Home New Theories on Counterinsurgency Challenges Quarter Century of Conventional Wisdom

New Theories on Counterinsurgency Challenges Quarter Century of Conventional Wisdom


Since 9/11, the fundamental understanding of counterinsurgency operations, especially in Western military operations has been one of winning Hearts and Minds. Put simply, it means that a focus on institutional change is required to stabilize a region infested with terrorism or insurgency. The need should be to promote liberal rights, freedom of residents, and education and human rights, rather than a deterrence based approach of punitive actions. That has been a standard template for COIN ops across the globe with other forces trying to implement the theory into practice in places where they are trying to subjugate a population amidst an insurgency.

Two recent, and highly provocative research papers however, question this prevalent dogma, which if read correctly, will change the last 25 years of human rights based approach. The first one is titled “The extremist’s advantage in Civil wars” and came out in the latest MIT journal edition. [1]The paper, written by Professor Barbara Walters answers a simple puzzle which has baffled security policy makers for a while. In an insurgency or a civil war, it has been observed, contrary to conventional wisdom or common sense, the most brutal of the groups usually outlast or outperform the more moderate groups. Walter thoroughly studies the civil wars currently undergoing in Middle east, and comes to the conclusion that “rebel leaders have strong incentives to embrace an extreme ideology even if they do not believe the ideas that underlie it. When competition is high, information is poor, and institutional constraints are weak, an extremist ideology can help rebel leaders overcome difficult collective-action, principal-agent, and commitment problems.”

The second paper, is by Dr Jacqueline Hazelton of the Naval War college of United States. [2] Titled, “The “Hearts and Minds” Fallacy: Violence, Coercion, and Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare”, it challenges established dogma of Counterinsurgency operations based on human rights oriented approaches. In sum, the paper suggests that the usual operational idea of good governance, liberalism, democracy promotion, nation or institution building, and dependence on human rights, are actually counter-productive and the only way to stop a counterinsurgency is through increased systemic brutality.

The approach to the good governance model, is what Dr Hazelton calls the current conventional approach, especially as shared by liberal great powers, like US in Iraq, and NATO in Afghanistan, where it is widely believed 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.” This is an approach which focuses on human rights, and governance reforms, and gaining public support. Hazelton studied five case studies, for her paper. These cases include, 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.

Studying these cases, she comes out with startling results, which she calls the “Coercion theory of counterinsurgency”. This theory suggests that the key shouldn’t be human rights, but accommodating the interests of rival elites, and requires, “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.”

These findings were further highlighted in a Belfer center policy brief, titled “Why Good Governance Does Not Defeat Insurgencies.” [3] Three points were highlighted. First, reforms that are liberal in nature and address popular grievances are not necessary to defeat counterinsurgency. Second, conventional wisdom suggests that harming civilians in counterinsurgency situation is counterproductive. That is wrong. It is found with evidence that curtailing “flow of resources to the insurgency, often through the brute-force control of civilians, is critical to success.” Brute force on civilians cut off supply chains that fuel insurgency as well as acts as deterrence to people who are willing to join insurgency. It might not be moral, but it is effective. Third, the cost to initiate political reforms in places which are not ready for such reforms are high, and unsustainable and are likely to fail. In simple words, attempts to civilize a population who are determined to revolt are likely to fail, and will result in unnecessary burden on taxpayers. A much more effective way is to delegate the violence to rival elite groups who are opposed to the insurgents. For example, battling Talibans would be far easier, if tribal leaders and warlords like Rashid Dostum is given unlimited power, resources and armed support.

These two papers are remarkable, if controversial, and have real-time implications for great powers currently battling either domestic or foreign insurgency. If studied correctly, it changes the way policy makers deal with insurgency. Consider this. The recent four examples of non-Western counter insurgency operations, Russia in Grozny, Sri Lanka in Jaffna, Philippines in Mindanao and Russia in Aleppo follow the exact same template. Even the operational doctrine of the Trump administration focusses on annihilation, rather than attrition of the Obama years. The colonial British forces during the Waziristan campaign during the inter-war years also applied this narrow strategic angle, rather than the ones applied by Americans in the same region, one hundred years in the future.

It is therefore imperative that Indian policy makers and armed forces study these tactics and reflect on strategies which will focus on a recalibration from a human rights and institutional reform based approach to a narrow and amoral strategy, with regards to Kashmiri jihadists or Maoist insurgents.




[1] Walter, Barbara F. "The Extremist's Advantage in Civil Wars" International Security, Volume 42 | Issue 2 | Fall 2017 p.7-39; posted online: www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/full/10.1162/ISEC_a_00292.

[2] Hazelton, Jacqueline L. "The “Hearts and Minds” Fallacy: Violence, Coercion, and Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare" International Security, Volume 42 | Issue 1 | Summer 2017 p.80-113; posted online: http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/full/10.1162/ISEC_a_00283

[3] Policy Brief - International Security “Why Good Governance Does Not Defeat Insurgencies” Author: Jacqueline L. Hazelton | Aug. 07, 2017; Download PDF here: https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/files/publication/ISPB%20Governance%20Insurgencies%203.1.pdf

Previous ArticleNext Article
Sumantra Maitra
Contact at: [email protected]
  • Facebook Comment
  • Post Your Comment
(Case Sensitive)
Article Search
More Articles by Sumantra...
Probability Game About War Between China
# 1823 November 16, 2017
  • Space Security : Emerging Technologies and Trends
    By Puneet Bhalla
    Price Rs.980
    View Detail
  • Securing India's Borders: Challenge and Policy Options
    By Gautam Das
    Price Rs.
    View Detail
  • China, Japan, and Senkaku Islands: Conflict in the East China Sea Amid an American Shadow
    By Dr Monika Chansoria
    Price Rs.980
    View Detail
  • Increasing Efficiency in Defence Acquisitions in the Army: Training, Staffing and Organisational Initiatives
    By Ganapathy Vanchinathan
    Price Rs.340
    View Detail
  • In Quest of Freedom : The War of 1971
    By Maj Gen Ian Cardozo
    Price Rs.399
    View Detail
  • Changing Demographics in India's Northeast and Its Impact on Security
    By Ashwani Gupta
    Price Rs.Rs.340
    View Detail
  • Creating Best Value Options in Defence Procurement
    By Sanjay Sethi
    Price Rs.Rs.480
    View Detail
  • Brave Men of War: Tales of Valour 1965
    By Lt Col Rohit Agarwal (Retd)
    Price Rs.320
    View Detail
  • 1965 Turning The Tide; How India Won The War
    By Nitin A Gokhale
    Price Rs.320
    View Detail
  • Indian Military and Network-Centric Warfare
    By Prakash Katoch
    Price Rs.895
    View Detail