Despite our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan being all but over, the recent announcement by the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS or ISIL of Iraq) of the formation of a new caliphate across parts of northern Iraq and Syria coupled with the arrival of US forces to protect Americans and the US Embassy in Baghdad have once again served as a potent reminder of the necessity to retain a counterinsurgency (COIN) capability. The threats to our security stemming from insurgency and intra-state conflict regionally necessitate this, while our alliance commitments mean we can never fully write off the possibility of having to assist in another international conflict such as the one potentially brewing in Iraq. The Australian government should therefore learn the lessons from the past decade, not only for its defence forces, but also for the police.
In debates on Iraq and Afghanistan, the police have emerged as an important link in COIN. Through multiple police deployments, the Australian government has been able to develop a distinct COIN capability in the Australian Federal Police’s International Deployment Group (IDG). Established in 2004, the IDG deploys domestically and internationally to contribute to stability and security operations. Most recently the IDG served in Afghanistan, where they trained members of the Afghanistan National Police in Oruzgun province in basic policing techniques, gender issues, human rights and the rule of law.
According to COIN writings, providing security for a population is essential for success where the insurgency is fuelled by social, political, and economic grievances. Here, police forces like the IDG have a distinct advantage over a military force. They are, by design, a population-centric force trained for habitual contact with a community and able to work through—and with—an indigenous police force. Constant interaction (when done well) with a host community not only demonstrates a government that is functioning, legitimate and responsive to its citizens’ grievances, but effectively provides a credible and local narrative through which insurgent narratives can be combated.
Operationally, police are also able to leverage their position amongst the community to gain valuable intelligence needed to identify, and target, insurgents.
One important lesson from the past decade is that the IDG must be able to operate in environments more violent than those where it has traditionally done so – and to ensure that it can do so in a manner that does not compromise those advantages a police force brings to COIN. Particular policing models—community-led policing or intelligence-led policing—are less important in achieving that outcome than the principles underpinning all police doctrine; namely the necessity to serve a community fairly and justly and, as David Bayley and Robert Perito have stated in their book The Police in War, ensuring a community becomes a willing contributor to its own security by wanting to work with the police.
Issues of timing, mission creep, and cooperation are critical to successful deployments. More often than not, a counterinsurgency mission will require an initial military deployment to create the necessary space (in COIN terminology, the ‘clear’ and ‘hold’ phases) for the IDG to operate effectively. Especially important in operations where a population’s welcome is not forthcoming is to ensure that the military doesn’t linger. The window of opportunity afforded after initial combat operations is when the IDG needs to take charge. If that’s done correctly there’s every chance the skills and knowledge of its officers will play a significant role in keeping violence at such a level as to avoid needing another military incursion.
Resisting the urge to militarise police forces is also critical. Such a course might look tempting in violent environments, especially should deaths begin to mount, but it represents a misunderstanding of the security issues of an insurgency. Levels of intense violence that resemble war should be matters for the military. But violence in an insurgency typically involves acts that a professional police force is trained to deal with. Attending to community concerns and grievances, investigating criminal activities, combating criminal and terrorist networks, and managing public disturbances are all matters police forces manage. To mitigate increased levels of violence, what is typically needed is the willingness to use police officers soundly grounded in a police culture and mindset. Those traits emphasise their role as peace-builders, not war-wagers, and their determination to administer the law fairly in the service of their community. That ensures increased levels of violence are dealt with appropriately, and done so without compromising the advantages a police force brings to COIN. The Specialist Response Group of the IDG is one such highly trained unit.
Finally, it’s important for police to identify and work with, and through, informal indigenous methods of law enforcement and justice in a manner that appreciates these local mechanisms—albeit without rewarding intimidation and coercion. The IDG has often faced criticism for relying on Western models when training law enforcement bodies in the host state. Particularly in more violence-prone nations where strong centralised government has not been a historical norm, the IDG needs a more flexible approach that accounts for the socio-cultural realities as they are on the ground. Identifying the right partners requires training in the specific culture of the host region. Cooperating with those partners might also mean accepting some standards we normally wouldn’t and therefore redefining what a successful intervention looks life. If that’s the case, so be it. COIN is ultimately about securing our own national security first, with societal change and indigenous police development a means and not an end.
Former US Ambassador to Afghanistan and conflict-veteran, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry eloquently lamented, ‘The typical 21-year old marine is hard-pressed to win the heart and mind of his mother-in-law; can he really be expected to do the same with an ethnocentric Pashtun tribal elder?’ Focusing on people is the bread and butter of police forces. Expanding the capacity of the IDG so that it is able to bring its expertise to bear in circumstances more risky and violent than it is used to builds on that fact. In the end, it is about matching the societal demands of an insurgency with the social functions of police.
Stephen Hindes works for the Australian Federal Police, within the Serious and Organised Crime Portfolio. These are his personal views. He would like to thank Wally Howard for his assistance in writing this article. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.