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Counter-insurgency: the failed conflict resolution strategy that the West won’t let die

In Mali, the controversial military tactic has not stemmed the conflict. Is it time for a moratorium on its use?

Arthur Stein
8 July 2019
A French soldier, part of the Operation Barkhane taskforce, speaks to a man in Mali, 2016.
A French soldier, part of the Operation Barkhane taskforce, speaks to a man in Mali, 2016.
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Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What do past wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and the ongoing conflict in Mali all have in common? They are all examples of the failures of counter-insurgency strategies. In seeking to rebuild state institutions and the legitimacy of unpopular governments, these controversial doctrines have often paradoxically contributed to even greater ethnic and communal fragmentation and opened the way to endless and destructive fighting.

Despite having been discredited after the 2001 war in Afghanistan, counter-insurgencies strategies are once again being used in conflicts across the globe. The war that has been raging in Mali since 2012 is one such example. In the fight against insurgents in the Sahel, the French-led Operation Barkhane has revived anti-guerilla tactics first used in the second half of the 20th century.

Since 2000, the number of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism interventions by Western states has increased substantially. Even multilateral international institutions are now affected by this shift; in 2013, UN-led peacekeeping operations openly designated specific political groups to target in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in the Central African Republic.

A legitimate question therefore arises. Why, despite its track record, do states keep turning to counter-insurgency?

Since the end of the Cold War, conflicts between states have declined sharply. The majority of contemporary conflicts since are civil wars, often between groups with asymmetrical power. For example, powerful states against locally settled insurgents defined by ideological or ethnic lines. Although the military capabilities of each side vary in these conflicts, it is often the case that one side is not strong enough to defeat the other, while the other is not weak enough to be defeated. Faced with such stalemates, Western countries have readopted the counter-insurgency strategies previously used by the French in Algeria and the Americans in Vietnam.

In theory, counter-insurgency uses coercive means to defeat the clandestine insurgents on one side, while improving the general living conditions of non-combatant populations on the other. It’s underlying philosophy is winning the "hearts and minds" of the non-combatant population, which requires the reconstruction of stable state institutions in parallel with military activities. In Afghanistan and in Iraq for instance, the United States' counter-insurgency strategy was two-pronged: its aims were to defeat insurgents while also legitimising the governments formed after its military intervention.

But this strategy comes at a significant cost for the intervening countries. Firstly, it requires a massive mobilisation of human, economic and logistical resources to compensate for the lack of legitimate state structures, which have either been damaged by war or did not exist in the first place.

Secondly, counter-insurgency also comes at a political cost. The recent use of such tactics has led to enduring conflicts, perceived as failures by the publics of the intervening countries. Governments must know that engaging in counter-insurgency operations is a long-term commitment, the duration of which will almost certainly exceed most term limits. The intervening states have undeniable obligations of visible results.

The dangers of recruiting militias

What can be done when the ambitions of a state exceed the resources that can be mobilised for an intervention? Very often, they find someone ready to do the work for them. Following the logic of counter-insurgency, legitimate governments or foreign-intervening forces have repeatedly delegated law enforcement to allied non-state armed groups. To avoid an infinite involvement of foreign forces on the ground, these states have opted to use local proxies. Whether they are paramilitary groups, pro-government militias or ad hoc self-defense organisations, these entities have been allocated strong resources, with the assigned mission of defending the interests of the intervening states.

The 2001 Afghanistan war is a case study in delegating military force. As it was impossible for the US military and its allies to ensure a continuous presence throughout the vast Afghan territory, tribal militias were recruited to fill the gaps. A rapidly emerging neo-institution, the Afghan Local Police (ALP) was partly built on ethnic bases to support the immediate interests of the US military. In the province of Kunduz in particular, in the north of the country, many Tajik, Uzbek or Turkmen militias were trained, armed and were given the proper means to support and to defend the interests of the anti-Taliban struggle. The assistance provided was, in the minds of the intervening countries, enough leverage to ensure control of the tribal militias recruited.

Members of the Afghan Local Police, sponsored by the US, in Kunduz, 2013.
Members of the Afghan Local Police, sponsored by the US, in Kunduz, 2013. | PA Images

The arming of non-state actors – the result of a strong desire for control of territory at the lowest cost possible – is not without consequences. Since conflicts are periods of transformation for group identities, co-opting organisations carries a high risk of exacerbating already existing inter-ethnic and inter-communal tensions. Although the interests of the recruited armed groups may occasionally and partially converge with those of the intervening foreign forces, they are very difficult to control in the long term, even by the legitimate state structures that finance or arm them.

In Afghanistan, the distributed political, economic and military resources were rapidly manipulated by tribal militias to serve their own interests, in a completely uncontrolled manner. Pre-existing tensions over identity were gradually reinforced, while the general security of local populations deteriorated. Today, Afghan state institutions are in tatters, and the Taliban are constantly gaining ground, underscoring the failings of country-insurgency.

Despite the legacy of the Afghan war, counter-insurgency doctrines, and their propensity to delegate policing, were not abandoned in the late 2000s. While the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Mali are today threatened by the divergent interests of many ethnic and religious groups, research institutions and humanitarian organisations have reported that the Malian government and the foreign forces supporting it, including the Barkhane force led by the French army, supported some tribal militias in the center and the north of the country.

Playing the game of old rivalries, whether political or economic, is risky.

Since the strategy is very similar to that used in Afghanistan, it is not surprising that it has suffered the same drawbacks. Playing the game of old rivalries, whether political or economic, is risky. Inter-community struggles have been exacerbated by the pursuit of military victory at all cost; a settlement of the conflict in the short and medium term seems unimaginable.

While the use of non-state armed groups might seem expedient during a war, they quickly become a problem to manage in the period that follows. Their post-conflict demobilisation is often poorly managed – or even ignored altogether – because of the lack of resources and political will. In Iraq, for example, many of the militias created to supplement the army in the fight against ISIS are now unavoidable political actors and claim a prominent place in the future institutional organisation of the country. The war allowed them to gradually take part in the national political game.

Western countries have learned little from their mistakes. Counter-insurgency doctrines have all too often favored the coercion at the expense of political and inclusive solutions to conflicts. The use of armed groups reinforces polarisation between different identities, opening the way to endless clashes. The process of re-monopolisation of legitimate violence is hampered, and the risk of resurgence violence is inevitably increased.

Intervening countries can no longer afford to arbitrarily choose who are the “good” and “bad” militias, and to try to win the hearts and minds of one group. In Mali, as in Afghanistan or Iraq, the recommended and necessary solution is now the establishment of an inclusive dialogue among all communities. To rethink the rationale behind post-conflict peacebuilding governance, it is urgent to set aside top-down approaches based solely on force. But is it possible to learn from past experiences?

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