Lessons We May Not Want to Learn: Counterinsurgency in the 21st Century

32 Pages Posted: 29 Aug 2013

Date Written: 2013


As the United States and its allies have left Iraq and prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan, many are considering the lessons that should be taken from these two counterinsurgencies. The counterinsurgency doctrines of the United States, United Kingdom, and other western states revolve around the need to build the legitimacy and capacity of the local state’s government. Thus, the role of the foreign interveners is threefold: to combat the rebels until the government is capable of doing so; to enhance the capacity of the local government through the provision of economic, material, and technological aid; and to help develop a government that has limited corruption, respects human rights, and is accountable to its population. The lessons to be drawn are how best to balance the need for violence against the rebels with the need to limit damage to the population, the best way to support the government without being seen as directing it as a puppet, and the best ways to get often recalcitrant governments to behave in ways that enhance their own legitimacy without taking them over entirely. Yet these are not the only counterinsurgencies that have been fought in the 21st century. Two, against the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Chechens in Russia, were fought utilizing a very different strategy. In both, the governments (who were seen as foreign occupiers by rebellious populations) relied on significant levels of violence. Both used terror against the population as a dominant strategy, paying little attention to developing legitimacy among the population. These seemed to have worked, at least in the short run. The separatist movements by both the Tamils and the Chechens have been suppressed and the governments in the regions appear stable. The same cannot be said for the conflicts in Afghanistan, where fighting continues, and Iraq, where sectarian and ethnic rivalries threaten to return the country to war. So, which is the right lesson to learn? Is it that overwhelming force works? Or is that there were other factors which led to the success of Russia and Sri Lanka? This paper argues that while terror against civilians did succeed in ending the war, contributing factors made it easier for the counterinsurgents. Even when those circumstances are “right”, though, counterinsurgency cannot be done on the cheap.

Keywords: counterinsurgency

Suggested Citation

Lopez, Andrea, Lessons We May Not Want to Learn: Counterinsurgency in the 21st Century (2013). APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper, American Political Science Association 2013 Annual Meeting, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2300033

Andrea Lopez (Contact Author)

Susquehanna University ( email )

Selinsgrove, PA 17870
United States

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