Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War Paperback – 11 Jul 2013
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'In this brilliant volume master historian Douglas Porch shatters the myth of contemporary counterinsurgency by exposing its raw historical roots. American counterinsurgents often preach moralistic sounding bromides like 'protect and serve the local populations'. Porch deconstructs the mythical universe of counterinsurgency and lays bare the historical truth that they are ultimately wars of death, destruction, and often brute conquest.' Colonel Gian Gentile, United States Military Academy, West Point
'Douglas Porch has written one of the single most outstanding reviews and critiques of the modern theory of counterinsurgency. It fully exposes the myths and legends behind a fundamentally flawed and pernicious approach to conceptualising human conflict. This book should be essential reading for military students, scholars and laymen alike.' Alex Marshall, The Scottish Centre for War Studies, University of Glasgow
'I cannot say how important I believe this book to be. You may have the usual issues with my article, but do not let these put you off this hugely significant piece of scholarship, which melds aspects of foreign and domestic policy in a very unusual way and, if the world were just and reasonable, would become an internationally acclaimed text. I hope it does because it would be little short of a tragedy if it disappeared and the West did not embrace the analysis and so change its ways for the better. It's a tough read for the British and Americans, but like all good analysis, it really can stop us making the same mistakes, generation after generation.' Henry Porter, Observer
'Provocative … challenges the very doctrine of counterinsurgency from the late nineteenth century to the Petraeus surge in Iraq.' Total Politics
'This is a rich, well supported study of a tendentious topic … it pulls together material on a remarkable variety of cases to make a powerful point that is valuable in the undergraduate and graduate classroom as well as for broader practitioner and public audiences.' Jacqueline L. Hazelton, H-Diplo
Douglas Porch's sweeping history of counterinsurgency campaigns, ranging from nineteenth-century colonial conquests to General Petraeus' 'Surge' in Iraq, challenges the contemporary mythologising of counterinsurgency as a humane way of war. The reality, he reveals, is that 'hearts and minds' has never been a recipe for lasting stability.See all Product description
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The author's analysis of COIN as a counterinsurgency methodology is extremely well argued. Inevitably the focus is very much on the mistakes (a.k.a. successes) of British, American and other armed forces of 'the willing'. In contrast there is little coverage of truly successful operations - the author posits that success usualy arose through circumstance or external factors - or the potential for public good in stabilising a deteriorating situation. But perhaps that's because too often the actions of military powers, local or interventionist, instigate or worsen rather than contain a violent insurgency, and any benefits are short-lived. Douglas Porch assigns responsibility for failures in counterinsurgency operations to politicians without a clear policy, an over-reliance on Special Forces as a 'magic bullet' and military commanders with a contextually irrelevant strategy, presenting 'old wine in new bottles'.
This review would have been 5 stars, but for two reasons. Firstly the writing style is somewhat dense at times (I know....) Having said that, the whole flows well and ideas are expressed clearly; so I urge any hesitant reader to persevere. Secondly it would also be interesting to read the author's analysis of the experience of other actors engaged in counterinsurgency operations in say China, Russia, Sri Lanka or India.
I do hope this book gets the attention this subject deserves; especially now.
He presents studies of the US wars against Vietnam and Iraq, the British wars against the Boers, Ireland, Palestine, Kenya, Malaya, Yemen and Northern Ireland, and the French wars against Syria, Vietnam and Algeria.
Porch writes of these wars, “most proved to be protracted, unlimited, murderous, expensive, total-war assaults on indigenous societies. … the true key to success was pitilessly to target anyone and anything that sustained the insurgency. In this way, colonial warfare simply boiled down to national displacement and ruining the countryside by making it unlivable.”
He points out that “World War II linked counterinsurgency more closely with special operations, which favoured ‘kill or capture’ decapitation strategies and dramatic coups as quixotic solutions to intractable political or strategic problems. … even though special operations and resistance action through intelligence collection, sabotage, disruption, diversion, and popular mobilization had played at best a minimum, even a morally ambiguous, role in the Axis defeat, World War II propelled the myth of the military effectiveness of Wingate-inspired Special Operations Forces (SOF), Lawrencian people’s war, and paratroops into the postwar.”
He notes that “despite its disastrous consequences, Palestine impelled the British tradition of police militarization in small wars, with its concomitant brutalization of counterinsurgency politics and tactics, forward into British operations in Malaya, Kenya, and Northern Ireland.”
For example, in Kenya, from June to December 1953, “20,000 troops swept the reserves, and the ‘Prohibited Areas’ of the Aberdares and Mount Kenya, shooting Africans on sight. … in 1957 the British launched Operation Progress, a program of systematic beatings and horrific tortures in the camps permitted under regulations that allowed guards to use ‘compelling force’ to gain inmate compliance … ”
Porch remarks, “The financial burden combined with the highly publicized violence in the British-run detention camps during the Kenyan Emergency helped to convince Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that the lawless brutality of British counterinsurgency had forfeited Britain’s moral right to rule African colonies.”
Porch also notes that in Cyprus, “32,000 British troops aided by 8,000 mainly Turkish Cypriot auxiliaries deploying deportations, decapitations, torture, pseudo gangs, police violence, and sweeps …” and, again, that “Lieutenant Colonel Colin ‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchell, commander of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders … had entered the Aden Crater against orders and subsequently pacified it with methods that included accusations of wanton killing of Arabs in sadistic ways accompanied by widespread looting by undisciplined troops.”
The British Army’s official report into its actions in Northern Ireland acknowledged, “it could be argued that the Army did make the situation worse by, in practice, alienating the catholic [sic] community in 1970 and 1971.” Porch sums up the British state’s record, “British law, as interpreted in the context of imperial policing, aimed to facilitate and justify official violence, not constrain it” and, “imperial Britain’s small wars retained their dirty, violent, racist character ...”
In general, as Porch observes, “small war dominance institutionalized foreign occupation anchored in minority rule, political and cultural hubris, and economic exploitation, then hearts and minds quickly gave way to the cudgel and machine gun, which was the case following both world wars in a variety of bloody counterinsurgency campaigns that continue through those prosecuted most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Porch quotes the historian Isabel Hull, “Imperialism was war.”
Counterinsurgency resulted in “the institutionalization of collective punishment, torture, resettlement, internment, special night squads/ferret forces/counter gangs, and RAF terror bombing for imperial policing. The key to success was to rebrand these kinetic methods as hearts and minds and prosecute it out of public view. … villages might be bombed from the air, shelled, burned, or imply knocked down, wells poisoned, crops fumigated or destroyed, livestock slaughtered, the wounded executed, and the population displaced. Twice the weight of bombs was dropped in Radfan (Yemen) in the last six months of 1958 than the Luftwaffe had managed to unload on Coventry in November 1940.”
Porch points out, “Protection and isolation of the population from the insurgents usually boiled down to campaigns of counter-terror that included internment without trial, torture, deportation, creating refugee tsunamis, or curfew and concentration camp lockdowns supplemented by calorie control.” He sums up, “COIN [counterinsurgency] is simply updated imperialism: Bacevich quotes an American officer in Iraq who argued that, “With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them,” expressing a view that would have been understood by a nineteenth-century British officer.”
He also shows how counterinsurgency is counter-productive: “Not only did the exemplary violence of COIN bolster insurgent fortunes, be they Zionists, FLN, IRA, or now, it seems, Taliban. But also, harsh tactics undermined support for COIN among populations at home shocked that counterinsurgent crusades promoted in the name of freedom, fair play, or liberté justified open-ended states of exception, torture, targeted killings, night raids, drone and air strikes, indefinite internment, a suspension of legality, and alliances with unsavoury, corrupt, and illegitimate local actors, even disappearances and massacres in the name of national security. Nations that acquiesce to counterinsurgency ‘wars on terror’ because the threat seems credible and the enemy weak and easily overcome must realize that small wars are long, dirty affairs fought most often in remote places among people little inclined to see the arrival of Western forces as liberation. Even when they are achieved, military victories in small wars seldom come at an acceptable political, diplomatic, legal, moral, and financial cost.”
Porch points to the consequences of COIN: “Because the Algerian insurrection was classified as a criminal conspiracy, POWs had no right to humane treatment. Many captured FLN were initially guillotined or simply disappeared, while the civilian population was subject to reprisals, relocation, collective punishment to include wholesale massacres of villages, and other refinements of martial law. Nor did it take long for colonial violence anchored in the freebooter mentality developed in the French colonial military to reach the French mainland. What was called the ‘Algerianization’ of the French state began when Maurice Papon, later convicted for having deported Jews to Germany during World War II, was brought back from Constantine, Algeria, in 1958 to serve as Paris Prefect of Police. Under Papon, colonial police techniques like arbitrary arrest, curfews for Muslim workers in France, the creation of massive detention centers, systematic violence, assassinations, torture, and general brutality that weakened the rule of law steadily escalated into the so-called Paris ‘police riots’ of October 17, 1961 in which scores of Algerian migrant workers were killed. Police violence was not only limited to Muslim workers in France, but was also aimed at the growing opposition to de Gaulle’s government from unions, the media, and the anti-war movement – for instance, nine people protesting right-wing OAS violence died at the hands of Papon’s police in February 1962.”
Porch concludes, “French counterinsurgents succeeded in uniting much of Algeria’s Muslim population behind the Front de libération nationale (FLN) by the war’s end. … French COIN tactics helped to transform FLN from a minor conspiracy into the vanguard of a people’s war.”
As he notes, “the insurgent is viewed as a coward and an assassin, an ‘enemy of all mankind’, not a soldier who enjoys the protection of the laws of war. The counterinsurgent, on the other hand, is protecting society, and so is performing an honourable function even as he mobilizes dishonourable means. Those who criticize counterinsurgency methods are branded as hypocrites, ingrates, fellow travellers, enemies of Western civilization and so on – in short, allies of subversion.”
Advocates of COIN argue that it failed only because the army mutinied (the French in Algeria, the US in Vietnam), but actually the army mutinied because COIN failed. Or they argue that it failed only because the civilian government, or the people, or the media were too weak to see it through, when actually the civilian government, the people, and the media stopped wanting to see it through because COIN failed. “COIN offers a doctrine of escapism for many relevant personalities and institutions – a flight from democratic civilian control, even from modernity, into an anachronistic, romanticized, Orientalist vision that projects quintessentially Western values, and Western prejudices, onto non-Western societies.”
The ideas of David Galula, an army major who took his ideas from France’s disastrous war against Algeria, inspired the US Army’s policy document FM 3-24. US General David Petraeus’ “FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency of 2006 replicates the righteousness of nineteenth-century imperialists when it brands the enemies of coalition occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan as ‘elusive, unethical and indiscriminate foes’ organized in an insurgency ‘characterized by violence, immortality, distrust and deceit’.” Porch comments, “populations of those countries who not for the first time have endured invasions and occupations by outsiders who employ indiscriminate violence, justified by trumped up security threats, and followed by occupations based on governance pacts with opportunists or sectarian and political rivals may perhaps be forgiven for failing to draw the stark moral distinctions that appear so obvious to the authors of FM 3-24.” The Pentagon spends $4.7 billion a year on PR.
“The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act has enshrined provisions that have been evolving under the previous administration of George W. Bush that undermine civil liberties – most notably, it authorizes indefinite detention of terrorist suspects; it outsources prosecution of terrorist suspects to military tribunals, stripping federal courts of most terrorist cases; finally, it bans detainees at Guantanamo from being transferred to jails on the US mainland or to friendly or allied nations who might take them.”
Porch brings his study right up to date, pointing out that, “Whatever their tactical benefits or moral justifications, SOF [Special Operations Forces] and drone attacks have served to spread anti-America sentiment and roiled the strategic relationship with Pakistan and now it seems with Yemen as well.”
He warns us, “as had been the case in post-Great War Afghanistan and Iraq, airpower proved to be no substitute for troops on the ground.” He concludes, “Small wars must end as a precondition for prosperity and so that a nation may embrace its epoch.”
He sets up a straw man and rips him to shreds. He accuses everybody of failing to realise their policies won't work but this is easy as he never suggests what could have worked - because he seems to believe nothing will. To do this he has to ignore successful counter insurgencies (and plead that the few he mentions didn't work) - especially those where states successfully put down insurgencies within their own borders
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