On Counterinsurgency: The Two Methods that Win
Summary: In this second chapter of “On Counterinsurgency” Martin van Creveld describes the two methods of crushing insurgencies. We have tried neither; we might lack the capacity to use either method. Note that both successes were, like almost all defeats of insurgencies, done by governments fighting domestic insurgencies.
As the first phase (Iraq, Af-Pak) of our mad foreign wars winds down — and the second phase expands — we can still learn from this analysis by one of the West’s greatest living military historians. We can still turn off this path. The passage of time closes options; we might soon pass the last exit to avoid serious war.
…by Martin van Creveld
From Combating Terrorism,
…edited by Rohan Gunaratna (2005)
For background see The first lesson of our failed wars: we were warned, but choose not to listen.
This paper falls into four parts, each posted separately.
- How We Got to Where We Are is a brief history of insurgency since 1941 and of the repeated failures in dealing with it.
- Two Methods focuses on President Assad’s suppression of the uprising at Hama in 1983 on the one hand and on British operations in Northern Ireland on the other, presenting them as extreme case studies in dealing with counterinsurgency.
- On Power and Compromises draws the lessons from the methods just presented and goes on to explain how, by vacillating between them, most counterinsurgents have guaranteed their own failure.
Part two. Two Methods to defeat insurgencies
In early 1982, President Hafez Asad’s (In Arabic, Asad means “Lion“) regime in Syria was twelve years old and was meeting growing opposition that did not make its future appear rosy. Part of the opposition came from the members of various ethnic groups who took issue with the fact that Asad, like his most important collaborators, was an Alawite. Now the Alawites are one of the less important Islamic sects, traditionally poor and discriminated against. Many in the Islamic world do not even regard them as true Moslems and claim that, instead of Allah, they worship the moon and the stars; it as if Germany had been ruled by a Serbic Mafia or Italy by a Greek one.
Even more dangerous was the Islamic priesthood, or Ulama. During the early years after seizing power Asad had made some concessions to them, promoting priests, increasing their salaries and even giving them limited freedom of speech. They, however, saw the secular Ba’atist state as opposed to everything they themselves believed in and were determined to wage holy war against it. To make things worse for Asad, for a number of years a large part of his Army had been involved in Lebanon. Originally its mission was to put an end to a vicious civil war that had broken out in 1976. That proved hard to do and the Syrians found themselves trying to run the country; which, early in 1982, was also being threatened by a possible Israeli invasion.
As the Muslim Brothers, a religious terrorist organization with branches in practically every Arab country, mounted a well-organized and effective terrorist campaign against him, Asad’s response was similar to, though perhaps more brutal than, that of countless others before and since. His first move was to abolish what limited civil liberties existed-compared to its predecessors, originally his regime had been relatively liberal. Next he used his Army and secret police to persecute, arrest, and torture thousands, going so far as to order the inmates of entire prisons stood against the wall and shot. Nothing worked and the bombings, in which hundreds lost their lives, went on.
With his regime disintegrating and his own life increasingly threatened, the Syrian leader resorted to desperate measures. Though clashes between terrorists and the security forces took place all over the country the center of the rebellion was known to be the city of Hama, called “the head of the snake“. Even as the repression campaign continued in full swing twelve thousand soldiers, commanded by Asad’s brother Rifat, surrounded Hama. The way the Syrian newspapers told the story later on, they started combing the city house by house, making arrests.
As they did so, about 500 mujahidun, or holy warriors, launched a counterattack. Perhaps they were deliberately provoked by Rifat’s forces. Perhaps they were hoping that the Army’s Suni troops would desert from their units and, possibly, join their uprising. Either way, they emerged from hiding, took up their weapons, and engaged in open warfare, reportedly killing some 250 civil servants, policemen, and the like.
Whether or not it had been planned that way, the uprising provided Rifat and Hafez with the excuse they had been waiting for. Relying mainly on their most powerful weapon, heavy artillery, the Syrian troops surrounding Hama opened fire. Anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people, many of them women and children, were indiscriminately killed.
What followed was even more important than the killing itself. Far from apologizing for his action, Rifat, asked how many people his men had killed, deliberately exaggerated their number. As his reward, he was promoted to vice-president for national security; several of his fellow butchers were also promoted or decorated. Later, survivors told horrifying tales of buildings that had collapsed on their inhabitants and trenches filled with corpses. They also described how, in an attempt to get at jewelry, Syrian troops did not hesitate to cut off people’s fingers and ears.
Hama’s great mosque, one of the best known in all of Syria, was razed to the ground and later became a parking lot. Years afterwards a journalist, Scot Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor, who had visited the city, told me that when people passed the place they still looked away and shuddered. Some of them were so terrified that they did not even dare pronounce the word “Alawite“; instead, pointing at the hills, they spoke of “those people there“.
In the words of Asad’s Israeli biographer, Prof. Moshe Maoz, “the terrible crushing of the Hama revolt not only broke the military backbone of the Muslim Brothers but also served as a vivid warning to them, as well as to other opposition groups, against further acts of disobedience. And although in recent years small groups of Muslim Brothers have occasionally conducted guerrilla attacks on army units, the mujahidun ceased for the time being to be a threat to Assad.” Having fallen out with his brother, Rifat had to flee abroad. Not so Hafez who went on ruling Syria with an iron fist. His son, Bashir, continues to so today.
The other successful counter-insurgency campaign worth examining in some detail in the present paper is, as already said, the British one in Northern Ireland. The “troubles” in Ireland have a long history. They go back all the way to the Irish struggle for independence (1916-1921), King William III, Oliver Cromwell, and even King Henry II (reigned 1154-89) who was the first English monarch to campaign in the island.
In January 1969 they broke out again and quickly escalated as bombs demolished parts of the infrastructure-electricity-pylons and water pumps-and as opposing demonstrators fought street-battles with each other. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC, a locally recruited riot police consisting largely of Protestants), was unable to contain the violence and so the British Army became heavily involved from the summer on.
From this point, the situation went from bad to worse. In a single night’s “battle” (Belfast, 14-15 August 1969) 4 policemen and 10 civilians were killed whereas a 145 civilians were wounded. Property damage was also extensive, amounting to no fewer than 150 houses destroyed by fire. The violence, the like of which had not been seen in the region for almost 50 years, seems to have dampened the enthusiasm of both sides.
However, memories proved short and there was another outbreak of even greater violence in August of the next year. From this time on things deteriorated as the British troops, whose number now exceeded ten thousand, vainly sought to prevent mobs of Protestant and Catholic demonstrators from clashing with each other and destroying as much property as they could.
Behind their backs terrorism also escalated as 37 explosions rocked the district in March 1971, 47 in April, and 50 in June. From January to August of that year the total number of bombings was 311, causing over 100 injuries. In 1972 the number rose to well over one thousand; the IRA also extended its operations from Ireland into the United Kingdom proper. A temporary peak was reached on 30 January 1972 when Street fighting in Londonderry led to thirteen people dying at the hand of British troops trying to quell yet another riot. An event which is remembered as “Bloody Sunday“.
Had things been allowed to continue in the same way, no doubt the British attempt to hold on to Northern Ireland would have ended as so many others since 1941 had, i.e. in complete defeat followed by elaborate analyses as to why it took place. If, for a change, this did not happen and the outcome did not correspond to the usual pattern, then perhaps there are some things to be learnt from the effort. This article is hardly the place to detail all the many different things the Army did during its thirty-year involvement, let alone follow the immensely complicated political process with all its twists and turns. Instead, all I can do is provide a short list of the things that the British Army, having used “Bloody Sunday” to reconsider its actions, did not do.
First, never again did the British open indiscriminate fire into marching or rioting crowds; in the future, however violent the riots and demonstrations with which they faced, they preferred to employ less violent means that led to a far smaller number of casualties.
Second, and in marked contrast to most other counter-insurgents from the Germans in Yugoslavia to the Israelis in the Occupied Territories, not once in the entire struggle did they bring in heavy weapons such as tanks, armored personnel carriers [EDITOR: incorrect. British used APCs extensively so they COULD withstand attacks and not retaliate], artillery, or aircraft to repulse attacks and inflict retaliation.
Third, never once did they inflict collective punishments such as imposing curfews, blowing up houses, destroying entire neighborhoods to open up fields of fire, and the like; by posing as the protectors of the population, not its tormentors, they were able to prevent the uprising from spreading.
Fourth and most important, by and large the Army stayed within the law. Partly because they restrained themselves, partly because there were other, less conspicuous organizations to do some of the dirty work for them, they were able to refrain from arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and illegal killings.
From time to time, this rule was infringed upon. Even without breaking the law, interrogation-techniques could be intimidating enough. Here and there were clear violations of civil liberties as torture as well as false accusations were used in order to elicit information and obtain convictions. A few known IRA leaders, identified and tracked in foreign countries, were shot, execution-style, in what has since become known as “targeted killings“. On the whole, however, the British played by the rules. This remained true even after terrorists had blown up the 79 year-old Earl of Mountbatten, the Queen’s uncle, in his yacht. Even after they had planted a bomb that demolished part of a Brighton Hotel where Ms. Thatcher was due to speak; and even after they had used a van to fire mortar rounds at a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street.
Passing over the details, which would suffice to fill many volumes, the real secret behind the British success seems to have been extreme self-control. Whatever else might happen, they did not allow themselves to be provoked.
I myself began to get an inkling of that fact during my numerous visits to the Army Staff College at Camberley. Each time I went there I discussed the situation in Northern Ireland with as many officers as I could; people whose names I cannot remember but to all of whom I am grateful. What I still consider the most important insight, however, was given to me not at Camberley but over dinner in Geneva some time in the early 1990s. My interlocutor was a British lieutenant colonel who had done several tours of duty in Northern Ireland but whose name, alas, I cannot remember either. What he told me can be summed up as follows.
Look at almost any one of the hundred or so major counter-insurgency campaigns that took place all over the world since 1945 (or, if you wish, 1941). However great the differences between them, they have one thing in common. In every known instance the “forces of order” killed far more people than they lost. Often by an order of magnitude, as is the case in Iraq where the Americans always emphasize how many more Iraqis died; and often in such an indiscriminate manner (in counter-insurgency, whenever heavy weapons are used, the results are bound to be indiscriminate) as to make the result approximate genocide.
By contrast, up to that date the struggle in Northern Ireland had cost the United Kingdom 3,000 casualties in dead alone. Of the 3,000 about 1,700 were civilians, most of them innocent bystanders who had been killed as bombed exploded at the time and place they happened to be. Of the remaining 1,300, 1,000 were British Soldiers and no more than 300 were terrorists, a ratio of three to one. And that, he ended his exposition, is why we are still there.
Other powerful articles by Martin van Creveld
- “The Fate of the State“, Parameters, (Spring 1996), summary of his magnum opus Rise and Decline of the State
- “Through a Glass Darkly” (2000), summary of Transformation of War (perhaps his second most important work)
- “Naming a New Era: the New Middle Ages“, (Foreign Policy, Summer 2000)
- “The Great Illusion: Women in the Military”, Martin van Creveld, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, 2000; 29 (subscription only here; free Scribd PDF here)
To see lists of his published works and links to his online articles see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.