The Bayonet

Wednesday, Feb. 05, 2014

COIN experts say operational context is key

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Maneuver Captains Career Course students heard from a pair of counterinsurgency experts Thursday, as authors David Ucko and Robert Egnell spoke as part of the Combat Leader Speaker Program.

Ucko and Egnell are the authors of Counterinsurgency in Crisis, a book that examines the challenges the British military faced in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last 12 years when confronted with insurgent violence. The book also addresses the need for military organizations to meet future challenges in new ways.

Ucko, an associate professor at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs in Washington, D.C., emphasized the need for new solutions, rather than recycled strategies from history when it comes to counterinsurgency.

“One of the dangers of counterinsurgency is that it establishes a long historical record of seemingly comparable campaigns from which one can draw lessons or principles,” Ucko said. “But, I think what we need to realize is that despite the many things that we can learn from history as we prepare for future campaigns, it is not enough to just study the past. … I think maybe a rule of thumb is to look upon history as a great source of information and guidance on the types of questions that we need to ask ourselves in warfighting situations. What is the guidance that it can provide in terms of the things we need to be sensitive to and difficulties that we need to concern ourselves with? What (history) won’t do is provide answers. You won’t find answers — you’ll just find the right questions to ask.”

Egnell, a visiting professor and director of teaching for Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, said Army leaders must assess each situation in its own unique context.

“Whatever you do, you need to understand the nature of the problem,” Egnell said. “History can help in developing that understanding, but at the same time, every context is unique. Perhaps even more important than history, it’s important to look at the specific aspects and contemporary context for potential combat zones for stability operations or interventions.”

In addition to understanding the context for each counterinsurgent threat, Ucko said that it is vital for counterinsurgency practitioners to be able to accurately assess each threat’s strength.

“The best advice for junior leaders and senior leaders is really to get a sense of what makes the threat group strong,” Ucko said. “What are its critical vulnerabilities? What is its center of gravity? How does it operate? Then, once you’ve answered those questions, know how to leverage your own resources in a way that responds directly and accurately to the problem at hand.”

Both Ucko and Egnell also offered their views on the evolving nature of counterinsurgency operations, and the emerging trends they see after 12 years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Egnell said the goals behind counterinsurgency operations have shifted from control of colonial holdings to a more change-based philosophy.

“Today, we have much more ambitious political agendas focused on change,” he said. “Not only have we toppled regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re also instigating revolutionary societal changes in terms of democratization, respect for human rights, liberal market economies and women’s roles in societies. We need to think more carefully about that and figure out to what extent we are still talking about counterinsurgency or whether we should come up with a more relevant term for those ambitions to transform societies.”

Ucko, meanwhile, said future counterinsurgency practitioners should be mindful of the speed at which information moves from the modern battlefield to the rest of the world. “One big difference in terms of counterinsurgency from today to the past is the information realm,” he said. “An action anywhere in the world will be broadcast to many different constituencies immediately, and not necessarily by an official press. Everyone is a broadcaster through the use of smartphones and online video. So, if anything, the information aspect has become more salient than it ever was, and we need to learn how to get ahead of that with our own narrative, reasons and explanations out front so as to not fall behind in a competition of narratives.”

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