Listen to the media and you might believe that counterinsurgency operations consist primarily of troops riding about the hinterlands, engaging and beating up on the bad guys. Of course, it can be – but only if the primary aim is to engage in a large-scale game of whack-a-mole.

In fact, counterinsurgency operations are extremely complex, with security, economic, political and other dimensions. Each insurgency is unique, and the counterinsurgent must make a thorough analysis of the situation to arrive at a workable course of action. However, there is a reasonable method for aligning tactical actions to allow achieving the desired policy goals.

An insurgency is an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of an established government through the use of subversion and armed conflict. It is an ancient strategy of the weak against the strong. It persists because it works often enough to be worth the risk, and because often there are few other alternatives. Generally, the insurgent’s normal method is to plan, one day, to cease being the insurgent. To do this, it is necessary to gain the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the population in general. The key to success, therefore, is to focus on persuading the population that the insurgent force offers a better option than the government.

Both the U.S. and U.K., who have invested a great deal of time and intellectual capital into the subject, realize that a counterinsurgency is not simply a military campaign. It is tied closely to political, economic and other factors, in particular to the root cause of the insurgency. Success requires an acceptance by the population that the government is legitimate and deserves their support. Security, provided by military and other forces, is only a part of what must be a well-coordinated, multidisciplinary effort. Tactical victories are useful, if they contribute to gaining strategic goals. Otherwise, they are a waste of valiant effort. Economic development, pacific resolution of political issues, proper functioning of a justice system and perceived fairness in society are all potential issues that require skills best brought by civilian experts.

Key to success for the counterinsurgent is the same as for the insurgent: the support of the population. This implies a decision by the population, and that depends on their perceptions of the situation – and to be sustainable, these perceptions must be based on fact. Fortunately, the Canadian Forces have developed a concept aimed at gaining desired decisions.

Perception management
Information operations (IO) are actions taken on information or information systems aimed at gaining desired decisions from others while protecting our own ability to make decisions free of such influences. In the case of a counterinsurgency, the decision sought is not that of the opponent, but of the population. While this is a different circumstance than envisaged when the concept was first proposed, the principles are still valid.

Unfortunately, many officers do not have a solid grasp of the basics, and have adopted a narrow definition of IO. The doctrine discusses specific elements: electronic warfare; deception; operational security; psychological operations; and physical destruction. Some officers believe that all IO must be one of these things, unnecessarily narrowing the concept. This leads to the attitude that IO is words, not deeds – or worse, deceit and fantasy.

In fact, the key to IO is the decision sought, and how information influences that decision. People make decisions based on perceptions they gain from a variety of sources, including what they see around them. The presence of troops, their bearing, the way they execute fire and manoeuvre, as well as the actions of their own government, are all a part of this perception. IO must include actions in the real world, and not only on some conceptual plane. The U.K. refers to this effect as the “propaganda of deeds.” Given the importance of the collective decision of the population to the success of the counterinsurgency, and their perceptions of the counterinsurgent to this decision, it may be time to look at a different approach to the conduct of these operations.

Main effort
The concept of the Main Effort comes from German doctrine, where it is known as the Schwerpunkt. The general idea is that the commander designates one task as the main effort for that unit. The subordinate given that task has priority on the resources needed to achieve the task. Other subordinates must conform to the plan of their colleague who has the Main Effort; everything they do must be in support of achieving this objective. If the plan changes in the midst of battle, their plans must be re-evaluated to ensure they are contributing effectively to achieving the Main Effort task.

In a counterinsurgency, IO generally ought to be designated as the Main Effort. A military force must, in effect, choose their combat operations on the basis of having best effect on the IO goals, and conduct their engagements on the same basis. As Dr. David Kilcullen suggests, we must select the information effects we desire, and then design combat and other operations to achieve them, and not the other way around.

What does this mean? There are four major effects of adopting this as a strategy. First, when the commander considers where and when to apply combat power the criteria must be that the engagement must make some progress toward the IO objectives – and thus the strategic and policy goals. It is not just about destroying the insurgent forces; it is about achieving the Main Effort objectives.

Second, the methods chosen to conduct tactical engagements must contribute to the IO objectives. For example, we use firepower to allow manoeuvre units to get out of dangerous situations. We may need to change our methods to reduce the likelihood that these situations arise, since heavy firepower increases the risk of civilian casualties, which may be counterproductive to achieving the IO objectives.

Third, we may need to change force mix and capabilities. For example, intelligence capabilities may need to be different to ensure that the IO plans are sound – less about disposition of weapons and more about psychological profiling and anthropological factors.

Fourth, it means we will likely need to expand our doctrine to include civilian agencies. Since civilian agencies also have an impact on the perceptions of the population, their operations must follow the same rules. We use doctrine in the military to bring the various tribes together. We will need to do this on an interagency scale as well.

It does not mean that the types of missions given to the military will be different; all of the tasks currently assigned still need to be accomplished. This does not mean that there will be fewer battles; there may in fact be more of them. It does mean those battles that are fought ought to have better effect on the Main Effort. It will mean that our focus is better.

A counterinsurgency is a battle for a decision that we want from the population, and this places it squarely in the province of IO. Although each insurgency is unique, and will require fresh analysis, considering designating IO as the Main Effort in a counterinsurgency campaign allows commanders at all levels to conceive their operations to gain the desired decision.

If history is a good teacher, Canada and her allies will likely be involved in more insurgencies in the foreseeable future. Putting our people, military and civilian, at risk ought to be done only if their tactical successes produce a strategic advantage. We owe it to ourselves, and to those to come after us, to get this business right. Renewed thinking that produces realistic analyses of the situation and includes Information Operations as a key contributor to strategic success will be essential.

Colonel (Ret’d) Bruce Jackson has served in a number of positions dealing with Information Operations, including teaching and as a staff officer on the Joint Staff and in the field. He currently consults in the areas of strategic planning and IT security.