Small Wars Journal

Six Reasons Counterinsurgencies Lose

Mon, 07/27/2009 - 7:25pm
Six Reasons Counterinsurgencies Lose

A Complementary Perspective

by Captain James Cahill

Six Reasons Counterinsurgencies Lose (Full PDF Article)

Dr. Donald Stoker's article, Six Reasons Insurgencies Lose: A Contrarian View, provides a welcome paradigm shift to assist U.S. military practitioners analyze the outcome of past insurgencies, and by extension formulate strategies to defeat future insurgencies. Similar to Stoker's argument that insurgents often fail through their own missteps, counterinsurgents can also be their own worst enemy. Therefore, the following list of reasons why counterinsurgencies lose complements Dr. Stoker's perspective.

Six Reasons Counterinsurgencies Lose (Full PDF Article)

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Peri (not verified)

Mon, 08/24/2009 - 10:38am

Why Counterinsurgency Often Falls Back on an Enemy-Based Strategy

A contradiction inherent in the concept of counterinsurgency is that it requires the national government to implement political, social, and/or economic development reforms their previous refusal to carry out in the first place originally sparked the insurgency. The combination of represssive/corrupt government and issues of [ethnic, regional and/or sectarian]minority/majority control of the reins of state make it unlikely that a government would want to surrender some of its priveliges with larger or different segments of the population.

The question for the US is whether we can or should assist such states that lack popular legitimacy without harming our own image and stated international goals. Al Qaeda is unlike "normal" insurgencies in that while it exploits local grievances [or latches on to a local insurgency] it's goals are not the local tangible political or economic goals of the population. Instead, they see the situation as a stepping stone to a larger goal at odds with the interests of the local community.

In fact, when the US gets involved, it is MORE likely that a local insurgency will be hijacked by an Al Qaeda-like globalist group, tempting us to take sides in an internal strubble within a state in order to fight our own international enemy.

Our goal should be one of "pre-empting" a nascent insurgency with an early international/regional intervention in favor of national reconciliation, one that does not favor one side in the conflict and put is "in bed" with an oppressive government.

The larger point here is that peoples, border, and identities have always been shifting throughout history, especially in the last couple of centuries with the rise of ethno-nationalism and notions of self-determination. We have to accept this as within the nature of things. We should not conflate "stability" with simply maintaining the "status quo." Rather, rebellions, insurgencies and revolutions will continue to be in the nature of things. Our goal should be early collective intervention to push the parties to the conflict to a peaceful settlement, not early prep for a counterinsurgency. Coming down on one side should be our last resort.

Lt Col Doug H (not verified)

Mon, 08/24/2009 - 6:17am

One big reason that insurgencies are effective is due to the fact that the counterinsurgent entity tends not to have a well-coordinated strategy that goes to the root of the problem. Counterinsurgent leaders may have a great operational and tactical grasp of the situation, but lack an overarching strategy with the needed coordination of resources. If the strategy is to smack the enemy and utterly defeat it, then all stops are unplugged and we annihilate the area; if the strategy is to build a nation, then it needs to be secured, and built with a generous deployment of civil engineers, teachers, medics, entrepreneurs, and civil affairs personnel or contractors, all singing off the same sheet of music.

Excellent compliment to the original article by Dr. Stoker. It's also very welcome, since the RAND set examined by Stoker indicates that insurgencies are almost as likely to succeed as counterinsurgencies (60-40 ratio in favor of the counterinsurgent, which means that insurgencies are officially more successful than the Washington Nationals).

One interesting book to read about the advantages that insurgencies can sometimes have is "<a href="… Goliath: Why Insurgencies Win</a>".

One of the key points the book makes is that insurgents typically have an advantage when fighting against a power that is not native to the country--for example, Western powers fighting insurgencies in the Middle East, Asia, etc. Largely, this is simply due to the fact that insurgencies are on what Sun-Tzu likes to refer to as "killing ground". Success or failure for them is a matter of life or death for their movement. For the foreign power, success or failure does not have the dire consequences, therefore, they always have the temptation to opt out when necessary.

Good article, but why should each side (insurgent/counterinsurgent) stop at six?