James Holmes

4 Tenets of Fighting Insurgents

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James Holmes

4 Tenets of Fighting Insurgents

“If you want excellent generals, admirals, and senior enlisted tomorrow, then, loosen the reins today.”

Providence has blessed the Naval Diplomat with a series of great and powerful mentors, them Professor Dick Shultz of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Professor Shultz — I'm congenitally unable to call my former professors by their given names — is a specialist in the dark arts of intelligence, covert operations, and counterinsurgent warfare. He recently came out with a book titled The Marines Take Anbar, detailing how U.S. Marines deployed to Iraq's Wild West, Anbar Province, forged alliances with tribal leaders to battle the common foe: al Qaeda. Check it out. Herewith, my top four takeaways from the book:

4. Numbers matter … if you use them right. Shultz points out that the marines started taming the insurgency in the Sunni triangle of western Iraq during the grim days of 2006, well before the Bush administration commenced the troop surge that put more boots on the ground. The surge was about numbers, to be sure. But it was mostly about embracing methods meant to separate evildoers from the Iraqi populace, their chief source of supplies and concealment, while laying the groundwork for a more humane society. Throwing manpower and materiel at problems may be the American way, but it seldom works when done willy-nilly. How you do things counts.

3. Know your allies … as well as yourself and the enemy. Sun Tzu famously counseled commanders and sovereigns to know themselves and enemies before embarking on an enterprise as perilous as war. To do otherwise courts disaster. Similarly, Shultz details how the marines rejected the haughty attitude toward the tribes that emanated from the coalition leadership in Baghdad. Top officials saw them as an inert if not retrograde force. Marine commanders, by contrast, regarded Sunni tribesmen as partners in a common cause, learned the virtues they prized, and discovered common cultural ground between the tribes and the Marine Corps (a fiercely independent tribe in itself). You needn't like your allies, necessarily, but you do need to glean some idea of what makes them tick. Nor will a measure of respect go amiss. Diplomacy depends on empathy, a virtue that's just as critical when working alongside some tribal potentate as it is when conferring with presidents or prime ministers.

2. Centralize control … decentralize execution. And who's most likely to acquaint themselves with the local culture and forge cordial working relationships? Officials hunkered down in the Green Zone in Baghdad, remote from the fighting and civil pacification? Hardly. Shultz makes the case for pushing authority down to commanders on the scene, who know their surroundings best, provided they get out among the people. This is a lesson that comes through in Brian Linn's history of the Philippine War as well. Letting local commanders determine the pace and sequence at which combat and nation-building proceed imparts a variegated, patchwork quality to counterinsurgencies. Some provinces progress faster than others. Yet the uneven approach is also the one that holds the greatest promise in an archipelago like the Philippine Islands or a fragmented desert state like Iraq.

1. The rules are … there ain't no rules. Speaking of which, there's an artificial character to discourses over counterinsurgent strategy. Protagonists to these debates seemingly envision a checklist commanders can whip out when the nation interposes itself in a people's war. Run the checklist and victory is yours! The two dominant schools of thought accentuate an enemy-centric and a population-centric approach to this wicked problem. Crudely speaking, the one school says whup the guys in the black hats first, while the other says concentrate on winning popular allegiance for the national government you're backing.

The debate can get venomous — needlessly so. Don't you have to do both, and can't the sequence differ from conflict to conflict? Admiral Wylie notes that there are four basic types of warfare: land, sea, air, and insurgent. Would anyone argue that there's a single best way to win a war on the ground, on the briny main, or in the wild blue yonder? I doubt it.

So why assume we can compile an algorithm for counterinsurgent warfare, a mode of combat at least as trying and messy as the others? Better to tailor the approach to the setting rather than trying to fit the setting to your preferences. As Professor Shultz warns, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to wicked problems like people's wars.

Maybe there's a fifth candidate for this list. It's more of a side benefit, though, and one that's not limited to counterinsurgent endeavors. There's a salutary effect to empowering junior leaders. Marines take this idea to extremes, thinking in terms of "strategic corporals" who display the flexibility of mind and training to fight, render humanitarian assistance, build infrastructure, or do whatever the situation demands. Grooming youngsters for a variety of tasks instills the kind of top-to-bottom competence and confidence that can only improve an armed force's — heck, any big institution's — performance under stress. But they need the latitude to execute without undue oversight from above, and afar.

If you want excellent generals, admirals, and senior enlisted tomorrow, then, loosen the reins today. But to empower junior leaders, senior leaders have to trust them. That means fighting the bureaucratic reflex to rein in subordinates when they err — as they will. A zero-defects military accomplishes little when it matters most.