The Resurgency of Insurgency
Intervening to support an insurgency – not fight it
After 10 years of fighting two major insurgencies, many western nations can feel comfortable that they have advanced their thinking and practice of counterinsurgency operations. The intellectual and policy effort brought to bear on countering the Iraqi and Afghan insurgencies has been quite staggering, perhaps even greater than the proliferation of deterrence and containment theories promoted during the Cold War.
The establishment of new think-tanks in Washington D.C. such as the Center for New American Security, aside more traditional institutions such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has helped cultivate and revitalise military counterinsurgency strategies and doctrine. The language of counterinsurgency is ubiquitous, to the point that politicians, academics, generals and soldiers can quite easily converse about “protecting the population” and “building the capacity of the host nation”. In the 21st century, counterinsurgency has been codified, systemised and established as ‘must-do training’ for land forces in particular. “Insurgents are bad” and “we must support the weak or fledging host government” is not just a catch-cry but is firmly embedded in the military psyche. But this is not good, not good at all.
In becoming proficient, maybe even obsessed with counterinsurgency training, the dangerous assumption is that military forces will only be used to counter insurgents and establish or re-establish a host government’s right to govern. What then if the government or the state elites are actually the problem? That either through corruption, disregard for the international system or most likely an oppressive and brutal approach to its citizenry – surely that type of government, with any preceding military intervention calls for a 180-degree turnaround from countering an insurgency to actively encouraging and supporting an insurgency to remove it. What then if the insurgents are the “good guys” and the government is the “bad guy”?
The resurgency of insurgency has been a feature of the Arab Spring. Libya, Egypt and Syria are classic examples of governments being re-characterised as ‘regimes’, with many in the international community willing to encourage insurgents to depose the regime. This of course is nothing new, aiding the weak to vanquish the strong. Military intervention in these cases has been primarily the use of strategic stand-off capabilities, such as attack aircraft, and Special Forces. Provision of weapons to the insurgents, such as lifting of the embargo in Syria, is a case in point of trying to equalise the conflict.
So what then of the counterinsurgency training of the general purpose military force? How hard or easy is it to change, or even balance the training to be prepared to support and fight with insurgents to depose recalcitrant governments and their state forces? If in a counterinsurgency sense, working with the fledging security forces of governments we like is hard, how about then in a pro-insurgency sense, the greater difficulties of fighting alongside a less structured and less organised mish-mash of rebels who seek to oust their political leaders? Where is the manual for that, where is the Field Manual FM 3-34 Counterinsurgency for supporting insurgencies?
For sure, there are doctrines that relate to associated operations such as guerrilla warfare and subversion. By and large however, these remain the purview of Special Forces. The thought that general purpose forces would re-orientate to irregular warfare, towards counterinsurgency in particular, was considered fanciful prior to 9/11. But look where we are today. There would hardly be a land forces training exercise that doesn’t incorporate some kind of insurgent activity – insurgents equals bad, host government equals good.
It is time to consider weighting an equal amount of military thinking and training around intervening and supporting other government forces as well as opposing them and supporting anti-government forces. The intellectual and policy effort has already recognised this. Some governments we like and will support, some governments we don’t and may have to take action to remove them. The pressing challenge for military planners and trainers therefore, is to prepare for both.
Josh Wineera lectures on joint, interagency and multinational operations and irregular warfare at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University. His research interests include international security, state-building and security sector reform.
After the PACC/PAMS conferences in Auckland last week, a topical little think-piece from Josh Wineera…
I believe that the problem is mainly one of the West’s own making and relates back to the old saying ‘One mans terrorist (or insurgent) is another’s freedom fighter’. In addition, the fact that the West in particular appears to be pursuing a binary solution set (good/bad, black/white etc) while it may have worked in the past, particularly when considering 3rd generational warfare; is now effectively obsolete when it comes to considering 4th generational or asymmetric war.
I believe that the West and definitely the US if it wishes to continue to maintain its position of pre-eminence within the global society, has to stop trying to quantify a particular situation empirically and consider all factors and inputs to a situation before reacting. An topical example of this is the US’s desire to launch anti-regime strikes in Syria against the Assad government, and in support of the rebels. Such strikes would probably gain the desire result of the bulk of the Wests population, who would see only the removal or punishment of a regime that dared to offend against the rules and mores of (Western) society by using chemical weapons against its own people. The question is; What happens after a successful program of strikes? Will the Assad regime be sufficiently cowed to admit its failings and to come hat-in-hand to the international community (or the West) seeking forgiveness?
Or as seems more likely, will the regime collapse and leave the rebels (who are not a coalition by any stretch of the imagination, except in as far as they are united against the regime) in control? What happens then? Will they be able to reform a stable (Western) style government…or will the region continue to spiral down into confusion and in-fighting? The situation in Syria is far too complex to quantify in a binary manner, and yet it appears that several countries wish to do so, and are continuing to formulate their policy on the question as if it were possible to reduce this situation to a question of good/bad.
The situation in Syria is only likely to get worse if left alone…and yet it is only likely to get worse again if the West insists on intervening. It should be evident from the last dozen years of nitpicking, flea biting, assymmetric, counter-insurgency war in Iraq and Afghanistan that an intervention creates its own opposing forces (witness the movement of radical Muslims to fight the ‘Great Satan’ and its coalition partners in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the insurgency in Timor Leste), and that when the outside threat has been beaten, those united forces will only turn to fighting each other again for supremecy. To suggest anything else would be, in my opinion, specious and folly of a very high level. We need to understand that the current situation in Syria was effectively created after WW1 by two colonial powers (Britain and France) attempting to maintain their own spheres of influence, and that such moves did not take into account historical enmity or tribal areas of influence or indeed anything other than the two powers in question own desires to maintain the biggest empire.
If the US and the West wish to avoid another Vietnam/Iraq/Afghanistan quagmire, then the only real option is to not commit combat forces to the region, and to concentrate on peaceful nation building activities such as the PRTs in Afghanistan. Obviously these can not get going until the fighting is over. In this case the Wests ‘altruistic’ desire to help (possibly brought on by shame at having not reacted to such genocidal events as Rwanada, or possibly brought on by the fact that the ME region is effectively the source of much of the strategic materials to our consumer society) should, and I contend must wait until one side or another triumphs. Then and only then can the process of rebuilding begin. To do otherwise would be folly…