It is gratifying to see the discussion in this forum prompted by Jacqueline Hazelton’s recent International Security article, since scholarly debates about counterinsurgency have receded from the spotlight over the past decade. One hopes that this hiatus will be short-lived given the rich empirical opportunities presented by the recent history of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a review of Jacqueline Hazelton’s International Security article on counter-insurgency, David Ucko and Jason Fritz fire off the latest salvo in a battle to prove COIN doctrine’s enduring value. They raise a number of entirely valid points about the historical evidence on Malaya, Dhofar and El Salvador: what happened in these conflicts and why is, of course, arguable. Whether repression or indiscriminate violence by an incumbent is strategically productive has also been the subject of much debate, with no firm consensus having emerged in the civil war literature. Yet the reviewers are not really quibbling over the details. They seem to be protesting the finding that civilian suffering is inflicted by counter-insurgents, and what is worse, that it is inflicted on purpose.
I welcome the H-Diplo/ISSF editors’ selection of my International Security article, “The Hearts and Minds Fallacy: Violence, Coercion, and Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare,” for review, and thank them for the opportunity to respond the review by David Ucko and Jason Fritz. I appreciate the reviewers’ attention to my work. The debate on counterinsurgency is divisive and sometimes even passionate. The policy implications of the leading prescriptions for successful counterinsurgency reflect this debate in their radical differences. They range from long-term liberal state-building, as the United States and its partners have attempted in Iraq and Afghanistan, to a primarily or purely military focus on killing or capturing insurgents and their enablers. Many people who research counterinsurgency hold strong views on what the correct response to insurgency should be, treating research as a normative question. The lead author of the review of my work, David Ucko, has taken a very different approach to the study of counterinsurgency than I have. This difference is reflected in the review.
Over the past decade, the dominant view of counterinsurgency in academic and policy circles has fluctuated. In particular, the debate has touched upon the importance of winning the civilian population’s allegiance and the role of violence in protecting, or suppressing it. The broad consensus suggests the need to “win” the population, mostly through popular empowerment and by shielding it from violence, all the while preventing it from supporting the insurgency. Still, some saw the focus on securing the population, and the associated slogan of “winning hearts and minds,” as implying a dubious and misleading promise of counterinsurgency as a “kinder, gentler war.” Critics were quick to pounce, yet tended to eschew the necessary context or confuse their own at times reductive interpretations of counterinsurgency for its ‘conventional wisdom.’ The fact that doctrine and scholarship, to say nothing of counterinsurgency on the ground, evince a more complex picture has not deterred the continued use of strawmen to launch powerful yet poorly targeted attacks.