Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Iraq and the future of counter insurgency operations

The news of recent weeks with regards to Iraq has been mostly positive. The government is making ground against ISIS, who in turn are being hit hard on a number of fronts. To pinch a phrase from Churchill, it looks like we might be at "the end of the beginning". But there is still a long road to go. And that's got me wondering.

A lot of what has happened in Iraq has been done without the aid of western 'boots on the ground' slogging it out in direct battle with the enemy. While it's widely acknowledged that special forces units from a number of countries have been helping out near the front lines and regular troops have been providing training and logistic support in the rear, it's the Iraqis themselves that have been doing most of the grunt work (along with a generous dollop of US and allied air support). So one wonders then (for one is in posh mode) whether it might be time to revisit some old work that I did on this blog. I'm thinking of two posts in particular, one which looked at the end of British operations in Helmand, Afghanistan, and another that made the contention that you don't choose Counter Insurgency (COIN) campaigns, they choose you.

Starting with the latter first - as is my want, to confuse readers - I set out my belief that you don't choose COIN wars, they choose you, based on the fact that an insurgency either occurs somewhere of interest to you, or it doesn't. The insurgencies that followed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan forced the coalitions hand. They had opted to invade in the first place based on a premise that this was necessary to secure their national or regional interests, a premise which will potentially be tested when the Chilcot Inquiry publishes its report in July (though don't expect major fireworks). When the insurgencies ensued, the coalition was basically left no choice in either case but to do something about them.

And that's the broad problem with proclamations about never doing a COIN operation again and that we've seen the back of the days where Britain, America and others pay in blood and treasure to keep a country stable; the theory works fine right up until the point when an insurgency breaks out somewhere that matters to us, at which point we're essentially left with a choice to intervene and preserve a national interest, or ignore it and suffer the consequences. It's not really a choice at all. If something is that important to us then we will intervene to prevent bad things happening, because the alternative will be even worse. It's the old chestnut about sometimes having to hold your nose and take your medicine because the result of not doing so will be even worse, except applied on a geopolitical scale.

What medicine to use though is up for debate.

That's where the former piece comes in, the retrospective of Britain's role in Afghanistan and the suggestion of a move towards something a little more low key, and that's also where we tie in modern day Iraq. A very brief summary for those that haven't read the piece yet; don't send lots of troops, use small numbers of regular personnel to provide training and specialist support, let special forces lead local forces at the sharp end, and focus mainly on the establishment and support of local forces to do the brunt of the grunt work.

How this relates to Iraq is simple, because in effect that is exactly what is being done right now. Iraq is now a giant testing ground for the concept. Now I know some people will argue that ISIS isn't an insurgency, and that's largely because people forget that the definition of an insurgency is "insurrection against an existing government, usually (but not exclusively) one's own, by a group not recognized as having the status of a belligerent". Or in other words precisely what is happening in Iraq. And indeed Libya, Syria and Ukraine as well. Scale is pretty much irrelevant to the definition, as is the specific nature of the fighting on the ground.

Iraq (and by extension Libya, Syria and Ukraine) therefore gives us the opportunity to explore the potential of a more 'light touch' approach. No large deployments of forces onto the ground, exchanging fire with the enemy at close quarters. Rather seeking to be the hand in the back that props up local forces when they flag, then gently nudges them back into the fray when the time is right. In Iraq the approach already seems to be working. Without the help of massed western battalions the Iraqi forces are gradually taking back the ground lost to ISIS and restoring government order. All positive signs.

Now just for the sake of refreshment I'll go over some of the specifics of the 'light touch' approach one more time here. I should point out before doing so that none of this is especially revolutionary. Most of it has been done before and tried in other theatres. I'm really not a big fan of this idea of constantly describing changes to warfare as being new and revolutionary when they're not (more on that in a coming post...), so I make no pretence that this is some kind of fantastically new fangled concept that I've dreamt up. It's more old ideas brought together for the purposes of summation.

The obvious starting point is that unlike the approaches of Afghanistan and Iraq, a light touch approach eschews the notion of troop surges. Indeed it eschews the entire notion that everything needs to fixed right now or that everything needs to be perfect. COIN campaigns take a long time. Insurgencies have to be tackled militarily and politically, and the nature of insurgencies mean that this will take a very long time to resolve. 'Quick wins' are largely pointless and often sacrifice long term objectives at the expense of short term headlines. 

Fundamentally in order to overcome an insurgency the locals will have to do most of it themselves and they need to be able to do it for many years afterwards as well. The longer external actors go on doing most of the donkey work, the longer it will take the local forces to develop the confidence and capability to do it themselves. This is where political friction can come into play. As local politicians see violence and disorder escalating the natural tendency will be for them to call on countries like the UK or US to pitch in and sort it out straight away. But such calls for action should generally be resisted, understanding that the loss of short term political ground will not be solved by bogging down large numbers of external troops in hard fighting. To properly carry out a light touch approach it must be understood that not every village needs to be permanently under government control. This is difficult to accept, especially for locals, but it must be the government itself and not a foreign power that revolves the situation.

Taking a look back at Helmand, many of the problems that later followed seem to have stemmed from the decision to rush in unprepared. We now know with the benefit of hindsight that the British intervention initially did very little to restore government control or the confidence of the local people in the government system. All it really did was bring British troops into the firing line for no immediate gain. We can now see with 20/20 retrospective vision that a slower, more localised approach would probably have reaped long term gains.

But what does a "localised approach" look like. If not British troops on the front line then who? And what would British troops actually being doing?

The role of someone like Britain in a light touch approach is - generally speaking - to build the capacity of locally recruited forces to sort out their own security situation. This means predominantly helping them with those things they struggle with. They have lots of manpower. Manpower is not generally something in short supply. What they need help with is leadership, training, communications, logistic support, medical support, air support. These are the bits that countries like the UK can start by filling in. With expertise and funding the UK can help to organise and develop the back end of the local forces, identifying weaknesses and areas for targeted foreign investment.

The sharp end is dealt with predominantly by the special forces. It shouldn't be forgotten that after their disbandment at the end of world war two, special forces like the SAS were predominantly resurrected precisely for this kind of 'irregular warfare'. The need to have small, specialised units designed from the bottom up to work with local forces was identified and fulfilled. Thus a light touch approach would emphasise a return to using these units alongside local forces to do the bulk of the fighting. In reality its the local forces themselves that pick up most of the slack. The special forces are there predominantly to organise things like fire and air support and to provide leadership and direction, not to try and the win the war on behalf of the locals. As with all other aspects of the light touch approach, much of what they do is hands off and supportive, filling in the weak points and letting the locals shoulder the main burden.

It also worth stating that the role of someone like the UK in this approach is only to solve the military problems, and to use aid (or the withholding of it) to roughly shape the political landscape, only in so much as it affects the military mission. What type of government the host nation ends up with, its local policies, its decisions on investment etc, are by and large its own business. One of the areas where I think COIN operations have taken a big mis-step is in trying to shape from top to bottom the end make up of the host state. The goal of a COIN operation is to put an end to the insurgency and achieve a stable environment afterwards that serves whatever political goal is being sought. Shaping the nature of the host government is not in the remit and nor should this be seen as an objective of a COIN campaign. It is for politicians to convince local leaders over time that certain approaches are desirable, such as a greater emphasis on human rights development, but this goal should be divorced from the military objective of ending the insurgency.

And here is where we wrap back around again to Iraq. What has been described above is essentially what is happening on the ground in Iraq now. UK forces - aside from the (alleged) presence of special forces - are nowhere near the frontline. It is a hands off approach, focusing on support. With the UK now seemingly gearing up to help out in Libya it is inconceivable that ground troops would be committed in any large numbers, so it's possible that this theory will soon be put to the test once more, this time on a slightly smaller scale. And with the Ukrainian government looking for aid at fighting its own insurgency, it's possible that one day the theory could be put to the test on a much larger scale. Thus the coming years represent an unheard of opportunity to put the mistakes of the past behind us and focus on developing and testing a potentially new way of dealing with future COIN operations.

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