Insurgents, terrorists and militias: the warriors of contemporary combat
Richard H. Shultz Jr. and Andrea J. Dew-
- Editorial: Columbia University
As we all know, war has changed. In the 21st century it is dominated by irregular and unconventional ways of fighting. Al Qaeda demonstrated this on 9/11, and the bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are only further corroboration. War can no longer be waged effectively by conventional combat forces employed by modern militaries.
The Pentagon is just starting to catch up with these changes. It is in the midst of a strategic overhaul aimed at coming up with new ways to fight new wars. This was first signaled in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, which described the “long war” America is now engaged in as “a war that is irregular in its nature” against adversaries that “are not conventional military forces.”
More recently, two of the Pentagon’s smartest and most experienced generals, David Petraeus of the Army and Jim Mattis of the Marines, have overseen the production of a new counterinsurgency manual — called the FM 3-24/FMFM 3-24 in Pentagon-speak — for fighting these irregular wars. This blueprint declares that it is primarily for “leaders and planners at the battalion level and above” who are “involved in counterinsurgency operations regardless of where these operations may occur.”
The current draft of this counterinsurgency manual, which has been shown to civilian experts and been posted on the Internet by the Federation of American Scientists, provides an encyclopedic 241-page review of insurgencies that took place in the 20th century and an alphabetical list of the tools of counterinsurgency. The manual, which is still a work in progress, amounts to an introductory course in the history of insurgency and counterinsurgency.
But to be of practical use to American troops in fierce battles in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond, the final draft of the handbook must be more than a Counterinsurgency 101 exercise. It must, at a minimum, accurately identify the types of armed groups American troops will have to fight, which include more than traditional insurgents. It must also provide a framework for profiling the organization and operational tendencies of these armed groups, to learn their strengths and weaknesses. And it has to map out an intelligence model that will dig out actionable intelligence that can be used to find and defeat armed groups.
On all these critical requirements, the current draft of the manual comes up short. Based on our research and the lessons learned from centuries of counterinsurgency efforts, we recommend three major revisions for those drafting the final version.
First, you must know your enemy. In today’s internal wars several different types of armed groups — not just traditional insurgents bent on changing a national regime — engage in unconventional combat. Iraq is illustrative. Those fighting American forces include a complex mix of Sunni tribal militias, former regime members, foreign and domestic jihadists, Shiite militias and criminal gangs. Each has different motivations and ways of fighting. Tackling them requires customized strategies.
Unfortunately, well into 2005, the American military subsumed all these groups under the rubric “insurgents” and planned its strategy accordingly. It didn’t imagine or prepare for the possibility that former regime members had their own “day-after” plan to fight on even if they lost the conventional battle.
It didn’t imagine that Iraq would become a magnet for international jihadists, so it failed to seal the borders. It didn’t imagine the Sunni tribal militias would react with such violence to the American presence, so it failed to take the pre-emptive economic and political steps to address their grievances. And it failed to understand that there were radical elements within the Shiite community that would use force to try to establish a theocratic system.
These acute miscalculations gave those who seek to defeat us time to marshal their forces, and seriously undercut Washington’s overall efforts to stabilize Iraq.
The Pentagon’s new counterinsurgency manual suffers from similar flaws. It focuses almost exclusively on combating cohesive groups of insurgents who share the same goals. Yes, there are traditional insurgent groups in Iraq, like cells of former Baathists. But the foreign terrorists, religious militias and criminal organizations operate from very different playbooks. We have to learn to read them the way other nations faced with insurgencies have.
Consider the British experience during the 1980’s and 90’s in Northern Ireland. By working hand-in-glove with the Special Branch of the local police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, British intelligence agents penetrated the ranks of the Irish Republican Army, eventually capturing and incarcerating a legion of its leaders and operatives.
A former top-ranking I.R.A. commander who later became an informer told us that, when he was imprisoned with higher-ranking I.R.A. officials, they lamented over and over that the British strategy was so effective and their ranks were so depleted by the end of the 1980’s that “the boys can’t move, can’t operate, always have to be looking over their shoulders.” As a result, Britain was able to negotiate a relatively successful end to hostilities and to contain most of the splinter groups that refused to abide by it.
The Pentagon’s amended manual should spell out similar ways of intuiting the organizational and operational differences that can exist between and within insurgent armies, terrorist outfits, militias, and criminal groups. It should also give a better history of how such organizations have collaborated and factionalized over the years in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia and elsewhere.
Second, the final manual must provide our troops with a systematic way of “profiling” each specific armed group. As it stands, the guide is a laundry list of the generic elements of insurgency movements — leadership, organization and networks, popular support, ideology, activities and foreign support.
Meeting and defeating terrorist groups requires a far deeper understanding of their factions — and the exploitation of the rifts between them. Consider how such profiling led to the demise of the Abu Nidal organization, which 20 years ago was the world’s most lethal terrorist group.
As it reached its peak strength, the organization began to experience serious fissures among its leaders. Several key members felt that Abu Nidal himself was siphoning off funds. He in turn accused them of plotting to assassinate him. Eventually he had some 300 hard-core leaders and operatives gunned down or otherwise dispatched. By the early 1990’s, the group had been effectively neutered.
How did this come about? In part because American and other Western intelligence agencies — with the help of local Arab intelligence services who were able to get operatives close to key members of the group and spread paranoia and suspicion — successfully grasped and manipulated factional rivalries.
A key for America should have been to get such information about schisms and unhappiness inside the insurgent groups we face, particularly in their formative stages when they were most vulnerable. Many former insurgent and terrorist leaders we have interviewed — hardened veterans of late 20th-century armed groups from Central America, southern Africa and Europe — told us that their vulnerabilities and factional strife were most blatant in their groups’ early years and could have been exploited if security agencies had looked for them.
THE third problem with the manual is that it actually overstresses winning “hearts and minds” — the political, economic, civic and other “soft power” tactics aimed at winning popular support. Yes, such steps are keys to victory; they played a central part in counterinsurgency victories in the 1950’s by the Philippine government of Ramón Magsaysay and by the British in Malaya. In both places, the government invested heavily in education, local economies, public works and social welfare programs to wean their populations away from the insurgents.
But soft power tactics are not the only keys to victory. An insurgency is still war, and the key is finding and capturing or killing terrorist and militia leaders. It is an intelligence-led struggle. The Pentagon manual rightly insists that “intelligence drives operations” and that “without good intelligence, a counterinsurgent is like a blind boxer.” Yet the document provides no organizational blueprint for collecting such intelligence.
We have to take a lesson from other democracies that have figured out how to neutralize and defuse armed groups. The British and the Israelis, among others, have refined an effective intelligence model through bloody trial and error. It involves collecting actionable intelligence at the local level on a continual basis.
Consider the Israeli experience. After the 1967 war it built up a remarkable intelligence-gathering system in the West Bank and Gaza. But after the Oslo accords of 1993 it gave up this advantage and withdrew.
However, when the second intifada erupted in late 2000 and Israeli casualties mounted, the Israelis went back to work. They honeycombed the territories with local intelligence units that infiltrated Palestinian armed groups through agents, electronic surveillance and paid informants. It was not easy, but they did it, and their intelligence successes contributed to the Palestinian Authority’s gradual de-emphasis of terrorist acts in favor of political initiatives, and even led Hamas to engage in the cease-fire that held until the current crisis.
The British and the Israelis have the blueprints for successful intelligence architecture. This is a key counterinsurgency tool that must be included in the final version of the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency manual. Otherwise, the various anti-American groups in Iraq will continue to own the streets and back alleyways of Ramadi, Falluja and other battlegrounds. And the longer they do, the more likely their dream — to inflict a strategic defeat on America — will seem possible.
Especial: 11-S. Operación global contra el terrorismo: El análisis de los profesionales
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