Archive for November, 2007

Counterinsurgency Strategies

November 16, 2007

In an essay titled “COIN of the Realm,” which was published in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs (, Colin Kahl discusses different counterinsurgency (COIN) strategies in light of the development of a new “Counterinsurgency Field Manual” by the US military.  Kahl divides COIN strategies into two basic types: “coercion” and “hearts and minds”.  Coercion strategies focus solely on killing insurgents and collectively punishing civilians who appear to be aiding the insurgency in some way.  Examples of collective punishment are: mass imprisonment (e.g., the use of concentration camps), mass executions, burning or bulldozing villages, economic depravation (such as withholding economic aid or hindering economic activity) and the curtailment of civil liberties. 


Edward Luttwak summed up the mentality behind the “coercion” approach when he said “The easy and reliable way of defeating all insurgencies everywhere” is to “out-terrorize the insurgents, so that fear of reprisals outweighs the [populace’s] desire to help the insurgents.”


The coercion strategy has been used by many governments throughout history, including Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, France, Israel and the US.  As Kahl points out, although “coercion” strategies have occasionally been successful, more often then not they have failed.  The failure of the Soviet counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which focused on using overwhelming firepower against insurgents and their villages, is a noteworthy example in light of the current situation there.


“Hearts and minds” strategies focus on separating civilians from the insurgents and protecting the former from the latter.  While securing the population, COIN elements try to provide basic government services and facilitate economic, political and social development for the people under their control.  Military force is to be used as discriminately as possible in order to avoid alienating the populace and increasing support for the insurgency.  The goal is to win the “hearts and minds” of the people and persuade them oppose the insurgents.


The new COIN field manual embraces the “hearts and minds” approach.  It states that “Citizens seek to ally with groups that can guarantee their safety,” and therefore the military’s “primary function in COIN is protecting that populace.”  The new term for this model is “clear, hold and build,” and it directs COIN forces to clear out insurgent-infested areas, hold those areas with security forces to prevent the insurgents from returning, and enact policies that build support for the government.


As Kahl points out, almost all COIN efforts are difficult, and the situation in Iraq is further complicated by political aspects of the country and the region.  He says that the new COIN strategy, which the troop surge is part of, is probably “too little, too late” and it will “likely fail.” 


The new field manual suggests as much in that it recommends the deployment of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 civilians in a country faced with a large insurgency.  According to that ratio, the US would need approximately 500,000 troops in Iraq, which is three times the current force level. 


Another major implication of the recommended counterinsurgent-civilian ratio is that the US will need to significantly increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps if large COIN efforts are going to be successful in the future.  There are currently 750,000 active duty soldiers and marines in the US military, so if the prescribed ratio is valid then it is virtually impossible for the US to rotate enough troops in-and-out of an insurgency-plagued nation the size of Iraq while maintaining a sufficient strategic reserve force.