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Two Fundamentals of Counterinsurgency

David Kilcullen was formerly the Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to General David Petraeus in Iraq and is currently advising General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan. Killcullen is also Adjunct Professor of Security Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. His new book, Counterinsurgency, is a picture of modern warfare filled with down-to-earth, common-sense insights which helps makes sense of our world in an age of terror. In the excerpt below, from the beginning of the book, Kilcullen explains the two fundamentals of counterinsurgency warfare.

Despite the ground-level complexity, at a higher level of abstraction, some fundamentals do seem to apply throughout this type of warfare. These fundamentals are few – I count only two – and they are very simple to express but extremely difficult to act upon. The first is to understand in detail what drives the conflict in any given area or with any given population group. This implies the need to constantly update that understanding as the environment shifts, to develop solid partnerships with reliable local allies, to design, in concert with those allies, locally tailored measures to target the drivers that sustain the conflict and thus to break the cycle of violence.

The second is to act with respect for local people, putting the well-being of noncombatant civilians ahead of any other consideration, even – in fact, especially – ahead of killing the enemy. Convincing threatened populations that we are the winning side, developing genuine partnerships with them, demonstrating that we can protect them from the guerrillas and that their best interests are served by cooperating with us is the critical path in counterinsurgency, because insurgents cannot operate without the support – active, passive, or enforced – of the local population.

Even if we are killing the insurgents effectively, if our approach also frightens and harms the local population, or makes people feel unsafe, then there is next to no chance that we will gain their support. If we want people to partner with us, put their weapons down, and return to unarmed political dialogue rather than work out their issues through violence, then we must make them feel safe enough to do so, and we must convince them they have more to gain by talking than by fighting. Consequently, violence against noncombatant civilians by security forces, whether intentional or accidental, is almost always entirely counterproductive. Besides being simply the right thing to do, protecting and defending local noncombatant civilians is a critical component of making them feel safe, and is thus one of the keys to operational success.

But make no mistake: counterinsurgency is war, and war is inherently violent. Killing the enemy is, and always will be, a key part of guerrilla warfare. Some insurgents are the irreconcilable extremes simply cannot be co-opted or won over; they must be hunted down, killed, or captured, and this is necessarily a ruthless process conducted with the utmost energy that the laws of war permit. In Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, we have experienced major success against terrorists and insurgent groups through a rapid twenty-four-hour cycle of intelligence-led strikes, described as “counternetwork operations,” that focuses on the middle tier of planners, facilitators, and operators rather on the most senior leaders. This cycle, known as “Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Assess” (F3EA) has proven highly successful in taking networks apart, and convincing senior enemy figures that they simply cannot achieve their objectives by continued fighting. This approach fuses operations and intelligence and, though costly and resource intensive, can generate a lethal momentum that causes insurgent networks to collapse catastrophically.

But successful counterinsurgents also discriminate with extreme precision between reconcilables and irreconcilables, combatants and noncombatants. They kill only those active, irreconcilable combatants who must be killed or captured, and where possible they avoid making more insurgents in the process. They protect those people (often the majority) who simply want to survive the conflict, and they make it as easy as possible to leave or oppose the insurgency, and as hard as possible to stay in or support it. Scrupulously moral conduct, alongside political legitimacy and respect for the rule of law, are thus operational imperatives: they enable vicotry, and in their absence no amount of killing – not even genocidal brutality, as in the case of Nazi antipartisan warfare,…- can avert defeat.

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