war on the rocks

Death Solves All Problems: The Authoritarian Counterinsurgency Toolkit

February 3, 2016

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from “‘Death Solves All Problems’: The Authoritarian Model of Counterinsurgency,” in the latest issue of the Journal of Strategic Studies.


Bashar al-Assad should be losing. His regime has slaughtered civilians, turned Syria’s people against one another, politicized the country’s military, maintained a discriminatory political system, and won neither hearts nor minds. Yet he has defied skeptics and still hangs on to power. Nor is Assad the lonely dictator killing his way to victory. Algeria, China, and Egypt are confronting insurgencies and are largely trying to repress their way to success — as they have done in the past. Russia alone has confronted over 20 insurgencies in the last century and has suppressed the vast majority of them successfully. As scholar Yuri Zhukov contends, Russia’s long history suggests “repression works, but not in moderation.” Scholars and policymakers, however, often wrongly assume authoritarian states will fail to defeat insurgents unless they reform and neglect the distinct ways they wage counterinsurgency.

How good is the authoritarian record against insurgencies, and what tools do they use to win? Their track record is better than is generally recognized — almost as good as that of democracies, in fact. Yet to win, authoritarian regimes employ a distinct toolkit that can lead to victory, but comes with many costs and limits, ranging from their inability to use much of their military power, frequent corruption, poor military learning, and the risk that authoritarians’ heavy use of repression makes it more likely that war will break out in the future should state control weaken.

Surprising Success Record

Authoritarian regimes often beat insurgents. A RAND study of insurgencies through 2010 found that autocracies won outright in 16 of 40 insurgencies they fought, losing only 12 times. A “mixed outcome” in which both sides gained some benefits reflects the bulk of the remaining 12 cases. Indeed, authoritarian states may do slightly better than these numbers suggest, as their loss column includes many cases in which third-party actors supported the rebels.

The success rate of autocracies appears particularly surprising because it goes directly against the conventional wisdom in the United States about how to successfully fight insurgents. To say there is an “American way of counterinsurgency” overstates the degree of consensus, but a review of various sources suggests the democratic model the United States espouses has several common features, some of which are codified in the Field Manual 3-24 on counterinsurgency. An ideal type description of a democratic approach would emphasize that success requires convincing the population to accept government authority as legitimate, often through improved governance. The government should attempt to “win the hearts, minds, and acquiescence of the population.” Force is necessary, but its employment should be limited: “[Y]ou cannot kill your way out of this war.” In general, democracies are more likely to bring in disenfranchised communities and otherwise reduce grievances while seeking to maintain public safety. A democratic political system is valuable because it increases legitimacy, makes the government more responsive to the population, and makes a regime less likely to use force. If these criteria are what are most important, then the authoritarian track record should be much worse — even disastrous.

The Authoritarian Toolkit

So if authoritarians go against U.S. “best practices,” what tools do they use, and how does this contribute to their success?

The most obvious and remarked-upon difference between democracies and authoritarians is the authoritarian embrace of repression — though the use of repression as a counterinsurgency tool by democracies (particularly in colonial situations) should not be understated. Authoritarians act with brutality toward suspected insurgents, potential supporters, and indeed anyone else who crosses their paths. Torture, deportation, extra-judicial execution, indefinite detention, “disappearances,” and other abuses are common.

There is no consensus on the impact of repression on counterinsurgency. Some scholars contend that the threat or use of force can stop violence from spreading, while others argue that repression creates support for an insurgency that makes it easier to recruit and otherwise carry on the fight. Epitomizing the view that force should be limited, the U.S. counterinsurgency field manual notes, “the more force is used, the less effective it is.” And there are many cases in which repression failed to work: Somoza’s Nicaragua, for example, repressed on a vast scale, but the Sandinistas nevertheless overthrew the regime.

Yet authoritarian regimes often repress on a vast scale far beyond what democratic regimes would consider repressive, and thus achieve different effects that help their counterinsurgency effort. To crush resistance in the Baltics during and after World War II, the Soviet Union deported roughly 10 percent of the population. The scale of deportation made it impossible for the guerrillas to get food and supplies. In Tibet, China destroyed entire villages, crucified, and burned or boiled alive civilians who supported the rebels. Such brutality did not win over local populations, instead creating bitterness that endured for generations. Yet for all its horrors, the violence prevented the population from giving succor to the rebels, allowing Russia and China to eventually destroy the insurgencies.

Effective repression can compel individuals to avoid supporting an insurgency, even if they sympathized with the anti-regime agenda. Repression closes the political space and makes it more difficult for insurgents to organize. In essence, it denies potential insurgents opportunities to organize and raises the costs of joining the movement, rendering it difficult for insurgencies to gain the critical mass to sustain the fight and triumph. When repression is successful, potential supporters know there is a high probability they will suffer severe punishment. To the extent that a strong government is more important than a good government, extensive repression can prevent insurgency. Authoritarians are also able to crush or at least inhibit civil society, an important form of organization. This lack of civil society inhibits potential networks, making it harder to raise recruits, gain funds, and otherwise organize — what scholars have called “coordination goods.” As Eric Wolf notes, “A rebellion cannot start from a situation of complete impotence; the powerless are easy victims.”

In addition to repression, authoritarian states use intelligence penetration and information operations. The same measures used to ensure control and obedience in general also help subdue suspect populations. Authoritarian regimes typically gather considerable information on their citizens and control access to travel and news. David Galula, one of the early giants in the study of modern insurgency, sees the lack of supreme state control as a necessary condition for insurgency to spread: “As long as there is no privacy, as long as every unusual move or event is reported and checked, as long as parents are afraid to talk in front of their children, how can contacts be made, ideas spread, recruiting accomplished?”

Because of their strong security services and disregard for human rights, authoritarian regimes are well-practiced at using invasive intelligence techniques, such as heavy amounts of human intelligence (HUMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT), and otherwise gaining intelligence dominance. Indeed, while good HUMINT is often seen as a reflection of popular goodwill, it can also be gained from blackmail, vendettas, bribes, and other less savory methods. Authoritarians are also able to carry out “false flag” operations or other Machiavellian counterintelligence measures from which democratic states would shy away. In the 1990s, Algerian security forces, for example, penetrated rebel groups and pushed them toward more radical behavior. Some reports claim they would even masquerade as rebels and slaughter villagers in horrific ways to create disgust at the rebels — tactics their Soviet teachers used against the Ukrainians and other groups decades before.

Population transfers are a common result of war, as residents in dangerous areas flee the fighting. Authoritarian regimes (and some democratic governments, particularly in colonial situations) may engineer such transfers as part of their counterinsurgency policy — a horrific, but powerful tool. Population control measures are often the key to counterinsurgency success. Deportations on a mass scale can separate insurgents from potential supporters. Stalin deported hundreds of thousands of Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tartars, and others from the North Caucasus in 1943 and 1944, claiming (with little evidence) that they were potential Nazi collaborators. Even without deportations, authoritarians can control movement and close off a conflict zone. They can stop trade, impose extreme curfews, or otherwise isolate an area and physically separate insurgents from potential supporters. As Toft and Zhukov found in their study of Russia in the Caucasus, such an effort “transforms the conflict zone into a closed system,” preventing insurgents from melting into the hinterlands, bringing in reinforcements, extracting valuable outside support, or otherwise reacting effectively.

As these brutal techniques suggest, authoritarian regimes are more likely to kill civilians during an insurgency. Scholars have found that deliberate civilian deaths are most likely when governments face powerful insurgencies that directly threaten them and the government is unable to gain sufficient intelligence to fight the insurgents effectively. Regimes then go after civilians as a way of destroying the insurgency’s logistical base — “draining the sea.”

One common insurgent method tries to undermine the will of its adversary by convincing the adversary public that defeat is inevitable, or at least that victory is too costly. Casualties and public displays of the brutality of war can disillusion a populace, as can the heavy spending often necessary to defeat insurgents. Authoritarian regimes often endure the suffering insurgents impose far better than democracies. As David Ucko points out, authoritarian regimes try harder to win the hearts and minds of their own people than they do that of the insurgents. Before the Second Chechen War, the Russian government used state-controlled media to portray Chechen rebels as bandits and terrorists. As John Dunlop argues in his book, Moscow even perpetrated a false-flag operation to bomb tower blocks outside Moscow and kill almost 300 people, simply in order to blame it on Chechen terrorists. Dictators play up nationalism and demonize their enemies while censoring anti-war sentiment. Control of television, the Internet, and other media can inhibit the dissemination of information that shows the war as failing. For example, in Russia’s First Chechen War in the mid-1990s, independent television portrayals of the violence and internal Russian military problems increased public anti-war sentiment. By contrast, aggressive censorship stymied such discussion and contributed to less discontent during the Second Chechen War. Similarly, the decrease in political contestation in Russia also made organized protest less likely.

Democratic states often try to change a political system as part of “armed reform,” increasing the opportunities available to rebellious communities and their leaders in order to strengthen government legitimacy and decrease rebel recruitment and support. A final tool of authoritarian regimes is to make concessions, though the usual goal is to shore up regime security — giving a little to avoid giving a lot. Often concessions take the form of coopting an elite rather than winning over the people the insurgents claim to represent. Facing a revolt from jihadists in the 1990s, the Mubarak government of Egypt offered concessions to the religious establishment to win its loyalty, thereby “Islamicizing” Egypt in exchange for the religious establishment’s support against the most radical elements.

Yet authoritarians come to counterinsurgency with many disadvantages, as I detail in depth in my longer piece. Their overall military power is often limited, as they cannot rely on many of their conscripts in counterinsurgency situations. Corruption creates numerous problems, further decreasing legitimacy while allowing insurgents to gain access to weapons and avoid many traps. The authoritarian system often inhibits learning, as the closed and politicized system inhibits feedback mechanisms. Similarly, the politicized command structure often produces poor officers and discourages initiative. Authoritarian repression embitters populations, making future unrest more likely should pressure from the jackboot lighten. Finally, authoritarian regimes may find it harder to cut peace deals and win over pro-insurgent populations.

For the United States, its European allies, and other democracies, the many authoritarian successes and their common toolkit should shape both expectations of authoritarian success and the nature of counterinsurgency assistance to authoritarian allies. At least some authoritarian regimes will inevitably be partners of the United States or other democracies, so understanding their distinct approach is vital. Authoritarian allies may win despite enjoying little popular support or otherwise going against conventional democratic conceptions of what gives a regime staying power.


Daniel Byman is a professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University and the research director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement (Oxford). Follow him @dbyman.


Photo credit: Aleksey Yermolov