With the apparent lack of progress and success in Afghanistan and Iraq, counterinsurgency (COIN) has fallen out of favor within the political and military establishments in the U.S. and elsewhere. Regardless of whether these failures were due to erroneous implementation or theoretical shortcomings, COIN is no longer considered “hot” in strategic circles. However, one should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. There are elements of COIN worth preserving and retaining for future operations. By modifying our understanding of COIN using insight from security and peace-building literature, a revised concept can be developed which could inform future irregular wars more efficiently than current doctrine. We call it the stakeholder-centric COIN.
An insurgency is first and foremost a struggle for political power over the allegiance of the population in a given territory. It is a method employed by a non-state actor to challenge the existing political authority. Counterinsurgency, on the other hand, is defined as “military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency,” as stated by the U.S. Field Manual 3-24. The concept of legitimacy is clearly the centerpiece of FM 3-24 and defined as the primary objective of any operation. A legitimate government is understood as one that rules with the consent of the governed, providing security and basic services. This has inspired the term population-centric COIN.
COIN has been widely criticized both for its theoretical shortcomings and for its failure to provide victory in Afghanistan and Iraq. Critics have called for a more traditional military approach, arguing that the focus should be on the insurgents, not the causes of insurgency. This has been termed the enemy-centric approach. However, as we see it, the enemy-centric approach is unsustainable: by seeking a purely military solution it ignores the local politics at play and its importance for a future peace.
Others criticize COIN for being Western-biased in its understanding of governance and legitimacy. The attempt at imposing state structures (such as the infamous “government in a box”) from outside was unrealistic at best. More fundamentally, COIN’s focus on the “the population” as the source of stability and legitimacy is problematic. The idea that the power and legitimacy flows from the civilian population and up to the leaders is naïve – at least in traditional or patrimonial societies. The power is not in the hands of the civilian population but in their various societal leaders. Hence, a middle ground is needed between the population- and enemy-centric approaches. To this end, we can find insights from outside the traditional military and strategic scholars.
Professor Mads Berdal at the Department for War Studies at King’s College London, specializes on post-war settlements. He argues that if there is one overarching lesson from the post-conflict interventions from the 1990s on, it is that stability cannot be imposed on war-torn societies from the outside.
Professor Alex de Waal at Tufts University similarly criticizes the very idea that “Western” state institutions are a necessity for peace, a premise shared by both COIN and UN peacekeeping doctrines. He questions if state-building is the right remedy for war-torn societies with limited historical experience with centralized states. In such places, he argues, both rebels and the government tend rather to utilize kinship, patronage, and licensing proxies to achieve political ends.
The key for any political solution to the conflicts lies in these various relationships and their fluctuating evolution, de Waal continues. He calls this as a “patrimonial marketplace,” governed by socio-cultural rules. Recognizing that military victories are unlikely to be decisive in such societies, de Waal provides us with an approach that retains the crucial element of legitimacy recognized by COIN. However, instead of seeking to build the legitimacy of the political system in the eyes of every single individual (‘the population’), he focuses on the relevant stakeholders in the marketplace. And instead of building legitimacy through government structures and provision of services, de Waal emphasizes the power-relationships between the stakeholders in the political marketplace.
Acknowledging the crucial significance of the stakeholders, we propose the end-state for a COIN operation as: a political agreement between the main stakeholders in the conflict that is regarded as legitimate and ensures a stability acceptable to all. The goal is to enable a political process that leads to an agreement between the main stakeholders that will allow the external forces to withdraw.
A counterinsurgency operation should therefore be stakeholder-centric, meaning that the focus of the effort should be on all the relevant military, political, social, religious etc. stakeholders in the society that may impact on a future political agreement. This will help shore up the legitimacy of the political agreement while it does not require a full-scale COIN operation aimed at protecting the population, reforming governance, and delivering services.
In stakeholder-centric COIN, the military objective is not limited to protecting the population or defeating the enemy but to facilitate a political process, adapted to the local political marketplace, that is deemed legitimate to all parties in the conflict. The intervening forces’ military objective is to stop violent conflict and create the conditions for a political process. This is based on the argument that an intervening force can neither protect the population nor achieve unconditional surrender from the warring parties. Thus a negotiated solution is the best one can hope for.
Leaning on Professor Stathis N. Kalyvas at Yale, we also go on to argue that in stakeholder-centric COIN, military force is instrumental in influencing the decision-making calculus of the different stakeholders in order to compel them to enter into negotiation and eventually compromise. In this sense, military force becomes instrumental in changing the balance of power on the battlefield and induce action that is desirable to the peace process. This change in turn has to be followed up by a concrete plan of negotiation that must acknowledge the need to offer the stakeholders more than just an opportunity to disarm.
This means that one must appreciate that the establishment of order is central for a strategic victory and must be viewed as part of war itself. Any use of force must be applied to attain political goals rather than tactical military aims.
Karsten Friis is a Senior Adviser and Head of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs’ Research Group on Security and Defense. The full text is entitled “Revising COIN – The Stakeholder Centric Approach” and is published in Scott Gates and Kaushik Roy (eds.): War and State-Building in Afghanistan: Historical and Modern Perspectives. A working paper version of the chapter can be found here.