How we fight? A review of Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies: National Styles and Strategic Cultures


Throughout the first three months of 2019 the United States government kept touting the imminent demise of the so called Islamic State, also referred to as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or sometimes ISIS). It is also known by its Arabic acronym DAESH – which I am told actually has negative connotations so I kind of prefer that name. Iwasn’t until March of 2019 the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF finally declared they had driven the final remnants of DAESH from the last town they controlled in Syria. In the beginning of that same month, the Irish Republican Army or IRA claimed the mailing of five bombs to various transportation hubs around London and Glasgow.

DAESH had taken advantage of the ongoing turmoil in Syria brought on by the insurgency in the wake of the Arab Spring which coursed across northern Africa and into the Middle East in 2010. The group which drove them from the various towns and major cities they controlled, as previously mentioned, is known as the SDF. The SDF is backed by the United States, France, and various other western nations to fight DAESH in Syria. Members of the group primarily come from the indigenous Kurdish, Arab, and Assyrian groups in the region along with a smattering of smaller groups and a few fighters from foreign countries. Founding members of the group are themselves considered to be insurgents by the Syrian regime. Some regional powers consider the SDF a terrorist group as dangerous to their national objectives as once was DAESH itself.

Mail bombs sent to Heathrow, and London City airport; London’s Waterloo train station, and Glasgow University, as well as a British Army recruiting office follow a car bombing in the city of Derry in January of 2019. These attacks are said to stem from concerns of the dissident Irish Republican Army – also considered to be an insurgent group – to the consequences from Brexit. A hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would, various groups involved in the relationship between Ireland and the UK claim, significantly change the situation in the country. Irish Republicans believe it would mean a permanent separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the Island. At the very least, a hard border seriously disrupts trade between the two countries; and would cause severe economic hardship for the island as whole.

The insurgencies and the groups spawned from the confrontations that spawn them appear to have a lot in common. Subjectively speaking the proponents of the insurgency would likely disagree with this statement. They are “freedom fighters” not “insurgents” or “terrorists”. It is the government or regime that is the true villain. They are the ones using terror to control the population.

The government or counterinsurgent, of course, feels exactly the opposite. They are defending the regime, or their natural rights, or even democracy. It is necessary sometimes, they would argue, to conduct actions you find reprehensible in order to ensure the greater good.

Arguments such as this is why the academic and security community find it so difficult to come up with a viable definition of these three terms – insurgent, terrorist, or freedom fighter – that can be universally agreed upon. Just as it is difficult to come to a common definition of these terms, it is just as difficult to determine how insurgencies and counterinsurgencies are executed. What are the tactics, techniques, and procedures, as well as the priorities involved? Do certain groups or participants in these conflicts have a certain way of reacting? Even, is there a set of common tactics utilized across the spectrum of insurgencies and, if so, can we determine this pattern?

Dr. Beatrice Heuser and Eitan Shamir have brought together essays from sixteen academics and members of various national securities agencies to attempt to answer this question in Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies: National Styles and Strategic Cultures. Is there in fact a style nation states follow in order to combat insurgencies? Do nations have a style that is consistent in its historical endeavors and, moreover, do the insurgents themselves have a strategic culture they follow? More broadly, is there an overarching culture across insurgencies regardless of time or place? Finally, what is the relationship between the insurgent and counterinsurgent? What is the effect of one groups tactics in the consequences of the other?

Although the book is entitled Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies over half the essays deal more with the counterinsurgents then the insurgents. This would seem the more pragmatic approach to dealing with the question of national styles. The U.S. military has a motto – actually it has dozens depending on the rank, branch of service, and even individual units and platoons – when it comes to fighting any battle, even an insurgency, “Fight like you train, train like you fight”. Meaning you want your training to be as hard and as close to real world situations as you can make it. Then, when faced with the rigors of combat, you are readily prepared and are able to push on with an extra effort if need be to succeed. Most other militaries attempt to meet this goal as well. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to recreate the confusion and chaos of dealing with any insurgency, for any nation or military, especially one that is long lasting and entrenched. The examples presented in this volume of U.S., British, French, and even Russian counterinsurgency tactics demonstrate the difficulty in maintaining the tool sets and techniques needed to properly execute a counterinsurgency campaign. When any tactics are remembered, they tend to be the most basic and little innovation occurs.

When dealing with the question of the style of the insurgent, the volume begins to run into a bit of trouble. The editors leave much leeway to the individual authors of the essays to address their concerns and research. As such, there is little conformity among definitions utilized in making the individual arguments. One author does not consider utilizing the time the IRA acted more purely as a terrorist organization as opposed to an insurgency while another author is willing to consider the entire history of Hamas, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and Fatah. With a lack of conformity between the essays it is difficult to come to an accurate determination of what would actually be considered a “strategic culture” with any of these organizations.

The question of the effect of one groups action to influence the national style or strategic culture of the other is more straightforward. As one tactician once so eloquently phrased it “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Based on the fortunes and support enjoyed by either the insurgent force or the counterinsurgent regime, one expects to see a direct correlation in the development of tactics, techniques and procedures or TTPs. These TTPs ultimately lead to the overthrow of the opposing force. Either as the replacement of the regime or the subduction of the insurgent force.

One of the conclusions reached by the editors is; the most basic style of either the insurgent or the counterinsurgent is to isolate as best as possible the enemy force and the population that supports said force and then ruthlessly annihilate it. This is best shown with the national style of the Russians from the time of the Czars through to the conflicts in Chechnya and Dagestan. It is also easily seen in the barbaric and isolationist actions taken by DAESH at their height. Unfortunately, the toolkit elaborated by the final essay in the work paints a very bleak picture. These oppressive tactics – oppressive by both sides – are the most regularly occurring “national strategies and strategic cultures” developed by both sides of those involved in dealing with insurgencies. Most nation states prefer to forget lessons learned and retreat to a simpler – or at least more readily understood and considered more honorable – form of combat. The more honorable pursuit of force on force, maneuver activities of nation state military forces.

Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies: National Styles and Strategic Cultures should be taken as a cautionary text by those involved in all aspects of national security; from the tactical level of the Lieutenant in charge of a platoon, through the field grade officer in charge of operational concerns, through to those who create the national strategy followed by all. To forget one end of the conflict spectrum risks dulling your abilities to confront it, wastes your time and talent, and threatens your ability to conduct operations at the other end of the spectrum as you struggle to continually re-orientate your focus.

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