Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:37 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:37 | SYDNEY

Counter-insurgency and its limits

23 July 2010 13:54

Will Clegg is defence and foreign affairs correspondent for Government magazine.

In answer to Olivia Kember's question, I have indeed read the books I referred to in my original riposte. And although I didn't refer to Kilcullen's guide for tactical-level commanders, 28 Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency, I'm glad to comment on it. Before doing so, it is important to focus on what this debate is about.

My riposte rejected Jason Thomas' claim that 'defeating an insurgency requires a massive social re-engineering and a rebuilding of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs'. This claim mattered because, as Sam argued, if true, it would highlight a hubris at the centre of our Afghan campaign. Hubris would be sufficient reason to withdrawal most of our forces from Afghanistan (we all agree massive social re-engineering is impossible, so why even bother) and would nail the lid on the coffin of counter-insurgency theory (if counter-insurgency requires the impossible, it would obviously be a stupid theory of war).

Given the extreme nature of Jason's claim, and the fact that we have defeated insurgencies in the past (tactically, operationally, and sometimes strategically), I brushed off some work I did a little while ago to construct a contrary case.

The concept of 'social re-engineering', massive or otherwise, is at the crux of this debate. If the term is defined to include any attempt to change behaviour, it is rendered meaningless and Jason's claim transforms into a truism, so we need to be more specific than that. I define 'social re-engineering' as an attempt to change a society's fabric, comprised of the norms and customs that shape perceptions and practices of political power.

I deliberately exclude attempts to change behaviour by altering the distribution of benefits in a society and the construction of institutions (recurrent structures of power) that conform to or are consonant with a communities pre-existing customs and norms from this definition. Sticks and carrots are not the means of social re-engineering, and it is reasonable to note that institution-building occurs along a spectrum – exploiting existing customs and norms, adapting existing customs and norms, or attempting to transform existing customs and norms.

We would be guilty of trying to 're-engineer' Afghan society if we were attempting to build a liberal, democratic, centralised, transparent state, governed by the rule of law and imbued with respect for human rights. We would not be attempting to 're-engineer' Afghan society if we were focused on exploiting pre-existing norms, customs, and power structures to arrive at a reasonably stable structure of power, defined and managed by Afghans themselves.

It may well be the case that, for domestic political or ideological reasons, we claim to be engaged in 're-engineering' when in practice we are not, and it is important to look out for this disjuncture between rhetoric and action whenever we speak about Afghanistan.

We are not really trying to 're-engineer' Afghan society. ISAF has controlled nearly all of north and north-west Afghanistan since the invasion of 2001. It has been happy to leave local power-brokers in place and has accepted the reality of Afghan politics: if you can get fragmented armed bands to put aside their weapons and compete for influence within the Afghan state, you've achieved an outcome that is 'good enough'; it is up to Afghans to drive the process from here.

As for Kilcullen – yes, he refers to Maslow, but no, he doesn't advise that hubris should underpin our campaign.

I referred to Kilcullen, among others, to argue that counter-insurgency theory was focused on more 'modest and...effective means of countering insurgencies' than attempts at 'social re-engineering', and that most of the political agents and military officers I have met have been focused on 'issues of power, perception, and security, the same factors that counter-insurgency theorists...tend to emphasise'. Looking at Kilcullen's 23rd article of counter-insurgency war, this was a reasonable claim: 

Counterinsurgency is armed social work; an attempt to redress basic social and political problems while being shot at…civil affairs…is how you restructure the environment to displace the enemy from it. In your company sector (that is, at the tactical level) civil affairs must focus on meeting basic needs first, then progress up Maslow’s hierarchy as each successive need is met…Your role is to provide protection, identify needs, facilitate civil affairs and use improvements in social conditions as leverage to build networks and mobilize the population…there is no such thing as impartial humanitarian assistance or civil affairs in counterinsurgency. Every time you help someone, you hurt someone else – not least the insurgency.

Kilcullen quotes Maslow to highlight the modest goals that need to be achieved to succeed in counter-insurgency: 'redress basic...problems', 'meet...basic needs first', 'provide protection', 'identify needs' and 'facilitate' other actors who might help address them. He does not prescribe widespread, all-encompassing programs of humanitarian intervention or social engineering.

He does provide a tactical guide focused on the selective use of incentives to 'leverage' the population and 'displace' the enemy, replacing insurgent institutions with those allied to the state. Kilcullen is emphatic that these institutions should be grounded in locally contingent, pre-existing customs and norms. For example, Kilcullen has recently advocated a tactical approach to the war in Afghanistan based on a very simple premise:

"It's pretty rare to find a counterinsurgency campaign where you didn’t end up with some kind of local village self-defense force,” he told (NPR). “The reason for that is very simple. It’s much easier to convince somebody who’s under threat to pick up a weapon and protect their own community than it is to convince them to go and serve in the national army in some district somewhere else or put their weapon down and expect the government to protect them. It’s kind of an intermediate step.”

Unlike grandiose schemes of 'nation-building', counter-insurgency is all about 'intermediate steps' – assuring the people of their protection by helping them defend themselves. If we push back the Taliban, train the ANA, transition control to Afghans, and support indigenous political elites to re-consolidate power within an embryonic state over the long run (just as we do in many developing countries), we will have secured our important objectives of denying Afghanistan as a base to terrorists, stabilising Afghanistan, and preventing Afghanistan's malaise from crippling the region.

These goals can be achieved without 'social re-engineering', massive or otherwise.

Photo by Flickr user isafmedia, used under a Creative Commons license.