Regimes and Revolt: Authoritarian Ways of Counterinsurgency


Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the author’s article in the Journal of Strategic Studies, “‘The People are Revolting’: An Anatomy of Authoritarian Counterinsurgency.”


Scores of dead civilians, smoldering wastelands where villages used to be, a cowering people, and a regime thriving on tyranny and fear — these are the images evoked by the mention of “authoritarian counterinsurgency.” Most recently, in Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s brutal and uncompromising campaign against his own people provides an unnerving illustration of its execution. Russia’s bloody entry into this war, on the side of Assad, has only sharpened the juxtaposition of authoritarian counterinsurgency and the approach attempted, however ineffectively, by Western, democratic states. Whereas democracies strive to win hearts and minds, authoritarian states “waste them in the shithouse,” as Vladimir Putin put it in 1999. Whereas democracies are constrained by law, authoritarian states act with impunity. And whereas democracies contend with a critical media and electorate, authoritarian regimes own both and control the narrative.

Regime-based comparisons such as these often betray frustration with recent Western counterinsurgency campaigns. Be it the Russians in Chechnya or the Chinese in Xinjiang, we face the uncomfortable possibility that authoritarian counterinsurgency is simply more effective. In some circles, such suspicions lead perversely to envy, based on the tantalizing promise of a better, if inconveniently repressive approach. After all, what adversary could withstand the full force of the American war machine, were it let loose? Legitimacy, reform, hearts and minds — this is also where Western counterinsurgency has faltered, so what better solution than to push these concerns aside?

Not only is this a perverse conclusion, but it is based on a troubled and confused comparison. Rather than be divided into democratic and authoritarian absolutes, most regimes fall somewhere in the middle. Between 2004 and 2014, “about 70% of authoritarian states held legislative elections and 80% held elections for the chief executive,” giving rise to the term “democratic authoritarianism” or “anocracy.” Better coding might help, but presumably, if regime type truly matters, analysis must anyway go further and consider different types of authoritarianism: bureaucratic, monarchical, military, and one-party systems. Such nuance is rarely found, even within the attendant literature.

When this questionable dichotomy of regimes is meshed with studies of counterinsurgency approach or effectiveness, the results are usually messy. Too often, expeditionary campaigns are grouped with domestic ones, even though the decision to intervene and the stakes involved differ massively. Alternatively, counterinsurgency is conflated with counter-terrorism — two linked but separate activities — or large-n datasets misinterpret the very cases from which conclusions are then drawn. Going further, democratic states have often acted in authoritarian ways (particularly during the days of empire), and there is little consistency among authoritarian regimes either in counterinsurgency approach or outcome. This variation is unsurprising, as each case draws on specific contexts, correlations of forces, and strategies — factors often missed in regime-based studies.

These constraints do not render sterile the discussion of authoritarian counterinsurgency (far from it), but the analysis must be tentative in its findings and respectful of their limited applicability. Focusing on similarities between some authoritarian counterinsurgency campaigns can yield insightful, yet bounded, comparisons between their common approach and that championed in Western doctrine. Such study helps demonstrate how authoritarian regimes struggle to achieve ends strikingly similar to those sought by democratic states: the separation of insurgents and people, sustainable stability, and the translation of military gains into political victory.

Dissent and Mobilization

A central presumption about authoritarian governments is that they repress dissent and thereby control the narrative. Following the Beslan attacks, Moscow shut down all media, much as China did following the Uyghur knife attacks in Xinjiang in July 2014. Russia has also denied journalists access to Chechnya, and many of the loudest critics of Russian policies have met with unexplained deaths at the hands of unknown assailants. It is easy to see this control as a formidable advantage in counterinsurgency, which, as a high-cost and protracted engagement, at once requires and greatly tests domestic support.

Still, this conclusion is problematic (and not only because of its awkward celebration of repression). Several democratic regimes have sustained costly campaigns despite mounting domestic opposition: the United States in Vietnam and France in Vietnam and Algeria are but three examples. Domestic pressure was always a factor, particularly with time, but its exact effect on campaign duration and intensity was far from linear. Conversely, authoritarian regimes are far less immune to dissent than is commonly presumed. The authoritarian regime in Portugal was overthrown in 1974 in large part due to opposition to its African counterinsurgency campaigns. In El Salvador and South Africa, too, the costs of ongoing counterinsurgencies split the elite and forced state reform, leading to democratization.

As sociologist Juan Linz notes, authoritarian regimes are “pluralistic, albeit in a limited way”: they comprise a patrimonial system in which disparate communities, not least the security agencies, jostle for power. These groupings, while unaccountable to the people, limit the government’s latitude. This vulnerability to dissent explains why authoritarian regimes feel the need to coup-proof their militaries by keeping them weak, politicized, or subject to sudden purges. It also explains why Syria’s Assad entrusts only his most loyal units to commit the worst atrocities and charges four intelligence agencies with monitoring his army. It follows that whereas authoritarian regimes often protect themselves through censorship or repression, dissent takes different forms and closer consideration of individual cases is required to understand its full effect.

On the flipside of dissent lies acceptance, and it is arguably here that authoritarianism more profoundly exerts itself, through recourse to ideology, nationalism or the cult of personality. The control of information allows not just the silencing of voices, but the rallying of loud and unwavering support. By framing rebels as foreign agents rather than alienated citizens, the state encourages an intense nationalistic chauvinism, allowing ample leeway in responding to the threat. Put differently, authoritarian states win the hearts and minds not of the insurgent-threatened population but of the broader populace, by playing on pre-existing national pathologies, prejudices, and bêtes noires. In China, the discourse concerns the “three evils” of separatism, extremism, and terrorism, which resonates with the historical traumas affecting Chinese stability throughout the 20th century. In Saudi Arabia, the threat of instability fuels rhetoric of Iranian-Shia conspiracies, or of exiles in the West seeking to threaten the body politic. In Russia, Putin pre-empted the Islamization of Chechen resistance by casting it (before it was ever the case) as a Wahhabi-fueled project rather than a nationalist reaction to Russian policy.

In all these cases, the rhetoric binds together a large “us” versus a small yet threatening “them.” This massing of support also explains how these regimes get away with mass violence and abuse. Indeed, the “intensive popular participation” that Linz sees as typical of authoritarian regimes in crisis and, even more so, of totalitarianism, provides an effective vehicle for mobilization. The broader population is convinced of the righteousness of cause, and the targeted population is kept quiet, often through the massive application of violence.

Indiscriminate Violence

In many discussions, authoritarian counterinsurgency is defined by its overwhelming use of violence — and it is admittedly a dominant leitmotif in many of the attendant campaigns. Russia’s counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Chechnya both involved mass destruction of urban and rural life, designed to crumble resistance and shatter links between people and partisan. China killed approximately 2,000 to 3,000 Uyghurs following the Baren riots of April 1990, much as Korea, under Syngman Rhee, eliminated almost 50 percent of the population of Jeju Island in 1948–1949 in response to increased militancy. El Salvador’s counterinsurgency campaign relied initially on death squads and massacres. In the Middle East, Syria killed between 10,000 and 40,000 people in response to Muslim Brotherhood militancy in the 1980s, much as Saddam Hussein, in Iraq, used chemical weapons, concentration camps, and mass executions to eliminate somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians in the al-Anfal campaign.

There are too many examples of this type. Yet the point frequently missed is the function of such violence as part of a broader strategy. The indiscriminateness is not accidental: It creates conditions — mass dislocation, despondence, and fear — that prevent the rebel group from mobilizing and allow the state to take over. In such a climate, any sign of a functioning counter-state is quashed and insurgent mobilization becomes impossible: Its bonds have been broken, much as intended in Western counterinsurgency doctrine, but through violence rather than a competition over legitimacy.

In Afghanistan, the Soviet Union’s all-out offensive on rural farmland forced a third of it to be abandoned and made any remaining farmers dependent on the guerrillas rather than the other way around. In Chechnya, from late 1999, the Russian military displaced the bulk of Chechnya’s population, a third of which fled the republic. The resultant atomization of Chechen society allowed Russian forces to wrest control over the population from any insurgent group, and to this end they set up “safe military zones” to which internally displaced persons were herded. In Syria, the Assad regime has since 2012 responded to the loss of towns by targeting them with massed firepower. Collective punishment has at times turned the population against the rebels, who are blamed for the devastation. A similar severing of bonds between group and people has been achieved through forced resettlement, a method most closely associated with Stalin’s mass deportations from Ukraine and the North Caucuses. In different ways, Ethiopia, Sudan, Angola, and Mozambique used forced resettlement to undercut insurgent support or to clear rebel-affected territories. If insurgents swim like fish in the sea of the people, then rather than going fishing, as the metaphor suggests, authoritarian regimes drain the lake.

From Violence to Silence

Inevitably, even where violence is overwhelming it is but one part of the equation; it must at some point end, at which point a new political order is put in place. This political essence is the heart of counterinsurgency, however executed: How can the state achieve a new normal that is sustainable?

The authoritarian equivalent of the “hold” phase of counterinsurgency — executed after indiscriminate “clearing” operations — often involves the mass deployment of military means to shape whatever remains according to regime preferences. By saturating the area with troops, the state prevents collective mobilization and the backlash that would otherwise be expected following massacres and abuse. In Chechnya, following the 1999 invasion, Russia achieved a troop ratio of 1:9, thwarting any organized resistance to the status quo. In 1980s’ Syria, following bloody clearing operations, Hafez al-Assad turned population centers into military garrisons to control the local population. In China, too, military troops were massed in Xinjiang during the 1990s, producing a toxic environment for collective dissent and contention.

With sufficient control, these military functions are reassigned to paramilitary units, police forces, and various intelligence units, who maintain a heavy yet more discreet presence. In this environment, where the instruments of the state are anywhere and — perhaps — everywhere, those seeking change have few options but to lay low or embrace what Donatella Della Porta calls “clandestinity” — a state of complete structural separation from the people and the society that is to be changed. This is a highly limiting condition and typically spells the end of the movement. Indeed, as silence is enforced the new status quo gradually becomes “normal.” The three traditional pillars of deterrence are in full effect — the certainty, severity, and celerity of punishment following any transgression — and deterrence is only heightened by the state demonstrating this reality in purposefully visible ways.

The logic of the police state reinforces Stathis Kalyvas’ point that to gain the people’s cooperation, physical control of territory and populace trumps perceptions of legitimacy. It also leads to what Hannah Arendt termed the “mass atomization” of society: the liquidation of any structure or group that may mobilize against the state, so that the individual faces the state alone. What the police state achieves, in other words, is the structural divorce of any insurgent vanguard from its would-be base. This, ironically, is the separation vied for in Western counterinsurgency doctrine, yet it occurs through fear, the crushing of collective action, and the saturation of security forces, informants, and police. In Tibet the state has gone further by integrating technology to create a virtual and physical quadrillage of society, whereby all communications and actions are monitored. Whatever the specific method, the penetration of public life guarantees regime survival: See Islam Karimov’s 25-year rule in Uzbekistan, Stalin’s 20-year reign in the Soviet Union, or the control achieved by China in Xinjiang and Russia in Chechnya.

Hearts and Minds?

Common wisdom holds that authoritarian regimes do not win hearts and minds, yet closer inspection of key campaigns reveals efforts to co-opt restive populations. The Russian experience with counterinsurgency is instructive in this regard, going all the way back to Lenin’s New Economic Plan of 1921. In the western borderlands following World War II, the Soviet Union sought to counter subversion through an agrarian program designed to win hearts and minds. As Alexander Statiev explains: “Moscow lectured local communists: ‘Banditry cannot be eradicated and bourgeois-nationalist insurgency cannot be successfully suppressed by police and military operations alone, without raising the broad masses against them.’” However, the resultant policy was twisted to fit Soviet ideology with a heavy emphasis on collectivization that was resisted and resented by those it was intended to help. The same applies to Afghanistan, where Soviet attempts to co-opt the rural population were undercut by dogmatic policies of land redistribution or were badly integrated, or peripheral, next to the concurrent onslaught. At best, its efforts have amounted to sporadic humanitarianism with no political content — basically handouts — as if poverty alone had caused the insurgency.

To be effective, hearts-and-minds activities must speak to the political grievances that produced the insurgency. On this point, authoritarian governments often miss this mark. In Chechnya, Russia has of late boosted investment and engaged in significant reconstruction, but the underlying nationalist sentiment has gone unaddressed, and economic progress — precarious and limited to Grozny — has also proceeded alongside continued repression and state violence. Similarly, China’s infrastructural projects to modernize and integrate Xinjiang’s economy have succeeded in creating a modest Uyghur middle class, but they have left the status of the province unchanged and its ethnic hierarchy intact. The drive to modernize is benefiting the growing (imported) ethnic Han population more than the Uyghurs, whose grievances about subordination and second-class status are largely reinforced.

It should be said that if authoritarian governments struggle with hearts-and-minds programs, so do liberal democracies. Yet authoritarian regimes typically operate with an added challenge, namely that of co-opting relevant populations against the backdrop of an unapologetically repressive political order. Some authoritarian states have turned this disadvantage on its head, and used the trappings of the police state to achieve an effect similar to the winning of hearts and minds, but without conceding political space. These states use their presence as the grassroots level to interpose themselves in every local transaction, to provide public goods, and generally make themselves indispensable to public life, while also monitoring and repressing the same population as deemed necessary. The system, by providing sticks and carrots, establishes predictability, stability, and over time even something resembling legitimacy. The Karimov regime in Uzbekistan has survived by co-opting local-level social institutions and establishing state-driven welfare programs that provide for the community but also monitor it aggressively. In Xinjiang, too, the state has put in place what Martin Wayne calls “society-centric warfare”: It has politicized education, reformed curricula, posited Mandarin as the language of upward mobility, and overtaken local religious organizations, all to ensure conformism and compliance. Grievances remain, but the factors are in place to create a long-term, involuntary disassociation from insurgency and assimilation within the Chinese state. The question, of course, is can it last?

Success versus Failure?

It is difficult to study authoritarian counterinsurgency without being tempted back to the question of effectiveness.  Many of the regimes surveyed here have clung onto power and, in illiberal ways, dismantled insurgencies. These regimes have avoided political reform and yet fomented loyalty — or at least control — among formerly restive populations. Bloodshed may not have been entirely eliminated, yet the outcome can still be favorably compared to what we see today in Iraq, or may yet see in Afghanistan — the ostensible test-beds for democratic counterinsurgency. Can it be said that authoritarian counterinsurgency is more effective than the liberal approaches of Western doctrine?

Unfortunately, the question cannot be easily answered — and racking up wins, losses, and draws according to regime type obscures more than it reveals. How should one code success if it is possible to defeat the insurgents and yet lose the war (like the French in Algeria)? Has Russian counterinsurgency won the day in Chechnya, even though violence continues, and the broader regions of Ingushetia and Dagestan are inflamed with terrorism?

Beyond the methodological pitfalls, measuring effectiveness requires set criteria, which presupposes a common normative standard. Is success better defined by a regime’s survival at any cost or by its democratic legitimation? Democratic statecraft is oriented toward an open political opportunity structure, and the actions of the state are judged by this standard. In contrast, authoritarian regimes are uncompromising in their retention of power and prerogative, which produces incongruent metrics for “effectiveness.” The normative context is inseparable from the question: Is it a state of the people (“government of the people, by the people, for the people”) or is it a state of the sovereign (“l’État, c’est moi”)? What is it we are fighting for?


David H. Ucko is associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University. He recently published “‘The People Are Revolting’: An Anatomy of Authoritarian Counterinsurgency” in the Journal of Strategic Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @daviducko.


Photo credit: Mikhail Evstafiev