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Getting Counterinsurgency Wrong

July 15, 2021

I just published a piece in Foreign Affairs, which draws on my new book, Bullets Not Ballots: Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare.

After two decades, the United States is finally leaving Afghanistan, and only 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq. In both countries, the insurgencies continue. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. In both wars, Washington hoped that imposing democratic reforms could protect the population, win hearts and minds, and defeat the insurgency.

The approach didn’t fail, I argue, because civilian and government officials botched its implementation. It was inherently flawed.

[S]uccessful counterinsurgency campaigns have rarely included democratic reforms, and there was little reason to believe that the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq would prove any different. Rather, when Western powers have intervened militarily to support a threatened government, they have often perpetuated the government’s human rights abuses, bolstered self-interested elites, and harmed civilians. Even when an external power has pushed for reforms, it has found that its influence over another state’s domestic political choices is limited, making democratic reforms exceedingly unlikely.

Sometime, somewhere, the United States and its partners will again be tempted to militarily support a government threatened by an insurgency, convinced that a good governance counterinsurgency campaign can defeat the rebels through democratizing reforms. What they should recognize is the chief lesson of the history of counterinsurgency: that great powers cannot easily shape the domestic politics of smaller, weaker states.

Indeed, contemporary efforts to induce sovereign governments to make reforms in order to succeed in counterinsurgency reveal a failure of the imagination; they fixate on the U.S. popular ideal of governance as by the people and for the people. Not all governments and not all peoples believe that liberal-democratic values are part of the natural order of things. This is true in the United States as well, where even those who share basic values disagree – sometimes violently – over how to translate them into practice. For that matter, good governance is not a prerequisite for political stability in the short or long term. There are multiple paths to stability; the path of democratization is itself often violent and painful.

The good-governance-and-democratization approach ultimately confuses a normative vision with the realities of political power. Governments primarily operate to serve the interests of the powerful. Pro-regime elites – both inside and outside of government – want to keep their wealth and power. Corruption, nepotism, and restrictions on political participation are not accidents; they do not reflect ignorance. They are ways the powerful use to maintain their position.

Which takes us back to insurgency and counterinsurgency; they are, at heart, efforts to resolve disputes over who should rule. While U.S. policymakers see good-governance and democratizing reforms as ways of enhancing the stability of a client government, these reforms usually threaten the interests and power of the governing regime. Elites may calculate – in fact have often calculated – that an ongoing insurgency is less dangerous to their interests – and less of an existential threat to the regime – than implementing reforms demanded by their patron. They will use every tool and tactic at their disposal to maintain their prerogatives and perquisites; they will promise reforms and find myriad ways to avoid delivering on them.

This is the main, but not the only, reason external powers – even when they enjoy an unprecedented share of global military and economic might – often find themselves with limited influence over their clients. It takes a great deal of leverage to successfully intervene in another state’s domestic politics; even when the United States was effectively the ruling power in Iraq it had to consider the interests of elites from both the Saddam era and the post-invasion period. That leverage attenuates further if an intervening state is unwilling to let its client government collapse. Foreign powers don’t usually conduct, or continue, costly counterinsurgency campaigns unless they believe they have a very strong security interest in the survival of the government they are fighting for.

The insistence that good-governance reforms is the path to keeping a partner regime in power – let alone that democratization, modernization, and liberalization are crucial to its long-term stability – sets an unachievable political objective. It also makes interventions last longer, as elites find ways to affirm (and reaffirm and reaffirm) their commitment to reforms they never intend to fully implement. And because the counterinsurgency doctrine expects victory when – and perhaps only when – those reforms are implemented, the intervening power winds up in a particularly bloody version of Waiting for Godot.

Bringing an idealized version of American governance to another country may be appealing in theory. In practice, however, intervening and then continuing a war in the hope that the government will ultimately see the need for reforms is a dangerous chimera. Again and again, doing so has compounded human suffering, required shocking moral choices, and sparked violence across regions. Nonetheless, this belief in reforms persists. In fact, it explains why the United States stayed in Afghanistan and Iraq for so long. For nearly 20 years, the United States and other powers have been urging Afghan and Iraqi leaders to make reforms intended to weaken or defeat the insurgency. Military leaders have pleaded for more time, more resources, and more effort to achieve good governance. But these reforms have not come.

It would be much better for the United States and for the rest of the world if Washington stopped treating military intervention in weaker states as a viable component of its grand-strategic portfolio.


The United States’ tendency to fight so-called small wars in distant lands where its interests are limited is part and parcel of the grand strategy the country has pursued since World War II. But these adventures do not serve American interests or values; they scatter U.S. attention, incur massive costs, and require ghastly moral compromises. A wiser grand strategy would be one of restraint. Under this approach, the United States would focus on its interactions with other great powers, particularly nuclear-armed ones. Outside that realm, in countries where there is a pressing humanitarian need, the United States should offer nonmilitary support for groups suffering from government repression. When it comes to counterinsurgency campaigns waged or supported by outside powers hoping for reforms, history suggests that the game is not worth the candle.

X-posted a Lawyers, Guns and Money.

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Jacqueline L. Hazelton is an assistant professor in the department of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College. Her research interests include grand strategy, liberal great power military intervention, counterinsurgency, terrorism, and U.S. foreign and military policy. The views expressed in her posts are hers alone.