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  • Darren Lindeman

Counter insurgency strategies in the Syrian - Iraqi war:

Updated: Jul 10, 2019

If you've read about counter insurgency you will likely notice that it is commonly associated with the notion of understanding human terrain. Although this is intuitive because of the discourse after the Vietnam war, it has always been stressed again and again by the press, policy makers and academics. Guardians documentary about U.S counter insurgency expert James Steele for example identifies Steele's understanding for the need for human intelligence as quoted by insurgency sociology academic George Vickers. Australian counter insurgency author David Kilkulen speaks of the need for local intelligence with respect to urban development. The Malayan counter insurgency operations also notes of local support and civil protection and utlilty of force. In each case the human element is always stressed over the over reliance on technical indicators.

This is most likely heavily emphasized in the post analysis of the Vietnam war to rely less on firepower metrics then on mobility and intelligence operations. Human element involves the concern of culture and also importantly the economics of the region.  Economic patterns are highly circumstantial between different places but their influence on insurgency may be profound especially in places with very poor living standards. In hindsight we see that it the poor performing economies in the Middle East were partial factors that led to the factional civil wars in the Arab Spring. Economic factors take into account of the modes of production and flow of funds between individuals and organizations on a local regional and national scale which is the basis for macro economics.

The criminal based operations for funds is the basis for the book Narco Economics by Tom Wainwright which is relevant to understanding insurgencies as well as it talks about macro economic mismanagement. Besides economics there is also a cultural and interpersonal element to insurgencies. Cultural mal alignment especially from destitute youths also contribute to violent behavior and militancy. For example areas with low physical safety levels is often associated broadly with further violent cycles and possibly associated with 'feral gangs'. 'Feral gangs' is the term used to describe local groups in areas with weak policing systems whom may control social economic resources or have criminal rackets. Technology also increases the accessibility to regional  insurgency cells which advertise and recruit improvised agents or people and possibly from feral entities.

Any how this is the obvious and should be noted to be intuitive to any interest holders in COIN. Developing capacity for counter insurgency should factor in these elements of economics, culture, technology and of course religion. These factors there for influence the operating environment of insurgencies. It is important to highlight the intelligence against insurgency groups themselves, which constitutes the internal organizational factors for the groups.

(Field manual interim U.S army)

The flow of funds of insurgencies is also an important domain for intelligence operations. The flow of funds is essential to operating insurgency operations as without funds a fighter cannot support his family networks and also his own spending. The competition of funds for recruiting however may weigh more beneficially for insurgencies because they may have lower monetary objectives and because counter insurgency states are often corrupt and hence there is an insurgency who seek military objectives over social economic interests. Although Isil is waging a war of proportions which does not symbolize collaboration, it in fact did collaborate with the Syrian and Iraq state for economic resources at least indirectly through necessity or because of convenience. Note Isil controls oil supply routes to Turkey and taxes Iraqi's living in their areas who work in the south under government ministries and enterprises. 

(Understanding the Daesh economy, Princeton)

This implies there is a system of economic equilibrium between Iraq and Syria's state to that of the Islamic State. Although Isil has lost most of its Iraqi territory that it held previously it does not mean they have lost all their funds. The group may still rely on extortion and crime to fund their military spending. If Iraqi security writer Knight's comment that the Isil has deformed back into it's original state of mobile patrols is true and that they are resorting back to their rural roots then Iraqi security forces  should account for their new funding streams. Understanding their logistics network is critical to deprive Isil of their funds and purchase of military supplies. 

(ISIL 2.O Foreignpolicy.com)

Note this implies a seller of supplies and the source of funds and the mediators in between. This is where Iraqi intelligence should focus their efforts for surveillance to understand these logistical networks. These mediators need to be captured and share information which would lead to more development against the groups line of logistics. Therefore understanding the economic circumstances of the mediators and controlling economic resources for intelligence gathering is crucial. However Isil's intelligence and counter intelligence efforts are well known and fear of insecurity alone may deter intelligence breaches against the entity.

(Terrorism research and analysis consortium)

Iraqi forces through their experiences understand Isil's use of mobile patrols. Iraqi forces cannot rely on fixed position to hold Iraqi territories as it had done in the past because of the security risk some areas have. Therefore Iraqi forces need to understand that setting up intelligence networks require economic and military resources which cannot be hindered by corruption and bureaucratic failures. This is why a force like the Counter Terrorism Bereau is instrumental in safeguarding the counter insurgency efforts of the Iraqi state. The emphasis is on efficient bureaucracy and intelligence based human resources. The Counter Terrorism Bereau also has an active civil relationship agenda as seen in many press documentaries including the famous documentary series titled The road to Mosul ; needless to say this is important for developing human intelligence.

Because of the nature of Iraq's security circumstances it is emphasized that the rule of law and engagement should be a lesser priority then to successful use of force against mobile insurgencies. This prioritizes efficient use of military resources in combating insurgency activity without inefficient oversights. Iraq should also ingrain the authority of its forces and use localized intelligence by controlling social and economic resources. It is important to identify that local intelligence actors whom work for the security institutions are men of trust and reliability, and do not seek to gain through corruption and collateral practices. Therefore it's very important to note of human resource as a key objective and also economic collaboration both formally and informally. The precise strategy that the counter terrorism bureau is focused on is less so on urban warfare during the battle of Mosul to intelligence gathering and human reconnaissance afterwards.

This is most likely the case because of Isil's recession into a mobile and deceptive force around rural Iraqi towns and villages. This is also why Iraq's Counter Terrorism Service is seeking to increase their airborne capabilities according to David Witty writing for TheIraqiContext.  There are also many differing research on the cause and solutions of counter insurgencies. Causes relate to the social, economic political and cultural circumstances of a region. There for COIN may be viewed under the perspective of a humanitarian approach, which identifies the social constructs that lead to insurgencies. However there is also differing military and governance factors and also with respect to them principle agents. The insurgency in Iraq for example is attributed generally to the mis management of the Iraqi reconstruction funds.

There is also political actors which through their actions and not specifying social variables bears the burden of blame;  for example Iraq's prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki and his sectarian hardliners including Mosul security chief Gharawi. There is also poor military performance , which entails corruption and tactical in-aptitude during the fall of Northern Iraq. Therefore understanding counter insurgency also factors in understanding circumstantial situations, mistakes and also importantly scientific management. If scientific management broadly refers to aptitude in managing organizations for different objectives with or without technical methods or general meritocracy then this should be highlighted as a considerable factor to counter insurgency performance. Scientific methods therefore factor in military science, quantitative governance, science to understand multi systems and their relation to the outcome of an insurgency.

Multi or systems analysis is the quantitative method to analysis with different disciplines the effect of organizational processes. I.e how for example providing electrical services at a specific price or rate influences descriptive or measurable social economic and security outcomes. With this in mind there is the fact in hindsight that Iraq post invasion reconstruction was managed by diplomats and politicians with the advise of the military authorities. "'Officers to serve in Baghdad against their will — the leader of America’s diplomatic service is charging that critics, “including people who urged the 2003 invasion,” are seeking to blame the State Department for their own failures.' (William Fisher, Huffpost 2007) No country’s diplomatic corps has people with many of the skills now needed in Iraq: oil and gas engineers, electrical grid managers, urban planners, city managers and transportation planners.

If any US defense planner in 2003 thought that the State Department and other civilian federal agencies had such people on staff in large numbers (Arabic-speaking or not) ready to rebuild Iraq, they were wrong,” says John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA)."" So it is known that Iraq's reconstruction efforts was slow party due to the lack of government based expertise. This would have led to outsourcing efforts for American and other contractors with lucrative contractual sums. This situation can be summed as how trump phrases the war in Iraq , it being 'a big fat mistake'. In hindsight the war in Iraq was a spending plethora with cost possibly up to 3 trillion dollars if World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz is correct. Ignoring the financials, the U.S de Baathization policies and Shia majority government also led to further sectarian problems.

It is important to note the principle agents of Iraq's legislature and government composition and their objectives during the existence of the interim and post interim government. An important concern is whether or not the Iraqi civil affairs coordinators had adequate understanding and resources to deal with state building and it's multi system effects and implications and in relation to endamic corruption. To make matters worse the Iraqi insurgency surge also coincides with Al Maliki's rise as prime minister in 2006. Al Maliki's rise as prime minister was also 'a big fat mistake' and probably the biggest, and fattest mistake. The surge also coincided with the appointment of counter insurgency specialist David Patreaus as commanding general of America's Iraqi command or coalition forces in Iraq in 2007.

Patreaus hence developed the paramilitary forces of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior which include for example the Badr brigade and the predecessors of the Emergency Response Divisions or other special units of the Ministry of Interior. Ironically it seems in perspective that the forceful approach by Patreaus by utilizing more aggressive counter insurgency tactics did maintain Isil's momentum before the Syrian civil war, a fact much like the Malayan emergency.  It is important to note that Patreaus was an accredited counter insurgency professional and his mode of securing Iraq's insurgency placed am emphasis on morale invested units (although sectarian) based and most importantly critical human resource capacity. It is investment in human resources which gave the ministry of interior sufficient leverage to develop successful counter insurgency tactics, techniques and procedures although they conduct acts which counters public trust.

To conclude although successful counter insurgency factors are well known and they include an efficient social, economic, cultural and political systems'. It is important to identify that general meritocracy, military efficiency, successful administration , civil trust , economic control and multi system literacy is also empowering factors in achieving counter insurgency strategy.