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  • Beatriz Gutierrez

Mao in Niger? "Back to Basics" in irregular warfare & COIN

Year 3 -Week 17

ISSN 2603 - 9931

October 4th, 2017. Four US Special Forces soldiers die in an ambush in Tongo Tongo area, in Niger. March 5th, 2018, the local Islamic State branch makes public a disturbing video showing the fighting and how the “green berets” are hunted down. During these five months, interviews and conducted research alleged a chain of intelligence and strategic failures. On October 3rd, a convoy formed by 30 Nigerien soldiers and one interpreter and eleven US SpecOps soldiers went on a low-risk, routine patrol with little chance of encountering the enemy. During the patrol American intelligence communicated a break of the near possible location of a local jihadist leader. A helicopter raid was aborted in the last minute, so a group of the US soldiers on patrol were sent instead. After a night of search and short of water, the unit stop in a village on their way back to the base. On the outskirts of the village the convoy came under deadly fire: they were being ambushed by the same terrorists they were looking for[1]. Five months later, the regional Islamic State released the video showing how the soldiers were hunted down. Despite many critics, the fact of the casualties remains, so it should be the causality what should be explained instead to establish where the mistakes were made.

Special Forces have become the response given by regular armies to erupting insurgencies worldwide, as an adaptive way to fight irregular warfare. This concept is included in the framework of asymmetric conflicts, those carried out between State actor and non-State actors with a clear asymmetry on their capabilities and strategic, operational and tactical conceptions. The qualitative change came after 1989 with the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, when the classical paradigm of local insurgencies changes into a new model of global insurgency under the banner of a new organization with a new ideological framework: al-Qaeda and global jihadism. After 1989 many of the foreign fighters that had gone to Afghanistan to liberate Muslim lands from the Soviet occupation, accomplishing the duty of the jihad, came back to their countries of origin taking with them the seed of jihadism as a fight against the infidels, adding the new ideological elements forged in Afghan bases of doing so both against corrupt apostate regimes in Muslim countries as well as the Western power as occupying political, social and economic structure oppressing and corrupting Islamic territories and the whole Muslim community. This dual approach, a convergence of both Abdullah Azzam and Ayman al-Zawahiri doctrinal trends, configured the ideological driving force of the new movement on global bases. Likewise, a parallel phenomenon took root in different areas: traditional resistance movements of Muslim religion saw an opportunity to strengthen their capabilities by merging with these new territorial extensions of al-Qaeda, in what David Killcullen called the “accidental guerrilla”, granting the resulting movement not only of stronger military capabilities, but also a higher level of operability in a given environment.

Once established the ideological motivation of these groups to appear, remains the question of the treatment given to territory. As pointed out in a previous article[2], the territorialization of first al-Qaeda and secondly the Islamic State results innovative in insurgent historical perspective: although considered terrorist groups due to the psychological response they look for creating in their areas of operations, the tactics used and the control of pockets of territory they exert is closer to a classical guerrilla warfare than to a terrorist-type insurgency, where traditionally the purpose was not controlling territory, but demoralizing population to break the State morale and war effort. After this, probably we may observe that the depicted scenario is quite similar to the described in the Nigerien ambush.

Apart from ideology, two elements are structural, that is, always present in a conflict, conventional or asymmetric: population and territory. Those ones, which configure the theatre of operations or the conflict’s environment, determine both the re of the insurgent and counterinsurgent forces Importance of territory. If we attend to the classic David Galula’s work “Counterinsurgency”, some geographic factors need to be examined[3]:

  • Location. A country isolated by natural barriers as a desert or among countries opposing the insurgency is favorable to the counterinsurgent. In the same way, if other forces as local groups or surrounding countries support the insurgency, this one will have the upper hand.

  • Size. The larger the country is, the more difficult for a government to control it.

  • Configuration. A country easy to compartmentalize hinders insurgent expansion, as it is the case in the Philippines.

  • International Borders. Long borders are beneficial to insurgencies, especially if neighbor countries are sympathetic to the insurgency,

  • Terrain. It helps the insurgents if it is rugged and difficult, because of vegetation or mountains. Deserts without concealment and limited resources as water normally favor counterinsurgency.

  • Climate. Harsh weather favors counterinsurgency, which have normally better logistical and operational capabilities. This is especially true when the counterinsurgent soldiers are native and accustomed to the rigors of the climate.

  • Population. Apart from being the classical Center of Gravity, the size of the population affects the conflict in the same way than territory size: the more inhabitants, the more difficult to control, even though it might be mitigated by the density and distribution of population over territory. Scattered population favors insurgents in rural terrain, while in urban terrain it will depend on the insurgent supporters network, which provide concealment for the insurgents, although the dependency of cities of supplies make them easier to control by counterinsurgency than open terrain with disseminated population.

  • Economy. A developed economic structure might be disrupted by an insurgent movement in the form of a terrorist wave. On the other hand, the damage over population may be counterproductive for insurgents and withdraw supporters for a cause initially perceived as legitimate.

In this structure, Nigerien insurgents, linked to the Islamic State, followed the pattern of a scattered population, accustomed to the terrain and playing with the advantages of knowing as natives the environment of operations. In this sense, even in the case of an asymmetry of capabilities, which in the case of Tongo Tongo is not so clear, since the US forces where on patrol and not fully prepared for an armed engagement, probably the insurgents would have had still the upper hand, acting here not as a terrorist group but as a guerrilla squad. In other words, the insurgents ambushed the US soldiers not with a classical hit-and-run action, but outnumbering enemy forces based on a superior knowledge of the theatre of operations and more than probably also on a superior use of intelligence based on their own supporters network in the area. Going back to Galula’s premises, the insurgent action only reveal its presence in form of established bases on the area, allowing the presence of militants intertwined with rural population –forceful or willingly- and living of their supplies and information during the development of their violent activity.

We can conclude that military organizational superiority is not always a guarantee for success, and that when we talk about “War on Terrorism” it is much more behind that a lone wolf stabbing citizens in a European overcrowded street. The border between terrorism and guerrilla has blurred in the last decades, as accurately pointed out revisions of classical doctrine such as the FM 3-24. Terrorism comes in the form of videos, but Tongo Tongo action could have only been prevented avoiding on-the-spot decisions without considering environment, both as geographic and popular intertwined variables, an environment where insurgents playing with the advantage of superior knowledge and intelligence could win the engagement, in this case with a deadly result. The technological superiority was relegated by a stronger human factor. But the truth is that, coming back to basics, all the technology and superior organization capabilities may win again the upper hand if they are put at the service of the boots on the ground.

[1] CALLIMACHI, R. et al (2018), ‘An endless war’: Why 4 US soldiers died in a remote African desert, The New York Times, February 20, 2018. (Retrieved March 14th, 2018)

[2] GUTIËRREZ, B. (2017), Hybrid insurgencies: al-Qaeda and ISIS territorialization. (Retrieved March 14th, 2018)

[3] GALULA, D. (1964), Counterinsurgency, Frederick A. Praeger Publisher, London, pp. 26-28.

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