Battling causes

by David H. Ucko

Talking about a revolution (Issue II/2020)


How do you react to resistance movements that attempt to bring about political and social change? If you follow counterinsurgency theory, as formulated by the British military, for example, violent actors must be stopped. At the same time, the social, economic and political circumstances that drive people to take to the streets must also be confronted. The doctrine of counterinsurgency – even though in the eyes of its critics this is just a euphemism for death squads and massacres – follows a liberalist script that assumes that stability and societal reforms will ensure that the state will be more inclusive and that from now on there’ll be neither reasons nor opportunities to rebel.

According to the principle of counterinsurgency, it’s important for the armed forces involved to develop a nuanced view of a conflict, to act under collective command, to be guided by intelligence data, to isolate insurgents and to ensure while doing so that the wider populace perceives the state’s actions as justified.

But why does counterinsurgency theory, constructed by western powers through their adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan, so rarely pass the test of practice? Our experience of battling insurgents has been rooted for centuries in western nations’ interventions in other states. Whenever “we” have got involved, the same script has applied from the start: the domestic government is ill-equipped with the latest arms, it requests international assistance, and one or more third parties answer the appeal and send military resources. This leads to the reaction being militarised – also because we neglect our supposedly helpful non-military endeavours to “battle the real causes”.

“Genuine success requires providing security to people and putting the security of society above that of the regime and the elites.” 

Research has suggested that resistance movements that question the status quo in a violent way awaken the state’s lowest instincts. The state is quick to resort to countermeasures. The military, let off the leash, is expected to “deal with” what is represented as a threat to security. Military forces can only provide a shield for political and social reforms. In nations threatened by insurgency, an aggravating factor is that their governments have usually failed to provide evidence that political and societal conflicts can be resolved peacefully. The crisis of faith in the system invites violent dismantling of state structures rather than cooperation with them. Nations that have failed the test of legitimacy must pull themselves out of the swamp. A Herculean, though not impossible, task. The “democratic security policy” that the Colombian authorities introduced in 2002, was possible not only because of victory over the FARC guerrilla movement, because the military was mobilised, but also because it succeeded in winning over the population to a collective vision for an inclusive and democratic nation.

Genuine success requires providing security to people and putting the security of society above that of the regime and the elites. It calls for “the people” to be recognised as citizens and as participants in a collaborative political endeavour. Only in this way can resistance to extremism ideologies be generated.



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