Counter-insurgency isn’t working, here’s why
In policy discourses, insurgencies are often placed outside the realm of normal politics and are stigmatized as a source of violence and instability. At best, they are described as a ‘struggle for control and influence’ that can unsettle the political authority of state institutions, though the narrative is often far more antagonistic. Underpinning this antagonism is the long-established perception that the state is the only legitimate practitioner of violence. But a policy approach that insists on state-led counter-insurgency and the venality of insurgency, is not just a reiteration of a disciplinary norm. Instead, present-day antagonism towards the ‘scourge’ of insurgent violence is also an extension of colonial hostility towards insurgent anti-colonial movements. Furthermore, this hostility actively undermines policy-makers’ ability to conduct peacebuilding effectively by limiting their ability to respond to the political ambitions and grievances of insurgent groups.
The colonial roots of counter-insurgencies in international politics
Insurgencies are often stigmatized in policy discourses. This stigma is palpable, for instance, in the joint…
The colonial roots of contemporary problems
When looking to understand how present-day counter-insurgency is influenced by colonial assumptions, it is important to grasp the impact of colonial theorists on contemporary policy-makers.
A particularly illustrative example of this can be seen in the impact of the works of David Galula. Today Galula is considered a ‘later-day prophet’ of counter-insurgency. His writings have found global resonance and even shaped the US Counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine. In fact, it is said that General Stanley McChrystal kept Galula’s works on his nightstand. Having served as the Lieutenant-General in the French Army between 1939 and 1962, Galula was the first to conceptualize the conflict between the insurgent and the counter-insurgent as essentially political in nature. He proposed that military actions need to be calibrated to disrupt the political strategies of insurgent groups and enhance support for counter-insurgent forces.
Nonetheless, Galula’s writings build on learnings from French colonial counter-insurgency campaigns. As a result, they are animated by a racialized logic of ‘colonial difference’ that portrays the colonized as ‘uncivilized people’ engaging in illegitimate political action and deems the colonial state’s counter-insurgency to have an evangelical mission to conquer the ‘savages’. This sense of colonial antagonism was central in Galula’s influential work, Pacification in Algeria, 1956–1958 (1963) where he does little to address the political grievances and aims of the Algerian national struggle. Instead, he dismisses Algerian nationalists as a source of disorder who would use ‘any means toward their ends’. In comparison, the colonial government is endowed with legitimacy, as it is responsible for maintaining ‘law and order’ and countering the disorder of insurgent politics.
To be sure, the writings of colonial theorists like Galula appeared in a period when there was broad support for imperialism in the global North. Counter-insurgencies today, some have argued, must contend with a considerably less permissive international political landscape. Nonetheless, contemporary approaches to counter-insurgencies tend to replicate the politics of difference seen in colonial counterinsurgency campaigns, despite operating in a different context. In the joint counter-insurgency doctrine of the United States armed forces this can be seen in the way it entirely discounts the political aspirations of insurgencies and instead describes them as motivated by an urge to ‘exploit existing grievances’ and create new ones by ‘attacking governance institutions, causing insecurity, and worsening conditions for the local population’. The coloniality of the narrative is also apparent in a European Union concept note on EU-led operations, where insurgents are distinguished by their tendency to ‘terrorize unarmed civilians through sexual and gender-based violence, the threat of violence and/or killing, harassment [and] enslavement’. Equally, we could look to the works of the former director-general of police for the state of Punjab and storied counter-insurgency strategist, Kanwar Pal Singh Gill who once wrote that the Khalistan liberation movement was ‘created out of a pattern of venal politics, of unscrupulous and bloody manipulation, and a brazen jockeying for power’.
Critically, demonstrating that present-day counter-insurgencies follow a colonial modus operandi does more than just provide historical context. Rather, it should serve as a cautionary tale for those still seeking to practice counter-insurgency as a means of achieving peace and stability. It is a reminder that the colonial logics underpinning much of contemporary counter-insurgency strategy are not meant to operate as mechanisms of political reconciliation. On the contrary, they are animated by a politics of difference that is profoundly antagonistic to insurgent groups.
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Moving beyond antagonism
To engage in effective peacebuilding, policy-makers need to rethink the foundations of present-day policy approaches to insurgencies. This must be rooted not in a sense of (colonial) antagonism, but in a commitment to understanding how and why insurgent politics find resonance.
To achieve this, three steps are crucial. First, the violence of insurgent factions should not be used to justify policy approaches that avoid reconciliation and political settlement. Second, we need to recognize that insurgent tactics find resonance as more than tools of disorder. Indeed, for the political communities that espouse them, insurgent tactics are often an important mode of communication that evokes their political identity and aspirations in the face of state violence. Finally, any recognition of how and why insurgent tactics find resonance should, involve recognizing the underlying political grievances that often drive insurgent groups. Doing so would bring into focus the political projects of insurgencies and recognize that substantially addressing political grievances is essential for effective policy-making, especially when conducting peacebuilding campaigns.
Ultimately, it is vital that policy-makers understand and address the negative impact that colonial era assumptions continue to have on contemporary counter-insurgency campaigns. A failure to do so will continue to undermine peacebuilding efforts and obstruct attempts at political reconciliation.
Somdeep Sen is Associate Professor in International Development Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark.
His article ‘The colonial roots of counter-insurgencies in international politics’ was published in the January 2022 issue of International Affairs.
All views expressed are individual not institutional.