HJS Event: On Counterinsurgency: How to triumph in the age of asymmetric warfare


By kind invitation of Bob Laxton MP, the Henry Jackson Society and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy London were delighted to welcome Prof. Martin van Creveld, world renowned military historian and strategist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who provided an analysis of how we can triumph in the age of asymmetric warfare.

Professor Martin van Creveld is one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy, and a Professor of History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has written 17 books, which have been widely translated; most notable among them are Supplying War, Command in War, The Rise and Decline of the State, and The Transformation of War – the last being the only non-American authored entry on the list of required reading for US army officers.

Professor van Creveld has consulted to the defence departments of numerous governments, including those of the United States. He was the second civilian expert ever to be invited to address the Israeli General Staff, and has lectured or taught at practically every institute of strategic military study.

He has appeared on CNN, BBC, and other international networks and has been featured in many magazines and newspapers, including Newsweek and the International Herald Tribune.

In recent years, once straightforward military engagements have been turned on their head by the emergence of a new and virulent form of asymmetric warfare conducted by insurgent forces. While insurgencies are nothing new – witness the bitter fight the British army had in Malaya in the 1950s for example – the combination of extreme ideologies and easily available weapons and technology has added an edge to these engagements. In places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, superior forces have been found wanting in the face of asymmetric onslaughts, leading to stalemate. So how can counterinsurgency strategy ensure that current and future conflicts do not continue to be plagued by this problem, and that insurgencies are either prevented or brought under control quickly? And what implications will this have for the supply and needs of our armed forces in order to adapt to the new realities of warfare?

Summary of the Event

Defining Counterinsurgency

Counterinsurgency and insurgency is the future of war, as nuclear weapons are slowly but surely making large-scale conventional warfare between powerful countries obsolete.  These days any country that can wage large-scale conventional warfare is able to build nuclear weapons, and no first world modern state wants to risk the total devastation of nuclear war. For more than half a century wars have been waged either between or against countries which do not have and/or cannot build nuclear weapons. Once the nuclear weapons appear the game comes to an end.  In fact, that is the best argument in favor of nuclear proliferation – nuclear states tend not to engage in combat with each other!

Unfortunately, the decline of large-scale conventional combat did not signal the end of war but rather a shift to other forms of conflict commonly referred to as low-intensity conflict, sub-conventional conflict, guerilla warfare, terrorism, insurgency or counterinsurgency. And over the last 62 years, the most powerful, important, modern, and sophisticated military armed forces on earth have had an abysmal record in coping with insurgency. Failure, upon failure, upon failure in more than a hundred cases typifies the entire record of counterinsurgency.

It is very difficult to find more than a handful of successes and I do not want to go with the least, but I was thinking of my own country. After all, we, the Israelis, fought a counterinsurgency competing against the British back in 1944-1948. Some people here are still angry about that, but we won and you lost and then you went on to lose Malaysia, Kenya and Cyprus, having failed to learn the lesson. The same applies to every modern country and modern armed force, including Israel, of course, if you look at Lebanon and Gaza. Again, the record has been abysmal.

So when people ask about how we should study counterinsurgency, the first step should be to gather 95 percent of all the literature on the subject, put it aboard the Titanic and sink it. In fact, there is so much of it that if you put it aboard the Titanic the iceberg becomes unnecessary!  The logical answer for why the materials on counterinsurgency are so inferior is that most of them were written by people who failed to achieve victory. Ninety-five percent of the literature is written by the losers, who in trying to justify their own actions, put the blame for their failure on others. Therefore there is little reason to expect the literature to be any good. Indeed, the best thing to do with it is to put it away.

How to Win and Lose in Counterinsurgency

Northern Ireland vs. Great Britain

There are, however, a handful of successful campaigns against insurgents, and I will focus on two of them today.  They represent two extremes of methods of handling asymmetric conflicts. The first one is the British involvement in Northern Ireland. People often look at this conflict and consider it less intractable than many modern ones, forgetting that it traces its roots back 800 years. There are few conflicts that are so ancient and persistent. After a prolonged cold spell, things erupted in 1969 hitting a climax in 1972. In that year alone, there were 1,000 explosions, three bombs per day, and 549 dead. The first three years were a classic example in how we should not fight a counterinsurgency. If it had continued this way, surely Northern Ireland would have been lost. In 1972, after Bloody Sunday, people finally sat down and started thinking about how to change policy and implement the necessary changes to bring about peace. In 1988, General Paddy Waters, commander in chief in Northern Ireland, admitted he could not bring this conflict to an end, but he could try to ensure that as few people as possible were killed from both sides. In the context of the First Intifada, when people were being killed by the dozens, such a statement was difficult for many decision-makers to understand. The name of the strategy is restraint.

Coming from the outside lets contrast what we Israelis did during the First Intifada with what you British did vis a vis Northern Ireland. You never used heavy weapons. You never inflicted collective punishments of any kind. After 1972, you never fired against unarmed crowds. You brought terrorists to trial. All of this restraint was maintained in spite of daring offensives, including the attack on the Brighton Hotel before Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was scheduled to speak there, and mortar rounds falling on Downing Street during a cabinet meeting with Prime Minister John Major inside. You defeated provocative threats by not allowing yourselves to be provoked after 1972. Compared to 99 percent of countries facing counterinsurgencies, this was a model of self-restraint.

One of the outstanding characteristics of counterinsurgency is that far more insurgents than counterinsurgents are killed with ratios varying from 10 to 1, 50 to 1, 100 to 1. Gaza is the most recent example. Over the last seven years, a few thousand Qassam rockets have killed exactly eight people. If you drive around the roads you have to look really carefully to see the damage, which, most of the time, is minor. During those years, according to Israeli estimates, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has killed 1,000 terrorists before, during and after the launch of these rockets. Therefore the ratio was greater than 100 to 1, but still the Israelis were forced out of Gaza. The campaign in Northern Ireland was one of the very few exceptions to this rule. Adding this time the number of civilians killed the ratio was 300 terrorists killed against 1,000 dead British soldiers. The 3 to 1 ratio of casualties is one reason why the British are still there. This war was not lost on the battlefield. This war was not lost because insurgents succeeded in inflicting heavy losses on counterinsurgents. If one looks at the Israeli example in the three years from 1944 to the time British forces left Palestine, there were only about 250 soldiers there, which is nothing with armed forces of 1,000,000 troops on the ground. Still, Britain lost and the reason it lost was that it was demoralized. Fighting the weak and killing them is demoralizing. That applies also to any kind of sport. If you play against a weak team and you win, you end up weaker. This is exactly what happens in counterinsurgency.

All this raises the issue of who is to blame for the failure of counterinsurgency efforts. Is it because of the soldiers, the commanders, the politicians, or the media? But lack of success in exterminating the enemy is not what defeats conventional forces when engaging with insurgents. Conventional forces are beaten by their success in countering the enemy. Each time you fight a weaker adversary you are murderer, but if they kill you, you are an idiot. There is a dilemma here. But no matter what you are, there will be an investigation on whether you are a murderer or an idiot. That is how counterinsurgencies are lost. They are lost because the counterinsurgents, the strong, disintegrate. Over time they lose their will.

The British army, by exercising restraint and dodging the dilemma of being as murderer or idiot and by taking casualties more than inflicting them, avoided this demoralization. The real miracle, as compared to the Israeli military, is that 30 years after the resumption of Northern Ireland-Britain hostilities, the British military was as ready to fight as it had been 30 years before. In the meantime, veteran insurgents died out and new ones did not join because they realized nothing they could do was going to provoke the British. Not many countries can exercise this form of restraint, and certainly not we, the Israelis. However, it is also true that these matters are not always possible. Clearly, not everybody has this type of instrument. It is also true, that there are some insurgencies which are more dangerous and more violent than the one in Northern Ireland, although it is not certain whether that would have been true if the change in policy in 1972 had not taken place. Furthermore, it is not certain that the British approach is appropriate to the Palestinian Territories, to Iraq, or to Afghanistan.

Hafez al-Assad and the Hama Massacre

Sometimes when you have no choice you have to use cruelty. To put a current spin on one of Machiavelli’s dictums, if you are not prepared to use cruelty, go and be prime minister of Disneyland. The second type of successful counterinsurgencies are those where you have to use cruelty, such as in Syria in 1982. Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad was faced with a very serious uprising directed by Sunni clergy against the secular state. It got to the point where the government started disintegrating.  Government officials, who feared going to work, instead hid at home with their families.  Not a day passed without some kind of terrorist attack. The old regime was tottering and the life of the President al-Assad, who is from a small Allawi Shia minority in a Sunni dominated country, was threatened. The uprising was putting dangerous pressure on the country, and there was a lot of foreign interference, including weapons shipments from the Lebanese Christian Militia to the rebels. In Lebanon, a similar escalation led to a civil war with hundreds of thousands of casualties. The response came in 1982 when the center of the uprising in Hama, a city in western Syria, was surrounded secretly by a division of several thousand troops, backed by heavy artillery and aviation. Thirty thousand people died in a week of fighting. To this day the people in Hama remember the leveling of one of the holiest shrines, which afterwards was turned into a parking lot.

What are the principles of counterinsurgency?

The operation in Hama was organized and carried out in true Machiavellian fashion. First, the government employed secrecy and trickery. Second, the enemy was hit hard, so that it was not necessary to hit twice, because if you have to hit twice, you have already lost. It is better to hit too hard than not hard enough. Third, the operation was carried out quickly, so that it did not drag on for months or years. Fourth, the plan was uted publicly and without apology. It is crucial not to offer excuses for your actions! The effect is going to be mainly psychological and not physical, because you cannot kill all the terrorists. If you apologize, you have almost destroyed the work before you can complete it. In this particular case, when Hafez al-Assad was asked by a journalist whether it was true he had killed more than 30,000 people, he responded by boasting that he had actually killed more. Finally, whenever possible, do not conduct the operation yourself. Let somebody else do it in your name, because if it works you can take all the glory, but if it fails you can wash your hands of it like Pontius Pilate. These are the principles, spelled out very clearly by Machiavelli.

Hafez al-Assad was condemned in the world media for weeks and many Western nations denounced his actions, but following the initial uproar, the Hama Massacre was soon forgotten. Many Syrian human rights organization websites still keep the terrible memory of what happened during the counterinsurgency operation alive. However, from the point of view of the regime, this is not such a bad thing, because it makes any prospective insurgents think twice before they initiate attacks against the government. Al-Assad acquired the reputation of someone with whom it is possible to deal, and after nine years, in 1991, Syria was a member in good standing in the anti-Iraq coalition. In 1996, Clinton traveled to Damascus to shake President Assad’s hand. The lesson in all of this is that if you commit an endless series of petty crimes, people will not forgive you, but if you commit one big crime, people will forgive you and al-Assad, himself died peacefully in his bed. Another example is the great and noble King Hussein, who did exactly the same thing in September 1970 – Black September. The moral is that you should do what you have to do quickly and firmly and never apologize, never explain, never complain.

The difficulty is most counterinsurgents do not have it in them to handle an insurgency using either method – extreme restraint or extreme cruelty. To quote Machiavelli again, most people do not have what it takes to be either absolutely good or absolutely bad. The first four years in Iraq were a classic example of counterinsurgency failure with constant change in policy and constantly going in and out of Faluja. That is a way that is doomed to failure. Each time you change your policy, your troops are discouraged and the other side is empowered.

The two approaches have something in common. They both avoid demoralization. The first does this by using extreme restraint and the second by cutting off the head of the insurgent leaders. Either method prevents demoralization among the counterinsurgents. If al-Assad had not ordered the Hama Massacre, the regime probably would have collapsed and he himself would have been killed. Finally, if you decide to take on a counterinsurgency, decide how you want to do it and stick to it, because with any change you are discouraging your own forces and encouraging your enemy. You have to choose to be absolutely good or absolutely bad, otherwise you will fall in between and before long you will lose the fight against the insurgents.


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