Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:02 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:02 | SYDNEY

The case for counterinsurgency fundamentals


Mark O'Neill

23 January 2008 08:01

The opinion piece by Scott Burchill that recently featured here at The Interpreter highlights a growing phenomenon — commentary on counterinsurgency and war by those obviously unencumbered by an understanding of counterinsurgency warfare theory and practice.

Burchill’s attempted characterization of the current war in Afghanistan as a nationalist insurgency is wide of the mark. The Taliban represent the interests of a segment of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic minority group, the Pashtun. The Taliban are so unrepresentative of whatever may pass for ‘nationalist identity’ that prior to the 2001 intervention there was a significant number of other ethnic groups united in an insurgency against their rule. Andrew Zammit’s email correctly points out that the Taliban insurgency is directed at the sovereign government of Afghanistan. 

The recent attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul is cited as evidence that little progress has been made in the conflict in Afghanistan. Application of the same logic to the Second World War would suggest that the Allies had made little progress by the winter of ‘44/’45 because the Germans could mount their offensive in the Ardennes. 

War is always violent, never elegant and more often than not unpredictable. Historians and theorists from Thucydides to Clausewitz and Hart have taught us that. It is naive to believe that because counterinsurgency demonstrates these characteristics that it is insoluble and incapable of progression. Contrary to Burchill’s assertion, the lesson of the 20th century is not that counterinsurgency is a losing proposition. The record demonstrates that consistent application of some fundamentals by a committed counterinsurgent state will more often than not secure an appropriate resolution of the conflict. 

Amongst ‘proven’ counterinsurgency fundamentals, four in particular stand out. These were identified as early as 1934 by Charles Gwynn, a British Officer who served with the Australian Military Forces at Duntroon and in the 1st AIF. He identified primacy of the civil government, the use of minimum force, firm and timely action and co-operation between the civil and military authorities as key. It is from such a basis that effective counterinsurgency strategy that integrates all the aspects of national power across the ‘whole of government’ and society can be developed.  Gywnn’s thoughts rightly remain influential in the development of successful counterinsurgency doctrine and practice.

The way ahead in counterinsurgency remains firmly rooted in an understanding of the fundamentals and history.

Full disclosure:  Like Sam Roggeveen, I also took some of Scott Burchill’s classes at Deakin as a postgraduate student in the 90’s. They were not related to counterinsurgency.