Archive for the ‘COIN’ Category

Digging Our Own Grave? The Results of CT, COIN and Regime Change
Greg Simons
Small Wars Journal | July 30, 2014

This is intended as an opinion, and a reflection on the current state of affairs and possible future trends regarding the West’s involvement in numerous irregular wars and revolutions. War should be a final resort, and for good reasons, rather than the apparent policy tool it is now. This has been the experience of philosophers and theoreticians of war through the ages, war needs to be carefully considered and executed, otherwise the wielder of the sword may face dire consequences. War is not only an opportunity cost, in other words the country needs to give something else up. But it also bears a diminishing return, if wars are too long and costly (in terms of blood and finance) it will begin to erode not only the tangible assets of war (soldiers, military hardware and so forth), but also the intangible assets are affected negatively (belief in the political and military leadership, will to fight). Ultimately, if there is a lack of strategic vision in fighting wars, rather they have a tactical or operational character, the lack of consideration of side effects shall ultimately haunt the actor. The recent events in Iraq and Syria with ISIS and their battlefield success are just one hint and lesson in this regard. Such lessons may take some years to emerge, but given the opportunity they shall. As Sun Tzu once said “strategy without tactics is the slowest road to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

In the Western world (United States centric and led) there needs to be a fundamental reassessment of how and why we fight wars. Events and actions in the Global War On Terrorism (GWOT) and the Arab Spring have been causing contradictory results and have actually ensured an increase in insecurity through threats of radicalisation and terrorism in the Middle East and in Western countries with significant Muslim communities. There has been a tangible display of this form of insecurity through events such as the 7 July 2005 bombings in London, the murder of the soldier Rigby by radicals, Belgium citizens being tried for war crimes committed in Syria fighting for Jihadi forces and the recent suicide bombing carried out by an American citizen in Syria.

There is also the issue of what protracted conflict does to soldiers that have been fighting in Counter-Terrorism (CT) and Counter-Insurgency (COIN) operations for years and with only a vague end possibly in sight. The concerns caused by effects of psychological trauma was sufficient for the European Union within the framework of their FP7 research programme to have a specific call to study this problem. Crimes, violence and an inability to readjust to civilian life, together with a lack of support for these people have caused a dangerous situation. This situation is sufficient to raise the question, are we fighting the current wars and engaging in the various regime change exercises in tactics only, and lacking strategy?

It seems that there is somewhat of an obsession to try and not only learn basic lessons from the past from action in small wars, such as insurgency and terrorism, and then to create a ‘blueprint’ that can be used universally in a kind of cookie-cutter approach. However this ignores the basic dilemma, which is that best practice does not necessarily equate to best strategy. David Ucko evaluated the performance of COIN in Afghanistan very critically. “The lack of clear strategy behind the campaign resulted in the elevation of COIN from the operational to the strategic level. In parallel, the doctrinal best practices of COIN – population security, good governance, and legitimacy – were confused with strategic ends and pursued simultaneously. In practice, these were not adapted to specific problems and objectives and remained little more than slogans.”[i] Ucko likened COIN as being “armed politics” (this is in-line with Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz who both classified war as politics by another means) and warned that doctrine should never replace strategy.

Haroro Ingram stated that there are three lessons from the experience of recent small conflicts. “1) Counter-insurgency thinking and practice typically lags behind that of its insurgent foe; 2) insurgencies succeed or fail based on their ability to synchronise competitive systems of meaning with competitive systems of control and 3) the core assumptions of the dominant hearts and minds approach to COIN should be re-examined in light of recent insurgent successes.” He noted that between the years of 1775-1945 only about 20 per cent of insurgencies were successful, after 1945 this rate has doubled.[ii] The situation described above points to problematic issues in the way that wars are fought.

Analysts in the United States in the late 1980s and 1990s noted changes in the way that wars were organised and fought. One of these was the concept that was brought to light by William Lind and others in the Marine Corps Gazette in 1989, when they talked about the changing nature of war into what was termed as being fourth generation warfare (4GW). This was the decentralisation of warfare and the loss of the state monopoly on prosecuting armed conflict. A number of elements were associated with this kind of conflict: complex and long-term; terrorism, insurgency and guerrilla tactics; non-national/transnational base and highly decentralised; attack the enemy culture; use of psychological warfare and propaganda; political, social, economic and military pressures all used; low intensity conflict involving networks of actors; lack of hierarchy. Non-state actors are small in size and very agile in terms of their organisational structure and ability to make decisions (with long-term planning). The basic goals of this kind of warfare are for survival or to prevent the success of enemy decision-makers by demoralising them. There was another development in military strategy that is in some ways related, which followed 4GW.

In the 1990s, the US Department of Defence pioneered the theory of warfare that came to be called network-centric warfare. This involves taking advantage of the innovations taking place in information communication technology within the sphere of military operations. Publications, such as, Understanding Information Age Warfare by David Alberts and others (2001) outline the basic tenets of the theory, of which there are four. 1) Thoroughly networked force improves information sharing; 2) by sharing information, shared situational awareness and the quality of information is enhanced; the effects of shared situational awareness includes enabling collaboration and self-synchronisation, bettering sustainability and speed of command; which greatly improve mission effectiveness. This form of warfare creates a competitive advantage by linking and keeping well-informed, geographically dispersed forces and it allows for permitting new forms of organisational behaviour. This is especially useful when the nature of the armed conflict is in-line with the notions outlined by 4GW.

Although these forms of warfare theory have been developed in the West, they seem to have been co-opted by the radical Islamist insurgent and terrorist movements. The current style of prosecuting war seems to be more in line with third generation warfare principles, where information plays a supporting role to military operations. However, the opponent is certainly fighting the current conflict by 4GW means, and where military operations play a supporting role to information. It is asymmetric warfare that is being fought very different by the sides engaged in the conflict. The West plays a more tactical and short-term approach, which sometimes is at odds with goals and objectives. For instance, by engaging in regime change within the Arab Spring context (Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and currently Syria), it provides opportunities for their opponent to seize upon. The ‘victory’ in Libya with the toppling of Gaddafi has rapidly turned into a nightmare, which has spilled into Algeria, Mali and Syria. It has also provided an enemy that is very agile and networked the opportunity to regain a lot of strength and create new places to gain support and base their power. Social media certainly enables the Islamic insurgency to simultaneously wage a real and a virtual struggle against a currently stronger enemy. It enables networking, recruiting, planning, logistics, propaganda and many more such operations that are needed to sustain an insurgency. Narratives of radical Islamic groups are carried by social media to geographically dispersed socially displaced individuals in the West and elsewhere. It uses norms and values, especially around aspects of social justice and the defence of Islam to compete with the Western narrative of democracy and security. This is shown in the tangible results of the 13-year long GWOT.

Since 2010 there has been an increase of 60 per cent in the number of radical Islamic groups and a 300 per cent increase in the number of attacks committed by al Qaeda and affiliated groups according to a study conducted by RAND.[iii] One of the threats comes from the radicalisation of youth in Muslim communities in Western countries. American intelligence and CT officials estimate that some 70 Americans have travelled to Syria to join the fight against the Syrian government. There may be as many as 3000 Westerners having travelled to Syria. The British Home Office has stripped 20 Jihadis of their citizenship and in January-March 2014 British police have made some 40 “Syria-related arrests” (up from 25 for the whole of 2013).[iv] Of the estimated 11000 foreign fighters in Syria, at least 400-500 are from France (President Hollande estimated publicly 700 French residents). In Bosnia, someone convicted of trying to fight in a foreign war (i.e. Syria) can be given a 10-year prison sentence, in France the sentence is three-five years (on a charge of plotting terrorism).[v] Norway has also joined in arresting those wishing to travel to Syria to fight or in supporting radical Islamic groups.[vi] The concern is that the activities of these fighters may not be solely restricted to foreign acts of terrorism or supporting terrorist organisation. There is some substance to this reasoning, in 2012 Mohammed Merah returned to his home city of Toulouse where he killed three French soldiers, three Jewish children and a Rabbi. The murder of Lee Rigby (an off-duty soldier) in Woolwich, England in May 2013, when two Islamic converts ran him down in a car and then hacked him to death (the reason giving was for the killing of Muslims by British Armed Forces) serves as another reminder of the dangers.

Soldiers in Afghanistan were, at one stage, being killed more as a result of suicide than enemy action at one stage. On the home front in the US, some 22 veterans per day are committing suicide. There are long waiting times for access to mental health, some waiting at least two months for an appointment.[vii] The inability of returned personnel to cope with daily life has seen a surge in various forms of violence and crime as well as those that withdraw from mainstream society. The matter points to the situation where the intangible assets of the West are in decline and being degraded. At the same time, the insurgent foe’s intangible assets are gaining further strength, often as a result of what the West is doing and perceived to be doing within the contexts of GWOT and the Arab Spring.

There has been a refinement, amalgamation and harmonisation of 4GW and network-centric warfare, not by Western political and military circles, but by the diverse groups of the Islamic insurgency. They are a much more flexible and responsive organisation to their operating environment than their Western counterparts that seek to rely on procedure (doctrine) and short-term planning cycles. It is likely to be a matter of time, assuming the current trends continue their present path, the tangible elements of Western strength and power shall decline and become noticeable. The current military-centric approach to CT and COIN seems to ignore or at least underplay the important and decisive embedded political aspects to armed conflict.

End Notes

[i] Ucko, D., Best Practice or Best Strategy: Can New COIN Doctrine Win Future Wars?, ISN,, 27 May 2014 (accessed 31 May 2014)

[ii] Ingram, H., Three Lessons from the Modern Era of Small Wars, ISN,, 26 May 2014 (accessed 31 May 2014)

[iii] Ernst, D., Al Qaeda Surge: Islamic Radical Groups Skyrocketed Since 2010, Study Says, The Washington Times,, 4 June 2014 (accessed 5 June 2014)

[iv] De Freytas-Tamura, K., Foreign Jihadis Fighting in Syria Pose Risk in West, The New York Times,, 29 May 2014 (accessed 31 May 2014)

[v] Rubin, A. J., Fearing Converts to Terrorism, France Intercepts Citizens Bound for Syria, The New York Times,, 2 June 2014 (accessed 3 June 2014)

[vi] Staff Writers, Norway Arrests Three Suspected of Supporting Syria Jihad, AFP in Space War,, 27 May 2014 (accessed 31 May 2014)

[vii] McElhatton, J. & Klimas, J., Mental Health Delays at VA System Five Times Longer Than Reported, The Washington Times,, 4 June 2014 (accessed 5 June 2014)


Best Practice or Best Strategy: Can New Counterinsurgency Doctrine Win Future Wars?
David Ucko
ISN | 27 May 2014

If counterinsurgency theory supposedly succeeded in Iraq, why did it fail in Afghanistan? For David Ucko, the answer is clear – theory is no substitute for practical strategies that appreciate the ‘nature and grammar’ of real conflicts.

Two weeks ago, the United States Army and the Marine Corps updated their counterinsurgency doctrine, last published in November 2006 before the ‘surge’ in Iraq. The publication of the new doctrine has raised fresh questions about the role of counterinsurgency in campaign planning and strategy. Was the 2006 field manual in some way responsible for the subsequent stabilization of Iraq? If counterinsurgency succeeded there, why did it not meet expectations (some might say ‘fail’) in Afghanistan? And will the doctrine published last week allow for better results in campaigns to come?

Counterinsurgency and strategy

These questions suggest two fundamental points. First, as the most recent counterinsurgency manual states, ‘counterinsurgency is not a substitute for strategy’. Counterinsurgency theory offers a collection of insights collected from past operations, which, if adapted to local context, can help in the design and execution of a campaign plan. To the degree that counterinsurgency theory worked in Iraq, it was because it was tied to a campaign plan informed by the specific contextual enablers relevant to that operation: the Sons of Iraq, the Anbar Awakening, and splits within the main Shia political structures. Counterinsurgency was then implemented in Afghanistan, but without an appreciation of these contextual enablers, which explains why the same approach produced such different results. Best practice is not best strategy.

An important reason for the success of counterinsurgency in Iraq was the cooperation of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who during the surge recast himself as a national rather than sectarian leader. Of course, the Iraqi leadership was far from perfect. For example, US support for Sunni tribes and former insurgents was not accompanied by the support of the central government, and this has complicated the reintegration process for the Sunni forces that fought against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Nevertheless, in broad terms, the Iraqi leadership compared favorably to that in Afghanistan, which has proved either unable or unwilling to move against the warlords who have established themselves (often with coalition assistance) in recent years.

Furthermore, in Iraq the coalition was far more invested in reforming the ministries that had been penetrated by Shia radical elements, transformed into sectarian fiefdoms, and used to target Sunni communities. Ministerial reform is an under-appreciated aspect of the surge, but speaks to America’s leverage and familiarity with Iraqi politics at the time. Equivalent efforts in Afghanistan came too late and were insufficient, partly due to the absence of a host-nation partner and the desire of NATO to withdraw just as the shift to counterinsurgency was announced. Thus, the government is still largely corrupt and illegitimate, which has fueled the insurgency.

Another factor was the ability of the U.S. military in Iraq to exploit the emerging rift between AQI and the Sunni tribes of Anbar province. The coalition has found no similar partner in Afghanistan, meaning that its local counterinsurgency operations have had to be conducted in isolation. Attempts to create Afghan equivalents to the Sunni Awakening and Sons of Iraq have stuttered because, whereas the latter were based on preexisting structures with their own interests, the Afghan ‘replicas’ were manufactured from scratch. This means that these local defense forces lack the necessary unity of command, training, and purpose, which has in turn resulted in poor discipline, accountability, and effectiveness.

There were important differences between the two cases in the level of Western commitment and in the underlying financial realities, but the difference in unity of command was particularly significant. In Afghanistan, three separate operations with different requirements were being conducted simultaneously: the American-led counterterrorist effort against al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, the NATO-led ISAF operation to provide security and to enable a third mission led by the UN and devoted to political and economic development. The issue of counternarcotics overlapped with these missions, especially after 2009. This multitude of objectives made the ability to prioritize among them and tie long-term aims to a resourced campaign plan indispensable for effective warfare. These were areas where NATO fell woefully short.

The lack of a clear strategy behind the campaign resulted in the elevation of counterinsurgency from the operational to the strategic level. In parallel, the doctrinal best practices of counterinsurgency – ‘population security’, ‘good governance’, and ‘legitimacy’ – were confused with strategic ends and pursued simultaneously. In practice, these were not adapted to specific problems and objectives and remained little more than slogans.

Counterinsurgency is armed politics. This means that it must be informed by a strategy that is sustainable, resourced, feasible and responsive to the situation at hand. Although doctrine can be valuable in tying carefully defined strategic aims to the design of operations, it cannot be allowed to replace strategy. For strategic purposes, the estimate of the particular situation is a critical starting point because it reveals the threats, opportunities and challenges that can be exploited within a specific response.

The contribution of counterinsurgency

This leads us to the second point: if counterinsurgency doctrine fails to defeat insurgencies, what good is it? Historically, the modest yet crucial value of counterinsurgency doctrine lies in the challenge it poses to many of the preconceptions about war that have dominated Western strategic thinking. Specifically, counterinsurgency provides a corrective to the view of war as militarily decisive and apolitical. In essence, the principles of counterinsurgency touch upon the importance of achieving a nuanced political understanding of the campaign, of operating under unified command, of using intelligence to guide operations, of isolating insurgents from the population, of using the minimum amount of force necessary to achieve objectives, and of maintaining the legitimacy of the counterinsurgency effort in the eyes of the populace.

To the casual observer, these principles will appear self-evident. Nonetheless, they illustrate the unique logic of counterinsurgency and its distinctiveness from the ‘conventional’ types of war for which most Western militaries train and prepare. For military institutions that regard the utility of force as a ‘stand-alone’ solution, the principles of counterinsurgency are an important corrective.

Similarly, counterinsurgency also challenges the traditional peacekeeping mindset and its expectations of ‘impartiality’ and ‘consent’ in largely non-violent operations. Whereas these terms are appropriate in certain ‘permissive’ environments, they are inadequate for contested settings, which is where the military is typically deployed. In these settings, adherence to peacekeeping principles has resulted in interventions so unobtrusive as to be negligible; elsewhere, their limiting effect on the intervening force has been deftly exploited by wily and versatile adversaries. In contrast, counterinsurgency doctrine emphasises that a permissive operational environment cannot be expected to obtain but must be actively worked towards and sustained. Similarly, the consent of the local population is not a function of how much force is used, but of how that force is used and why. Political influence is not achieved through acts of kindness, but by maintaining security and a firm monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The contribution of counterinsurgency theory, then, is to elucidate the common requirements of working towards and sustaining a secure environment, of engaging with some local actors against others, and of using force – in parallel with other means – to achieve a particular, rather than a general, peace.

Can we win next time?

Will the further study of counterinsurgency help Western nations in their future interventions in war-torn countries? The question is timely, given the likely rejection of the term following the troubled campaign in Afghanistan.

The modest contribution of counterinsurgency is to provide a corrective to our understanding of war and warfare. It reinforces the need for political primacy to address what are fundamentally political problems and the need to couch military activity within a broader strategy. This contribution is modest because the principles and guidance counterinsurgency provides are often banal, even if they represent an improvement over traditional military thinking on war. Careful study and research is needed to determine how best to apply these principles to future operations, and it is fair to say that the theory is better at raising the right questions than in providing the answers.

In learning to answer these questions, there must be fewer assumptions about the nature of insurgency. Rather than accepting slogans like ‘winning hearts and minds’ or ‘population control’, future counterinsurgencies must craft strategies based on the local context, grievances and politics – and their exploitation by specific groups. The indispensable starting point is a strategic assessment of the situation: where does the insurgent organization gains its strength, how does it operate, and why will it win? Only through such an assessment and through a clearer understanding of our own interests and objectives will the fortunes of future campaigns improve.

David H. Ucko, PhD, is an associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs and an adjunct fellow at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is the author of Counterinsurgency in Crisis: Britain and the Challenges of Modern Warfare (Columbia University Press, 2013) and of The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars (Georgetown University Press, 2009).


After Afghanistan
Lessons for NATO’s Future Wars
Antulio J Echevarria II
The RUSI Journal | Volume 159, Issue 3, 2014


One of the key issues to be discussed at the forthcoming NATO summit will be preparation for future military engagements after more than a decade of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. Antulio J Echevarria II revisits some of the key lessons to be drawn from this experience, and highlights the questions that will need to be addressed if the Alliance is to be equipped to meet future challenges in a changing world.

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Three Lessons from the Modern Era of Small Wars
Haroro Ingram
ISN | 26 May 2014

In the case of ‘small wars’, what are the basic lessons we should have learned since 1945? Try these, says Haroro Ingram – successful insurgencies must create and provide meaning; counterinsurgency thinking is reactive, and therefore always one step behind the insurgent; and the ‘hearts and minds’ approach to counterinsurgency has to be revised.

The ongoing withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan punctuates an era of ‘small wars’ that stretches beyond the “9/11 decade” to the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War. Although asymmetric military contests between established authorities and irregular guerrillas are among the oldest of military phenomena, the modern period of small wars represents a departure from this history. Before this period, irregular guerrillas tended to be overwhelmed by their stronger and better resourced adversaries. Modern small wars, by contrast, have seen significantly higher rates of insurgent victory. Between 1775 and 1945, about 20% of insurgencies were successful. After 1945, the success rate of insurgencies has doubled. What explains this trend?

Overall, three lessons can be learned from the experience of modern small wars: 1) counterinsurgency thinking and practice typically lags behind that of its insurgent foe; 2) insurgencies succeed or fail based on their ability to synchronize competitive systems of meaning with competitive systems of control and 3) the core assumptions of the dominant ‘hearts and minds’ approach to counterinsurgency should be re-examined in light of recent insurgent successes.

Modern small wars: a dual contest

Despite the rise in the success rate of insurgencies since the Second World War, most insurgencies still fail to achieve their objectives. Insurgencies are at their most fragile in their early stages – soon after discontent has given way to violence. Surviving this formative period is crucial to the success of an insurgency. However, the ability to survive this formative period often depends on the same complex mix of strategic and psychosocial factors that helps to determine an insurgency’s ultimate success or failure.

This mix of strategic and psychosocial factors depends on effectively competing in the two simultaneous contests that characterise a small war. The first is a contest to implement a system of control (i.e. a ‘political’ apparatus) by ‘winning’ the support of a population. This clash between incumbent and aspiring ‘competitive systems of control’ (to borrow Bernard Fall’s terminology) typically involves ‘top-down’ military-political forces attempting to establish control over a population. This contest is the raison d’être of any small war: the ascendancy of one system of control over all others.

The second is the contest to implement a system of meaning. In almost all modern small wars, ‘competitive systems of meaning’ seek to leverage the contested population’s identity and its perception of crisis (which is the defining psychosocial condition of civilian populations in wartime) in order to shape assessments of the conflict and of the actors involved – and to influence decisions about whom the population supports, and how.

Competitive systems of meaning: The insurgent’s advantage

In the modern period, insurgents have demonstrated an acute appreciation for the strategic and psychosocial power of a competitive system of meaning. Analysis of a global cross-section of insurgency thinkers – from Mao Tse-Tung and Ho Chi Minh to ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz Al-Muqrin, the Irish Republican Army and Che Guevara – reveals extraordinary doctrinal uniformity: all of these thinkers prioritize the strategic role of ‘information operations’ (IO) and regard military and political activities as largely supporting functions. In contrast, ‘Hearts and Minds’ counterinsurgency strategy, especially as practised in Afghanistan and Iraq, has reversed this strategic logic.

Modern insurgents have also understood that there are gradations of a population’s support. While behavioral support (or collaboration) is the most palpable form, it is also usually the weakest. This is why modern insurgents tend to pursue deeper perceptual and attitudinal support from contested populations – support that may belie occasional behavioral support for their opponents during the hardships of war. As Mao Tse-Tung has reminded generations of guerrillas: “In a war of long duration, those whose conviction that the people must be emancipated is not deep rooted are likely to become shaken in their faith or actually revolt.”

No matter their ideological persuasion, modern insurgents have tended to use IO as a mechanism to target the ‘identity landscape’ of a population, attaching perceptions of crisis to ‘out-group’ identities (i.e. the counterinsurgency and incumbent authorities) and solutions to themselves (i.e. the insurgency) as members of the shared ‘in-group’ identity. This can have a powerful psychosocial effect because it is designed to shape and reinforce the same identity paradigms through which perceptions of crisis are framed and understood. The result is a cyclical process of cognitive reinforcement.

It would be mistaken to interpret the insurgent’s competitive system of meaning as simply ‘good’ IO. Competitive systems of meaning consist of a combination of IO and military-political activities. As Guevara contends: “Every act of the guerrilla army ought always to be accompanied by the propaganda necessary to explain the reasons for it.” Equally, the actions of the counterinsurgency are often accompanied by insurgent IO messaging (reinforced by insurgent action) to shape how those actions are perceived. Modern insurgents understand that, if they can shape how contested populations perceive the conflict, its actors and their actions, IO becomes a dual mechanism of compounding returns: a ‘force multiplier’ for the insurgency and a ‘force nullifier’ for their opponents.

From the modern insurgent’s perspective, small wars are not about winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of contested populations but about shaping their perceptions in order to polarize their support. In short, modern insurgencies succeed or fail based on their ability to synchronize competitive systems of meaning and control – in that order of priority – to ‘survive, outlast and outcompete’ their more powerful adversaries.

The Taliban

The recent successes of the Taliban insurgency exemplify these dynamics. Within weeks of the commencement of Coalition military operations in 2001, the Taliban had been almost completely routed. In what former CIA Officer and Obama Administration advisor Bruce Riedel described as “one of the most remarkable military comebacks in modern history”, the Taliban then began trickling back into southern Afghanistan in 2003 and, within two years, the insurgency was gaining momentum through Afghanistan’s Pashtun belt.

A major feature of the Taliban’s revival has been the evolution of its IO strategy and the synchronisation of its IO operations with its military and political activities. While its local IO strategy remains a tactical and operational strength, it has shown a willingness to communicate with regional and global audiences via multilingual spokesmen and maintains an active online presence. There is also a consistency to the Taliban narrative that reflects an understanding of the strategic and psychosocial dynamics described above. The Taliban has effectively leveraged the identity landscape of the target population, i.e. Afghans, especially Pashtuns, and the broader ummah; it has attached perceptions of crisis to the ‘out-group’, i.e., the foreign counterinsurgency and the Afghan government; and it has attached solutions to itself as the noble representative of the ‘in-group,’ i.e., Afghans and Muslims.

Enhancing the effect of the Taliban’s evident appreciation for the strategic and psychosocial dimensions of insurgency warfare is the speed with which Taliban IO responds to events in the field. The Taliban often enjoys the advantages inherent in being the first to shape perceptions of events, especially for local audiences. As former NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer stated: “When there is an incident in Afghanistan, the Taliban are quick to say there have been high numbers of civilian casualties… This goes around the world in minutes. …our response comes days later – if we are lucky. By that time, we have totally lost the media battle.”

IO is broadly recognized as a Taliban strength and a weakness for Coalition forces. Three explanations for this are significant. First, Taliban IO holds a central position in the broader insurgency strategy. Counterinsurgency IO, on the other hand, has tended to be used as a supporting mechanism for what is the central focus of ‘hearts and minds’ strategy: using military force to create time and space for the counterinsurgency’s system of control to function effectively.

Second, while insurgents use IO to shape perceptions and polarize support, counterinsurgency IO tends to focus on a population-focused ‘hearts and minds’ narrative to encourage behavioral support. As Tim Foxley asserts: “Much of ISAF IO work is based around the promotion of ISAF and Afghan government narratives…. The work highlights ‘good news’ stories: a bridge built here, a school built there, a small child taken to hospital….”

Finally, Taliban IO is the centrepiece of an attempt to establish an entire system of meaning that is designed to both enhance the appeal and assist in the design of a competitive system of control. Coalition forces may be losing the IO battle in Afghanistan, but they have barely attempted to establish a competitive system of meaning.

The counterinsurgency lag

This is a critical juncture for the small wars field. It was only in the aftermath of the failures of military-centric counterinsurgency strategies in Indochina and Algeria – driven by the recognition that modern insurgencies are first and foremost ‘political’ phenomena – that the population-centric ‘hearts and minds’ approach to counterinsurgency was born. While this approach is now the status quo in counterinsurgency thinking and practice, the military-centrists of the time doggedly defended their positions – dismissing failures in the field as the result of faulty application. Decades later, the mixed results of ‘hearts and minds’ counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflicts are defended in a similar manner. To overcome the counterinsurgency lag, the fundamental assumptions underpinning this dominant counterinsurgency approach must be examined and the lessons of insurgent successes must be learned.

Dr Haroro J. Ingram is a Research Fellow with the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies (Australian National University, Canberra). His Australian Research Council funded project, ‘Through Their Eyes’, analyses insurgent ‘information operations’ and explores its role as a determining factor in the success of insurgent movements.