Twenty years ago, when I first started seriously studying revolutionary conflicts, I was immediately struck by the extreme challenge that governments face when fighting guerrillas. The Iraq war has given the American public a fresh appreciation of this important point. At the same time, the point is often lost amidst a great deal of confusion between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, "nation-building" and purely military questions, the defects of an indigenous regime and the problems with the American occupation.
Counterinsurgency is inherently challenging, since it often requires vast social, political, and economic changes. Counterinsurgency requires a military approach that's wholly unlike the doctrines that guide how conventional armed forces train, equip, and organize themselves. Both of those statements do not apply to counterterrorism, which in nearly every way is an easier challenge than counterinsurgency. The more we conflate counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, the more we miss the real opportunities and challenges in these two different realms of warfare.
The other great source of confusion about counterinsurgency lies in the American perspective on world affairs and our own national history. We tend to frame successes and failures in purely American terms., Watch the best-known films about the Vietnam War—Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, The Green Berets, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, etc.—and you'll learn a great deal about the American side of the war. The Vietnamese themselves, however, are nearly invisible in these stories. The same one-sidedness of this perspective on the Vietnam War often extends to autobiographical accounts, political histories of American intervention in Vietnam, and operational studies of particular battles or campaigns. Americans treat the most infamous counterinsurgency war in the nation's history as if it were a failed engineering project. Depending on whom you read, the problem with the Vietnam War was the restrictions on attacking North Vietnam, a theater strategy that used conventional techniques against an unconventional opponent, or simply a lack of appreciation for how much success the US actually achieved.
However, as I discussed in earlier postings about the general principles of strategy, war is never comparable to an engineering project. Vietnam was never just another battlefield like the Ardennes Forest or the Korean Peninsula. As in all wars between governments and revolutionaries, the United States was an important supporting character, but not the main protagonist.
A government does not need to completely collapse for the insurgency to exist. In many cases, the government is simply unable to control enough of its sovereign territory to prevent a guerrilla movement from taking root. In other cases, the government may be effective—perhaps brutally so—but is seen to be unrepresentative of major ethnic, regional, or sectarian groups. It's hard to say that the American Civil War happened because the government in Washington was weak. Quite the opposite: the future leaders of the Confederacy were worried about the power of the federal government to block the expansion of slavery into new territories. It's important, therefore, to shed the unstated assumption that guerrilla warfare is the offspring of governmental failure.
A complex framework of associations and attitudes hold all societies together. The government plays an important role in maintaining this framework, tying down some supports over here, urging citizens to strengthen these braces over there. Societies like the ones today in the United States, Japan, and the European Union are extremely complicated. However, modernity isn't the only source of that complexity: Whatever shape Afghanistan has taken in the last two centuries has been built around a complicated and shifting framework of clan and religious associations.
Insurgencies occur when elements of the societal framework unravel, or people deliberately sunder the bonds that hold sections of it together. Governmental failure is one possible source of weakness, but not the only one. For example, when a minority group dominates control of the state, as the Maronite Christians did in Lebanon, or Sunnis did in Iraq, important parts of the framework of power, authority, and largesse are pulled out of alignment with the rest of the framework. That's a better metaphor for the conditions under which insurgencies arise than a simplistic (but dramatic) picture of a regime in complete disorder.
The strains that damage or cleave the societal framework arise from several regular sources. The history of every guerrilla war starts with the recitation of some elements from this list:
- Painful societal transformation. The society is undergoing cultural, economic, or political transformations faster than the architects of the framework can re-build key parts of it. For example, many insurgencies start with the shift from subsistence to commodity agriculture. Rural populations see the normal class structure changed, often to their detriment. Their livelihoods are suddenly at risk. A way of life centered on the village changes as agricultural workers move geographically and economically from job to job. Elites that once protected the villages abandon their old roles in search of the greater wealth, prestige, and power that the new economy offers.
- Weak national identity. The hardest challenge to the societal framework exists when major portions of the population simply want to leave it. In many cases, the society, such as it is, was hastily erected during the colonial occupation of the region. However, you can't blame colonialism or its aftermath for everything. Long before the British ever arrived in the Indian subcontinent, irredentism was a challenge for the leaders of every major political configuration, from the Mauryan kingdom to the Mughal empire.
- Established corruption and repression. Irredentism is not the only thing that can weaken the bonds of legitimacy, however. Economic and political corruption can sever the ties between many citizens and their government. Meanwhile, the groups that benefit from this corruption reinforce the parts of the framework that benefit them. Repression can tighten some parts of the framework, but only at the expense of adding even greater strain against it.
- Social distance between elites and the rest of society. Whether the contract is regularly sworn, as was the case in European feudalism, or is codified in a constitution, as is the case with most modern societies, some compact exists in which the rulers swear to represent and protect the ruled. As mentioned earlier, societal transformations can jeopardize this contract, if for no other reason than the superficial appearance of elites changes. As Gaetano Mosca points out in The Ruling Class, the Polish nobility ruled harshly, but they looked, spoke, and acted like their fellow Poles. The first major challenge to their legitimacy came when they adopted Continental manners, culture, and language.
- The regime's inability to mute or redirect conflict. Official government institutions, such as elections, are important channels for disaffected groups that might otherwise take up the gun. As my fellow political bloggerMatt Shugart can tell you, formal mechanisms for the distribution of parliamentary seats can go a long way towards strengthening the bonds between a government and its citizens. Informal mechanisms for the muting and re-directingconflict, such as patron-client networks, are also worth mention. What the government cannot provide, the wealthy and powerful may be able to handle through less official channels.
- Memories of violence and outrage. Past catastrophes can weaken the societal framework, making it difficult to rebuild with the same strength it once had. Major events—for example, the infamous La Matanza massacre in El Salvador—can be as important as a cascade of smaller instances of repression, corruption, and violence.
While all of these represent threats to the regime's ability to suppress or defeat an insurgency, they don't in and of themselves explain why counterinsurgency is as difficult as it seems to be. To answer that question fully, please bear with me as I stretch the "societal framework" metaphor a bit more.
Suppose that you are standing with someone on a rickety, swaying catwalk. People who have traversed this catwalk know the precise steps needed to cross it without causing its collapse. For example, if you shift your weight while walking though a particular section, holding on to the left chain (but not the right one!), you can traverse that stretch of the catwalk safely.
Suddenly, while you and a colleague are standing on the catwalk, one of the chains snaps. The catwalk sways even more violently, threatening to toss both of you to your deaths. Your colleague only knows how the catwalk has worked in the past, so he insists on following the same delicate series of steps. You're worried that the old methods aren't going to work, now that the missing chain has entirely changed the load-bearing characteristics of the catwalk. Unfortunately, your best advice sounds like complete madness to your colleague: "If we use this nylon rope to tie down one section—and I know we've never used a rope before to do this—and we cut this other chain, balancing the weight better, we should be OK, as long as we take a completely new series of steps along the catwalk."
You wouldn't be surprised if your colleague rejected your bold plan, no matter how right you may be. This fictional situation is analogous to the real situation governments fighting insurgencies face. Leaders cannot step outside the societal framework to fix it. Instead, they have to radically alter it in unfamiliar ways that may present new, even greater dangers. For example, outside counterinsurgency experts may advise a government that the best way to defeat guerrillas is land reform. The shift to commodity agriculture may have wrecked the lives of so many people that substantial re-distribution of agricultural land is the only way to regain the population's trust and allegiance. However, the people listening to this advice are usually the same people who are most benefiting from the new commodity-based rural economy. Even if they're not the direct beneficiaries, these leaders may depend on the patronage of the latifundia for their current position in the government or the military.
Some additional challenges to fixing the societal framework while standing inside it include the following:
- Illegitimate leaders can't sell legitimate solutions. Once the government loses legitimacy with significant portions of the population, it cannot regain it overnight. Worse, these same leaders are the ones responsible for arguing for their own legitimacy. If you've been cheated by a used car dealer, you're probably not going to be interested in hearing how he won't cheat you again if you just give him another chance. You're equally unlikely to follow his recommendation for a different car dealer.
- Identity politics is about more than just dividing the spoils. Frequently, separatist movements start when the government doesn't allocate seats in the legislature, control of key ministries, lucrative contracts, or other commodities to be had. However, identity politics, the root of irredentism, is not just horse-trading among groups over government spoils. Inequities may sharpen differences among groups that don't trust each other directly, or who don't want to be part of the same society at all.
- Security forces are as much the problem as the solution. When threatened by guerrillas, the prop on which governments first lean is the security apparatus. However, the military and police may be the chief source of the brutality and graft that give the guerrillas a strong political argument against the current regime Asking the security forces to assume primary duty for defeating the insurgency may easily turn out to be a greater license to commit theft, torture, and murder.
- It's hard to reform while under siege. Governments under siege look for dramatic measures. People who advocate slow reforms, whose immediate effects may be impossible to measure, often don't get the audience they deserve.
- Outrage may be muted, but it doesn't necessarily disappear. There's an important difference between re-building trust and silencing anyone who voices distrust. Repressive measures may create the temporary appearance of calm, as was the case in the Diem regime's crackdown on its political opponents, or the Somoza government's temporary defeat of the Sandinistas. Meanwhile, antipathies lie just below the surface, waiting for a chance for an even more violent eruption.
Given this picture, you might conclude that counterinsurgency is impossible. That would be a mistake, since approximately half of all guerrilla movements in the last century failed. Usually, the guerrillas have themselves to blame as much as the government: for example, the ELAS movement in the Greek Civil War fought a series of conventional battles that could have been avoided, ran contrary to the principles of guerrilla strategy, and proved disastrously ineffective. At other times, the government deserves the majority of credit for defeating the insurgents, such has been the case in the Philippines for the last five decades.
However, it's important to be circumspect when defining victory. Rarely do governments completely eradicate guerrilla movements. In the case of the Philippines, the Hukbalahap movement disappeared, but the Moros remained, albeit contained to the remote regions of the Philippine Islands. (In fact, the original movement has now added an Islamist faction, Abu Sayyaf, which has collaborated with Al Qaeda.) Some guerrilla wars end with the government and the insurgents agreeing on a power sharing arrangement or elections—or both, usually in that order. Victory means the end of the major threat. Eradication of the threat, or elimination of the guerrillas as a political movement, is not required.
Leaving the United States out of the picture for the moment, you can see exactly how challenging the counterinsurgency war in Iraq is for the new Iraqi government itself. The "societal framework" of Iraq was a colonial creation, a new territory that the British created to reward the Hashemite dynasty for its support in the Arab Revolt. Iraq's geography contains the landscape of Sunni-Shi'ite conflicts, such as the shrine of the martyred Ali in Karbala. The Ba'athists unleashed violent repression that sharpened divisions among Kurds, Shi'ites, and Sunnis. Hussein exacerbated these divisions by giving Sunnis—and members of Saddam Hussein's clan in particular—dominance of the government and military.
The new generation of Iraqi leaders bring their own set of baggage. Many former exiles may feel comfortable in the American and European corridors of, but they appear foreign to many Iraqis. Some who stayed in Iraq may have collaborated with the Ba'athists more than they should have, if their only goal had been survival. Repression afforded little opportunity for different groups to work together, or even maintain regular contacts with one another.
As I said earlier, the societal framework does not have to collapse entirely for an insurgency to start. Given as fragile as Iraqi society already was, it would have been surprising had there not been an insurgency following the overthrow of the Ba'athist regime. The only hope there was of preventing a guerrilla movement from coalescing, or containing it once it had taken shape, was to preserve a major portion of the military, police, border guard, and intelligence units from the old regime. While some leaders, such as the officers who led the attacks on the Kurds and Marsh Arabs, clearly should have been removed, and agencies like the notorious Mukhabarat dismantled, some portion of the security forces should have remained intact. Without it, there was nothing to stop the insurgency, which formed almost immediately after US troops entered Baghdad. (The invasion of Iraq concluded in April 2003; the first significant insurgent attacks occurred just one month later, in May.) The Ba'ath Party's strategy of organizing irregular Fedayeen units is partly to blame for the insurgency's rapid outbreak, but the diverse Iraqi insurgency includes a lot more than just disgruntled ex-Ba'athists.
The worse news from Iraq, however, isn't the latest suicide bombing. The increasing reports that newly-trained Iraqi units are torturing and murdering civilians changes the whole course of the war. (Click here, here, and here for some of these accounts.) Hastily-trained soldiers, thrown into perilous situations like the ones found in the narrow streets and shadowed houses of Iraq, are likely to shoot at nearly anything that looks like it might be a threat. The strains of constant danger, the personal moral crises soldiers face when they realize that they've shot the wrong person, the messages from political and military leaders about the insurgents hidden among sympathizers in the population, combine to create cynicism, fatalism, and brutality. With weak leadership, no experience fighting a counterinsurgency war, and a history of distrust among clans and sects, the worst crimes can be executed under the banner of fighting the insurgency.
The pressure to turn out more conscripts only increases the likelihood of further torture, blackmail, kidnapping, and assassination by the very people responsible for winning the precious trust and respect of the Iraqi population. Not only is the Iraqi government losing what little control it had over the security forces, but the United States is simultaneously helping and hurting the situation. Unfortunately, where it can help, the US government often lacks adequate means. Where it is hurting, the Bush Administration shows no realization of the problems it is creating. I'll discuss these points in more detail in the next "official" post, covering the counterinsurgency challenges a great power patron faces when supporting a besieged government.