The Secret History of Counterinsurgency

I’ve got a sort of nagging concern that counterinsurgency advocates have sold the public — or at least a certain swathe of left-of-center elites — on a prettied-up version of what their brand of warfare means. Like it’s really development work and human rights, except the people will carry guns. As Michael Cohen points out, however, the favored success stories of the counterinsurgents don’t actually look like a kinder, gentler form of war.

Consider Malaysia:

The veneration of Templer and Thompson, however, ignores some inconvenient facts. By the time Templer had arrived on the scene, the tide of the war against the insurgency had already begun to turn. This had far less to do with protecting the population than it did separating the ethnic Chinese population from the insurgents, by force. Historian Paul Dixon has offered a compelling list of indignities visited upon this group: mass arrests, the death penalty for carrying weapons, food control systems, burning down of the homes of Communist sympathizers, curfews and fines against communities as forms of collective punishment for individual offenses, detention without trial.

And of course in Iraq the famous “surge” period was also marked by massive ethnic cleansing. Not perpetrated by US forces, but it happened nonetheless and created a more tractable situation. Meanwhile, we started killing more civilians:


According to one measure, U.S. airstrikes killed nearly four times as many Iraqis in 2007 than in 2006. According to Iraq Body Count, a database that records the number of violent civilian casualties in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, the numbers actually increased, post-surge. Deaths of non-combatants involving U.S.-led Coalition military forces rose from between 544 and 623 in 2006 to between 868 and 1,326 in 2007; civilian deaths directly attributable to U.S. forces alone (i.e., not involving any other combatants) increased steeply from be- tween 394 and 434 in 2006 to between 669 and 756 in 2007. Additionally, the surge was witness to a substantial increase in the number of Iraqis held in U.S. detention.

Which is just to say that people shouldn’t kid themselves about what’s involved in a war, even a counterinsurgency war. Undertaking these sort of enterprises when it’s not really necessary is abad idea.