Reversing the Oil-spot


Possibly winding off the Thursday/Friday War for 2012, a short item from Josh Wineera wondering what the reverse side of the popular COIN theory of the inkspot might look like in 2014…

Reversing the Oil-spot:How does the concept apply when leaving Afghanistan?

Josh Wineera

November 2012

inkspot

For professional military planners, and even armchair strategist, the oil-spot concept for responding to an insurgency appears to be well understood. The counter insurgent objective of extending the security environment to establish and entrench a sustainable economic and political situation has been a particular feature of the latter stages of the War in Afghanistan. Conceived some 100 years ago by French Army Generals, Gallieni and Lyautey, the modern oil-spot concept is expressed in the form of a ‘Clear, Hold and Build’ strategy. Clear, Hold and Build has been the mainstay of ISAF coalition operations since the release of the 2006 US Army field manual, FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency Operations.

Afghanistan experts have fiercely debated the merits of fighting the enemy, aka the Taliban, verses focusing on protecting the population. Recent ISAF commanders, such as Generals McChrystal, Petraeus and Allen, all recognised the necessity to engage in both. Kill-capture missions sit aside missions such as training and mentoring Afghan security forces – such is the nature of contemporary counterinsurgency operations.

As the exit date rapidly approaches for coalition governments to withdraw their forces, plaudits for the successful application of the oil-spot approach still proliferate. Manifestly the surge of an additional 30,000 troops in early 2010 provided better force ratios and counterinsurgent density to implement the expansion in to previously held Taliban-strongholds. At this time however, with transition and withdrawal leading every major conversation about Afghanistan, a natural question arises.

Having applied the concept, moving forward has any thought been given to what happens when the oil-spot concept ceases, or rather the ISAF forces contract and concentrate to leave? Granted, a critical precondition to leaving has to be the successful training of the Afghan Army and Police forces to take full responsibility for their own community’s internal security. They after all, are the most important counter insurgent force in Afghanistan – a point often missed. Regardless, the degree of their success is still open for debate. One measure has been the quantity of Afghan security forces being trained. As to the quality, plainly numbers do not convey the whole story. Recent insider attacks, known colloquially as a ‘green on blue’ incident, have placed immense pressure on the trust and confidence within those partnered ISAF and Afghan units. It would be unfair to generalise these extreme tensions across the whole country. In many places, such as the Arghandab River Valley in the Kandahar Province, conditions are in place to enable the Afghans to take the lead. Certainly in his address to the US Army Irregular Warfare Centre last month, former ISAF battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Michael Simmering explained the rational for his unit’s achievements.

Having expanded the security environment, in many cases literally being the outlier force, ISAF strategists and even regionally based planners must surely be conceiving a plan to reverse the oil-spot concept? Ideally, the full extent of ISAF control of the environment is manageable for the Afghan forces but common sense would suggest they are in for a very tough time. The absence of ISAF will almost certainly be a cue for prospective power brokers to demonstrate their credentials for control. In some provinces this demonstration has already begun.

Drawing back to a concentration area, or a central hub, for departure might seem like a logical method to reduce the ISAF footprint in the provinces. For this to be achieved an assumption would need to be made in terms of the previously held (by ISAF) security zone remaining intact. That is an assumption that will hold up in some provinces, for others it will remain questionable – certainly a major risk consideration. Possibly some ISAF contingents might contemplate holding the outer security areas in place and hollowing out the main force from the rear first. The last element to withdraw would be the outer security forces having provided a ‘shield’. Military proponents would recognise these two options as merely tactical methods of withdrawing from a main defensive position, and so they are. Could they however, become the basis to start conceptualising and visualising what ISAFs oil spots could look like in reverse?

For those ISAF soldiers still patrolling their area of operations, the time for theoretical conceptions matters little. Familiar tactical tasks, such as the options to withdraw or allowing the Afghan security forces to relive them in place, may not be considered particularly elegant or intellectually innovative. But they, in some way, will feature in every planning consideration. So might a new metaphor be coined to explain reversing the oil-spot? In an age where anything can be rebranded and often is, where the old can be made new age again, the likelihood is high.

___________________

Major Josh Wineera is a serving military officer on secondment to the Centre for Defence and Security Studies,Massey University. He can be contacted at j.wineera@massey.ac.nz

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies or the New Zealand Defence Force.

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