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  • Leo N Barnes

Rethinking Counterinsurgency

‘We know we’re killing a lot, capturing a lot, collecting arms. We just don’t know yet whether that’s the same as winning’ – Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, 2003

The Middle East has been the scene of external intervention and regional and domestic conflict for over 4000 years. Conflict has been endemic throughout its history, with one of the most threatening manifestations of this coming in the form of insurgency, an ‘organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power, or other political authority while increasing insurgent control’.

Insurgent threats have evolved in the 21st century by using developed military, technological and ideological strategies to target armed forces and civilians, and such a trend is likely to continue in the near future. As such, occupying forces, primarily the United States (US) and other coalitions forces, have employed a variety of military strategies to counteract insurgencies, through military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological and civic actions taken by governments to defeat insurgency. But how effective have these operations been, and can we learn anything from them for future counterinsurgency operations?

Counterinsurgency is complex. It requires nuanced, context-specific and adaptive operations that can simultaneously counteract the military threat and address any situational variables that may arise. An insurgency emerges when a ‘governing force fails to address social or regional polarisation, sectarianism, corruption, crime or radicalism’, thus, the multifaceted nature of insurgency necessitates a multifaceted counterinsurgency strategy.

Such strategies have been attempted in the 21st century in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, aligning with a ‘kinetic’ and infantry-centric doctrine, or the ‘hearts and minds’ doctrine that emphasises the importance of a bottom-up, community-based approach, or a balance between the two. Upon closer examination, it is possible to deduce which strategy is most effective, enabling more successful counterinsurgency operations in the future?


After the 2001 US invasion, Afghanistan has been impacted by numerous insurgencies, with the most prominent being mounted by the Taliban. The Taliban are a fundamentalist Sunni Islamic group who, at any given time, accounted for 80-90% of the insurgency in Afghanistan. The US’ invasion was primarily to ‘kill and capture al-Qaeda leadership’, however, after 2001 the US forces lack clarity and consistency in defining their missions and executing them appropriately. This lack of clarity meant that Taliban insurgents were able to move back onto the offensive by 2002 and successfully stymie US counterinsurgency operations.

This was in part due to US forces still using strategies of conventional warfare, not acknowledging the more dynamic and mobile nature of the Taliban insurgency. This was acknowledged by US Army who detailed their difficulties in keeping up with Taliban forces and maintaining a level of pressure that could inflict any territorial or military damage, as well as their failure to develop the technological capacities needed to counter the sophistication of the Taliban’s military and evasive techniques. This resulted in an increase of insurgent attacks by 400% from 2002-2006, with the number of deaths attributed to insurgent violence rising by 800% in the same period, highlighting the extent of the failure of US counterinsurgency.

The Taliban continued to develop their insurgent techniques, with the US unable to match them after 2001. The US had failed to adapt technologically and was still using outdated equipment and strategy that was proving to be little use to forces on the ground. Due to the lack of military or social pressure exerted by US forces, the Taliban were able to develop ‘expeditionary logistics' which enabled them to carry out large scale operations from their safe havens, paralysing US counterinsurgency forces and limiting their ability to locate and destroy insurgent cells. This, in turn, led to rising civilian casualties and a decrease in approval from Afghan civilians of US presence.

After the 2001 invasion, the civilian attitudes towards US forces was generally positive, however, nearing 2010 the local attitudes had reversed due to the lack of cooperation with local communities. This lack of effective operational capacity led to the proliferation of a new, expansive and organisationally sophisticated Taliban, known as the ‘neo-Taliban’, which steadily grew in strength. By 2010, the neo-Taliban controlled 80% of the country and was exploiting a booming opium trade, controlling opium production that was valued at $3.4 billion by 2008. As a result of this ineffectiveness, the US left behind a ‘violently transformed landscape peppered with local militia’, failing to defeat opposing forces or engage and secure towns and cities.

However, the US did show signs of evolving their counterinsurgency operations to successful effect. The US employed a Neoliberal strategy of utilizing international organisations to aid its efforts in realising a more comprehensive solution. Traditional warfare tactics were insufficient, as a result more authority was handed over to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a NATO-led security mission that endeavoured to not only engage the Taliban insurgency, but also provide more holistic support to rebuild government institutions and local communities.

The ISAF ‘made significant progress as the operational level’ through increasing the presence of international forces, which typified ISAF Commander Stanley McChrystal’s new approach of ‘population-centric counterinsurgency’, as well as its cooperation with local police and leadership to address the civilian-level issues. This embrace of multilateral cooperation enhanced the counterinsurgency project against the Taliban through improved intelligence sharing, more coordinated community support, a more cohesive military offensive and a strong institutional campaign.

This successful evolution has not continued, however, as insurgent forces are still dominant in Afghanistan today. The ISAF was unable to work at the sub-state-level which has led to incoherent ad-hoc operations and an inability to implement strong government institutions. Although US taskforces prioritised democracy, it falsely believed that promising elections would bring them legitimacy. US forces were afforded no such legitimacy and the elections they facilitated were deeply fraudulent, with 38% of people surveyed in Afghanistan believing the results were unfair.

The US’ neglect for institutional strength and anti-corruption measures proved to be their undoing, with US credibility across the country deteriorating, making successful counterinsurgency without civilian cooperation near impossible. This led to wide spread civil unrest and the proliferation of Taliban insurgent forces, affording them greater control over the country and its people. In mid-2018, a top Afghan General asserted that the Taliban had forces in excess of 77,000 and controlled over 14 districts of the country, meaning half the population were living under Taliban control. One sees how through insufficient military equipment, an inability to maintain technological equity with insurgents, poor community engagement and an inability to sustain strong government institutions, counterinsurgency has not evolved successfully and looks to remain insufficient in Afghanistan in the near future.


Since the turn of the century, Iraq experienced an insurgency after the US’ 2003 invasion, as well as an insurgency from 2011 until 2013 following the US’ withdrawal, and further insurgencies during the following civil war and against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The initial insurgency that US troops encountered in 2003 was unique and dynamic, with the employed counterinsurgency methods being intended to act as a short stabilization operation that aimed at removing hostile actors and building bottom-up support from local communities. This was initially successful, as the US Army Field Manual describes, using its operations in the Anbar Province, where al-Qaeda had established strong control by the end of 2003.

The US Army deployed the 3rd Battalion 6th Marines (3/6) to execute Operation Iron Fist, a counterinsurgency operation that aimed to eliminate insurgent forces whilst simultaneously work closely with local tribes and armed forces to assimilate into communities to aid the military operation. This was overwhelmingly effective as 3/6 successfully integrated with the Albu-Mahal tribe militarily and socially, constructing fourteen combat outposts which ‘reflected combined, permanent, persistent presence, where the Marines and Iraqi Army lived together and among the people’ in order to successful defeat the insurgent forces. As a result, over the following months all insurgent troops were either captured, killed or forced out of the area.

This success in both military and community-level strategy was extrapolated into other areas of conflict in Iraq, with US Marines being given instruction to counter the insurgency in Fallujah in late 2004 by systematically clearing the city’s 20,000 buildings, establishing a permanent presence, integrating and cooperating with the local community and aiding the Iraqi forces. A similar strategy was used in Tal Afar in 2005, where the 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment successful executed counterinsurgency by closely working with Iraqi forces to rid insurgent soldiers from the area and using the local community to obtain intelligence.

As the Iraq War progressed and evolved, as did the insurgency tactics used, thus demanding an evolved counterinsurgency strategy. Insurgent groups were utilizing technology more which made it harder to US troops to track and locate hostile groups, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were used more which had devastating impacts on US troops and their ability to maintain fluid mobility, and popular opinion of US troops was declining as the occupation endures which made previously used counterinsurgent operations harder to utilize. As a result, it was proclaimed that most powerful military in the world has lost control of Iraq, which can be seen in the regressing territorial control of US forces and increase in insurgent attacks against coalition forces and civilians from 2005 onwards.

This was due to the counterinsurgency strategy being too singular, as it shifted its ambition to military expansion it neglected the previously effective bottom-up approach that cooperated with civilians and communities, allowing local insurgencies to emerge and proliferate. Nigel Aylwin-Foster noted how there were multiple issues at play: a doctrinal issue, the lack a unified command which led to contradictory counterinsurgency operations; a training issue as a significant proportion of troops were unable to carry out the necessary operations; and a technology issue, as forces were not equipped to deal with the developing military and technological threats the insurgent groups had at their disposal.

As such, the US evolved its counterinsurgency strategy to meet the new demands of the technologically developed and more embedded insurgency. The US’ strategy of counteracting this was ‘The Surge’, consisting of sending in excess of 30,000 troops to Iraq under the new command of General Petraeus, shifting from an ‘enemy centric’ to a ‘population-centric approach’. Characteristics of the new strategy were modernised military tactics, technological advancement and increased presence and integration; these are exemplified by the battalions deployed.

The 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment’s (1/7) employment of a ‘clear, hold, build’ tactic established dominance in insurgent-controlled areas, enabling the Iraqi Security Force and Marine patrols to conduct intelligence gathering missions that generated nearly 80% of 1/7’s military intelligence. Further, the 1st Battalion, 37th Armoured Regiment demonstrated the technological advancements of the new strategy as its new military vehicles, the M1A1 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, enabled a level of mobility unattainable in previous operations. This enabled them to conduct an estimated 3,200 combat patrols and mounted 275 company-level operations, killing an estimated 480 insurgents in the process. The 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment embodied the final task through their almost one-thousand-strong battalion conducting operations in areas hosting between 750,000-800,000 Iraqis, with this intensified presence decreasing the level of insurgent attacks by over 50%. These new measures proved very successful as, from 2007-2010, violent acts directed at coalition forces dropped by over 80%, with the coalition forces successfully adapting their strategy of military modernisation using appropriate tactics, technology and equipment with a broader integrative effort and by promoting political and social stability.

However, insurgent forces continued to evolve, with a recent manifestation of this being the proliferation of ISIS. Although ISIS has been treated as a proto-state, it used insurgent tactics, thereby demanding sophisticated and effective counterinsurgency tactics. ISIS proliferated in late 2011, quickly expanding and becoming the most well organised and wealthy terrorist network in modern history, yielding over $4 million a day from illicit activities. After the withdrawal of troops from Iraq after 2010 and capitalising on the developing civil war, ISIS was able to expand its territorial occupation, catalysing the collapse of the Iraqi army collapsed as nearly 30,000 soldiers deserted due to ISIS’ proliferation.

However, coalition forces, led by the US, developed new counterinsurgency strategies that depleted ISIS’ capabilities in Iraq. Primality these were the use of airstrikes, which targeted military strongholds, training facilities and oil fields – their main source of revenue – with its peak coming in August 2017 when coalition forces launched almost 2000 airstrikes against ISIS. On December 9th 2017 the Iraqi military said had ‘fully liberated’ its territory from ISIS, with the group no longer holding any towns or cities and with depleted organisational capacity. However, these external strategies including airstrikes have failed to counteract the ideological spread of ISIS. As a result, it cannot be said that such operations will have long term success as the ideology that underpinned the insurgency has not been countered and has been allowed to permeate towns and villages affected by decades of warfare, making future insurgency inevitable.


Following intense Arab Spring-inspired protests in Damascus in 2011 and with the emergence and proliferation of ISIS, the Syrian insurgency developed in late 2011. Western states such as the US, UK and France have primarily been engaged in counterinsurgency efforts against ISIS which was able to expand its control into Syria due to the security and ideological vacuum left by the abovementioned political and military chaos. There was a paralysis exhibited by external states in launching direct counterinsurgency against ISIS due to the potential domestic and international political repercussions. As a result, the conflict metastasised into a mix of insurgent, sectarian and proxy warfare, contributing to a steadily rising civilian death toll from 2011-13, with up to 1000 civilians a month being killed.

One of the reasons ISIS proliferated so quickly was its utilization of narratives and ideology to galvanize local populations and inspire foreign nations to not only join the caliphate, but to carry out attacks in their home countries. This strong ideological undercurrent demanded a counterinsurgency strategy with the depth to counteract the military and ideological factors at play. However, this strategy was not delivered and external states relied too much on planned airstrikes and not enough on adaptive and context-specific operations. The lack of military presence on the ground in Syria meant the ISIS was able to expand its territorial rapidly, spreading its ideological narrative in the process to areas torn apart by sectarian warfare. As a result, the counterinsurgency strategy employed initially to counteract ISIS was ineffective at best, and non-existent at worst.

As ISIS grew, the operations used to prevent its caliphate from expanding evolved and gradually became more effective. ISIS presented new tactics that counterinsurgency forces had not encountered before, primarily their use of digital communication. A 2014 Brookings Institute Report estimated that ISIS had 46,000 Twitter accounts that tweeted support for the group’s actions and ideology, as well as its extensive use of other apps to recruit domestic and foreign soldiers. The strategies to mitigate this were initially insufficient, owing to the lack of investment in time and money to counteract ISIS’ online presence and the inexperience of defending against such a threat.

However, through the method of ‘marginalisation’ - censoring its digital presence and ability to spread information and propaganda - ISIS began to lose significant ground technologically. This was demonstrated by the British Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit who were able to flag over 40,000 pieces of extremist content on Twitter, leading to the suspension of 10,000 ISIS linked accounts. Furthermore, airstrikes have been proven effective against the territorial expansion of ISIS, combining kinetic counterinsurgency with advanced technological capacities and sophisticated airpower. By mid 2015, coalition forces had launched 5,827 airstrikes which had killed over 10,000 ISIS insurgents, with the US spearheading this strategy, accounting for 78% of those strikes. These strikes precipitated ISIS’ retreat from key strongholds such as Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour, with their overall territory decreasing from 34,000 square miles in 2014 to just over 20,000 square miles in 2016.

What is needed now is a military strategy that prioritises ideological re-adjustment and institutional reconstruction, approaches that external states are failing to adopt. Military operations have been effective but they must now be accompanied by internationally legitimate peace-keeping and nation-building efforts. ISIS has lost the vast majority of is territory in Syria, only occupying 0.55% of Syrian land as of November 31st 2018, and its numbers have dropped dramatically, having over 35,000 soldiers in early 2017 to between 1,000 and 3,000 by the end of 2017.

With ISIS reverting to concentrated insurgencies, external states must look at institutional reconstruction as a priority. The lowest estimate for this is $200 billion, and with the current total government budget of Syria being 0.035% of that sum in 2018, external states must lend financial as well as military and ideological support if the existing insurgent forces are to be comprehensively defeated and their ideology eliminated from the national and regional psyche. With this holistic strategy of military support, financial aid and institutional reconstruction with a focus on ideological importance and sensitivity, the counterinsurgency effort can prove to be overwhelmingly effective in Syria, serving as a precedent for future counterinsurgency operations in the region and globally.

From this analysis, one can conclude that future counterinsurgency operations should seek to synthesise the successful elements of previous endeavours in the abovementioned cases with an adaptive and contextually responsive strategy that provides a holistic solution to military, ideological, technological, institutional and civilian-level issues. Counterinsurgency operations must be technologically advanced, well equipped and culturally sensitive, a key deficiency in Afghanistan. They must be reactive and population-centric, but they must not be premature in their withdrawal or overestimate the institutional strength of what they are leaving behind, as seen in Iraq. They must quick in response and provide more than just a military solution, unlike in Syria.

Forces must invest in up-to-date military equipment and train specific taskforces to execute specific missions, simultaneously giving deference to the military complexity of the operations and the importance of community outreach and engagement. Further, sufficient investment must be made in the institutional strength of the states that are being occupied, acknowledging that some states, Afghanistan for example, may have a more decentralised system of political and legal power, and that operations and institutions must accommodate that. In addition, forces must not rush in with traditional warfare; all insurgencies are unique and varying in their capabilities and ambitions. Some are financially wealthy and seeking regional and potentially global dominance such as ISIS, others have lesser territorial aims and prefer methods of attrition such as the Taliban. As such, forces must not shy away from putting boots on the ground as, although politically dangerous, it is the best way of ensuring not only military efficacy, but ideological and cultural success as well.

Insurgencies should not be ignored or underestimated, and counterinsurgency should not be limited to reductive and insufficient strategies such as ‘bomb[ing] the shit out of them’, as President Trump proposed in 2015. In heeding this, not only will states and the international community develop successful counterinsurgency strategies, but it will help dismantle and destroy hateful ideologies that are part and parcel of these networks and give the best opportunity for state-level stability, and sustained peace in the region.

Author: Leo N Barnes is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy Press.

©2018 by Foreign Policy Press