Wars of counter-insurgency cannot be won - discuss.

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Wars of counter-insurgency cannot be won - discuss.

The Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan defeated after many years of fighting the Taliban. The

United States is currently fighting the same Taliban after invading them for the deadly attacks of Sept

11 2001. After a tremendously successful and devastating attack on the mullahs who ran Afghanistan

with bunker busting bombs, the Americans and their European allies are struck in this quagmire where

total victory has become illusive. The same tale is being repeated in Iraq, where the terrorist group Al

Qaeda practices its hit-and-run strategy to devastating effect. By the same token there have been

counter-insurgency movements that have been text-book successes. The Malayan counter-insurgency

of the 1950s mounted by the British against the Malayan communist has been hailed as a fine example

of the containment and defeat of counter insurgency forces.  The defeat of the Tamil Tigers in Sri

Lanka is another example. It is my thesis that history is chock-full of lessons of counter-insurgency

and it is only through studying these lessons and principles and adapting them, that wars of counter-

insurgency can be won.


For as long as mankind has existed, war has been a long integrated element of life. History, time and

again has proven it to be inescapable by-product of human nature.  It can be argued that humans are

innately and instinctually aggressive and war is simply one manifestation of that innate aggression.

Neurologist Sigmund Freud postulates a theory whereby humans have instinctual energies which

might well be aggressive but civilisation gets us to suppress that aggressive instinct. The cost is that

there is an underlying current of deep unhappiness and unrest. Ever so often, it is that pent up energy

that bursts out in these periodic conflicts.

War is essentially a political endeavour where violence is employed militarily to secure a political

victory. World War II has often been viewed to be the pinnacle of all wars, an exemplary tell-tale of

the staggering atrocities of war. The war ended in 1945 and is often viewed as the start of the

contemporary world. The notion that war in the contemporary world is seemingly more justifiable and

of lesser impact is greatly misleading and unfounded. In fact quite the contrary is the case. Nobel

Laureate Richard E. Smalley, in 2003 determined war as the sixth, out of ten, biggest problems facing

the society for the next fifty years.  This in no small part can be attributed to the type of war that is

predominant in modern era and the normalisation of it. It seems that irregular warfare, particularly

insurgency, has become the forerunner in the preferred choice of combat. Lieutenant General Sir John

Kiszely has identified insurgency to be “the use of subversion and armed conflict by an organized

movement to overthrow a constitutional government”. 

The hypothesis that irregular, guerrilla, terrorist and insurgent warfare are just a new amalgam of

warfare that has risen in the 20th century is erroneous. Irregular warfare has long been a mainstay of

warfare and can be traced back to medieval times. Hence it would appear that history is replete with

examples of insurgency and lessons of counter-insurgency. The doctrine of counter-insurgency has

been promulgated by many, from Santa Cruz de Marcenado to David Galula. Though modern

insurgency is not by any means rigid but constantly evolving, there are still lessons to be learned from

classical counter-insurgency in order to adapt these methods for modern counter-insurgency warfare.

David Kilcullen in “Counter-insurgency Redux , Survival: Global Politics and Strategy” contends that

“[t]he concept of counter-insurgency is logically contingent on that of ‘insurgency” Thus it is of

crucial importance to understand the motivations and capabilities of the insurgents in order for

counter-insurgency to prevail. Knowing your enemy has long been the crux of successful war

victories. Ancient Chinese military general Sun Tzu once instructed that “If you know the enemy and

know yourself , you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”  In order to be able to swiftly

evaluate and suppress impending rebellion, a complete rundown and recognition of the enemy’s

competency and motivations is essential. After all, if one is unaware of what their enemy is capable of

and the cause it is being fought for, it is impervious and completely presumptuous to believe that a

counter-insurgency effort can be victorious while simultaneously being blindsided. Prussian soldier

and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz's most cardinal instruction emphasizes this necessity 'The

first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that the statesman and commander have to

make is to establish...the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying

to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.'

, a retired CIA officer, alleges that it is inherently axiological to be able to keep focus

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on what these rebellious groups in order to be able stand a higher chance of countering these groups

effectively. Smith points out that the downfall of the Bush administration was its readiness to

categorize everyone that opposed them as a ‘terrorist” rather than taking the time to differentiate

between terrorist and insurgents.  For example, the Taliban was quickly deemed as a terrorist

organization though it is first and foremost an insurgent organization that commits terrorist acts to

propel their cause.

In modern cases today, counter-insurgency is ...

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