The diplomatic community is currently very vocal on ‘measures’ to deal with the FDLR in Congo, and recalcitrant factions in Mali and the Central African Republic. But this is one area where our reach certainly exceeds our grasp.

The last half-decade has shown that even overwhelming resources could not make ‘classical’ counter-insurgency work in Iraq and Afghanistan. The way the task was conceived by Western elites simply could not surmount enormous differences in political culture,  institutional architecture, and overall expectations.

It is perhaps an opportune time to re-post a paper I wrote in 2010-11, just as this fact was starting to become apparent. Abstract follows below.

Title page: Counter-insurgency in fragile states

Ian D. Quick, ‘Poor man’s COIN: Understanding counter-insurgency in fragile states’.

Written December 2011 for Peacekeeping Whiteboard, edited November 2014.

Available in: PDF only.

Executive summary

Over the last decade, practitioners and theorists have developed a distinct brand or model of Counter-Insurgency™. This model has developed largely in response to the operational demands of the Iraq and Afghanistan theatres. I argue that it is over-specified to the experiences of rich, Western countries. This can lead to costly strategic errors in contexts that are very distant from the “classical” cases.

Fragile states are one such context. For interventions in these environments, the counter-insurgent must problematize:

Insurgent objectives, which may be better understood through the absence of state institutions than the desire to capture them. Self-protection, and the security dilemma that results, often drive armed mobilization. Economic motivations may also be key.

The host government. The distinction between public institutions and private institutions may not be well-established. This constrains external assistance, which may encounter substantial resistance and incoherence. It also means that ostensibly technical interventions have direct political consequences.

Campaign design. An end-state of “zero insurgency” represents an extreme discontinuity. This is because the risk factors that permit insurgencies to arise are resistant to policy intervention. This includes state-centered solutions, which are premised on unrealistic expectations for institutional development.

The argument draws heavily on literature on statebuilding and the political economy of civil wars. The cases used for illustration are Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Uganda.