Small Wars Journal

Time to Bring Strategy to Molenbeek: No Need for Counterinsurgency

Share this Post

Time to Bring Strategy to Molenbeek: No Need for Counterinsurgency

Marno de Boer

After reading Gary Anderson’s SWJ article ‘Time to Bring Counterinsurgency to Molenbeek’ I could not resist the temptation to retweet the piece accompanied by the comment ‘Counterinsurgency fans never stop, now want to apply the failed doctrine to Molenbeek.’ Challenged by the editor of Small Wars Journal to write a rebuttal, I decided to contribute my thoughts.

To clarify my starting position, I consider there to be two definitions of counterinsurgency. The first one encompasses all operations by security forces against insurgents. Under that definition, Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs or the late Paul Aussaresses’ infamous death squad in Algiers are no less counterinsurgency than the recommendations penned by David Galula. A second type of counterinsurgency is a peculiar Western doctrine with Universalist aspirations for fighting an insurgency. It finds its roots in nineteenth century European imperialism, and has been dusted off for armed nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan. From Galula and Robert Thompson to the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency manual FM 3-24, there is in essence a claim that a certain set of tactical steps leads to victory at the strategic and political level. Moreover, they contain the idea that it is both desirable and feasible to elevate the population to a higher level of civilization. This will pull the people towards the government and away from the insurgents. This civilizing mission supposedly works better than trying to cow the population into submission or apathy.

These second types of counterinsurgency works are first and foremost an inaccurate attempt at historiography. They misrepresent the actual course of the war in Algeria, Malaya or American-occupied Iraq. Furthermore, they serve as public relations and lobby instruments to advocate for more wars of armed nation building out of some sort of humanitarian ideal.

Anderson urges Belgium to learn from the British counterinsurgency campaign in Malaya against ethnically Chinese communist rebels. He claims the British fought the insurgent movement largely through police action under emergency laws, an example which Brussels should copy. This misrepresents what actually took place in Southeast Asia in the 1950s. The British waged a brutal campaign against the rebels. Ethnic Chinese were indiscriminately rounded up and detained in villages guarded by the British security forces. Food was strictly rationed to lunch packages of perishable cooked rice for those working in the fields, and civilians violating curfews were shot on sight.

That all of this happened ‘within the law’ is indicative of what the British legal system permitted against non-European subjects of the Empire. It does not set out a realistic course of action for a country that is a member state of the European Union in the twenty-first century. Tellingly, whereas the British incarcerated rebellious ethnic groups in concentration camps in Kenya and Malaya, they did not dare to apply the lessons from Malaya against the Catholics in Northern-Ireland. If Anderson nevertheless wants to apply those lessons to Molenbeek, the proposal should be based on a correct picture of the war in Malaya.

Unsurprisingly, the recommendations made by Anderson are mostly of a tactical nature, such as saturating Iraqi or Belgian neighborhoods with security force outposts. If these measures fail to generate success at the strategic level, as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan, the counterinsurgency method is still considered beyond reproach. The fault lies with the respective host governments, who did not buy into the FM 3-24 concept of armed nation building. The same disclaimer is attached to the recommendations made to the Belgian government, who ‘likely lack the political will’.

Shifting the blame towards a lack of ‘political will’ misses the point that expeditionary anti-guerrilla operations, just like fights against relatively small numbers of domestic terrorists, are essentially limited wars. In such wars, the will to apply costly and lengthy tactical solutions is by definition limited. The Belgians would therefore shoot themselves in the foot if they relied on tactical measures from the playbook of counterinsurgency warfare. Any Belgian policymaker would face limited will to stomach the loss of international goodwill that inevitably follows cordoning off neighborhoods. This is especially the case in a country that hosts key international institutions such as the EU and Nato. Another problem is the limited will to create large public works programs for ethnic minorities. The Belgian political system is already severely polarized by wealth transfers from the Dutch speaking to the French speaking community.

A more feasible approach, that truly attacks the problem at its roots, has to incorporate both tactical and strategic elements. With regard to the former, Anderson indeed makes several worthwhile suggestions. The Belgian intelligence services are underfunded and the police insufficiently represent the demographic makeup in cities such as Brussels. It would also be a good idea to address the problem of radical (foreign) influences at mosques. The radicalization and alienation problem is larger than the relatively modest network of committed terrorists. The Dutch intelligence service AIVD has pointed out the dangerous role of radical mosques. Some preachers discourage local youth to travel to the Levant, but continue to extol the virtues and heroism of holy war in Syria. These religious institutions can function as a beltway in the radicalization process.

Closely monitoring such institutions can only hope to identify youngsters who subsequently leave the mosque to radicalize further in hard to monitor tightly knit social groups. Neither I nor European policy makers have a readymade answer to these larger strategic challenges. It is nevertheless crucial to debate such tough questions, and not fall for the belief that a fixed set of tactical steps will offer a way out.

A point of discussion should be the influence of Salafism and other forms of radical Islamism as a potential beltway towards violent Jihadism. A tough line against funding from Gulf States should be considered. That includes a closer look at the example set by Austria, which simply forbade foreign funding of religious institutions. European states should also wonder why the EU and Nato consider it necessary to counter Russian media operations at the strategic level, but fail to take similar steps when it comes to Saudi-Arabia or Qatar. Their Arab language state-owned media enterprises bear more similarities to Russia Today than to the BBC. Such steps against Gulf States would undoubtedly create political fallout. Think of the lucrative arms deals Western countries have concluded in the region. But such monetary benefits might not outweigh the negative influence Gulf States have over segments of the global Muslim population.

The war in Syria begs further strategic questions. Saudi-Arabia and Turkey sponsor Jaish al-Fatah, an alliance of Syrian armed Islamist which includes Al-Qaeda. It might be the opportune moment for Europe to have a tough talk with certain allies, and ultimately be willing to draw conclusions about which side those countries are on in the struggle against Jihadism.

A similar conversation should take place within the Western security and policy establishment. During important phases in the development of international Jihadism, Western countries at least initially stood on the side of armed Islamists. In the 1980s this came in the form of support to the Afghan Mujahedin. In their shadow foreign fighters, the Saudi government and the Pakistani intelligence service had an excellent opportunity to network. In the 1990s Western governments turned a blind eye to the presence of Jihadists and Al-Qaeda leaders in Alija Izetbegovic’s Bosniak rump-state. After all, Sarajevo was considered the ‘good’ side in the Bosnian civil war. In Syria, when it became clear that the Free Syrian Army incorporated or was surpassed by diehard Islamists such as Ahrar al-Sham, European leaders were still prone to holding a rosy picture of the forces battling Bashar al-Assad.  In 2013 Manuel Valls, then France’s interior minister, almost openly gave his support to foreign fighters in Syria: “The fighters in Syria are not fighting France or Europe; they are fighting against the Assad regime. It’s not against French law to fight in a war, but it is a crime to participate in a terrorist organization.” Western policy makers and security officials need to decide for themselves whether in the next war they plan to start on the side of armed Islamists and Salafists again.

Domestically, European countries have to discuss the problem of alienated ethnic groups. All alarm bells should go off by the fact that inhabitants of certain French or Dutch neighborhoods violently take to the streets when one of their peers dies in a confrontation with the police, but stay largely silent after homegrown terrorist attacks shock the rest of the nation. The problems that characterize these neighborhoods, such as poor relations with the police, high unemployment, segregation and a failure to identify with the country of residence, are all too familiar. In my native Netherlands this has been the subject of a heated and often polarized debate for at least a decade and a half. While the situation in some neighborhoods has improved, the underlying lack of integration has not been resolved.

Americans can consider themselves blessed that they do not face this problem to the same degree. The United States’ most significant long term success against domestic Jihadist terrorism is an ability to integrate newcomers. One of the factors behind this is undoubtedly the lack of a comprehensive welfare state, which forces people to participate in society through their jobs. Another factor is that the United States is a comparatively accessible society. People communicate in an open and direct manner, compared to the British indirect approach. The sense of humor is uncomplicated and largely bereft of the subtle European sarcasm that only cultural insiders can understand. Additionally there is the factor of chance. If today’s global terrorists had not been Salafists, but radical Catholics with an ideological connection to Latin America, the States might have been in a different situation. 

Unfortunately there is no quick fix solution of tactical steps to Europe’s integration problem. Subsidized job schemes for youngsters of certain ethnic groups are a stop gap at most: the only sustainable work scheme is the employment provided by the market sector. Moreover, directing subsidies at ethnic minorities risks upsetting those groups of native voters who are already drawn to the extreme right. Neither do European neighborhoods need police stations that address people’s water or sewage complaints, a task carried out by some American army units in Iraq. Belgium, no matter how much it has recently been depicted as a semi-failed state, does have a functioning sewage system and running potable water. If people’s pipes are clogged, they should call a plumber, rather than be pampered by a further increase in the welfare state.

I wish there was an easy manner to integrate those minority groups who currently lag behind, but I can only point out certain ingredients of a possible solution. Think of a broad effort through education at the earliest possible age, addressing discrimination in the labor market to give those who try hard a fair chance, and housing policies that prevent the emergence of large ethnic ghettos. Meanwhile it is necessary to stick firmly to values such as the rights of people irrespective of their gender, sexual preference, or choice to switch form one religion to the other, or stop believing at all. This might be a disappointing answer for those who hope to find a clear roadmap. It is still better than be strayed from the difficult path by the promise of quick fixes.

About the Author(s)

Marno de Boer works as a defence and foreign policy editor for the Dutch newspaper Trouw. Previously he was based in Pakistan as correspondent. He holds an LL.M. in international law from Utrecht University, an M.A. in the history of warfare from King’s College London, and a B.A. in liberal arts and sciences from University College Utrecht.