Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 2, Issue 1  /  

Transforming Counterinsurgent Strategy: Using the Topography of Intelligence

Transforming Counterinsurgent Strategy: Using the Topography of Intelligence Transforming Counterinsurgent Strategy: Using the Topography of Intelligence
To cite this article: Milevski, Lukas, “Transforming Counterinsurgent Strategy: Using the Topography of Intelligence”, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue 1, Winter 2011, pages 27-30.

The ultimate determinant in war is the man on the scene with the gun. This man is the final power in war. He is control. He determines who wins.”[i] This is just as true in counterinsurgency as it is in regular warfare. There is, however, a significant military strategic debate going on as to where ‘the scene’ is with respect to irregular warfare: the populace or the foe himself? Current COIN doctrine seems to default to the former, the populace: in part due to an inability to locate and campaign seriously against an insurgent foe, whose strategy is founded upon his elusiveness. Yet eventually it is the foe who must be defeated, despite the man with the gun not actually being on the scene, and thus unable determine the outcome of the war.

Is there a tool capable of directing the man with the gun to where he must be? Arguably there is: intelligence. Technological improvements enable counterinsurgent strategy to accommodate the topography of intelligence, in which the connections within insurgent networks are mapped, attacked, and remapped within a continuous targeted and high tempo offensive operation, permitting a move from a reactionary cumulative strategy to one where sequential gains are made and consolidated.

Sequential and accumulative models examined

The American admiral and theorist J.C. Wylie posited two types of strategy: sequential and cumulative. Sequential strategy is a step-by-step process in which major operations depend directly upon previous ones. Due to its character, it was believed to take place only on land or in campaigns in which the land was a significant factor. A sequential strategy allows a strategist to take control over the course of the war, and to exercise that control. The nature of taking control requires a medium that can be physically retrieved and occupied, ruling out four of the five geographic dimensions of warfare, and leaving only land.

Cumulative strategy, on the other hand, is a diffuse process of multiple parallel actions, in which no single action is necessarily dependent upon any other. The effects of these actions accumulate over time. Cumulative strategy disallows taking and exercising control; it can only deny control to the enemy, to prevent him from controlling the course of the war. The French general André Beaufre suggested that “any dialectical contest is a contest for freedom of action.”[ii] In this regard cumulative strategy is unlike its sequential counterpart, in that it strategically restricts neither belligerent’s freedom of action. Each can operate against the other with relatively little difficulty. Cumulative strategy is most frequently the strategy of the weak, and operationally it is defensive, as the cumulative strategist must be able to evade his enemy freely.[iii] One of its specific forms is insurgency. For intelligence to transform counterinsurgent strategy, it must enable a sequential campaign to become the prime achiever of effect, rather than an endless cumulative effort of population protection.

It is the cumulatist insurgents’ evasion ability which confounds Western armies currently engaged in counterinsurgency operations. It forces them to revert to cumulative strategies of their own, including population control. Common wisdom holds that counterinsurgency takes a long time; this must logically be so, especially when both actors are pursuing cumulative strategies which seek to deny their foe control. Unfortunately, in such a contest the insurgents have a necessary advantage, as they are much less visible than their conventional counterparts. It is thus much easier for insurgents to inflict damage and casualties upon regular soldiers than it is for those soldiers to retaliate significantly. All counterinsurgency writers acknowledge that only intelligence can close the gap, but rarely do they provide any insight into how that might be accomplished.

Intelligence and strategy

Strategists’ attitudes toward intelligence span two extremes: that it may be useful but is rarely reliable; and that it is the key to victory. The difference between these extremes is one of emphasis. Both treat intelligence primarily as a force multiplier, due to its inherently supportive role. “To reduce an argument ad absurdum, it can be suggested that while waging war successfully without intelligence might be dangerous and expensive but still possible, attempting to do so with excellent intelligence but no army is impossible.”[iv] The role of intelligence is clearly to improve the efficiency of force, allowing it to enhance the likelihood of victory and achieving greater effect at lesser cost, without changing the character of the strategy employed.

The insurgents’ success at elusiveness triggers persistent failure among counterinsurgents unable to locate them—a failure of intelligence which transforms the weaker insurgents’ options from a futile sequential strategy to a plausible cumulative strategy. No strategist questions the wisdom of a weaker party resorting to guerrilla warfare and cumulative strategy as a method of countering a stronger threat. Yet counterinsurgents take this failure of intelligence for granted, and subsequently resort to tactics based upon population control as a means of gaining intelligence on the insurgents. The result is the de facto acceptance of insurgent terms of warfare: a long, operationally indecisive war, predicated solely upon denial of control, with the foreign counterinsurgents, rather than the native insurgents, bearing the burden of responsibility to the populace.

These entrenched attitudes toward intelligence in counterinsurgency serve existing COIN praxis. The US Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24, for example, suggests that “Intelligence in COIN is about people. U.S. forces must understand the people of the host nation, the insurgents, and the host-nation (HN) government. Commanders and planners require insight into cultures, perceptions, values, beliefs, interests and decision-making processes of individuals and groups. These requirements are the basis for collection and analytical efforts.”[v] Yet insight into another culture alone will never defeat an insurgency; missing from this laundry list is the question of where the insurgents are.

Mastery of such cultural intelligence which has been operationally executed without friction may prevent the insurgency from growing larger—although this is a significantly context-dependent proposition—but it will not in and of itself diminish an existing insurgency.

More worryingly, current COIN tactics draw considerably from Cold War counterinsurgent writing, none of which anticipates the technological changes which have significantly affected intelligence gathering, and offer opportunities Cold War counterinsurgents never experienced.

Intelligence strategies in the information age

Modern technology has widened both intelligence and mainstream communications capabilities, the latter frequently used to direct a geographically dispersed insurgency. This broadening of capabilities works in two directions. Not only do counterinsurgents gain new methods of intelligence gathering, including persistent or near-persistent audiovisual surveillance capacity, but the insurgents also suffer potential new vulnerabilities that may be exploited for intelligence purposes. Through a newly expanded mobile communications network, Iraqi insurgents may have gained a tool for easy self-coordination, but simultaneously this same tool provided the Coalition a chance to find them. “By May 2005 the number of Iraqis using cellular phones had grown to around 1.75 million. Mobiles were becoming a vital intelligence source. Just the details of a call between two numbers could be the start of an operation.”[vi]

Michael Flynn, an architect of this intelligence-centric approach, also notes that “nodal analysis is spatially connecting relationships between places and people by tracking their patterns of life. While the enemy moves from point to point, airborne ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) tracks and notes every location and person visited. Connections between those sites and persons to the target are built, and nodes in the enemy’s low-contrast network emerge.”[vii] Surveillance of insurgent mobile phone use provides one layer within the wider nodal analysis process. The threshold for acquiring actionable intelligence decreases substantially, after development and analysis, due to the abilities and vulnerabilities of modern technology, immediately improving counterinsurgent chances of making contact with the enemy on his own terms.

There is one sole instance when this new intelligence capability was used in conjunction with surveillance assets to exceed the traditional COIN intelligence process. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) under Stanley McChrystal took advantage of the new capabilities and new enemy vulnerabilities in Iraq to conceive of “an aggressive targeting model known as find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze (F3EA) which features massed, persistent ISR cued to a powerful and decentralized all-source intelligence apparatus in order to find a target amidst civilian clutter and fix his exact location.”[viii] Not only would the target be swiftly located by special operations forces—and capture was preferred to killing due to the greater intelligence potential—but the strike team would take anything of plausible intelligence value in the immediate environment to be investigated, thus generating more intelligence. Indeed, the elimination of targets was secondary to the generation of new intelligence, although clearly the two tasks cannot be separated, as special operators cannot collect potential intelligence sources without securing the location first.

It was suggested above that sequential strategy, the type of strategy that allows strategists to assert and exercise control, traditionally only occurs on land. Armed forces reside and act on land, they take and protect it, and in this way armies limit the options available to the enemy, remove his freedom of action and take control of the war. Yet without the ability to pinpoint insurgents this is all in vain. The futility of locating insurgents is the prime incentive for armies to employ cumulative strategies founded upon population protection. In Iraq, McChrystal and JSOC developed in F3EA a method by which sequential strategy could be practiced against insurgents and terrorists. They termed it “industrial counterterrorism,” yet at its core it was a sequential strategy based upon a ‘taking’ relationship not with land, but with intelligence.

Strengths and limitations of a sequential intelligence strategy

Taking a particular geographical position allows an army to move beyond that position to the next; similarly, special forces operators struck a particular target and gathered intelligence that fuelled strikes at other targets. Without the first strike, subsequent attacks could not happen for lack of intelligence, just as particular geographical positions cannot be taken without first taking those in front. Wylie noted that terrain “is the fixed field within which [the soldier] operates. It is the limitation within which he must function.”[ix] Terrain in Iraq, rather than being physical geography, had been turned into the topography of intelligence, and the counterinsurgents advanced and took control of the war based on that intelligence.

This marks an important alteration. A theater of operations whose limits are defined by physical geography may easily hide the enemy. A theater of intelligence will be only insignificantly larger than the enemy himself, albeit the real extent of the theater may only be known in hindsight—its limits, unlike those of a geographical theater, will not be apparent from a map. The strategist of course cannot guarantee that every strike will generate intelligence, but in Iraq only a fraction of operations returned no intelligence, a potential indication of future effectiveness. The insurgent has difficulty hiding within such a theater, and the counterinsurgent may therefore pursue the sequential strategy that allows him to seize control.

The ability to conduct a sequential strategy to take control of the war primarily by taking intelligence from the enemy represents a potential transformation of strategy in the context of waging counterinsurgency. Achievement of the intelligence-action-intelligence cycle allows the counterinsurgent consistently to employ force against insurgent units and organizations, on his own terms. If the pace of operations is fast enough, the insurgent organization can be destroyed more quickly than it regenerates, a result JSOC successfully imposed upon Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). This results in a decreasing insurgent presence both amongst and outside the population and a diminishing number of insurgent-initiated actions. The final result is an overall improvement in security.

However, the tempo required to destroy AQI was intense. Multiple strikes per night were needed, and the burden was shared amongst only a handful of American and British special operations organizations. Indeed, most likely only special forces have the blend of training and capabilities necessary to perform such precision operations at such a rate, usually without relying upon support forces, to remain as low-key as possible.

This focus on a small group highlights a distinct limitation to this transformation. Intelligence assets must be massed to achieve the necessary density for a sequential campaign. “Inherent in massing is rejecting the commonly held practice of ‘fair-sharing’ ISR among multiple units. Massing implies focus and priority. Selected parts of the enemy’s network receive focus, which should be unwavering for a specified time. This is counterintuitive to those who feel the need to fair-share assets as a way to cover more space and service more priorities. The problem with a low-contrast and fleeting foe, however, is that enemy actions are not easily predictable. Without prediction, the next best things are redundancy and saturation.”[x]

Thus, the primary internal limitation is the issue of scale. An entire army cannot wage a sequential campaign against insurgents based upon intelligence; there are simply not enough assets, analysts or time in the day to analyze the necessary amount of information without losing the needed tempo and effectiveness. Prioritization in assets must thus be given to the most dangerous insurgent threats, and to the forces most capable of such intelligence-driven operations.

One might consider the expansion of armies during the 19th and 20th centuries as a parallel example. As armies grew larger, they required more space to maneuver and to fight. Conveniently, such physical space was available. Yet similarly, the larger the forces acting upon a topography of intelligence, the more intelligence is necessary to sustain their operations. When considering the analysts, hardware and other support required to interpret the increasing amount of intelligence gathered, a fixed limitation to the amount of space available in any physical theater of operations becomes apparent.

Historically, the availability of these assets proved enough to absorb increasing army sizes up until the World Wars. That is no longer the case. The support required for analysis now has a soft limit—it can be increased, but increasing the limit takes its own time and resources, and the limit can be reached quickly in a theatre despite significant expansionary efforts. Thus practical limitations necessarily restrict intelligence-based sequential strategy to smaller outfits such as special forces, even if regular forces are deployed in support of individual strikes. It is thus impractical for an entire army or counterinsurgent force to operate solely within the topography of intelligence.

The other primary limitation is external – insurgent countermeasures aimed at decreasing the efficiency of the entire intelligence gathering system, including persistent audiovisual surveillance and ensuing nodal analysis. Basic insurgent security measures may deny surveillance opportunities to gather or develop information on insurgent patterns. However, other possible countermeasures may decrease not just counterinsurgent but also insurgent capabilities. If mobile phones, for instance, cannot be secured, then their widespread use might be largely abandoned, denying counterinsurgents this level of nodal analysis. This simultaneously also decreases the ease of coordination amongst both insurgent groups and individual insurgents within groups, affecting their operational efficiency if they remain dispersed. It may also increase their vulnerability if they group together to maintain efficiency.

Other communications technologies may allow for greater security—the internet, for example, permits the presentation of inconstant identity to evade tracking, while maintaining constant aliases so that fellow insurgents recognize each other. Such methods of communication are not as convenient in highly fluid operations, however, and may stand out. Indeed, insurgents have many countermeasure choices available, but most have costs as well as benefits. As such, insurgents seem unlikely to deviate from their current modus operandi.

The future of intelligence-based counterinsurgency strategies

Given these important restrictions, can intelligence truly transform the character of a strategy? One must be mindful of certain limitations. First, there has been but a single example of this sort of intelligence-based sequential strategy, waged by McChrystal and JSOC in Iraq from 2004-2008. This might prove a special case, as Iraq teetered on the brink of civil war simultaneously with counterinsurgency efforts, which at times targeted both Sunni and Shia warring sides. There was thus an extraordinary level of insurgent and terrorist activity to track, providing bountiful intelligence opportunities that may not be available in more sedate counter/insurgent environments. As noted above, AQI was effectively destroyed by the special operations campaign conducted.

Nevertheless, this success was tempered by the remaining patchwork of rival Sunni and Shia insurgent organizations which continued to operate. Given that the theater of intelligence offers no hiding place even to a sparser insurgent environment producing a lower absolute amount of intelligence, the result is greater effect from organizational destruction caused by the sequential strategy.

JSOC also only grew to a few thousand people, a figure that may be contrasted with the several hundred thousand Coalition and Iraqi army and police forces also engaged in other counterinsurgent efforts. To what extent can such a numerically limited operation be said to have transformed a strategy whose means comprise two orders of magnitude more personnel in theater? If the characters of strategies are defined disproportionately by their effects, then one might suggest that five thousand men might indeed transform the strategy pursued by five hundred thousand. Strategists only attempt to deny control when they cannot reasonably attempt to take it, a state of affairs that characterizes not just insurgents but frequently also counterinsurgents. If the counterinsurgent is capable of employing even a fraction of his force in an intelligence-led effort to take control, regularly defeat the opponent’s attempts at denying control, and diminish his presence, it may be surmised that the truly effective aspect of the counterinsurgent’s strategy is his intelligence-led campaign and indeed that the strategy has been transformed. Ultimately, regardless of original insurgent or intelligence levels, victory in the theater of intelligence is most likely achieved once intelligence can no longer be generated from any further operations, as this would denote a catastrophic collapse of the insurgent network.

Ultimately, modern technology has succeeded in enabling new intelligence assets and capabilities to trigger a transformation in the character of strategies pursued in defeating insurgencies. The advent of such sequentially-conducted intelligence-based campaigns allows the counterinsurgent to strip away the one piece of protection every insurgent relies upon: the ability to avoid his enemy. With this defence gone, almost any insurgency might be open to destruction as was AQI, provided that the necessary intelligence assets—manpower, hardware and software—are available.

The scale of insurgency, however, may determine that only a superpower may prove able to concentrate the sheer amount of assets—intelligence and special forces—necessary fully to achieve this change and defeat the insurgency. Such a transformation to sequential strategy may avail itself only to an exclusive membership, one which has the necessary resources to utilize fully the topography of intelligence as a basis for seizing control.


[i] J.C. Wylie. Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press 1989), 72, emphasis in original.
[ii] André Beaufre. An Introduction to Strategy. R.H. Barry trans. (London: Faber and Faber 1965), 110.
[iii] For an in-depth study of Wylie’s dichotomy of strategy, see Lukas Milevski. “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy: The Effects of Sequential and Cumulative Patterns of Operations.” Journal of Strategic Studies, forthcoming.
[iv] Michael I. Handel. “Intelligence and Military Operations” in Michael I. Handel. Intelligence and Military Operations. (Portland: Frank Cass 1990), 21.
[v] The U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manuel 3-24. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2007), 80.
[vi] Mark Urban. Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the SAS and the Secret War in Iraq. (London: Little, Brown 2010), 79.
[vii] Michael T. Flynn, Rich Juergens & Thomas L. Cantrell. “Employing ISR: SOF Best Practices.” Joint Force Quarterly 50/3 (Autumn 2008), 58.
[viii] Ibid, 57.
[ix] Wylie, Military Strategy, 42.
[x] Flynn, Juergens & Cantrell, “Employing ISR¸” 58.