On "Other War": Lessons from Five Decades of RAND Counterinsurgency Research

  • Published
On "Other War": Lessons from Five Decades of RAND Counterinsurgency Research by Austin Long. RAND Corporation, 2006, 118 pp.

In his counterinsurgency (COIN) study On "Other War," Austin Long leverages over 50 years of the RAND Corporation's studies of insurgencies and COIN operations around the world. He uses these studies to build the basis for examples of COIN techniques and to make recommendations for US COIN programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is safe to say that no other organization is as informed on insurgencies as RAND, its roster of authors including such notables as David Galula, for instance. The book's partial bibliography of previous RAND works on the topic demonstrates the impressive depth of RAND's studies. For that reason alone, a COIN practitioner can be assured of the book's credibility as a reference for past insurgencies. However, it should be noted that On "Other War" was written in 2006, prior to the "surge" famously spearheaded by Gen David Petraeus. Nevertheless, readers familiar with the evolution of the insurgency in Iraq and the US response after the surge will be amazed at the accuracy of Long's predictions for COIN missions.

The author is a political scientist by education and experience. His theoretical knowledge is backed up by time served as an analyst and adviser with Multi-National Force-Iraq during a time when he witnessed US COIN efforts firsthand. In addition to consultation work with the Department of Defense and a position as an assistant professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, Long has authored other defense studies for RAND and COIN strategy pieces in security journals such as Survival. Despite his qualifications, the credibility of this work rests on RAND's extensive research into insurgencies for over 50 years. However, the formidable data pool also presents a daunting task for Long in terms of synthesizing lessons for contemporary COIN operators.

The book argues that insurgency is purely a method of war and that one insurgency shares key characteristics with another. Of particular note is the author's categorization of two types of approaches to conducting COIN--"hearts and minds" and "cost-benefit." The former involves influencing the population to support the government rather than the insurgents whereas the cost-benefit approach hinges on making support of the insurgency too costly for the populace. Here, Long introduces his most interesting observation on COIN implementation, opining that a democratic country utilizing cost-benefit tactics ultimately creates a cycle in which it ratchets up pain on the populace that cannot end with the democratic nation prevailing. Essentially, suppression by the government results in an enhanced response by the insurgents, and the populace suffers. The cycle continues until the democratic government loses its will to increase the violence any further, and the insurgents prevail. Consequently, Long leans heavily in favor of a hearts-and-minds approach as a COIN strategy.

His recommendations for future COIN missions are grounded in the hearts-and-minds approach and are based on four common threads found in his research. Of his recommendations, the most complete and executable one relates to his suggested structure for US COIN organization. Regarding Iraq, he recommends that the United States transition to a civilian-led COIN structure consisting of civilian and military agencies that also incorporates host-nation government officials. Specifically, he recommends a provincial reconstruction team--like structure with corresponding national- and village-level teams focused on building programs that the local population will endorse.

Each of his points is salient for current COIN practitioners. However, Long's suggestions cannot be taken as prescriptive without a couple of caveats. As a study of 50 years of insurgency and COIN, the book contains a limited number of lessons learned that narrowly concentrate on specific COIN tools. They are not all-encompassing as a COIN strategy. This fact speaks to the complexity of insurgencies and may support a case for the dissimilarity among them. Furthermore, and as admitted by the author, all of his examples come from the Cold War era and don't account for the effects of Islam and ethnic disputes on insurgency. Analysis of religion-fueled conflict and insurgency within the United Kingdom may have served as a comparison backdrop for Long. Neither does his assessment address COIN efforts hindered by the lack of a legitimate or functioning government. The author's arguments for successful COIN--specifically hearts-and-minds efforts--rely on positioning the government as more beneficial to the people than insurgent forces would be. As in Iraq, without a sound government to rally the people, COIN forces cannot lean on the COIN tactics advocated by Long. As he comments in On "Other War," more research is needed to determine the effects of Islam on COIN efforts and to study insurgencies bolstered by bad host-nation governance.

Maj Jason F. Baggett, USAF
Maxwell AFB, Alabama

"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."