The strategic purpose of counter-insurgency campaigns is often difficult to market to the general public. A danger to the obvious national interest—a hallmark of conventional wars where national militaries fight other national militaries—is often obfuscated in the frequent expeditionary mode by which counter-insurgency warfare has been waged by western countries in the Arab world in recent years. However, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the events that have unfolded in Libya so far this year have given rise to new questions about how counter-insurgency war should be conceived, especially in a political context. The removal of Saddam Hussein and of Colonel Qadhafi have opened up new opportunities to reorder the political systems of Iraq and Libya. Yet it has also created new motivations for regime loyalists to undertake acts of political violence against new political structures and elites.
[inset_left]Political considerations, sensitivities and necessities are omnipresent in a counter-insurgency campaign[/inset_left]
All insurgencies are inherently political in nature—they seek to impose their political creed and structure over a particular region, society or country. Consequentially, the counter-insurgent response is also inexorably political as nation-states seek to assert (or reassert) their authority in the face of a threat to their monopoly of violence. The overarching counter-insurgency strategy will always comprise a large political element to achieve a reduction and eventual eradication of the threat to state control or a particular sphere of interest.
In counter-insurgency scenarios, therefore, the military battle is highly politicized. David Kilcullen, the counter-insurgency advisor to former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has gone so far as to state that “modern counter-insurgency may be one hundred percent political.” Although his calculations may be high, his point is well-made—political considerations, sensitivities and necessities are omnipresent in a counter-insurgency campaign. It is the political masters who send in the military to reassert control; it is the political masters who assess the strategic threats posed by insurgent groups to the national interest; it is the political masters’ electoral sensitivities that impinge upon the longevity of the military campaign.
The eruption of insurgencies in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 provide examples of how differing causes of violence can have similar effects on the political systems they are directed against—albeit with divergent levels of success. An insurgency is, in essence, a strategic effort to overthrow the status quo and rebuild it in the insurgents’ own image. Although the multiple insurgent groups that emerged from the chaos of post-invasion Iraq in 2003 were fundamentally reactive to externally imposed regime change, we can see how the Libyan uprising was arguably proactive in engendering regime change from within. This cleavage in the nature of sub-state violence holds implications for the issue of insurgent legitimacy. Colonel Qadhafi’s regime was brought down by a snow-balling movement for change, whose leaders were granted the international legitimacy of NATO air support in furtherance of their aims. Conversely, Iraqi insurgents were fighting multiple enemies—including the new government, the US occupying forces and other militias—creating a complex conflict dynamic with competing sources of legitimacy, both political and religious.
Yet both insurgencies demonstrate that today’s insurgents can become tomorrow’s counter-insurgents and vice versa. Before the fall of Qadhafi, key figures in the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Libya were quintessential insurgent leaders. Now they will inevitably find themselves fighting a vanguard battle against Qadhafi loyalists who will no doubt seek to perpetuate the sort of violence that members of Saddam’s Fedayeen undertook in defiance of the new political order. As elections loom for the first time in post-Qadhafi Libya, a cautionary tale for the new Libyan government remains the way in which insurgent groups in Iraq utilized election disruption, via methods such as attacks on queues of voters or community intimidation, as a key tactic in undermining new political structures.
For the NTC, shifting from insurgency to counter-insurgency will inevitably come down to building their political legitimacy. Traditional maxims regarding the battle for hearts and minds are hard to ignore when the longevity of new political structures are tied directly to the support granted them by the population. The direction of Libya—and indeed all the countries whose part in the Arab Spring has recast their mode of governance—depends in large part upon the ability of new political elites to repay the hope of the people who fought to overthrow the ancien regime. Yet history has taught us that counter-insurgency warfare is not just about eliminating violent opposition in a military sense: it is also fundamentally about the effective political management of public expectation. The NTCs ability to fulfill both elements of this strategy as the new leaders of Libya will ultimately decide what the lasting political legacy of their uprising will be.