Small wars: does brutality work?

A good question posed by Wings Over Iraq:

Does the brute force method ever work in counterinsurgency? Under what conditions?

As I once argued ages ago, the volume and civility of violence might often be a red herring altogether.

The historical record suggests that brutal campaigns, or campaigns with a strong element of brutality in them, can succeed. The US in the Philippines, Indonesia crushing separatists in Aceh, or Britain against the Mau Mau. The uprising of Al Qaeda was crushed quite brutally in Anbar, as were the Boers when they clashed with the British empire (though not without landing a few hits of their own) and there are solid examples of Tsarist (and Stalinist) Russia annihilating or ‘relocating’ insurgencies and killing them off. And the state of Sri Lanka seems to have prevailed over the Tamil Tigers in a long war that has been barbaric.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that such campaigns succeeded because of the brutality. We have a correlation, but not necessarily a cause.

An alternative model:

Like all war, COIN is not ultimately about degrees of violence but about political conditions, and whatever it takes to make an enemy do one’s will.

Depending on the political (and geopolitical context), harsh campaigns can inflame or smash a revolt. Gentle, enlightened efforts at winning the people and marginalising or winning over rebels also have a mixed record.

Insurgencies tend to perform better when:

they represent the collective will of a large share of the people (as opposed to being a hated ethnic minority, just ask the ethnically Chinese communists of Malaya);

when they internationalise their struggle (compare the Vietnamese communists, who did, and the South African Boers, who didn’t);

when they take place in peripheries and ‘away’ from the backyard of the counter-insurgent – it seems easier to outkill or outgovern an insurgency in one’s backyard than ‘over there’, partly because states are usually less willing to accept the costs of a prolonged campaign on the periphery (compare the Shining Path or the Greek communists with the difficulties outsiders have had in Afghanistan, all caveats being noted);

when they fight against liberal democracies: this is a more tentative argument here, but liberalism probably makes it harder to gain domestic acceptance when most ‘small wars’ are mightily unpleasant and prolonged affairs with almost inevitable abuses, and when elected leaders care an awful lot about being re-elected.

So yes, brutal campaigns can work, provided they cut with the grain politically. At the far end of the spectrum, a brutal COIN war fought against an unpopular minority at home, by a dictatorship in a largely illiberal society, in a conflict that is highly localised and gains little attention, in a struggle where the interests at stake are maximum, would probably succeed.


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