Paradoxes of
Counterinsurgency Operations

from The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual

Counterinsurgency (COIN) presents a complex and often unfamiliar set of missions and considerations. In many ways, the conduct of COIN is counterintuitive to the traditional U.S. view of war—although COIN operations have actually formed a substantial part of the U.S. military experience. Some representative paradoxes of COIN are presented here as examples of the different mindset required. These paradoxes are offered to stimulate thinking, not to limit it. The applicability of the thoughts behind the paradoxes depends on a sense of the local situation and, in particular, the state of the insurgency. For example, the admonition “Sometimes, the More Force Used, the Less Effective It Is” does not apply when the enemy is “coming over the barricades”; however, that thought is applicable when increased security is achieved in an area. In short, these paradoxes should not be reduced to a checklist; rather, they should be used with considerable thought.

Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be

Ultimate success in COIN is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations must be conducted, risk shared with the populace, and contact maintained. The effectiveness of establishing patrol bases and operational support bases should be weighed against the effectiveness of using larger unit bases. (FM 90-8 discusses saturation patrolling and operational support bases.) These practices ensure access to the intelligence needed to drive operations. Following them reinforces the connections with the populace that help establish real legitimacy.

Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is

Any use offeree produces many effects, not all of which can be foreseen. The more force applied, the greater the chance of collateral damage and mistakes. Using substantial force also increases the opportunity for insurgent propaganda to portray lethal military activities as brutal. In contrast, using force precisely and discriminately strengthens the rule of law that needs to be established. As noted above, the key for counterinsurgents is knowing when more force is needed—and when it might be counterproductive. This judgment involves constant assessment of the security situation and a sense of timing regarding insurgents’ actions.

The more successful the counterinsurgency is, the less force can be used and the more risk must be accepted

This paradox is really a corollary to the previous one. As the level of insurgent violence drops, the requirements of international law and the expectations of the populace lead to a reduction in direct military actions by counterinsurgents. More reliance is placed on police work, rules of engagement may be tightened, and troops may have to exercise increased restraint. Soldiers and Marines may also have to accept more risk to maintain involvement with the people.

Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction

Often insurgents carry out a terrorist act or guerrilla raid with the primary purpose of enticing counterinsurgents to overreact, or at least to react in a way that insurgents can exploit—for example, opening fire on a crowd or executing a clearing operation that creates more enemies than it takes off the streets. If an assessment of the effects of a course of action determines that more negative than positive effects may result, an alternative should be considered—potentially including not acting.

Some of the best weapons for counterinsurgents do not shoot

Counterinsurgents often achieve the most meaningful success in garnering public support and legitimacy for the HN government with activities that do not involve killing insurgents (though, again, killing clearly will often be necessary). Arguably, the decisive battle is for the people’s minds; hence synchronizing IO with efforts along the other LLOs is critical. Every action, including uses of force, must be “wrapped in a bodyguard of information.” While security is essential to setting the stage for overall progress, lasting victory comes from a vibrant economy, political participation, and restored hope. Particularly after security has been achieved, dollars and ballots will have more important effects than bombs and bullets. This is a time when “money is ammunition.” Depending on the state of the insurgency, therefore, Soldiers and Marines should prepare to execute many nonmilitary missions to support COIN efforts. Everyone has a role in nation building, not just Department of State and civil affairs personnel.

The host nation doing something tolerably is normally better than us doing it well

It is just as important to consider who performs an operation as to assess how well it is done. Where the United States is supporting a host nation, long-term success requires establishing viable HN leaders and institutions that can carry on without significant U.S. support. The longer that process takes, the more U.S. public support will wane and the more the local populace will question the legitimacy of their own forces and government. General Creighton Abrams, the U.S. commander in Vietnam in 1971, recognized this fact when he said, “There’s very clear evidence, … in some things, that we helped too much. And we retarded the Vietnamese by doing it. … We can’t run this thing. … They ’ve got to run it. The nearer we get to that the better off they are and the better off we are.” T.E. Lawrence made a similar observation while leading the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1917: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.” However, a key word in Lawrence’s advice is “tolerably.” If the host nation cannot perform tolerably, counterinsurgents supporting it may have to act. Experience, knowledge of the AO, and cultural sensitivity are essential to deciding when such action is necessary.

If a tactic works this week, it might not work next week; if it works in this province, it might not work in the next

Competent insurgents are adaptive. They are often part of a widespread network that communicates constantly and instantly. Insurgents quickly adjust to successful COIN practices and rapidly disseminate information throughout the insurgency. Indeed, the more effective a COIN tactic is, the faster it may become out of date because insurgents have a greater need to counter it. Effective leaders at all levels avoid complacency and are at least as adaptive as their enemies. There is no “silver bullet” set of COIN procedures. Constantly developing new practices is essential.

Tactical success guarantees nothing

As important as they are in achieving security, military actions by themselves cannot achieve success in COIN. Insurgents that never defeat counterinsurgents in combat still may achieve their strategic objectives. Tactical actions thus must be linked not only to strategic and operational military objectives but also to the host nation’s essential political goals. Without those connections, lives and resources may be wasted for no real gain.

Many important decisions are not made by generals

Successful COIN operations require competence and judgment by Soldiers and Marines at all levels. Indeed, young leaders—so-called “strategic corporals”—often make decisions at the tactical level that have strategic consequences. Senior leaders set the proper direction and climate with thorough training and clear guidance; then they trust their subordinates to do the right thing. Preparation for tactical-level leaders requires more than just mastering Service doctrine; they must also be trained and educated to adapt to their local situations, understand the legal and ethical implications of their actions, and exercise initiative and sound judgment in accordance with their senior commanders’ intent.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 47-51 of The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual by the United States Army and United States Marine Corps, published by the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

United States Army and United States Marine Corps
The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual
With Forewords by General David H. Petraeus and Lt. General James F. Amos and by Lt. Colonel John A. Nagl. With a New Introduction by Sarah Sewall.
©2007, 472 pages, 30 figures, 33 tables
Paper $15.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-84151-9 (ISBN-10: 0-226-84151-0)

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

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