How the COIN* works
(*“counterinsurgency”, just in case one was not current with the latest in military phraseology)
It is a miracle that it works at all. A bungling state, which was at the root of the problem to start with, is now supposed to make it work- and that against an adversary, not only more committed to its cause, but also with enough support on ground to challenge the writ of the state. It sill muddles through, succeeding only when the insurgents run out of steam, or by learning on the job. No wonder that the insurgencies last a long time, usually decades
COIN follows the classic strategic cycle of “battle and manoeuvre”. Both the state and the insurgents battle against each other to create a favourable environment for the manoeuvre that is essentially non-military. They may agree to hold fire, to give “peace a chance” or because one of them needed a breather. Improving respective positions for the subsequent round- fighting or negotiating- remains the common objective. The process continues till one side conceded defeat or both of them came to an arrangement that they could live with.
During the battle- aptly described as a form of “asymmetrical warfare”- the insurgents have an advantage: they can merge with the masses and are usually more familiar with the area. The state on the other hand is constrained in the use of force to avoid collateral damage. The “lull in the battle”- what the manoeuvre phase practically turns out to be- is again more skilfully used by the non-state actors. They have no qualms about offering a truce from a “position of weakness”, and can position their assets for the subsequent battle more discreetly than the state. The state even when in trouble is reluctant to lose face and digs itself deeper in the hole.
What however harms the state’s ability to conduct a successful COIN the most is its propensity to seek truce or battle, prematurely. More often than not it is due to public pressure: when the casualties start mounting, or if the enemy was seen to be taking undue advantage during the ceasefire.
The much maligned “Nizam-e-Adal” deal was struck because the military battle was taking too heavy a toll of civilian lives and property. The militants’ incursion beyond Swat was unwise, but panic in Islamabad was endemic. On a small scale map, Buner looks uncomfortably close, and the intervening mountains and the Indus not too formidable. Goethe once famously said: “no one ever deceives you; you deceive yourself”. If alive, he would have said the same thing about “terrorism”. Having terrorised ourselves, we scrambled the Army again, this time all guns blazing.
Some aspects of this operation can be debated ad-infinitum: could we have organised the evacuation of the population any better; or if we had the right intelligence to use heavy weapons against the Taliban. One can, however, safely assume that many of the militants would escape to fight another day. The COIN continues.