concept of victory is crucial for this discussion since this essay seeks to
address whether exclusively military solutions to insurgencies lead to the
ending of the conflict. Here, victory for the counterinsurgents is defined as
the achievement of long-lasting political stability and absence of violence
stemming from the insurgents (Mandel, 2006, pp.139-140). For the purposes of
this essay, counterinsurgency missions are divided into two categories:
enemy-centric and population-centric operations (Kilcullen, 2007). The former
refers to counterinsurgencies where the military is the sole, or at least the
leading factor in all operations. These missions rely overly on kinetic
approaches since the ultimate goal of the campaign is the total elimination of
the insurgency movement (Kilcullen, 2007). Such kinds of operations often do
not seek to engage the civilian population, or are not focused on any
socio-political solutions to the root causes of the insurgency. On the other
hand, in population-centric counterinsurgency operations the military still
plays a key role, but there are great efforts made in order to balance military
action with political, economic and social endeavours addressing the conflict
(Kilcullen, 2007). In such types of campaigns, the function of the military
usually expands from its ordinary tasks to the provision of support operations
to humanitarian and socio-political responsibilities, often in joint operations
with the other law enforcement units of the state. The goal of population-centric
approaches in counterinsurgency is to isolate and protect the civilians from
both the influence of the insurgents and the threat they might pose to the
ordinary people (Jardine, 2012). The local population needs to be convinced of
the significance of the counterinsurgency and most importantly its commitment
to the campaign. As Mao Zedong has compared insurgents to ‘fishes’ which are
‘swimming’ in the ‘sea’ of popular support, counterinsurgents need to focus on
decreasing the assistance and approval the local population grants to the
rebels so as to break the backbone of the insurgency (Nagl, 2010, p.161). As to
Robert Thompson (1966), there are a few but vital points to be followed in
every counterinsurgency doctrine: efforts at the preservation of state’s
legitimacy and political capacity, abidance by the law, and focus not only on
the military aspect of counterinsurgency, but also on the political, economic,
and social elements. In other words, the counterinsurgency campaign has to
secure its operational bases and territory, but at the same time address the
grievances and the politics of resolving them, while balancing all these
aspects with its respective military means. The preparedness to lead a
potential prolonged conflict and not to lose the political and military will is
also quintessential (Thompson, 1966). Thus, it can be argued that the
population-centric approach is more comprehensive than the enemy-centric
approach; still, victory in counterinsurgency is dependent on a diverse range
RAND Corporation Report
Paths to Victory:
Lessons from Modern Insurgencies
has provided an extensive comparative
analysis of counterinsurgency efforts from WWII to present (Paul et al., 2013).
The report focuses on 59 cases, which have been divided into two categories:
‘Iron Fist’ - covering the definition of enemy-centric approach in this
discussion – and ‘Motive-Based’ – covering the definition of population -
centric approach in this discussion – (Paul et al., 2013, pp. xx-xxi). The key
finding of the report is that in 44 of the cases where enemy-centric approaches
were prevalent, the success rate of the insurgents over the counterinsurgents
was 61% (27 of the cases), while in the 15 cases where population-centric
approaches were predominant, counterinsurgents were defeated only in 4
instances (Paul et al., 2013, p.79). The findings of this analysis will serve
as the basis of the argument that even if it is possible to resolve
insurgencies solely with military force, the vast majority of ‘success stories’
in counterinsurgency operations has relied not only on military means, but on
comprehensive strategies involving social, political and economic aspects. A
discussion on the implications and the reasons why overall population-centric
approaches have higher success rates than enemy-centric ones will aim to point
at the wide spectrum of determinants of the outcome of the counterinsurgency
campaign. It should also be noted that approaches are defined on the basis of
whether the predominant time of the conflict enemy-centric or
population-centric modus operandi have been applied.
How to achieve
victory? – A discussion
occur in various and different forms of warfare, from guerrilla to terrorism,
but always need popular support to be effective (Hoffman, 2006). Governments
confronting such cases of instability adopt a strategy to deal with the
situation, a decision which should be based primarily on two components: first,
the ability of the government to successfully assess the circumstances and the
environment in which it has to operate a counterinsurgency campaign, and
second, the relationship between the government/military and the civilian
population (Shafer, 1988). In addition, there is often interplay between the
components, in the sense that the civilians may deem the government
illegitimate or the civilian population can be extremely divided in relation to
government policies and the cause of the insurgents. One should bear in mind
that public opinion is not constant and, while a country is experiencing an
insurgency, the government should be cautious about the policies it takes so as
not to create backlashes (Taber, 2002). We should note that the regime type is
not of central importance in this discussion since autocracies can be equally
good at solving insurgencies, and democracies can be disastrous in their
counterinsurgency operations. For instance, in the case of Peru and the fight
against the Shining Path which began in the 1980s, it was not until the highly
controversial and authoritarian rule of Alberto Fujimori in 1992 that the
counterinsurgency doctrine was revised and some progress was made. The administrations
before had relied exclusively on military approaches, while Fujimori managed to
embark on a more population-centric approach, which ultimately won him the
victory over the Shining Path (McCormick, 1990). If we take governments as
rational agents, making decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis, then we can
expect their approach to the insurgents to be determined by a wide range of
economic, social and political considerations. On the other hand, more liberal
states such as Turkey in its counterinsurgency campaign against the Kurdistan
Workers Party focused exclusively on military force to squash the insurgents
(Metelits, 2010). Both Peru and Turkey achieved victory in their
counterinsurgency campaigns disregarding their type of government and the
counterinsurgency approach they took.
the fact that victory of the counterinsurgents proves not to be conditional
solely on the approach used, there are some central determinants of the
‘success stories’ that need to be addressed. One important factor is the
capabilities of the military; what is meant by capabilities, is, namely, the
military capacity of the armed forces and also the ability of the military to
adapt to the irregular nature of insurgencies (Kilcullen, 2009, p. 23). This
aspect is essential in both enemy and population-centric approaches. In the
former, the military has to have the capacity to destroy the insurgents and
outwit their irregular tactics, which can be a difficult task to achieve due to
the fact that often militaries are not trained to fight in such asymmetric
conflicts (Kilcullen, 2009). In population-centric counterinsurgency campaigns,
the military might need to take responsibilities such as supporting the law
enforcement forces, aiding in the distribution of humanitarian assistance and
other roles, which are substantially different from the basic task of fighting
wars. Counterinsurgents need good military equipment and also the ability to
distinguish the type of force and the right time to be applied so as not to dissuade
the population from their sympathy for the counterinsurgency. In Chechnya
(1994-1996), the Russian conventional armed forces were inexperienced in
leading an asymmetric conflict; the Russian counterinsurgency defeat in
Chechnya showed the vulnerability of the Russian army to unexpected assaults on
military equipment, vehicles and personnel (Kramer, 2004/2005).
important point to be considered is the counterinsurgency doctrine and the
approach taken; it is crucial for the counterinsurgents to recognize the
specificities of the conflict environment and to adapt strategy accordingly.
For instance, the British in Malaya (1948-1960) focused on an enemy-centric
approach initially, but this course of action generated huge losses for them.
‘Winning the hearts and minds of the population’ strategy, or the
population-centric approach, made it possible for the British to collaborate
with the local population for intelligence purposes and, with the appropriate
technology, to isolate Communist guerrillas, cutting off food and equipment
supplies and convincing the locals that they are better off not joining the
insurgents (Stubbs, 2008). Careful relocation of Chinese Malayan and
well-staged propaganda campaign made it possible to separate the insurgents (Carruthers,
1995). The lower the support for the rebels, the easier it will be for
counterinsurgency to crack down the insurgency. The jungle terrain which made
it impossible for British troops to fight the guerrillas at first, turned
against the insurgents once they were cut off from food supplies and equipment,
which greatly impaired their sustenance.
demonstrated in the British experience from Malaya, territory and its
population are key for counterinsurgents because their primary task is to deter
insurgents from self-governance, ensure the population is secure and limit its
connection to the insurgents. However, hard terrain such as unreachable
mountains, jungles and swamps could be difficult to keep under close
supervision and control (Gompert and Gordon, 2008). The ‘hearts and minds’
approach (here used interchangeably with population-centric approach) addresses
the need for counterinsurgency to regain the loyalty of the people who have
tendencies to or are alienated from the government, so as to ensure the country
is still under central authority’s control. The main focus is on economic and
social improvements, while the military has a supplementary role for small
operations mainly for the provision of security (Kilcullen, 2010). Victory in
counterinsurgency campaigns requires well-managed collaboration and
coordination between the military and the civilians on the ground so that basic
operations like intelligence gathering, policing and training could be
achieved. Counterinsurgency endeavours, be they enemy or population-centric,
are more about cross-organizational cooperation, coordination and collective
decision-making than solely a military deployment. The counterinsurgency effort
in Afghanistan seems to prove this point most vividly; the civil-military and
politico-military relations in the war-torn country have been contradictory at
best. In fact, the interplay between the International Security Assistance
Force (ISAF), the Karzai Administration and other major stakeholders has been
riddled by miscommunication, misinformation and marred by discrepancies in
relation to tactics and the execution of operations and reforms (Eikenberry,
2013). As a result, in spite of military successes, the counterinsurgency
effort in Afghanistan lacks the cohesiveness and collaboration with the Afghan
government and other sections of its society, which would guarantee a truly
joint venture in stabilising the country.
Thus, the Afghan case demonstrates the idea that collaboration and
coordination are crucial for a counterinsurgency campaign and even the vast
resources employed by the US and ISAF cannot compensate for the inadequate
cooperation and organization. Information is also critical due to the fact that
use of force can be consistent and justified only when counterinsurgents
understand their enemy, its tactics and associations with the general
population (Gompert and Gordon, 2008). From a different perspective,
information dissemination by different media outlets and social media about the
counterinsurgency campaign can be a double-edged sword, which potentially could
affect the mission, and more importantly the support for the counterinsurgency
effort. For instance, a wide audience is watching the progress of the
counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan and there is danger for what is
broadcasted in the media to be inconsistent with the reality on the ground, in
ways that the media downplays or overestimates the achievements of the
counterinsurgents (Betz, 2011). Proportionality in all military actions should
be taken into account; there is always the question of how much military force
is enough to be applied due to the fact that if counterinsurgents use too much
violence, they may lose legitimacy, if not, they may be deemed as not
determined enough. Quantitative and qualitative violence are terms used to
correctly address this problem: quantitative violence values the number of
killed as opposed to qualitative violence, in which what is important is whom
you kill (Lynn, 2005). By leading a massive extermination campaign,
counterinsurgency could alienate the local population, suffering collateral
damage, and even make people join the insurgents (Lynn, 2005). Still, there is
the flip side of the coin where decisive military action on behalf of the
counterinsurgents could boost support for the mission among an already
dissatisfied and anti-insurgency population. Here again, strategy and, on a
tactical level, the proportionate use of force are conditional on the
development of the conflict and the domestic realities.
point in this discussion - when a state is leading a counterinsurgency campaign
on a territory outside its national borders, this could present a wide spectrum
of difficulties, such as gathering intelligence and making troops familiar with
the landscape and its specificities (Kiras, 2010). For instance, the US troops
in Vietnam (1955-1975) were not adequately trained and prepared for irregular,
small-scale operations, intelligence gathering and collaboration with the
locals, while lack of experience and good analysis to determine what and how
much force is suitable could not account for their great military capabilities
(Nagl, 2005). Referring back to the aforementioned point about the military
capability and mostly its adaptability, it is crucial for the counterinsurgent
military force to adjust to the reality on the ground; in the case of the US in
Vietnam even the military superiority of the US was not advantageous against an
enemy engaging in irregular, low-intensity fighting. The French counterinsurgency
in Algeria (1954-1962) demonstrates another aspect of counterinsurgency
campaigns taken outside national borders – it is essential to have the support
of the public at home. Perhaps in such cases the type of government of the
state sending the counterinsurgency mission abroad plays a key role. The fight
against the National Liberation Front indeed generated huge economic and
political costs with numerous troops lost, but what made French troops withdraw
was not the insurgents per se, but French people at home who were not willing
to take the costs of the military campaign (Mack, 2008). The disproportionate
and indiscriminate use of violence by the French, together with the lack of a
clear-cut strategic goal, brought insurmountable negatives to the counterinsurgency
effort and alienated both the French and Algerian people from their support for
the campaign (Frémeaux, 2012). In other words, despite gaining the majority of
the military victories, the French counterinsurgents lost not only the ‘hearts
and minds’ battle with the civilians in Algeria, but also failed to keep
adherents in France of the counterinsurgency (Canuel, 2010). The French
experience in Algeria points out to the necessity of reconsideration of the
political and civilian aspect of counterinsurgency, and to re-examine the
military means, which could prove to be extremely costly and inefficient
without the support of the general population at home and in the host country
(Long, 2006). This case substantiates the argument that population-centric
counterinsurgency approaches have better chances of being successful due to the
fact that they adopt comprehensive means to the ends of resolving the
insurgency and establishing stability.
a wide range of factors determines victory in counterinsurgency and there are
no straightforward answers to the question whether enemy-centric, military
counterinsurgency approaches can solely resolve an insurgency. While the
military presence is an indispensable part of every counterinsurgency campaign,
in most cases the predominance of the military force has given mixed results or
outright defeats for the counterinsurgents. Often conventional armed responses
to insurgencies have proven to be unsuccessful because of the asymmetry of the
conflict and the constant implementation of new tactics by the insurgents.
Thus, the military should be prepared for tactical innovations and new
approaches, and in more population-centric approaches to have a supplementary
role to the political efforts at solving the insurgency. The challenges of
modern insurgencies require constant adaptation to the specific circumstances;
focus on the military mainly as a guarantor of security and stability; good
management of intelligence and high levels of coordination so as to defy the
insurgents. Analysis and consideration of the insurgency environment are
crucial. Exhaustion of military and political capability should not be
catalysts for losing the will to lead the counterinsurgency campaign, because
lack of commitment and persistence could shift the balance at the advantage of
the insurgents. All in all, counterinsurgency campaigns are extremely difficult
efforts to bring back stability to the country and this essay has tried to
outline some of the most important variables at play in such operations.
Still, most of the successful
counterinsurgency campaigns have focused on the grievances that caused the
insurgency through political, economic and social endeavours, while the military
has had a supplementary role.
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