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.