Heed the Petraeus Doctrine to end the southern insurgency

opinion February 28, 2013 00:00

By Pornpimol Kanchanalak

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With Thailand poised to sign a "political agreement" with the Barasi Revolusi Nasional, or BRN Coordinate, during the visit of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to Malaysia at the end of this week, it is fair to ask the question if the move is a s

The Thai side will be represented by Lieutenant-General Paradon Pattanatabutra, secretary-general of the National Security Council of Thailand, while the BRN Coordinate will be represented by the private secretary of Hassan Toryip, deputy general of that organisation

While it is commendable that the Thai government appears to be making efforts to end the insurgency and the ever-growing list of casualties in the deep South, the signing is at best untimely and at worst unworkable as far as being a first step to ending the bloodshed.
Much has been said and written about the armed conflict and the key players in the separatist movement in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces. Many people in the know have given up trying to make a difference because they have lost the political will, do not have winning policies, or advantages on their side on which they can rely for support. Governments come and go, and with each administration there are changes in tactics and policies. There has not been any coherent or visionary strategy on the part of any Thai government. Meanwhile the violence escalates in terms of frequency, severity and boldness. 
This is not to say that there is much coordination between and among the various separatist groups either.  They too operate in an ad hoc manner, and each cell operates independently. Each to their own, and they want to keep it that way. It is simply wrong to say that these groups and their power centre remain static. 
The BRN Coordinate may have been the largest and at one time the most respected player, but its leaders are outside of Thailand and their influence has been waning as the newer and younger cells on the ground perceive them as being out of touch.
One way to get a glimpse of the strategic clarity, or lack thereof, is to consider a more extreme case in terms of political and military complexity – Iraq after Saddam Hussein was toppled by the United States and the country was left in tatters. Insurgencies flared up everywhere as the US military went through its severest crisis in a generation, caught as it was in the Iraq War quagmire.
At times, the war in Iraq appeared unwinnable. Then came a general named David Petraeus with a big idea that relied on “small wars” against insurgents and terrorists. These are wars that are far different from tank-on-tank combat. They are wars that require not just fighting, but “nation-building”. They are wars that most of the top generals of his day did not even regard as wars.
His strategy has three cornerstones: seize, hold and build – spot by spot, pocket of area by pocket of area, territory by territory. They are the “dots” that will later connect.  
The most illustrating analogy for these territories would be droplets of oil or water. Petraeus and his armies would seize small areas of unrest, secure and occupy them, and then start rebuilding them. 
The goal is for the people in each territory to regain hope for a normal life and development. Once there was hope, Petraeus found that people began to cooperate more. Hope, after all, is the best strategic element in counter-insurgency efforts. 
Hope is how the military can win back the hearts and minds of locals, to fight insurgents and separatists, and it cannot be achieved simply by providinghandouts. No goodies are good enough without hope. 
Under the “Petraeus Doctrine”, as it is now known, the emphasis of warfare shifted from “force protection” to “securing the population”. Force protection is still a component, but it is no longer the only component in the equation.
Then Petraeus connected the spots and territories, and just like the droplets of oil or water when they connect, they are more meaningful when they come together than when they are apart.
In order to “secure the population” Petraeus established and maintained a persistent military presence by living among the population, separating “reconcilable” Iraqis from “irreconcilable” enemies, relentlessly pursuing the enemy, taking back sanctuaries and holding areas that had been cleared, continuing to develop Iraq’s security forces and supporting local securities forces. These were then integrated into the Iraqi army and police and other employment programmes. Increasing the number of stakeholders, he said, was critical to success.
General Petraeus was known for his reversal of the old sarcastic dictum for “Nato” – “No Action, Talk Only”. He took action even before asking. However, Petraeus and his big idea of small wars could not have succeeded to the extent that it did had it not been for Washington signing up to his idea. Fortunately, the president agreed to go along and Washington finally saw the day when the majority of its troops could leave Iraq.
Most importantly, Petraeus, with his Princeton doctorate and reputation as a “warrior scholar”, finally taught a lesson in how to strike the best balance of hard and soft power, in a terrain as treacherous as Iraq after the US invasion of 2003.
General Petraeus contended that there was a “half-life” on the US military role in Iraq. “You wear out your welcome at some point. It doesn’t matter how helpful you are. We are not here to stay.” He wanted the local population to see the foreign military force as an army of liberation, not of occupation.
Now, we should turn around and ask ourselves if we have a cerebral and visionary strategy of a similar kind in place and at work before jumping ahead to the major step of signing a “political agreement” with separatist groups.
If the answer is no, it should not take place.