Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency
This paper reflects the author’s personal judgments and does not represent the views of any department or agency of the U.S. Government or any other government.
Your company has just been warned for deployment on counterinsurgency operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. You have read David Galula, T.E. Lawrence and Robert Thompson. You have studied FM 3-24 and now understand the history, philosophy and theory of counterinsurgency. You watched Black Hawk Down and The Battle of Algiers, and you know this will be the most difficult challenge of your life. But what does all that theory mean, at the company level? How do the principles translate into action – at night, with the GPS down, the media criticizing you, the locals complaining in a language you don’t understand, and an unseen enemy killing your people by ones and twos? How does counterinsurgency actually happen? There are no universal answers, and insurgents are among the most adaptive opponents you will ever face. Countering them will demand every ounce of your intellect. But be comforted: you are not the first to feel this way. There are tactical fundamentals you can apply, to link the theory with the techniques and procedures you already know. What is counterinsurgency?
If you have not studied counterinsurgency theory, here it is in a nutshell: this is a competition with the insurgent for the right and the ability to win the hearts, minds and acquiescence of the population. You are being sent in because the insurgents, at their strongest, can defeat anything with less strength than you. But you have more combat power than you can or should use in most situations. Injudicious use of firepower creates blood feuds, homeless people and societal disruption that fuels and perpetuates the insurgency. The most beneficial actions are often local politics, civic action, and beat-cop behaviors. For your side to win, the people do not have to like you but they must respect you, accept that your actions benefit them, and trust your integrity and ability to deliver on promises, particularly regarding their security. In this battlefield popular perceptions and rumor are more influential than the facts and more powerful than a hundred tanks. Within this context, what follows are observations from collective experience: the distilled essence of what those who went before you learned. They are expressed as commandments, for clarity – but are really more like folklore. Apply them judiciously and skeptically. Preparation
Time is short during pre-deployment, but you will never have more time to think than you have now. Now is your chance to prepare yourself and your command. 1.
Know your turf. Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader and ancient grievance. Your task is to become the world expert on your district. If you don’t know precisely where you will be operating, study the general area. Read the map like a book: study it every night before sleep, and re-draw it from memory every morning, until you understand its patterns intuitively. Develop a mental model of your area – a framework in which to fit every new piece of knowledge you acquire. Study handover notes from predecessors; better still, get in touch with the unit in theater and pick their brains. In an ideal world, intelligence officers and area experts would brief you. This rarely happens: and even if it does, there is no substitute for personal mastery. Understand the broader “area of influence” – this can be a wide area, particularly when insurgents draw on “global” grievances. Share out aspects of the operational area among platoon leaders and non-commissioned officers: have each individual develop a personal specialization and brief the others. Neglect this knowledge, and it will kill you. 2.
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