Just got my issue of Campaign Strategy eLetter. Chris Rose mentioned David Kilcullen’s 28 Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency so I looked it up. (Kilcullen is a former Australian Army lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq as a senior counterinsurgency advisor and now works for the US State Department).

It’s uncanny how closely these hard-edged lessons in counterinsurgency warfare resemble sensible lessons in running social change projects. Just have a look. I suppose we should have suspected that, after all think about Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”.

I especially liked his “4 What-ifs”. See if this resonates with your experience of trying to get things done in the real world.

Four What Ifs
The articles above describe what should happen, but we all know that things go wrong. Here are some “what ifs” to consider:

What if you get moved to a different area? You prepared for ar-Ramadi and studied Dulaim tribal structures and Sunni beliefs. Now you are going to Najaf and will be surrounded by al-Hassan and Unizzah tribes and Shiía communities. But that work was not wasted. In mastering your first area, you learned techniques you can apply: how to “case” an operational area, how to decide what matters in the local societal structure. Do the same again – and this time the process is easier and faster, since you have an existing mental structure, and can focus on what is different. The same applies if you get moved frequently within a battalion or brigade area.

What if higher headquarters doesn’t get counterinsurgency? Higher headquarters is telling you the mission is to “kill terrorist”, or pushing for high-speed armored patrols and a base-camp mentality. They just do not seem to understand counterinsurgency. This is not uncommon, since company-grade officers today often have more combat experience than senior officers. In this case, just do what you can. Try not to create expectations that higher headquarters will not let you meet. Apply the adage “first do no harm”. Over time, you will find ways to do what you have to do. But never lie to higher headquarters about your locations or activities: they own the indirect fires.

What if you have no resources? Yours is a low-priority sector: you have no linguists, the aid agencies have no money for projects in your area, you have a low priority for funding. You can still get things done, but you need to focus on self-reliance, keep things small and sustainable, and ruthlessly prioritize effort. Local community leaders are your allies in this: they know what matters to them more than you do. Be honest with them, discuss possible projects and options with community leaders, get them to choose what their priority is. Often they will find the translators, building supplies or expertise that you need, and will only expect your support and protection in making their projects work. And the process of negotiation and consultation will help mobilize their support, and strengthen their social cohesion. If you set your sights on what is achievable, the situation can still work.

What if the theater situation shifts under your feet? It is your worst nightmare: everything has gone well in your sector, but the whole theater situation has changed and invalidates your efforts. Think of the first battle of Fallujah, the al-Askariya shrine bombing, or the Sadr uprising. What do you do? Here is where having a flexible, adaptive game plan comes in. Just as the insurgents drop down to a lower posture when things go wrong, now is the time to drop back a stage, consolidate, regain your balance and prepare to expand again when the situation allows. But see article 28: if you cede the initiative, you must regain it as soon as the situation allows, or you will eventually lose.

That all sounds like great advice!