Keith Boyea's Blog

Notes & Commentary on National Security, Current Affairs and Bourbon

Two Basic Counterinsurgency Concepts

Thesis: These two basic COIN points laid about by Galula in 1964 should have made everyone question a COIN strategy for Afghanistan.

David Galual was French officer who served in Algeria during the 1950s.  He wrote a book titled Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice.  It is a basic text for counterinsurgency buffs; John Nagl, THE American  counterinsurgent, wrote the forward to the latest printing.  The book shows up first on Abu Muqawama’s reading list.  It is a text upon which the military’s own COIN manual, FM 3-24, is based on.  (By my count, he’s mentioned 9 times in FM 3-24.)

The point is that Galula is known inside COIN circles.  He’s a major influencer.  I wrote my thesis on the Afghan counterinsurgency, so I’ve read the book too.  And since I’ve read the book, I’m pretty sure none of the “COINdanistas” have.  Old Galula writes at some length in Chapter 2 about the “Prerequisites for a Successful Insurgency.” (That’s the title of the chapter.)  Inside that chapter, starting on page 23 and ending on page 28, he discusses the geographic conditions and outside support that can assist the insurgent.  If the COINdanistas has read these five pages–five fucking pages–they’d have had serious doubts about the efficacy of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

I’m tempted to reproduce the entire five pages, but I’m going to summarize cause I want to keep this short. Galula lists eight geographic conditions that can assist the insurgent.  They are (descriptions summarized):

1.)  Location–A geographically isolated country surrounded by countries tha oppose the insurgent helps the counterinsurgent.

2.) Size–The larger the country, the better for the insurgent.

3.) Configuration–The easier to compartmentalize the country, the better for the counterinsurgent.

4.) International Borders–Long borders, especially with countries friendly to the insurgent, assist the insurgent.

5.) Terrain–Rugged terrain helps the insurgent.

6.)  Climate–Harsh climate assists the counterinsurgent, especially if the counterinsurgent is native.

7.) Population–A dispersed population helps the insurgent.

8.) Economy–Underdeveloped countries help the insurgent.

As it applies to Afghanistan, at least six of those, and arguably all of them, break against the counterinsurgent.  Now let’s look at pages 25-26 where Galula discusses “Outside Support.”  Galula lists five ways outside support can assist the insurgents:

1.) Moral Support–Support in communications, public opinion and propaganda.

2.) Political Support–Pressure against the counterinsurgent in international bodies or forums.

3.) Technical Support–Military and technical advice for the insurgent.

4.) Financial Support–Money coming in from the outside.

5.) Military Support–Military stuff coming in from outside.

With the exception of political support in the way that Galula defines it, all of these are available to the Afghan insurgency through Pakistan and to a lesser extent through Iran.

I encourage everyone interested in this sort of thing to read the book for themselves.  But my biggest point is this: Before knowing anything about the political situation inside Afghanistan, before knowing anything about America’s ability to “do” COIN, before doing anything but looking at a contour map of the region and doing a basic google search on the words “Afghanistan” and “Pakistan,” COINdanistas should have known that COIN in Afghanistan was a bad idea.  

I think it is useful to understand that COINdanistas didn’t even take the advice of one of the most basic texts they’ve all claimed to read. I don’t know how to explain the decision to do COIN in Afghanistan any other way but to conclude that the COIN crowd decided on a solution before they examined the situation.  It was a terrible decision, one that has cost the United States hundreds of lives and billions of dollars.  It put off the point of reckoning for Afghans several years and almost surely made that day of reckoning bloodier (because, you know, we armed almost every Afghan male of military age).  So excuse me if I’m not quick to forgive the hucksters that sold us this bloody catastrophe; I’m going to sit in my corner of the internet and fume.

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Written by keithboyea

December 15, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. I love me some Galula, I think Counterinsurgency Warfare is still the quintessential book when looking at the tactical and operational issues of insurgency. Galula is fallible like anyone else though. Almost all of his eight geographic conditions apply to nearly all insurgencies (there’s a reason they start in such places to begin with). And you can quibble with a few of them particularly the seventh as we have seen urban areas become true hotbeds of insurgency since he wrote.

    When talking about Afghanistan though, I think Galula’s frame of reference of Algeria might be a poor analogy. Probably the best history that explains the strategic situation in Algeria is a Savage War of Peace with Alistair Horne. The French military actually did a pretty remarkable job overcoming geographic disadvantages in Algeria. The Morice Line and other border defenses at Tunisia and Morocco were very effective at limiting infiltration. Toward the end of the war, the FLN was basically defeated militarily. The questions of why De Gaulle cried uncle and gave up are much more political.

    I do think Steven Metz is correct when he said on Twitter the U.S. kind of fell into doing COIN in Afghanistan. There is room to criticize the 2009 review and strategy particularly on this point. They oversold the prospects of such a strategy and did not give enough credit to the potential obstacles (geographic and otherwise).

    On a broader scale, the development of COIN as a concept has fallen victim to a great deal of cherry picking of favorable examples and such, so to me it is no great shock that Galula’s warnings fell on deaf ears.

    Abe Medoff

    December 15, 2011 at 5:21 pm

  2. […] his book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife.  Nagl is aware of the geographical issues I laid out last week, because he wrote about them.  On page 16, Nagl approvingly quotes someone named A.H. Sollom: […]


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