Excerpt: The Role and Limitations of Technology in U.S. Counterinsurgency Warfare


RUBRIGHTAn excerpt from The Role and Limitations of Technology in U.S. Counterinsurgency Warfare by Richard W. Rubright, forthcoming February 2015 from Potomac Books. 

3          Limits of Politically Correct Doctrine

The Melians: You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust.

…The Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children as slaves.


I. Assumption in Counterinsurgency

Using the operationally offensive, tactically defensive concept in pursuit of counterinsurgency objectives relies on the assumptions that an insurgency will employ Mao’s concept of revolutionary warfare and, more important, that the population of the host nation should be receptive to influence by counterinsurgency forces. These assumptions seem to be widely held in the historical literature on counterinsurgency, such as David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice and Gen. David Petraeus and James Amos’s field manual fm 3-24. The field manual specifically surmises that in most insurgencies about 15 percent of the population will be in favor of the insurgents, 15 percent will support the host nation forces, and 70 percent will be a neutral element. As this chapter explores, such assumptions are extremely dangerous and present profound problems if the assumptions are correct and potentially catastrophic problems if they are not.

As fm 3-24 points out, the counterinsurgency force must eliminate hard-core fanatics and insurgents primarily because the possibility that they can be coopted into supporting the counterinsurgency objectives is low. This effort, of course, means that such forces must be either eliminated or separated from the population through incarceration. Ostensibly such fanatics would be classified in the first 15 percent of the population who would be assumed to favor the insurgency. It is quite likely that not all of the population who supports the insurgency could be classified as fanatical to the point that they must be eliminated or incarcerated. Moreover the basic assumption is not going to be relevant in every theater of warfare or every counterinsurgency conflict. Undoubtedly at times the percentage of the population supporting the insurgents, or supporting the host nation, might well exceed the 15 percent mark. To further complicate the issue, the percentage of non-repentant fanatical elements in the population who support the insurgency could vary widely depending on the society and state of conflict in which counterinsurgency operations are taking place.

To assume that 15 percent of the population favors the insurgency and that perhaps only 5 percent represents a fanatical element that must be eliminated or incarcerated means that the sheer number of individuals involved could cause a strategic problem. Consider the case of Iran in 2002. With a population of more than 60 million people, the 5 percent who would have to be incarcerated or eliminated would amount to 3 million individuals. Any attempt through combat operations to eliminate 3 million individuals, willing to die for their cause, would result in inevitable casualties for the counterinsurgency forces. In very basic mathematical terms, a 10:1 exchange ratio between host nation forces and enemy insurgents would result in 300,000 counterinsurgency deaths. Such a death rate for U.S. forces engaged in any conflict is simply beyond the political capability of sustainment for a liberal society not directly threatened with its own survival. Even at a 100:1 exchange rate, the resulting 30,000 casualties would represent seven times the casualties sustained in seven years of fighting in Iraq. At a 1,000:1 exchange rate, the 3,000 casualties could possibly be politically acceptable in the United States. However, this possibility assumes two important points, both of which may be flawed: there would be no more than 5 percent of the total Iranian population who would provide fanatical support to an insurgency, and the United States would be willing to achieve a 1,000:1 or better exchange rate against insurgents.

There is a direct corollary between the percentage of the population who represents non-repentant fanatical elements that must be eliminated and the exchange rates that the U.S. military must achieve in order to make a counterinsurgency effort viable in a political context that would be acceptable to both Congress and American citizens. Simply adjusting numbers starts to drive home just how skewed the exchange rates must be. Consider for a moment Indonesia, which is unlikely to be a target for U.S. military intervention but does represent a Muslim state that in the advent of profound social upheaval could pose a threat through its support of al-Qaeda. Indonesia had a population of 212 million people in 2003. If 5 percent of the Indonesian population had to be eliminated or incarcerated, serious questions must arise about the viability and political cost of treating 10.5 million human beings in such a fashion. And what happens if 10 percent, or larger numbers, of people are involved? Such a conflict starts to illustrate the true difficulty in a counterinsurgency effort of this size.

The difficulties in these illustrations, however, should not be taken to mean that counterinsurgency is impossible in such areas or against such large populations. There is the possibility that the United States will feel compelled to retaliate against a group of insurgents or terrorists embedded in a larger population. Afghanistan is a case in point. The United States, while having no inherent strategic need to confront the Taliban, could not allow the Taliban to harbor al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after the attacks on September 11, 2001. In a situation where the United States feels that it must act, it must be careful in how it proceeds and tailor the counterinsurgency strategy appropriately to fit the political and social milieus in which it is fighting. In the case of the Taliban’s harboring al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the U.S. strategy required that the Taliban be, at least temporarily, considered an enemy force.

The most daunting military challenge facing the United States is its counterinsurgency effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Unlike al-Qaeda, the Taliban themselves were not perpetrators of aggression against the United States. The recognition that the Taliban, despite cultural influences and the historical ties from fighting the Soviet Union with U.S. aid, were simply harboring al-Qaeda means that the United States has a very hard time making the case to the Pashtun people that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are their enemies. The argument that the Pashtun people should strongly support both a central government, which is not historically important to them, and a mainly Christian army, such as the U.S. military, against their own countrymen is unlikely to be given much merit. Since the Taliban is primarily Pashtun, and often supported by the Pashtun population, the United States should not generally count on Pashtun assistance in the hunt for al-Qaeda and the effort to sustain a central government.

With the Taliban enjoying solid backing in the Pashtun tribal areas of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is very unlikely, though predicting the future is always hazardous, that any country will be able to convince the Pashtuns to back outside and alien political objectives. In such a situation, a counterinsurgency force is presented with three options. The first option is simply to walk away from the conflict and accept failure in achieving the political objectives. Clearly this option is going to be dependent on U.S. domestic political influences, which will be different for every given conflict. For example, the 1993 Operation Restore Hope in Mogadishu, Somalia, enjoyed far less political and popular support than the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan did. Given the incentives for making sure that Afghanistan does not again become an al-Qaeda stronghold, the U.S. government will unlikely accept walking away from Afghanistan as a realistic option; however, the historical example of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan shows that a counterinsurgency effort that loses public or political support can be terminated. The second option is to adjust the narrative that defines the conflict in order to adjust the political objectives. Any insurgency should be a dynamic learning situation and, as such, should present opportunities to adapt to new challenges. Likewise, the perception of a counterinsurgency effort can change with regard to the viability of the original political objectives, which, later in the conflict, may then be transformed and no longer be applicable. In such instances, if accepting defeat and the withdrawal of forces is not an option, it may become possible to change the narrative of the counterinsurgency effort to adjust the political objectives to more realistic possibilities. Finally the third option is to apply force against the civilian populations who support the insurgency in order to threaten the insurgency’s lifeline. Such an option would entail substantial political costs for the United States internationally and would also challenge U.S. law. Unrestricted operations of this kind are not possible for the U.S. military.

II. Withdrawal

If the United States finds itself in a counterinsurgency effort in which the majority large portion of the concerned population actively supports the insurgency, any hope of victory, or of obtaining the political objectives, becomes negligible. It is extremely hard for the American psyche to understand how other societies and countries would not want to emulate the United States, given its preponderance of military and economic power and its standard of living. Most Americans believe that liberal democracy is superior to all other systems of government and that this fact should be universally self-evident. Such hubris, and often ignorance of other cultures, prevents many Americans from being able to understand and appreciate that other cultures and societies are satisfied within their own context. It follows quite naturally that without an appreciation of other cultures, strategy formulated by Americans will lead to assumptions that develop into policy objectives that are unrealistic in a counterinsurgency environment.

The United States responded to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, by demanding that the Taliban should hand over members of al-Qaeda to U.S. custody. The Taliban, given their cultural attitudes toward giving sanctuary to fellow Muslims, refused the request. This denial set the stage for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Of primary importance here is the notion that the United States was interested in killing or capturing members of al-Qaeda, not the Taliban. In essence by asking the Taliban to hand over al-Qaeda, the United States was telling the Taliban that it was not interested in entering into armed conflict with them and would do so only as a last resort based on Taliban noncooperation. The Taliban’s refusal may have been a calculated strategic decision on their part or a religious decision not to cooperate with the infidel. The end result was that the United States gave support to the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan. This forced partnership has led to a long counterinsurgency campaign in which the Pashtun people will determine whether the United States will accomplish its goals.

As the conflict in Afghanistan has progressed, the narrative of the conflict has changed. While it was originally about killing or capturing members of al-Qaeda in response to 9/11, it has since developed into a counterinsurgency struggle against the Taliban. The strategy also focuses on a concurrent effort to establish a secure state in Afghanistan with a strong central government as a bulwark against the recurrence of a terrorist sanctuary for non-state actors. It makes sense at the strategic level to ensure that al-Qaeda will not again use a lawless area of Afghanistan to train, equip, and plan for terrorist attacks in pursuit of its global jihad. But such an objective implies a strong central state capable of policing its borders and exercising control within them. Afghanistan, today and historically, has never had a strong central government and has no institutional inclination toward developing such a government. Concentrating power in the hands of a central government entails removing power from regional actors, such as warlords and tribal leaders, who will counter that political objective with hostile violence against both host nation and counterinsurgency forces. Ergo, the moment the conflict in Afghanistan changed from a raid to kill or capture al-Qaeda members to a counterinsurgency effort to suppress the Taliban and build a strong central government in Kabul, the entire narrative and implications of the war significantly changed.

There is a drastic difference between a raiding strategy meant to kill or capture and a long-term counterinsurgency effort. The U.S. military’s technical superiority makes a raid that is small in size, or even large in scale, fairly easy to accomplish. However, as noted in previously, the technology required to use an operationally offensive, tactically defensive concept effectively with very small units to cover the maximum possible number of population centers is not yet mature. From a technical aspect, the moment the narrative changed in Afghanistan, the U.S. military had to shift from engaging in a raid, in which it had every tool it needed to succeed, to facing a long-term counterinsurgency struggle. In this context it had some of the technical tools to be successful but with very little long-term prospect for success because of previously mentioned legal and cultural restrictions. The drastic change in strategy and in the narrative equates to a drastic change in the likelihood of success in obtaining the political objectives.

Ultimately the United States must recognize that a long-running, grinding counterinsurgency campaign against a population who supports insurgents is doomed to failure with the legal restrictions currently in place that limit the use of U.S. military power. While it is true that the U.S. military has the technical tools to withstand any amount of direct combat pressure and has the ability to inflict massive casualties on the insurgents who choose to confront the U.S. military directly, the simple fact is that the U.S. military cannot stay deployed in Afghanistan forever. Likewise, while technically inferior and likely to die when engaged in direct combat operations against a technically superior U.S. military, the insurgent can simply play for time while using asymmetrical methods of warfare. To illustrate the problem, suppose for a moment that the U.S. military had all the technical tools needed to implement a wide-ranging operationally offensive, tactically defensive concept to secure even the smallest Pashtun village against insurgents. The result would be the same if the people could not reconcile themselves to being loyal to the host nation or to working with the counterinsurgency forces. In such a situation, the U.S. military’s criterion for victory or for obtaining the political objectives is to have the willpower to outlast its opponent or to impose its political will on the population. This strategy is simply not feasible, however, in the context of the U.S. political milieu. While the point may be argued, it should be self-evident that a farmer fighting for his land, his family, and his identity will keep fighting and stay motivated longer than would a fickle American population thousands of miles away with other concerns, especially if constraints ensure that the farmer is unlikely to come to harm.

When the United States is confronted with such a stubborn counterinsurgency situation, it can cogently be argued that withdrawal from the conflict is in its best interests. That action would clearly call for sacrificing the original political objectives driving the conflict and accepting the failure to achieve those political objectives. Any such action will have profound ramifications in the American cultural experience and for the careers of the individuals involved in making such a decision. But at a strategic level, such a decision may well be the best option given the political and financial costs associated with changing the conflict’s narrative or in unrestricted operations.

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