Monday, January 15, 2007

Reading :: Counterinsurgency

By David H. Petraeus and James F. Amos

Published in December 2006, the US Armed Forces Counterinsurgency Manual is meant to provide an updated field manual for counterinsurgency operations. Coauthored by Major General David Petraeus, who is about to take over as commander in Iraq, the manual was clearly written with recent events in Afghanistan and Iraq in mind. As the authors say in the Foreword:
A counterinsurgency campaign is, as described in this manual, a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations conducted along multiple lines of operations. It requires Soldiers and Marines to employ a mix of familiar combat tasks and skills more often associated with nonmilitary agencies.
And, strikingly: "Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation builders as well as soldiers." Clearly this manual, which is publicly available and surely politically vetted, reflects the huge changes that have taken place since then-Gov. Bush declared in the 2000 campaign that the armed forces should not be nation-builders. Now, according to the manual, the armed forces must do many things that they have not traditionally done, including controlling the messages and narratives that circulate in and about the occupied territory. And that's what really interests me about the manual: in counterinsurgency (COIN), rhetoric is a central concern -- although not under that name -- and rhetorical concerns are integrated thoroughly into all aspects of the manual.

Of course, a field manual that is released onto the Internet for anyone to read is obviously going to be part of that effort as well. So of course the manual stresses persuasion, message, and narrative in terms of honesty and truth, not in terms of propaganda. This is probably a sanitized version. Nevertheless, it's still a legitimate, widely used document, and therefore useful for understanding counterinsurgency in general and current events in Iraq in particular.

So let's look at the rhetorical aspects of the manual. (If you want a military strategist's take on it, Ralph Peters' review was recommended to me.) We'll start by defining counterinsurgency:
Joint doctrine defines an insurgency as an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict (JP 1-02). Stated another way, an insurgency is an organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power, or other political authority while increasing insurgent control. Counterinsurgency is military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency (JP 1- 02).
Notice that insurgency and counterinsurgency are both related to establishing and weakening legitimacy, and this is done in a variety of ways, including violence but also charity, public works, and information control. In fact,
The information environment is a critical dimension of such internal wars, and insurgents attempt to shape it to their advantage. One way they do this is by carrying out activities, such as suicide attacks, that may have little military value but create fear and uncertainty within the populace and government institutions. These actions are executed to attract high-profile media coverage or local publicity and inflate perceptions of insurgent capabilities. Resulting stories often include insurgent fabrications designed to undermine the government’s legitimacy. (p.1-3)
And, grimly, the authors continue:
Insurgents have an additional advantage in shaping the information environment. Counterinsurgents seeking to preserve legitimacy must stick to the truth and make sure that words are backed up by deeds; insurgents, on the other hand, can make exorbitant promises and point out government shortcomings, many caused or aggravated by the insurgency. Ironically, as insurgents achieve more success and begin to control larger portions of the populace, many of these asymmetries diminish. That may produce new vulnerabilities that adaptive counterinsurgents can exploit. (p.1-3)
So the authors detail a variety of ways that either side can use to mobilize popular support, including persuasion, coercion, reaction to abuses, foreign support, and apolitical motivations (p.1-8). Each of these is methodically explored in the manual. For instance, the authors go to some length on how insurgencies are typically oriented around ideologies expressed through a narrative, "an organizational scheme expressed in story form" (p.1-14), and discuss how to destabilize these narratives while constructing other narratives to serve the counterinsurgency. Cultural and social aspects are discussed as well (and the manual has an entire appendix on social network analysis).

Intelligence is of course important to counterinsurgency, so the authors look at a variety of intelligence sources, including "open source intelligence [, which] is information of potential intelligence value that is available to the general public" (p.3-2), as well as standards such as signals intelligence.

In Chapter 4, the authors talk about designing counterinsurgency campaigns and operations. I was interested to see that they actually include a case study of iterative design (p.4-7), with a methodology that bears some resemblance to those we use in interface design, but for a very different purpose.

But back to rhetoric. In Chapter 5, the authors provide a lengthy discussion of how to conduct information operations, including advice such as "choose words carefully"; "publicize insurgent violence and the use of terror to discredit the insurgency"; "admit mistakes ... quickly"; and "highlight successes of the host-nation government and counterinsurgents promptly" (p.5-9). These guidelines are each accompanied by a paragraph of description elaborating on how they interact with other aspects of the counterinsurgency operation. That is, they're not just good rules of thumb, they're integrated into a larger operational design. And they must be broadly disseminated because, as Chapter 7 argues, leadership has to be distributed at lower levels than is typically the case in order for counterinsurgency forces to react swiftly. (For more on this separation of command and control, see my review of Alberts and Hayes' Power to the Edge.) In counterinsurgency, that is, every unit is a rhetor and every action is evidence that builds the case for the government's legitimacy and the insurgency's illegitimacy. Counterinsurgency is a legal and political argument made to the populace.

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