The Three Laws of Counterinsurgency

As seen by Brian Ulrich, at Democracy Arsenal, citing Michael Scheuer:

It also is clear that Islamist leaders have little or no fear that news of the death or capture of senior operatives will undermine the morale of their fighters or curtail funding or other forms of aid from their supporters. Neither al-Qaeda, the Chechen insurgents, nor al-Qaeda in Iraq nor Saudi Arabia has tried to hide the death of prominent members. The Islamist leaders appear to believe that “martyrs are recruiters, too,” and at times have used the death of a leader to make light of the success of their foes. When al-Muqrin was killed in a gunfight with Saudi police, for example, al-Qaeda quickly used the internet to announce his death, name his successor, and describe the successor’s qualifications.

Ulrich then throatclears, without making any judgments:

He emphasizes, though, that the killing of such figures is still useful.

The plain reading being, of course, that if we fight them we only make them mad. (think Mongo)

From CNN, a non-Islamist terrorist’s view:

Nelly Avila Moreno, 45, whose nom de guerre was Karina, said she and her longtime male companion made the decision jointly to abandon the FARC group, based in the jungle, at 5 a.m. Sunday.

She said pressure from Colombian soldiers had been key to their decision, and she called on her fellow rebels to follow her example.

“I invite them to change the sensibility that is among the guerrillas,” she said, seated by her companion, who said nothing during the news conference.

She also had a message for the Colombian people: “It is important to do something for peace in Colombia, and that need to do something is precisely one of my motivations.”

After 24 years with the FARC, Karina said she wants to reintegrate with society. “At this moment, what I am thinking about is reuniting with my family and with all of society,” she said.

Karina said she had had no contact with the group’s leaders for the past two years. During that time, she said, “I was trying to stay alive.”

Now, FARC isn’t Al Quaeda or one of its offshoots, and the values of Islam certainly matter (there’s my throatclearing). But I’d love to hear from Scheuer or from Ulrich that they are serious that military pressure and constant fear of death or capture don’t demoralize – rather than incent – terrorists as much as they would, say hero-worshipping Kentucky residents.

We have our own hero-myths as well, and one of the great cultural schisms is between those who honor them and those who don’t. I tend to think that those who don’t tend to be of the “you’ll just make them angry/bold/whatever” school of thought.

I’m reminded of someone who restated the Three Laws of Thermodynamics:

You can’t win…
You can’t break even…
You have to play…

21 thoughts on “The Three Laws of Counterinsurgency”

  1. “Killing them all” sure worked for the Romans with those pesky Christians!

    /snark off

    I think we need to be a little smarter. I just wish I knew with more certainty what that would mean.

  2. I think there is some truth to what Ulrich said, martyrs are good recruiters. For all that it is still good practice to kill their leaders, especially the mid-level operational types. The goal is to kill them faster than they can be replaced, forcing less experienced terrorists to step up and the top tier guys to expose themselves more.

  3. “Killing them all” sure worked for the Romans with those pesky Christians!”

    But it was completely effective against the Carthinagins wasn’t it?

    Cathargo delenda est.

  4. Traditional Islamic organizations are very flat, feature a lot of back and forth dialog, and are “op-in” – at least for those accepted into the umma.

    As such, it would be impossible for Al Quida to continue functioning if lied to its members about their own losses. Word would get out, trust would diminish, and the volunteers would op-out.

    Other terror groups tend to function like cults – taking advantage of coercive and manipulative techniques to ensure continued adherence. They have to lie to their members – they need to keep them from de-programming themselves.

  5. bq. “Killing them all” sure worked for the Romans with those pesky Christians!

    The Christians were engaged in terrorist para-military activity under the Romans? There’s a different historical analogy to be made for peaceful religions under persecution than for violent military sects, and the ability of either permissive or oppressive States to suppress either one of them.

    _Cathargo delenda est_, indeed. If we’re to be constantly accused of imperialism…

  6. Looks like even the NYT has come around on the fact that Al-Maliki has made solid gains in Basra and now Sadr City. I checked and the sun did not rise in the West today.

    “Operation in Sadr City Is an Iraqi Success, So Far “:

    Of course they curiously spent half the article describing how it would have (should have?) been a disaster if the IA had to fight its way into Sadr City. I’d chalk one up to diplomacy backed by force, but thats just me. NYT seems to have come away with the lesson that averting a potential nightmare is a good opportunity to downplay success. Well, half a loaf is better than nothing I suppose.

  7. Yes, Dan, and what is being proposed as a solution in some quarters is a modern equivalent to killing them all, razing the city and sowing its ground with salt.

    For the latter purpose, Trinitite works even better. Unfortunately, Carthage had one headquarters city, the current enemy has a couple of dozen – but on the other hand, the modern equivalent would be considerably less arduous. A few orders and a few keys turned would be the extent of it.

    On the gripping hand, whereas the Romans themselves weren’t affected by their solution the West would be considerably more affected by ours. On our side at least, it’s a gentler age. Until you push us hard enough. For the consequences of _that_, ask any Japanese – or any resident of Dresden.

  8. While we’re talking about laws of war, let me propose another.

    If mutual fighting is terminated by a purported peace or truce, and one side with impunity continually violates the truce by aggressive acts, and the other side – whether restrained by weakness or honor – keeps pointing to what was agreed, but doesn’t do anything effective about these constant violations of the alleged peace, then: regardless of who says what, the aggressive, peace-breaking side was the winner, and the side that keeps to a one-sided peace is the loser.

    If you interpret things this way, there is no point in talking about who “really” won the Vietnam War (with the idea that the Americans and their allies “really” won a “military victory”. The side that stopped fighting actively when there was a peace agreement was the loser, and the side that kept on attacking with impunity, aiming to win not settle, was the winner.

    Does anyone know of an exception to that rule of interpretation?

    If not, then it’s a solid metric of victory.

    I said earlier that Armed Liberal’s question on whether the first side to cry peace is ever the winner has an unfortunate answer from the point of view of it being a good metric. It is common for aggressors to talk peace while making war.

    But Moqtada al-Sadr and Nouri al-Maliki have assumed the classical losing and winning postures, and maintained them for some time now.

    Assuming nobody knows an exception to my rule, we can go beyond gut reactions like “I think al-Sadr is a mook and he’s getting thrashed” to call this one definitely according to a sound rule.

  9. If that’s what you think, and it is what I think, the implication is that we “civilized Western” states have very little capacity to win, because our tacit doctrine has become corrupt. We fight to settle not win, we constantly enter into negotiations that can only be to our detriment, we readily make and accept pauses, truces and peace agreements, and all too often, we keep our word. That’s not how you do it. We can “win” amongst ourselves, with both winners and losers keeping their word. But against enemies with a sounder doctrine, most of the time we must lose, almost regardless of our battlefield performance.

    Also, those on whom we inflict our fatal restraints are doomed. And due to our perverse racism, which bids us to demand extreme restraint from some people while constantly giving others a free pass, it’s easy to guess which of our allies are going to be cursed, militarily.

    Given that we appear unable to shake this insanity off (we are in deep trouble in the jihad wars, and) our main chance of success is to support and allow complete freedom to allies that are “uncivilized” enough so that they are willing to win, and so that we have enough of “the soft bigotry of low expectations” to let them win, and enjoy the fruits of victory.

    (Nod to the topic of the thread…) Nobody worth considering as an ally is going to lack zeal for killing, regardless of theories about how that won’t discourage such fine brave fellows as Muslims.

    Even though I think there is some validity to that theory.

  10. David, I think you’re absolutely right that we’re seeking settlement while the other side is seeking victory. I believe we can change, but what does it take and what happens then?


  11. Armed Liberal,

    The answer is in your FARC counter-example. We need to succeed in two directions. One, we need to ‘treat the cancer’, ie, reduce the physical enemy to a controllable level. Two, we need to build the peace, ie, reform the social-political-economic context and thereby offer a better choice. Either goal alone is insufficient.

    The two-pronged answer is reflected in President Bush’s essentially liberal strategy in the War on Terror. It’s an enormously challenging strategy and whether we’re adequately fulfilling the strategy is highly debateable. But I think it’s critical that we maintain the strategy. And improve upon it, not abandon it for a seductively easier and cheaper short-sighted answer.

  12. “Now the success of our counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq represents a ‘vindication of a left of center worldview'(?!)”:

    There’s a link to the video exchange between Bob Wright and Mickey Kaus where Wright makes this claim, though it seems to be missing most of Wright’s argument. I suspect it to be a reprise of the story about how liberals appeased the Soviets to death.

    But the surge is so successful that Wright wants Obama to make David Petraeus Secretary of State.

  13. bq. Were they?

    Uh, no. That was sarcasm. The worst you could charge against the early Christians persecuted by Rome was with being peacefully subversive, as they rejected the official state cult.

  14. I believe criminologists say that frequency and surety of punishment is a better deterrent than drastic punishment. Something like that may operate here. The FARC appears truly to be harried, with not only leaders but rank and file in constant danger.

    Conversely, groups like Hamas and Hezbollah could (and in Hamas’s case, have) survived regular decapitation by airstrike, since their membership is broad and by and large out of harm’s way.

    The FARC example might, if we have been lucky and successful, correspond to Al Qaeda in Iraq. Sadr is probably much closer to Hezbollah.

  15. A.L. :

    Sorry, I am answering a question not aimed at me. But:

    Waht does it take? Some insult or atrocity so massive that it can no longer be ignored. What happens then? “The smoke of their burning rises up unto heaven”.

    Those nominally on our side that advocate continually being reasonable with those who don’t know what the word “reason” means have a question to answer. Is it worse or better, for the enemy and for mankind as a whole, to continually accommodate them despite continuing provocation until public opinion on our side snaps and we have to do something drastic and final that kills them in their billions; or to send them a message, in the only language they understand, to the effect of “so far and no further” and by so doing avert the gigadeaths?

  16. FARC isn’t Alqaeda: it has actually killed more people than Alqaeda in the last 40 plus years (Unless you count the Algerian civil war).

    But they use the same utopian rhetoric…

    And the demise of FARC, like the slow demise of the Communists and Abusayyaf here in the Philippines show that these wars can be fought…

    You kill the murderers, grant amnesty and jobs and peace to the low levels, and you keep the pressure on…while you work with locals on making life better…

    Hmmm…sounds like the surge..

  17. #12 from Armed Liberal:

    bq. _”David, I think you’re absolutely right that we’re seeking settlement while the other side is seeking victory. I believe we can change, but what does it take and what happens then?”_

    I don’t know. And I feel a temptation to just say things I’m in favor of anyway, and say that’s the solution.

    I think one nation nationalism is sounder basis for fighting to win than strong multiculturalism. But that’s just what I think anyway, and the Japanese have a pretty cohesive country now with no obvious superiority in their willingness to fight to win if need be.

    I think really fixing our unwillingness to fight to win would require three things. But they’re scary – and I mean they scare me. I think most people will reject them and repudiate those who advocate them, which means there is no solution in this direction.

    Since I don’t see a solution that we would be willing to adopt or even discuss comfortably, I don’t reach the problem of “what if see succeed?”

  18. David Blue (#19), so scary you can’t even mention them? That is dire. But deep down, I can’t really believe you on this, at least not without seeing them. It’s only been a few generations since Manifest Destiny and The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire were the rule of the day. Is it really unthinkable to move our collective point of view a few clicks back in the direction of that kind of confidence?

  19. Kirk, one thing you might have mentioned is part of the ethos of the era just mentioned, at least in Britain: “send forth the best ye breed”. GB really thought, IMHO, that its presence in various places was a benefit, and in the place where we were longest we were right. I refer of course to India. The problems in Africa were and are, in my opinion (again), caused by leaving too soon and too quickly; half-finishing the job and compounding the problem by drawing borders with no relationship whatsoever to the natural ones.

    There is another point that has been made several times. All the business of the “War on Terror” and the security mania that is part of it takes resources away from the real problems; that of getting off this mudball, and getting enough resources from and in space so that we finally ruin our ancestral home we have somewhere else to go and resources to go there with. And the problem that is coming (or at least might be); that of erecting our defenses against weapons so deadly that if and when they are used, the human race is well and truly run. Intelligent, self-reproducing, destructive von Neumann machines really are a nightmare; one that makes people in Semtex jackets, or people who fly planes into buildings, or even 20-kiloton unwanted presents in NYC harbour, a joke.

    We need to finish this war, and we need to do it _now_.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>