Counterinsurgency and the Colonial Legacy (a necessary reprint)

I’ve already expressed the view on this blog that Counterinsurgency (COIN), as a military practice, is contingent and results from social construction.

This is not to say that the paradigm of « war amongst the people » (to use General Sir Rupert SMITH’s terminology) is only contingent and socially constructed. On the contrary, it is important to distinguish between the context, which comprises objective as well as subjective facts, and military’s perception of it, which borrows cognitive as well as sociological process to construct mission and role… and military practices. It is so very important to avoid any « reification » of COIN in order to understand true issues that are at stake in today’s conflicts/confrontations like one in Iraq, Afghanistan or the broader « long war ».

COIN, and especially its main premise (i.e. the imperative of « winning hearts and minds » in order to separate insurgents from the populace), results from such an interpretation of the actual context. I’d like to explain it through four considerations.

1) The following are free adaptation and cross-fertilization between Christian OLSSON’s findings and mine’. COIN practices and Knowledge are not unhistorical given, but can be rooted in the various and dispersed experiences of Western armies in colonial and postcolonial ages. Such knowledge and know-how fall into :

  • two principles: neutralize insurgents either/or control political representations and allegiances from the people. (It depends whether the context is one of guerilla/colonial conquest or one of « liberation »/popular war).
  • four practices: eliminate insurgents groups, dissuade and deter population to cooperate with insurgents, legitimize counterinsurgents/loyalists actions, avoid insurgents to embed amongst the populace.

2) Such practices and knowledge have structural similarities with current US practices in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several instances of it are:

-indigenous forces and tribal alliances to eliminate insurgents

-population control by biometrics data and Geospatial Intelligence.

-Combat Outposts to avoid infiltration by insurgents.

-humanitarian action and civil affairs to legitimize the presence and actions of counterinsurgents forces (EPRT or Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams can thus be seen as heirs to CORDS in Vietnam or Section Administrative Spéciales in Algeria)

Of course, these practices are adapted to actual norms. For instance, population control cannot be achieved through « strategic hamlet » (the closer form of it would be concrete barriers in Baghdad Neighborhood….)

Furthermore, these similarities are conscious and even claimed by their proponents. Debates in and among the services focused on « lessons learned » from colonial and postcolonial era, and many contemporary thinkers, who have gathered the dispersed knowledge in their time, are considered like gurus for COIN-pundits.

3)But this is not to say that US military « learnt » COIN again, as if History could repeat itself through different contexts. This would be more accurate to consider theses knowledge and practices to be an « actualization » of informal doctrines and practices that lies in the services‘ institutional memory. Such informal doctrines have been either marginalized (as in the Army through the « subculture » of Special Forces performing « LIC » or « FID ») or considered a lesser part of the main culture (as in the Marines Corps). More importantly, contingencies in the 1990s have institutionalized many « stabilization » practices that are very close to COIN (when they do not trace their origins in colonial practices of « pacification » or « imperial policing »). Last, but not least, western militaries became more and more convergent during the Cold War, with a normative isomorphism that eased the diffusion of knowledge and practices.

4) There are several issues that derives from the three considerations above.

-the first one is an institutional issue: regarding COIN, actual tensions and disputes in both the US Army and the US Marines reveals that competing narratives are in play to define the place theses practices (and of course, organization of forces, procurement programs and curriculum reforms that they deserve) can have in the essence and role of military institutions. Coalitions of individuals and networks struggles to define the identity of their service. Many (and especially the « top brass » because of bureaucratic interests that are in play in rivalries between services) don’t want to see Army and Marines to become different from what they have always known and what they have devoted their lives to. Others consider COIN to be a crucial know-how in order to confront « persistent conflict » or « hybrid wars ». For they fear the « system reboot » that could occur after Iraq.

-the second one is linked to academic and political considerations regarding the military role in an « international society » which is defining more and more norms to constrain sovereignty and States. COIN practices blur the traditional (albeit construct) distinction between internal security (Police) and external security (military). As the French term « Opérations Extérieures » can suggest, Western Interventions can be viewed as « constabulary » or « police » missions in foreign countries. This conception is formally expressed by general Vincent DESPORTES who considers Foreign countries (especially so-called « failed states ») to be part of an « outer ring » of National Security interests for many Western Countries. Nevertheless, such operations are often constrained by the critical issues of their legitimization. Christian OLSSON suggest this is especially true at the local level, because colonial era is no more, and it would be naive and dangerous to try to gain some legitimacy on such populations that have others allegiances. I would like to pursue his thinking by two other considerations. First, legitimacy must also be gained with the public opinion at home (for the same reason for which I consider colonialism to be infeasible today: anticolonialism is a very powerful norm that is profoundly internalized). Second, I observe US military in Iraq to have succeeded in gaining legitimacy at the local level. Even if one can dislike this term, young captains are seen like « viceroys » and have great difficulties to act in the name of the Government of Iraq. I would add that « Sons of Iraq » are such militia that denotes that US are ready to wage a « proxy COIN » through indigenous forces.

-the third issue is linked to the previous one: many of these practices can be linked to their object, i.e. the population, in order to control it. Christian OLSSON uses Foucauld’s genealogy of power (sovereign power, disciplinary power, « governmentability ») to explain the issue at stake here. Using the concept of Power in Foucauld’s work (power as relation rather than as a « fixed » attribute), OLSSON depicts population as both a subject of power (public opinion that is targeted in order to influence its perceptions and allegiances) and an object of power (that must be controlled). For OLSSON, COIN practices in Iraq (as well as in many contemporary « peacekeeping » or « nationbuilding » operations) are disciplinary ones that tends to control the population. I would add the following: control the population rather than to co-opt local power-broker. Indeed, even if OLSSON misses the point because he don’t see the current actions of US officers on the ground to « irakize » COIN, I think (one could disagree of course) he’s close to the truth because US military are not in « co-option » of local leaders, but between control and co-option.


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