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War by Other Means: Building Complete and Balanced Capabilities for Counterinsurgency

War by Other Means: Building Complete and Balanced Capabilities for Counterinsurgency by David C. Gompert and John Gordon IV. RAND, 2008, 453 pp.

The renewed emphasis on counterinsurgency (COIN) after a 20-year hiatus is so reminiscent of the Vietnam era as to suggest the immortal words of that eminent American philosopher, Yogi Berra: “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Recent military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have again placed COIN at the forefront of military thinking. Ground forces now consider Gen David Petraeus’s Field Manual 3-24 as the COIN bible. Consequently, the secretary of defense tasked the RAND National Defense Research Institute to conduct a study of US capabilities in combating modern insurgencies. The final report, War by Other Means: Building Complete and Balanced Capabilities for Counterinsurgency, is a compilation of several RAND studies conducted by various authors.

The report finds the United States woefully ill-equipped to deal with the underlying causes of insurgencies in the twenty-first century, primarily because its response has been a military one. Concentrating on militarily defeating the terrorists may delay defeat, but victory in the global war on terrorism will depend on persuading Muslims to reject violent religious tyranny in favor of legitimate Islamic governments. Hence, an effective COIN strategy would involve a civil affairs program with more effective use of existing information capabilities combined with balanced security operations. These capabilities may require greater investments in COIN, along with reorganizing existing governmental and military agencies and making COIN a more multinational endeavor.

The report contends the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq are a relatively new phenomenon of “global-local” insurgency, as opposed to strictly local insurgences or local insurgencies with international support. Global-local insurgencies are characterized by indigenous movements that become part of a wider struggle. The dual rise of globalization and Muslim fundamentalism, therefore, has made the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq more complex than previous COIN operations.

The key to combating these insurgencies, according to the report, is to convince the population that the local government is responsive to their needs and that any foreign involvement in COIN is legitimate. Consequently, fertile environments for insurgency must be identified and dealt with in the early stages when COIN has a greater chance of success. The report identifies 15 counties where the potential for global-local insurgency exists and analyzes the civil capabilities necessary to improve their political and economic performance.

Improving government may not be a novel approach, but the information revolution presents new opportunities for COIN. Emerging communications technology has democratized the availability and use of information, so COIN must adapt to take advantage of the new media. Jihadists have already learned how to use the Internet, video, and cell phones to promote their cause among the populace. The report urges US and local forces to change the paradigm where information and technology is centralized and secured in departments and task forces and push them down to the users in the field to improve the gathering of actionable intelligence and timeliness of response. This network revolution would also serve to better inform the public on security issues and how the government is dealing with their concerns.

While the report contends the United States has relied too much on large-scale military power for COIN, the authors recognize the need for security when dealing with insurgencies. Defeating insurgencies, however, requires a smaller foreign footprint, which is key to legitimizing the host nation’s efforts and thwarting insurgent propaganda. The jihadists have been able to convince much of the Muslim world that the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan is a war against Islam rather than against terrorism, due largely to the size of the US presence. Making the local government more responsible for its internal security would serve to diffuse this issue. Minimizing foreign presence may involve reliance on air mobility; technical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities; and precision strike.

The report contends the United States by itself cannot bear the brunt of combating all global-local insurgencies and recommends it abandon the go-it-alone approach for a more multilateral COIN capacity. Including other countries from NATO and the European Union may require the United States to relinquish some of its jealously guarded control. It also recommends that investment in US COIN capability be increased by as much as $30 billion annually. Finally, US COIN needs to be reorganized to possibly include civilian agencies to deal with political and economic programs.

The RAND report is one of the most comprehensive COIN studies to date. Using quantitative data, the authors analyzed 89 post–World War II insurgencies to produce a generous amount of statistical information. Several graphs and charts clearly illustrate their main points, and four appendices provide concise and useful COIN information. A consequence of dealing with such a vast number of insurgencies in a 450-page report, however, is a lack of in-depth historical analysis. Those searching for a detailed analysis of individual insurgencies and COIN must look elsewhere. The report concentrates primarily on civil programs with some strategic military operations. COIN tactics are nowhere discussed in the report.

The RAND report represents a fundamental shift in how modern COIN is viewed and how the United States must rethink its strategy from a purely military response to one involving the economic and political aspects when battling insurgents. The analysis is sound and the recommendations are deserving of serious consideration. Moreover, adopting these recommendations may avoid the mistakes of the past in treating COIN as the military policy du jour that was quickly cast aside with the withdrawal from Vietnam. Institutionalizing COIN would undoubtedly incur strong resistance from within the military and government and involve substantial costs in money, time, and effort. The consequences of failing to act, on the other hand, may cost considerably more in terms of global security.

John F. Farrell, EdD

Squadron Officer College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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