Military Mysteries: Why Counter-Insurgency Used to Be Easy But Is Now Hard

It is hard to win counter-insurgency wars, as recent experience in Afghanistan is proving once again. But why that should be remains quite a mystery.

The Economist is quick as always to proffer an answer:

Fighting an insurgency requires patience, restraint and a good public-relations strategy

But, if you pause to think, swiftness, unrestrained violence, and indifferent PR strategies have been the hallmarks of success in war for aeons. In the past, that kind of approach used to be fairly successful. Not so any longer. What changed?

Because insurgencies pit the weak against the strong, most still end up failing. Between 1775 and 1945 “only” about a quarter achieved most or all of their aims. But since 1945 that number has risen to 40%, according to Mr Boot. Part of the reason for the improving success rate is the rising importance of public opinion. Since 1945 the spread of democracy, education, mass media and the concept of international law have all conspired to sap the will of states engaged in protracted counter-insurgencies. In the battle over the narrative, insurgents have many more weapons at their disposal than before.

I would not say that the democracies have had their will sapped. I would say that they have grown increasingly violence-averse and war-averse, for good and understandable reasons. This means that instead of Plan A – putting down insurgencies with extreme force – which is no longer an option, they have had to fall back on various versions of Plan B – patience, restraint and PR . Hardly an inspiring winning strategy in any kind of war.

Mr Boot does not conclude that counter-insurgency in the 21st century is a losing game. But to prevail requires an understanding of the game’s rules. He is a powerful advocate for the so-called “population-centric” approach pioneered by the British during the 12-year post-war Malayan Emergency, which lasted until 1960, and rediscovered by American generals such as David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal in Iraq and Afghanistan only after things there had gone disastrously wrong.

The first principle is to abandon conventional military tactics. “Clear and hold” beats “search and destroy”. To defeat an insurgency you must provide enough security for ordinary people to live their lives. The second is that legitimacy is vital for both sides: corrupt or excessively violent governments will always struggle, but so too will guerrillas who terrorise their own people. The third is staying power. Firepower is no substitute for patience and boots on the ground. The people you need on your side must believe that you are in it for the long haul. The fourth is that most counter-insurgency campaigns abroad are lost at home. Liberal democracies have short attention spans, low tolerance for casualties and other calls on their cash. Unless voters believe that an intervention is necessary for their own security they will quickly withdraw support for it.

Note the contradiction: the long haul vs. the short attention span.

This may be the only real option for for democracies to fight insurgencies – but it is far from a path to success. That is why the best plan of all is to avoid getting bogged down in insurgencies, especially in rather pointless places such as Afghanistan, in the first place.

Max Boot, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (Liveright, 2013).

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