The Ugly Rhymes of History? #Reviewing Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies

Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies; National Styles and Strategic Cultures. Beatrice Heuser & Eitan Shamir (eds). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Insurgency is an old concept. If you were to travel back to Iraq between 2334 and 2279 BC, you would find a man called Sargan. Sargan ruled a vast empire spanning from Southern Iraq to Southern Turkey, enforced by overwhelming military power. His Akkadian hordes, armed with high-tech composite bows and sophisticated logistics, laid waste to all before them. Their strategy was a simple one; ‘mass slaughter, enslavement, the deportation of defeated enemies, and the total destruction of their cities.’ For years their technological edge and brutal strategy allowed the Akkadians to dominate. When they inevitably fell, however, they did not fall to a superior empire. They were victim to a new phenomenon: a tireless, guerrilla-style attack from the unsophisticated barbarian hordes all around them. In 2190 BC the city of Akkad, near modern Baghdad, finally fell.

Max Boot believes that the defeat of the Akkadians was the ‘birth of insurgency’.[1] If he is right, it was the start of an inauspicious history for a style of conflict that continues to thrive today. The places are even the same. Four thousand years after the fall of Akkad, not two hours drive away in the town of Fallujah, a combined force of 10,000 US Marines, British Highlanders, and Iraqi soldiers engaged in a brutal fight against a violent group of insurgents. Since then the counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign in Iraq has expanded into a clash that seems to pit the developed world against an extremist ideology. From ancient beginnings, insurgency now has a global face.

Some would say that the journey from Akkad to Fallujah proves that the ugly history of insurgency rhymes through the ages. But is this really true? Are there really continuities in a meaningful and instrumental sense? Perhaps more importantly, do the strictures born of society, geography and environment dictate who wins and loses? These are the questions that eighteen leading scholars have sought to answer in a new volume entitled Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies: National Styles and Strategic Cultures.

The Book: From National Styles to an Instrumentarium

Faced with a swath of authors and cases, it is worth giving a brief overview of the book. Editors Beatrice Heuser and Eitan Shamir seek to order this complex topic through three parts. Part One examines the idea of national styles of COIN. Robert Egnell and David Ucko set the tone by carefully dissecting the so-called British tradition – examining how seventeen campaigns (carried out between 1945 and 2003) built the dangerous myth of an inherently successful British approach. The French in the Algerian Wars of 1830 – 1962, the Israeli strategy of ‘mowing the grass’ in Lebanon and Palestine, and the COIN traditions of the American military are then all challenged in the same fashion. Real eye-openers are then provided through investigations into non-Western COIN traditions. Stephen Blank, a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, breaks the myopia (as he sees it) of Western COIN analysis with a concise examination of Russian COIN strategy from Ivan III through to modern Chechnya. Yitzhak Sichor ends with a chapter entitled Crackdown; an examination of the Chinese style of COIN, typified by prevention through early brutal suppression. Part One seeks, capably, to challenge the stereotypes and preconceptions of even the most deeply-entrenched COIN practitioner.

Some would say that the journey from Akkad to Fallujah proves that the ugly history of insurgency rhymes through the ages.

Part Two flips to the other side of the COIN (so to speak), examining insurgent strategies and counter-counterinsurgency styles; if such a thing can exist. The alternate view is given for the Algerian insurgency, the Irish Republican Army, the Palestinian Resistance, and the Taliban. It is worth reminding ourselves how difficult a task this is. Insurgents are not known for their transparency, and the lack of a written historical tradition makes true cultural insights challenging. Given this, the mostly Western authors gathered by Heuser and Shamir are about as good as you might get. For example Jacques Fremeaux, who examines the Algerian ‘National Liberation Army’, is the Algerian-born Professor of Contemporary History at the Sorbonne.

The third and final part is the gem. Here the book seeks to bring together the strands, examining the reciprocal interaction between the ways of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Heuser and Shamir draw out the sense of a universal toolbox; a general instrumentarium (as they call it) of tools that seem to be common to COIN conflicts no matter who fights them and where. This list makes for depressing reading: brutal large-scale repression, indiscriminate killing, and terror mark the list. Burning villages and scorched earth tactics. Targeted assassinations. Mutilations and rape. Hostage taking and execution. Ethnic cleansing. Destruction of symbolic sites. All of these are found to be endemic traits reaching on both sides of insurgent conflicts. This is a world Sargan would have reveled in. It a hellish one in which to fight.

The Patterns: Violence, Small Wars and the Strategic Environment

Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies is clearly written with a purpose in mind, despite the multiple authors and cases. Conceived at an Israeli conference in 2012 it sends a frustrated message to current policy-makers and strategists: that the brutal violence and intractability we are experiencing in modern insurgencies should not be a surprise. They merely represent the ugly echoes of history. Three significant patterns then stand out.

The first is that military tactics rarely prove to be decisive; it is the broader strategic environment that is critical. This is particularly the case for insurgencies. Those familiar with David Kilcullen’s book The Accidental Guerrilla may recall his viral insurgency theory; one of ‘infection, contagion, intervention and rejection.’[3] You get a real, empiric sense of this in Heuser and Shamir’s analysis. Insurgencies are born in fertile environments of repression where people believe violence is their only recourse. Angry individuals coalesce and multiply into groups, drawn together by culture, rage and ideologies. Leaders emerge. Armed groups learn, adapt and metastasize through training camps and shared doctrines and manuals. Powerful ideas like the Palestinian concept of Intifada (literally resistance) act as catalysts, but only if the ground is fertile. No matter the insurgent tactics chosen, the environment – culturally, geographically and regionally – must be right for an insurgent strategy to flourish. The same can be said for the COIN examples, albeit perhaps more predictably given the formal structuring of military doctrines, organisational and political / military interactions. Either way, tactical choices fade into insignificance compared to the influence of the strategic environment.

It is telling that the successful COIN campaigns outlined by Heuser and Shamir were predominantly won by nations acting independently.

The second pattern is conceptual. As you read Heuser and Shamir the danger of conceiving COIN in terms of limited wars becomes ever clearer. Such an approach is not just superficial; it is in fact deeply philosophical. The US military entered Iraq and Afghanistan with their mindset shaped by the 2001 version of FM 100-5: Operations; a doctrine borne of the post-Vietnam era that labelled COIN as Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW) and Low Intensity Conflict. The British in Iraq would similarly rely on the 1995 manual on Operations Other than War. The mindset that COIN was somehow lesser and thus perhaps easier than conventional conflict became a guiding philosophy, impacting from tactical action, through strategic decisions and all the way to societal views of risk and cost. The lesson seems to be that COIN must be viewed through a ‘spectrum of conflict’ lens, ranging from armed coercion to combined arms manoeuvre. Only in this way can a force, and a nation, understand the gravity of the challenge.

Anti-communist militamen display their victims in the Greek Civil War.

Anti-communist militamen display their victims in the Greek Civil War.

The final pattern is one of violence and tactics. If there is one theme that stands out from Heuser and Shamir it is the sheer brutality of both sides of the COIN. Their evidence suggests that, historically, the central contest for the population has been less about winning hearts and minds, but more about a race to violent coercion. Only two of the twelve tools described in their instrumentarium represent soft power. The remainder come from a vicious playbook of massacres, weaponised rape, forced resettlement, violent coercion, ethnic cleansing and assassination. These are the traditional tools of both insurgents and those who seek to counter them, and they have been used with great success on both sides.

In light of this historic success, it is worth noting how increasingly unacceptable such tools are to Western nations. In his superb book War in Human Civilisation, Azar Gat describes how liberal societies are developing a cultural aversion to the use of violence as a political tool.[5] Modern western policy-makers and strategists would likely balk at instrumentarium tactics like forced resettlement (as used by the British in Malaya), scorched earth (as in the French enfumades in Algeria in the late 1800s), hostage taking (used by the Greek Government in the Greek Civil War), and the control of the media and the use of ‘black’ propaganda (prolifically used by Russia in Chechnya). But what do liberal societies do when faced with authoritarian regimes and enemies who will use such methods? How do they correct the tactical imbalance? Here Heuser and Shamir, perhaps understandably, offer little in the way of solutions or solace.

The Gap: Doing COIN in Coalition

The gap in the analysis is in the historical impact of coalitions on COIN. Heuser, Shamir et al do not delve deeply into the tension between coalitions, national styles, and COIN strategies. But there is tension there. The formation of coalitions and alliances is as old as war itself, and such arrangements have clear benefits in terms of shared costs and implied legitimacy. However they come with equally clear costs in terms of conflicting national interest, comparative ethics and divergent strategic outlooks. It is telling that the successful COIN campaigns outlined by Heuser and Shamir were predominantly won by nations acting independently. Napoleon famously said ‘if I must make war, I prefer to do it against a coalition.’[4] I suspect many insurgent groups would say the same.

Napoleon famously said ‘if I must make war, I prefer to do it against a coalition.’ I suspect many insurgent groups would say the same.

Iraq and Afghanistan stand as living examples that COIN in coalition is hard. Yes, formal coalitions and alliances are as old as war. However since 9/11 it seems the West has taken scale to a new level. At the height of the international commitment in 2011 the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan consisted of forty eight nations; valuable in terms of legitimacy, but chaotic for command and control (particularly where countries with such amenable histories as Turkey and Armenia are sat side-by-side). Given the current challenges of coalition COIN, further analysis from Heuser and Shamir’s authors would have been welcome.

Conclusion: Old Rhymes and New Tools?

Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies should be on the reading list for anyone seeking broad historical context to the study of insurgencies. For me, the biases illuminated in Part One bit particularly hard. As a young tank commander in Basra in 2003 I still remember the confidence I felt as we traded body-armour for berets, clear that the genetically-ingrained ability of the British COIN tradition would easily allow us to stabilise a tinderbox region. This confidence was deeply misplaced. The shock the British felt as the city caught fire, and as our institutional hubris began to be revealed, still aches.

...if we are to block our ears to the historical rhymes of COIN, with which tune do we replace them?

Heuser, Shamir et al teach much, but the implicit challenges they present are more important. Their historical image of COIN is a brutal one, where even the softer approaches saw the broad application of violence, the deprivation of rights, and great commitment on behalf of nations. The West has discarded, in my view rightly, many of these tactics as unacceptable in the modern age. But if we are to block our ears to the historical rhymes of COIN, with which tune do we replace them?

An abandonment of the old tools has logically demanded the development of new ones, and I would argue that Western militaries have failed to do this. COIN campaigns have instead been fought with a reduced toolset that have done just enough to hold back the tide, but have failed to be decisive. The result has been the Long War; a global COIN campaign without bounds that has arguably done more to sustain conflict than it has to end it. I do not believe that insurgency needs to become the ‘new normal’, but this is a cycle that must be broken. If the West is to eschew the old ways, it must find a new rhyme and reason to its countering of insurgency. 

Tom McDermott is an Australian Army officer who also spent fifteen years serving in the British Army. He is the Director of the Cove, the Australian Army’s professional development network. He is currently conducting higher research at the Australian National University, focused on the UK’s strategic decision-making in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Header Image: A Yemeni boy holds a rifle as Houthi supporters attend a rally in Sanaa, Yemen, 5 April 2015 | CNN


[1] Max Boot, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013), Chapter 2, p. 13 – 15.

[2] Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus, Can Intervention Work? (London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011).

[3] David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 35.

[4] Kathleen J. McInnis, "Lessons in Coalition Warfare: Past, Present and Implications for the Future," International Politics Review, Vol 1, Dec 2013, p. 81. It should be noted that it was eventually a coalition that defeated Napoleon, although they had to wait for the sixth iteration to be successful.

[5] Azar Gat, War in Human Civilisation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), Chapter 16, p. 570 – 661.