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This Week at War: Are the Ayatollahs Using COIN?

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Is the Green Revolution an insurgency?

Feb. 11 was the 31st anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marked the occasion by declaring to hundreds of thousands gathered at Tehran's Azadi Square that Iran was a "nuclear state." Meanwhile, a heavy presence of security forces in Tehran appeared to have successfully suppressed counterdemonstrations by regime opponents. In an essay for Small Wars Journal, Dan Cox, an associate professor at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College, wonders whether Iran's rulers are battling an embryonic insurgency. And if so, is the regime successfully implementing Western-designed counterinsurgency (COIN) theory to snuff out the opposition?

Cox refers back to the French military commander David Galula, one of the original COIN gurus, and others to analyze the Iranian government's actions against the protesters. In response to well-developed insurgencies, Galula and other Western COIN theorists have recommended a gentle hand -- counterinsurgents should limit the use of force, protect the population, and stress economic development in order to isolate the insurgents. However, Cox points out the lesser-known advice Galula and other COIN theorists have for embryonic insurgencies. The COIN gurus recommend early recognition of the problem and a harsh decisive response. Cox concludes that the Iranian government, taking advantage of its authoritarian position, is employing the recommendations of these Western theorists and to good effect.

First, the regime appears to have developed good intelligence on the opposition. The opposition movement appears broad, but scattered, disorganized, and probably lacking many internal security measures. The security services have likely had an easy time penetrating the movement's leadership network and monitoring its electronic communications.

Second, Cox's research of the Western COIN theorists suggests the importance of early coercive countermeasures against the opposition. According to the New York Times, the security services have arrested more than a thousand people over the past two months, including scores of journalists, a variety of activists, relatives of opposition leaders, and others. Since June, eleven regime opponents have been sentenced to death, two have been hanged, and five more are on trial for their lives.

Finally, Galula and other Western COIN theorists stress the importance of controlling the media and information. Modern technology would presumably favor the insurgent's efforts to distribute anti-government propaganda and expose the regime's coercive countermeasures to scrutiny. In Iran, the government has corralled or expelled Western journalists and arrested domestic journalists not sympathetic to the regime. The government also seems to have effectively strangled the new media; Internet bandwidth available to the protesters seems minimal, and the government has shut down Google's Gmail service and other social networking services.

Cox concludes that the Iranian government, in accordance with Western COIN theorists, has rapidly and efficiently responded to the embryonic insurgency. It has penetrated the protest movement, arrested the movement's organizers and propagandists, and achieved dominance over information and communications. Naturally, there are more chapters to this story. But thus far, the Iranian government is showing how to stop an insurgency before it gets started.

A Green Beret's advice: Think COIN, but don't do COIN

After more than eight years of war in Afghanistan and nearly seven in Iraq, the conventional wisdom is that the United States will face more troublesome insurgencies. Even as the U.S. military's involvement in Iraq winds down and as it tries to tame the Taliban in Afghanistan, new insurgency troubles have emerged in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Thus, counterinsurgency will remain the focus of the U.S. military for the foreseeable future.

According to Lt. Col. Brian Petit, commander of the U.S. Army's 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group, that conventional wisdom is not quite right. Writing in the journal Special Warfare, Petit, whose battalion served in the Sulu Archipelago in the southern Philippines, argues that the U.S. military should "think COIN" but actually stop doing COIN itself. Petit reminds his readers that counterinsurgency is the proper job for the indigenous security forces, and not for an outsider third party to a conflict, such as the U.S. Army. Petit's advice to the U.S. military? "Think COIN, but practice FID [foreign internal defense]."

Similar to successful ongoing U.S. foreign internal defense missions in Colombia and Africa's Sahel region, the U.S. assistance effort in the Philippines strictly employs the "indirect approach." U.S. soldiers train, advise, and support the local army and police. They remain out of sight and do not participate in direct combat. Even medical assistance visits to remote Philippine villages push Filipino medics and nurses to the foreground with Americans remaining behind the scenes. Petit writes that these visits are planned in consultation with former insurgents who are now reintegrated into society.

If the indirect FID method is so obviously superior to the campaigns that pushed more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers into Iraq and Afghanistan, why hasn't the FID approach been used in those two places? Although at one time broken and corrupt, the Philippines and Colombia at least had a government and army; in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. forces had to start from zero.

Perhaps as important is how impatient U.S. policymakers frequently are for results, especially for projects they have made into top priorities. But this doesn't work for COIN, as Petit explains:

Tactically, the indirect approach requires clear-eyed recognition that U.S. capacity will be applied through -- and not around -- the host nation. This paradigm seems simple, but it runs counter to U.S. military "can-doism" and requires a long-term view and immense operational patience. The indirect approach does not satisfy appetites for quick, measurable results. By building capacity with host nation security forces and simultaneously applying population-focused, civil-military programs, the indirect approach rarely produces singularly spectacular results in tactical engagements. Measures of effectiveness are often best assessed over time and anecdotally.

President Barack Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal are counting on quick, measurable results in Afghanistan, with a withdrawal slated to begin in 17 months. That is not the way Petit and his soldiers made progress in the Philippines.

AMIR SADEGHI/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

China growls at the Taiwan arms sale. Is this time different?

On Jan. 29, the Obama administration approved a $6.4 billion package of weapons sales to Taiwan. The Chinese government's reaction was all-too predictable: The next day, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador to China for a dressing-down and threatened "serious repercussions" if the U.S. government did not reverse its decision.

Beijing has had to live with U.S. support for Taiwan's defense ever since the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. Each arrival of another arms sale for Taiwan has resulted in an outraged response from the Chinese government. Tempers then cool and business, both political and commercial, soon returns to normal. Will this time be different?

The best bet is that it won't. The Chinese government will most likely deliver its routine bluster and then allow the issue to fade away. Obama administration officials are likely hoping that the composition of this arms package -- mostly defensive systems such as surface-to-air missiles, minesweepers, and communications equipment, but not new F-16 fighter-bombers  -- will appear non threatening to China.

The Chinese government needs to save face and protect China's reputation in the eyes of a domestic audience that is occasionally prone to nationalistic outbursts. But at the same time, the government has to maintain an export-driven economic policy that generates millions of new jobs each year. Failure to do so risks social instability. Thus, in spite of China's anger over U.S. military support for Taiwan, no confrontation with the United States is likely to result.

Even so, some analysts wonder whether there might be a trend toward greater Chinese combativeness. John Pomfret of the Washington Post cataloged a range of worried views from both U.S. and European analysts. Writing at the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman asserted that China and the United States are on a collision course. Rachman notes that should the U.S. unemployment rate remain in the double digits, many Americans, not least nervous politicians, will wonder why the government stands by while China manipulates the yuan-dollar exchange rate, thus transferring jobs to China.

The United States went through this same story with Japan in the 1980s and early 1990s. But Japan was a pacifist ally and eventually fizzled as an economic challenger. China, by contrast, is a worrisome military competitor with rapidly expanding air and naval power in the Western Pacific. Others will note China's support for repressive rogues such as North Korea, Burma, and Sudan, along with its failure to cooperate with the United States and Europe on blocking Iran's nuclear program. Friction with Japan was confined to trade and eventually faded as an issue, but friction with China encompasses trade, U.S. financial vulnerability, the strategic balance in Asia, U.S. alliances, human rights, and nuclear proliferation.

Policymakers in both countries are eager to avoid conflict. But they also don't control many of the variables in play, most notably the impulses of their populations. Even with the best of intentions, the friction may still burn.

Gates calls for expanded long-range striking power -- but not until 2020

Pages 31 to 34 of the just-released 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) discuss how the U.S. Department of Defense plans to "deter and defeat aggression in anti-access environments," one of the report's principal operational concerns. This section of the QDR describes the growth of military capabilities by potential adversaries that could prevent U.S. air and naval forces from entering contested areas during a crisis. The QDR's second recommendation to address this concern is for the United States to expand future long-range strike capabilities. However, the Pentagon's budget proposal, and its associated long-term aircraft investment plan, calls for the purchase of zero long-range strike aircraft by the U.S. Air Force through 2020. The aircraft investment plan's discussion of the Navy's contribution is vague, mentioning a research program for aircraft carrier-based drones, but offering few specifics on when this operational capability will actually arrive. The QDR identified a problem and recommended a solution. But the Pentagon's budget demonstrates little urgency on the matter.

Additionally, the report explains how growing inventories of ballistic and cruise missiles could threaten forward U.S. air and naval bases in Asia and the Middle East. It also discusses how expanding fleets of quiet submarines, anti-ship guided missiles, and advanced sea mines could prevent U.S. aircraft carriers from bringing their short-range strike aircraft within range. Advanced air defense systems could make it too risky for older non stealthy U.S. aircraft to be effective.

The Pentagon plans to buy thousands of advanced, stealthy, but short-range, F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. But if the Air Force's overseas bases are closed due to missile bombardments and naval threats prevent the Navy's aircraft carriers from approaching close enough, the only strike option remaining would be the Air Force's 162 long-range bombers. Only 20 of these could persist against a challenging air defense system, and because of their value and commitment to nuclear missions, the Pentagon would not likely risk more than a few.

Given the QDR's description of the problem, the current shortage of long-range strike platforms, and the call for expanded long-range strike capability, it is odd that the Pentagon budget seems to take such a leisurely approach to a remedy. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered additional studies of both the anti-access problem and what to do about long-range strike capabilities. U.S. allies and adversaries are no doubt watching the trends. Hopefully Gates won't wait even longer before making some decisions on these problems.

SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images