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.

Counterinsurgency in Hama, Syria


“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 falls into four parts, each posted separately.

  1. How We Got to Where We Are is a brief history of insurgency since 1941 and of the repeated failures in dealing with it.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Conclusions.

Part two: The two Methods to defeat insurgencies

(a)  Syria

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.

A form of counterinsurgency, in Syria (AP Photo)

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.

(b)  Ireland

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.

Old school British CI: Patrick Loughnane, tortured to death by the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1920

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.

———————-  End excerpt  ———————-

Other powerful articles by Martin van Creveld

  1. The Fate of the State“, Parameters, (Spring 1996), summary of his magnum opus Rise and Decline of the State
  2. Through a Glass Darkly” (2000), summary of Transformation of War (perhaps his second most important work)
  3. Naming a New Era: the New Middle Ages“, (Foreign Policy, Summer 2000)
  4. “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.

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28 thoughts on “On Counterinsurgency: The Two Methods that Win”

    1. To give some perspective, I was in the light infantry (US) and we were given a presentation by a Lt. Col. from the UK about his tours in N. Ireland. Head jobs and knee jobs done by the IRA were one of the subjects discussed. Also, his battalion had almost no casualties as they stumbled onto several plots in the making so the IRA concluded that they should wait for his battalion’s tour to end.

      1. Robert,

        Thanks for the additional color on Northern Ireland!

        FYI, for those not familar with these matters: The IRA used classic techniques of revolutionary warfare, including propaganda, personal persuasion, intimidation, and punishment (eg, defectors, informers, internal discipline). The latter two include tar and feathering, “head jobs” (a bullet in the head), and “knee-capping” (bullets in legs or arms or both).

  1. It might be worth looking at how the USSR and other communists managed to take over so much of the world without having much trouble with insurgencies, at least until their last decade.

    Their approach had a lot more in common with Assad’s model than the UK model, but I think soft power had a lot to do with it.

    Maybe the communists didn’t face many insurgence because the potential insurgents had already been converted to communism. It’s been argued that a lot of third-world insurgents didn’t become insurgents because they were communists, they became communists because nobody else talked about insurgency.

    Same thing with islamic extremists today. Say you’re a rebellious young Saudi, looking for friends to help you fight against the a repressive monarchy. You’d think that Western liberal democracy would agree, – wasn’t liberalism an anti-monarchist insurgency once? – but it turns out that our much-touted Western ideals can’t withstand unstable gas prices. So our young rebel finds friends elsewhere.

    Rebellion against foreign occupation may be a strong motive, but it doesn’t explain why things got to the way they were before the foreigners showed up. The South Vietnamese were a mess even before the US showed up, for example. It seems that every time communists or Islamic extremists are in a civil war, the country splits in to the tough-as-nails-fanatics team and the venal-and-pathetic team. Thus Americans are left wondering how “their” Iraqis/Aghans/Vietnamese could even come from the same country as the taliban/vietcong etc.

    It wasn’t always this way. Look at the French revolution: liberalism used to be scary stuff. The American revolutionaries and the rebels of 1848 were pretty damn brave too.

    I suspect that to people living in dictatorships, western liberals look like a bunch of drunk frat boys fighting for their right to party. “Show us your bewbs!” When your soft power doesn’t go far beyond simple consumerism, you might get plenty of converts, but not so many useful ones.

    I think at some point Western liberal democracy is going to do what so many rock bands do – go back to basics, finding the essence of what made us great and focusing on that.

    1. ” It seems that every time communists or Islamic extremists are in a civil war, the country splits in to the tough-as-nails-fanatics team and the venal-and-pathetic team. Thus Americans are left wondering how “their” Iraqis/Aghans/Vietnamese could even come from the same country as the taliban/vietcong etc.”

      Well the second team is working for the occupation forces at great personal benefit. They sell their people to the invader for money and power over their brethren.
      A particular type of people do that.

      The first team is fighting at great personal risk against the invading army. No money or villas in that business. But the real clear present danger of a painful death at the hands of the invaders or the local auxiliaries they could employ. So a different type of people forms the team.
      It is not fanaticism.

      As an exercise if the Taliban occupy Texas. Some people will serve them. Some will oppose them.
      You got the two teams. The venal team serving mullah Omar and his appointed governors and the fanatical team tough as nails trying to through the invaders out.
      No fanaticism needed in reality.

  2. An interesting and informative article! As a follow-up question to the author or to others, how much interaction do you think there might have been between the relatively light-handed tactics used by the British in Northern Ireland and another factor which might be thought of as important for the survival of British rule– the deep roots and large proportion of the Protestant population, which probably would have been difficult to either evacuate or abandon.

    1. Matt,

      That is also my deduction from this. The key distinction in counterinsurgency is the force doing it: domestic or foreign. Most of the winners are those fighting local insurgents.

      Foreign armies seldom win. They don’t know how to play the local game. In MvC’s context, which solution to use. They are not interchangeable!

  3. So then the effective counterinsurgency strategy is to go to the extremes:
    Either you must continue to kill all insurgents plus 100 times as many civilians until the population’s revolutionary will is crushed, or you must continue to ‘turn the other cheek’ until the population comes to hate its own revolutionaries more than it does your occupation. Anything in the middle is doomed to failure.

    1. Todd,

      We can go one more step. It’s not that both will work in every case. I suspect that in most cases only one will work.

      The key to success is understanding the culture to know which will work, in terms of impact and your ability to do it.

  4. I hate to sound snide – but van Creveld seems to miss the deep differences between British and Syrian societies- as well as the deep differences between these conflicts. In short Syria could not have used the tactics of Ulster, and Britain could not have exercised the Hama option ( I’m sure the Orangemen are sorry about that). It should be noted for instance that Britain lost the Irish War of Independence- partly by using heavy handed tactics (nothing close to Hama btw).

  5. There is a point that somebody better versed with Creveld’s work could clear up: did he actually talk to the IRA cadres to have their view on how the Northern Ireland insurgency was dealt with by the UK? After all, it is not as if the veterans of the IRA were inaccessible after things calmed down.

    I notice that all references deal with inquiries and talks with the British military — of course they would say that they were uncommonly restrained, keeping pedantically within the law, judiciously applying force and persuasion, and in the end particularly successful, wouldn’t they?

    1. Guest,

      That’s a good question, to which I don’t know the answer.

      As a historian writing for a general audience, he tends to rely of objective data for analysis and personal data for illustrations. That’s the model of most in that genre, such as John Keegan and Stephan Ambrose (they rely on hard data to varying extents, MvC more than the others IMO).

  6. One commenter remarks that the USSR appears “not to have had much trouble with insurgencies,” apparently missing the irony that the USSR no longer exists. it disintegrated precisely because of its brutal tactics toward dissenters and resisters.

    This fact should give pause to those in America who advocate the use of military weapons like LRAD sound cannons against non-violent political demonstrators, viz., at the G20 meeting in Chicago, or in the Occupy movement demonstrations.

    Or, as that notably insightful piece of sociopolitical analysis Star Wars noted: “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” ―Princess Leia to Grand Moff Tarkin

    1. “it disintegrated precisely because of its brutal tactics toward dissenters and resisters.”

      That raises an interesting question: why did the USSR collapse? Would the USSR had fallen if they had been as oppressive — but adopted a more efficient economic system (instead of their defective central planning)?

    2. The USSR was a multi-national state. Multi-national states have a tendency to disintegrate into their constituent parts — often fairly suddenly after a long period of simmering tension, and this independently of whether they are more or less oppressive: Yugoslavia, Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Cyprus.

      Sweden (with respect to Norway), Pakistan (Bangladesh), Georgia (Abkhazia and Ossetia), Iraq (with Kurds on the one side, Arabs on the other), Ethiopia (with respect to Eritrea), the UK (with respect to Ireland) count as further examples where substantial parts secede from a multi-national state along national lines — leaving the rump of the original state, if still multi-national, with further crumbling factors at play (e.g. Tigray in Ethiopia, Scotland in the UK).

      Nationalism is a stronger force than the characteristics of the reigning political regime.

      The USSR collapsed for a variety of factors, and nota bene, at the end of a period, the perestroika, during which it had been the least oppressive in its whole history.

    3. As a further point regarding the fracturing of multi-national states compared to oppression: oppressive and democratic multi-national states alike fracture along national lines, and the resulting countries can be oppressive and democratic as well — generally following the kind of regime from which they originate. Eritrea is a paranoid dictatorship whose main export seems to be political refugees. Bangladesh has an unstable regime hesitating between dictatorship and flawed democracy, just like Pakistan (itself struggling with further secessionist tendencies in Balochistan). Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are insanely ferocious autocracies. Byelorussia and Kazakhstan are basically soviet regimes, Russia and Ukraine are better than perestroika-era USSR, the Baltic states escaped to democracy.

      Given the further facts that the dissolution of the USSR was initiated through nationalistic movements in the Baltic states and by national leaders (Yeltsin, Nazarbayev, etc) in the back of Gorbachev, nationalism and economy probably played a much bigger role than the level of repression in the collapse of the USSR.

    4. “Nationalism is a stronger force than the characteristics of the reigning political regime.”

      I agree. I can’t believe that regimes as incompetent as say, Saddam’s Baathists, are suddenly brilliant when it comes to counterinsurgency. It’s not just knowledge of the culture, it’s that people have a double standard, with ethnic groups – they will forgive members of their own group for things they’ll kill a foreigner for. Xenophobia is a powerful thing.

      “They sell their people to the invader for money and power over their brethren. A particular type of people do that.”

      On the domestic front, the venal propagandists of the 1% seem to be very competent, and our “rebels” – the closest we have to them – are incompetent (though improving).

      “the USSR no longer exists”

      In the long run we’re all dead – this also applies to states and empires. But imagine someone saying “I’m going to take over the most backward state in Europe, have the government run every business larger than a fruit stand, and try to conquer the world.” How long would you expect that project to survive? Surely no longer than our adventure in Iraq. You wouldn’t expect it to have a 70 year history in which it won the biggest war ever fought, spread it’s power and ideas all over the world, and put the first man into space.

      Must must had done at least one thing right, and my theory is that it was that they had a positive vision of something that looked like it was worth risking death for. Like religion, only more believable thanks to the lack of supernatural stuff.

      Like the USSR we also spread our subversive propaganda, but nobody charges a machine-gun nest in the name of Pepsi and iPods. Even if they did, tyranny and prosperous consumer capitalism can coexist, just look at China and Nazi Germany.

      I think that when we really do see functioning democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will be because of soft power influence from someone who takes democracy seriously at home.

    5. “A particular type of people do that.”

      Come to think of it, the life of a collaborator isn’t that easy, surely they know that they’ll die if the occupation fails. Surely they know that occupations usually do fail. Yet they collaborate anyway, and tend to be incompetent anyway.

      Though, maybe the incompetence of collaborators is overstated since most of our information comes from the occupiers, who need excuses for their defeats. Anyone heard of some decent first-hand accounts from the vietcong etc.? I wonder if they complain about the same stuff.

      1. Historically, I don’t believe occupations usually do fail — for the collaborators. Most of the locals who sided with the colonial powers prospered after independence.

        Ditto for the states of the former Soviet Union.

        As for the Mexicans living in the US after the Mex-American War…

        We tend to remember a highly selective set of example in these matters.

  7. At the time the British government could count on the active support of the majority of the population in Northern Ireland. The IRA struggled to gain the support of more than 20/30% of the minority Catholic population. Support was mostly confined to working class areas in the towns, and the poorer border regions with catholic majorities.

    There was no chance of a popular revolution being triggered. The Republic of Ireland also cooperated with the British Government in the suppression of violent republicanism with cross border cooperation the rule. But the time of the Hunger strikes in the 82 the Political wing of the IRA came to the conclusion that the ballot box would bring larger gains as they won seats in the Westminster elections.

    Despite the writers conclusion that the British faced defeat in Northern Ireland if they didn’t use the tactics they did, the reality is the IRA had a very small amount of political support to draw on, it is hard to conceive of any situation where they could have conceivable driven out the British, and cowed the unionist population into going along with it.

    That’s not to say the British did not do a good job of preventing the escalation of the conflict. But it is hard to find another insurgency like conflict where the government forces held so many advantages, and where the majority of the population held a diametrically opposed political view to the revolutionaries, ie they would never be won over by the IRA no matter how brutal the British were.

    1. merocaine,

      Thanks for the great summary of the IRA struggle.

      Note that the narrow base of support for the insurgents is common in insurgencies. Think of the Chinese communist insurgents in the Malayan Emergency. The Tamil minority in the Sri Lanka insurgency. The Sunni Arabs in Iraq. That — and the low success rate, and the high rate of torture and death — does not seem to deter them.

  8. Burke G Sheppard

    I strongly agree with the above post. If the British experience in Ireland actually translated to counterinsurgency generally, then one would expect the British Army to have been more successful in Iraq. In fact, as chronicled in the book Ministry of Defeat, the British occupation of Basra was shambolic. The insurgents in Basra had more local support, were much better organized and armed than the IRA, and generally made the IRA look like a pack of Cub Scouts. The British eventually found themselves shut up in their bases and unable to operate in the city all all. The insurgents ruled the streets, and continued to do so until more aggressive (And better equipped) US and Iraqi forces intervened

    1. The sadly obvious but almost uniformly ignored key distinction in CI is the difference between Ireland and Basra. In one the Brits are locals, in the other the Brits are foreigners.

      Successful counterinsurgency since WW2 requires knowledge of the human terrain.

      Kilcullen, COIN guru, captured this with the first of his 28 rules for fighting insurgents: know the terrain better than the enemy does. This was insane advice for US and Brit troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting locals. That few people noticed this illustrates our madness.

    2. On the contrary, staying shut up in their bases was probably the best thing the Brits could have done once things got messy in Basra. There was nothing of consequence at stake there– just turf wars between different Shia factions. Granted, cowering in your bunkers and not shooting back as hundreds of rockets and mortars land on your base every day is not ideal, but how much more could they have done? The Americans used aggressive patrolling and counter-battery fire in Baghdad, and the iron rain slowed but never stopped.

      And then the outcome in Baghdad was always critical, Basra less so. When Maliki came in and used American troops to end resistance in Basra, the time was right– there was a Shia government in the capital which would have at least minimum legitimacy with the Basrawis. While running around and smashing things up for four years might have made the British feel like bigger men, I’m not sure if it would have had much constructive impact.

      Note also that Basra lacked sectarian divisions to be exploited.

  9. I have no military experience or training of any description, so I hesitate to take issue with the analysis of such a prominent military thinker as Martin Van Crevald.


    His description of British success in Northern Ireland is lamentable insofar as he fails to note the two key reasons for British defeat of the republican insurgency:

    One : The British Army and its local proxies enjoyed the overwhelming majority support of the local population. Over the course of the troubles, the population of Northern Ireland remained around the 1.5 million mark. Of this, approximately 65% were Protestant ‘loyalists’ , and the insurgent population was drawn from the remaining 500 000 Catholic ‘nationalists’. Simply put the British Army faced down an ‘unpopular’ uprising.

    Two : And the British Army did so in considerable number. In the more violent phases of the troubles, the security forces numbered up to 30 000 on active service. Bear in mind the insurgent population was no more than 500 000 within NI.

    As such, the lessons for other counter insurgencies are essentially irrelevant. For example, the US is unlikely to fight an uprising in a country where 2/3 of the population are rabidly pro American. Moreover, the US is unlikely to fight an uprising where its forces in country are equal to 5% of the local population.

    1. Brian,

      “the US is unlikely to fight an uprising in a country where 2/3 of the population are rabidly pro American. Moreover, the US is unlikely to fight an uprising where its forces in country are equal to 5% of the local population.”

      Foreign involvements in insurgencies after WW2 (i.e., after Mao brought 4GW to maturity) are relatively rare. But the conditions you describe occurred twice. In Northern Ireland and Malaysia — when the communist insurgency was largely ethnic Chinese minority vs the Muslim Malay majority. National forces were near 5% of the population during much of the war (350 thousand from population of under 8 million).

      It might happen again.

      But these things are peripheral to MvC’s view of the war, which imo is correct.

  10. Fabius,

    I repeat : I am no expert here so I am more than willing to stand corrected.

    However I cannot see how the relative ‘quality’ and ‘quantity’ of the insurgent population is peripheral. If the insurgency is minority based the Mao’s ‘fish’ will swim in shallow ‘water’. In Northern Ireland, the task was control of select, discrete enclaves and not management of almost entirely hostile region or country. And this task was made all the easier by the sheer strenght of the presence on the ground – in numbers and in fortifications.

    As a result of the above conditions, the (P)IRA had difficulty launching operations of any scale , and had difficulty inflicting any significant casualties on British forces. Therefore the insurgency could never reach that critical mass which would have forced London into reconsidering its presence in Northern Ireland.

    As for British restraint, well, two points need mention. First, restraint by uniformed forces in Northern Ireland owed much to the fact they faced an insurgency by British subjects in Britain proper. This obviously circumscribed military options. And second, pro British loyalist terrorists out killed republicans in the last 5 years of the conflict. As to the precise relationship between these terrorists and agencies of the British government, one can only speculate. But there is much evidence to suggest there was an active relationship which served to harm the insurgency in ways that had nothing to do with ‘restraint’.

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