Attacking Insurgent Space: Sanctuary Denial
and Border Interdiction
Denying insurgents operating space attacks
is one of the triad of options in irregular warfare (the other two
being time and will) that weaker actors employ to take on the strong.
Porous borders and spaces for sanctuary, which provide operating
space, can prolong an insurgency if the counterinsurgent ignores
them or handles them insufficiently. In Afghanistan, while the security
line of operation has been effective in enabling friendly social
and political processes to proceed, the number one operational dilemma
remains the enemy's ability to operate in "ungoverned space"
throughout the Pakistani Federally Administered Tribal Area and
portions of Baluchistan and to cross the border into Afghanistan
whenever he chooses.2 In Iraq, the issue
is not so much the sanctuary afforded by Syria and Iran in the classic
sense (providing insurgents safe areas for base camps, reconstitution,
recruitment, and training), but porous borders that offer insurgents
lines of communication, temporary escape, and transnational transit.
This article provides advice about how to attack
insurgents in their sanctuaries. It also suggests measures for conducting
effective border interdiction. For this study, insurgent sanctuary
is defined as an area in a contiguous nation-state used by insurgents
for basing and support (versus such in-country sanctuaries as urban
areas, rugged terrain, and sympathetic populations). When insurgents
enjoy sanctuary, they can become either a persistent irritant to
counterinsurgents, or an operational-level problem.
Conventional wisdom says that to win, insurgents
must gain both internal and external support for their effort. While
the target native population can provide a certain level of assistance,
mostly intelligence and warning, immediate logistical needs, and
temporary safe haven, insurgents face a real challenge if they are
cut off from the normal amenities and access to safe venues in which
they can rest, refit, and plan. Sanctuary gives the insurgent all
that and more: it effectively allows him to neutralize the superior
technology, arms, and training of counterinsurgent forces.3
At the same time, insurgent fighters can profit from the physical
and moral support of the host-nation government and the local populace
inside the sanctuary while their leaders conduct an active, unhindered
public relations and information operations campaign to legitimize
their cause and build support for it. Criminal activity in or near
the sanctuary can also work to the insurgents' benefit. Insurgents
can get financial and technological support from criminals in exchange
for protection, or use smuggling routes as lines of communication.
Historically, insurgents who have obtained
sources of supply and sanctuary and who have operated in favorably
rugged terrain have been very difficult to defeat. Conversely, insurgents
who did not enjoy sanctuary tended to fail, at least in the security
line of operation.
If the advantages of sanctuary and access to
border transit are critical to the insurgency, then the sanctuary
becomes a center of gravity to be attacked. Insurgents in sanctuary
are inherently vulnerable because the government they establish
within the sanctuary will automatically threaten their host's sovereignty.
Other vulnerabilities include the support they need from the local
populace, their sources of supply, and their base defense systems.
Insurgents must conduct a fine balancing act to protect all of these
vulnerabilities, but their challenge to the host government's authority
could be their biggest problem.
In a sense, insurgents hand us a gift when
they establish sanctuaries and base camps. Most insurgencies are
fought on "human terrain," offering few instances when
the counterinsurgent can actually find, fix, and fight the enemy.
But when the enemy seeks sanctuary, engagement becomes possible.
Once we have located and defined the sanctuary area, we can focus
our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets
on it and then, in at least some instances, our combat power. We
would be negligent if we didn't force insurgents to earn their pay
when they congregated and surfaced. Of course, attacking them in
their host-nation sanctuary will require synchronization of military
and other government agencies' capabilities at the operational level
and higher, to ensure that kinetic actions do not result in defeats
in the international court of public opinion.
Insurgents can also be attacked physically
when they attempt to enter and leave their sanctuary. They generally
do not own their own air transport, so they must transit the sanctuary
and contiguous border on foot, mounted on animals, or by a variety
of automotive means. At some point, they must physically cross the
line demarcating the border. With artful intelligence, we should
be able to pinpoint where those lines of transit and crossing points
are. This can be accomplished using a combination of human and electronic
The third opportunity insurgent sanctuary offers
lies on the friendly side of the border. Insurgents in transit require
the same necessities as our own soldiers-food, rest, medical support,
supplies, access to logistical needs (transport, communications,
and weapons), physical security-as they move from sanctuary back
into their operational areas. Groups or locations offering these
various kinds of support must communicate with one another, and
when they do they provide an additional vulnerability for exploitation.
Conducting a good intelligence preparation of the battlefield on
friendly border areas can yield information on routes of transit,
illegal activities flow, supportive populations, rest areas, and
possible medical facilities, which can then be targeted or surveilled.
Additionally, using such information, analysts can estimate just
how far insurgents might travel in one- or two-day increments via
their assorted transport modes. The possibility of interdiction
can thus be heightened.
If insurgents have sanctuary, counterinsurgents
must combine a myriad of techniques to win. They must use diplomacy
to pressure governments hosting insurgents, conduct combined maneuver
with cross-border host-nation security forces, emplace physical
or virtual barriers, provide for support and integration of customs
and border policing actions, and execute raids into insurgent safe
havens. All of these things must be done within the architecture
of an effects-based plan.
We continue to look for measures of effectiveness
(MOE) in counterinsurgency. At the tactical level, this endeavor
is fairly easy because counterinsurgents can quickly identify what
works or does not work, and so measure their progress. But when
we try to achieve operational-level effects, MOEs become a bit fuzzier,
primarily due to many intangibles (for example, the protracted nature
of an insurgency, or the human-terrain dimension). Sanctuary denial
and border interdiction, though, are two cases of operational maneuver
with which the counterinsurgent can seek an effect and hope to achieve
measurable results. The means to solve operational-level problems
should be effects-based; that is, they should involve getting the
enemy to do your bidding while simultaneously attacking to prevent
him from accomplishing his goals. We can keep insurgents from protracting
the nature of the insurgency if they decide it costs them more to
operate from sanctuary than it benefits them.4
Preparing the battlefield. Achieving the effect
desired-denial, disruption, interdiction, influence-begins with
a careful analysis of the physical nature of the sanctuary and border
area. Technology is useful here, particularly 3D terrain-analysis
tools combined with space products (to map foliage, hydrography,
habitats, movement patterns, weather patterns). Such analysis can
assess the terrain to identify likely areas of habitation and potential
lines of communication. Overlaid on top of this product should be
the lines of criminality and commerce. Finally, a demographic and
cultural analysis can be added to complete the picture and determine
where insurgents might hide and operate.
The next step is to introduce various ISR methods
to confirm the analysis. Physical reconnaissance and emplacement
of human or technological surveillance in suspected areas of operation
are particularly effective for assessing insurgents' actual use
of identified areas of interest. Efforts to verify collection and
analysis might include cross-border reconnaissance operations within
the enemy sanctuary. One caveat seems necessary here: insurgents
will always be more familiar with their sanctuary and lines of communication,
so counterinsurgents must remain patient to gain a commensurate
level of knowledge.
After conducting thorough analysis and identifying
the tools at hand, the third step for the coin strategist is to
design a mini-campaign. A variety of methods exist to deny, disrupt,
interdict, or influence, but a combination of options-a mosaic-like
application of methods-will provide the synergy to attain the desired
Attack by the host. The best strategy to attack
sanctuaries and porous borders is to get the host nation (which
may be providing tacit support) to conduct operations and dry up
support for insurgents in sanctuary areas. Diplomacy will likely
be the means to pressure an otherwise uncooperative host into action.
The host-nation security forces then conduct operations within the
sanctuary while employing measures to control their borders. In
both cases, indigenous operations are much preferred to those conducted
by foreign forces, contracted security, or proxies. Host-nation
governmental measures are also needed to turn the ungoverned space
that makes sanctuaries possible into governed space. At the same
time, the host nation government must get at the roots of the populace's
active or passive support of insurgents by engaging with the network
of local political, religious, tribal, or ethnic leaders. The host
nation must also diminish, or provide alternatives to, the criminal
enterprises within the sanctuary and problem border areas. Cleaning
up these areas will pave the way for the introduction of nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs) into the area-and NGOs can be a significant
factor in helping to reduce the negative conditions that make sanctuaries
In its attempt to police sanctuary and border
areas, the host government may even resort to its own form of unconventional
warfare. Whatever the means adopted, counterinsurgents assist the
effort by conducting complementary operations on the other side
of the border; for example, they might move to interdict insurgents
attempting to flee the besieged sanctuary.
Attack the sanctuary. The second measure to
deny sanctuary requires physical operations in the insurgent base
area with military, paramilitary, or fake guerrilla forces, all
achieving the best effect when tailored hunter-killer teams are
deployed. These typically long-range, long-duration operations depend
greatly on intelligence and stealth. Again, using indigenous forces
familiar with the terrain and area tends to lead to bigger payoffs.
Rules of engagement need careful crafting for these strikes, to
ensure there are mechanisms to govern "hot pursuit."
The French were particularly successful during
the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) with direct kinetic
operations against insurgent Armee de Liberation Nationale (ALN)
sanctuaries in Tunisia and Morocco. They employed special tracking
teams to hunt down ALN units in the sanctuary areas, and they specifically
targeted enemy leadership there in an attempt to cut off the insurgents'
head. By combining these operations with ruses (such as setting
up fake guerrilla organizations to confuse the real guerrillas and
even sow dissension among them) and by skillfully using traitors
to lure insurgents, they destroyed the enemy where he lived.
During the Vietnam War, the Military Assistance
Command-Vietnam studies and Observation group achieved similar successes.
Small indigenous raider forces, ably led by special operations leaders,
conducted a variety of missions in Laos and Cambodia to identify,
disrupt, and destroy enemy infrastructure. These teams also emplaced
sensors and acted as forward observers for air interdiction, thus
enhancing their utility.
Attack the border. The third option for defeating
an enemy using sanctuary is to interdict the border by emplacing
a barrier system. This operation can yield the highest payoff of
the three options. When combined with sensor technology and counter-mobility
measures, barriers have always been effective against insurgents.
Barriers should be backed up in depth with hedgehogs for fortifications,
each garrisoned by reaction forces that intercept insurgents who
somehow penetrate the barrier. The fortifications don't have to
be continuous; they can be reinforced by flying checkpoints and
The axiom that the counterinsurgent must be
as mobile as, or more mobile than, the insurgent certainly applies
in this operation. Ground mobility for reaction forces can be enhanced
by building roads or trails throughout the interdiction-and-denial
area. Air mobility-especially helicopters, but also short-takeoff-and-landing
aircraft and long-loiter piston planes-can greatly assist the reaction
Another option in the barrier-fortification
area is to employ unmanned Aerial Vehicles (uavs), which are becoming
increasingly less expensive and more effective. UAVs can monitor
open areas and detect insurgent breaches where counterinsurgent
forces are stretched thin. There is a caveat about air assets, however:
although air interdiction of sanctuary and border areas can contribute
to achieving the effects desired, by itself it has not proven to
be highly effective. Therefore, the counterinsurgent's best practice
is to synchronize air with other assets.
In setting up and executing a border interdiction
campaign, the counterinsurgent can increase his chances of success
by enacting population control measures. Such tactics as clearing
the population from zones along the border are perhaps extreme,
but they can flush out the insurgents (by drying up the sea-the
populace-in which they hide and swim) while permitting counterinsurgent
forces to use combat power without fear of hitting noncombatants.
The French in Algeria. Two of the best barrier
systems ever used to interdict insurgents were employed by the French
in Algeria. Once it recognized that the ALN had sanctuaries (complete
with barracks, training areas, and medical facilities) in Tunisia
and Morocco, the French Army emplaced barriers, zones of interdiction,
depopulated the zones, and deployed border maneuver forces to seal
off the borders and interdict infiltrators.
The French built the Morice Line along the
Tunisian border and the smaller Pedron Line along the Moroccan border.
These barrages consisted of hundreds of miles of wire fences Augmented
with lights and minefields; over 40,000 troops were assigned to
static posts near the barrier. Garrisoned in blockhouses and camps,
these troops were backed up by roving patrols and mobile reaction
forces. Naval radar technical units were also employed, to detect
insurgents and to provide counter-mortar capabilities. All told,
French interdiction efforts along the borders and the coast effectively
shut down any infiltration by the insurgents and resulted in the
isolation of over 30,000 ALN fighters.
Vietnam and McNamara's Line. Critics might
point to the ineffective McNamara Line, built by then-secretary
of Defense Robert S. McNamara during the Vietnam War to stem North
Vietnamese infiltration southward, as evidence that barriers or
barrier systems are impractical. This criticism misses the mark,
though. Like the Morice and Pedron Lines, the McNamara Line was
characterized by physical measures (barriers, outposts, and reinforcing
bases), but it was also supposed to have sensors as part of the
barrier array. Due to manufacturing problems, the sensor portion
of the barrier system was never emplaced, thus creating holes in
the Line's detection capability. Ultimately, the same technology
was deployed around the Marine base at Khe Sanh, where it proved
to be extremely effective.5
Regular border policing. Good governance at
the border by the friendly government will buttress counterinsurgent
efforts to create an effective border interdiction plan. One of
the counterinsurgent's logical lines of operation is "legitimacy
or the establishment of governmental institutions." Within
this line, consideration must be given to financing and facilitating
border security mechanisms (such as border patrols) and the associated
customs activities all states employ as signs of their sovereignty.
Early on, nation-builders must establish means to restrict the flow
of human traffic and trade to key points along the border. Doing
so will ultimately enhance the possibility of foiling criminal actions
and interdicting insurgents. Technology at key locations can assist
in the detection and removal of resources destined for transit deeper
within the friendly country's borders. By covering dead space in
the crossing area, roving border guards and patrols can deter insurgent
efforts to merely bypass any checkpoints.
Tunnels. While all the measures described above
are surface operations, care should also be given to detecting underground
penetration via tunneling (as we have seen along the southern U.S.
border and in the Demilitarized Zone between the Koreas). Finally,
just as in the more purely military barrier-interdiction operation,
a robust reaction force should be stationed within striking distance
of border checkpoints and along suspected transit routes. With enhanced
mobility, these forces could react quickly to situations that might
overwhelm government border-security forces.
Recent border operations. A successful example
of border operations occurred in Iraq in September 2005, when the
Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, sealed the northern border
with Syria to prevent the infiltration of foreign fighters into
his country. Measures taken by al-Jaafari's Interior Ministry included
shutting down foot and vehicular traffic (although railway lines
of commerce remained open), imposing a curfew in towns near the
vicinity of the border post, and conducting combined cordon-and-search
operations on the friendly side of the border to root out infiltrators.
Predictably, Syria did not assist in these efforts. Had it done
so, it would have contributed immensely to the operation's success.6
Allowing insurgents untrammeled use of sanctuary
and the freedom to cross borders enables them to sustain and prolong
their rebellion. Whether sanctuaries are permitted willingly or
unwittingly by the host nation should not deter the counterinsurgent
from attacking, either kinetically or along other security lines
of operation. Counterinsurgents do not have to destroy the sanctuary;
they can also succeed by disrupting or denying sanctuary and free
border transit. When they do the latter, they can seize the initiative
from the insurgent and dictate the tempo of combat.
The path to a successful counter-sanctuary
campaign lies through the conduct of a well-planned effects-based
offensive designed to achieve desired outcomes. Such a campaign
must be executed with tailored forces conducting parallel attacks
in concert with other lines of operation. This multi-pronged approach
will strip away the advantages the enemy gains by hiding behind
another country's border; it can turn the sanctuary and the remote
border area from a temporary resting spot for insurgents into a
final one. In the end, the message is clear: to dry up the insurgency,
dry up the sanctuary.
1. Michael a. Sheehan, "Diplomacy,"
in Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand StratEgy, ed. Audrey
K. Cronin and James M. Ludes (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University
Press, 2004), 99.
2. The weakness Pakistan's
government has shown in granting autonomy to tribes along the Afghan
border has inadvertently created a lawless area, an "ungoverned
space" ripe for insurgent sanctuary. Moreover, with a pre-Taliban-era
insurgency still festering in Baluchistan, that area appears to
be al-Qaeda's and the Taliban's new base from which to conduct attacks
into southern Afghanistan (see Tarique Niazi, "Baluchistan
in the Shadow of al-Qaeda," Terrorism Monitor iv, 4 (23 February
3. For good contemporary
discussions of sanctuary, its benefits, the complications it poses
counterinsurgents, and related issues, see Bard E. O'Neill, Insurgency
& Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare, Chapter 4
("The Environment") (Dulles, VA: Brassey's Inc., 1990);
Robert Taber, War of the Flea: The Classic Study Notes of Guerrilla
Warfare (Dulles, Va: Brassey's, Inc., 2002); and Anthony James Joes,
Resisting Rebellion: The History and Politics of Counterinsurgency,
Chapter 17 ("Elements of a Counterinsurgent StratEgy"),
(Lexington, Ky: the University Press of Kentucky, 2004).
4. Barry r. Schneider
and Lawrence E. Grinter, eds., Battlefield of the Future: 21st Century
Warfare Issues (Maxwell Air Force Base, Air University Press, 1998).
Key readings on effects-based war and parallel attack can be found
in Chapter 4, Colonel John A. Warden III's treatise on "Air
theory for the twenty-first century," and Chapter 5, Colonel
Richard Szafranski's essay "Parallel war and Hyperwar."
5. Peter Brush, "the
Story Behind the McNamara line," Vietnam Magazine (February
6. Jacob Silberberg,
"Iraq seals Syrian border; Tall Afar sweep resumes," Denver
Post, 11 September 2005, 2a.
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