Thursday, June 7, 2007

A Radical Notion Worth Considering...

Dr. Steven Metz, Chairman of the Regional Strategy and Planning Department and Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute has a radical idea on how we can deal with the Iraqi insurgency that is claiming ~30 American GI’s per week. Stop fighting insurgents and propping up an inherently weak government; and instead concentrate on peacekeeping and neutral mediation.

As is my wont, I read the report. The entire thing is worth reading, but it is 77 pages, and realistically, I know most of you won’t download the .pdf, so I have pulled the following passages:

On the nature of insurgency:

If, in fact, insurgency is not simply a variant of war, if the real threat is the deleterious effects of sustained conflict, and if it is part of systemic failure and pathology in which key elites and organizations develop a vested interest in sustaining the conflict, the objective of counterinsurgency support should not be simply strengthening the government so that it can impose its will more effectively on the insurgents, but systemic reengineering. This, in turn, implies that the most effective posture for outsiders is not to be an ally of the government and thus a sustainer of the flawed socio-political-economic system, but to be neutral mediators and peacekeepers (even when the outsiders have much more ideological affinity for the regime than for the insurgents). If this is true, the United States should only undertake counterinsurgency support in the most pressing instances and as part of an equitable, legitimate, and broad-based multinational coalition. (emphasis added) [introduction].

[Insurgency] arises when a group decides that the gap between their political expectations and the opportunities afforded them is unacceptable and can only be remedied by force. Insurgents avoid battlespaces where they are at a disadvantage—often the conventional military sphere—and focus on those where they can attain parity, particularly the psychological and the political. [p.1]

On rethinking the concepts of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency

It is less the chance of an insurgent victory which creates a friendly environment for transnational terrorism than persistent internal conflict shattering control and restraint in a state. During an insurgency, both the insurgents and the government focus on each other, necessarily leaving parts of the country with minimal security and control. Transnational terrorists exploit this. And protracted insurgency creates a general disregard for law and order. Organized crime and corruption blossom. Much of the population loses its natural aversion to violence. Thus a society brutalized and wounded by a protracted insurgency is more likely to spawn a variety of evils, spewing violent individuals into the world long after the conflict ends. [p. 9]


This means insurgency is no longer a “stand alone” conflict; it is “nested” within deeper and broader struggles. It is still about power (as it was during the Cold War), but it is also about economics, services, and social identity. The other dimensions of the conflict and the other participants both effect the insurgency and are affected by it. Simply asking states to exert or re-exert control over increasingly uncontrolled spaces is inadequate. [p.12]

On rethinking power structures

The profusion and diffusion of information alters this (at least to some degree) by amplifying the effects of psychological operations, whether violent or nonviolent, and in part by changing the power asymmetry between insurgencies and the state. When power was strictly a factor of tangible resources like money and troops, the state held a distinct advantage. But as information becomes power (or generates power), the asymmetry between states and other organizations declines. A decentralized, networked structure allows even small insurgencies to accumulate and use information-based power (such as terrorism) and thus remain viable. And with the decline of state sponsorship, violent groups like insurgencies must be self-financing. Globalization and the information revolution provide the means to do so. As Karen Ballentine and Jake Sherman phrase it, “rapid economic globalization and the replacement of state-led economic development by market-driven free trade have created new and abundant opportunities for more systematic forms of combatant self-financing.” A decentralized network is better able to capitalize on shifting economic opportunities than a hierarchical one (although less able to harness the funds accumulated for the attainment of overarching objectives). [p.13]


Decentralized, networked insurgencies without an overt state sponsor have a limited ability to undertake conventional military operations (or other complex activities which require extensive coordination). This is one more factor leading to a greater reliance on terrorism. It is both necessary and effective. Information profusion and the availability of diverse means of communication amplify the psychological effects of terrorism. In terrorism, it matters less how many people were killed than how many people know of and are influenced by the deaths. The terrorism of contemporary insurgents is thus designed to influence both a proximate audience and a distant one. [p.14] (emphasis added)

On Rethinking Social Dynamics of Conflict

That contemporary insurgents emulate corporations in a hyper competitive (and violent) market shapes their operational methods. Specifically, insurgents gravitate toward operational methods which maximize desired effects while minimizing the costs and risks. This, in conjunction with the profusion of information, the absence of state sponsors providing conventional military material, and the transparency of the operating environment, has increased the role terrorism plays for insurgents. Insurgents have always used terrorism. But one of the characteristics of this quintessentially psychological method of violence is that its effect is limited to those who know of it. When, for instance, the Viet Cong killed a local political leader, it might have had the desired psychological effect on people in the region, but did little to shape the beliefs, perceptions, or morale of those living far away. Today, information technology amplifies the psychological effects of a terrorist incident by publicizing it to a much wider audience. This includes both satellite, 24-hour media coverage, and, more importantly, the Internet which, Gordon McCormick and Frank Giordano note, “has made symbolic violence a more powerful instrument of insurgent mobilisation than at any time in the past.” [p.48]

Rethinking Counterinsurgency

At the strategic level, the risk to the United States is not that insurgents will “win” in the traditional sense, take over their country, and shift it from a partner to an enemy. It is that complex internal conflicts, especially ones involving insurgency, will generate other adverse effects: the destabilization of regions, resource flows, and markets; the blossoming of transnational crime; humanitarian disasters; transnational terrorism; and so forth. Given this, the U.S. goal should not automatically be the defeat of the insurgents by the regime (which may be impossible, particularly when the partner regime is only half-heartedly committed to it), but the rapid resolution of the conflict. In other words, a quick and sustainable outcome which integrates most of the insurgents into the national power structure is less damaging to U.S. national interests than a protracted conflict which leads to the complete destruction of the insurgents. Protracted conflict, not insurgent victory, is the threat. [p.50]


In cases where a serious insurgency cannot be managed, the state and its supporters might consider an approach designed to deliberately encourage the insurgency to mutate into something less dangerous such as an organized criminal organization. This is never desirable, but there may be rare instances where organized crime is less of a threat than sustained insurgency. Call this strategic methadone. [p.52]

What Dr. Metz proposes is a radical new approach to the way we think about counterinsurgency. Nothing like this is found anywhere in the current doctrine. However, the defense community must apply some new thinking to the problems at hand. No one ever got out of a jam by applying more of the same thinking that got you in trouble in the first damned place. Stubbornly continuing to fight the last war, even though it is obvious that it isn’t working, is not the kind of thinking we need right now.