Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

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My Amusing (Maybe) Attempt At Recontextualizing Counterinsurgency

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A brief conversation about counterinsurgency in the context of parenting made me laugh the other day, and kind of inspired me to turn the doctrine in which I’ve been immersed into something that might amuse some people. What I’m going to do is rework the “counterinsurgency framework” we use into a parenting scenario, and hope that a) hilarity ensues and b) those who are interested in how this all works will find it interesting.

My disclaimer is that I’m not a parent. I don’t even have the slightest interest in ever becoming one either, but this seems superficially so simple that it really shouldn’t matter.

So, here we go. In simple terms, an insurgency is an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict. Actually, that’s not simple terms, it’s doctrinal, but it’s also fairly simple. The creation of an insurgency generally requires three prerequisites. First, a vulnerable population, meaning a population with real or perceived grievances about their government. Second, leadership available for direction, meaning a leader who can be coerced, co-opted, or who naturally emerges to channel those grievances and allow an insurgency to take hold. Finally, there must be a lack of government control – a government unable to assert itself effectively over the population. This can be either from being too heavy-handed and thus resented or ignored (think Libya?), or being non-existent in the eyes of the population (kind of like over here, in a lot of ways).

Part of why I found this brief discussion so funny is that I perceive that something like the prerequisites exists in a lot of families, and when kids band together as they often do, I think that a situation can emerge that somewhat parallels insurgency. If you’re not picking up what I’m saying here, maybe I’ve become a curmudgeon (at 32!), but lots of people seem to have forgotten that it’s okay to discipline kids and put them in their place once in a while.

So, I can assert that a variation of the three prerequisites can occur there – kids with perceived grievances (usually perceived, anyhow!), leadership can emerge among them, and a lack of parental control. We’ll just reframe the whole armed conflict thing a bit, or we can remove it and just leave “subversion” in the definition, because that’s the stock-in-trade of kids. Smart ones, anyhow.

So, an insurgency in the real world appears when the prerequisites are met and generally then begins to try to form bonds with the population – the ultimate prize in this case. Doing so requires leadership in some form, an ideology (some ideal that binds them together) and an objective – what they want, why they want it, and how they’re going to get it. Behold the first three (of eight) Dynamics of Insurgencies! Now we just have to cover the other five. Next up is Knowledge Of The Environment. Operating close to home gives insurgents a solid understanding of how to gain and employ freedom of movement. In the case of Afghanistan, most insurgents are killed or captured within 30 miles of their home, suggesting they know the ground well and use that knowledge to good effect. In the case of kids – well, they’re also operating generally on home turf and finding ways to conspire.  They will also use their siblings to give them morale support and encouragement (Internal Support – number 5!), and develop networks which give them more to work with. This External Support (#6) can include other kids at school, the Children’s Aid Society, the Police, and anyone else they threaten to call in when they don’t get their way. In cases of divorced parents, step-parents can often be a form of external support (or a target), as can non-custodial parents. It’s very important they you study these dynamics in detail.

As for the last two, number seven is “Phases & Timing”. We derive this from Mao’s Guerilla Warfare, that insurgencies can be in any of three phases and shift between then as appropriate to circumstances. If kids appear well behaved, even if they are obviously conspiring to subvert parental authority, we could describe them as being in the Latent & Incipient Phase. Eventually they may shift to Phase 2 – Guerrilla Warfare, pushing the boundaries of the rules and rules with some transgressions, but not an obviously well-coordinated resistance. If you’ve totally failed as a parent, you’ll soon see the phase shift to War Of Movement, where their shadow government structure will be fully in place, they will gain near complete freedom of movement and action, and you as a parent will have lost all ability to control them. Based on my observation, this is not as uncommon as it should be, and so I’m hoping that if I now introduce the COIN Principles, you might be able to sort things out if this situation applies to you. The last dynamic, incidentally, is organization. Kids are adept at learning what has worked for other kids, and will choose their forms of organization and strategy based on these exchanges.

I’m guessing that if you’re still reading this, it’s because you’re realizing that you don’t have children, you have a fermenting insurgency within your own home, and you’re starting to worry about it. Don’t worry. I’ll get to the how to fix things, but this is a military philosophical experiment, and you need to understand a lot more about the nature of the threat before we can start making bold prescriptions for how to address and neutralize it.

Before I get into COIN Principles, let’s review some of the more classic organizations and forms of insurgent strategy. The first is called the “Urban Strategy”. In the COIN Model we use, we treat the Host Nation Government and Host Nation Security Forces as two separate actors bonded together, and attacking that bond can be part of an insurgent’s strategy. In the Urban Strategy, insurgents will attack the government in the hopes of provoking an overreaction by it that motivates people to join the insurgent cause. So one child defies authority in the hopes that the overreaction (ideally punishing all the kids) will inspire their siblings to side with him. In the “Foco Strategy”, which was Che Guevara’s strategy, the attacks are targeted at soft targets to show the population the weakness of the government and inspire support. I’ll liken this to the “mommy-daddy” effect where children target the parent more likely to say yes, which then demonstrates a degree of freedom of movement. This allows them to inspire followers.

If your kids are very sophisticated they may manage to put a protracted political strategy into place, which involves setting up a well indoctrinated political faction – that’s the smart kid who tries to reason with mom and dad to allow for the freedoms that the guerrilla wing wants. They’ll use the various phases and rely heavily on external and internal support to effect a long-term struggle. This would be what Mao Zedong wrote about. If they’re really, really sharp, they’ll go subversive, where the rational (political) wing disavows and even publicly condemns the more mischievous faction, all while trying to win over a political solution. They’ll deny any affiliation, of course, but it is clear they’re working together for the same end. This would be Northern Ireland – Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army.

So, what to do? What are the COIN Principles that can defeat an insurgency by rooting it out within your AO/home?

The key lies in breaking the links between the insurgents and their supporters, and the shadow government structure they’re trying to create. In the theory, you need to connect the population to the government – meaning win over the kids who are either supporting the troublemaker or are ambivalent about him. You need to isolate the belligerents from society, and you need to make the environment inhospitable to them. When that happens, parental authority becomes more secure, and harmony is restored.

There are eight principles: first is to establish legitimacy. I don’t know why, but this seems to be a sort of Rubicon that many parents can’t cross. When I was a kid, parents had legitimate authority BECAUSE THEY WERE MY PARENTS. However, I think there’s been some kind of shift in that mentality. [editor’s note: told you I was  a curmudgeon] You have to make clear that parents are the legitimate authority over kids, and that they will dominate the AO. Now, in the real COIN world, this means kinetic operations (smashing the hell out of insurgents). It’s not politically correct to beat your kids anymore, but sometimes it’s worth consideration to show people who’s boss. That’s not your only means of solving the problem though, because you cannot simply beat your kids into submission and defeat their insurgency.

Next, we need Unity Of Effort, which means both parents must be on the same page about strategy (prevent the “divide and conquer” strategy by the insurgency), and you may well need to involve other external support of your own – coaches, teachers, the police, whatever you deem necessary to deal with the insurgency. Everyone has to be on the same page. In the COIN world, the key is to make sure that political actors, the international community, the security forces, and so on have to be working toward a common end with a coordinated plan.

It’s important, as I was saying, to understand that you can’t simply kill off an insurgency. Politics Is Primary is one of the COIN Principles. You must use that to win over the hearts and minds of the population, that is, to form an emotional and logical connection with them. You must seek to understand the environment to deny the insurgents the ability to move freely within it, and use intelligence to shape the battlefield. Get to know the support networks, and figure out where support is coming from, how it travels. Figure out who the kids are that are telling them about the wonders of threatening to call the Children’s Aid Society, and keep your kids away from them. Figure whose parents spoil their kids rotten, and stop sending your kids over to their house, and so on.

Now you should be well on your way to isolating the insurgents. Remember, these days grounding kids isn’t what it used to be and probably isn’t enough, especially if you’re leaving them with their cell phone, iPad, and internet. You need to make bold and decisive action against this a priority, because without cutting off these means, they’ll have support and sanctuary. In doing so, we’re looking to establish Security Through The Rule Of Law for all kids, because that will fill the vacuum of lack of authority your unruly, undisciplined kids are seeking to exploit.

The final COIN Principle is Long Term Commitment: you need to be prepared for a long campaign to succeed. It is interesting to me that apparently, the average length of time it takes to defeat an insurgency is 16 years. You’ll need to be committed all the way until adulthood, and you may never win, but at least you’ll be prepared to handle the challenge better.

To Recap:

Three Prerequisites Of Insurgency:

1. Vulnerable Population
2. Leadership Available For Direction
3. Lack Of Government Control

Insurgent Dynamics:

1. Leadership
2. Ideology
3. Objective
4. Environment
5. External Support
6. Internal Support
7. Phases
8. Organization

Approaches To Counterinsurgency

1. Separate Insurgents From Population
2. Connect Population To Government
3. Transform Environment To Be Inhospitable To Insurgents

COIN Principles

1. Legitimacy
2. Unity Of Effort
3. Political Is Primary
4. Understand The Environment
5. Intelligence
6. Isolate Insurgents
7. Security Under Rule Of Law
8. Long Term Commitment