Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 11:38 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 11:38 | SYDNEY

Counterinsurgency: still in the dark

8 November 2010 11:50

Last week's Chief of Defence Force Conference, 'Beyond Asymmetry: Counterinsurgency and Stabilisation in the 21st Century', promised to be a captivating bedfellow to the rather inconclusive contemporary parliamentary debate on Afghanistan. But while the lists of speakers and session topics were rich and diverse, anyone wanting to learn why we are in Afghanistan, and whether we should stay there, would have left none the wiser.

Fair enough: the purpose of the conference was not to provide a 'why' — that is a political question, and all speakers maintained an admirable, if gritty, discipline to avoid it. What were discussed were the myriad challenges faced by militaries as they conduct their nations' interventions and stabilisation operations.

Most interesting for me was that while there were richly contrasting views from countries as diverse as India, Singapore, Germany and Pakistan (including the divisional commander of Pakistan’s operations in the Swat Valley) in addition to American, British and Australian views, a surprising degree of consistency and consensus emerged on some issues.

Some of the more contentious and confronting takeaways included:

  • The doctrine that underpins a strategy must not be confused with the strategy itself: Counterinsurgency theory is not a strategy.
  • Counterinsurgency is merely an approach — a 'how to', not 'what to do' or 'why to do it'. The campaign strategy that describes the ends for which a campaign is undertaken (and indeed, the grand political strategy in which the campaign exists) are ultimately derived politically.
  • There was a broad–based appeal for greater, more coherent and coordinated civilian and police involvement in counterinsurgencies.
  • Counterinsurgency campaigns are simultaneously distinct and intertwined with others, so a pre-set and inflexible plan is simply impractical and doomed to failure: we must learn to live with adapting to events and, to some extent at least, 'muddling through'.
  • The motivations for people who rise up and 'surge' against their governments appear to be regularly ignored by analysts and policymakers alike.  To achieve a more enduring result, greater emphasis must be placed on meeting the needs and grievances of insurgents — but when does such attendance to grievances traverse into appeasement'
  • A grim prediction that the need for counterinsurgency will prevail in a future characterised by three revolutions — a Europe irrevocably in decline; a ceaseless irregular warfare generated by an existential crisis in Islamic society; and an Asia-Pacific revolution in economies that will form the epicentre of the future world.
  • That counterinsurgency by definition involves engaging an adversary on a human and organic level, so that the many attempts to try to compare it with applied physics — where an action will result in a predictable opposite reaction — are flawed.

Personally, a more appealing physics analogy for counterinsurgency is that of quantum mechanics; here we find ideas such as the infamous Schrödinger’s Cat, where there are no certainties, just ever increasing probabilities, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, where outcomes are altered merely by our observing them. Plus, in quantum mechanics, the world is still prepared to countenance new factors and variables on a regular basis ...

The Australian Defence College will be publishing proceedings from the conference, including papers presented with ideas such as these, as well as other related articles. If they are able to shed any light on this ever-perplexing challenge, they will be worth the wait.

Photo by Flickr user isafmedia, used under a Creative Commons licence.