11/26/2014 by Tom Wein - DefenceIQ
As Britain and America have discovered in recent years, countering an insurgency is one of the toughest challenges a military can face. Even the best trained forces in the world, assisted by the world’s most advanced intelligence support, struggle. We should not expect current counterinsurgent conflicts – such as that in Northeast Nigeria – to be any simpler.
Indeed, a recent fascinating analysis by Lieutenant Matt Williams of the U.S. Marine Corps has shown just how difficult it can be. His paper, in The Journal of Military Operations, analyses a dataset of past campaigns to ascertain the resources required to achieve different probabilities of victory. To achieve even the unacceptably low probability of success of 50%, one must deploy 15.6 troops per 1000 members of the population. For a more palatable 90% likelihood of victory, 67.2 troops are required per 1000. For context, in Iraq, Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces combined, even after the Surge, never accounted for more than 19.1 troops per thousand.
All of which goes to show that asymmetric warfare is an unusually resource-intensive, unusually demanding business. It is still more so when an enemy has bases across borders to fall back on, and is prepared to adopt the most extreme of tactics.
One of the best examples of that in recent years has been Nigeria, where improvements in military effectiveness have not yet brought victory. The Nigerian Army has struggled, it is true, but that should not be a surprise. All forces do, and they are faced in Boko Haram with a hideously inventive enemy, which has considerable freedom of movement and all the usual assets which make an insurgency so difficult to combat.
The particular challenges posed by countering insurgencies have been attested to by nearly all the leading theorists and commanders. In John Nagl’s famous, controversial phrase, it is the “graduate level of war.” The idea is echoed in the drier prose of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps’ Field Manual FM 3-24 on Counterinsurgency, which describes such wars as presenting a “complex and often unfamiliar set of missions and considerations.”
So why is it so difficult? It is difficult because it is fundamentally different from the missions most modern armies are prepared for, and because of the particular characteristics that give rise to most insurgencies.
FM 3-24 also notes that counterinsurgency “requires Soldiers and Marines to employ a mix of familiar combat tasks and skills more often associated with nonmilitary agencies.” That point – that counterinsurgency is not only more difficult than, but also fundamentally different from interstate kinetic warfare – is another which echoes throughout the literature. In an earlier age, C.E. Callwell, an officer of the imperial British Army, wrote that, “The conditions of small wars are so diversified, the enemy’s mode of fighting is often so peculiar, and the theaters of operations present such singular features, that irregular warfare must generally be carried out on a method totally different from the stereotyped system.” This is crucially important because it takes time to retrain an entire army. One of the most remarkable military transformations of the modern era is that of the American army in Iraq, whose conversion into counterinsurgency-ready structures and methods happened at an astonishing pace in 2005-2007, once its commanders had accepted the necessity of change. They still lost, and few forces could match that pace of change. As anyone who has worked in Whitehall or in any other government bureaucracy knows, institutional changes are sometimes less like turning oil tankers and more like moving mountains.
Another important reason for the challenges of such wars is that they are rarely the calculated decision of a single leader, whose power base can be directly threatened. More often, they grow out of longstanding tensions, disenfranchisement and malgovernance. Even the best military effort can only create space to fix these problems, and can never defeat the insurgency alone – yet at the same time, even the most skilled political effort will need time to build trust and convert hearts and minds. The fight in Northeast Nigeria is once again an example of this; military results could and should be better, but they are not so bad as is often reported by the unreasonable standards of a press which has not faced the peculiar challenges of counterinsurgency combat.
One need not look far to find examples of insurgencies in which the state lost, and insurgencies in which it took the state many decades to win. It took Britain three decades to conclude peace in Northern Ireland, Colombia has been fighting the FARC since 1964, and America’s enthusiasm for counterinsurgent wars has usually been quelled long before the insurgencies have been. In short, counterinsurgencies do not conform to the timelines that the press or electorates prefer. Even the right strategy takes years to have effect, and even the most advanced militaries struggle to fight them. Manage your expectations.