Two Bits in the COIN-Operated Machine: Interview with a Counter-Insurgency Specialist

There’s been a lot of talk about the ways technology is being harnessed for terrorism, insurgency, counter-insurgency and general “asymmetric” conflict these days. The Arab Spring, Ukraine, Libya, Egypt, and Syria have all involved new uses of technology by governments, combatants, hacktivists, civil resisters, and non-combatants alike.

So, we thought we’d sit down with Dr. Jacob Diliberto for a chat about technology and the future of insurgency. 

Dr. Diliberto is a specialist in counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy and a friend of the MakingCrimes blog. Diliberto has served in combat with the USMC in Afghanistan, and later returned to Afghanistan as a United Nations observer. He’s provided advising and training for foreign police and military services, and consulted for the US DOD. He recently finished a Ph.D. in international security, and for his doctoral research he interviewed dozens of the world’s most prominent experts on COIN. Our interview with Dr. Diliberto appears minimally edited below:

MC: Ok, so describe your experience in COIN operations or research.

JD: Well, I’ve got considerable experience with COIN. I’ve got about 10 years experience between military operations and research on low intensity conflict, specifically counterinsurgency and foreign internal defense.

MC: A lot of mainstream scholarship and research on counter-insurgency ends up concluding that adaptation is a huge component of success. What makes adaptation or improvisation so important to insurgency and counter-insurgency?

JD: So, the only way that a counter insurgency campaign is effectively won, is that DilQuote1once field commanders insert COIN forces into the situation, they must recognize the impediments to local government. And by recognizing those local impediments with on-the-ground knowledge, the localized knowledge you get from dealing with mayors and local aldermen, and local city authorities, and the little local neighborhood gang leaders, only by understanding their position are you able to establish a civil-military relationship and bridge the gaps between alienated citizens and a failing government.

That’s where the adaptation happens, that adaptation is a key component of how these campaigns are won and lost. If you don’t make adaptations, if you just come in with the South Park “underpants gnomes” plan that all we have to do is get in there, back up the democracy trucks, unpack progress, something else happens, and we declare victory. That’s not going to work. You need to go in and build relationships, find out what’s defunct, and adapt your overall civil-military campaign to the specific situation. That’s how you win.

MC: So, it seems like there’s been a lot of talk, especially since 9/11 and renewed attention on how to make counter-insurgency work, a lot of talk about re-imagining what a battlespace looks like. People saying “Everything’s a psychological battlespace now. Terrorism, insurgency, it’s all psychological battlespace.” But it also sounds more inclusive, it’s political-institutional , it’s social, it’s cultural. It seems like an interactive social battlespace more than just a quest for dominance or legitimacy within each individual’s psychological space…

JD: Yes. It’s a total civil, military, political, social, and economic space circumferencing the kinetic battlespace. Generals have said “you can’t kill your way to victory.” That’s a great phrase but what it really means is that killing bad guys alone doesn’t deliver you anything in a counterinsurgency. What delivers you something is raising socio-economic and political support that bridges gaps between aggrieved populations and the government. Adapting as needed to bridge those gaps is how these things are concluded.

MC: Does that mean a certain proportion of success has to revolve around building local capacity, institutional capacity, government legitimacy, and that whole “foreign defense” and “stabilization” part?

JD: I’ve always been of two minds about this. Because I still wonder when we say “you have to build up the state institutions,” what does that really mean? Does it mean we want to build local capacity at the Parks & Rec department? Is that actually what’s going to gain a lot of local support? Or are we treating this like a game of “Sim City,” where basically you get your hospitals, your fire department, and your police academy going first, get the “hard power” squared away first, then go for building legitimacy on the normative, tangential, civil-social parts of it.

MC: Do you think maybe it doesn’t matter that much, if you’re on the ground and you’re potentially a combatant but you’re on the fence, do you think it’s just fundamentally more important to travel further down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

JD: Yeah, definitely. And we still acknowledge this in international relations. Diplomacy and international institutions are great, but the real currency of international relations is still “beans, bullets, and band aids.” We can have lots of international trust and good relations, but we do still keep militaries to provide a physical guarantee. It’s no different in COIN, the real currency you’re bringing to the relationship is guaranteeing security, making people safe. Primarily, in Iraq during the “Sunni Awakening” when security conditions improved (to the extent that they did improve), people felt safer. In Afghanistan, the key issue was that you could never make people feel safe. We can never make people feel sufficiently protected from insurgents, or warlords, or gangs, or a few local idiots on motorcycles throwing acid at people.

MC: So it does reflect the stereotypical image of failing to secure a wide enough area for a long enough period of time, so you’re just whacking moles forever…

JD: It’s like playing “whack a mole” with a sledgehammer inside your own house. Now your house is full of holes and you’ve got nothing to show for it.

Technology and Insurgency

MC: How has technology changed the insurgency and counterinsurgency game over time?

JD: Oh, tremendously. Let me give you an example. The most technologically prescient scenario right now on insurgency is in Syria. You’ve got insurgent organizations fighting against a failing government, and you’ve got some nefarious actors involved and some ugly tactics, but you don’t have a real hardcore, serious counterinsurgency campaign like in Vietnam, or Algeria, or Angola, Iraq, whatever. And, we are at the most current technologic stage for an insurgency right now in Syria.

So, what can we gain from this? Well, in the 1970s, a similar revolt was attempted against DilQuote2Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. In that situation, the insurgents were quickly stomped out. Why? Because an isolated insurgent uprising wasn’t able to mobilize in multiple places. They didn’t have the technology to do that. In Syria, we have almost the same political grievances today, but we’ve got far more rapid technologic advances. Peoples’ ability to Skype, to Tweet, to use these social media components to mobilize, plan assaults, coordinate, radicalize and recruit supporters and fighters,  and get fighters not just domestically but from abroad? You can’t tell me that doesn’t make a difference. It transforms the battlespace. Now it’s not just local grievances that matter. Now it’s any war, any situation, particularly in the Islamic world, where anybody with a grievance can tie it into this global social movement.

MC: So it’s like a weird globalization of tribal grievance.

JD: Oh yeah. Yeah, that nails it.

MC: It’s like we’re constantly debating the best way to do COIN. Like, if we adjust this aspect of the doctrine, or re-org our priorities for democratization and stabilization, get that formula right, deploy some new tool or techniques, then suddenly we’ll be succeeding at the same kind of scenarios that failed or stalemated in the past. But it seems like we’re always debating this because we never succeed at the longer-term political, social, and economic components you were referring to. So, do you think the future will hold some new military or technologic solutions that will make COIN more winnable without achieving these more difficult political objectives? Or, are we going to continue dominating every kinetic engagement but still never get the formula right on the politics and stabilization?

JD: I think that’s probably the most important question we could possibly ask aboutDilQuote3 counterinsurgency in the future. Here’s the deal: obviously conflicts aren’t going away, it’s a broken world, the human race is stupid, and we’re gonna fight wars for dumb reasons. So, COIN’s gonna happen again. Fine. The question is, will COIN be an effective tool for dealing with those conflicts in the future? Will counterinsurgency be a valid option for governments to navigate these conflicts and reduce human suffering?

Personally, I don’t see the trajectory of human conflict moving toward conventional military operations. I can see a hybrid form, or a hybrid battlespace that COIN can fit into. Is COIN as we currently know it going to be a plausible option for success in that environment? Hell no. The reason being, that our adversaries are going to have all the tools we have, but they will have them cheaper.

MC: And the bar is lower. Their standard for success is lower because all they have to do is disrupt any stabilization.

JD: Exactly, and that’s where I was going. They don’t actually have to do anything! For ISIS to win in Syria and Iraq, all they have to do is spray paint “ISIS” on the side of a tent, and have somebody post a photo on Twitter. That’s all they have to do! They don’t actually have to function. They don’t have to provide health care, or services, like this whole thing they have going on in Raqqa, this Taliban-style celebratory theocratic paradise shit or whatever they had going on, I suppose it’s all well and good for them, but they don’t need that!

MC: Well apparently they’re no damn good at governing anyway!

JD: No! They’re a bunch of nutmikes. But all they have to do is fart, and a federal government somewhere is gonna panic and drop some bombs. Just like Trump did a few weeks ago dropping the “Mother of all Bombs” to kill like, 60 terrorists. We spent $16 million dollars to kill 60 guys.

MC: That sounds pretty close to Vietnam prices, really.

JD: Well maybe! But we ought to have figured out by now that one bad guy is not usually worth millions and millions of dollars. You can take that money and probably fund two battalions of Afghan soldiers, and give them training, confidence, and experience, and send them in to kill those guys. And that would give Afghans jobs. But instead we’re gonna make a big statement and drop a giant, you know, phallic expression of national power.

MC: [Laughs] By extension then, that’s kind of a criticism of the late-Bush and Obama strategies that have been going on for a long time. The strategy of containment from the air and other containment operations. We hi t them with air power, intelligence tools, periodic strikes and special operations, and put enough pressure on them so they have a harder time. Basically keeping a lid on things to increase the difficulty for them to carry out strikes beyond their local areas of influence, and prevent the situation from getting so out of hand that the New York Times is reporting on terrorist training camps we haven’t bombed yet. It seems like that’s been going on a while, maybe for lack of a more viable long term strategy.

JD: Maybe, I suppose. We’ve got to try. I mean, I’m a firm believer that government is necessary in the modern world, and good governance is proven to make the human condition better. That said, I think the problem of failing governments is going to increase in the future because it’s becoming harder. And supporting foreign governments is going to be necessary, but it’s also gonna be a harder challenge because there won’t be enough support for it in the Western world. We’ve already seen, Donald Trump cutting the State Department budget, USAID, et cetera. Well, what was that for? What does that do? It signals “we’re gonna look after ourselves.” Ok, so you want to watch several more countries fall apart?

It’s gonna be harder, but it’s going to be necessary to support other governments, and it’s necessary for other countries to support us. It builds confidence, build good will. But these kind of hybrid wars are still likely to arise, for sure.

MC: That brings me to another question. Within security, and political science, and military science, and all the people who are studying these things, it seems like there are two contradictory “flavors of the month.” The first argument is that technology will challenge government in unprecedented ways, and it’ll be harder to govern, harder to secure space as technology diffuses. On the other hand, people say maybe authoritarian governments gain some advantage in that kind of environment, right? That we are held back by our scruples, our respect for privacy, respect for civil liberties and so forth, and this encumbers us in ways that authoritarian regimes are not held back.

JD: Yeah. You raise an interesting point there. The question is are authoritarian regimes preferable in small and failing states as opposed to democracies? Or, maybe another way to think about it is, should the Western world be comfortable supporting regimes with less democratic ideals?

I’m a big fan of case-by-case decision-making. In the case of failed states where political legitimacy has always been in question (somewhere like Afghanistan), authoritarian DilQuote4regimes have their purposes and their weaknesses. Or, a similar scenario in Egypt where authoritarian regimes have been the norm. We should not try to break that cycle and give rise to democracy in places where authoritarian regimes are the only thing that’s ever provided basic stability.

So, there are human rights abuses, there’s this and that. But what do you prefer? Do you prefer a rise in extremism and failing governments, or a reinforcement of autocracy? I think, from a security point of view but not a human rights point of view, we would prefer the autocracy in certain situations. Like Egypt, like Libya, like Algeria, like Syria, like Iraq.

MC: Basically, wherever the stakes of instability are too high?

JD: Yeah! Instability in some places is going to inevitably lead down a road with 30 years of insecurity, extremism and terrorist attacks, and then you’ve got to go help them fight a COIN. It’s like, what in the world…. why would anybody support that? It’s crazy.

MC: So the Wilsonian ideal, global democratization, that kind of stuff, um…

JD: It’s for the Western world! The world with literally 600-700 years of democratic ideals in a long process of social and cultural integration. That hasn’t happened in other parts of the world!

MC: What I take away from that, is that actually deciding what you want to do in a counter insurgency, you have to be able to go further down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and provide for basic needs first. And people who lack for their basic needs aren’t so choosy about how they get provided. It’s after meeting their fundamental needs that people start caring more about higher ideals.

If that’s how we’re defining things, then maybe authoritarian regimes do benefit. They clearly have weaknesses because they rely so heavily on force for compliance. When the regime loses force advantage things degenerate because they lack civil society outside the “strong man” or party, or whatever. But maybe they also benefit because an effective authoritarian regime actually can provide security and social goods, albeit with brutal methods and only for the benefit of their own loyalists. Do you think liberal states, or western states are handicapped? Or, is there a cultural disconnect where we don’t really understand how to approach foreign defense in places like that?

JD: That’s a good question and I actually think about this all the time. I think Western states, in principle, are not able to reconcile these issues. I think liberal values, democratic ideals, these things make the duality, or hypocrisy [of counterinsurgency] very difficult to deal with. I think people need to stop cherry picking their ideal world because it ain’t gonna happen. What you want to do in places with conflict and instability is find proximate solutions, find the best movement toward a better life, knowing you’ll never create a utopia.

The Future of Insurgency

MC: Do you think there could be a technologic game-changer in the future that would hand a decisive advantage to insurgents or counter insurgents?

JD: Oh…. yeah….. like microchips implanted in peoples’ hands? Like GPS trackers on everyone?

MC: So you’re saying it’s already happening?

JD: [laughs] Well, yeah putting microchips in everybody’s hands would be a game changer. Like, Book of Revelation type shit.

MC: Yeah yeah, like instead of “Strategic Hamlets” and whatnot, they just chip everybody?

JD: Yeah, just chip everybody! You’re born, here’s your chip!

MC: I’m sure that wouldn’t lead to any resistance or conspiracy theories whatsoever!

JD: Never!

MC: But yeah, in terms of technology game changers….

JD: Well, chips or universal biometrics would make a difference. I think both social media and social media tracking make a huge difference from all ends. Internet privacy and anonymous communications. And in Syria right now we’re seeing use of technology in an insurgency war, but Syria is a somewhat less developed technologically. What happens if these methods come to Spain, United States, Venezuela, places that have more access to technology and internet across the country?

MC: I’ve been reading about the stuff going on in Venezuela where Bitcoin has been a substitute for the failing Bolivar, and of course they made dollars illegal to trade, so clandestine Bitcoin activity has been a substitute apparently. And people are trying to use VPNs and TOR and anonymity methods to do it, and the government keeps trying to shut them down or extort the money out of them. But it’s interesting, it seems like conflict, insurgency, and instability are proving grounds for lots of new technologies. Like the Franco war in Spain with the Nazis testing their Stuka bombers.

JD: I think so. I think there are two major issues behind changes in the battlefield. Obviously cyber components are increasingly changing things. You can’t get military units in the Western world anymore that don’t incorporate digital technology into their basic functions. What happens if that’s gone? Who gets the upper hand?

Are we over-stressing our soldiers too? Over-emphasizing that they learn the technologies, but what happens if we have to rely on low-tech methods when the high-tech stuff gets disrupted? Does some tribal villager somewhere now have the advantage? Or better yet, are we going to be living in a time when all they need is nerdy guys behind computers sending little darts at you?

MC: So what does the future of insurgency and counter insurgency look like?

JD: It looks shitty! Ok, let me rephrase that. It looks like a tool that is increasingly likely to be used in a majority of armed conflicts around the world in the future.

MC: So armed conflict in the future will be increasingly dominated by insurgency, counter insurgency, and asymmetric operations?

JD: 100%.

MC: Does that mean we should maybe cancel some of our heavy artillery orders?

JD: I think we really need to stop focusing on new procurement of heavy conventional armament. We don’t need more aircraft carriers, we don’t need  a trillion dollars worth of Joint Strike Fighters. The new Super Stallion, did you see that shit? The new King Stallion helicopters are gonna cost more per-unit than the Joint Strike Fighter!

MC: Maybe they should call it the “Super Sergeant York.”

COIN Theories

MC: If you were going to endorse one major theory or theorist on counterinsurgency, what would it be?

JD: None of them, because they’re all wrong.

MC: Ok, so just to clarify, you still don’t want me to edit this?

JD: [Laughs] No, no, no I guess I would say… that my, where I… the guy who got it… it’s hard, right? Who got closest to the formula? It’s hard to say, man. It is definitely, get this, it is definitely not John Nagl. It’s 100% not John Nagl. And it is definitely not Fred Kagan, he’s wrong, you can put that in there you don’t need to edit it!

MC: I’m with you, I’m with you.

JD: I’d say if I can find a perfect balance, it’d be of three people: Bernard Fall, Sarah Sewell, and Dave Kilcullen. Maybe between all of them you get a kernel of truth.

MC: Kilcullen’s got some nice graphics.

JD: Yeah, he’s got a lot of good pictures.

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