Counterinsurgency Today: A Review of Eric T. Olson’s “Some of the Best Weapons for Counterinsurgents Do Not Shoot”

By Efe Sevin

The long-lasting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to increased inquiry into the concepts and practices of counterinsurgency (COIN). Eric T. Olson, in his work, focuses on the importance of reconstruction attempts in COIN operations and discusses the role of military. The author served in the U.S. Army for over three decades and retired as a Major General. Currently, Mr. Olson is an independent defense contractor and works with Army brigades and provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) who are preparing for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. As the title suggests, his monograph considers such reconstruction attempts to have uttermost importance in successful military operations.

Reconstruction – described as the rebuilding degraded, damaged, or destroyed political, socioeconomic, and physical infrastructure of a country or territory to create the foundation for long-term development by the author – has been discussed countless times within the framework of U.S. military history. Yet no single work thus far managed to carry out the difficult task of providing a structural explanation of the phenomenon. Firstly, reconstruction attempts include several different elements of different levels of complexity: from tasks as simple as supplying electricity and water to complicated tasks such as supporting the creation of functioning state institutions. And secondly, it requires several institutions to work in tandem. The discussions so far predominantly revolve around whether military should commit time and resources to reconstruction activities that could be carried out by civilian agencies. Olson agrees and claims that “addressing instability…could be constructed as being critical to national security interests”. Instability in a given region creates a safe haven for terrorist activities, and therefore might constitute a threat to U.S. national security. Therefore, including reconstruction attempts in military operations

The monograph looks at five different themes. Firstly, the author introduces the development of reconstruction in COIN through American military history. Secondly, he discusses how the Army has been trying to understand reconstruction. Following the comprehension stage, Army’s attempt to define its role is discussed. Last two themes focus on the capabilities – whether the Army has the necessary capabilities and whether it is possible to improve the role of the Army. The author has actively engaged in reconstruction attempts in Iraq. From 2006 to 2007, he worked as the Deputy Director of the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office and Director of the National Coordination Team at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Later he was assigned as the Chief of Staff and Special Advisor to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Given his credentials and field experiences, this monograph presents its readers a combination of strategic planning and operational experience of COIN.

A long journey through military documents and doctrines focusing on COIN proves that reconstruction is indeed a part of the modern warfare and includes a broad range of activities. Olson claims that there are three important reasons for carrying out reconstruction projects. First of all, it is the right thing to do in today’s world. In today’s international arena, wars are not waged to conquer lands, or to destroy enemies. Contemporary understanding of human decency and international law necessitate the military to address the needs of local civilian population. Secondly, these projects are of vital importance in winning the hearts and minds of people, in other words, in securing local support. And lastly, nation building will make sure that the sources of insurgency are drained.

The most provocative and well-written chapter in the book, Chapter 4, shares the author’s experience as a moderator and exercise director during a tabletop war game conducted by the U.S. Army Peace-keeping and Stability Operations Institute. During this exercise, participants from agencies considered key players in reconstruction came together to identify appropriate tasks and responsibilities in a hypothetical scenario. The feedbacks of the participants places emphasis on establishing security, restoring public order, and providing essential services – such as water, electricity, sanitation, and medical care – as the most important tasks in COIN operations. These tasks were followed by supporting economic development and good governance.

According to Olson, reconstruction has two main aims: short/near term and long term. It is possible to claim that the first set of tasks described above fall into the former category, and second set to the latter. In the short term, it is essential to ensure that the local population has access to the essential services, as discussed above. Moreover, the operations should create a safe environment for the upcoming/long-term reconstruction projects. Long term projects, on the other hand, aspire to contribute to the nation building attempts – with the ultimate goals of creating a self-sufficient good governance system, as well as of establishing economic and infrastructural development

If one is to look at the reconstruction projects as a whole, it is possible to argue that these projects are designed to address urgent economic and medical needs in the short term, and then move on to the second phase where the focus should be on the economic, social, cultural, medical, and political concerns. This is to say, the initial reconstruction projects should generate basic deliverables, such as medical service, and infrastructure. The following projects should aim to create a self-sustaining society, therefore, should establish institutions that will take care of the aforementioned concerns.

Olson identifies three successive and mutually dependent phases for successful COIN operations: clear, hold, build. These three phases were used in the Baghdad Security Plan in which the author had an active role. The phase of clearing the insurgency establishes security. Hold introduces stability through sustained security on which the last phase, build, can take place. The reconstruction projects at this step emphasize creating employment, restoring services, empowering institutions, and building capacity. The expected outcome of build is to reestablish the rule of law, improve governance, and revitalize economic and commercial activities. The new political, social, and economic framework is expected to persuade the local population that a neighborhood controlled by legitimate government authorities is more beneficial than influence of insurgents. As the popular support towards government increases and insurgents lose theirs, holding security becomes a more feasible task.

Olson includes not just an operational analysis but examines the decision-making processes of COIN as well. He identifies three levels in which these processes take place: policy, theater, and execution. The policy level looks at the centralized attempts of Washington, D.C. Theater level refers to the activities in the region, whereas the last level – execution – describes the actual nuts and bolts of the projects. Hence, it is possible to trace a project, how it is conceptualized from the capital, received by local forces, and performed by field workers.

Consequently, the author argues that a new COIN conceptualization should include the statement of the purpose of the reconstruction, the description of essential elements, a general sequence/schema of reconstruction activities, guidelines for assigning responsibility, and guidelines for assessment. In other words, one should focus on the definition of the concept, list of tasks, and recommendations for ensuring coordination and measuring success.

Olson also provides several recommendations to increase the effectiveness of Army in reconstruction and COIN operations. Firstly, the Army can improve its preparation for reconstruction, both in terms of crafting ‘annex’ ad of training its members. Such an annex can be complied with the help of other agencies and include data and information about the existing infrastructure as well as the needs of local population. All military and civilian personnel deployed in the regions as part of PRTs can be required to go through a rigorous training program to be prepared for performing reconstruction tasks. Secondly, more capability in Army units should be built to execute key reconstruction tasks. These units are not usually trained for tasks like supplying electricity and clean water, or providing medical assistance to the local populations. Lastly, the Army can focus on enhancing its capability to set the conditions for the success of civilian reconstruction attempts. Through establishing security, providing information about the needs of the local population, or directly assisting civilians during humanitarian relief operations, the Army can help civilian agencies reach their goals.

Definitely, a new field manual or doctrine is not going to overcome all the challenges faced in the operations. Reconstruction, by nature, is a difficult task. Olson recognizes several problems and obstacles. To start with, timing is a challenging issue. On one hand, reconstruction cannot start before the forces establish security. On the other hand, security cannot be established without reconstruction. Olson argues that security and reconstruction must be synchronized. Military-civilian coordination and cooperation still seems problematic in this multi-agency environment. Given the different levels of capabilities and capacities, it is difficult to see which organization is actually responsible for the execution of a project and which organization has a supporting role. Lastly, establishing stability and reconstruction are closely related to legitimacy. The author mentions that reconstruction might have corrosive effects on legitimacy and might backfire by encouraging support for wrong leaders.

Olson concludes that reconstruction is a vital part of modern warfare. With the ultimate goal being to create a self-sustaining state after the COIN operations, it starts with essential services and extends all the way to economic, social, and political development. The Army should focus on first gaining local support, then to attack the sources of insurgency, such as lack of economic resources or governmental authority. As introduced in Field Manual 3-24, there is a need to “stop bleeding, assist recovery during inpatient care, and bring the patient to self sufficient that, in medical terms, occurs during outpatient care.” The Army should make sure that it has the weapons that do not shoot, know how to use them, and actually be good enough to teach other actors how to use them. The biggest obstacles on the way are interagency cooperation, difficulty in evaluating the effectiveness of these projects, the Army’s limited capability of executing reconstruction tasks, and and a lack of coordination within the military and civilians across the interagency process.

Overall, the monograph presents a comprehensive outlook on the role of reconstruction in military operations. The author shows reconstruction as a crucial component for fighting insurgency, thus lists several recommendations to enhance the role of military in such projects. With the increasing frequency of insurgency, and thus counterinsurgency, today, “Some of the Best Weapons for Counterinsurgents Do Not Shoot” will definitely be an important resource for civilian workers and military personnel, as well as an exceptional contribution to the scholarly debates.

Efe Sevin (BSc, METU ’08 MA, Emerson College ’10) researches public diplomacy, political communication, public opinion and nation/place branding subjects. As a Fulbright Visiting Scholar, he published "Controlling the Message: A Strategic Approach to Nation Branding Processes." Follow Efe on Twitter: @efesevin.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of They are published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement.

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