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Thread: Civilian Casualties, Religion, and COIN Operations

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    Council Member rborum's Avatar
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    Default Civilian Casualties, Religion, and COIN Operations

    Too Soft, Too Hard, or "Just Right"?

    Ralph Peters certainly has a way with words. Many SWJ-ers have probably read his recent indictment of US operations in Afghanistan (and elsewhere). He argues that we are walking on eggshells - tactically and strategically - because we worry too much about offending the adversary's religion and killing civilians and that our moral weakness is causing us to lose the war. Peters says:

    As our enemies’ view of what is permissible in war expands apocalyptically, our self-limiting definitions of allowable targets and acceptable casualties—hostile, civilian and our own—continue to narrow fatefully. Our enemies cannot defeat us in direct confrontations, but we appear determined to defeat ourselves.



    Peters' analysis - consistent with arguments he has made a number of times before - raises two questions about which I would welcome the thoughtful input and feedback of SWCouncil Members (and other readers).

    The first question is to what extent - and why - do civilian casualties matter in COIN/IW operations? (Is this different when the counterinsurgent is a third-party? Different than in conventional wars?)

    On one hand we have the view that high-power kinetic activity is necessary to "win" and that winning trumps all other mission objectives. The "butcher's bill" philosophy is that once a nation has decided to go to war, it should "go hard or go home." Peters' observes, for example, that:

    The paradox is that our humane approach to warfare results in unnecessary bloodshed. Had we been ruthless in the use of our overwhelming power in the early days of conflict in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the ultimate human toll—on all sides—would have been far lower. In warfare of every kind, there is an immutable law: If you are unwilling to pay the butcher’s bill up front, you will pay it with compound interest in the end. Iraq was not hard; we made it so.


    On the other hand, we have the view that civilian casualties actually weaken our strategic objectives and amplify battlespace friction. Some have argued that the rising number of civil causalities in Afghanistan is a major cause of the declining Afghan support for the ISAF. Andrew Exum, a member of GEN McChrystal's advisory team, argues that humanitarian considerations notwithstanding, civilians casualties impede the military mission - at least in Afghanistan:

    The reason we do not drop compounds in Afghanistan has more to do with operational considerations than it does with some high-minded moral code or the laws of land warfare. Opponents of COIN doctrine who claim the U.S. Army has gone "soft" would best remember that. If dropping compounds helped us to advance the ball down the field in terms of mission success, we might be more tolerant of civilian casualties and "collateral damage." But the evidence suggests that killing civilians and destroying their property actually harms the mission more than it helps.



    The second question is to what extent - and how - our enemy's religion, in this case Islam, is or should be a focus of our war effort (kinetic and nonkinetic)?


    One point of view is that Islam itself poses an ideological, existential threat (even if its adherents do not) to democracy and to freedom. The arguments - such as thse made in Robert Spencer's book "stealth Jihad" suggest that core Islamic texts and teachings mandate subjugation of and warfare against non-Muslims (unbelievers), and advocate for Sharia law be globally imposed as the only legitimate source of social and political authority. Accordingly, they argue, there is no such thing as a “moderate Muslim.”

    Proponents of this position acknowledge than many Muslims – particularly American Muslims – do not adhere to those tenets in practice, but maintain that these anti-Democratic principles are precisely what the doctrine commands. They see no distinction between the separatist, anti-Democratic, violence-inciting doctrine of those labeled as “violent extremists” or Islamists and the core doctrine of Islam. They believe that their arguments cannot be openly discussed without their being accused of bigotry and labeled as Islamophobes, and that their position is easily dismissed by most of the American public because others are uninformed about Islamic doctrine. Peters, for example, states starkly:


    The problem is religion. Our Islamist enemies are inspired by it, while we are terrified even to talk about it. We are in the unique position of denying that our enemies know what they themselves are up to. They insist, publicly, that their goal is our destruction (or, in their mildest moods, our conversion) in their god’s name. We contort ourselves to insist that their religious rhetoric is all a sham, that they are merely cynics exploiting the superstitions of the masses. Setting aside the point that a devout believer can behave cynically in his mundane actions, our phony, one-dimensional analysis of al-Qaeda and its ilk has precious little to do with the nature of our enemies —which we are desperate to deny—and everything to do with us.


    A contrasting view - as both Presidents Bush and Obama have asserted - is that the U.S. is not (and presumably should not be) at war with Islam or with Muslims generally. The explanation for this position is that Islam is a religion, but that Islamism (or some other variant on this ideological term), refers not to a religion, but to a radical political ideology driven by a strong anti-Western and anti-democratic sentiment. The argument is that militant leaders – particularly since the late 1980s – have been able to use Islam (the religion) very effectively as a platform or vehicle to transport and deliver this extremist ideology. As evidence of this distinction, they point to the fact that most adherents of the religion do not subscribe to the violent ideology, and that many proponents of the militant ideology are not particularly religious” or pious.

    I appreciate you considering these questions and look forward to learning from your insights and responses. This is the first substantive thread I have started here, so please forgive any clumsiness in protocol - and let me know if this question/discussion would be better placed elsewhere.
    Last edited by davidbfpo; 07-24-2009 at 10:14 PM.

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    Council Member IntelTrooper's Avatar
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    My attention span is too short so I kind of just scanned your post. We are walking on eggshells. We do try to respect the unique Afghan incarnation of Islam. These are not bad things. We could go in like a juggernaut and piss more people off. It's been tried in the past, though, and didn't work out too well for those conducting the operation.
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    Council Member davidbfpo's Avatar
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    Default Three themes

    I am sure your questions have appeared before, albeit within different threads, mainly in the Afghan context recently on civilian casualties and the campaign. Religion I'm not so sure, as Inteltrooper says 'eggshells'. Have you checked through RFI and used the advanced search option?

    davidbfpo

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    Council Member rborum's Avatar
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    IntelTrooper-Sorry for the long post. I get your point. May I take the inquiry just another step? What I am trying to better understand is why there is this divergence of opinion on a basic tenet of strategy. You point out that going in like a juggernaut has been tried before and didn't work for the counterinsurgents. Yet, there are still those saying we should, and that the reason we are losing and are destined to lose is because we didn't/don't. Do people disagree on this history (would they say the juggernaut strategy DID work for the counterinsurgent)? Or is this difference of opinion simply driven by personal worldviews and ideologies of the observers?
    Last edited by rborum; 07-25-2009 at 03:30 AM. Reason: Added IntelTrooper

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    Council Member rborum's Avatar
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    davidbfpo - I will search further. Perhaps my search strategy is deficient. As I noted in my reply to IntelTrooper, I am trying to understand the source of the divergence of opinion. The issue where religion/Islam fits in all this is more often talked around than addressed directly. People assert positions, but I have not seen much discussion of why/whether the role of Islam matters to strategy or operations, nor have I seen thoughtful attempts to develop a rapproachment or resolve the debate. That's why I was bringing the issue to the real expert on this forum. Thanks for engaging.

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    Council Member IntelTrooper's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rborum View Post
    Yet, there are still those saying we should, and that the reason we are losing and are destined to lose is because we didn't/don't. Do people disagree on this history (would they say the juggernaut strategy DID work for the counterinsurgent)? Or is this difference of opinion simply driven by personal worldviews and ideologies of the observers?
    Sure, people may say that. I would venture that the people crying for less cultural/religious sensitivity and avoidance of civilian casualties have spent little to no time in the country and don't have responsibility for troops or the success of any effort there.

    I sincerely doubt that anyone would argue that the particular operation I have in mind was a success, since I have the Soviets in mind.
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    Council Member Tom Odom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rborum View Post
    Too Soft, Too Hard, or "Just Right"?

    Ralph Peters certainly has a way with words. Many SWJ-ers have probably read his recent indictment of US operations in Afghanistan (and elsewhere). He argues that we are walking on eggshells - tactically and strategically - because we worry too much about offending the adversary's religion and killing civilians and that our moral weakness is causing us to lose the war. Peters says:

    As our enemies’ view of what is permissible in war expands apocalyptically, our self-limiting definitions of allowable targets and acceptable casualties—hostile, civilian and our own—continue to narrow fatefully. Our enemies cannot defeat us in direct confrontations, but we appear determined to defeat ourselves.



    Peters' analysis - consistent with arguments he has made a number of times before - raises two questions about which I would welcome the thoughtful input and feedback of SWCouncil Members (and other readers)...

    I appreciate you considering these questions and look forward to learning from your insights and responses. This is the first substantive thread I have started here, so please forgive any clumsiness in protocol - and let me know if this question/discussion would be better placed elsewhere.
    First of all we have discussed these things in great detail, a fact that does not necessarily lessen the value of looking at them again.

    But I will also say that Ralph Peter's use of language is not the same as analysis. He is given to seeking base instinct over thought and he writes and speaks to that effect.

    Tom

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    Council Member Ron Humphrey's Avatar
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    Post There have been quite a few

    Threads where this type of thing has come up so the search will help.

    That said it may be a simple as recognizing the preponderance of evidence that Dead people tend not to fight back thus throughout history that seems to have been a favorite option.

    As Intel indicated though things are somewhat more complicated in societies where death of one's family/Tribe/guest requires a blood for blood action against the offender due to not only cultural but generally historic practice. That and the many other factors such as need to be able to focus on finding bad guys vs having to look everywhere since you never know who might have died let alone who might feel they need to make it right.

    Thus "eggshells"
    Any man can destroy that which is around him, The rare man is he who can find beauty even in the darkest hours

    Cogitationis poenam nemo patitur

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    Council Member William F. Owen's Avatar
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    So Andrew Exum says...
    The reason we do not drop compounds in Afghanistan has more to do with operational considerations than it does with some high-minded moral code or the laws of land warfare. Opponents of COIN doctrine who claim the U.S. Army has gone "soft" would best remember that. If dropping compounds helped us to advance the ball down the field in terms of mission success, we might be more tolerant of civilian casualties and "collateral damage." But the evidence suggests that killing civilians and destroying their property actually harms the mission more than it helps.
    Any student of Clausewitz (about the best COIN advice there is) will tell you that the problems associated with killing civilians are the political consequences of such actions. It's little to do with operational conduct, other than why would you kill people you don't need to kill?

    The negative consequence maybe the loss of political support within the target population. That is only negative if their support is integral to your strategy. The population can only share your political aim. They can't share your military aim. So talking about "operational considerations" in that context is simplistic and possibly misleading.

    Dropping the right compounds and killing the right people, will generally benefit your operational considerations! It's Core functions! It's how you defeat any enemy in any environment.

    Now, I am not A COIN OPPONENTS I'm an opponent of the "Nouveau COIN" which somehow wants to focus on tangential issues and to celebrate form over function., instead of the Elephant in the corner (carrying the AKM) - as far as I can tell "Nouveau COIN" is completely devoid of any reference to Core Functions.
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    - If we can double the ratio of kills per contact, we will soon put an end to the shooting in Malaya.
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    Council Member rborum's Avatar
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    William - you noted "The population can only share your political aim. They can't share your military aim." That's a useful point, though distinguishing among them, I suppose can be a bit tricky.

    I understand the arguments for cultural sensitivity and against promiscuous killing. I am trying to understand, though, whether - and if so how - the "utility of force" (as Clausewitz puts it) is variable not only across conflicts, but also across different COIN campaigns as well.

    Stephen Biddle insightfully (I think) observes that the character of Maoist-type "wars of the people" may differ from conflicts where the counterinsurgency is driven by a third party nation. Rupert Smith describes many post-Cold War conflicts as "Wars amongst the people."

    Is the reason for disagreement about the proper role/degree/utility of force in Afghanistan, for example, because of differences in how we view the nature of the conflict? Differences in how we view the nature of the adversary? Differences in how we view our role as counterinsurgents? Some combination of the above?

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    Council Member rborum's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Odom View Post
    First of all we have discussed these things in great detail, a fact that does not necessarily lessen the value of looking at them again.

    But I will also say that Ralph Peter's use of language is not the same as analysis. He is given to seeking base instinct over thought and he writes and speaks to that effect.

    Tom
    Tom - Thanks for indulging me. I'm not necessarily looking to rehash old arguments, but rather to understand the source and reasons - among thoughtful and experienced people - for wide divergence of opinion on the nature/role/degree/utility of force in our current conflicts. I understand and concur that eloquence does not substitute for rigorous analysis. -RB

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    Council Member William F. Owen's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rborum View Post
    William - you noted "The population can only share your political aim. They can't share your military aim." That's a useful point, though distinguishing among them, I suppose can be a bit tricky.
    The political aim is the outcome as in who will be in authority over them. The French didn't worry too much about the 1,000's of French civilians killed by the Allies, because it meant a French Government.
    I understand the arguments for cultural sensitivity and against promiscuous killing. I am trying to understand, though, whether - and if so how - the "utility of force" (as Clausewitz puts it) is variable not only across conflicts, but also across different COIN campaigns as well.
    What's the difference between conflicts and COIN? None as far as I can tell.
    Stephen Biddle insightfully (I think) observes that the character of Maoist-type "wars of the people" may differ from conflicts where the counterinsurgency is driven by a third party nation. Rupert Smith describes many post-Cold War conflicts as "Wars amongst the people."
    Much as I like him personally, Rupert Smith is not on my reading list. Again, forget the "war amongst the people." That's just a condition, which may or may not be present. It's nothing to do with the end state.
    Is the reason for disagreement about the proper role/degree/utility of force in Afghanistan, for example, because of differences in how we view the nature of the conflict? Differences in how we view the nature of the adversary? Differences in how we view our role as counterinsurgents? Some combination of the above?
    In my opinion the disagreements are because we don't agree on how to apply military force to gain a political objective.
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    - If we can double the ratio of kills per contact, we will soon put an end to the shooting in Malaya.
    Sir Gerald Templer, foreword to the "Conduct of Anti-Terrorist Operations in Malaya," 1958 Edition

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    Council Member rborum's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by William F. Owen View Post
    What's the difference between conflicts and COIN? None as far as I can tell.
    My point here was not really to argue that conflicts are different than counterinsurgencies, but to clarify my interest in learning what factors would make the "utility of force" vary in different COIN campaigns (as well as perhaps in different non-COIN conflicts).

    Quote Originally Posted by William F. Owen View Post
    In my opinion the disagreements are because we don't agree on how to apply military force to gain a political objective.
    That's insightful, I think. So if I understand your point - there is consensus that the political objective in any COIN campaign is to establish the control by the counterinsurgent's government (CG). But some think the only/best way to to establish CG control is to overwhelm the resistance with devastating force - and that overdoing is unlikely to significantly interfere with establishing and sustaining the CG control. CG control - in this model - is a function of coercive power, not political legitimacy.

    While other believe that the only/best way to establish CG control is to use force selectively so as not to risk alienating the population. CG control - in this model - is a function of political legitimacy.

    Does that fairly characterize the positions or am I off base?

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    Council Member Ken White's Avatar
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    Default Probabilities can outweigh improbabilities. Sometimes.

    Quote Originally Posted by rborum View Post
    My point here was not really to argue that conflicts are different than counterinsurgencies, but to clarify my interest in learning what factors would make the "utility of force" vary in different COIN campaigns (as well as perhaps in different non-COIN conflicts).
    Wilf can of course answer for himself but to me, the simplistic answer -- which is not at all simple -- is 'the adversary' and, of course, one's goal. Either of those can be a thread unto themselves. Goes back to Bob's World's analogy; Slugging a stranger; your neighbor; or your son all mean different types of adversaries and probably different goals on your part as well as differing reasons for the provocation on their part. Wars vary as widely as people.
    there is consensus that the political objective in any COIN campaign is to establish the control by the counterinsurgent's government (CG).
    That is possibly true, perhaps even probably so but it is not universal. In Afghanistan for example, some of the Talibs want that, others do not, the AQ and foreign fighters there mostly are just desirous of fighting Americans and / or Westerners. Few wars are simple.
    But some think the only/best way to to establish CG control is to overwhelm the resistance with devastating force - and that overdoing is unlikely to significantly interfere with establishing and sustaining the CG control. CG control - in this model - is a function of coercive power, not political legitimacy.
    I think very few military people would espouse that view other than in the very rare circumstances where that might be a viable option. Kenya in the mid 50s come close, the Boer Wars are perhaps a better example. Both would be proscribed due to popular opinion today. Thus, there are likely few occasions where anyone could or would seriously consider that approach.
    While other believe that the only/best way to establish CG control is to use force selectively so as not to risk alienating the population. CG control - in this model - is a function of political legitimacy...Does that fairly characterize the positions or am I off base?
    That view is correct, I think, I'd only throw in the caveat that CG control may not be an issue.

    I do not believe the 'devastating force' option is subscribed to by many. The issue is the degree of force that constitutes 'minimal' or 'selectively' and the determining factor on that for most is own casualties. Some believe those must be accepted for the greater good or 'accomplishing the mission.' Others believe they should be minimized for own good or there will be public clamor leading tor no troops to complete the mission. The issue becomes far more significant when the forces involved are third parties -- e.g. the US and UK as well as other in either Afghanistan or Iraq (or Viet Nam, Malaya, Algeria...). Third party nation citizens can and will strongly question the merit of a 'softly' approach if it increases their casualties. They tend, mostly, to be less concerned with other casualties.

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    Council Member rborum's Avatar
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    Ken - That's helpful. Thanks. I don't disagree with your analogy point:

    "Slugging a stranger; your neighbor; or your son all mean different types of adversaries and probably different goals on your part as well as differing reasons for the provocation on their part. Wars vary as widely as people."

    I had not been thinking of the COIN problem in quite that way. That seems to focus on the question of force, working backward to deconstruct and understand why/how it was applied to achieve some objective. I was focusing more on the objective - CG control, e.g. - , and working forward to understand why/how force might facilitate or impede it. But, again, not disagreeing with the general point.

    The notion that the "adversary" is what would determine nature/degree/utility of force raises some potentially interesting questions for COIN Ops because insurgent forces often feel less constrained by international norms or by the explicit and implicit rules of engagement. I suppose, though, that adversary-driven force strategy doesn't necessarily mean doing unto others as they do unto us.

    Thinking how this relates to the motivations or tolerance for civilian (non-US) casualties, I was really struck by some comments Lyall & Wilson made in their recent study of 286 insurgencies. Kinetic selectivity really seems to be a major driving force in determining whether a population will perceive the third-party counterinsurgent as protectors or threatening invaders. Lack of selectivity seems to embolden insurgent recruitment. They comment that: "With the innocent and guilty equally likely to be punished, rational individuals will seek security and predictability with insurgent groups" (p.77).

    Thanks again for your insights.

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    Default See this thread ....

    "Afghanistan ROE Change" (9 pages) for a discussion of the military, political and legal issues in the specific context of Astan civilian casualties - good case study.

    PS: I don't see where or how religious considerations enter into our (US) developmemt of ROE/RUFs, and other military law issues.

    With respect to AQ, their merger of religion and law has had an impact on their view of non-combatant casualties. See, 2008 SWJ, "The Erosion of Noncombatant Immunity within Al Qaeda" - abstract:

    Since its inception, al Qaeda’s treatment of noncombatant immunity has migrated from full observance to complete disregard. In just over a decade, al Qaeda transitioned from basing entire operations on the inviolable nature of noncombatant immunity to specifically targeting noncombatants. From 1991 until 2002, al Qaeda evolved through five distinct phases in its observance of noncombatant immunity. These phases transition from Phase One’s complete respect for noncombatants to Phase Five’s intentional targeting of millions of noncombatants with weapons of mass destruction. More recently, however, al Qaeda appears to be taking stock of the harm that targeting noncombatants is having on its cause. This paper will provide a phased analysis of how al Qaeda’s provision of noncombatant immunity disintegrated over time and why it may be returning today. This progression of thought and action concerning noncombatants serves as a roadmap by which to understand how and why al Qaeda made these ideological leaps.
    Good article, which I don't think I've discussed at any length.
    Last edited by jmm99; 07-25-2009 at 11:10 PM. Reason: add PS

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    Council Member Ken White's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rborum View Post
    That seems to focus on the question of force, working backward to deconstruct and understand why/how it was applied to achieve some objective. I was focusing more on the objective - CG control, e.g. - , and working forward to understand why/how force might facilitate or impede it. But, again, not disagreeing with the general point.
    It focuses on the adversary -- he or it should be the determinant on the degree, type and methodology of force -- if any. Force is simply a tool, nothing more. Like any tool it must be used sensibly or you'll damage something you didn't mean to harm. Adversaries do not always require force for containment. In fact, I believe most do not; prompt and early response without force or with very minimal force can stop many such internal conflicts before they escalate to major confrontations.

    The point is, once you commit any military elements to the effort, you are committing to use force or will be perceived as being prepared to do so; sometimes the same thing in the minds of many.
    ... insurgent forces often feel less constrained by international norms or by the explicit and implicit rules of engagement. I suppose, though, that adversary-driven force strategy doesn't necessarily mean doing unto others as they do unto us.
    It should not since frequently the primary purpose of insurgents ignoring Mao's rules and antagonizing the populace is to get their opponents to do the same things and thus turn the populace against the nominal counterinsurgents. Most people know this, a few tend to forget it when angry or driven by inane directives or orders from people in faraway places.
    ...Lyall & Wilson made in their recent study of 286 insurgencies. Kinetic selectivity really seems to be a major driving force in determining whether a population will perceive the third-party counterinsurgent as protectors or threatening invaders. Lack of selectivity seems to embolden insurgent recruitment. They comment that: "With the innocent and guilty equally likely to be punished, rational individuals will seek security and predictability with insurgent groups" (p.77).
    I'm dubious -- and that supposition BTW long precedes their study. It is true when force is applied indiscriminately but that rarely occurs. What more often occurs is that force is applied selectively and innocents are caught in the fight. Most people understand the difference and rarely go flocking to either side after such an event. They really just want both sides to go away and leave them alone.

    Either way, unmeant or unnecessary killings and woundings will drive some -- but not most or even many -- to the insurgents and of those that go, other than a small number for whom the episode was particularly searing, most will drift away soon as time does its healing magic and the tough life of an insurgent takes its toll.

    There are no easy solutions and no pat answers -- if there were, they'd have been found long ago. You cannot codify human responses and develop a matrix for 'what to do.'

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    Council Member rborum's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ken White View Post
    Force is simply a tool, nothing more.
    Understood. I concur.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ken White View Post
    the primary purpose of insurgents ignoring Mao's rules and antagonizing the populace is to get their opponents to do the same things and thus turn the populace against the nominal counterinsurgents.
    Right. That's what I understand to be the conventional wisdom.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ken White View Post
    that supposition BTW long precedes their study.
    You're right, of course. It is always of interest to me, however, to see data - even with all it's caveats and limitations - that addresses (whether findings support or refute) the suppositions that guide our policies.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ken White View Post
    There are no easy solutions and no pat answers -- if there were, they'd have been found long ago. You cannot codify human responses and develop a matrix for 'what to do.'
    Concur. The notion of "matrix" never even blipped on my radar. Though as a social/behavioral scientist, I quite often bump up against the "matrix mentality" among my engineering colleagues. I know there is no cookie cutter approach to the strategy of kinetic force in COIN, but I hope there are dynamic factors that are (or could be) systematically considered in strategic planning and ongoing assessments of the mission. There is no matrix, but it seems - though perhaps this is naive on my part - that it might be useful to have some method to guide that dimension of decisionmaking. I'm not asking for one here, just wondering aloud about what the foundations or contours of such a method or decision framework might look like.

    Thanks again.

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    Council Member slapout9's Avatar
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    So Randy here is my question. You have heard all the theories are they right wrong? What would you change about them?

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    Council Member Ken White's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rborum View Post
    That's what I understand to be the conventional wisdom.
    It's a little more than that, it's pretty much a hard learned fact. It has also been written by some erstwhile insurgents and allied creatures.
    You're right, of course. It is always of interest to me, however, to see data - even with all it's caveats and limitations - that addresses (whether findings support or refute) the suppositions that guide our policies.
    They can be beneficial. Even if they point in the wrong direction and that is discovered through a bad experience, something is learned.
    I know there is no cookie cutter approach to the strategy of kinetic force in COIN...it seems...that it might be useful to have some method to guide that dimension of decisionmaking. I'm not asking for one here, just wondering aloud about what the foundations or contours of such a method or decision framework might look like.
    The Army has tried for many years with varying success to do that. The intent was to come up with a methodology or set of best practices that would allow future operations to be better planned and executed. I'm sure you've checked or have access to all the ARI and RAND etc. studies from the 1950-1980 period wherein that was attempted. The effort seemed to have dropped off by the time I retired in '95. Good luck.

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