Small Wars Journal

Counterinsurgency and the Internally Displaced: Aligning Doctrine with Reality

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In COIN operations, internally displaced person and refugee security may take on heightened military importance. Traumatized and dislocated persons may become vulnerable to insurgent threats and recruitment.                       -U.S. Army COIN Manual FM 3-24, 8-41.

The area of humanitarian relief, in particular the subject of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) receives scant attention within the U.S. Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, FM 3-24 (FM 3-24). The manual’s relative reticence in this regard is quite surprising given the empirical and logical relationship between COIN operations on the one hand and the widespread displacement of people on the other. United States’ two recent COIN campaigns illustrate this very relationship. In Iraq, where approximately one out of ten Iraqis is displaced, two-thirds of the 3 million were displaced since 2003, most of them (close to 1.8 million) since 2006.[1] In Afghanistan close to 730,00 people have been internally displaced since 2006 according to the UN and ICRC estimates, an average of 400 a day. Most of the “documented displacements” in Afghanistan have occurred as a result of “offensives by international forces.”[2]

The Field Manual’s inadequate treatment of this subject is even more surprising if we consider the fact that COIN is fought amongst the population (FM 3-24, 2-6) and “in counterinsurgency operations, the human terrain is the decisive terrain.”[3] A 2010 report on the IDPs in Southern Afghanistan provides evidence of how the lack of doctrinal attention to the subject of humanitarian relief might play out in the field.

Broader protection concerns, particularly the plight of IDPs affected by counterinsurgency and counter-terrorist operations involving Afghan National Security Forces and international military forces, remain somewhat invisible and largely unacknowledged...the range of consequences of large-scale forced internal displacement as a result of increased military activities is not yet being fully considered by all international military actors.”[4]

IDPs and Refugees in the COIN Manual

[Regarding command and control relationships with other multinational contingents, t]he Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff asked me…‘The lines in your command chart, the command relationships, what are they? OpCon [operational control]? TaCon [tactical control]? Command?’ ‘Sir, we don’t ask,because no one can sign up to any of that stuff.’ ‘Well, how do you do business?’ ‘Hand Shake Con. That’s           it.’ No memoranda of agreement. No memoranda of understanding.… [T]he relationships are worked out  on the scene, and they aren’t pretty. And you don’t really want to try to capture them,…distill them, and say          as you go off in the future, you’re going to have this sort of command relationship…. [I]t is Hand Shake Con and that’s the way it works. It is consultative. It is behind-the-scene.”[5]

The above conversation was related by General Anthony C. Zinni regarding his command and control arrangements during Operation Provide Comfort (6 April - 24 July, 1991). It appears in FM 3-24 to underscore the importance of striving for “maximum unity of effort” during COIN operations. The importance of achieving “unity of effort” is highlighted by reference to command and control relations in the area of humanitarian relief efforts. This is done with an acknowledgement of the rather messy nature of these relations and the difficulty associated with devising any set memoranda of agreement and understanding to guide future action.

The area of humanitarian relief, in particular topics like IDPs and refugees do not receive adequate attention in the COIN manual. On the few occasions on which FM 3-24 references IDPs and refugees it is more as an afterthought and as a task to be taken care by forces other than counterinsurgents. In the words of the author of the above cited study on IDPs in Southern Afghanistan, “the possible negative repercussion of increased levels of population displacement is at times an afterthought in some of the current political and military discourse.”[6]

There is extensive discussion of civilian and military integration mechanisms and interagency coordination with an acknowledgment of the challenges associated with working with other organizations. The division of labor assumption is based on the premise that the non-military organizations have access to the affected population, be they displaced or refugees. The discussion of the clear-hold-build strategy (5-51) also occurs without any reference to the possible implication of population movement and/or displacement. The underlying assumptions appear to be that either the population is not displaced while an area is being cleared of insurgents or if they are displaced, it is only for a short while. Empirical evidence from Iraq and Afghanistan runs contrary to all of the above assumptions.

The manual points to the Logical Lines of Operations (LLOs) with civilian organizations (2-8), as well as to overcome unity of command challenges resulting from competing logics of intervention and the possible contradictions between the mandate/agenda of the organizations involved (2-12). Military’s role is identified as essentially performing stability operations to enable and facilitate the efforts of nonmilitary participants such as non government and intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations, OCHA and UNHCR (2-17). This notion of division of labor is supported by discussion of functional skills needed for interagency and Host Nation (HN) coordination. The manual acknowledges dislocated civilians as an example of “progress indicators” for assessment of COIN operations:

The number, population and demographics of dislocated civilian camps or the lack thereof are a resultant indicator of overall security and stability. A drop in the number of people in the camps indicates an        increasing return to normalcy. People and families exiled from or fleeing their homes and property and people returning to them are measurable and revealing.           -U.S. Army COIN Manual FM 3-24, 5-98.

The problem with such a formulation of a “progress indicator” is that it focuses on the “pull” rather than the “push” factor related to COIN and IDPs. The indicator for success in COIN is measured by the number of returning IDPs. What is not considered is that the COIN operations themselves can lead to displacing (pushing) people out of their areas. Acknowledging the “push” factors associated with a COIN operation can help the counter insurgent better prepare for where possible avoiding or mitigating the displacement resulting from their activities.

Interestingly, this “push” factor is acknowledged later on in the manual, although the responsibility for causing displacement is laid on the insurgents and insurgency rather then COIN operations. This is accompanied with the assertion that “it is best to provide essential services to people in their native areas and thereby discourage their displacement.” This is done in the section that offers the most detailed discussion, albeit in a paragraph, of the IDPs in COIN:

An insurgency often creates many groups of internally displaced persons and refugees on short notice.

Attending to internally displaced person and refugee needs can quickly become an urgent logistic requirement. Planners draw on all essential services to provide secure emergency shelter, camps for internally displaced persons and refugees, and life support (food, water, and medical care).  Nongovernmental organizations and other civilian agencies normally furnish this support to internally         displaced persons and refugees. However, conditions may prevent these agencies from providing these services quickly. Furthermore, in COIN operations, internally displaced person and refugee security may   take on heightened military importance. Traumatized and dislocated persons may become vulnerable to insurgent threats and recruitment. The restoration and maintenance of public transportation services can      help internally displaced persons and refugees.. As a general rule, it is best to provide essential services to people in their native areas and thereby discourage their displacement.

                                    -U.S. Army COIN Manual FM 3-24, 8-41.

While holding the insurgency as responsible for the creation of IDPs, the manual points to the challenges posed by the logistical demands created by the displacement of people, and identifies NGOs and civilian agencies as the entities who should provide essential services to IDPs and refugees. Although there is an acknowledgment that under certain conditions these agencies may be prevented from providing these services. The role of the counterinsurgent forces is essentially to support and to create conditions such as restoring and maintaining public transportation services to allow the NGOs and other civilian agencies to provide services to the displaced.

Lastly, in the “logistic preparation of the counterinsurgency area of operations” section (8-7) the manual cites “potential or existing dislocated civilian requirements” as an example of the essential information requirements associated with COIN logistic planning. However, what caused or might potentially cause the dislocation of civilians is not discussed in this section.  

Possible Explanations/Hypotheses

What accounts for the COIN doctrine’s inadequate attention towards the issue of IDPs and refugees? Furthermore, what explains the manual’s inability to understand and/or explain how COIN operations themselves might lead to displacing people, as has been evidenced in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Following are some key explanations/hypotheses to consider as a starting point:

·         Difficulty associated with devising a universal memorandum of agreement and understanding to guide future action. As a result, the manual refrains from providing a detailed template to guide action. In practice this means that every situation calls for a unique solution that will have to be figured out on ongoing basis -- the handshake-con notion articulated by Gen. Anthony Zinni.

·         Disconnect between military security and human security fields. This may explain the division of labor approach discussed in the manual which requires the counterinsurgent forces to create conditions that allow humanitarian organizations to come in and address the needs of IDPs and refugees. This notion of division of labor is also informed by the need to avoid being criticized for mixing humanitarian activities with military activities, as quite often they are informed by competing logics of intervention. 

·         Inadequate understanding of the outcomes resulting from COIN operations. In particular, how do the COIN operations impact the Area of Operation (AO), which in turn may require modifying strategy and tactics to adjust to the changes in the environment. The COIN manual’s reticence in this respect may be an outcome of the difficulty associated with understanding change, a familiar challenge in social science. 

·         Inadequate understanding of the causes of internal displacement. Currently, the manual lays the primary onus on insurgency. Since COIN operations are not seen as causing displacement, the issue of IDPs and refugees is not discussed at great length. When it is discussed, it is primarily in the context of creating conditions for relief agencies to come in and address the IDP and refugee needs.

Improved understanding of the relationship between COIN operations and how they impact IDP and refugees is necessary both to align the doctrine with the realities on the ground as well as to help the counterinsurgents prepare for and implement their operations effectively. Reducing instances of displacement and effectively rehabilitating the internally displaced can contribute to winning the trust of the “population,” which after all “is not only the field of battle but also the prize” in counter insurgency.[7]

[1]  Iraq Overview: Political wrangling leaves around 2.8 million displaced Iraqis with no durable solutions in

sight, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) & Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), 14 December 2010.

[2] Afghanistan Overview: Need to minimise new displacements and increase protection for recently displaced in remote area, Internal Displacement Centre (IDMC) & Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), 11 April 2011.

[3] General David Petraeus, Confirmation hearings to be International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Commander in Afghanistan, June 29, 2010.

[4] Beyond the Blanket: Towards More Effective Protection for Internally Displaced Persons in Southern Afghanistan, Brookngs-Bern Project on Internal Displacement / Tribal Liaison Office (BI/TLO), May 2010.

[5]The U.S. Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5, Chapter 2: Unity of Effort: Integrating Civilian and Military Activities, pp. 2-3.

[6] Beyond the Blanket: Towards More Effective Protection for Internally Displaced Persons in Southern Afghanistan.

‘Underkill’: Fighting Extremists amid Populations, David C. Gompert, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, vol. 51, no. 2, April-May 2009, pp. 159-174.


About the Author(s)

Ali Hayat has planned, designed and managed international qualitative and quantitative research projects and evaluations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan including in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon, The Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Algeria, Mali, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel and Georgia. He recently returned from a field trip to Southern Pakistan where he conducted a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threat (SWOT) analysis for an international NGO. Earlier this year he successfully completed the Human Terrain Systems (HTS) training as a Social Scientist in Leavenworth, Kansas. He has worked on diverse research projects on post-conflict governance and stabilization, civil wars and insurgencies, counter insurgency and development for government, non-government, and international clients.



Sun, 05/26/2013 - 4:23am

HA is the purview of the Civil Affairs branch. 3-24 doesn't (to my mind) have agency over humanitarian assistance.

Look at 3-57 for more. HTS should be teaching this subtle difference, and if they are not, perhaps you can suggest it to them.

We (civil affairs et al) have moved "on beyond Zinni"; much of what you assert here as less-than-optimal is, in fact, not being done the way you might think at the BSO/PRT level. While the board of directors concept might be seen as violating the Principal of War known as Unity of Command, it has been working with varying degrees of success in many provinces.

You may want to add Keohane and Nye's work on complex interdependency to your reading list. They posit that, as you might suspect, military action tends to decrease stability between agencies (states).

Check your email for a file from me on CI theory. tom


Sun, 05/26/2013 - 4:12am


The COIN manual is doctrine, for COIN. I think when you start linking COIN doctrine to causes of IDPs you are using the wrong book. Other branches of the US military deal with the relationships between cause and effect of IDPs. Civil Affairs comes to mind, as does Military Police. Not a fan of the COIN manual but perhaps we need to remember this paraphrase from Winston Churchill, when he spoke of Democracy:

"FM 3-24 is the worst form of counterinsurgency doctrine, except for all the others."


Kristen S

Mon, 10/24/2011 - 7:17pm

The other piece of COIN recognized within FM 3-24 that fails to address IDPs and refugees is the significance of foreign sanctuaries and their influence on the population movements of the area. Not only do nearby countries offer space for fighters as well as logistical support, the movement of people to refugee camps disrupts the traditional structures within villages, causing power to be redistributed amongst who remains. This makes the question of whom to engage particularly difficult for forces conducting COIN. If these forces only engage those who have remained in the village but have no interaction with those who have fled, it makes return extremely difficult for IDPs and refugees. Resulting power struggles can re-fracture a society if the total population is only partially engaged. Additonally, insurgents know how to take advantage of the international refugee regime. Ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan there has been evidence of mujahideen and other fighters dropping their families off in the refugee camps of Pakistan so they are free to fight in Afghanistan while their families are looked after. This generates additional support from within that third-country sanctuary unknowingly subsidized by the international community.

-Also, anyone know how to contact the author of this paper? It seems as if our professional interests closely coincide and I'd like to chat sometime.

Mike in Hilo

Mon, 10/24/2011 - 1:30am

However, it ought to be recognized that population displacement was a key COIN tactic in earlier conflicts, whether by cordon, transport and resettle, as in Malaya and Algeria, or by that and also flight from bombing, as in Vietnam. Experience in the latter conflict would urge caution regarding the author's suggestion that return of the IDP's is a useful indicator of improved security. There, "Return to Village" by IDPs was often disappointing in this regard. This is because the areas in question were usually evacuated in the first place because they were under VC domination, often because they abutted terrain-determined (e.g., swamp or jungle), historically perennial enemy base or mini-base areas. When the IDPs subsequently returned from the refugee camps (with host gov't assistance at CORDS's enthusiastic urging)to these relatively isolated, remote areas, they once again found themselves in close proximity to enemy combat units, which were by now reconstituting in these base areas, pari passu with the unilateral US draw-down.The returning villagers would find it hard to resist enemy extortion, much less enemy purchase of rice and POL well above the market price. A nexus was reestablished between the combat units outside the population and remaining VCI, often VC family members.