April 2, 2011

Gbagbo Fomenting Counter-Insurgency in Côte d'Ivoire

When a government designs a proper strategy to counter an insurgency, its ultimate objective aims for the populace’s approval. Support the people through legitimate means and they’re less likely to choose the insurgency willingly; alleviating the reasons to fight offers a more permanent solution than killing insurgents.

COIN that relies on brute force is no COIN at all, as popular resentment fuels the insurgency’s underground and its rise to the surface. And when the stronger force in an asymmetric war possesses comparable power to the weaker force, desperation can produce a counter-insurgency rather than counterinsurgency.

Unlike its counterpart in Libya, Côte d'Ivoire’s opposition recently completed a nationwide sweep of the country with minimal resistance from President Laurent Gbagbo’s forces. The invasion of Abidjan is attributed to two factors: mass defections from Gbagbo’s regular army, which he distrusts and marginalized in favor of his personal forces in Abidjan, and a relatively organized insurgency. Intense fighting in Abidjan has demonstrated the abilities of those fighting under disputed president Alassane Ouattara. Simultaneously targeting Gbagbo’s palace in downtown Abidjan, Ouattara’s allied Forces Nouvelles (FN) fanned out across the city to challenge Gbagbo’s military positions.

Sustained clashes have been reported several miles north in Adjamé, home of the Agban military base, at the RTI headquarters to southeast, further east in Gbagbo’s residential neighborhood of Cocody, and in the southern neighborhoods of Treichville, the Presidential forces stronghold, and Port-Bouet near the airport.

In contrast to Libya’s opposition, FN spent years formulating both a political platform and military hierarchy, establishing a more favorable position to secure decisive victory. They’ve followed the revolutionary blueprint that Libya’s rebels want to copy - a longer preparation period fosters political organization and enables rapid territorial gains. Kouakou Leon Alla, a spokesperson for Ouattara’s prime minister Guillaume Kigbafori Soro, released a statement declaring, "After the tremendous work throughout the interior of the country, the Republican Forces are reorganized to complete their noble mission.”

In addition to his premiership, Soro heads FN as Secretary-General and leads the Patriotic Movement of Côte d'Ivoire, FN’s main political component.

Despite Gbagbo’s rallying forces and their attempt to lock down Abidjan, the government’s counterattack is also likely to differ from Muammar Gaddafi’s semi-conventional assaults. As Ouattara slowly assumes the conventional party and its moral obligations, Gbagbo’s style of warfare is bound to degenerate into the unconventional, which appears to be only type of force he has left.

Although Gbagbo does possess pieces of a modern arsenal, such as rocket launchers, artillery pieces, helicopter gunships, and tanks, the core of his army remains largely irregular. Depending on the Presidential Guard, his "Young Patriots” militia commanded by firebrand Charles Ble Goude, and foreign mercenaries, Gbagbo cannot mount conventional attacks on the FN without exposing what’s left of his territory. And those troops that arrived to defend his palace arrived with two-by-fours and clubs, common weapons that still suggest Gbagbo is running low on munitions.

Now that FN invaded his final stronghold, Gbagbo just fulfilled a long-standing threat by calling upon his civilian supporters to wage “resistance.” This could result in extremely messy guerrilla warfare on both sides. Corinne Dufka, head of the West Africa office of Human Rights Watch, cautioned, “If there is to be fighting, it needs to be between armed men from one side and armed men from the other side."

A ethical sentiment, but far too conventional to describe Côte d'Ivoire’s current state.

While Dufka is speaking of human rights violations more than styles of warfare, her fears equally apply to the standards of asymmetry. Because Gbagbo lacks the forces to confront Ouattara’s own army, he’s resorted to isolated insurgent tactics of fear, propaganda, and ambush to extend his rule. Loyal forces prefer to operate at night as they kidnap and abuse Ouattara’s supporters, rather than face them openly in the streets.

Once that confrontation has spilled into the open, Gbagbo’s forces don’t hesitate to fire live rounds on civilians. But they often operate in roving bands similar to guerrilla units, firing and shelling indiscriminately to spread terror. If Gbagbo does attempt to push back into the north, he’s more likely to employ mobile warfare and subversive tactics than any semblance of a conventional assault.

Duékoué is one of those strategic towns, a key in Côte d'Ivoire's cocoa-growing region, and correspondingly suffered a large-scale civilian massacre. Further suppressive tactics would be less surprising than a comprehensive counter-attack.

FN’s rapid descent upon Abidjan comes with its pros and cons. Pushed to the brink, Gbagbo will drop all pretense of legitimacy and lash out in horrific fashion, resulting in a vicious urban battle for the city. Ouattara issued multiple ceasefires on Friday and Saturday to spare Gbagbo’s life, along with a statement that too much blood had already been spilled. Such an outcome in Abidjan, however, was inevitable so long as Gbagbo maintained his entrenched position.

Ouattara’s FN may produce a more satisfying result by minimizing the UN’s force requirements, and by keeping the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) out of the country. Although international legitimacy greatly aided his internal struggle, unassisted conquest will contribute to his legitimacy once he secures Abidjan and affirms his sovereignty over Côte d'Ivoire. But the war is by no means over.

Gbagbo may soon restart the cycle by becoming the insurgent himself.

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