Foreign Policy Blogs

The Arab Spring: Countering Counter-insurgency

Credit: Hamza Turkia/Xinhua/Corbis

The recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, long-term wars pitting factionalist fighters against government forces, renewed international interest in counter-insurgency. Washington D.C. sparked a cottage industry in what became known as COIN: think-tanks climbed aboard, new prophets emerged, blogs bloomed. Press accounts in 2009-2010 trumpeted COIN as the U.S. surged civilians and troops to Afghanistan, echoing General Petraeus’ surge in Iraq in 2007 that many considered key to subsequent stabilization.

COIN tenets became a catechism for field commanders. Lists of ‘commandments’ from its gurus, such as David Kilcullen and John Nagl, became scripture. Separate the Population. Enable Local Government. The gospel is that a population that trusts and supports its officials has no need for rebels.

Allegiances, however, are a funny thing. Those two little words, trust and support, have a firepower all their own. Not two years after the US surge in Afghanistan the international community began to cheer for the rebels, this time in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and a handful of their regional neighbors. If trust and support win popularity contests, the rebels were/are now freedom fighters, insurgents by another name.

In 2006 David Kilcullen circulated “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counter-insurgency” as a guide to field commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. As an influence he acknowledges T.E. Lawrence’s “Twenty-Seven Articles” from a 1917 Arab Bulletin. Lawrence, at the time advising the Arabs how to fight the approaching Turks, wrote from the perspective of insurgency, something the once-outgunned Libyan and Syrian rebels would identify with today.

Whatever side one is on in an insurgency or civil war, the population is the prize. When more are with you, fewer are against. The following COIN guidelines, in forward or reverse, illustrate how Arab Spring rebels, most notably in Libya and Syria, have been able to counter counter-insurgencies and put themselves on the path to securing the population.


The chart is heavy with examples from Libya and Syria, as counter-insurgency theory is geared to drawn-out and kinetic conflicts. Fortunately Egypt and Tunisia were not subject to overt guerrilla warfare. In all cases however the maxim applies of trust and support of the population.

Decisively, trust and support needs to include that of the security forces, who, if not defeated, need to support the opposition. This was true in Egypt. Bahrain, which like Tunisia and Egypt experienced substantial anti-government demonstrations in early 2011, looked to be travelling a similar path. But authorities in the tiny Gulf nation have powerful backers in neighboring Saudi Arabia, which helped quell protests, and in October 2012 the government banned demonstrations outright.

This examination of course only catches part of what is still an Arab Spring half-abloom. A new government has sat down in Tunis, yet Tripoli and Cairo continue to wrestle with the way forward.  And amid recent murmurs from both sides that neither can win militarily, Syria’s civil war continues, on a trajectory that confounds most analysts.

Glancing into the conflict crystal ball, one may linger on Central Asia. This region is adjacent to south Asia, western China, and the north Caucasus, all areas of recent or current Islamic insurgency. Some nations in the region suffer from various definitions of fragile states. Most however share low confidence in officials, extensive corruption, and a deepening rich-poor divide, similar to Arab Spring nations. Sparks in recent years—a murderous crackdown and curious deaths of imams in Uzbekistan, ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan—have yet failed to ignite a larger conflagration.

The U.S. and NATO allies have been accused of cozying up to authoritarian rulers in Central Asia, to stem insurgent traffic and preserve supply lines to Afghanistan. In coming years, however, these donor nations will likely move the magnifying glass to political reform. Will there be open revolt, and will political Islam be a force? Whomever the population trusts and supports will differentiate insurgent from freedom fighter, and oppressor from legitimate official.

  • Kathryn J.

    This article touches on an interesting point: who do we classify as “terrorists” needed to be stopped and who do we classify as “rebels” in need of international help to overthrow an unjust government? I believe that the answer really relies in the native populations. While few in Afghanistan could say that they actively support the oppressive, brutal Taliban, scores and scores of natives involved in the Arab Spring supported the rebels decision to counter the government. If the people are behind the group, I believe that even if the US may not be in favor of it, the group will be allowed to assume power if it can do so. An example of this would be the fact that a Muslim Brotherhood candidate took office in Egypt, despite not being aligned with the democratic appeals of the US. The counter-insurgency outline is also very interesting because it shows what the rebels’ objectives are in their revolution and how they are going to achieve victory. The world, specifically the Arab world, is in a very fragile state right now, but I do believe that these revolutions can start something for the better.


Jason Anderson
Jason Anderson

Jason spent April and May 2014 in Central Asia researching religious extremist groups. He has project experience in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Jason previously served as a trainer for US military and civilians working alongside counterparts in Afghanistan, and as a coordinator with Afghan ministerial advisors on National Priority Program (NPP) funding proposals. Jason speaks Russian and holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.