Features | Security | Southeast Asia

What COIN Teaches Thailand

The Thai Red Shirts have the hallmarks of an insurgency. Does a book written by David Petraeus show how to resolve the issue?

By Fuadi Pitsuwan for

The Thai government is preparing to launch a national reconciliation process after the most violent and divisive political confrontation in recent memory came to a head last month. But some key questions have so far been left unanswered. Is the country facing a terrorist threat? Is there a risk of a popular uprising or insurgency? These aren’t academic questions—they need to be answered if Thailand’s leaders are to have any hope of finding the right prescription for the country’s political malaise.

I spoke recently with a Thai Special Forces officer who told me that the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual is actually a good place to start thinking about the situation in his country. The book, penned mostly by US Gen. David Petraeus and US Gen. James Amos, draws on the views of academics, lawyers, human rights activists and journalists. Petraeus, just nominated to succeed Gen. Stanley McChrystal as head of US forces in Afghanistan, was commander of the US forces in Iraq during the so-called surge in 2007, and beta-tested the doctrine with impressive results. Indeed, he’s expected to continue implementing the counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan.

The officer has a point. The scenarios outlined in the Field Manual contain some striking parallels with what has happened in Thailand over the past couple of months, and while it would be a stretch to describe the Red Shirt movement as a full-blown insurgency, as the Islamist militants in the south of the country are usually described, there’s still plenty of food for thought.

The Manual defines an insurgency as an organized movement ‘aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict.’ A common view of insurgencies is that they’re a struggle to break away from the government with a view to forming an autonomous identity. But the Manual argues that this isn’t necessarily the case, and that overthrowing the existing social order within a single state is enough to warrant the insurgency label.

The Manual adds that an insurgent organization normally consists of five elements: Leadership, Combatants, Political Cadre, Auxiliaries and Mass base. Leadership is essentially those providing strategic guidance to the insurgency, and they typically secure this status through sheer force of personality. Combatants are those who actually engage in battle with the authorities, and in doing so provide security for the movement. Political Cadres drive the political agenda of the insurgency, and execute the leadership’s plans, while Auxiliaries provide general support but don’t actually engage in combat (they instead run safe houses, store weapons and provide supplies and other logistical needs). The Mass base is the supporting populace of the insurgent movement.

The parallels with Thai politics are clear, and the Red Shirt movement undoubtedly fits the definition of an insurgency—it has elements of an organized armed struggle aimed at bringing down the government, while any follower of the Thai political crisis could easily identify the leadership, combatants, political cadre, auxiliaries and mass base.

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So if this is indeed an insurgency, what is its strategy? Here, the Manual points to Mao Zedong’s three-phased theory of protracted war as an example of what an effective insurgent strategy should be. The first phase is dubbed ‘strategic defensive,’ when the insurgency mobilizes the masses while using subversive techniques to try and foster resentment among its supporters toward the government. This is also the stage at which the insurgency seeks to develop financial sources and external support. Meanwhile, local political leaders are recruited who infiltrate government organizations and civic groups.

The second phase is ‘strategic stalemate,’ and marks the first overt guerrilla warfare as the insurgency also ramps up its propaganda and openly challenges the control and legitimacy of the government. It’s only at this stage that a movement is created that could offer an alternative authority capable of filling in gaps of governance that the central government is either unwilling or unable to fill.

The last phase, ‘strategic counteroffensive,’ occurs when the force of the insurgency actually becomes greater than the established authority, with guerrilla warfare transitioning into conventional warfare as the insurgency seeks to dislodge all government authorities. Success at this phase precipitates a government collapse.

So by Mao’s reckoning, where is the Red Shirt movement now? The officer I spoke with said the current situation is still swinging between the first and second phases—the Red Shirts may have laid the groundwork for sustained guerrilla warfare, but have yet to assume a governing role in many communities, even in those where it they have significant support.

If this really is an insurgent movement as defined by COIN, then it raises the question of how best the COIN doctrine could be employed to tackle it. Of course there’s only so much usefulness in this approach. The Field Manual was, after all, written for US forces, and as all politics are local, any effort by the government and military to reach out and secure the support of the population (a point some analysts say is crucial) must take account of the very specific grievances among different communities.

This adds to what Petraeus and Amos describe as an already ‘extremely complex form of warfare. At its core, COIN is a struggle for the population’s support. The protection, welfare and support of the people are vital to success. Gaining and maintaining that support is a formidable challenge.’

In any COIN operation, they note, the authorities will deal with an active minority supporting the government, while a similarly small number of militants will actively oppose it. There is, however, a neutral or passive majority, and it’s this base—the ‘uncommitted middle’—that the authorities need to win over.

The use of force may be necessary, but soldiers will need non-military skills more than military ones, and they will have to be prepared, in the generals’ words, to ‘be greeted with either a handshake or a hand grenade.’ This means soldiers will need to be adept at engaging the public to build trust and work with other law enforcement agencies to provide security to the public. Force should only be applied sparingly, and the authorities must reach out and get involved in the economic and infrastructure development. When the need to use force arises, the authorities ‘should calculate carefully the type and amount of force to be applied and who wields it for any operation’ to avoid collateral damage, which creates fertile ground for recruitment of more insurgents.

The Manual also notes, in a point that will be painfully familiar to US forces operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, that insurgents will often employ terrorist tactics aimed at luring authorities into overreacting, such as engaging in clearing operations that ‘create more enemies than (they) take off the streets’. As Petraeus and Amos note: ‘Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.’

Indeed as human rights specialist Sarah Sewell, who contributed to the Manual, notes: ‘Counterinsurgency can bring out the worst in the best regular armies. Even when COIN forces explicitly reject insurgent tactics, they often come to imitate them. In particular, the insurgents’ invisibility often tempts counterinsurgents to erase the all-important distinctions between combatants and non-combatants.’

All this raises the question of whether the Red Shirt movement could become the establishment in its own right and play a governing role in the northeast and north of the country where it has popular support. And, if it really is building a force with a view to escalating its struggle to conventional warfare, or if the southern insurgents collaborate with the brewing insurgents elsewhere in Thailand, will the government be found to have failed to attract and maintain this crucial neutral and passive majority?

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A possible indicator of the government’s approach came with its decision to brand some Red Shirt protesters as ‘terrorists,’ suggesting counter-terrorism measures will be used to address the situation. While both COIN and counter-terrorism can go hand in hand, counter-terrorism only focuses on how to deter and prevent terrorist acts and doesn’t place strong value in solving the conflict—an approach that goes right to the core of COIN. Given that the Red Shirt protesters are seeking to dislodge the government through various means, not just violence, insurgents seems like a better label than terrorists.

Yet explicitly recognizing the movement as an insurgency is not without its risks. In practical terms, there simply isn’t a word in the Thai language that properly captures the nuances of insurgency, and trying to do so would anyway be a sensitive issue in a country where divisions between the government supporting Yellow Shirts and anti-government Red Shirts are so inflamed.

But regardless of the label that is chosen, the authorities should be focusing on COIN. And the Thai authorities actually have their own manual from which to draw from—the Royal Thai Army’s COIN manual was instrumental during the struggle against the communist threat that ended in the early 1990s. Of course, that manual is about four decades old and looks outdated at a time when talk of terrorism is the rage and the label of terrorist is wheeled out by authorities hoping to evoke a certain public sentiment. But the problem is that in using this label, the authorities fail to allow themselves the flexibility to distinguish between terrorist actions and terrorist intent.

Defining what they are dealing with and getting that definition correct, while at the same time remaining flexible, is the Thai government and military’s immediate and most important task before they embark on a plan for resolving the conflict.

The current strife in Afghanistan, and talk about how the Afghan war is being lost, such as that today in The Economist, could be taken as evidence that there’s no place for COIN in the Thai government’s strategy for tackling the Red Shirt challenge. But the problems in Afghanistan stem from broken US civil-military relations in Washington and Kabul, not from fundamental flaws in the COIN doctrine. In addition, the fact that the US operation by its very nature involves a foreign ‘intruder’ trying to convince locals to come onside demonstrates the problem in ruling out a role for COIN in Thailand.

If Thai civilian and military leaders are able to work in relative harmony, an adapted COIN strategy aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the Thai people would eventually ease the current tensions and pave the way for a lasting reconciliation. This will of course first require correctly defining what the Red Shirt movement is, but COIN still offers the best chance for stability. Indeed, if successful, the lessons from tackling the Red Shirt issue could even be drawn upon and applied to the decades-old—and far deadlier—Islamist separatist insurgency raging in the south of the country.

Fuadi Pitsuwan is an adjunct research scholar at Georgetown University's Asian Studies Department and an associate at The Cohen Group, a Washington-based strategic advisory firm headed by former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen. The views expressed are his own and not connected to his affiliations.