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Americans have a predilection for neat categories of activity and clear divisions of labor. One manifestation of this tendency is emphasis on a clear division between military and political realms and a related belief in a clean separation of military and civilian activities. But war is a complicated and messy human phenomenon that defies easy categorization. The fundamentally political core of war admits to few natural limits. The stakes of war are usually profound, and therefore the effective remedies can be no less intense.

The deliberately contested allegiance of the local population pulls all aspects of societal functioning into the ambit of a counterinsurgency. Denying success to insurgents demands comprehensive solutions that cut across the political, economic, and cultural elements of the afflicted society. In stable, mature social systems, efficient arrangements develop to meet agreed needs. Insurgents use violence to deliberately target these neat and optimized arrangements to tear apart the sinews of society. They often seek to undermine social delivery mechanisms. This behavior is why it is not sufficient (albeit still necessary) for counterinsurgents to simply counter the violence of insurgents; they also strive to defeat the population-centered insurgent strategy. The unequal utility of violence to affect societal frameworks, which are much easier to destroy than to create, requires counterinsurgents to take an expansive approach to the instruments of conflict. Counterinsurgents work to sustain, rebuild, or even strengthen societal structures in the midst of violence. This program of work requires both civilian and military efforts directed toward a comprehensive solution. It has been widely noted that the solution to an insurgency is more political than military; but make no mistake, violence defines the environment within which the instruments of counterinsurgents are brought to bear. In such a milieu, military forces are crucial to thwarting both the insurgents' violence and the effects the insurgents seek to generate from tht violence.

Although conventional military efforts are necessary and important in counterinsurgency (COIN), they are only effective if integrated into a comprehensive strategy that addresses all relevant societal needs. This requirement is frequently expressed in terms of applying the appropriate instruments of national power. The logical relationship of agency to effort, however, is secondary to the necessary societal outcome. Put another way, solving a problem is more important than who solves it. Ideally, a society's needs will be met by those organizations having the most appropriate expertise or comparative advantage in a particular task. Realistically, the counterinsurgents will have to rely on whoever can perform a particular task when and where it is needed rather than standing on formality about who should perform it. Quite frequently, the representatives of the counterinsurgents who are present and can act are the armed forces. Sheer capacity and the logic of one of the most fundamental aspects of warfare, the control of physical space (and the people and material in it), will often place members of the armed forces at crucial societal nodes.

This article presents a framework to assist military and civilian leaders to comprehensively meet counterinsurgency challenges. It consists of four sections. The first section provides elaboration on the comprehensive nature of counterinsurgency efforts and the concomitant imperatives for integrating military and civilian efforts. This section lays out the COIN imperatives with emphasis on desired effects or outcomes. The second section provides a summary of counterinsurgency participants and their roles and interests. The third section addresses how to integrate military and civilian activities in COIN. It addresses some common principles for unifying civilian-military efforts. The fourth section offers analysis and recommendations aimed at improving American approaches to counterinsurgency with respect to current challenges.

The Counterinsurgency Integration Imperative

A successful counterinsurgency meets the contested population's needs while protecting the people from the insurgents. Political, social, and economic programs are usually more valuable than conventional military operations as a means to address fundamental causes of conflict and undermine an insurgency. COIN is fought among the population, and the counterinsurgents bear responsibility for the people's well-being in all its manifestations. These include security from violence and crime; provision of basic economic needs; maintenance of infrastructure; sustainment of key social and cultural institutions; and other aspects that contribute to a society's basic quality of life. The COIN program has to address all aspects of the local population's concerns in a unified fashion. Insurgents succeed by maintaining turbulence and highlighting local costs due to gaps in the COIN effort. COIN forces succeed by eliminating turbulence and meeting the population's basic needs.

To eliminate turbulence and provide for the population's needs, counterinsurgents need to control the level of violence. The insurgents often benefit from a high level of violence and societal insecurity that discourages or precludes nonmilitary participants' efforts on behalf of the local population. The higher the level of violence that defines the operational environment, the less likely it is that nonmilitary organizations, particularly external agencies, can work with the local population to address social, political, economic, and other challenges. The more benign the security environment, the more likely it is that civilian agencies can provide their resources and expertise and relieve the burden on the military forces.

In COIN, military forces are called on to apply their combat skills in the effort to protect the population. Military forces should be particularly careful, however, not to be goaded into imposing excessive costs on the local populace through the use of violence. Combating and killing insurgents, harming bystanders, and destroying local property provide an equation of costs and benefits in the application of force that can never be ignored by the counterinsurgents. Military force is not the sole means to provide security or to defeat insurgents. Indeed, a dilemma for military units engaged in COIN is that they frequently have greater potential to undermine policy objectives through excessive emphasis on military methods than to achieve the overarching political goals that define success. This dilemma places tremendous importance on the measured application of coercive force by COIN operators.

Durable policy success requires balancing the measured use of force with an emphasis on nonmilitary programs. Although political, social, and economic programs are most commonly and appropriately associated with civilian organizations and expertise, the salient aspect of such programs is their effective implementation, not who performs the tasks. COIN programs for political, social, and economic well-being are essential elements for supporting local capacity that can command popular support. The military can and should be engaged in using its capabilities to meet the local population's fundamental needs, mindful that these needs vary by society and historical context. The military performs a crucial role in creating the security conditions to permit a society to function normally. Principally, security forces should seek to prevent intimidation and coercion by the insurgents.

In COIN, the performance of military and nonmilitary activities is interdependent. Facilitating active support for the host-nation government by the local population deprives an insurgency of its power. To accomplish this, "some of the best weapons in counterinsurgency do not shoot." Similarly, the best organizations to employ such "weapons" are often not in the military. But nonmilitary organizations are very vulnerable to the violence of insurgents. The dilemma of which should come first, efforts to address physical security or to address the societal causes of insecurity, is a false one. Both have to be addressed concurrently. Military forces cannot afford to be drawn into battle with insurgents at the expense of protecting the population or its civilian servants. Furthermore, those seeking to serve the needs of the local population cannot afford to put such efforts aside until security is assured.

Understanding Counterinsurgency Participants

The nature of policy conflicts that lie beneath an insurgency is little different from the myriad of concerns that animate political discourse in any society. But the admixture of organized violence, the facet giving insurgency its war quality, adds a grave dimension to such discourse. The violence easily overshadows other dimensions of conflict. This fact requires that counterinsurgent leaders be intensely aware of the roles and capabilities of participants who are likely to play a key role in counterinsurgency operations. In addition to describing key participants and their roles, this section also addresses common expectations about the division of labor among participants. Counterinsurgency leaders are obligated to understand the realistic limitations of COIN participants. Such limitations are most pronounced among civilian agencies. This factor leads, in turn, to reliance on the largest and most capable participant, the armed forces.

Civilian organizations bring expertise and capabilities that complement those of military forces engaged in COIN operations. At the same time, civilian capabilities cannot be brought to bear without the security provided by the military. The interdependent relationship of all these groups has to be understood and orchestrated to achieve coherent results. External military forces engaged in COIN, like those of the United States in many conflicts past and present, should be acutely aware of the roles and capabilities of US, international, and host-nation partners.

Military Counterinsurgency Participants

The role of military forces in COIN operations is extensive. COIN is one of the most demanding and complex forms of warfare. It draws heavily on the broad range of joint force capabilities. Military forces should be prepared to conduct offensive, defensive, and stability operations in a manner significantly different from conventional combat operations (which has been the proclivity of the American military in recent history).

US military forces are vastly capable. Designed predominantly for conventional combat against the organized military forces of other states, they nonetheless have the essential components to successfully prosecute COIN. The most important asset in COIN is disciplined military personnel with adaptive, self-aware, and intelligent leaders. There are also organizational aspects of the military forces that are particularly relevant to widespread COIN challenges. For example, COIN often requires dismounted infantry, human intelligence, language specialists, military police, civil affairs, engineers, medical units, logistical support, legal affairs, and contracting elements.

US forces can help a host nation's military, paramilitary, and police forces conduct COIN operations, including area security and local security operations. In addition, they can conduct full-spectrum operations to disrupt or destroy insurgent military capabilities. Land forces use offensive combat operations to disrupt insurgent efforts to establish base areas and consolidate their personnel. They conduct defensive operations to provide area and local security and conduct stability operations to thwart insurgent efforts to disrupt people's lives and routine activities.

Most valuable to long-term success in winning the support of the population are the contributions military forces can make through stability operations. Stability operations is "an overarching term encompassing various military missions, tasks, and activities conducted outside the United States in coordination with other instruments of national power to maintain or reestablish a safe and secure environment, provide essential governmental services, emergency infrastructure reconstruction, and humanitarian relief."

Forces engaged in stability operations establish, safeguard, or restore basic civil services. They act directly and in support of governmental agencies. Success in stability operations enables the local population and government agencies of the host nation to resume or develop the capabilities needed to conduct COIN operations and create the conditions that will permit US military forces to disengage. Importantly, stability operations activities are the ones for which integrated and complementary civilian expertise, advice, and assistance are vital.

Military forces also can use their capabilities to enable the efforts of nonmilitary participants. Logistics, transportation, equipment, personnel, and other assets can support interagency partners and other civilian organizations as they strive to meet basic societal needs.

US military forces rarely operate alone. They normally function as part of a multinational force. In a COIN operation, US forces usually work alongside the security elements of the local population or host nation. As part of a coalition, the strengths of different national capabilities and capacity can be brought to bear. Other countries' military forces often bring cultural backgrounds, historical perspectives, and other unique capabilities that can be particularly valuable to COIN efforts (for example, among foreign armed forces, paramilitary and constabulary units offer capabilities generally absent from the US armed forces). Moreover, the expertise and experience of host nation forces are often the most salient and valuable to understanding local dynamics.

Understanding military differences and working out ways to integrate diverse capabilities to support COIN efforts is a significant challenge for military and civilian leaders.

Nations join coalitions for varied policy aims. Although objectives may be ostensibly similar, rules of engagement, national policies, and sensitivities will differ among multinational partners. US military leaders require a strong cultural and political awareness of host nation and other multinational military partners.

Nonmilitary Counterinsurgency Participants

The nonmilitary participants in COIN are as diverse as society in general. As an external participant in COIN, the American military is usually but one among many external organizations working on behalf of a host nation. External governmental, nongovernmental, and business organizations are common. Such external participants usually have counterparts in the host nation.

In addition to the military, counterinsurgency leaders have to be familiar with other US government organizations and aware of the capabilities they can provide. During planning, all forces should determine which organizations are working in their area of operations and supporting the counterinsurgent outcomes. Commanders and leaders of US government organizations should collaboratively plan and coordinate actions to avoid conflict or duplication of effort.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are another common presence in the COIN environment. Many NGOs are in place before military forces arrive and remain long afterward. They can support lasting stability.

To the greatest extent possible, the military should balance and not override their capabilities. Building a complementary and trust-based relationship is vital. Some NGOs, however, maintain strict independence from governments and other belligerents in a conflict and do not want to be seen directly associating with military forces.

The most prominent and ubiquitous international organization is the United Nations (UN). In its many organizational manifestations, the United Nations is active in conflict zones and other turbulent areas to help bring peace and stability to local populations. The United Nations commands widespread respect, legitimacy, and authority as it works to meet the collective challenges of the international community. The UN has many subordinate or affiliated agencies that are active around the world, such as the World Food Program, UN Development Program, Department of Peacekeeping Operations, and the recently established peace-building commission. Likewise, there are major regional organizations such as the Organization of American States and the European Union that may be involved in some key aspects of COIN operations.

Multinational corporations and contractors also are frequent participants in key elements of COIN. Multinational corporations often engage in reconstruction, economic development, and governance activities. At a minimum, counterinsurgent leaders should know which corporations are present in the area affected by insurgency and where those corporations are conducting business.

Host-nation civil authorities are crucial and often-overlooked participants in counterinsurgency programs. COIN rests on the ultimate success of local authorities to establish stable and successful mechanisms for serving the local population. Sovereignty issues are among the most difficult for external participants to support without compromising local legitimacy. Leaders should acknowledge political sensitivities and be prepared to pursue coordination, communication, and consensus in the absence of a clear hierarchy or chain of command within the local government.

Ideal and Real Division of Labor

In an ideal COIN environment, the preference is for civilians to carry out civilian tasks. Civilian agencies or individuals with the greatest expertise for a given task should perform it, with deference to local civil authorities. Although there are many US and international civilian agencies that possess greater expertise than military forces for meeting the fundamental needs of a population under assault, the ability of such agencies to deploy to foreign countries in sustainable numbers and with ready access to necessary resources is usually limited. The degree of violence in the COIN environment affects the ability of civilian agencies to operate. The more violent the environment, the more difficult it is for civilians to operate effectively. Thus, in COIN, the preferred or ideal division of labor is frequently unattainable.

In reality, the problem is frequently much messier. As Clausewitz noted, ". . . war is not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means." Conversely, when war or combat ends, politics continues. US government and international agencies rarely have the resources and capabilities needed to address all tasks required in a COIN environment. By default, US and other military forces often possess the only readily available capability to meet many of the fundamental needs of local populations. Human decency and the law of war require military forces to assist populations where they live. Military leaders at every level should be prepared to address civilian needs. Optimally, military units would be structured to include competence in key areas such as:

Aca,!Ac Knowledge, cultural understanding, and appreciation of the host nation and its region.
Aca,!Ac Functional skills for interagency and host-nation coordination (for example, liaison and negotiation).
Aca,!Ac Language skills enabling more effective coordination with the host nation, NGOs, and multinational partners.
Aca,!Ac Knowledge of the civil foundations for infrastructure, economy, governance, or other lines of operations being pursued as part of the COIN effort.

More commonly, units optimized for combat operations are organized with a differing set of functional imperatives. Conventional or general-purpose military units frequently lack appropriate capabilities to address typical COIN challenges. Although training and organization offer possible improvements to meet such challenges, leaders should identify people in their units with regional expertise, interagency know-how, civil-military competence, and other critical skills that can usefully support a local population and host-nation government. Similar qualifications should apply to civilians operating in a COIN environment. For civilians, previous military experience and familiarity are valuable adjuncts to the functional skills they bring to bear on the key problems of an insurgency.

Integrating Civilian and Military Counterinsurgency Efforts

When the United States commits to assisting a host nation against an insurgency, success requires the application of national resources along multiple lines of operations, such as security, economics, governance, basic services, and humanitarian needs. The fact that efforts along one line of operations can easily affect progress in others means that uncoordinated actions are frequently counterproductive. Lines of operations in COIN focus primarily on the population. Each line is dependent on the others. Their interdependence is similar to factors in a multiplication equation; if the value of one of the lines of operations is zero, the overall product is zero. Many of these lines of operations require the application of expertise usually found in civilian organizations. These civilian organizations include US government agencies other than the Department of Defense; international organizations (such as the United Nations and its many suborganizations); nongovernmental organizations; private corporations; and other groups that wield diplomatic, informational, and economic power.

Where possible, formal relationships among groups should be established and maintained for unity of command. For all elements of the US government engaged in a particular COIN mission, formal command and control using established command relationships with a clear hierarchy should be axiomatic. Unity of command should also extend to all military forces supporting a host nation. The ultimate objective of these arrangements is for local military forces, police, and other security units to establish effective command and control while attaining a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within the society.

As important as the principle of unity of command is to military operations, it is one of the most difficult and sensitive issues to resolve in COIN. US and other external military participation in COIN is inherently problematic, as it influences perceptions of the capacity and legitimacy of local authorities. Although unity of command of military forces is desirable, it may be impractical due to political considerations. Political sensitivities regarding the perceived subordination of national forces to those of other states or international organizations often preclude strong command relationships. The differing goals and fundamental independence of NGOs and local organizations frequently prevent formal relationships. In the absence of formal relationships governed by command authority, military leaders seek to persuade and influence other participants to contribute to attaining COIN objectives.

Informal or less authoritative relationships include coordination and liaison with other participants. In some cases, direct interaction among various organizations may be impractical or undesirable. Basic awareness and general information sharing might be the most that can be accomplished.

Although unity of command may be more desirable and readily attainable among some COIN participants, unity of effort is a more comprehensive framework that reflects the maximum feasible integration of COIN efforts. Informed and strong leadership is a foundation of successful COIN operations. The appropriate focus of leadership is on the central problems that affect the local population. All elements supporting COIN should strive for the highest unity of effort. Given the primacy of political considerations, military forces often support civilian efforts. The mosaic nature of COIN operations, however, means that lead responsibility often shifts among military, civilian, and host-nation authorities. Regardless, military leaders should be prepared to assume local leadership for COIN efforts and remember that the organizing imperative is to focus on what needs to be done, not on who does it.

Countering an insurgency begins with understanding the complex environment and the numerous competing forces acting upon it. Gaining an understanding of the environment-to include the insurgents, affected populace, and disparate organizations attempting to counter the insurgency- is essential to an integrated COIN operation. The complexity of resolving the causes of the insurgency and integrating actions across multiple and interrelated lines of operations requires an understanding of the civilian and military capabilities, activities, and vision of resolution. Just as soldiers and Marines use different tactics to achieve an objective, so the various agencies acting to reestablish stability may differ in goals and approaches. When their actions are allowed to adversely impact each other, the population suffers and insurgents identify gaps to exploit.

Integrated actions are essential to defeat the ideologies professed by insurgents. A shared understanding of the operation's purpose provides a unifying theme for COIN efforts. Through a common understanding of that purpose, the COIN team can design an operation that promotes effective collaboration and coordination among all agencies and the affected population.

A vast array of organizations can influence successful COIN operations. Given the complex diplomatic, informational, military, and economic context of an insurgency, there is no way for military leaders to assert command over all elements, nor should they try to do so. Among interagency partners, NGOs, and private organizations, there are many interests and agendas that military forces will be unable to control. Additionally, local legitimacy is frequently affected by the degree to which local institutions are perceived as independent and capable without external support. Nevertheless, military leaders should make every effort to ensure that actions in support of the COIN effort are as well-integrated as possible. Active participation by military leaders is imperative to conduct coordination, establish liaison (formal and informal), and share information among various groups working on behalf of the local population. Influencing and persuading groups beyond a commander's direct control requires great skill and often great subtlety.

As actively as commanders may pursue unity of effort, they should also be mindful of the visibility of their role and recognize the wisdom of acting indirectly and in ways that allow credit for success to go to others, particularly local individuals and organizations.

Local leaders, informal associations, families, tribes, private enterprises, humanitarian groups, and the media often play critical roles in influencing the outcome of a counterinsurgency but are beyond the control of military forces or civilian governing institutions. Involved commanders remain aware of the influence of such groups and are prepared to work with, through, or around them.

Meeting Contemporary Challenges

Today, the United States confronts insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some observers have noted that the common element of these operations is their relationship to a larger insurgency within the Muslim world.

Furthermore, the conventional wisdom declaring that the United States cannot effectively prosecute counterinsurgency has the potential to degrade America's image of its own capacity and foster potential adversaries' views of American vulnerability. Such an assertion, one of the supposed meta-lessons of Vietnam, contributes to the widespread support this conventional wisdom garners. But the United States and other nations have a fairly strong record of triumph by counterinsurgents. Most insurgents fail. Insurgencies that succeed usually benefit from extensive outside support, sanctuary, and the shrewd exploitation of important divisions within the counterinsurgent coalition (domestically and internationally).

Understanding ideal and realistic divisions of labor in counterinsurgency supports two complementary proposals captured in one fairly simple principle; work toward the achievement of the ideal solution while enhancing the capabilities and performance of the agencies most likely to engage in such efforts. In short, while doing more to build the civilian capabilities widely understood to be more appropriate to the challenges that bear on a counterinsurgency, we also need to do more to enhance the capacity of the military individuals and organizations that have routinely, and quite logically, been called upon to conduct key portions of counterinsurgency. This requirement also relates to another key point regarding command and control.

The discrete divisions of labor that make civilian and military realms attractively separate in peace are unlikely to hold up in the midst of an insurgency. Hence, it is not a matter of figuring out whose inbox the challenge belongs in; it belongs to both. This circumstance requires more sophisticated organizational mechanisms that allow the amalgamation of military and civilian efforts toward coherent integrated effects. The successful Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program in Vietnam is an excellent example of integrated military and civilian activities. More recent efforts to establish Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and Iraq reflect similar intent but with much smaller size and less organizationally intertwined. The civil-military structure of the nascent US Africa Command headquarters and changes to the US Southern Command are promising but immature initiatives for better civil-military integration.

There are many programs that can support both military and civilian improvements. A key approach is to do more to educate the leaders of both communities to be better prepared for insurgency and other complex security challenges. Among the means that can help accomplish this are education, training, development, and assignment policies that do more to share the relevant expertise of civilian and military leaders across their respective domains. This is not to refute the undeniable value of specialization but to recognize that a quintessentially important aspect of meeting the types of comprehensive challenges posed by counterinsurgencies is to ensure that he ranks of civilian and military leaders include generalists who can make such complex operations work.

Effective, comprehensive counterinsurgency requires both more effort to build appropriate civilian capacity and better preparation of military forces to fill gaps that will inevitably appear by conducting or participating in political, social, informational, and economic programs that are crucial to counterinsurgency success. Even a dramatic increase in civilian capacity will not eliminate the armed forces' need to participate as well-integrated partners in counterinsurgencies' most relevant activities.

Contests for the allegiance of local populations are conflicts of ideas. A critical aspect of such contests is the degree to which perceptions of a population's well-being can be affected either by word or deed. To the insurgents' advantage, minimal success is often simply measured as a matter of survival and not losing. Counterinsurgents, on the other hand, have to win. Moreover, insurgents frequently benefit from a lack of accountability regarding truthfulness. The counterinsurgents, however, are hamstrung in some respects by the mere fact of their official accountability. Insurgents can spin idealized versions of life in the aftermath of their victory. They are free to declaim as they wish about a supposed future that they will not have to deliver if in fact they are able to exercise effective, forceful coercion of a population. Counterinsurgents, on the other hand, have the onus of a record of governance and, paradoxically, responsibility for the failure to prevent disruptions caused by insurgents. This fundamental asymmetry of public communication places a premium on the counterinsurgents' informational programs. Distinctively, it requires painstaking adherence in word and deed to high standards of restraint in the face of the insurgents' brazen taunting, calculated deception, and hard-to-refute assertions.

For both recommendations, the primary obstacles to success are the well-established bureaucratic standards that account, often beneficially, for the divisions of labor that exist in the first place. Large organizations work hard to establish their core professional jurisdictions and associated expertise. Hence, the virtues of expertise and efficiency that have made large civilian and military organizations the effective servants of society also can impede success in the domains, such as counterinsurgency, that fall uncomfortably across the seams of well-established organizational habit.


As President John F. Kennedy eloquently noted, "You [military professionals] must know something about strategy and tactics and logistics, but also economics and politics and diplomacy and history. You must know everything you can know about military power, and you must also understand the limits of military power. You must understand that few of the important problems of our time have . . . been finally solved by military power alone." Nowhere is this insight more relevant than in COIN. But it also runs into a conceptual dilemma that often bedevils Americans, the tendency toward simplistic association of particular organizations with particular categories of problems. The historical problem for the United States is the propensity to focus on counterinsurgency as a form of war and therefore to try to place it in the notionally discrete organizational inbox of our military establishment. But this is a mistake. Although all wars are complex political conflicts that defy exclusive reliance on any one element of national power, in countering an insurgency, the perils of over-reliance on the military in- strument are particularly pronounced.

As President Kennedy rightly counseled, military professionals are best prepared when they understand the nonmilitary aspects that define the full meaning of the national policy aims they serve. But civilian leaders have an attendant responsibility as well. They can never abdicate responsibility for war's ultimate aim in meeting national policy objectives with the full range of instruments derived from military and civilian capabilities. In a counterinsurgency, this stipulation requires a unity of effort that is uncommonly difficult to achieve. Enemies know this and constantly seek to exploit precisely such weakness. French Premier Georges Clemenceau noted in 1918 that "it is easier to do war than to do peace." But it is even harder in the midst of an insurgency to build the necessary foundations for peace when those organizations best capable of such feats, including the military, fear or fail to tread where they are needed. Neither military nor civilian efforts alone can succeed. Only comprehensive programs pursued through well-integrated military and civilian activities provide reasonable prospects of counterinsurgency success.

Page last updated Thu July 22nd, 2010 at 11:20