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“Counter Insurgency (COIN) Operations – The Do’s & Don’ts”


Book-3: War, Conflicts, Security, and The Military -1.0


Counter Insurgency needs a long term view – need for Military action to provide security for undertaking the necessary Politico – Economic measures – clear Rules of Engagement and definition of End State – understand the Do’s & Don’ts.

Quotations for consideration:

  • “We all have to be concerned about terrorism, but you will never end terrorism by terrorizing others.” – Martin Luther King III .
  •  “We give express charge, that in our marches through the country, there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the locals upbraided or abused in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.” – William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act III Scene 6.
  • “A merely fallen enemy may rise again, but the reconciled one is truly vanquished.” – Johan C. Shiller .

Key concepts:

  • Counter Insurgency (COIN) is the comprehensive civilian and military effort taken to simultaneously defeat and contain insurgency and thereby address its root causes.
  • In dealing with any insurgency we need to remember that the time scale of counter-insurgency is simply too long. We need to be clear about our objectives and the methodology to be followed to attain to the desired ‘End State’. If we are not winning, then we are losing. We are then in the midst of a low grade, prolonged civil war.
  • We should be clear on our strategy – what is it that we are trying to do? How are we trying to do it – that is, what course of action to pursue? What sorts of resources – people, time, and money – are likely to be required to reach those goals? One good way to undertake such a review would be to seek out dissenting views, probing differences inside the administration, especially those between civilian and military officials and then arriving at the actions to be taken.

“Haziness about ends and means, about what to do and how to do it, is a mark of strategic ineptitude; in war it gets you killed” – Dr. Elliot Cohen .

“Short term approach to long term problems generate multiple short term plans that often confuse activity with progress” – Col. H.R. McMaster .

Don’t let hope posing as a plan be your strategy. If you can’t explain your campaign plan, you probably don’t have one. We need a real strategy built around the principles of counter insurgency warfare as recognized in the many such campaigns in the past and as so succinctly put by those who tackled the insurgency in Iraq.

  • There should be clear ‘Rules of Engagement (ROE)’ and a clear vision of an attainable ‘End State’ before we engage in any action.

ROE which call for – not opening fire till fired upon or till the enemy is positively identified beyond all doubt and having undisputed proof of his intentions, are unimplementable and represent a danger to the soldiers

and also undermine their confidence in battle and even makes them disheartened and even hesitant, with disastrous conclusions. The Government and the people should trust in the training given to their soldiers and leave it to them to decide and act appropriately in the Field. Of course they need to have internal systems to investigate and deal with any aberrations. As far as is practical, the troops should not be locals, however knowledge of local language and customs should be encouraged.

Troops should be positioned for at least two years, to allow them to develop ground knowledge and to buildup local contacts and any handing over should be done over a period of about 3 months to allow for it to be done properly.

As Thomas E. Ricks writes in ‘The Gamble’ – “The aim of a counter insurgency campaign is to destroy the (Insurgent), – but often by isolating him and making him irrelevant, rather than just hunting down and killing him. The best insurgent is not a dead one, who might leave behind a relative seeking vengeance, but one who is ignored by the population and perhaps is contemplating changing sides bringing with him invaluable information.”

Hence the corner stone of any COIN (Counter Insurgency) effort is not just to locate and kill the insurgents but to win over the locals and to protect them and provide them sustainable security and opportunities for earning a livelihood and to isolate the real insurgents from them. Non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect.

As Gen. George Casey Jr . wrote – “The potential second and third-order effects, however, can turn a raid (that captures or kills a known insurgent) into a long-term defeat if our actions humiliate the family, needlessly destroy property, or alienate the local population from our goals.” We therefore need to teach our officers not just what to think, but how to think.

We should always remember that:

  • It will not be easy to take on an insurgency, but hard is not hopeless.

Since WW-II, no major Power has been able to defeat an Insurgency militarily anywhere in the world. The total record is something like 23 to 0, or 21 to 2 if the British are considered as Winners in Malaya, even if this was more a Political than an Military victory, and the Sri Lankans over the LTTE, who lost perhaps because they made the mistake of trying to fight like a regular Army defending Territory. Hence the policies should be Military and Politico – Economic and both short term & long term. This will require greater commitment of both, the Forces and of all resources, than visualized at first and we should be ready to do so.

  • Treating and fighting insurgency as if it was a conventional war is inefficient and counterproductive. No successful COIN campaign has ever lasted less than 10 years.
  • The Insurgents/Naxals/Maoists take control of an area and then work to turn it into a paying concern by intimidation and
    • violence. They create a fear psychosis by killing or humiliating any dissenters into submission.
    • For insurgents the War is total, while for the State it is limited though necessarily brutal, and hence the need to be clear on what we should Do and what we should Not Do.

    The DO’s

    • Protect and serve the population – The people are the decisive ‘terrain’. Work with police and other authorities to provide the people security, to give them respect, to gain their support, and where necessary, to facilitate establishment of local governance, restoration of basic services, and revival of local economies. The police and the military should live, eat and work side by side, so that when transition occurs, it is smooth. Also the police and Para-Military must be trained to develop an attitude that will enable them to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem. Find ways to speak to the locals – use loud speakers in built-up areas and radio in other areas. Disseminate general information / news and slip in information about the insurgents on terror incidents or killings, especially of other locals.
    • Work with the Police to establish order and provide security. Even use the locals as recruits to ‘Civil Defense’ or ‘Police Assistance Teams’ or ‘Neighbourhood Watches’ etc, the locals can identify the insurgents, their informers and any outsiders and understand their movement patterns better than you.
    • Set-up local or district level reconstruction teams to buildup the local economy from the bottom-up in order to improve security and provide earning and livelihood opportunities and eventually reduce the military presence.
    • Select the area to be occupied. Sneak in a ‘Sniper’ team into a location that commands the area and the approaches to it. Send a route clearance team to work its way to that location, followed by a Company of Army Troops or Security Forces to really move in and occupy the area. Deploy forces to the borders of the area to be controlled to cut and control all ‘Lines of communication’ eg: Roads, paths, river ways, passes, into the area.
    • Establish scores of small outposts (Platoon Strength) and patrol almost incessantly, with a clear understanding that if you are present in a neighbour hood for only two hours a day, the insurgents may well control it the other 22 hours, and naturally no one will reach out to you as it will lead to inevitable retaliation. Maintain a constant presence in the disputed area, deny the insurgents the ability to accurately trace or predict your actions.
    • Position outposts at key intersections and approaches, use circling drones if available, to keep an eye out for attacks. Ask the local leaders to advice on where to place the police stations and outposts, even if they tend to favour locations close to their own homes. Give them recognition and a sense of participation to win their involvement and support.
    • Ensure your own security: The new combat outposts should have proper and secure living spaces and barriers
    • to limit damage from small arms and small projectiles. To save time and decrease the vulnerability period, such outposts can be pre-designed and pre-fabricated in a modular fashion to be moved and set-up in the least possible time.
    • Live amongst or in close proximity to the people – You cannot commute to this fight. Position security stations (jointly with the police if necessary), combat outposts, and Patrol bases, in the neighborhoods you intend to secure. Living amongst the people is essential to securing them and defeating the insurgents and also for gathering actionable intelligence. Be there, sleep there and move on foot, day and night. All this seems more dangerous than it really is. Establish links with the locals, who will thus see you as real people they can trust and do business with, not ‘aliens’ who drive through from remote bases, day-tripping like a tourist ‘in hell’, such behavour degrades your situational awareness, makes you a target and is ultimately more dangerous. This way you will isolate the insurgents. Remember – for insurgents isolation is death.
    • Walk – Move mounted, work dismounted. Stop by, don’t drive by. Patrol on foot and engage the population. Situational awareness can only be gained by interacting with the people face to face.
    • Hold areas that have been secured – once an area is cleared and control achieved, it must be retained, do not under any circumstances give it up or allow yourself to be driven away. Never give up – always show that you are there to stay. Develop the plan for holding an area before starting to clear it. The people need to know that you will not abandon them. When reducing forces and presence and handing over to Police and State Administration, gradually thin the line rather than handing off or withdrawing completely at a stroke. They will then begin to talk to you or help in other ways. Such as anonymously marking or otherwise indicating where a bomb had been planted, or an arms cache hidden the previous night, or where insurgents are hiding. Encourage and even suitably reward the informers, secretly if necessary.
    • Pursue the insurgents relentlessly – Identify and pursue the extremist elements tenaciously. Do not let them retain support areas or sanctuaries. Force them to respond to you. Deny them the ability to plan and conduct deliberate operations. Remember killing insurgents is easy, it is finding them that is often nearly impossible. Enter into deals with local leaders/opinion makers. Compete with the insurgents for the loyalty of the local population. The locals will know their territory better than you. They will also know the individuals better and so be able to help identify the insurgents or their informants. Of course you then need to be able to protect your own informants or they will be killed by the insurgents.
    • Generate unity of effort – Coordinate operations and initiatives with the police, para military, intelligence, local administrative authorities and governmental authorities, as may be necessary, to ensure all
      • are working to achieve a common purpose.
      • Promote Reconciliation – We cannot kill our way out of this endeavor. We must remain alert for signs of division within the insurgent movement. Encourage insurgents to change sides. Don’t be too unforgiving, remember many saints had an unsavoury past and every sinner can have a better future. We must identify and separate the ‘Reconcilables’ from the ‘Irreconcilables’ through engagement, population control measures, information operations, kinetic operations and political activities. We must strive to make the ‘Reconcilables’ a part of the solution and convert them, even as we identify, pursue, and kill, capture, or drive out the ‘Irreconcilables’ and protect the locals from them.
      • Defeat the network, not just the attack – Defeat the insurgent networks. Develop and focus intelligence assets to identify the networks behind an attack, and go after its leaders, financiers, suppliers, operators and technical experts (bomb makers etc)
      • Employ all assets to isolate and defeat the insurgents – Counter insurgency forces alone cannot defeat the insurgents/ extremists; success requires all forces and all means at our disposal. Employ Paramilitary Forces and Police and local protection forces or Neighbourhood watches etc and, when required, even Conventional and Special Forces, and also all other available multipliers. Integrate civilian and military efforts to cement security gains. Fight decentralized, and push assets down to those who most need them and can actually use them.
      • Recruit locals as auxiliary police or civil defense or neighbourhood watches and as workers. The volunteers may be illiterate, under age or over weight, but they can be worked on. Create ‘Emergency battalions’ to work them (eg:- Pioneer units) and employ them. Arm them with captured weapons and get the Military to give them training, even if only for a week or two. Such political change can lead to improved security and a sense of belonging in the locals.

      There will of course be protests against such militias (eg:- Ranveer Sena or Salwa Judum or Village Defence Cadres), especially if they are not properly monitored and directed, but the alternative is a failure of security and prolonged civil war. Those who protest should be asked to consider the condition of the locals if they are not so organized and just left to the mercy of the insurgents. Also, you can’t tell the terrorist from the good locals, the local militiaman can. He can also discriminate between genuine and justified movement/travel and that which is not.

      • Encourage the rapid restoration of local administration and policing – As far as possible also encourage the assimilation of the reconciled insurgents into the local protection forces / Neighbourhood Watch Forces.
      • Follow through on your strategy continuously – To act episodically and withdraw, only treats the symptoms. It offers insurgents the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and act with greater sophistication and effect the next time.
      • Employ money as a weapon system – Ensure the greatest effect for each rupee or resource expended and ensure that each engagement contributes to the achievement of
      • the overall objectives. Ensure contracting activities support the security effort, employing locals where ever possible. The Central government may consider encouraging a ‘matching fund’ concept when feasible in order to ensure the involvement of the State government in development, amnesty and resettlement activity.
      • Fight for intelligence -A nuanced understanding of the situation is everything. Analyze the intelligence that is gathered, share it, and fight for more. Every patrol should have tasks designed to augment understanding of the area of operations and the enemy. Operate on a ‘need to share’ rather than a ‘need to know’ basis; disseminate intelligence as soon as possible to all who can benefit from it.
      • Understand the Neighbourhood – Map the human terrain and study it in detail. Understand local culture and history; learn about the locals, their formal and informal leaders, local governmental authorities and police forces. Understand how local economy and systems and authorities are supposed to work for providing governance and infrastructure and basic services, and operational and maintenance support – and how they really work.
      • Understand the cultural sensitivities of the locals. Do not alienate them. Work to build relationships – Relationships are a critical component of counter-insurgency operations. Together with other Authorities, strive to establish productive links with local leaders, governmental officials, religious leaders and inter agency partners. Identify and keep doing small things for the Locals – treat the sick, show care for the children and the elderly.
      • Look for sustainable solutions – Build mechanisms which, under the control of local community leaders and governmental institutions, can continue to secure local areas and sustain governance and economic gains in their communities even as the Military presence is reduced and Police and State Administration take over.
      • Maintain continuity and tempo through transitions – Start to build the information you’ll provide to your successors on the day you take over. Allow those who will follow you to virtually ‘look over your shoulder’ while they are yet to arrive to take over. Encourage extra time on the ground during transition periods, and strive to maintain operational tempo and local relationships to avoid giving the insurgents respite.
      • Manage expectations – Be cautious and measured in announcing progress. Note what has been accomplished, but also acknowledge what still needs to be done. Avoid premature declarations of success. Ensure all Security Forces personnel are aware of the assessments and that they recognize that any counter insurgency operation has innumerable challenges, that insurgents have a say, and that progress is likely to be slow.
      • Be First with the truth – Get accurate information of significant activities to your chain of Command, to the Government Authorities, and even, where appropriate, to the Media, as soon as is possible. Beat the insurgents, extremists, and criminals to the headlines, and pre-empt rumours. Integrity is critical to this fight. Acknowledge setbacks and failures, and then state what has been learnt and how to respond. Hold the Media (and yourselves) accountable for accuracy, characterization, and context. Avoid ‘spin’ and let the facts
        • speak for themselves. Challenge the Insurgents disinformation. Turn, the Insurgent’s bankrupt messages, extremist ideologies, oppressive practices and indiscriminate violence, against them. In this Information Age, where 60% of the War is information, we need the Generals / Commanders to be able to talk to the Media without being afraid of stepping on some other Authority’s toes. Work with Government both State and Central, to have a media cell to coordinate such information releases or interviews. Trust the Generals / Commanders to have the necessary understanding of the entire picture and of what to disclose. Otherwise replace them.
        • Fight the information war relentlessly – Realize that you are in a struggle which in the end will be won or lost in the perception of the people. Every action taken by the Insurgents and by the Forces/Police/Authorities has implications in the public arena. Develop and sustain a narrative that works and continually drive the themes home through all forms of media.
        • Live our values – Do not hesitate to kill or capture the insurgents/hostiles, but stay true to the values we all hold dear. This is what distinguishes us from our enemies. There is no tougher endeavour than the one in which you are engaged. It is often brutal, physical demanding, and frustrating. All experience movements of anger, but you can neither give in to dark impulses nor tolerate unacceptable actions by others. Never forget that you may soon have to convince the family of the insurgents you killed, of the inevitability of their loss given the path their family member was following, and then still win the acceptance of the family and of their neighbours.
        • Exercise initiative – In the absence of guidance or orders, determine what they should be and execute aggressively. Higher level leaders will provide broad vision and paint ‘white lines on the road’, but it will be up to those at tactical levels to turn ‘big ideas’ into specific actions. The Commanders should encourage such attitudes and stand by the junior leaders.
        • Prepare and exploit opportunities – “luck is what happens when preparations meets opportunity” – said Seneca the Younger . Develop concepts (such as that of ‘Reconcilables’ and ‘Irreconcilables’), in anticipation of possible opportunities, and be prepared to take risks as necessary to take advantage of them
        • Learn and adapt – Continually assess the situation and adjust tactics, policies, and programmes as required. Share good ideas (No one of us is smarter than all together). Avoid mental or physical complacency. Never forget that what works in an area today may not work there tomorrow, and it may or may not be transferable to another location.

        The DONT’s

        “Negative knowledge (what not to do) is more potent than positive knowledge (what to do)” – Rolf Dobelli .

        • Do NOT – Waste time and money attempting to build a police replica of the Army. Have local forces mirror the Insurgents not the Army.
        • Do NOT – concentrate on big, capital-intensive reconstruction projects except where settling populations in townships
          • as deemed necessary. In all other case, remember ‘small is beautiful’.
          • Do NOT – just throw in just any or everyone to take up leadership of counter insurgency operations. As Lt. Col. David McCullon advises – “Not everyone is good at counter insurgency. Many people do not understand the concept, and some can’t execute it. It is difficult and, in a conventional force, only a few people will master it. Anyone can learn the basics, but a few ‘naturals’ exist. Learn to spot these (individuals), put them in a position where they can make a difference. Rank matters far less than talent – a few good men led by a smart junior (or) non commissioned officer can succeed in counter insurgency, where hundreds of well armed soldiers under a mediocre senior officer will fail”.
          • Do NOT – Obsess on fighting your foe. Only attack him when he gets in the way. Try not to be distracted or forced into series of reactive moves by a desire to kill or capture the insurgents/hostiles.

          “With strategies based on Terror – only Terrorists have a chance of winning” – Marc Stiegler .

          • Do NOT – launch a raid, or be provoked into over reacting in a ‘knee-jerk’ fashion into retaliatory action due to an automatic bias for action. Stop, think twice, consider its consequences and only then act properly and proportionately. An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if the collateral damage leads to the recruitment of fifty more insurgents.
          • DO NOT – let yourself be provoked. Often insurgents carryout a terrorist act or a guerilla raid with the primary purpose of enticing counter-insurgency forces to over react.
          • Do NOT – try to do too much. Don’t make a move unless your presence is sustainable, and once you take an area, do not leave it uncovered or allow it to be re-infiltrated. Do NOT give up terrain.
          • Do NOT – hesitate to put more troops into the fight to attain to the ‘End State’ at the soonest: trying to make do with fewer troops may only lead to more years of bleeding.
          • Do NOT – hole up in safe compounds away from the locals and cede the initiative and appear to be running scared (as allegedly many did in Sri Lanka-OP Pawan?), you cannot offer Security by ‘day tripping’ like tourists, for perhaps 2 hours a day and leaving them unguarded and exposed, at the mercy and coercive attention of the Terrorists for the other 22 hours. You will, lose touch with the people, lose situational awareness, and appear to be running scared and cede the initiative to the insurgents. To feel secure the people need to know that the COIN Forces are there with them and accessible 24 / 7. Remember people are the ‘Prize’ and are the ultimate arbiters of Victory, and that it is our interest to isolate the insurgents from the people as, for the insurgents, such isolation is death. Take up a residential approach; living in your
            • sector in close proximity to the population, moving on foot, sleeping in local villages, night patrolling – all these seem more dangerous than they really are. People will be more willing to talk freely in the nights.
            • DO NOT – rely too much on or be obsessed with high technology. It isolates you from the locals.
            • Do NOT – abuse your prisoners, or tolerate abusive behavior by others to strive to encourage them to change sides. (Remember how well we treated even the Pak POW’s in 1972 though we did not publicize such treatment and hence lost a chance to enhance goodwill). Treat detainees professionally, with dignity and justice, and publicize their treatment. At no time detain family members to compel suspected insurgents to surrender or provide information. Strive to get them to encourage the hostiles to change sides.
            • Do NOT – even during a raid, humiliate the locals, or needlessly destroy property or otherwise alienate the local population from the ‘End State’ goals of the overall campaign. Apologize, if necessary and make generous compensation for any unavoidable damage.
            • Do NOT – take relatives or even the suspected associates of suspected insurgents hostage, in an attempt to compel surrender or coerce information, because it both illegal and unethical, in addition to being counterproductive in the long run. Be prepared to show the evidence justifying any detention. Every time you treat a local disrespectfully, you are working for the insurgents.
            • Do NOT – try to measure success by metrics such as, number of incidents or casualties, or amount of money spent, or even number of troops on ground etc. If at all you need a metric try to devise one that measures the attitude of the people towards the Security Forces. Winning the war and losing the peace can only soon lead to more war.
            • Do NOT – forget the “Paradoxes of Counter Insurgency” as highlighted in ‘Military Review’ by E. Cohen, C. Crane, Lt. Col J. Horvath and Lt. Col. J. Nagl, such as;

            – “The more you protect your Force, the less effective you are” – meaning that you must get out amongst the population, because in the long run that is the only way to improve Security.

            – “The more force you use, the less effective you are” – meaning that restraint, whenever possible, is the best way to re-establish the rule of Law. Aim for ‘Normalcy’.

            – “Sometimes doing nothing, at that time, is the best reaction” – meaning that getting provoked into retaliatory or hasty action may, at that time, be counterproductive.

            • Do NOT – end up doing the RIGHT thing the WRONG way!


            In Counter Insurgency (COIN) Operations it is as much a folly to think that the solution lies only in the use of Military Force as it is to think that programmes to win over the locals and thus isolate the insurgents can be implemented without first militarily attaining a level of security for the people. The success lies in knowing how

            to balance these two conflicting requirements. Hence the policies should be Military and Politico – Economic and both short term & long term.

            – JAI HIND! –

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