I have just published on the Small Wars Journal (SWJ) website an interesting interview with Dr. David Kilcullen focused on the main topics of his excellent latest book ”Counterinsurgency” (Oxford University Press, USA, May2010). Dr. Kilcullen is one of the most influential COIN practitioners and theoreticians in the world. He served in Iraq as a Senior Counterinsurgency Adviser to General David Petraeus during the successful 2007 “surge”. The whole interview was published here: http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/journal/docs-temp/597-manea.pdf
One of the key quotes in your book Counterinsurgency is that of Bernard Fall’s: A counterinsurgent that is losing is not outfought, but out-governed. Is the ability of providing governmental services the right metric to assess winning in a COIN campaign? How do you win a governance contest?
Governance is extremely important in pretty much every counterinsurgency. But how it needs to be addressed is different from campaign to campaign. In the case of Afghanistan, for example, ISAF still has in its campaign plan the statement that the aim is to extend the reach of the Afghan government. But the problem with the Afghan government is not that is doesn’t have the reach but that it is corrupt and oppressive. In fact the better you do at the strategy of extending the reach of an oppressive government, the worse the situation can get. What I have been arguing for years is that we need to change the focus of governance in Afghanistan; away from extending the reach of the Afghan government towards reforming it. What we need is a process of governmental reform, noting that we were responsible for a lot of the problems that are on the ground. We have to deal with this problem. If you are going to succeed in the COIN governance contest, you have to deliver to the people legitimate, responsive, just and effective government. It is not enough to be effective but not just. You got to be just. Justice, or fairness, is probably right now the most important aspect for the Afghan population. People are not happy with the Taliban, but they do see them as more fair and just than the Afghan government. And that is a very significant problem for us.
How would you assess the Marjah operation? There are a many critics who say the failure of “in box government” is a symptom of a larger failure-of the whole Obama surge and strategy.
Marjah in itself as an operation is a lesson in how important just and effective governance is and how important is that the government has to be locally legitimate. It is not enough to have somebody in place we think as legitimate, it has to be someone the local people respect and believe will look after their interests. A lot of people start their assessment of Marjah from a period of two years ago when it was a stronghold of the Taliban. But they are actually forgetting chapter one of the story – that Marjah was held by the government until 2008. The government was so oppressive, so abusive to the population that the town elders got together, banished the government officials from their own village and then invited the Taliban in. So the root of the problems in Marjah is not the Taliban. They are the symptom, they came later. The root of the problem is bad, oppressive government behavior by the Afghan government officials. When we went in Marjah and drove the Taliban away, that wasn’t the end of the operation, that was the beginning and what the population was looking to see was – are we going back to the same oppressive governance from the Afghan government that we had before the Taliban or are we going to have a better solution? I don’t think that we have offered them a better solution. The military side of the operation has gone actually very well. But it is a symptom of the broader issue – that military operations in counterinsurgency are actually not central. Governance, legitimacy, effectiveness are central and if you don’t have that piece then it doesn’t matter how good you are on the military side. We are back at the Bernard Fall – “a government that is losing is not outfought, is out-governed”. I would argue that we are not losing in Afghanistan, but we are certainly being out-governed right now. We need to change that or we will lose.
We see a number of different population survival strategies in insurgency environments. They are surrounded from all sides by threats and by people demanding their allegiance – and willing to hurt them if they don’t get their allegiance. What they are looking for is a consistent predictable system which gives them order, allows them to be safe; they are looking for a space within that system – in which they believe that if they are following the rules we set, they are going to be safe. I describe this as a theory of normative systems in counterinsurgency – a system of rules plus punishments. Legal systems or road rules are an example. You launch yourself on a highway and even if at times the road is chaotic you are confident to drive that route because you know the rules of the road, as everybody does. That is a normative system. There are the rules of the road that make you feel safe, even if you don’t particularly like the police. Who is enforcing the rules is a separate issue from what the rules are. The rules make you to feel safe even if you don’t like the person who is enforcing them. We see this all the time with organizations like Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and the Taliban. The population wants predictability, order and safety and that safety comes from knowing where you stand and knowing that if you do this or don’t do this, following the rules, you will be safe. Even if they don’t like Hezbollah or the Taliban in particular, they still feel safer living within the set rules. So, creation of safety it is a lot about predictability, consistency, and reliability.
An iconic image for your latest book is that of Deiokes (first king of the Medes according to Herodotus). What could Deiokes teach us regarding COIN?
Deiokes is most likely a person from the Kurdish area of Iraq. I’ve used Deiokes as an example of how the rule of law and the administration of justice at the local level are fundamental for the process of state building. Deiokes is a story about how a local tribal elder becomes powerful in his own area, by mediation and dispute resolution, and issuing judgments that gain the support of population. He then expands, using the court systems, to gain control of the whole of society and eventually becomes the ruler, the king. The historical accuracy of the story is debated but the pattern is something we see repeatedly, particularly in places like Somalia, Iraq, or Afghanistan.
In the Counterinsurgency I used the example of the Taliban as they are also doing bottom up dispute resolution – a mediation program with villages – as well as gaining political authority over a particular society by administering justice and applying law. That is very powerful. The means by which insurgents gain authority is creating a consistent set of rules for the population. We too need to compete in that area and rule of law – with a predictable and consistent program of ordered expectations that allow people to plan and experience predictability. That is fundamental to a functioning society. Rule of law is one of the critical foundations of social order. We can’t just let the Taliban have the field. We can’t surrender that area of activities to them. We typically have done that, mainly because we focusing at the national level and trying to create national-level institutions, but actually the rule of law, the function of the rule of law happens at the local level, it is community based. The Taliban are displacing us at the local-level because that is the level they are focusing on. We need to put much more emphasis into local-level rule of law. The Taliban are running rings around us in this regards.