Religion and Insurgency

by Dave Kilcullen

 May 12, 2007 - 

A few commentators have panned the new counterinsurgency manual for insufficient emphasis on religion. There is a grain of truth in this criticism but, as a practitioner, the evidence I see does not really support it. Rather, field data suggest, some critics may misunderstand both current conflicts and the purpose of doctrine. Worse, they may be swallowing propaganda from munafiquun who pose as defenders of the faith while simultaneously perverting it. (Did I sound like a politician there? Never mind. I will show factual evidence for this assertion, so the resemblance is fleeting...I hope).

The theorists posit the existence of something called "religious insurgencies", which are allegedly defined by their religious (read: Islamic) dimension. They argue that the passion religion arouses, its stringent dogma, and its capacity to de-humanize the "other" makes religious insurgents uniquely violent and fanatical. This allegedly immunizes such insurgencies against efforts to address legitimate grievances, "hearts and minds", governance improvement, resource and population control, and minimum force — key techniques in the new doctrine. This, they argue, foredooms counterinsurgency to fail in current conflicts. For the serious version of this argument, read Frank Hoffman's analysis here at SWJ; for the populist variant, read anything recent by Ralph Peters or Edward Luttwak. Most critics (not all—the sublime Hoffman is an exception) argue that counterinsurgency is too "soft" for religious insurgents, that unbridled brutality —
"out-terrorizing the terrorists" (Luttwak), "the value of ferocity" (Peters) is more appropriate.

Consider this elegant insight from David Morris in The Big Suck: "Ramadi is the Chernobyl of the insurgency, a place where the basic proteins of guerilla warfare have been irradiated by technology and radical Islam, producing seemingly endless cells of wide-eyed gunslingers, bomb gurus, and aspiring martyrs. Globalization wrought with guns and God. A place devoid of mercy, a place where any talk of winning hearts and minds would be met with a laugh, both sides seeming to have decided, This is where the killing will never stop, so give it your best shot." This, incidentally, is a far more nuanced view than that of the "Islam=Bad" polemicists, and comes from an extremely perceptive piece based on participant field observation, which is well worth repeated reading.

But there are three problems with this argument. First, there is solid field evidence that modern counterinsurgency methods, properly updated for the new environment, actually are effective against current insurgencies. Second, insurgents in both Afghanistan and Iraq are not actually particularly religious — certainly, they are no more religious than the societies they are attacking. Indeed, there is an empirical problem with the whole notion of a "religious" insurgency, since almost all historical insurgencies have included a strong religious dimension, so that it is not clear that discrete "religious insurgencies" actually exist as observable phenomena. And third, doctrinal publications are not templates, but generic expositions of principle; not cookbooks, but frameworks. Practitioners must populate these frameworks with current, locally accurate, deeply understood insights into the societies where they operate. There is simply no substitute for
what we might call "conflict ethnography": a deep, situation-specific understanding of the human, social and cultural dimensions of a conflict, understood not by analogy with some other conflict, but in its own terms.

Take Ramadi. Eleven months ago, it was the blackest rat-hole in the dark insurgent sewer of the upper Euphrates valley. The war in Ramadi, as David Morris rightly notes, was fuelled by insurgent cells with a mastery of consumer electronics, grass-roots propaganda and a blood-lust driven by tribal identity, youthful lack of empathy and sense of invulnerability (a sense of invulnerability that turned out to be laughably unfounded, I'm delighted to say). The gangsters called themselves "mujahidin" but there was nothing holy about their war: it was Lord of the Flies with cell-phones, car bombs, video cameras, sniper head-shots, torture with electric drills and execution by chainsaw. Children tricked into becoming human bombs, religion as cynical cover for carnage.

Today, the town is transformed. Attacks are down from 100 a day to less than four. Tribal and community leaders have allied themselves with the government. Imams are preaching against the insurgents. Police recruits are up from 200 a few months ago, to around five thousand today. There is improved security, with children walking to school, markets and shops re-opening, citizens back on the streets. This week, throughout Anbar, a whole day went by without a single attack anywhere — this in a province that senior intelligence officers regarded as "lost" less than six months ago. Of course, there are still severe threats: al Qa'ida killed innocent civilians in a suicide bombing just last week. But overall, the picture is vastly better than last year. How did this happen? Not through brutality and terror, but by the consistent application of proven counterinsurgency techniques. Local units, partnering with the population, conducted careful, minimum-force
sweeps of the town, painstakingly cleared out insurgent cells, established a permanent presence with U.S. and Iraqi police and military units permanently protecting the population, alienated and eliminated terrorist cells, dealt effectively with legitimate grievances, and applied minimum but effective force. Officers who understood the cultural and social make-up of the population crafted effective local alliances. Proven counterinsurgency techniques were applied against the mythically implacable "religious" insurgents. Result: success. And Ramadi is but one of many examples.

As I say, these were not really "religious" insurgents at all. In Afghanistan and Iraq the enemy invokes religious principle as a tool for manipulating the population. In both conflicts, to listen to the insurgents' propaganda, you would think they were God-fearing mujahidin engaged in a righteous struggle against unbelieving occupiers, the ihtilal of the salidi. In each case the insurgents set themselves up as a model of religious rectitude, but the facts contradict their claims. The Taliban are world leaders in opium production, whereas more than 70% of Afghans believe the production of narcotics is un-Islamic. Last year, Taliban leaders told their field commanders to constrain their more egregious instances of pedophilia, because their tendency to take and sodomize young boys was losing them popular support. Very moral of them. I have seen former Iraqi insurgents break down in bitter tears when they realized that guerrilla leaders they believed were
true Muslims were actually tattooed habitual criminals with links to organized crime, murder-for-profit gangs and the old Ba'athist oligarchy. Righteous ghazis these are not.

Indeed, the whole notion of religious insurgency is somewhat problematic. In any conflict where there is a religious difference between the two sides, religion is likely to become an identity marker and political rallying-point. We observed this with Catholics in East Timor, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, Mau-Mau in Kenya, firqat in Dhofar, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and in Thailand where Islam became a surrogate marker for Malay ethnicity. Historically, most insurgencies involved at least some religious dimension. Even Communist insurgencies of the classical period invoked Marxist concepts in pseudo-religious fashion.

And in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa — the critics' favorite examples of "religious insurgency" — all the major players are Muslims. Islam is invoked by all sides as a rallying cry, not solely by the insurgents. And in fact the conflict is entirely political: it concerns power in human social structures, not theological disputation. As I wrote in response to Edward Luttwak a few weeks ago, "Dr Luttwak argues that 'the vast majority of Afghans and Iraqis, assiduous mosque-goers, illiterates or at best semi-illiterate, naturally believe their religious leaders' (who, Dr Luttwak suggests, incite violence with claims that America seeks to destroy Islam and control oil resources). Again, this is at variance with field observation. In fact, neither Iraqis nor Afghans are particularly assiduous mosque-goers. And religious figures are prominent on all sides of both conflicts, in moderate and extreme political groups; there is an
extremely wide range of clerical opinion, ranging from quietism through support for democratic government, to extremism. More fundamentally, in these societies, religious faith is not a function of ignorance and credulity, as Dr Luttwak implies, but a widespread cultural norm that infuses all social classes, political orientations and education levels." The true identity difference in Afghanistan is ethnic — the Taliban are 100% Pakhtun — while in Iraq key identity drivers are tribal, economic and ethnic.

But I said there was a grain of truth in the criticism, and it is this: because insurgents like the Taliban or AQ subjectively believe they are fighting to uphold God's will, their strategic calculus and tactical thought-patterns differ significantly from those of more pragmatic, materialist groups that fight for "real-world" objectives. This doesn't make them any more religious than the societies against which they fight, but it does mean we have to take this strategic approach into account when designing approaches to defeat them. Also, when Western nations become involved in large-scale counterinsurgency operations in Muslim countries, religion becomes a unifying factor for factions who regard our intrusion as sacrilegious. This is an extremely strong argument for thinking twice before entering such conflicts, by the way. It is also an argument for working by, with or through local allies whenever possible, ruthlessly minimizing our involvement. But
this is recognized in the new doctrine, and features in our approach to Iraq and Afghanistan. In both countries, we operate at the request of legitimate, Islamic, democratically-elected governments that have asked for help. As soon as that help is no longer needed, we will leave. There is zero religious justification for any call to war against infidel invaders. Those who invoke religion in these conflicts are, quite simply, hypocrites. And Western armchair theorists who concede the enemy's religious arguments are either unfamiliar with reality on the ground, or deceived by enemy propaganda.

The bottom line is that no handbook relieves a professional counterinsurgent from the personal obligation to study, internalize and interpret the physical, human, informational and ideological setting in which the conflict takes place. Conflict ethnography is key; to borrow a literary term, there is no substitute for a "close reading" of the environment. But it is a reading that resides in no book, but around you; in the terrain, the people, their social and cultural institutions, the way they act and think. You have to be a participant observer. And the key is to see beyond the surface differences between our societies and these environments (of which religious orientation is one key element) to the deeper social and cultural drivers of conflict, drivers that locals would understand on their own terms.

The notion of "religious insurgency", in short, is poorly supported by the evidence. And the related idea that out-terrorizing insurgents is the only way to win current conflicts is dangerous nonsense. The facts on the ground show that proven, humane counterinsurgency methods do work, and that these methods — constantly updated and adapted as the enemy and the environment evolve — are the most effective approach.

David Kilcullen is Senior Counter-Insurgency Advisor to the Commanding General, Multi-National Force—Iraq. These are his personal views only.

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