The Role of State Building in COIN


The United States Army and United States Marine Corps’ seminal field manual on counterinsurgency (2006: 1-1), FM3-24­, defines insurgency as ‘an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict’.  The field manual itself acknowledges the inadequacy of such a definition when describing something as fluid and as complex as insurgency, yet it still neglects any explicit mention of the insurgents’ ‘political, economic, and influence activities’ expounded in the United States Agency for International Development’s definition (2011: 2).  This is because, even after the extensive revisions presented in FM3-24 for a more holistic approach to tackling insurgency, the means and ends envisioned by military actors differ greatly from those favoured by development agents; if counterinsurgency (COIN) is ‘the art of undermining the [insurgents’] campaign and sustaining the existing authority’ (Katagiri 2011: 171), the military and aid agencies paint different pictures with different brushes.

David Kilcullen (2010: 54) effectively locates both the root and the consequence of this dilemma when he tactfully notes that:

In practice – and understandably, since insurgents kill our people daily while unemployment and corruption do not – on a minute-by-minute basis, most military commanders prioritize kinetics (fighting the insurgents) and deal with other issues mainly through periodic (weekly or monthly) interagency reviews.  In doing so, they tend to treat, or even exacerbate, the symptoms of instability while neglecting its causes.

Put bluntly, the more traditional military methods of eliminating insurgents through ‘search and destroy’ tactics, as advocated by General William Westmoreland during the United States’ counterinsurgency in Vietnam (Nagl 2002: 156), are naturally effective in curbing their numbers and reducing the immediate threat they may pose to the constituted government, the local population, as well as COIN personnel.  Nevertheless, the battleground is ultimately the insurgents’ homeland and, once foreign COIN forces have withdrawn, the insurgents can utilise this ‘longevity advantage’ (Kilcullen 2010: 12) to recruit future fighters without fear of reprisal.

Circumstances are exacerbated by the fact that protracted military engagements led by foreign troops become increasingly unpopular with local populations so that over time towns and villages become breeding grounds of resentment and dissatisfaction to be exploited by the insurgents as additional sources of support for their cause.  For example, whilst in 2005 87 per cent of Afghans viewed the US-led ejection of the Taliban positively and only 9% viewed the campaign unfavourably, by February 2009 ‘positive views had declined to 69% while negative views climbed to 24%’ (Paczynska 2009: 5).  This rising level of dissatisfaction correlates positively with military fatalities in Afghanistan rising from 131 in 2005 to 521 in 2009 ( 2011).  This certainly calls into question the effectiveness of the conventional military COIN campaigns described by Kilcullen above.

Military tactics have proved successful in some respects (Ucko 2009: 47), but entrenching this success has become problematic to the extent that it can threaten to upset any gains made during the lifespan of a COIN campaign.  This is where the role of humanitarian assistance and state-building has become essential in COIN as epitomised by recent developments in Iraq and Afghanistan; continuing with the example of Afghanistan, the International Crisis Group has applauded ‘[t]he Obama administration’s revamped strategy’ which ‘has in principle reaffirmed that aid should consolidate military gains and win hearts and minds’ (2011: 16).  Forming integral parts of a complementary process, humanitarian assistance and state-building can cement the victories of military COIN operations by strengthening existing government structures through which much-needed resources can be channelled. These efforts and expertise cast a more favourable light on existing COIN campaigns and remove incentives for locals to become insurgents.

This essay will begin by evaluating the areas in which humanitarian assistance and state-building can be employed to mitigate the factors which lead individuals to become insurgents and thus prevent the emergence of insurgency.  This first section will conclude, however, that in the context of complex COIN operations, a preventative developmental approach is a necessary but insufficient means of tackling insurgencies and therefore needs complementing with adapted military tactics.  Following this is an analysis of the ways in which humanitarian assistance and state-building can and should support COIN campaigns and will assess the impact of some ways in which attempts have been made to utilise aid to this effect.  The second section will, therefore, track the emergence of a collaborative COIN doctrine that marries both developmental and traditional military tactics to formulate an effective strategy.  This will finally lead onto a discussion of how aid and development programmes can undermine COIN operations and incite, rather than placate the target population, before suggesting how future campaigns can avoid this fate.

Ultimately, the role of both humanitarian assistance and state-building will be justifiably lauded, but one final caveat cannot be emphasised enough.  Amartya Sen has cautioned against perceiving development, the provision of wealth and access to resources as ends in themselves, even though aid and the strengthening of governance can indeed generate greater freedoms and open up a plethora of choices to indigenous populations (Sen 1999: 14).  Nevertheless, this great freedom and sense of entitlement can work to either side’s advantage and so COIN strategy must additionally focus on steering local populations to choose siding with the counterinsurgents over the insurgents.

One final point concerning the examples used throughout this essay warrant attention; Ucko (2009: 11) states that ‘a critical distinction is made between those counterinsurgency operations that involve the deployment of foreign ground troops and those that do not.’  He explains in the case of the former, there is greater freedom for the intervening state to choose whether to deploy troops to assist the insurgency-threatened government or to supply training, advice and assistance.  Since this essay seeks to find a balance between the roles played by both military COIN and humanitarian assistance, the majority of evidence presented will be of externally-assisted COIN campaigns in which policymakers are given at least a limited degree of freedom to determine the extent to which either or both tactics should be employed.


Relative Deprivation and the Recourse to Violence: Areas Where Humanitarian Assistance and State-Building Can Undermine Insurgents

Apart from supporting existing military COIN campaigns, humanitarian assistance and state-building can undermine insurgents and provide support for the existing regime in a much more independent capacity.  To an extent, this involves the separation of governance-development and aid donation from governments and militaries and places them firmly in the hands of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as Oxfam, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The role that NGOs can play as independent actors in COIN is not to be underestimated as ‘NGOs are not a new phenomenon and neither is their role and importance in political, economic and social affairs’ (Eruk 2000: 46).  Furthermore, Le Sage (2007: 27) stresses that ‘a significant amount of power is now wielded by the humanitarian agencies’.  The considerable power exercised by NGOs and their expertise within the field of state-building and the provision of humanitarian assistance can be directed towards addressing the underlying causes of insurgencies so that violence does not take place or, at the very least, the members of the local population taking up arms and joining the insurgency is significantly reduced.

An excellent starting point for evaluation of this potential is Ted Gurr’s theory of relative deprivation, according to which tensions can develop among individuals or groups within a population who perceive a discrepancy between what they ought to have and what that actually have (Gurr 1970: 23).   The internet, mobile phones and satellite television have made the perception of such discrepancies possible for even the poorest individuals living in the remotest corners of the earth so that in recent years they have been able to see that ‘[t]he richest people earn in about 48 hours as much as the poorest people earn in a year’ (Milanovic 2006: 9).  In addition to this, the spread of Western-led capitalism has exacerbated these perceived discrepancies to the extent that it is universally acknowledged that much of the world’s wealth is held in the ‘global North’ (Baldwin et al. 2001: 5-6).  All of this serves to incite anger and create tensions in societies which perceive themselves to be worse off.  For instance, Nafziger and Auvinen’s (2003) study of 124 low and middle-income countries with a population of more than one million, carried out between 1980 and 1995, finds that the presence of high income inequality contributed to the emergence of humanitarian emergencies and conflict.

Seeking to redress these economic disparities, insurgents take to arms in order to commit a number of lucrative yet illegal acts, including pillaging, extorting protection money and kidnap ransom, the control or exploitation of trade and labour, the looting of natural resources and the interception of aid supplies (Keen 1998: 15-17).  Removing or reducing these economic disparities, therefore, can remove incentives for insurgents to resort to violence and there are a number of ways in which this can be achieved: government legislation can promote the employment of minorities, such as the Police Acts of 1998, 2000 and 2003, which aimed to bolster the recruitment of Catholics in the police force to 50%, or the development of rural areas as proposed in Le Charte du Grand Nord of Côte d’Ivoire during the 1990s (Langer 2005).  NGOs can be especially effective in recommending such projects in countries at risk of conflict on the backing of their impartial reputations and renown for expertise.

The discrepancies perceived among individuals are not specific to economic factors; Koonings and Kruijt (2007: 13) note that ‘persistent social exclusion’ can ‘provide means and motives for violent actions’, especially when under the auspices of a weak and failing government.  For instance, the continuous undercurrent of anti-government violence in Thailand has been attributed to resentment built among sections of society who feel ‘increasingly alienated’ from power and wealth (Kurlantzick 2010: 1) coupled with the ongoing failure to embed a legitimate pattern of decision-making, enforcement and sovereignty at the national level (Connors 2009).  Severe levels of violence erupted as a result of the Albanian majority’s denial to grant the Serbs and other minorities autonomy in Kosova, which they have fought for as a direct result of years of economic hardship and political repression (Karadjis 2005: 126).

Findley and Young (2007: 381) situate these perceived and actual grievances within the context of population-centric COIN and suggest means of prevention:

According to the “hearts and minds” perspective, modernization and social disruption in the developing world cause a shock to the social system of the population.  Deprivation and inequality are principle sources of discontent for the population that provide fertility for insurgency.  Therefore, people need basic economic improvements, security, and freedom from previous abuses.

In fact, this causal link has become so accepted by policymakers that USAID has incorporated the theory into its developmental approach to tackling insurgency (USAID 2011: 1).

Cause for concern has been raised by the President of the International Peace Academy, Terje Rød-Larsen, who claims that inequality is on the rise, particularly between groups within the same country (in a foreword to Gowan and Johnstone 2007: i).  This correlates with the findings of Langer who proposes ‘that multi-ethnic countries with significant inter-ethnic socio-economic and political inequalities have a higher conflict potential than more horizontally egalitarian countries’ (Langer 2005: 26).  Alongside this coincidence of rising inequality and increasing inter-group tensions, Urdal suggests that ‘youth bulges’, large numbers of unemployed youths faced with a lack of opportunities and cramped conditions in the urban centres to which they migrate, are yet another source of political instability and recruitment for insurgents (Urdal 2007: 90-94).  With little to lose by joining an insurgency, and with the perception that there is much to be gained through the redress of grievances and seeking to balance inequalities, it is easy to see how in some societies tensions can ignite into full-scale conflicts.

For example, in Bosnia and Croatia violent conflicts were spawned ‘by the ministrations of small – sometimes very small – bands of opportunistic marauders recruited by political leaders and operating under their general guidance.  Many of these participants were drawn from street gangs or from bands of soccer hooligans’ (Mueller 2000: 42).  Not only is this evidence of inter-group tensions erupting, it also shows that conflict conditions can be orchestrated by opportunistic individuals.  The intensity of relative deprivation is affected by the perceived sharpness of discontent or anger to which gives rise (Gurr 1970: 29), and such perception can inevitably be exacerbated by scheming groups or individuals, especially those who stand to gain prominence and power through challenging the present political leadership.  Encouragement of an objective portrayal of the facts and education of minorities by NGOs can take a significant step in combating this.

In his study on the factors associated with the instigation of conflict, Cramer is rather sceptical of any steps taken to achieve their eradication: he notes that ‘if the objective conditions of revolution were sufficient to cause revolutions, then much of the world would be in a more or less permanent condition of revolution’ (Cramer 2002: 1848).  Similarly, Mueller (2000: 42) believes that ‘the events in Yugoslavia and Rwanda are not peculiar to these locales, but could happen almost anywhere’.  This would suggest that there is a determining factor, an unknown variable, in the emergence of insurgencies which cannot be minimised through humanitarian assistance and state-building and which can tip the scales in favour of violence and warfare.  By this understanding humanitarian assistance and state-building are necessary, but by no means sufficient COIN tools.  Secretary of State Colin Powell demonstrated full awareness of this when he declared to the National Foreign Policy Conference for Leaders of Nongovernmental Organisations (2001) that NGOs are ‘such a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team’.

It is the role of humanitarian intervention and state-building to weaken ‘the conflict trap’ (Collier et al. 2003: 118), the perpetual cycle of misery and violence which leads individuals to take up arms and join an insurgency.  The emphasis here is on ‘weaken’, with eradication achieved as a result of the dual approach through which humanitarian assistance and state-building tackle the root causes of insurgency and promote the current model of governance whilst conventional military tactics eliminate insurgent warriors to create controlled spaces in which such development practices can thrive.  An excellent example of this is seen in the deployment of the US military’s first PRT to Gardez, Afghanistan, comprised of Civil Affairs, the 82nd Airborne Division, assorted Special Forces and support staff with a mission to ‘provide a safe environment for humanitarian activities; exchange information between the central government, the Army and non-governmental organizations; and help the Afghan government project its presence outside of Kabul’ (Specialist Jim Wagner quoted in Ucko 2009: 59).


Two Sides of the Same Coin: Humanitarian Assistance and State Building as Supporters of COIN Campaigns

The support of the local population is the ‘strategic centre of gravity’ (Findley and Young 2007: 382) for both insurgent and COIN operatives alike, a view widely accepted by numerous authors and organisations (Bloom 2005: 80; Kilcullen 2010; Major and Lillibridge 2010; Petraeus 2010b; United States Army and United States Marine Corps 2006); the local population can provide both sides of the war with ‘supplies, information, sanctuary, training grounds, membership, and legitimacy’ (Katagiri 2011: 170) and so the side who can secure this backing stands to gain a considerable advantage.  A striking example of this was witnessed in the Iraqi town of Qabr Abed, once an extremely violent insurgent stronghold which became a casualty-free zone after American soldiers began engaging, rather than marginalising, Sunni Arabs with strong ties to the insurgents (Oppel 2005).

More specifically termed ‘population-centric counterinsurgency’ by some (Gentile 2009: 5), the expression ‘winning hearts and minds’ or ‘the hearts and minds approach’ are taken to mean, for all intents and purposes, the same thing: to paraphrase Paul Dixon, this method concentrates on winning over the population by avoiding casualties and promoting reconciliation rather than engaging the insurgents in battle (Dixon 2009: page unspecified).  FM3-24 expands upon the notion of winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the population (United States Army and United States Marine Corps 2006: A-5):

“Hearts” means persuading people that their best interests are served by COIN success.  “Minds” means convincing them that the force can protect them and that resisting is pointless.  Note that neither concerns whether people like Soldiers and Marines.  Calculated self-interest, not emotion, is what counts.

Under this understanding of the phrase, the ‘minds’ aspect can be catered for by counterinsurgent displays of military superiority, a negative action involving the removal of threats and the deterrence of insurgents.  Conquering the ‘hearts’ of the population, on the other hand, requires a more positive contribution towards by demonstrating that they are best served by the existing regime and that rule by the insurgents would only be detrimental.  Unfortunately for traditional military-centric campaigns, the latter cannot be achieved by providing security, pouring money into towns and villages and hoping for the best.  As one author has said of Afghanistan, ‘the local governments are so corrupt that the official donor aid is not channelled through the formal state institutions for fear of it being siphoned off for private gain’ (Paczynska 2009: 10).

This situation, witnessed in a number of insurgencies, poses a dilemma: COIN aid can either circumvent existing government bodies, in which case it will not appear as though existing state institutions are benefiting local populations, or it can be channelled through state mechanisms and risk strengthening the insurgents it intends to hinder.  The aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq emphasises the severity of the problem: despite around $100 billion spent on the reconstruction of Iraqi between 2003-2007 ‘12-25% of private contractors’ reconstruction budgets were still effectively lost at the very outset to the need to provide pure physical security, while major infrastructure projects by American firms had largely been abandoned, after having achieved little in practice’ (Marshall 2010: 245-246).

In light of such overwhelming evidence, it is hardly surprising that Mockaitis concludes that ‘[m]ost soldiers and relief workers understand they need one another.  They have overlapping but not identical missions.  The effectiveness of the overlap can, however, be increased and its value to both missions enhanced’ (Mockaitis 2004: 62).  Cooperation between the military and aid organisations can, therefore, provide a solution to what Marshall terms the ‘persistent security-development conundrum’ (Marshall 2010: 245-246) and strive towards true COIN success.  Under the protection of the armed forces and through the construction of ‘legitimate and effective local governance structures’ (Paczynska 2009: 10) using the experience of aid organisations, development aid can be employed to win hearts, minds and an advantageous position for COIN operatives.  Mao Tse-Tung famously said that ‘the guerrilla [and by extension, the insurgent] must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the seas’.  The provision of humanitarian assistance and state-building efforts can lure populations over to the counterinsurgents and ensure that towns and villages become hostile waters for insurgents.  This subsequently causes the insurgents’ contingent of recruits to dry up, slowly killing off the insurgency, or forces the insurgents’ hand, luring them out to battles in the open where they are subsequently overwhelmed by COIN forces and the operation becomes akin to shooting fish in a barrel.

This cooperative military-development tactic has been put into practice most effectively in Afghanistan in numerous guises.  For instance, the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) has been hailed as ‘a stabilisation tool that allows the military to fund humanitarian assistance, construction or development projects’ and thus supports a ‘focus on winning hearts and minds through a comprehensive counter-insurgency campaign’ (International Crisis Group 2011: 16).  Likewise, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) combine ‘the diplomatic, military, and developmental components’ aimed ‘to improve stability by building host nation capacity to govern; enhancing economic viability; and delivering essential public services, such as security, law and order, justice, health care, and education’ (USAID 2011: 7).  These examples are demonstrative of the broader, collaborative approach now adopted by the world’s major players when waging COIN campaigns, with the aims of both CERP and PRTs complementing the aims outline in the US’ National Security Strategy (United States Government 2010: 21) and the principles espoused by the British Armed Forces in their counterinsurgency field manual (Ministry of Defence 2009: 3-1).  The British Armed Forces have even gone so far as to admit that failing to win the consent and support of the population is a key explanatory factor behind their failed COIN campaign in South Arabia and Aden between 1963 and 1967 (Ministry of Defence 2009: CS4-4).

Beneath the surface of some of the literature is the suggestion that a COIN strategy which seeks to capture ‘hearts and minds’ through humanitarian assistance and state-building is of decidedly British invention and was subsequently adopted by the armed forces of the United States and other nations.  This is made quite clear in a House of Commons Defence Committee (2010: 2) publication which declares that ‘[t]he UK was the first country to set up a joint civilian-military headquarters in Afghanistan to lead on stabilisation, doubling our deployed civilian experts since 2008.’  This development follows a gradual shift in British tactics from a predominantly ‘search and destroy’ approach to a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy which began in 1952 during the campaign in Malaya (Stubbs 2008: 102).  Indeed, the apparent success of the British Army’s more ‘hearts and mind’ approach, incorporating ‘the use of minimum force and a more political approach to managing the insurgency’ (Dixon 2009: page unspecified), coincides with Major and Lillibridge’s observation that ‘[n]ational militaries, particularly America’s, have become increasingly directly engaged in development and “engagement” and, particularly, humanitarian assistance’ (Major and Lillibridge 2010: 1-2).

The US’ co-optive approach has, however, taken and improved on the British approach to become what General Petraeus has coined as ‘learn and adapt’ (2010a: page unspecified), a method which periodically revises the means through which hearts and minds are to be won to ensure their viability for modern warfare. For instance, the US is increasingly emphasising the self-perpetuation of COIN gains that can be made through securing the support of the local population and recruiting them as informants and security forces; US Army Colonel Scott Spellman has said of finding improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan that ‘[t]he best detector we found was the local population’ (quoted in Diálogo 2011: page unspecified) and Dobbins (2010: page unspecified) notes that ‘progressively shifting the burden of combat to indigenous forces’ there has proved to be an effective tactic because Afghans ‘are better able to deal with conflicts in their own society’.  Enhancing the apparatus of the state embeds military gains within the fabric of society,

The title of Major and Lillibridge’s article, ‘Sharpening Our Plowshares: Applying the Lessons of Counterinsurgency to Development and Humanitarian Aid’, suggests that the relationship between development organisations and the military are symbiotic and that not only does humanitarian assistance and state-building have a role to play in counter-insurgency, but that the latter has a role to play in the provision of the former.  In practice, this would appear to be Petraeus’ ‘learn and adapt’ strategy taken to the next level.  The authors imply that this symbiosis is the result of a two-way ‘spill over’ (Major and Lillibridge 2010: 11) analogous to neofunctionalist theories behind the incremental ‘competence creep’ of the European Union and its institutions.  The result of such a spill over should be that, as well as humanitarian assistance and state-building improving conventional military COIN, the practices and efficiency of development organisations can be improved by incorporating certain military methods.  For example, aid agency field workers report that they often bad-mouth other agencies’ work, compete for aid recipients and criticize the program approaches of other agencies and refuse to have anything to do with them (Anderson 1999: 56). Coordination could be something they learn from the military engaged in on-going COIN campaigns, a mutually beneficial arrangement envisioned in the House of Commons Defence Committee’s report (2010: 3).

The theme of Major and Lillibridge’s article serves to answer the essay question resoundingly in the affirmative, but should nevertheless be interpreted cautiously so as not to offer room for military paternalism in COIN. The approach adopted by both military and development actors should be cooperative as well as coordinated, drawing on the strengths of both traditional and non-traditional approaches to COIN, rather than subsuming one tactic wholly into another’s strategy.  This can result in extreme failure caused by a lack of understanding and neglecting to consider broader COIN aims.  This happened in the US’ Plan Colombia, a unique case in which humanitarian assistance and state-building constituted to sole elements of COIN but which has still been described as ‘an aggressive military engagement’ (Stokes 2001: 11).  Through the plan, the United States donated US $1.3 billion to the Colombian government with the stated objectives of economic development, the promotion of human rights and the eradication of Colombia’s extensive cocaine plantations (Stokes 2001: 60).  Despite the vast quantities of money flooding in to stem the flow of drugs leaving Colombia, Plan Colombia has been criticised for failing to link the problems of narcotrafficking to the insurgency in Colombia and for doing ‘little to strengthen crucial layers of government’ (Johnson 2001: page unspecified).  Perhaps because policymakers in the United States are too ‘fixated on the drug war’ (Rempe 2002: 35), in taking a less conventional, more humanitarian approach to counterinsurgency in Colombia they have neglected the more traditional elements to their peril; in fact, it seems that the US’ dogged single-mindedness steered them completely off course as they failed to apply the developmental tactics to the aims of wider COIN strategy.

Humanitarian assistance, state-building and military operations are mutually reinforcing processes within COIN which need one another to achieve any real measure of success.  Bearing this lesson in mind, the US’ counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan has improved greatly upon the failure of Plan Colombia and is further evidence of the US’ ‘learn and adapt’ strategy in action.  Consequently, even when poppy eradication was a key counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan and the Taliban manipulated the situation to emphasise the local population’s need for Taliban protection of their lucrative crops, ‘COIN operations offset these claims and actions by engaging with the population in civil actions’ (Diálogo 2011: page unspecified).

Whilst humanitarian assistance and state-building can undoubtedly play an important role in COIN, it is understandable that one might not like to suggest that either is completely indispensable and that COIN campaigns can be fought and won using force alone.  Indeed, selected COIN campaigns, both past and present, appear to support such a claim.  Rather than waste valuable resources winning the hearts and minds of their colonial subjects, German troops, for example, opted to defeat the Herero insurgents in German South-West Africa ‘by exterminating the civilians who supported them’ between 1904 and 1907 (Evangelista 2005: 373).  Similarly, Marshall’s article suggests that the British hearts and minds strategy in Malaya was a ‘velvet glove’ used to conceal the ‘iron fist’ of such repressive measures as raids, fines, hostage taking and forced labour (Marshall 2010: 241).  More currently, Luttwak bemoans the fact that coalition forces in Afghanistan use too much carrot and not enough stick, pointing to the campaigns of yore which were waged ‘under the threat of escalating punishments, all the way to mass executions’ (Luttwak 2007: page unspecified).

It is assumed, however, that Luttwak is being especially provocative to make a somewhat controversial point, with such historical examples of COIN campaigns which rely solely on the use of overwhelming, disproportionate force constituting now-unpalatable anachronisms.  In his pivotal work, Kilcullen (2010: 95) explicitly states that times have indeed changed:

In the much less globalized environment of the late 1950s, it was possible to employ methods that were highly effective but relatively harsh on the local population without any substantial political or humanitarian backlash.

Kilcullen then goes on to remark on the ability of insurgents to capitalise on developments within transport and communications during the last two decades of the twentieth century to draw on international support utilising, among other things, the new space created within the internet and satellite television ‘as a means to impose political and economic costs on government undertaking counterinsurgency’ (Kilcullen 2010: 101).  Therefore, even though Evangelista may be able to draw parallels between historical COIN campaigns, which sought victory through the overwhelming force, and the on-going Russian war in Chechnya – ‘with its indiscriminate bombing, sweep campaigns (zachistki), torture, and extrajudicial murders’ (Evangelista 2005: 362) – he concludes by noting the inevitable futility of such methods; ‘the brutal policies of the central governments alienated potential supporters of compromise solutions and drove them into the arms of the rebels’ (Evangelista 2005: 363).  In 2003 US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, even distributed a memo to aides (printed in Bergen and Pandey 2005: page unspecified) which asked: ‘Are we are capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?’  Humanitarian assistance and state-building measures can act as a check against the sometimes negative perception of military COIN in indigenous populations by providing tangible positive results, such as new schools and hospitals, on which to focus.

Caution against inadvertently creating more insurgents through conventional military counterinsurgency tools and the use of a more ‘hearts and minds’ methods has led Gentile to affirm that COIN is now ‘a strategy of tactics and principles’ (Gentile 2009: 5) and that the US Army and Marine Corps’ FM3-24 ‘has moved beyond simple Army doctrine for countering insurgencies to become the defining characteristic of the Army’s new way of war.’ (Gentile 2009: 5).  However, there is the danger that policymakers may err too much on the side of caution and neglect the military element of COIN altogether; in 2006, head of the British Army (2006-2009), General Sir Richard Dannatt, stated that the British armed forces should leave Iraq ‘sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems’ (quoted in Dixon 2009: page unspecified).

Once again it is the US which has demonstrated that a military presence need not undo the gains made through humanitarian assistance and a ‘hearts and minds’ approach.  The Anbar Awakening movement in Iraq in 2006 led to the decline of support for insurgents in previously-hostile al Anbar as well as other provinces (Katagiri 2011: 172) as a result of ‘establishing and nurturing local governments and police forces, rebuilding civilian infrastructure and conducting security operations’ (Roggio 2006: page unspecified).  Rather than the 2007 ‘surge’ of 30,000 troops into Iraq uprooting these beginnings of success, a greater military success actually compounded them (BBC News 2007), although it has been warned that these gains depend on whether the interests of both COIN operatives and the local population ‘continue to converge on common incentives, such as political participation and economic redevelopment’ (McCary 2009: 53).  This serves to reinforce the point that COIN, particularly when employing a developmental ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, is a long-term endeavour and so both the military and development agents must work tirelessly throughout the length of the campaign with the local population to ensure that security and assistance is delivered to where it is most needed and most appreciated.  Obama’s military and civilian advisers ‘agree that the United States should continue to strengthen the government in Kabul and prevent a Taliban takeover’ (Dobbins 2010: page unspecified).


Help That Hurts: Undermining COIN through Humanitarian Assistance and State Building

If poorly enacted or if lacking in sufficient coordination between military and development actors, humanitarian assistance and state-building can undermine the counterinsurgency operations they seek to support.  Such views are not difficult to comprehend if Mockaitis’ cautionary advice is followed: ‘Virtually every humanitarian organization harbors at least some unease about CIMIC [Civilian-Military Cooperation]’ since they perceive ‘the entire concept as an effort to subordinate their activities to the military mission’ (Mockaitis 2004: 62).  Branch (2009: 477) is particularly supportive of this view:

critics have drawn attention to humanitarian aid’s fungibility and argued that this allows it to be instrumentalised to local political and military agendas, sometimes fuelling the very wars and violence it claims to be ameliorating.

He then goes on to support this claim with evidence obtained during the southern Sudanese civil war which shows that both the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army and the Khartoum government made themselves the local arbiters of international assistance and not only used this aid for their own consumption, but also politicised its redistribution (Branch 2009: 479).

War economies, especially during times of civil war and insurgencies are ‘parasitic’, ‘illicit’ and ‘predatory’ (Ballentine and Sherman 2003: 2), and Anderson (199: 37) suggests that this predatory economy creates a vicious cycle in which ‘aid is distorted by local politics and misappropriated by warriors to support their war’ with the insurgents then using this renewed strength to prey on even more aid resources to distribute to the local population as substitutes for local resources required to meet civilian needs so that they can be freed up to support the conflict.  Maoist insurgents in Nepal, for example, are ‘hostile to development projects that might have military implications, such as road construction’, but ‘tolerate projects that are conducted transparently and bring clear benefits to the poor’ (Bray et al. 2003: 113) because it inevitably eases the burden for them too.

Kilcullen (2010: 44, in footnote) points out that ‘[i]n a counterinsurgency […] there is also an enemy aid officer out there, running programs in direct competition with ours […]  The presence of a competing aid program fundamentally changes the game, making everything a competitive political endeavour’.  In other words, as can be seen in the case of the Nepalese Maoist insurgents, if the enemy or an international third part unwittingly provides aid to your support base and you can propagate the credit for it, then that leaves you free to focus on more pressing issues, such as recruiting fighters or disrupting government activities.  This cunning strategy of manipulating aid covers for insurgents’ weaknesses whose own capacity to implement substantive development is limited by the demands and distractions of the conflict’ (Bray et al. 2003: 113).

There are even instances of development efforts actively seeking to undermine military COIN.  In Israel, for instance, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) seek the eradication of the Palestinian fighters’ origins by targeting ‘the social infrastructure, the welfare infrastructure, out of which combatants have grown and on which their families’ (IDF analyst Dov Tamari quoted in Graham 2003: 63).  Furthermore, to contain potential rebellion from Bedouin minorities, Israel policymakers had planned to corral Bedouin Arabs into tightly-controlled townships (Stewart 2011) until plans were blocked by an Israeli court (Khoury 2011).  Efforts by organisations such as American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), which seek to advance the well-being of Israel’s minority groups and improve their infrastructure and governance mechanisms are surely a thorn in Israel’s side since their goals run counter to those of the IDF.  Moreover, on the international stage, they have proved very effective in casting an unfavourable light over Israeli COIN tactics (Corbin 2010).

Manipulation of development might make attempts to win hearts and minds seem futile, particularly if it will only make the insurgents more difficult to combat.  Nevertheless, insurgents face a very difficult and almost-irreconcilable choice when faced with the opportunity to exploit aid, particularly that received from overseas donations; insurgents and often the indigenous population are suspicious of outside involvement in domestic affairs, as witnessed in the campaigns waged in Iraq and Afghanistan where ‘[t]he clerics dismiss all talk of democracy and human rights by the invaders as mere hypocrisy’ (Luttwak 2007: page unspecified).  However, the presence of the international development community sends a powerful message regardless of whether or not the assistance they supply is exploited.  Furthermore, Anderson writes that some aid agencies have overcome the problem of exploitation by broadly advertising ‘planned aid deliveries through radio megaphones, bulletins, or TV so that communities for which aid is intended can hold thieves accountable if they do not receive what they expect’ (Anderson 1999: 40).

Whilst undoubtedly popular with NGOs who ‘do not want to be too closely associated with [the military] because they need to preserve their perceived neutrality’ (Kilcullen 2010: 43-44), if enacted alongside military COIN operatives to ensure a concerted effort in which military and humanitarian efforts complement one another and avoid the pitfalls outlined above,  uninterrupted development which truly intends to help the poor could very well supplant the insurgents and win over the local population, reducing the insurgents support base.



It has been demonstrated that the role of humanitarian and state-building in counterinsurgency is both extremely significant and invaluable, providing a means of independently undermining insurgents whilst working cooperatively with military COIN operatives to fortify tactical gains.  It has also been shown that, if poorly enacted, aid and governance-strengthening can undermine COIN through exploitation by insurgents to strengthen and legitimise their position.  The consequence is that if humanitarian assistance and state-building are to be used in COIN, that is reactively as opposed to preventively, it should be intimately allied with military efforts so that they can be coordinated effectively and targeted to only positive ends.

Whilst the effectiveness and relevance of humanitarian assistance and state-building within COIN campaigns is both theoretically and empirically supported, one general caveat should, however, be noted.  Humanitarian assistance and state-building do not constitute a panacea which, when incorporated into COIN campaigns, can remedy all ills and instantly turn failure into resounding success; ‘[i]ndividual civil wars have their own idiosyncratic causes’ (Collier et al 2003: 117) and, since insurgency arguably constitutes a subset of civil war (Kalyvas 2011: 205), this undoubtedly applies to insurgencies too.  A one-size-fits-all doctrine cannot be developed with the expectation that blind application of policy which has met with success in one insurgency will result in equal success in another.  Ross’ study on the link between natural resources and violence, for instance, found that ‘lootable resources negatively affect nonseparatist conflicts, and unlootable resources negatively affect separatist conflicts’ (Ross 2003: 48).  Similarly, Gurr found that ‘[t]he potential for collective violence varies strongly with the intensity and scope of relative deprivation among members of a collectivity’ (Gurr 1970: 24).  Clearly these are but a few of an inexhaustible number of variables to consider when formulating the application of development assistance to COIN campaigns, with some others including the racial (Prah 2001), religious (Hasenclever and Rittberger 2003), or regionalist (Buzan and Weaver 2003: 241) motivations to violence witnessed in the lengthy Sudanese conflict.

Of course the argument of this essay is that humanitarian assistance and state building play an essential role in COIN and should be incorporated into all COIN strategies.  However, the extent of their use will vary from campaign to campaign, and from time to time, as in the words of USAID, ‘[d]evelopment is one of several tools of U.S. national power’ (USAID 2011: 1).  Whatever the particular use and size of the role they play in COIN operations, their overarching objective should be to address Donald Rumsfeld’s question and ensure territory does not again become a safe haven for insurgents (International Crisis Group 2011: 16).  This leaves military forces free to protect local havens and allow state-building measures to take root and boost the popularity of the constituted government.


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Written by: Richard J. Vale
Written at: The University of Leeds
Written for: Prof. Alice Hills
Date written: January 2012

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