Why Model Insurgencies?

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Why Model Insurgencies?

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I watched the Brad Pitt movie War Machine a few days ago.  In this highly satirical look at Stanley McChrystal’s time as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. The film wasn’t well loved, earning only a 54% on Rotten Tomatoes and fell only slightly above that with a 56/100 over at Metacritic.

In it, a Rolling Stone journalist has a voiceover that says:

The thing about counterinsurgency is that it doesn’t really work. We tried it in Vietnam. That went well… The British and French gave it a shot trying to hang on to their crumbling empires…It just hasn’t worked. To me, it should seem kind of simple why. You can’t win the trust of a country by invading it. You can’t build a nation a gunpoint.

This oversimplification of the last 60 years of history struck me as fairly crass, but largely a popular sentiment that might be heard around any number of dinner tables or between armchair generals looking at counterinsurgency operations across the span of history. I’m certainly no expert on the topic. My knowledge comes largely from a brief look at counterinsurgency through the Great Courses Masters of War: History’s Greatest Strategic Thinkers and David Kilcullen’s book The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One.

Neither provide much more than a series of anecdotes as a means to give average folks like me a look inside the world of counterinsurgency.  The Great Courses largely looks at the counterinsurgency thoughts of Roger Trinquier and Kilcullen’s work is derived from his own on the ground experiences. Both men have been significant influences upon the current US Counterinsurgency.  In fact, the Combat Studies Institute issued a US Army Command and General Staff College publication in 1985 from Trinquier called A French View of Counterinsurgency

In it, the hard fought lessons of the French are summarized in one simple sentence.

Military tactics and hardware are all well and good, but they are really quite useless if one has lost the confidence of the population among whom one is fighting

With that in mind, let’s reflect on the initial quote from War Machine that got me fired up to write this article.  Is the failure of Vietnam or the French and British a condemnation that all counterinsurgencies are doomed to fail.  Or, is it, as the movie also asserts that every general believes counterinsurgencies aren’t won because their predecessors haven’t been doing it right?

At the heart of the movie and the heart of Trinquier’s treatise is that western nations seek to engage insurgencies with the same methodologies that made them so successful throughout their experience.  In effect, bringing better trained and armed troops to a traditional battlefield and slugging it out.  In Algeria, at one point the French had 300,000 troops against a meager 30,000 insurgents.  In War Machine, we get an indictment of the 2009 “Troop Surge” when President Obama bet 30,000 additional troops in a year would be able to strike a blow to the Afghani insurgency to allow for a troop withdrawal.  In effect, Western nations equate the winning of a counterinsurgency through the lens of warfare they’ve repeatedly used: manpower and mission clarity.

The one-two punch seems to be the concession that IF a western power is to partner with local forces, they need to be able to protect those forces and therefore require additional troops.  Additional troops on the ground looks more like invasion rather than support and makes greater targets which leads to traditional military/police-state tactics to protect those troops and so the quagmire theory popularized by David Halberstram begins to set in motion.

Kilcullen provides an alternate view and a case-study from Afghanistan to back up his point.  He contends that identifying why a stable government is important is at the heart of the matter. Medicine, taxation, regulation, red tape, and increased commerce don’t appeal to people who have lived their lives largely absent of such requirements or exposure. In fact, those byproducts of functioning government may be abhorrent to a population used to self-rule or local junta control that has largely managed and kept them fed and safe for centuries.

Instead, Kilcullen provides an example of isolated mountain valleys that are impassable in the winter for lack of roads. The infrastructure project to build out the roads means jobs. The jobs create ownership of the work. The road provides access to market and travel when it this was previously unthinkable. The people take pride in this new freedom and want to protect it. The road therefore becomes the target of the insurgents who are then fighting against a population that like their new way of life better than their old one and therefore are motivated to defend it.

In effect, custom tailoring solutions for local populations based on needs assessment that derives from the people who are skeptical of a distant government and what they might offer. The downside is huge and should be quite obvious. This doesn’t scale well and it may not be universally applicable. It is overly reliant on savvy local military leaders who can effectively manage their people, coordinate NGOs and local leadership while securing their objectives.

We have, on the other end of this spectrum, Trinquier’s recommendations which include meticulous inventories of people, livestock, supplies, and tight control over access to communities. The idea is to blockade access to the people by the insurgents, account for how insurgents are deriving the supplies that sustain them, and then begin working to dismantle the political organizations supporting insurgent groups. More troubling, and why more modern citations of Trinquier by the US Military are less forthcoming with all the source material is that Trinquier believed:

In modern warfare, as in the traditional wars of the past, it is absolutely essential to make sure of all the weapons the enemy employs. Not to do so would be absurd.

What are “all the weapons the enemy employs?” Simply put, Trinquier believed that, when necessary, it was essential to use torture as a means of intimidating and obtaining information. The April 2012 Jacob Uzzell article “Is Torture Ever Acceptable in COIN Operations?” he concludes that the costs are simply too high. In particular, the loss of the moral high ground needed to establish legitimacy is easily seen in the fallout from the Abu Gharib prison revelations in 2004.

So, why do we even bother trying to model insurgencies for the purposes of wargaming?

First, I would contend that they are exactly as Trinquier suggested 60 years ago a peak into what truly modern warfare has become. Terrorism and insurgencies are linked. Their effectiveness on a global scale against traditional Western and Eastern powers has been unflinching and even when an insurgency fails to achieve its objectives the drain of time and money weakens the traditional with unmatched efficiency. It means, if we’re going to look at modern conflict we need to be examining historical examples of counterinsurgency and our current global counterinsurgency efforts.

Second, I would say that the better we can model specific actions and reactions the better we are breaking out of our traditional modes of thinking about counterinsurgency strategy. If, for example, we look at what it means to establish legitimacy and how fragile that legitimacy is, then we might examine where best to establish legitimacy and how. Do we follow Trinquier’s methodical accounting and extermination followed by Kilcullen’s boutique solutions for local populations to establish that legitmacy?

Finally, it is more important than ever to dispel the average-joe of the notion that there’s a single solution to insurgencies.  After all, if “turning the desert to glass” was a legitimate solution it might have been examined. Instead, revealing the complexity and uncertain nature of an insurgency, along with their relative ease of undetected movement is critically important. Tet achieved incredible surprise because we underestimated the ease with which insurgents can move and coordinate. That was in a pre-cellular era. That was in an pre-internet era. The complexity of systems and communication channels available to insurgents today provide far greater ease in this kind of sophisticated funding and operations coordination.

So, the next question becomes: Do the COIN games get it right?

I think they do to the extent that they answer all three of challenges I lay out for why we must model counterinsurgency. They cover current and historical counterinsurgencies reflecting the underlying challenges and similarities they have to one another.  Each COIN game provides tailored solutions appropriate to the conflict via its rules. In effect, while COIN is a series of games, only the skeleton remains the same between games. The specific factions, rules, and events are each specific to the conflict. In this way, we get a chance to think with the mindset of the leaders of their time and look for opportunities to innovate with the tools at hand as Kilcullen advocates. Finally, the COIN games are accessible. It’s not JUST wargamers who are playing COIN games. The multiplayer nature of the game invites a broad spectrum of gamers into the COIN fold. Further, the topics are ones that remain accessible to non-wargamers like the Cuban Revolution or the American Revolution.

Make no mistake, counterinsurgency theory and strategy will long be debated. We happen to be lucky to be part of a hobby that affords us the opportunity to reflect on them with the aid of fantastic tools.

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  1. Thanks for your post, and the short history of counterinsurgency theory, something that will be debated for a long time among professionals.
    I thought it necessary to put in a page about David Galula’s work in the designer’s notes to Colonial Twilight, as he was a contemporary of Trinquier and also influences American doctrine leading to Field Manual 3-24.

    But maybe it’s not so much a hot topic among gamers… According to my rough count on BGG, about 5,000 civilian board wargames have been published in the last 50 years, covering conflicts from the Stone Age to fantasy and science fiction.
    There is an embarrassingly large gap in coverage of what has actually been going on in the real world in those last 50 years.
    The true predominant mode of armed conflict since the end of World War Two has been a range of activity captured by the general term of “irregular warfare”, especially COIN.

    And as relevant as these contemporary conflicts may be to us now, civilian market wargames devoted to exploring and understanding them are not common.
    My research identifies out of those 5,000 titles, fewer than 100 that deal primarily and seriously with post-1945 counterinsurgency topics at a level higher than the board wargame equivalent of a “first-person shooter” or squad level game.
    Fewer than 15 of these deal with insurgencies of the last 25 years.

    [For interest’s sake, my list of the titles: A Distant Plain, Andean Abyss, BCT Command Kandahar, Battle for Baghdad, Decision: Iraq, Fallujah 2004, Kandahar, Labyrinth, Liberia – Descent Into Hell, Operation Anaconda, Somali Pirates, Shining Path, Somalia Interventions. Even so, two of these titles are pitched-battle episodes within a larger insurgency. Would welcome titles I have missed: operational or campaign-level please, not tactical ones like Boots on the Ground.]

    It’s very gratifying that the COIN system is having its moment in the sun, but I fear that the subject will never be as overwhelmingly popular as inter-state warfare, real or imagined… I think there are probably many more wargames on the World War Three that never happened (i.e. cold war goes hot) than ones on actual and far more influential insurgencies.

  2. I find that the COIN games are wonderful games, but that they gloss over the political into a mostly support/oppose track focusing on the units in the provinces. It’s a very simplified, traditional model of COIN. In a way, there’s not really much of a way around that, but i’m not sure it’s hugely insightful. If I were looking to improve the modelling in COIN games, I would ramp up the political aspects- make them more complicated. Politics, the domestic economy, and the situation in the neighbors are super important and they don’t factor in a whole lot.

    I love the system, though.

    • Thanks Gordon, and fair comment.
      All games are hideous abstractions and distorted models of real life, and reducing so many non-military factors to a “support/oppose” binary state in the COIN system is just that, an abstraction.
      An abstraction, and in my view a necessary one and not a cop-out.
      From a designer’s point of view, the main problem is getting people to simply play the game, when they have so many other things to do with their time (this is a problem with professional military gaming as well). In A Distant Plain for example, we have four factions representing the tendencies, agendas, limitations and prejudices of literally millions of people, and it’s difficult enough to get four people to sit down together for several hours to get into the problem (and if it doesn’t get solved in those hours, someone’s going to get up from the table disgruntled).

      Instead of complicating the game with many additional rules and processes, for a small number of players to work through (we saw how far this can go back in the 70s and 80s), my preference would be to make it more complex, by adding additional players and roles with particular agendas, and freeing up the game structure – by reducing the number of rules, not increasing them.
      There’s a form of game called a “matrix game” that is having its moment in the sun right now in professional gaming circles, though it has a long history, and it can permit much more of what I think you are looking for. See https://paxsims.wordpress.com/magck/
      An even better form of game for this, though it comes with a huge logistical overhead, is the Megagame that can involve a hundred or more players.
      Sky’s the limit with these.
      See https://paxsims.wordpress.com/2017/03/14/what-is-a-megagame/ and https://paxsims.wordpress.com/tag/megagames/

  3. Part of the problem of modeling modern conflicts (within 25 years) in commercial war games is that the subject is so close at hand that there is an abhorrence by some to participate in a recreation of that event. This feeling is exacerbated when considering conflicts which involve the methods of terrorism, which nearly all insurgencies do. I certainly encountered that cultural phenomena in the design of my Labyrinth: Awakening expansion.

    I don’t suggest the we put on moral blinders when playing these games, but I do believe that citizens and decision makers can gain much greater insight by playing a simulation on a recent topic, than they can by simply reading about out it or listening to the news.

    • I completely agree with you Trevor, but I don’t think this reticence you are describing will go away, no more than the whole debate over the morality of wargaming itself ever will.
      Those who think they could learn from these games, may try them and might; others who don’t see the value, won’t and never will.

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