For over a decade, United States and NATO have been involved in counter-insurgency operations across the Islamic world. A new ground breaking paper by Dr. Jacqueline Hazelton, challenges the established COIN dogma, and suggests that the usual operational process of good governance, democracy promotion, nation building, and dependence on human rights, are actually counter-productive.

In simpler words, perhaps more brutality is needed to actually win a war. 

To explain further, Dr Hazelton kindly agreed to answer a few questions for Bombs + Dollars on US COIN operations, grand strategy, and what changes might be needed urgently to re-calibrate a failed Western counter-insurgency strategy.

You can follow her on Twitter @DrJLHazelton.

You can also find other Q+As here.

  1. You recently published a paper in International Security, and a policy paper for Belfer Center, and your conclusion is, for lack of better word, fairly revolutionary as it seeks to refute the last quarter century of COIN dogma. To start with, how do you define COIN, and what are the goals, or what should be the goals of a great power, with regards to COIN op?

Thanks so much for inviting me to engage in a dialog. I define counterinsurgency as simply efforts to defeat an insurgency, an armed, organized, persistent political challenge to the government of a state.

The goals of a great power facing an insurgency are going to vary with the state’s interests. A state may want to defeat the insurgency as quickly and at as low a cost as possible. At the other end of the spectrum, as with the NATO alliance in Afghanistan, the intervening counterinsurgents may want to build a modern liberal democratic state.

  1. Please explain to us, for the readers, in simple terms, how do you name/define your theory, and what are the basic tenets of it. On a side note, do you think US/UK/EU is facing, or on the cusp of an Islamist insurgency?

First, let me lay out the conventional wisdom on counterinsurgency success. In Western states, particularly the United States, the widely held belief is that counterinsurgency success requires the threatened government to implement good governance reforms such as more participatory and responsive rule, less corruption, and the distribution of public goods. These reforms will gain popular support for the government and reduce support for the insurgency, strengthening the government and gaining it intelligence on the insurgency, while correspondingly weakening the insurgency. The intelligence enables the government to target the insurgency directly and defeat it militarily just as the political reforms defeat it politically. The government, however, must be extremely careful to not unnecessarily damage civilians and their interests or it will create more insurgents. This is what I call the good governance approach to counterinsurgency success because it focuses on governance reforms and gaining popular support.

According to the good governance approach to counterinsurgency success, the role of the liberal great power backing the counterinsurgent state is to provide the material support and expertise necessary to implement these reforms. A major assumption is that the counterinsurgent government wants to implement democratizing, liberalizing reforms but has previously lacked the capability to do so. Another assumption is that the populace of the state wants liberalizing, democratizing reforms and has been supporting the insurgency to get them.

It’s important to remember that my theory of counterinsurgency success is based on analysis of a sub-set of counterinsurgency campaigns. I look at the five campaigns most often presented as models of good governance success that liberal great powers should follow. Proponents of the good governance approach claim that these five campaigns exemplify their chosen counterinsurgency methods. The five cases are the Malayan Emergency, led by the British; the Philippines campaign against the Huk, backed by the Americans; the Greek civil war, backed by the Americans; the conflict in Dhofar, Oman, led by the British; and the civil war in El Salvador, backed by the Americans.

What I found caused success in these five cases looks quite little like what good governance proponents describe. In these cases, the counterinsurgents did not win popular support, did not make major good governance reforms, and did not take great care to avoid damage to civilians and their interests.

My coercion theory of counterinsurgency success argues that counterinsurgency success requires accommodating the interests of rival elites. This means making deals with people like warlords; political, social, and religious leaders; even insurgents with blood on their hands. The government forms a political coalition with them against the insurgency, providing something of value to bring these rivals over to its side. In return, the government gains information on the insurgency and military power from its new non-state partners to help it fight the insurgents. The government is thus able to target the insurgency directly with military power to break it down as an organization until it cannot fight or communicate any more and is thus no longer a threat. Along with this direct targeting, the government has to target the insurgency indirectly to cut the flow of resources it needs to survive. In the cases I looked at, the government most often did this by using brute force to control the populace, preventing it from supplying the insurgents. What this means in practice is emptying and destroying communities, forcing civilians into prison camps, monitoring their movements, controlling how much food is available, and similar limitations on their behavior and rights.

  1. You wrote, despite conventional wisdom, we DO NOT need liberal democratizing reform, and we DO need, at times, brute force, even with collateral damage against civilians, simply for deterrence purposes. Do you think other states, and great powers who don’t care about such reforms or rights, are at an advantage vis-à-vis the West?

I argue that brute force, in Thomas Schelling’s sense, is important in targeting the insurgency directly through the military and also important in cutting the flow of resources to the insurgency. This indirect targeting of the insurgents, by controlling the populace and resources, means that the counterinsurgent government uses force directly to control civilians to keep resources like food from getting to insurgents.

To the second part of your question, the interesting thing is that Western great powers are the ones who did this in the cases claimed as examples of good governance counterinsurgency. The liberal great powers in these cases, Great Britain and the United States, either supported or themselves executed these campaigns that included the forceful control of civilians.

You ask if non-liberal states have an advantage as counterinsurgents because they don’t care about reforms or individual rights. That is a very interesting question. In my larger project, I extend the same analysis I conducted on the five claimed good governance campaigns to a successful case involving a quasi-democratic regional great power. I looked at Turkey’s campaign against the PKK and found that it, too, strongly supports the coercion theory.

  1. Would you consider any state, or Great power, that’s currently following your template? Like say, Russia in Grozny/Syria, China in Xinjiang, or India in Kashmir, or Sri Lanka in Jaffna?

As I mentioned, Turkey fighting the PKK from 1984-1999 strongly resembles the coercion theory. Another example is Russia in Chechnya, and I think also, as you mention, Sri Lanka against the Tamil Tigers.

  1. In simple policy terms, explain to us, what would you suggest United States to do, as a grand-strategy with regards to Af-Pak or Middle East.

That is a big question!

I argue that the United States is doing itself no good by staying deeply engaged militarily in the Middle East. It has the material and logistical capacity to adopt an offshore balancing posture and return if necessary to address specific problems that directly threaten important interests.

In addition, the traditional U.S. interest in the Middle East has been the relatively reliable flow of relatively affordable oil.

With the rise of non-traditional fuels, that interest is declining and U.S. policy choices should reflect it.


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