Why Arab states are bad at counterinsurgency

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on

The Arab War on Terror is in full swing. Never has the region seen as many terrorist networks, guerrilla groups, and militias fighting against governments as now; in Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, and Yemen, central governments are struggling with insurgencies of one type or another, with Western governments providing tacit or overt support.

But Arab states are bad at counterinsurgency. Egypt’s Sinai campaign is now in its fourth unsuccessful year; Yemen’s Houthis have come back with a vengeance after a decade in which six military campaigns were run against them; Algeria fought an outright war against jihadi networks in the 1990s but never won it completely—terrorist activities in the Maghreb have not only continued in the 2000s, they are on the rise again. Years of training and $25 billion dollars in aid failed to produce an Iraqi security force capable of eradicating, or even containing, a proto-state organization like the Islamic State. In Libya and Syria, neither Gaddafi nor Asad managed to quell the uprisings their forces supposedly were trained to quell. So why is it that counterinsurgency does not come easily to regimes in the Middle East and North Africa?

To begin with, counterinsurgency is counterintuitive in military terms: violence cannot simply be countered by violence. As colonial France learned in Algeria, you might win a battle but lose the war; the 1965 film Battle of Algiers lays out in detail how French forces moved to crush the Algerian insurgency, only to create more insurgents in the process—a lesson American forces learned in Vietnam (and re-learned in Iraq and Afghanistan). While brutal force might be the first resort states use to fight insurgents of all types, the answer needs to be more nuanced: in many instances, it is anything but violence that will do the trick. The U.S. government counterinsurgency guide points out that “unlike conventional warfare, non-military means are often the most effective elements, with military forces playing an enabling role.” As insurgency is a political phenomenon, its root causes need to be addressed in order to eradicate it; military force alone (especially when employed excessively) often only polarizes the society the insurgency is embedded in even further.

While brutal force might be the first resort states use to fight insurgents of all types, the answer needs to be more nuanced: in many instances, it is anything




violence that will do the trick.

It is precisely this that Arab states often struggle with; settling political conflict via compromise is the exception rather than the norm. Politics is more often than not a zero-sum game where whoever is in power will monopolize resources as well as the political space, and inflict lustration and exclusion on antagonists of any type. Extended to the military sphere, this means that insurgencies will be approached with the same “winner takes it all” mentality: opponents must be crushed rather than convinced.

Iraq is such an example. If there ever were a textbook case of how to antagonize a local population not once but twice, Iraq’s Sunni provinces are it. The U.S. invasion in 2003 and subsequent occupation created the first wave of conditions for Sunni political disenfranchisement, but a second wave was created after 2008 when promises to integrate Sunnis who had participated in the Anbar Awakening (a joint effort to fight the Islamic State’s predecessor) went unmet: De-Ba’athification by a largely Shi’a leadership continued unabated; peaceful demonstrations against the government were met with violence; and tribal leaders were discredited by a Baghdad that delivered hollow messages and no jobs. Suddenly, the Islamic State seemed to be the better option for many young, unemployed men who had tried every other trick in the political book. To be continued…

Or Yemen. The Houthis started out as a theological movement that quickly took on anti-governmental tones as it was seeking accountability and justice. The insurgency started after the Houthis clashed with security forces seeking to arrest their leader. Six years of war with the regime finally ended in a 2010 ceasefire. Their comeback in 2014 is largely the result of their continuous exclusion from the post-2011 political process—and the fact that while the Yemeni military managed to reduce the Houthis’ capacities, it did not eradicate the root causes that led to the insurgency in the first place. As solution to the ongoing insurgency will most certainly not be of military nature, but will have to give the Houthis a political way out—but neither the government of President Hadi nor his military support in Saudi Arabia are inclined to compromises.

Secondly, successful counterinsurgency does not add fuel to the fire in the process. As a largely infantry-based endeavor, it usually involves direct contact with the civilian population—contact which can turn it hostile. Once such example is Egypt. In theory, the military’s task is to disrupt a 2,000-or-so-strong network of jihadi insurgents who operate among a population of around half a million in the Sinai. In practice, they are finding it difficult to single them out—mainly because the original Bedouin population of the Sinai has been at odds with the government for decades. Government-enforced sedentariness, underdevelopment, and discrimination made them hostile in the first place, and the destruction of houses and disruption of their economic activities during the current campaign have reinforced this, despite the campaign’s rhetorical commitment to “care and respect” the local population. Even where the Bedouins are not actively supporting the insurgents, they are not facilitating the security forces’ task either. Egypt’s military is failing on the human terrain because they perceive the population as part of the problem rather than the solution.

Successful counterinsurgency does not add fuel to the fire in the process. As a largely infantry-based endeavor, it usually involves direct contact with the civilian population—contact which can turn it hostile.

Perhaps the one state that has understood that counterinsurgency is not only about physical destruction is Algeria, which learned a hard lesson during its “dark decade” of the 1990s. Its insurgency began after the armed forces abolished the first national democratic elections as Islamist parties were projected to win in 1992. As Islamist guerrillas formed all over the country, the military targeted the parties’ supporters, arresting large numbers and cracking down hard on demonstrators. An extensive counterterrorism law and a curfew gave the regime the necessary breathing space.

After what appeared to be an initial success, the insurgency came back even stronger in 1994, perpetrating large-scale crimes against citizens. By then, the ever-increasing spiral of violence had generated the phrase “qui tue qui en Algerie (“who is killing whom in Algeria”)—the population no longer saw the validity of any of the conflict parties, only massacres. A shocking 2001 account by a former special forces officer titled The Dirty War lays out how the Algerian military managed to inflict ever more damage on the insurgents without actually winning the war. The violence finally ended, but only after 150,000 victims had been killed and a decade had been lost—mainly because neither side managed to win the hearts and minds of the population. Remnants of the insurgency continue in the mountains and have regained strength over the last years.

Arab armed forces are good at hitting hard and inflicting pain, but they are poor at comprehensive solutions to complex political problems, and they thereby perpetuate the strife. Nevertheless, the West continues to hope that Arab states will be capable of tackling terrorism and insurgencies on its behalf and that their new effort to cooperate more on these issues will yield results. But unless Arab states significantly review how they deal with counterinsurgency—and the West pushes them to do so—this is a pie in the sky.