That phrase became famous during Viet Nam, when the US created strategic hamlets in some areas of Viet Nam to protect the villagers from the predations of the Viet Cong. It was actually somewhat successful where it was used, but our understanding of counterinsurgency was incomplete and we substituted counter-guerrilla for counterinsurgent a lot, reaping commensurate results. We do a lot of that now, and it's part of the reason that Afghanistan is in such shape. That's a long story, but history will prove this assertion correct.
The Conservatives, as Andrew Bacevich describes them, will argue otherwise, as they are doing currently about Iraq, claiming that the Anbar awakening would have happened regardless of what the Army and Marines did there. They claim that the awakenings were a spontaneous and newfound revulsion for al Qaeda and its ilk. Of course, that's poppycock (twice in two days...) as the Sunni awakening had everything to do with what the counterinsurgents were doing in those areas. The fact that some of this happened pre-surge is simply a demonstration that when COIN is done right, good things happen. Also a long story.
What makes insurgents hard to catch is that they, obviously, look just like everyone else. They do their deeds and melt into the background. They don't wear uniforms and they usually don't have bases with the insurgent flag flying above them. They depend on the cooperation of the people for this maintenance of obscurity. The insurgent obtains this cooperation through a number of methods. These methods may be simultaneous, but they usually include appeals to the needs of the people and some form of coercion. They will kill a few people to demonstrate that the government can't protect them. They assassinate local officials, often government functionaries and police. This demonstrates that cooperating with or working for the government is hazardous to your health. Only the most patriotic or those who depend most upon the corruption will serve as part of the government. Only the most committed will even whisper the identities of insurgents to the forces of order. The only way to assure the safety of yourself and your family is to become either a passive or an active supporter of the insurgent.
Most people just want to live their lives in peace, so they will go along with the whole thing passively. That means that if a group of insurgents show up demanding food, it is handed over without dickering. They won't risk telling the government or its agents anything that may cause trouble. They become part of their own problem. Some will become active supporters either out of ambition to be part of the new order or because they are swayed by the insurgent message, which is designed to appeal to the people in some way; in this case religiously. The government can make things worse by being a poor government. The Afghan government is certainly adding to their own problems. We are most often not interfering with the corruption and misuse of resources that add to the insurgent's strength by verifying his message.
It is at this point that inept would-be counterinsurgents spend a lot of time "chasing ghosts." They try to track down the insurgents kinetically. This reversion to counter-guerrilla warfare instead of counterinsurgency is often referred to by the poor counterinsurgent as COIN, but don't be fooled; it is not COIN in and of itself. They will experience some successes, and good COIN does include some counter-guerrilla activities, but it is not COIN. This is often what we are doing these days, and the results show. Chase some insurgents, do a few projects, drop off a few bales of HA (Humanitarian Aid) and you're a great COIN operator, right?
Not. This is a conversation had often in Afghanistan:
American: "We dug you a new well, had a new school built, and gave your kids winter jackets, but you say you don't know who keeps shooting at us!(or planting bombs)"
Afghan: "What am I do do? You come here once a week and they are here every night!"
American: "Tell us who they are and we'll take care of them for you."
Afghan thinking: "And then you will leave and I will wind up slaughtered like a sheep before you come back next week."
Afghan: "We don't know who they are. They just leave night letters, or they wear masks."
American: "Bullshit. You know who they are. How can we help you if you won't help yourselves?"
Good counterinsurgency works to relieve the people of the need to go along with the insurgent just to exist without fear of reprisal. This is the provision of security that we keep hearing about... staying where the people are and owning the night. Most of that is being present, and it's most often boring. Good COIN works to solve the issues that the insurgent exploits to gather support and proclaim the righteousness of his cause; so long as that doesn't damage the government's cause. These are issues such as corruption or unprofessional police in the neighborhoods. This is hard, frustrating work that requires uncompromising patience and persistence. These two efforts work to separate the fish from the water; and they work, when they are done right. Otherwise, the insurgent gains strength and begins to render the government more and more irrelevant to the daily lives of the populace.
Eventually a "shadow government" is formed. Initially, the shadow governor and his minions will be in title only... a symbol and nothing more. As the insurgency gains strength in an area, weakens the government and solidifies its sway over the people, the shadow government works to provide essential services to demonstrate its authority; to establish itself as the legitimate government in that area. This is a very serious problem for the government, and this is what we are seeing in parts of Afghanistan.
But sometimes the insurgent can go too far. This is likely not an example of good COIN, but an example of an insurgent mistake. They overreached and paid the price.
I could be wrong. There could have been good COIN done that made the people feel like they could stand up to the insurgents. That happens in spots. "In spots" isn't going to bring success in Afghanistan. Poor COIN is what needs to be done "in spots," and failures need to be rewarded with retarded career growth and not medals. It needs to be the exception and not the rule. It's not the Soldier's fault. It's not even the junior leaders. The average junior NCO (Staff Sergeant and below) have never heard of Galula and have probably never even physically seen a copy of FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency.
I'm probably not wrong. The anti-Taliban commander, Hazrat Ali, is probably who is making the people feel empowered to take a stand. If the Taliban manage to kill that guy the locals are screwed.
All the while the Army keeps preparing for the mythical WW-III, neglecting to train the junior leaders and Soldiers in the doctrine that they are expected to execute in this shooting war... other than to hear the word, "COIN" so often it makes them sick.
In the meantime, every once in great while, some villagers will get fed up or insurgents will cross a line and will get hammered; not because of us but in spite of us.