Belmont Club

Who stays wins

What happens when the primary battlefield terrain is human terrain. The Small Wars Journal hosts an article by James Gavrilis entitled A Model for Population-Centered Warfare.

In counterinsurgency, people are not part of terrain; they are the terrain. The battle is over “human terrain.” Conventional warfare is about gaining ground, taking more territory, and destroying your opponent’s military power. Counterinsurgency is about gaining human terrain, winning popular support, and preventing your opponent from winning popular support. Counterinsurgency is a shift from the physical to the human terrain.

One of Gavrilis’ most interesting points is about persistence. It can be summarized in the phrase: “who stays wins”. The function of military power is to ensure that your people can stay. But it cannot provide the people who will persist themselves. Thus, the ability to create a cadre of stay behinds, or more accurately the ‘live behinds’ is critical to success. Gavrilis describes the power of persistence.

Presence matters, in this kind of war. As local and decentralized as insurgency and counterinsurgency are, whoever sleeps in the village at night with guns dictates the political order and allocation of resources. Unfortunately, the average citizen gets pressure from all sides. In some places in Iraq the citizens are pressured from Sadr’s militia, Al Qaeda in Iraq, foreign terrorists, tribal sheiks, political parties, the Iraqi security forces, local and national government officials, Coalition forces and even Iranian agents. And unfortunately a reality of this kind of war is that civilians have no choice but to support the group that exerts the most pressure on them. So in order to be effective, the counterinsurgent must exert more authority and control and protect the civilians over a long period of time. Temporary security is self-defeating because of erosion of trust and exposure of the population to retribution. Furthermore, to be successful the counterinsurgent must form a closeness to the population at the local levels to compete with and edge out the guerrilla and insurgent who by nature are closer and more connected to the population than the central government; centralized counterinsurgency is less effective, local effective governance and security are more effective.

What Kipling called the ‘arithmetic of the frontier’ means that a cheap and effective way must be found to create the equivalent of what the British once called the Indian Civil Service to hold sway over the failed-state areas of the world. Taken to its logical conclusion, fighting on the new human terrain may mean reinstituting colonialism in selected parts of the world. Right now the political elites of the West would die of horror at the thought. But perhaps our real fear is that once they get going, they will like it all too much. However that may be, Gavrilis essay discusses an important point in small wars of the 21st century.

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