Walls and Counterinsurgency

Image couresy of Wikimedia Commons. Image couresy of Wikimedia Commons.

Note: I recently received this prompt from a friend working in the New Zealand government – and thought I’d try my own response.  If you’re interested in the subject, consider submitting it to the War Council.

Hey Matt, a work related question for you. According to open source reporting the Egyptian Armed Forces are building a 3 mtr high stone wall, with an additional two mtrs of barbed wire on top, around the town of el-Arish. The EAF plan to have 10 gates in the wall to control access to the town. Arish is one of the hot-spots of militant activity in the Sinai Peninsula and this looks like the EAF are trying to actually do some counter-insurgency for once (something they are not actually equipped to do). Are there any comments/ lessons learned you can offer from your time in Iraq as to what the EAF should expect in response to their wall, and the likely effectiveness of their plan?

Great question.  To give a general sense of my thinking on the subject, I’ll lead with a recent comment from Robert D. Kaplan, “Geography hasn’t gone away,” and that “in geopolitics, the past never dies and there is no modern world.”  Land – holding and controlling territory – still matters an awful lot.  Walls augment the natural environment.  So we should think about walls in the same ways we think about geography/geostrategy.

I’ll break my response into two parts.  First, on my experience in Iraq with security walls.  Bear in mind this experience is localized to Tal Afar, Iraq, circa 2005-2006.  Tal Afar is a major city in northwest Iraq which was experiencing overwhelming violence prior to Third Armored Cavalry Regiment’s (3ACR) arrival in the spring of 2005.  This was due to two factors – it was under resourced in terms of capable security forces (principally US at the time) – and easy access to uncontrolled borders for smuggling.  Through a series of military and non-military efforts, including Operation Restoring Rights, 3ACR was successful in overturning the insurgency and disrupting terrorist operations.  [yes, a little “rah rah,” but that’s actually fairly accurate and necessary to provide background]

We used a wall – the “Great Wall of Tal Afar.”  Really, an earthen berm.  It took months to build, it was over 12 feet high (4 meters), and it was huge.  There was some coverage in these articles, particularly this longer George Packer piece from the New Yorker which demonstrates that Tal Afar was the model for the Bush administration’s “clear, hold, and build” strategy.  I’m obviously biased, but this example does seem to be a successful tactical implementation of a wall in order to achieve a secure “oil spot” (as championed by Andrew Krepinevich).

Now, moving on from the specific to the more general – to the “likely effectiveness” of the wall.  I can’t really speak to the local particulars.  I’m certainly not an area expert, nor would I claim to be.  But I can provide some general concepts, based on lots of time thinking about human conflict, that might help one think through the case.

1. It’s not about the wall.  This is one scenario where constructivist international relations theorist Alexander Wendt is absolutely correct – walls are what people make of them.  Some will see oppression no matter how nice or orderly, others will consider it as natural as a tree or a hill.  This issue is fundamentally about people; the wall is merely a new terrain feature in the struggle.

2. Everything will eventually be on public display.  Every era of warfare has it’s dominating feature – this one seems to be that the world is fighting “YouTube Wars.”  As such, everything that is done on the battlefield will eventually be for public consumption.  This creates a new standard for walls, as well as refugee camps.  Governments have to go to great lengths to explain their actions and demonstrate fairness.  If not, they will lose.

3. Is the wall part of a comprehensive, coordinated civil-military campaign?  If not, the wall will not work.  Consider the answer General (Retired) David Petraeus recently gave on his approach to the insurgency in Iraq:

“What we crafted in Iraq can only be described as a compreshensive civil-military strategy and operational-level campign plan. There were strategic level ideas, there were operational level derivatives from those ideas and there were tactical level activities nested within the operational ideas.”

Image of declassified slide from Iraq War courtesy of Small Wars Journal. Image of declassified slide from Iraq War courtesy of Small Wars Journal.

4. Consider the Hippocratic Oath.  David Kilcullen covered this in his recent book and in media appearances trying to sell that book.  He has said that in Baghdad, in order to reduce violence and bring the number of murders down, we did it by “killing the city. We shut the city down. We brought in more than 100 kilometers of concrete T-wall. We put troops on every street corner.  We got alongside people and try to make them feel safe.  It was very, you know, sort of human intense and equipment intense.”  If military forces are not precise with their application of military power, they can (and will) drown the proverbial baby in the bathwater.  Depending on the comfort level with insurgent violence, choices have to be made: are these bad actors worth the “health/life” of the community in the aggregate (i.e. economy, social, spiritual activities)? Or is the threat level actually that great?

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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