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Vietnam’s great war hero: General Vo Nguyen Giap

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This is Part II of an 8 part series on great generals during the industrial warfare era. Part I covers Omar Bradley.

General Vo Nguyen Giap was forced into exile in 1939, fleeing to southern China where he met and learned guerrilla warfare from Mao Tse-Tung. Giap would later tailor Mao’s maxims on war to fit the conflicts and terrain of Vietnam. There he would defeat two of the world’s great powers: Overwhelming the French at Dien Bien Phu, pushing them to retreat past the 17th parallel (dividing Vietnam into Northern and Southern halves). Then after nearly a decade of conflict with American forces, Giap would break American containment and lead the reunification of North and South Vietnam under communist rule in 1975.

Giap is well-regarded for countering superior technology and firepower from the French and American side with his effective combination of conventional and guerrilla tactics.  His doctrine for the use of force fell into three stages: 1) guerrilla insurgency and unconventional assaults during the initial stage of contention; 2) mix of guerrilla and mobile-conventional warfare during equilibrium stage/protracted war; and 3) increase mobile warfare with conventional forces in order to exploit the loss of the will to fight by opposing forces. Using these three principles, Giap orchestrated the French defeat by isolating then overpowering French forces. Against the U.S., he effectively supplied and augmented the Vietminh insurgency while holding key positional ground in the northern border regions of South Vietnam.

But lastly the reason Giap makes our list of top 8 industrial war era generals is because he understood, perhaps more than anybody, the connections between political goals and military strategy. Giap practiced grand strategic political warfare. On war, Giap has written “not only did we fight in the military field but in the political, economic and cultural fields.” In this regard, he timed the siege of Dien Bien Phu to coincide with rising French disillusionment in Indochina and their growing willingness to have conciliatory talks with Ho Chi Minh. And he countered America’s strategy of attrition with an ability to harness local disenfranchisement and prolong the battle beyond the American public’s will to fight.


Saudi Arabia fights Houthi insurgents in Yemen?

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The Washington Post reports that Saudi Arabia’s Air Force bombarded rebel bases inside of Yemen.  Meanwhile, the Saudi government denies these allegations, saying that it only attacked Houthi rebels within Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, has become increasingly anxious about instability and militancy in Yemen, which is also facing separatist sentiment in the south and a growing threat from resurgent al Qaeda fighters.

“As of yesterday late afternoon, Saudi air strikes began on their positions in northern Yemen,” the adviser said, asking not to be named because operations were still going on.

“There have been successive air strikes, very heavy bombardment of their positions, not just on the border, but on their main positions around Saada,” he said, alluding to the capital of the northern province where the rebels have been battling Yemen government forces since August.

The al-Houthi rebels are followers of Zaydism, a branch of Shia Islam.  The Yemeni government struggles with the Houthi rebellion based in northern Yemen, while also attempting to eliminate terrorist safe-havens and a Sunni separatist movements in the South.

Written by gringolost

November 5, 2009 at 3:25 pm

The waning power of India

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In international relations, power can be measured in absolute or relative terms.  When it comes to economic power, a country is mostly likely said to be better off if its economic power increases in absolute terms.  But, when it comes to diplomatic power, a country is more concerned with its relative power vis-à-vis others.

That’s why this article by Brahma Chellaney in Forbes’ Magazine, “Behind the Sri Lankan Bloodbath,” sheds interesting light on the state of India’s power in South Asia.  Because while India may be one of the strongest regional actors in terms of trade, population and military might – it is still struggling to assert itself in the diplomatic arena.

Even the small island-state Sri Lanka, which is proximate to India in many ways, does not operate as a client or as India’s sole beneficiary, instead pledging allegiance to other states (especially China and Pakistan) in return for counterinsurgency support against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

As Chellaney notes, Sri Lanka “practiced adroit but duplicitous diplomacy” which often contradicted India’s interest but was in-line with Sri Lanka’s sovereign interest:

[Sri Lanka] assured India it would approach other arms suppliers only if New Delhi couldn’t provide a particular weapon system it needed. Yet it quietly began buying arms from China and Pakistan without even letting India know. In doing so, Colombo mocked Indian appeals that it rely for its legitimate defense needs on India, the main regional power. It was only by turning to India’s adversaries for weapons, training and other aid that Colombo pulled off a startling military triumph. In any event, Colombo was emboldened by the fact that the more it chipped away at India’s traditional role, the more New Delhi seemed willing to pander to its needs.

Accordingly Chellaney reports, “India’s waning leverage over Sri Lanka” manifested itself in how “it has to jostle for influence there with arch-rivals China and Pakistan.”  As an example, Chellaney uses the billion-dollar seaport being built by Beijing in Sri Lanka’s southeast as a symbol of China’s strategic challenge to India.

In a broader sense, India’s inability to exert diplomatic leverage over other powers becomes apparent with the global influence China has compared to India despite their approximate similarities in demographics, military capability and economic strength.  India’s waning regional influence is exemplified by the Sri Lanka case.

Now, what are the reasons for India’s lackluster ability to project diplomatic power?  In regards to Sri Lanka, Chellaney believes India’s foreign policy suffered because it was not driven by “resolute, long-term goals, but by a meandering approach influenced by the personal caprice of those in power.”  Additionally, I would add that India’s foreign policy is hindered by domestic and border concerns that often receive paramount attention.  And India’s “meandering” approach can be explained by its inability to overcome these critical constraints at home. ♦

The Utility of Media in War Amongst the Afghans

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Let’s recall Rupert Smith’s paradigmatic shift from traditional/industrial war to “war amongst the people” to General Stanley McChrystal’s just released initial assessment of the situation in Afghanistan. In his brief, Gen. McChrystal does not shy away from the role media plays in the conflict against Afghanistan’s insurgencies.  (Likewise, Smith makes explicit his thoughts on planning for media before undertaking war, and then using the media to shape perceptions of the battlefield.)

Here is a brief summary of what McChrystal said about media:

Appendix D of the report covers the use of media and strategic communications (StratCom).  According to McChrystal, “[t]he information domain is a battlespace, and it is one in which ISAF must take aggressive actions to win the important battle of perception.”  This explicit media manipulation may dishearten some but is likely critical for any chance of success to occur within an operating environment like Afghanistan.  With that being said, the disadvantages ISAF has regarding message delivery are still exceptionally high.

As the report notes, “[t]he use of traditional communications to disseminate messages must be better exploited using both modern technology and more orthodox methods such as word of mouth. These messages should be delivered by authoritative figures within the AFG [Afghan] community, both rural and urban, so that they are credible. This will include religious leaders, maliks, and tribal elders.”  But this task may be more difficult then it seems, considering the lack of legitimacy afforded to the Afghan government and the strength of the insurgents message of defiance to foreign occupiers. Add to this, ISAF’s deficient ability to speak local languages and dialects.

McChrystal’s stated StratCom objectives include efforts to discredit and diminish insurgents’ capability to “influence attitudes and behaviour (sic)” of the Afghan population.  Additionally, McChrystal would like to advance security and stability by developing a “sense of ownership” between the Afghan government and its populace.  But before this occurs, McChrystal notes that the operational culture of ISAF must reflect “unity of command” and “unity of effort” from the international community.  These are all tasks which are easier said than done.

In this increasingly controversial war, presumably General McChrystal is cognizant of the limitations that strategic media has on world opinion.  While he states that “coherent and rapid messaging” are necessary to promote the “single ISAF ‘brand’ to multiple internal and external stakeholders,” he must also be weary of feigning opinion if operational difficulties are underplayed or misrepresented.

My opinion is that McChrystal’s use of StratCom suffers from increasingly diminishing returns if it is used to propogate a message that is losing traction amongst its intended audience.  Although to his credit, McChrystal’s assessment is bluntly honest in its request for resources and statements about needing to revise “operational, tactical and strategic guidance.”

Significant portions of this blog post were re-posted at Fletcher Reflections (albiet with a different title).

The Utility of Force: War Amongst the People

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Rupert Smith contends in Utility of Force that great powers are less likely to resort to confrontation to resolve international disputes because of the nuclear deterrent.  Instead conflict in the current era of security will be dominated by asymmetrical threats from non-state actors.  Thus, the new paradigm of international conflict involves the actions used by great powers to counter threats from non-state actors.  These actions include peacekeeping, counterterrorism, and interventions to secure national or allied interests.

This new paradigm is described by Smith in part III, “War Amongst the People”.  In this section, Smith breaks down six basic trends that make up the new paradigm (list copied from the book):

  1. The ends for which we fight are changing from the hard objectives that decide a political outcome to those of establishing conditions in which the outcome may be decided.
  2. We fight amongst the people, not on the battlefield.
  3. Our conflicts tend to be timeless, even unending.
  4. We fight so as to preserve the force rather than risking all to gain the objective
  5. On each occasion new uses are found for old weapons and organizations which are the products of industrial war.
  6. The sides are mostly non-state, comprising some form of multi-national grouping against some non-state party or parties.

Based on point one, governments must employ force to establish “conceptual space” where statecraft (diplomacy, political pressure, economic incentives, etc) can be used to gain political objectives.

In regards to points two through four, the fact that governments are forced to fight “amongst the people” and endure “timeless” conflicts means that force must be employed in a way that does not break support of the Clausewitzian triangle of the population, government, and military.  The realities of lengthy operations mean that governments must fight to “preserve the force” by avoiding the “body bag” effect that casualties have on reducing public support.  Consequently, the media is a necessary tool for decision makers because theirs is the primary conduit where information can be tailored and dispensed.

For point five, Smith makes the observation that the most destructive weapons of today’s conflicts are being used in ways that they were not originally intended.  Smith’s examples include the use of machetes by Rwandan Hutus to systematically kill Tutsis, suicide bombers to conduct precision attacks, and the proliferation of small arms to rebel groups.  I would add one adaption of the American machinery was the placement of missile systems on different types of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Lastly, governments send their forces on operations to preserve and advance interests within non-state formulations of conflict.  To conduct these operations governments must form groupings of multi-national partners that often reduce the group’s objectives to the lowest common denominator.  This is a result of varying degrees of material, legal and political support from each member of the group.  Thus, point six is a reflection of the need to marry the objectives of coalition partners.  This point is particularly important for international missions conducted by organizations such as the UN and NATO.

Moving forward

Smith follows this explanation of the “war amongst the people” paradigm with a chapter titled Direction: Setting the Purpose for the Use of Force. In this chapter, he lays a cursory outline of what policy-makers could do to prepare for this next phase of conflict.  However, Smith doesn’t offer much insofar as suggestions other than saying there needs to be a “revolution in our thinking” that realizes both the military and political are more intertwined than ever. This revolution entails an overhaul of the institutions and thought-processes that guide conceptions of war.

In the least, an overhaul of the following is necessary:

  • The legal institutions that govern the international security arena.  The current regimes (such as the Geneva Conventions) were formed in the aftermath of WWII and were designed with industrial wars in mind. They need to be re-crafted to address non-state threats.
  • Planning for conflict has to change to reflect new realities of non-traditional conflict.
  • Institutional design must effectively focus the efforts of different agencies across the civil-military spectrum on shared objectives.
  • The media’s role must be included in the planning for conflict.

Now these above recommendations are from Smith, but what from this list is missing?

Case by case: Drugs, rebellion and terrorism – Peru.

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Some governments in the world have problems with a combination of illicit trafficking, international/regional terror movements, and local insurgencies.  On their own these problems are considerable, but when combined together they give governments serious headaches without easy solutions.

Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) is morphing into an attempt to address these issues together. (*With the results of this countering strategy being debatable).  What many do not realize is that OEF concerns more than just Afghanistan, but The Philippines and Horn of Africa as well.   And in each of these areas, there is a blurry separation between what constitutes a trafficker, rebel and terrorist.  This blurry line is what makes them difficult to counter.

For example:

  • Afghanistan has its poppy growers, Taliban-like insurgents, and al Qaida affiliated groups.
  • The Philippines has the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Abu Sayyaf, human-trafficking and banditry economy.
  • The Horn of Africa has its warlords, pirating, and similar al Qaida-like groups.

But with each of these countries, an attempt to eliminate one problem can detriment attempts to counter another.  As is the case with the debatable counter-drug policy in Afghanistan which could lead farmers into the hands of the Taliban.  Or the counter-terrorism policy against Abu Sayyaf which can conflict with a reconciliation approach towards the MILF.  Not to mention, that trying to do too much with too few resources can be counter-productive in its own right.

Peru is a special case, just like all the others.

There are two main rebel groups and a significant cocaine trade in Peru.  Sendero Luminoso (or “Shining Path”) is the most internationally renown and violent of the two rebel groups.  The second is Túpac Amaru, which gained worldwide notoriety after it took hostage Japanese embassy personnel in an attack that lasted over 4 months.  Both of these organizations have been seriously weakened by decapitation that resulted in the arrests of top-level leadership.

In the Shining Path case, the arrest of Abimael Guzmán fractured the organization.  While the Japanese hostage situation resulted in the deaths of 14 members of Túpac Amaru’s high-level command.  These two episodes, occurring in 1992 and 1997, reduced the threat to the Peruvian state.

Yet, the danger for Peru is that both rebel groups will come back in force.  However, it appears that both groups have shifted their focus from leftist rebellion to drug trafficking.  Now Peru’s main countering strategy should be against the illicit drug economy, and not counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency.

But what is the best way to stop trafficking without stirring up rebellion?

Peru will have to diminish cash incentives for farmers that produce illicit crops, while simultaneously giving them economic alternatives.  Intimidation spread by traffickers must be policed without corruption.  And consumption must be reduced in a way that doesn’t necessitate interdiction or crop eradication, mainly this is because interdiction rises the profit-motive while eradication strengthens the link between farmers and rebels.

All of this is much easier said than done.  But, in my opinion, the US can reduce the illicit drug economy if it truly takes on the problem with “smart power,” as is claimed to be the renewed focus of US foreign affairs.

Smart power would encompass an approach that was both domestic and international.  It would include treatment at home with support for economic development abroad. It would include strategies that seek to address the drug problem at the two key nodes where it starts and ends:  The farmers who produce and the users who consume.  It would do this in a way that reduces criminality at both of these non-violent nodes of the production cycle.

Other gringo lost posts with a similar bend:

The ‘Wedge’: creating divisions between terrorists and insurgents in the Philippines

This is your counterinsurgency.  This is your counterinsurgency on drugs.

Counter-narco woes

Synchronized drug gang violence across the State of Michoacan

I’m in Mexico. So, I should write about Mexico

The ‘Wedge’: creating divisions between terrorists and insurgents in the Philippines

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Distinguishing between “terrorists” and “insurgents” can be difficult.  In the Philippines it is especially difficult, where last week the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) conducted an operation against Abu Sayyaf terrorists that also killed 10 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) insurgents.  Adding to the confusion, it is not clear whether the MILF insurgents were aiding Abu Sayyaf terrorists on the island of Basilan, or if they were merely unfortunate passersby.  Now in Afghanistan nabbing Taliban insurgents with al Qaida terrorists may be a good thing, the same is not necessarily true in the Philippines.

The government of the Philippines and MILF leadership had been trying to forge a peace settlement which included a mechanism to share intelligence on Abu Sayyaf.  This mechanism was called the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group, but efforts on this front have stalled alongside peace negotiations for over a year.

One goal with this type of an agreement is to establish a wedge between the MILF and Abu Sayyaf by granting some political autonomy to the MILF in exchange for increased stability.  This type of deal made sense because MILF was less prone to conduct “terror” types of operations or participate in criminal acts, as is done by the Abu Sayyaf group.  Now with the deal inactive, it may be the case that some elements of the MILF and Abu Sayyaf are collaborating, which could significantly add to the complexity of the government’s counterterrorism operations.

Last week the Defense Secretary of the Philippines announced that he wants the military to “finish off” Abu Sayyaf within the next year.  Signaling his commitment to the Islamic terrorist group’s annihilation, Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro ordered the military to conduct counterterrorism operations during the holy month of Ramadan.

But Teodoro’s efforts are going to prove cumbersome if he cannot elicit MILF’s support with intelligence collection, nor prevent them from actively assisting Abu Sayyaf terrorists.  To properly split the two groups, both the Filipino government and MILF must actively engage in substantive negotiations.  Fortunately, it seems that the recent operation has prompted both the government and MILF to resume (or at least think about) the negotiation process; and hopefully this will result in some real actionable intelligence and prevent the MILF and Abu Sayyaf militants from forging an alliance that would prove difficult to combat.