Counterinsurgency & Emergency Management

by Roger Parrino & Terry Hastings

Counterinsurgency and emergency management are two seemingly unrelated concepts, yet they have a lot in common in terms of the strategies necessary to succeed. In each case, empowerment is the ultimate key to success. For counterinsurgency, it is about empowering the host country and, for emergency management, it is about empowering local jurisdictions. Although empowerment is the central theme, the strategies to achieve empowerment include diplomacy, relationship building, and trust.

Roger Parrino headshotAccording to the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency doctrine, counterinsurgency involves civilian and military efforts designed to defeat and contain insurgency and address its root causes. As it relates to the United States, counterinsurgency is generally an action that occurs overseas in response to some type of military conflict, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Emergency management, on the other hand, is most often a domestic activity aimed at preparing for, responding to, and recovering from some type of emergency or disaster. Although counterinsurgency and emergency management are very different, they require many of the same strategies and ultimately rely on empowering others to succeed.

Strategy 1: Diplomacy

Diplomacy is the ability to deal with people and understand the various personalities, processes, and politics necessary to navigate a situation. It involves understanding rules and customs and requires an ability to employ different tactics based on different situations, with the goal of negotiating a successful outcome. Knowing when to employ different approaches is the key, as some situations call for direct confrontation while others warrant a more subtle and nuanced course of action.

When engaged in counterinsurgency, diplomacy is critical as military officials often find themselves in hostile territory trying to differentiate friend from foe. One misread of a situation could alienate important allies and jeopardize the mission. The same holds for emergency management, especially when other agencies or levels of government are deployed in support of a local jurisdiction. For example, even if the state or federal government has the resources to assume control of the disaster, it is generally not a good idea to marginalize the local officials and more effective to include them in the decision-making process.

This is especially true in a home-rule state, such as New York, where local officials have significant authority. Effective emergency managers are able to quickly size up the situation and coordinate with the various agencies and jurisdictions, working to establish a unified command structure and common objectives. In doing so, they need to exercise diplomacy and manage the personalities, processes, and politics to get the job done.

Strategy 2: Relationship Building

Diplomacy is important because it is the pathway to relationship building. Since military might can only go so far, long-term success with counterinsurgency requires the ability to develop effective relationships in the host country. Military officials need relationships with local government agencies, tribal groups, nonprofit organizations, religious leaders, and many others. Likewise, emergency managers must take whole community approach when it comes to preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters.

In each case, the government is a key player but only part of the solution. Many public, private, and nongovernment organizations have important roles to play. Building relationships with various stakeholders takes time. However, when dealing with emergencies or counterinsurgency, agencies cannot afford to operate unilaterally. Accordingly, a premium must be placed on building relationships and alliances, ideally during “peace time” or before the emergency.

Roger Parrino with members of the Afghan Army in Nawzad, Afghanistan (Source: Roger Parrino, 2009).
Roger Parrino with members of the Afghan Army in Nawzad, Afghanistan (Source: Roger Parrino, 2009).

Strategy 3: Trust

Building effective relationships leads to trust, which may be the most important factor as it relates to the concept of empowerment. All disasters start and end locally, meaning that local agencies are generally the first to respond and the local community is left to manage the recovery long after the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other agencies are gone. The same holds true for counterinsurgency, in that the host country eventually is responsible for managing its affairs, and the occupying force seeks to play a diminished role over time.

In each case, the goal is not to take over the situation, rather it is to provide support and guidance to help others help themselves. The host country must trust the military and vice versa, and the same is true for emergency managers deployed to assist a local jurisdiction. Once trust is established, both sides can begin working together toward a common goal, whether responding to a disaster or helping a country restore order after an armed conflict.

Although very different in many ways, emergency management and counterinsurgency are similar when it comes to the strategies and skills necessary to succeed. Empowerment is the key for each effort. Having an open mind and willingness to learn from others is a hallmark of maturity. Therefore, as the discipline of emergency management continues to mature, it is important to continuously consider new ideas and approaches.

Roger Parrino (pictured above) is the commissioner of the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services (DHSES). Prior to joining DHSES, he most recently served as senior counselor to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. He has also worked as a civilian adviser to the U.S. Marine Corps, during which time he served four combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Terry Hastings is the senior policy advisor for DHSES and an adjunct professor for the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the State University of New York at Albany.