Soft side of counter-insurgency wins half the battle

A non-violent strategy assisted in battle to address people's problems and uproot the rebellion in Afghanistan, Iraq

I returned to Hong Kong this month after three years in Afghanistan where I was involved in the counter-insurgency effort. Before that, I was in Iraq, which marked the 10th anniversary of its invasion by the US last week.

Most people think counter-insurgency is all about men in masks kicking down doors and rappelling down from the roofs of buildings. Yes, the application of surgical violence is still key, but many contemporary counter-insurgency tactics have a softer side, and involves an interdisciplinary application of the social sciences.

In Afghanistan, as a social scientist, I analysed the sentiments of the Afghan people for the US military. I could provide a sense of how people reacted to its policies. These policies included transition, the drawing down of US and allied troops in the country, and reintegration, the effort to get insurgents to lay down their arms and join the Afghan government in either a civilian or military capacity.

I also reported on how the people felt about corruption, the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, burning of the Koran and other misdeeds by US and allied troops against locals. I could also give the US military a sense of how well its policies were accepted.

In 2008 in Iraq, I was a US Department of State senior governance specialist for eight months on the Ninewa Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), taking part in the soft side of the US counter-insurgency effort.

Most counter-insurgency work, like the Soviet effort against the mujahideen in Afghanistan, which did not make use of input from social scientists, had failed. The American counter-insurgency in Iraq was a success. Yet, Americans took advantage of indigenous efforts that initiated the defeat of the insurgents.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, overplayed its hand, attacking people at Shiite mosques, leading to the Anbar Awakening, or the Sons of Iraq, in 2005. The American surge of 2007 followed to complete the defeat of the insurgents.

While this defeat was largely due to military action, there was a soft side that abetted this victory. The US State Department led PRTs were instrumental. Soft counter-insurgency involved the use of technology: organisational financial and industrial.

Organisational technology was reflected by the PRTs' efforts to aid Iraqis to establish farming co-operatives. In the northwest, the PRT helped Iraqi farmers organise cooperatives recognised by the Baghdad government. We went into the villages and talked to the farmers, who formed co-operatives, sharing tools and facilities, and promoting more efficient farming. They shared ploughs, tractors and equipment.

Financial technology involved setting up 12 microfinance institutions, which funded more than 7,000 enterprises. This boosted economic development and employment.

Most of the loans had interest, but 14 per cent of them observed the Koranic ban on charging interest. These Murbaha loans instead had service fees. The rate on interest-bearing loans had reportedly ranged from 3 per cent to 16 per cent. In Talafar in the northwest, the loans had a 12 per cent interest rate.

Finally, unemployment in northern Iraq was largely a problem for farmers who lacked water for growing their crops. Industrial technology eliminated this problem. The region has an extensive system of canals anchored by the Al Jazeera pumping scheme, with 12 locks. The problem was that the pumping system was inactive.

On a 2008 inspection tour, we found that a few of these locks were working and just needed to be turned on. The rest needed repairs. If all these locks were turned on and northern Iraq was irrigated, farmers would be able to grow crops. Employment would greatly increase.

Unfortunately, I left Iraq before this project was completed. The soft side of counter-insurgency required that we visited villages, talked with farmers and city councillors, and learned what the major problems were for people at the grass roots. The soft side of counter-insurgency, while not sufficient on its own as a solution to Iraq's problems, it certainly helped.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Social science of counter-insurgency