In the last post, I showed how the levels of strategy clarified the substantial differences between conventional and counterinsurgency warfare. We can use the same lens to bring other important facets of counterinsurgency into focus. The aspect that often needs clarification is the relationship between a besieged government and its great power patron.
Usually, the picture of the two is sufficiently blurred to merge into what appears to be a single effort. However, if you delineate the strategy for each of them at the grand strategic, theater, operational, tactical, and technical level, you will find a lot of difference between, say, the current regime in Iraq and its American patron.
Once again, the best way to portray these issues is in a table:
|DIFFERENT COUNTERINSURGENCY OBJECTIVES|
|Level of strategy||Beseiged government||Great power patron|
|Grand strategy||Survival.||Support regimes under attack by guerrilla movements where great power interests may be at stake. Although nearly all such conflicts occur in nations where the great power peripheral interests, the point of intervention is to prevent problems on the periphery from nibbling away at core interests.|
|Theater||The first reflex is normally to contain the guerrillas in as quick and violent a way as possible, so that the incumbent elite, existing institutions, and well-understood societal arrangements can be preserved. If possible, get a great power patron to intervene militarily, to help stabilize the situation, or fight the sort of battles the regime would rather not fight. If leaders realize that this theater strategy is counterproductive, they change it significantly, emphasizing the security measures and societal transformations needed to politically and militarily isolate and defeat the guerrillas. Among other obstacles to pursuing this strategy, leaders will have to consolidate civilian and military control under a single authority, rather than just letting the generals handle matters. Preserve the appearance of independence from the great power, even while that ally is pressuring the government and elites to make unwelcome reforms.||Encourage the allied regime to see that long-term security can't be won through short-term repressive measures. Provide the military, economic, and technical support needed to make simultaneous progress in security measures and societal transformations. Withhold the option of direct military intervention until it is strictly necessary. Even after committing combat forces, don't stumble into a situation where the regime stands back and lets the great power's troops do the fighting for them. Help the regime establish unity of civilian and military command, with the recognition that the more the great power directly intervenes, the more complicated this command structure may become.|
|Operational||Assuming the government has rejected the reflexive approach at the theater level, focus military and civilian assets on re-establishing support and control in a series of enclaves. Establish new enclaves only when the allegiance of the current ones is secure. Encourage resourcefulness, flexibility, and innovation at the tactical level, without giving so much latitude that local commanders have license for corruption, abuses, and atrocities. Do not pressure the military and other security forces in ways that might generate political backlash against the regime, which may range from simple insubordination to a coup. Develop methods that are as varied as the regions in which counterinsurgency strategy will be applied. For example, one enclave may have deep ethnic or sectarian divisions, while in another, the population may be relatively homogeneous. Craft the strategy to fit each of these cases, and communicate it clearly down the civilian and military chains of command.||Use all instruments of leverage to convince civilian and military officials at this level to pursue an enclave strategy. Use gentle persuasion, relationships of trust, re-training, re-organization, and the threat of withholding assistance to help reform the regime's security forces. Leverage is especially important because the regime's military is being asked to reform in ways many commanders may oppose, all while in the middle of fighting a war. Provide meaningful advice, based on past successes and failures, to counterparts in the allied regime. Recognize the differences among regions, and therefore resist the temptation to craft a general-purpose approach to advice, pressure, and support that may not fit the different scenarios that the allied regime faces in each enclave.|
|Tactical||Emphasize police measures and small-unit military operations to separate the guerrillas from the population. Ensure that all activity, civilian and military, raises the support and respect the local population feels for the government. Reform or re-build police, judicial, administrative, and political institutions to ensure these gains will survive past the immediate emergency. At the same time, recognize that some reforms may threaten the local elites, whose support is critical in both the short and long term.||Ensure that the representatives of the great power working at this level have the necessary leverage to ensure that their counterparts pursue this strategy. Work within a bureaucratic and political framework that allows these representatives to work at the same small-unit level that the regime should also be emphasizing. Again, provide meaningful advice that has direct impact on the work done at this level. Work hard to overcome the natural inertia at this level, including force of habit with deep cultural and historical roots, old arrangements that benefit local elites, panic in the face of the insurgents' successes, and a natural unwillingness to be lectured by foreigners on how to run their country.|
|Technical||Gain more than new military hardware. Mass communications, psychological operations, improved irrigation, credit systems for small farmers, and collective bargaining techniques may be just as important at the technical level as new assault rifles. Give military and police units the equipment appropriate to the work at hand: for example, radios and small arms instead of artillery and tanks. Ensure that military and civilian personnel can learn and maintain any equipment, training, or other technical advances. Whenever possible, tailor these technical improvements to fit cultural and historical predilections.||Provide the political, military, and economic assistance needed, but crafted to fit the country and the conflict. For example, an American marketing executive might have a lot to say about "messaging" for an American audience, but someone well-versed in the local language and culture will have a lot more useful things to say about which political messages or media might work, and which won't.|
As you can see from this summary, there is often a great deal of daylight between the regime and its great power patron, even when the regime is in mortal danger. You can also see how useless military power can be. Unless the great power is willing to turn its guns on its ally, the only way to convince the regime to make wrenching changes is through the precise, consistent, and patient application of leverage at all levels.
You can also see that, from the very beginning of the alliance, the importance of the conflict itself is different at the grand strategic level for these partners in counterinsurgency. For the regime, the conflict is absolute, and it has to be as wary of attacks from recalcitrant elites as it does of the guerrillas. For the great power, the conflict is never vital. Even when, in the Vietnam War, the United States recklessly staked its credibility as an ally to other besieged governments on the outcome of that conflict, American leaders eventually decided to cut their losses, as painful as that was to do.
The frictions between a regime and its patron are so commonplace that we should not misinterpret particular statements or events as the disintegration of the alliance. The regime's leaders may need to make the occasional public statement that appears to vilify or renounce the great power on whom their survival depends. That's really a question of local politics, not necessarily a sign of a diplomatic crisis. While US officials normally navigate these occasionally turbulent waters with few problems, they can only do so if they fully understand the nation with which they're dealing. Such is most definitely not the case in Iraq.
While we might focus on the cultural divide between Americans and Iraqis, that's not the only problem. Other observers of the Iraq war have already described this problem in depth, so it's worth looking at a different aspect of Iraq that is making it hard to bring US and Iraqi strategies into alignment.
Normally, US officials are grappling with a difficult situation in a nation whose politics, culture, economy, and history can be understood readily, if they take the time to learn about them. For example, US officials working in El Salvador in the 1980s understood that the country had been under the dominance of the famous "fourteen families" for decades. Any US policy towards El Salvador had to take these elites into account. In fact, before the Salvadorans made any progress towards holding honest elections, cracking down on the death squads, and building a strategy for defeating the FMLN guerrillas, US officials needed to break the hammerlock that the fourteen families had on the Salvadoran government, military, and economy.
In contrast, there are no well-established arrangements in Iraq. While some enduring characteristics of ethnic, sectarian, and clan groupings survived under the weight of the Ba'athis autocracy, they only represented part of Iraqi society. The rest of the social order ended with the Coalition invasion of 2003, which overthrew the government, compounded the economic chaos that already existed, and disbanded the army and security forces on whom security depended. There was no "devil you know" with whom US officials could work. Instead, there was the possibility of new institutions, and a vast population of Iraqis with varied opinions on what new arrangements were desirable.
Clearly, there was no way American military power—even if the United States had deployed more ground troops to Iraq—would have solved this problem. While American military power may have prevented more insurgent attacks, American officials often had no one on whom they can exert leverage. The problem persists through today, almost three years since the invasion. While the new constitution and nation-wide elections filled in some of the gaps, the picture is far from complete. The new Iraqi regime, in all its facets (elected, bureaucratic, legal, police, and military), and at all its levels (national, province, district, local), remains an unfinished work. Even where you can find something that deserves to be called "the new regime," the Iraqis who staff these institutions are more concerned about other Iraqis than the displeasure of the Americans. With many other parts of the new Iraqi regime still unformed or dysfunctional, there are not many places US officials can turn if they face a problem with a particular mayor or police chief.
If the United States is going to help the Iraqis successfully reconstitute their society and, in the process, defeat the insurgents, American officials must focus on creating enclaves in which new institutions can form and Iraqis can take control of them. As long as the United States spreads its effort across the entire map of Iraq, it will never have a complete portion of the new regime with which it can work. After reaching that goal, American officials can deal with the familiar problems of working with a besieged ally with different views on how to prosecute the counterinsurgency war.