Sunday, March 14, 2010

Thoughts On Insurgencies....

Last week I got to talking with a co worker about insurgencies. Also I prioritized watching and really enjoyed a recent episode of FRONTLINE where a reporter spent 10 days with the Taliban. Based on these two things I have some thoughts on insurgencies in Iraq (more a couple years ago than now) and Afghanistan as well as elsewhere.

-First insurgents need to blend in with the population be it in a rural or urban setting. Of course their neighbors know what is up but they will not tell the occupiers. Insurgents out in a non typical for the area heavily armed compound never have a happy ending. However just another house or farm which has the normal comings and goings (versus say 30 military aged males) is not going to get noticed.

-Secondly insurgents have the ability to choose where and when they fight. To be blunt if they are on the defensive as anything but a delaying action before retreating from superior forces they get massacred. However if they choose a time and place that suits their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses they can do some real damage with a rifle and 4 mags a piece. Considering that US Infantry are likely carrying close to half their weight in stuff it isn't suprising that they can't catch the Taliban when they retreat. (There is a very interesting article called Bring Back The Light Infantry Projecting Combat Power More Effectively that you may get something out of ) .

While I do have a stark differences with the Taliban and their Al Queda friends (I want to kill them and they want to kill me) I can honestly say that they are very effective Light Infantry. They are very physically fit, highly motivated and adept at fighting in their environment. They know how to use their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. They attack at times of their choosing with IED's and complex heavy weapons ambushes from outside of the engagement range of most of our organic platoon weapons. I hate pretty much everything they stand for but darn it I can't say they are not very good Infantrymen.

-I think a modern insurgency needs the ability to get at least a mobility kill against moving armored tracked vehicles. Without this the other side is able to move with impunity which is not a good thing for said insurgents. If the insurgents can't find an answer to this issue it is going to just massacre them. Insurgents can't win in stand up fights so if they also can't engage mobile forces they are pretty much done for. The way they are successful is by making the cost of conducting everyday operations (movement, log pacs, transport, combat ops, etc) high and eventually outlasting them.

Being able to (at least mobility) kill an armored vehicle means more than punching a hole in the side of it with a .50 cal. It requires anti tank mines, some sort of heavy IED's or genuine modern anti tank weapons. Usually manufacturing IED's is the most practical option as all it takes is some decent explosives and a bit of ingenuity. A reasonably motivated fellow with a bit of initiative and access to some sort of explosives could make an IED but making a home made Javaline missile is at best a difficult prospect.

- Insurgents have a hard time with communication. Particularly when facing a major modern military their attempts at any form of discrete radio or electric or electronic communication are futile. A modern highly skilled force that has almost limitless (at least relative to the insurgents) resources can break any form of electronic or radio communication insurgents are capable of fielding widely enough to be tactically useful. A few authors and bloggers talk about how various forms of COMSEC (namely digital encryption) which can be downloaded for free and used by anyone with half a brain can easily defeat group of dozens of PHD holding geniuses who have nothing but time and the most powerful computers in the world. If you didn't pick it up from the last sentence; to be very blunt I do not think the kind of COMSEC available to average normal citizens is good for much but keeping Barney Fife from the local PD from knowing what you are doing.

One technique which has been used with moderate success is pre paid anonymous cell phones. In some places they are really the only kind available anyway. The theory is that if someone on one anonymous cell phone calls someone on another one it is totally discrete. Easy wireless secure communications for prices any insurgent can afford.

Here is reality. People are lazy and stupid and modern methods of tracking/ snooping on cell phones are very good. This is how laziness and modern snooping collide. Lets say a dozen insurgents all have anonymous pre paid cell phones. Someones gets lazy and uses theirs to call their Moms house or their buddy at the local Mosque to ask what time the potluck is. Being as the people who are looking for them have done a good job in targeting they were snooping on Momma and the Mosques phone lines. They electronically snoop on the pre paid cell  phone now, really recording and searching for key words (bomb, Allah, US, soldier, rifle, Israel, whatever). Pretty darn quickly they realize this phone is of interest. Lazy Insurgent calls one of his co conspirators to talk about the big soccer game or planting some IED's. Now they got Co Conspirators number from Lazy Insurgent. Of course being smart they wait awhile and Co Conspirator calls a couple more Insurgent buddies and so does Lazy Insurgent. More likely than not the whole network gets taken down.

Insurgents have realized this to a certain degree. They realize that if nothing else due to sheer dumb luck (it is hard to track all the cell phone conversations in a decent sized town but they will sure listen to some)  that sooner or later their network is going to get infiltrated. Their answer to this is that it is easy enough to just toss a cheap anonymous cell phone and get another one. Seriously for $20 or so even your average small farmer/ insurgent can afford a new one, particularly with some help from their Saudi friend at the Mosque. However they can never seem to all ditch them at the same time. As we noted above with the way that these phones are tracked it does no good for one person to ditch theirs unless everyone they call and everyone who calls them does also, at the exact same time. Insurgents have a real hard time with this one for some reason.

The answer that Al Qaeda and the Taliban eventually came to is based on admitting that they will never be able to reliably use modern communication (radio, the internet, phones, etc all) securely. They went stone age simple and primarily rely on runners. The most sophisticated surveillance can't tell you what a scrap of paper in some guys pocket says or what the message he memorized means. This stone age method of communication combined with a a structure of cells which means the capture of any one person doesn't take everyone down is pretty effective.

Insurgents by and large just can't come up with a way to cancel out the problem of their enemy controlling the air. Not even Hamas has an air force. Without lots of money and great (from this perspective) connections getting your hands on decent man portable surface to air weapons is not realistic. The large occupying force controls the skies. Insurgents can mitigate this by blending into the population and doing things to not obviously look like insurgents. Having someone who watches the airfield the helicopters operate out of that tells them when they take off and in which direction would help a lot also. Drone aircraft are an interesting development but they don't fundamentally change the situation. Large well funded forces always controlled the skies.

Finally to close the biggest thing that benefits insurgents is taking a long view. As the Taliban say "you've got the watches but we have the time." Sort of like George Washington (a real old school insurgent;) and the Continental Army they do not have to win any battles, they just have to not get totally wiped out. Most insurgencies do not develop into full scale conflict where insurgents openly battle occupiers. If insurgents were capable of openly battling the occupiers and winning they would not be insurgents, it would be a conventional fight. It is more realistic that insurgents annoy the heck out of (yeah it is far more than annoying if it is your patrol/ convoy that gets shot to pieces but we are looking at the big strategic picture here) the occupiers until they decide the cost isn't worth it and leave. Insurgents want to make the cost of occupying their area higher than the occupiers are willing to bear.

I hope you found this somewhat informative and maybe even interesting as I spent a ridiculous amount of time writing it.


Anonymous said...

There is an old saying, professionals are predictable, amatures are dangerous.

Remember, we were farmers during the Revolutionary War, and kicked Britians butt.

The same happened to us in Vietnam,and could happen in Afganistan

theotherryan said...

I certainly would not call the Afghan Mujaheddin/ Taliban amateurs. They start fighting at 15 or so and stop when they get killed or crippled or enter old age. They might not wear uniforms or get paychecks but they are very professional.

As for us in the Revolutionary war and the NVA/ Viet Cong in Nam an insurgent force does not need to (and often doesn't) militarily defeat their enemy. The insurgents and other factors like the French in the Revolutionary War and the USSR in Nam and the ever present political climate swings do at least as much as insurgent action.

As for Afghanistan time will tell.

chinasyndrome said...

Actually that was very informative.


Jack said...

The other problem with insurgencies is that the U.S. is a civilized country that does not want to appear to be evil on the international scene. There were a lot of occupiers in the past that weren't too bothered by insurgencies because they didn't treat their occupied territories with PR in mind. Ghengis Khan, Alexander the Great, China, USSR, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the French, Belgians, and British colonies, etc. If the locals caused problems, they'd just kill whole villages.

Our government thinks they can turn every country into a post WWII Germany or Japan, but those countries were uber-prosperous to begin with, then knocked back to the stone age with bombs, and they wanted to come back to uber-prosperity. The Afghans are in the stone age, and want to be in the stone age - they don't have a history of unity or prosperity, so there is no social/community drive like there was with some post WWII countries.

Also, if you read about the history of Germany/Japan's reconstruction, it worked because we told them what to do, and then we forcably made them do it. We controlled the worlds press and resources and had the national will to do it. We don't have any of that today.

So, unless we want to be ruthless and slaughter everyone, we just need to bring all our soldiers home, because whatever we're accomplishing now is just temporary.

Anonymous said...

I dont want to start a flame war, but what is the difference between, say, insurgents, terrorists, partisans, resistance and that sort of thing?

If Abdul El-Sixpack leaves hois goat herd and grabs an AK to fight 'the invaders' does that make him a terrorist, an insurgent, a partisan, or....what?

theotherryan said...

12:57, To me partisan or insurgent implies individuals or groups working within their home region. Terrorists are a nation less bunch that go wherever suits their needs. You wouldn't see (for example) Georgian partisans operating in Algeria. Admittedly in a lot of ways the words are close to interchangeable. I chose one that fit the bill.

Kyle Davidson said...

great article TOR.

Jack said...

"The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize." - Vladimir Lenin

I would seperate a terrorist from the others by their target, not their standing. If a militant group attacks a civilian target with no military value for political gain, then they are terrorists.

Insurgents, partisans, resistance, freedom fighters, etc. usually have to live off the civilian population and attack military targets. Though they sometimes attack civilian targets for monetary gain or revenge. I would put the Taliban in this group.

Usually groups that rely on terror are smaller and more fanatical, like Al Quida, Red Brigade, PLO, etc. Not to say there can't be some cross-pollenation between the groups.

Anonymous said...

Great article TOR. This is a subject on which I am torn. At first I was all for it "go get those backward ass camel jockeys!", but now that I see the way the war is being fought (by both Bush and Obama) I am starting to rethink it. I would never want to see America pull out with our tail between our legs, but if we are not going to fight to win, then we need to just get the hell out of there.

This is a different kind of war, these people will never wave a white flag and sign a treaty, the only way to win is to turn them into a glass factory and start over. That is something that we will never do. There is a reason that the only people who have had success in ruling these kind of people are folks like Saddam, the Taliban, Ahmadinijad, etc. If you decide you want to rebel, we will kill your whole family. Violence is the only language these people speak.

The way that we should have dealt with this in hindsight (which happens to be 20/20) is with small specialized teams and cruise missiles.

If you want to think outside the box, we can play their game and try to find 18 year olds from the area and tell them that we will make sure that their family gets taken care of (moved to another country and given $1 million or so) and convince them to be double agent suicide bombers. Act like a recruit and blow up the Taliban. A few of them complete their mission and all of a sudden recruitment goes way down.

We could also learn alot from the Mossad. Specialized strike teams that send a message that you are never safe!

Commander_Zero said...

"As for us in the Revolutionary war and the NVA/ Viet Cong in Nam an insurgent force does not need to (and often doesn't) militarily defeat their enemy."

This is quite true. The technique of prolonging the war until the other side loses the heart to continue is what made Washington a victor and defeated the US in Vietnam. Its an excellent strategy for the undermanned and outgunned faction...Fabius Maximus was probably the earliest recorded fella to use the technique although it wasnt appreciated by his superiors.

If you cant win, you make the war so expensive in political and personal capital that the other side leaves. This was the case in Vietnam, Algeria, Israel, and almost every other war of national liberation. In fact, I cannot think of any war of national liberation that was successful where the 'mother country' mounted a 100% effort with full military might and the would-be independents won.

In short, they make the game not worth the candle. Its a very important strategy to learn.

Anonymous said...

I disagree on the need for a mobility kill on armored vehicles, because one shouldn't fight against an enemy's strengths, but his weaknesses. The enemy must live and move among us. They need food, water, fuel, and clothing just like we do. They can't avoid exposing themselves, because it is impossible to live in a bubble forever. And even if they manage to ensconce themselves in a castle environment, their servants still must live and work among us. Everyone has a vulnerability. All we have to do is make it clear that anyone who collaborates with the enemy in any way will regret it. Starve the beast by convincing people to stop feeding it.

theotherryan said...

12:11, We are all allowed our own opinions. You are not looking at it the right way. Of course insurgents attacking a column of tanks would be foolish. The thing is that if the insurgents are unable to mitigate the occupiers tracked armored vehicles guess what will be ever present on the log pacs and convoys which get their food, water and fuel? They will not live in a bubble. They will live and operate all over the place with vehicles that the insurgents can't take out and thus must avoid operating around.

In Iraq the locals who work with Coalition forces usually live on FOBs.

Anonymous said...

Great article but to other comment leavers: please learn how to Spell if you expect to be taken as anything but a Bad Joke.......

Diogenes said...

Good thinking in this one TOR. Definitely stuff for all of us to think about NOW, not later.

Anonymous said...

What kind of dip$hit considers spelling important in times like these. You don't have to be a professor or genius to fight and kill tyrants.

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