Why Counter-Insurgency is Far from Over

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By Marie-Theres Beumler, Center for Transatlantic Security Studies

The notion that counter-insurgency (COIN) operations are no longer seen as the future of kinetic operations has recently been emphasized at numerous high level events in Washington, DC. This, however, might prove to be a hasty notion, and here is why:

There is no doubt that potential near-term events unfolding in Afghanistan have every possibility of further destabilizing neighbor countries or the entire region. Whilst this perspective is solely focused on Central Asia, it is widely acknowledged that Syria could play a similar role in the Middle East, and so could a conflict in the Caucasus (Russia just reinforced its 58th army), and manifold threat potentials emanating from countries in Africa and the Persian Gulf (Al-Qaeda affiliates being only one example).

Unfortunately, while the global economic situation remains unstable, the potential for conflict emanating from the globally disenfranchised increases, and structural State weakness increases as well. The international community will be confronted with a slowly, but consistently growing number of weak and failing States in the future. Examples could be the recently turmoiled situation in the Maghreb as well as numerous central African States affected by the presence of terrorist or insurgent groups – most notably along the corridor from the Niger delta to Egypt.[1] These States harbor relative deprivation and perceived grievances while leaving significant segments of the population with little to nothing to lose – the droves of young male pirates emanating from Somalia is a case in point. This is in part due to the global expansion of criminal (trade) networks, increasing activity on the part of spoilers who exploit safe havens, and the spillover effects from conflicted neighbor countries (bad neighborhoods). The rise in severity and occurrence of State weakness will be accompanied by a disproportionate rise in the occurrence of insurgent groups and insurgencies.[2] Insurgent groups profit from all the most prominent features of weak and failed states: low enforcement capacity, ungoverned / ungovernable territories, and the lack of political representation and social security provision.[3] If grievance and opportunity[4] develop in certain segments of the population, so will insurgent groups, thereby benefiting from the weakness of the host State.

If not an insurgency per se, the nature of many future conflicts will be asymmetric and hence of insurgent quality.  Asymmetry will grow – between segments of the population, warring fractions, and opposing political and military sides. Knowledge on improvised means of warfare, guerilla tactics, and strategy spreads steadily and terrorists and insurgents both are connected globally to profit from each other’s “lessons learned”. Conflicts will not only be fought with increasingly well-connected and prepared opponents, but the opponent might soon learn that it is in their best interest to keep the conflict asymmetric and to profit from this imbalance. After all, this is exactly what the Taliban in Afghanistan have been doing over the last years;[5] other prominent examples include the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)[6] and the Hezbollah in the Lebanon[7].

The only way to counter these developments apart from early monitoring (sadly, reaction continuously seems to be preferred to prevention) will ultimately be counterinsurgency. Not the COIN of today maybe, but a more comprehensive and more integrated approach between military, civilian and political efforts. But it will still be counter-insurgency.

The United States and its allies might be able to pick their battles to a certain extent, but they are unable to influence the nature of these battles. As more states suffer from increasing structural weaknesses, insurgencies will be on the rise. We might not want to engage in COIN, but it might well turn out inevitable in some cases.

After all, COIN might be the warfare of the future, not the past. Now is the time to benefit from our collective lessons learned and improve it, not to abandon it.

Marie Therese Beumler is a research intern with the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies.  The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


[1] Foreign Policy: The Failed States Index 2011

[2] Beumler, Marie-Theres: Exploring the Cause and Effect Relationship between State Weakness and Insurgencies: Investigating the causal Relationship using the Case Study of the Taliban Movements, EPU 2012

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lu, Lingy and Cameron, Thies: Economic Grievance and the Severity of Civil War, Civil Wars, 2011

[5] Gutierrez Sanin, Francisco and Giustozzi, Antonio: Networks and Armies: Structuring Rebellion in Colombia and Afghanistan, in: Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 2010; Stenersen, Anne: The Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan – Organization, Leadership and Worldview, Norwegian Defense Research  Establishment, Norway 2010

[6] Brittain, James J.: Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia: The Origin and Direction of the FARC-EP, Pluto Press, USA 2010; Leech, Garry: The FARC: The Longest Insurgency, Zed Books, London and NY 2011

[7] Azani, Eitan: The Story of the Party of God: From Revolution to Institutionalization, Palgrave Macmillan, USA 2009; Palmer Harik, Judith: Hezbollah: The changing Face of Terrorism, I.B. Tauris, London and NY 2007

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