Small Wars

This Week at War: Are the Ayatollahs Using COIN?

This Week at War: Are the Ayatollahs Using COIN?

Is the Green Revolution an insurgency?

Feb. 11 was the 31st anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marked the occasion by declaring to hundreds of thousands gathered at Tehran’s Azadi Square that Iran was a "nuclear state." Meanwhile, a heavy presence of security forces in Tehran appeared to have successfully suppressed counterdemonstrations by regime opponents. In an essay for Small Wars Journal, Dan Cox, an associate professor at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, wonders whether Iran’s rulers are battling an embryonic insurgency. And if so, is the regime successfully implementing Western-designed counterinsurgency (COIN) theory to snuff out the opposition?

Cox refers back to the French military commander David Galula, one of the original COIN gurus, and others to analyze the Iranian government’s actions against the protesters. In response to well-developed insurgencies, Galula and other Western COIN theorists have recommended a gentle hand — counterinsurgents should limit the use of force, protect the population, and stress economic development in order to isolate the insurgents. However, Cox points out the lesser-known advice Galula and other COIN theorists have for embryonic insurgencies. The COIN gurus recommend early recognition of the problem and a harsh decisive response. Cox concludes that the Iranian government, taking advantage of its authoritarian position, is employing the recommendations of these Western theorists and to good effect.

First, the regime appears to have developed good intelligence on the opposition. The opposition movement appears broad, but scattered, disorganized, and probably lacking many internal security measures. The security services have likely had an easy time penetrating the movement’s leadership network and monitoring its electronic communications.

Second, Cox’s research of the Western COIN theorists suggests the importance of early coercive countermeasures against the opposition. According to the New York Times, the security services have arrested more than a thousand people over the past two months, including scores of journalists, a variety of activists, relatives of opposition leaders, and others. Since June, eleven regime opponents have been sentenced to death, two have been hanged, and five more are on trial for their lives.

Finally, Galula and other Western COIN theorists stress the importance of controlling the media and information. Modern technology would presumably favor the insurgent’s efforts to distribute anti-government propaganda and expose the regime’s coercive countermeasures to scrutiny. In Iran, the government has corralled or expelled Western journalists and arrested domestic journalists not sympathetic to the regime. The government also seems to have effectively strangled the new media; Internet bandwidth available to the protesters seems minimal, and the government has shut down Google’s Gmail service and other social networking services.

Cox concludes that the Iranian government, in accordance with Western COIN theorists, has rapidly and efficiently responded to the embryonic insurgency. It has penetrated the protest movement, arrested the movement’s organizers and propagandists, and achieved dominance over information and communications. Naturally, there are more chapters to this story. But thus far, the Iranian government is showing how to stop an insurgency before it gets started.

A Green Beret’s advice: Think COIN, but don’t do COIN

After more than eight years of war in Afghanistan and nearly seven in Iraq, the conventional wisdom is that the United States will face more troublesome insurgencies. Even as the U.S. military’s involvement in Iraq winds down and as it tries to tame the Taliban in Afghanistan, new insurgency troubles have emerged in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Thus, counterinsurgency will remain the focus of the U.S. military for the foreseeable future.

According to Lt. Col. Brian Petit, commander of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group, that conventional wisdom is not quite right. Writing in the journal Special Warfare, Petit, whose battalion served in the Sulu Archipelago in the southern Philippines, argues that the U.S. military should "think COIN" but actually stop doing COIN itself. Petit reminds his readers that counterinsurgency is the proper job for the indigenous security forces, and not for an outsider third party to a conflict, such as the U.S. Army. Petit’s advice to the U.S. military? "Think COIN, but practice FID [foreign internal defense]."

Similar to successful ongoing U.S. foreign internal defense missions in Colombia and Africa’s Sahel region, the U.S. assistance effort in the Philippines strictly employs the "indirect approach." U.S. soldiers train, advise, and support the local army and police. They remain out of sight and do not participate in direct combat. Even medical assistance visits to remote Philippine villages push Filipino medics and nurses to the foreground with Americans remaining behind the scenes. Petit writes that these visits are planned in consultation with former insurgents who are now reintegrated into society.

If the indirect FID method is so obviously superior to the campaigns that pushed more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers into Iraq and Afghanistan, why hasn’t the FID approach been used in those two places? Although at one time broken and corrupt, the Philippines and Colombia at least had a government and army; in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. forces had to start from zero.

Perhaps as important is how impatient U.S. policymakers frequently are for results, especially for projects they have made into top priorities. But this doesn’t work for COIN, as Petit explains:

Tactically, the indirect approach requires clear-eyed recognition that U.S. capacity will be applied through — and not around — the host nation. This paradigm seems simple, but it runs counter to U.S. military "can-doism" and requires a long-term view and immense operational patience. The indirect approach does not satisfy appetites for quick, measurable results. By building capacity with host nation security forces and simultaneously applying population-focused, civil-military programs, the indirect approach rarely produces singularly spectacular results in tactical engagements. Measures of effectiveness are often best assessed over time and anecdotally.

President Barack Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal are counting on quick, measurable results in Afghanistan, with a withdrawal slated to begin in 17 months. That is not the way Petit and his soldiers made progress in the Philippines.