After the Brussels attack by ISIS, I argued that a fire-and-sword approach to counterinsurgency doesn’t usually work. New York Times correspondent Andrew Kramer begs to differ. He describes Russia’s methods in putting down an Islamic/nationalist insurgency in Chechnya. The Russian security services have used brutal techniques, including targeting the relatives of insurgents for arrest, torture, and murder — and with such a scorched earth policy, they have managed to more or less pacify this restive province in the Caucasus.
So does that mean that the U.S. should emulate the Russian approach? The answer is no — and not just for reasons of morality, although those do loom large. There is no question that a dictatorship that censors its media and doesn’t allow any meaningful opposition can get away with a lot more human rights violations than a liberal democracy like the United States, which has a free press and a powerful civil sector. When U.S. troops commit atrocities on a far smaller scale than the Russians — think of My Lai or Abu Ghraib — the results typically come back to haunt us and undermine much-needed support for the war effort.
But even dictatorships cannot routinely suppress insurgencies by pure brute force. In my previous item, I mentioned the example of the Nazis in Yugoslavia and of the Soviets in Afghanistan; both regimes used near-genocidal levels of violence and still lost. To that list can be added more recent examples, such as Bashar Assad’s inability to end the Syrian Civil War no matter how many people he kills, or Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall after trying to use brute force to put down the uprising against him.
Why is it that sometimes brute force works and at other times it doesn’t? As I argued in Invisible Armies, the scorched earth approach to counterinsurgency usually works only when certain conditions are present. To wit, when the counterinsurgent is fighting in a place where he has a fair amount of legitimacy (meaning, typically, within or close to its borders), where there is not much media coverage, and (most importantly of all) where the rebels are cut off from outside support.
All of those conditions applied in Chechnya, as well as in a few other recent cases such as Sri Lanka, where the government prevailed by using methods that would be unacceptable for liberal democracies like the United States or Israel. Dictators failed to put down uprisings in Syria and Libya in 2011 because those conditions were not present — their atrocities received a lot of media coverage and the rebels managed to attract substantial international support. When that happens, governmental atrocities merely embitter the population and drive more of them into rebellion.
Thus, even if public opinion were to allow the U.S. to use such beastly methods as torturing and killing the innocent relatives of terrorists, it would still not be a smart idea to do so because the enemies we are fighting — Islamist terrorists — can strike just about anywhere in the entire world. Given how international their battlefield is, it cannot be isolated, as Chechnya was, and then reduced to rubble. We have to fight ISIS, al-Qaeda, and their ilk in such a way that they are not able to increase their support among the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Using excessive and indiscriminate levels of violence would simply give them what they want, by creating more terrorists than we can possibly eliminate.