilian agencies whether in terms of good policing or providing good governance. If the Malakand Division offers an example, where the post-operation effort gets not more than 4 points on a scale of one to ten, then we have nothing much to cheer about. This must change.

Finally, where’s the COIN doctrine with details of dealing with the problem at the four levels? If anyone has seen a drawing of this animal, please enlighten me. And if this animal is still to be drawn, what the hell are we talking about?

The writer is Contributing Editor, The Friday Times

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One Response to COIN 101

  1. Ali K.Chishti says:

    Great piece. In Afghanistan’s case, unfortunately COIN, failed. Historically all COIN or CT focused strategies are developed to eventually bring the insurgents to the negotiating table and close the deal from a stronger, position. Killing and capturing insurgent leaders is hardly the main focus of population-centric COIN, from my understanding. In fact, these Special Operations raids are exactly what the proponents of a light-footprint CT approach believed would be more effective in neutralizing the insurgency and inducing them to reconcile with the government. Thanks.

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