Shoot First, Persuade Later

by Steven R. Corman

In today’s New York Times, General Charles Dunlap Jr. argues that the Army’s new counterinsurgency manual is being misinterpreted and that we must deal with insurgents the old-fashioned way–by killing them:

Unfortunately, starry-eyed enthusiasts have misread the manual to say that defeating an insurgency is all about winning hearts and minds with teams of anthropologists, propagandists and civil-affairs officers armed with democracy-in-a-box kits and volleyball nets. They dismiss as passé killing or capturing insurgents. Actually, the reality is quite different. The lesson of Iraq is that old-fashioned force works.

The problem with his argument is the old fashioned force wasn’t working so well until the Sunni tribes turned against al Qaeda in Iraq. Formation and growth of the “Awakening Councils” in Iraq has tracked very closely with our change in fortunes there. I don’t think we accomplished this with volleyball and democracy kits, but we didn’t accomplish it with “kinetic” operations either. Writing last year in the Small Wars Journa, David Kilcullen, senior counterinsurgency adviser to the Multi-National Force in Iraq, put it this way:

It is clear that although the requirements for counterinsurgency in a tribal environment may not be written down in the classical-era field manuals, building local allies and forging partnerships and trusted networks with at-risk communities seems to be one of the keys to success.

Andrew Garfield said it was the same situation in Northern Ireland: The real turnabout came when the population started cooperating with authorities against the IRA. So Dunlap is only half right. While you can’t do effective counterinsurgency without force, you can’t do effective force without hearts and minds.