Summary: In this third chapter of “On Counterinsurgency” Martin van Creveld describes the operational differences between winning and losing methods of counterinsurgency. Victory comes to those who take difficult paths. Most nations take the easier path, and lose.
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.
“On Counterinsurgency” by Martin van Creveld
From Combating Terrorism, edited by Rohan Gunaratna (2005). Posted with the authors’ generous permission.
For background see The first lesson of our failed wars: we were warned, but choose not to listen.
This paper has into 4 parts, 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 three: On Power and Compromises
According to the well-known proverb, success has many fathers whereas failure is an orphan. However true this may be in respect to every other aspect of life, in the case of counter-insurgency clearly it does not apply.
As noted, entire libraries have been written on counter-insurgency campaigns that failed. Often the authors were the very people who had participated in, or were responsible for, the failures in question. For example, the term “low intensity war” itself was invented by the British General Frank Kitson; having taken part in a whole series of them, he was finally made commandant of the Staff College so he could teach others how it should be done. Very great efforts have been made to analyze the reasons and suggest ways to avoid a repetition. Judging by the way the Americans are conducting themselves in Iraq, to no avail.
By comparison, very little has been written about counterinsurgency campaigns that succeeded. One reason for this is because, since 1941, the number of such successes has been so limited that nine out of ten people cannot even remember them.