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Rethinking Counterinsurgency: RAND Counterinsurgency Study, vol. 5

Rethinking Counterinsurgency: RAND Counterinsurgency Study, vol. 5 by John Mackinlay and Alison Al-Baddawy. RAND Corporation, 2008, 80 pp.

Despite numerous reports documenting military and political progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, John Mackinlay and Alison Al-Baddawy boldly declare the worldwide effort to defeat terrorism is a stalemate. As part of the RAND Corporation’s five-volume counterinsurgency study, Rethinking Counterinsurgency questions the West’s ability to win against terrorism and criticizes the US–led coalition, pointing to poorly conceived definitions of winning and of campaigns focused on attrition. The report argues the West was initially surprised by the global and the virtual nature of the insurgency and that it inappropriately applied British counterinsurgency doctrine to combat a Maoist-style nationalist insurgency. The report also claims the West failed to recognize the characteristics of a Palestinian-style insurgency waging a global propaganda campaign. It studies the Muslim dimension of this problem, analyzes how global insurgents exploit the virtual environment, and offers a new framework for counterinsurgency strategy.

The authors bring a wealth of credentials in counterinsurgency and Muslim studies, enhancing the compelling nature of the report. John Mackinlay served as a British army officer and was a defense fellow at Churchill College–Cambridge. He is a leading member of the Insurgency Research Group at King’s College–London, a consultant to the British army, and author of two publications on insurgencies. Alison Al-Baddawy is also employed at Kings College as a research fellow. She specializes in North Africa, political Islam, and radicalization.

The authors criticize British counterinsurgency doctrine because they believe it has failed to address the evolution of insurgencies since 1945, especially the Palestinian movement. In 1964 the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) assembled to return the Palestinian people to their former lands in Israel. To do this, they conducted a campaign of spectacular terrorist attacks. The attacks served little military value, but the PLO learned how to exploit the propaganda of the deed. These highly visible attacks attracted worldwide media attention and gave the PLO the opportunity to plead their case to the Muslim world and expose their oppression under the Israelis. Over time, the PLO developed an international celebrity status and received funds, weapons, training, and refuge from sympathetic states.

Despite this apparent success, counterinsurgency doctrine at the time considered the Palestinian insurgency a failure. From a Maoist-style insurgency standpoint, the PLO failed to control territory, defeat Israeli forces, and establish a functioning government. The Israeli response was purely kinetic and failed to address political grievances. The West failed to see the PLO’s exploitation of propaganda in the virtual dimension as the next evolution in insurgency. The authors argue that this failure continues today in the post-9/11 era. Jihadists spread their message and enrage the Muslim world by exploiting the propaganda of their deeds. US–led coalitions are not engaged in this virtual dimension with a long-term political plan to address jihadist’ grievances; instead, they focus on inappropriate measures of success like territory secured, terrorists killed, constitutions written, and elections held.

The report illustrates a global insurgency fueled by Muslim and virtual dimensions. The Muslim dimension involves insurgency’s evolution from a national to a multinational form. The Maoist-style insurgency involved one population in one country. With the Muslim dimension, the population is still the center of gravity, but it also includes Muslims living in the conflict zone, concerned Muslim states, and concerned Muslim immigrants living in foreign countries. Beyond this, the authors do not break a lot of new ground with this dimension. They talk about such familiar concepts as the Ummah or one Muslim nation. Also covered are such common radicalization causes as Islamic cultural grievances with Western values, Muslim perceptions of the Iraq war as a greater war against Islam, and the influence of radical sheiks and social networks.

The virtual dimension is offered as a second key component of the global insurgency, and the West’s failure to engage in this arena is depicted as a major downfall. It is a war zone that resides in the human mind, involving communication systems and media that shape ideas and beliefs. The virtual dimension is a new theater of war used to exploit the propaganda of the deed. Jihadists exploit this dimension through the Internet and satellite television. Communications technology has transformed Islam into a truly global community. The problem now for any US–led coalition is to develop a strategic plan that addresses this global Muslim population. Without threats or coercion, the West faces the enormous challenge of shaping core Muslim attitudes to fall in line with Western interests.

The report concludes with a counterinsurgency strategy that focuses less on kinetic operations and puts more emphasis on the need for a campaign that is politically led, internationally comprised, and multifunctional in its approach. The campaign should never be primarily military. All military personnel involved should understand the political objectives and should consider how their actions affect the overall campaign. The campaign must recognize the insurgents’ center of gravity, which may not be linked to territory but could involve grievances in the virtual dimension. Most importantly, the campaign must conduct offensive information operations in the virtual dimension. The insurgent’s ability to exploit the propaganda of the deed must be neutralized.

Mackinlay and Al-Baddawy address counterinsurgency at a strategic level. The level of engagement they propose is almost too hard to imagine based on the campaign’s need to impact political, economic, military, and humanitarian spheres at an international level. Despite this macro perspective, the report still has relevance for air and space warriors. Airmen only need to look back to Afghanistan in June 2009, when Gen Stanley A. McChrystal issued the directive telling air and ground forces not to attack buildings where insurgents may be hiding among civilians. This air strike restriction is a perfect example of the Taliban exploiting the propaganda of the deed to turn the Afghan people against coalition forces. This report should also be of value to cyber warriors as the need for a Pentagon cyber command is weighed, and the Air Force makes preparations for its new cyber warfare organization, the 24th Air Force. These two organizations have great potential as venues for strategic engagement in the virtual dimension.

Maj Grant M. Hargrove, USAF

Naval Postgraduate School

"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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