Western COIN: The Rise of “Soft” Counterinsurgency Doctrine
Since the middle of the 20th century, intrastate conflict has become the prevailing form of warfare worldwide. Though often lacking in manpower and physical resources, insurgents have exhibited an impressive degree of skill and innovation, frustrating their opponents’ efforts to infiltrate the organization and disrupt its activities. This paper examines the major shifts in irregular warfare, defined here in accordance with the U.S. Department of Defense’s Joint Operating Concept as “a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over [a designated] population.” While there have been several noteworthy evolutions in the ways in which insurgents wage war, this paper argues that the most consequential developments in irregular warfare have occurred on the state-side, reasoning that Western democracies’ embrace of “soft” COIN approaches has spread worldwide.
Much of the existing literature on the evolution of irregular warfare has investigated historical trends in the ways insurgencies operate. Scholars, such as Bruce Hoffman, Neville Bolt, John Mackinlay, and Steve Metz analyze insurgents’ embrace of mass media – particularly broadcast news and the internet – arguing that contemporary armed movements are less interested in achieving tangible military results than engaging in dramatic acts of violence intended to mobilize a designated populace. Laia Barcells, Sthathis Kalyvas, Seth Jones, and Patrick Johnston examine insurgents’ military strategy, Barcells and Kalyvas observing a steady increase in the use of guerrilla warfare over the course of the Cold War and following the September 11th attacks. Antoine Bousquet, Mark Duffield, and David Kilcullen, on the other hand, focus on the organization of insurgent movements, noting that Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have embraced a decentralized, networked structure, which allows them to quickly adapt to their operational environment and establish links with like-minded groups.
While all of these scholars highlight notable trends in the ways non-state armed groups wage war, one may argue that many of these observations are only applicable to a handful of insurgencies. Consider the use of mass media, such as the internet, for example. While numerous armed groups have used the internet to disseminate messages, its utility appears to vary substantially across insurgent movements. On one hand, jihadists, such as former Al-Qaeda spokesman Anwar al-Awlaki, have proven that the internet offers a viable means of sustaining the armed struggle, making it easier to communicate with Muslims residing outside of their traditional base of operations and persuade them to commit acts of violence. On the other hand, bearing in mind that nearly half of the world’s population does not have regular access to the internet, one may argue that the threat which web-based insurgent activity poses is often exaggerated. Indeed, John Campbell notes that one of the primary means through which Boko Haram - an insurgent group operating in a region of Nigeria where up to 81 percent of households in some provinces lack access to electricity – disseminates information is through word of mouth.
Broadcast media may offer insurgent groups a better means of communicating with audiences worldwide. CNN alone reaches 2 billion people in more than 200 countries and territories as of January 2019. Yet armed groups seeking to attract media attention must overcome state censorship, and risk having their message distorted in news reports. Furthermore, given that many of the largest news networks in the world are based in Western countries, insurgent groups whose actions do not appear to directly affect Western audiences may often be marginalized. For example, Baloch nationalist insurgent groups – which primarily attack targets in South Asia – may have greater difficulty attracting widespread media attention and internationalizing their armed struggle than Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda.
Similar criticisms can be made concerning the recent focus on insurgent groups’ organizational structure. On one hand, the historical record does appear to indicate that insurgent groups worldwide have made a distinct turn towards a more decentralized organizational framework. The Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) provides one such example, transforming from a centralized military organization with “companies, battalions and brigades, with a recognizable structure and headquarters staff” at the beginning of The Troubles to a cellular organization. However, most insurgent movements do not appear to exemplify the type of diffuse networked structure that Al-Qaeda has been able to utilize.
Indeed, as far as decentralized organizational structures go, it appears as if Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are at the far end of the spectrum. Other insurgent movements, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad in Mali, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, appear to employ a mix of centralized and decentralized practices, generally consisting of a core leadership body responsible for making major policy decisions, and operational units that enjoy great autonomy over the means by which they wage armed struggle. One may even argue that not all armed movements are currently capable or willing to form a global network comparable to Al-Qaeda’s, reasoning that the latter’s desire to mobilize Muslims worldwide made it naturally predisposed to structure itself in such a manner. Insurgencies whose goals are more locally oriented – returning again to the Baloch insurgency example – may be less likely to follow suit.
In regard to Barcells and Kalyvas’s focus on the military strategy that insurgencies employ, one may argue that this does not constitute an evolution in irregular warfare. In the Philippine-American War, local insurgents pivoted from conventional military operations to guerrilla warfare upon realizing that they could not best the U.S. military in the former. In Northern Ireland, the PIRA followed a similar trend, though its leadership settled on urban terrorism instead of guerrilla warfare. Over the course of the Iraq War, the Islamic State employed all three forms of warfare against its adversaries, as has Boko Haram in Northeast Nigeria. This list, while hardly exhaustive, suggests that insurgencies’ use of guerrilla warfare is not a novel development, and will continue to be used alongside other forms of warfare based on the insurgents’ perception of their operational environment.
What of developments in the practice of counterinsurgency? Those familiar with Colin McInnes’s work may argue that Western democracies are significantly more averse to casualties, severely undermining their capacity to wage protracted military conflicts. This did not appear to be the case during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Western democracies engaged in a series of costly military struggles against insurgent groups. In the Philippine-American War, for example, the United States lost as many as 4,200 soldiers in its efforts to suppress a nationalist insurgency led by Emilio Aguinaldo. Around roughly the same time, the British military would lose as many as 22,000 soldiers while fighting Afrikaner insurgents during the Second Boer War.
Select examples from recent history may be used to corroborate this claim. For example, one may cite the United States’ rapid military withdrawal from Lebanon following the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings, which killed 241 U.S. servicemen supporting an international peacekeeping mission. Casualty aversion appeared to play a similar role in the United States’ withdrawal from Somalia following the loss of 18 U.S. servicemen fighting forces loyal to local warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. The U.S. is by no means the only country that appears to follow this trend. France’s decision to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan in November 2012 appeared to be due, in part, to an Afghan soldier’s murder of four French soldiers 10 months earlier. However, the United States’ continued involvement in the Afghan War – a conflict that has killed over 2,200 U.S. servicemen as of April 1st, 2019 – suggests the West is willing to incur high casualties so long as the conflict over which they are sustained appears to directly affect its security.
On the contrary, McInnes’s most noteworthy observation on the evolution of warfare is the gradual change in the West’s conceptualization of what constitutes a legitimate military target. This relates to the most significant development affecting irregular warfare, the expectation that Western militaries’ counterinsurgency operations should respect global norms concerning human rights.
To put this into perspective, it is worth acknowledging two major schools of thought in counterinsurgency doctrine. The first, an enemy-centric approach, treats insurgent movements like a conventional military adversary, which can be defeated either through a war of attrition or by inflicting critical damage to the organization’s leadership structure. The second, frequently referred to as the “hearts and minds” approach, entails improving the government’s capacity to provide public services and address local grievances in order to broaden public support for the sitting political administration. While Western democracies have often employed both approaches to combat insurgent movements, present manifestations of these approaches are significantly different from those of years prior.
Relative to today’s standards, Western democracies’ counterinsurgency operations were notably more brutal in the 19th and much of the 20th century. In the Philippine-American War, U.S. military commanders were given substantial autonomy over how they could pursue local insurgents. While some implemented programs that one would associate with hearts and mind strategies – for example, Brigadier General J. Franklin Bell prioritized the need to build additional schools and reconstruct public infrastructure – others relied on brute force to defeat the enemy. Civilians living in contested areas were forcibly relocated to “protected zones,” outside of which anyone whom U.S. forces encountered could be regarded as an enemy combatant and shot. Soldiers were authorized to burn down villages suspected of offering refuge to insurgents, and interrogators would often administer the water cure, a technique in which water would be poured into a detainee’s mouth until the recipient’s stomach became painfully distended, to gather critical intelligence. Roughly 60 years later, the US used similar techniques to combat communist insurgents in South Vietnam.
The United Kingdom resorted to similar measures to suppress revolts in its colonies. In Malaya, and South Africa, the British military forcibly resettled large segments of the local population in fortified compounds, in which humanitarian conditions were often quite poor. By one estimate, as many as 10,000 people died in the “protection camps” that the British administered during the Second Boer War. In Kenya, the British designated large sections of the countryside as prohibited areas, where any individual seen in said zones could be shot on sight, and tortured suspected insurgents to obtain legal confessions, which would frequently be used against the latter in special courts established by the colonial administration.
France was not that much different. In response to an insurrection in the Mandate for Syria and Lebanon in 1925, High Commissioner Maurice Sarrail ordered a 24-hour bombardment of Damascus, the first time such a measure had been used against a major city. Over the course of the Malagasy Uprising in Madagascar, French officers often exploited ethnic animosity between the colonial troops under their command and the local populace, allowing the former to loot villages suspected of harboring insurgents. In Algeria, the French army forcibly relocated the local populace in rural areas to fortified enclaves, declared “free fire zones” over broad stretches of the countryside, and infamously used torture and disappearances to crush the National Liberation Front in the Battle of Algiers. With the exception of the latter case, in which the use of torture and repression generated a major backlash in Metropolitan France, these incidents suggest that Western democracies were relatively uninhibited in how they went about combatting insurgent movements.
Since then, the West’s counterinsurgency doctrine has undergone a major transformation, emphasizing “softer” approaches that involve communal engagement, nation building, and minimum force. Under the leadership of Generals David Petaeus and Stanley McChrystal in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States and its allies utilized both “hearts and minds” and “enemy-centric” approaches to combat Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. On one hand, the coalition sought to protect the populace from extremist groups, and encourage local stakeholders to collaborate and help build a more representative and accountable government. On the other hand, U.S. Joint Special Operations Command utilized its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technology to locate and neutralize the insurgency’s leadership.
Admittedly, one may argue that certain hallmarks of the previous era of Western counterinsurgency are still at play. Ian Shaw questions the ethicality of the United States’ use of drones, arguing that the use of such weapons systems violates national sovereignty and kills innocent civilians. Claudia Aradau, Rens Van Munster, and Leila Nadya Sadat are similarly critical of the United States’ use of extraordinary rendition, a process in which individuals suspected of being affiliated with jihadist organizations are captured and taken to detention centers located in a different country. Presumably, these scholars and others who share their views would contest the notion that Western militaries’ counterinsurgency operations have gradually become less brutal.
Yet such an argument overlooks the decline in the use of forced resettlement, free fire zones, collective punishments, and other brutal tactics that were used previously. This, in addition to investigations conducted on behalf of the legislative branch into the United Kingdom and United States’ military actions overseas – consider the 2012 Senate Intelligence Committee Study on CIA Detention and Interrogation Program or the 2018 All-Party Intelligence and Security Committee report on Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition, for example – suggests Western democracies are significantly more sensitive to human rights concerns than in years prior. Acts of brutality may still occur, but they appear to be increasingly less common.
What led to this radical shift in practices? In accordance with McInnes’s point on the shifting conceptualization of legitimate military targets, one may conclude that domestic audiences in the West came to expect that their country’s military would adhere to liberal-democratic norms and refrain from engaging in activities that result in excessive collateral damage. Douglas Porch acknowledges such a scenario in his assessment of the Algerian War, noting that “torture and the disappearances of dissidents and detainees in military custody kick-started a heretofore sluggish antiwar movement…French citizens increasingly concluded that, if their country to had to descend to the level of murder and torture to win, then the game was not worth the candle.” John Nagl recounts a similar instance of public backlash following revelations of human rights abuses that had occurred under a joint U.S.-South Vietnamese initiative known as the Phung Hoang or “Phoenix” program.
Other countries’ governments do not appear to be bound by such constraints. As Beina Xu, Holly Fletcher, and Jayshree Bajoria highlight in a Council on Foreign Relations study on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in Xinjiang province, brutality and repression constitute a critical component of China’s efforts to counter Uighur insurgent movements in the region. While the Chinese government has implemented economic development programs in the province, it has also imposed severe restrictions on religious and cultural expression, and its security forces have frequently engaged in mass arrests, and prisoner abuse, with no signs of objection from Beijing. Similarly, human rights activists have long criticized the Indian government for its response to the ongoing insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir, citing instances of extra-judicial killing and torture.
Yet these countries’ actions appear to be far less brutal compared to Russian counterinsurgency operations in Chechnya. According to Emma Gilligan, following an ambush on a Russian tank formation advancing on Grozny on November 26, 1994, the Russian military habitually resorted to aerial bombardments of suspected rebel-held areas. “Indiscriminate strikes became the preferred mode of warfare against a ground war the Russian armed forces were unfit to win,” remarks Gilligan. Similarly, in Syria, the Russian military has been accused of using cluster munitions and incendiary weapons in densely populated areas of Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta, resulting in heavy civilian casualties. At present, it does not appear as if the Russian public is particularly concerned by its government’s actions. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, 80 percent of Russians approve of President Vladimir Putin.
In this sense, Russia and China’s contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine appears to be largely similar to the “hard” approaches which Western militaries conducted in the nineteenth and mid-twentieth century. Brute force is not the only means by which these governments attempt to uphold order, but it is always an option.
What makes the West’s shift from “hard” to “soft” counterinsurgency more consequential than the numerous innovations that insurgent groups have accomplished over the past few decades? Simply put, Western nations appear to expect other countries’ armed forces to follow a similar standard of conduct. Since 1977, the United States Department of State has published the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, an annual assessment of human rights conditions worldwide. The British government publishes a similar report, as does the European Union. In addition, the United States Congress amended the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act to prohibit foreign security forces that have committed gross human rights violations from receiving foreign assistance. Under this provision, known as the Leahy Laws, the United States has blacklisted military units in Bolivia, Indonesia, and Turkey.
In doing this, the West created a series of incentives for countries to eschew “hard” counterinsurgency tactics. Refraining from such behavior allows states to maintain a good international reputation, and (arguably more importantly) retain access to Western foreign assistance. Admittedly, it is worth noting that not all states adhere to this dynamic. The Syrian Arab Republic has repeatedly shirked international human rights norms, and used torture, disappearances, and bombardments of major population centers to uphold the state’s authority, most notably during the Islamist Uprising in 1979, and the ongoing Syrian Civil War. In addition, Western countries appear less inclined to sanction notorious human rights violators, such as Saudi Arabia, when doing so might endanger their economic interests. While the introduction of the Leahy Laws and Country Reports on Human Rights Practices has not stopped states’ security forces from committing atrocities, one may argue that they provide a means of pressuring foreign governments to curb these practices.
One result of the West’s embrace of “soft” counterinsurgency approaches appears to be the spread of national-level disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) and countering violent extremism (CVE) programming. Commenting on the Kenyan government’s efforts to counter the expansion of the Somali-based jihadist group, Al-Shabaab, into areas along the country’s coast, Fathima Azmiya and Paul Goldsmith credit the U.S. and Dutch governments for influencing the former’s adoption of a National CVE Strategy in 2016.  Under this framework, the Kenyan government has partnered with local stakeholders and civil society organizations to counter Islamic radicalization in at-risk communities.
Vanda Felbab-Brown similarly credits the United States government for encouraging the development of Operation Safe Corridor, a DDR program which the Nigerian government has used to encourage Boko Haram militants to defect from the insurgency. This marks a dramatic pivot from the earlier measures that the Nigerian government had employed to suppress insurgent movements, going so far as to starve out rebel areas, and execute between 500 and 800 suspected insurgent sympathizers after recapturing the town of Asaba during the Biafran War. While both Kenya and Nigeria’s security forces still face accusations of human rights abuses, the aforementioned examples suggest their governments’ counterinsurgency doctrine is gradually becoming less reliant on brute force.
While insurgencies have consistently proven capable of adapting to their operational environment, the most consequential evolution in irregular warfare has occurred among state security forces. Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, Western democracies have gradually constrained their militaries’ ability to prosecute counterinsurgency campaigns, prioritizing liberal-democratic norms over their desire to quickly defeat their adversary. This has not only affected the ways the West has waged war in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also influenced the counterinsurgency doctrine of other countries within the former’s sphere of influence. Building off this research, scholars may wish to investigate the efficacy of “soft” counterinsurgency approaches, and whether the West’s commitment to such practices may survive in an era marked by the rise of populist movements that appear less interested in adhering to liberal-democratic ideals.
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