Do counter-insurgencies ever work

If a larger, wealthier nation invades a smaller, poorer nation and the people do not want them there, has the larger nation (in recent history) been able to subdue the population for any extended period of time?

I do not know many examples, but it doesn’t seem that way. Afghanistan repelled the USSR and the US isn’t going to ‘win’ anytime soon. Iraq is hard to conquer and we are planning to leave soon. We spent 17 years in Vietnam (after the French gave up) and then pulled out. East Timor fought against Indonesia for about 30 years until independence. Russia cannot conquer Chechnya. Israel has trouble in Gaza. The 20th century seems full of successful anti-colonial rebellions.

So in recent history (the mid/late 20th century until today) are larger, wealthier nations with better militaries capable of conquering smaller, poorer nations with insurgency movements? It seems that the proliferation of small arms combined with explosives and booby traps (as well as advanced communications) are going to make it hard for any nation to function when a minority with popular support doesn’t want someone there. Plus, once the invading army cracks down on the insurgents they might just drive more people into the insurgency as well as alienate the public who could be providing tips and assistance.

If not, was it always like that? I don’t know a lot about it (hence asking) but it seems that w/o the support of the general public for an invasion, a counter insurgency is always going to win a nation’s independence, even if it takes decades.

Sure, lots of them. America against the Phillippine insurgency, any number of Central and South American regimes, Rome against Israel/Judea, all kinds of them. Only a matter of what you are willing to do.

The failure of counter-insurgencies is mostly a modern phenomenon - because the practice of territorial conquest at all costs has largely disappeared. In the past, when a powerful country wanted to subjugate or absorb a smaller one, by God, they got it done, and they didn’t care how many people got killed in the process.

Well, if you’re going to specify the time period, then you’re not talking about a lot of examples of war, period. But if you broaden the time period some, there’s examples. The US defeated an insurgency in the Philippines in 1899-1903. The British say they defeated the Malayan insurgency after World War II, but then left due to the end of colonialism. One could well argue that the British also defeated an insurgency in Northern Ireland this century. China has crushed Tibetan and Uighur insurgencies.

Also, I think there’s going to be a debate about whether the US defeated the insurgency in Iraq in the 2007 to 2009 time period. I withhold judgment until more evidence is in.

I think that is still the case in some areas. We now have global pressures on nations to respect human rights and promote independence and democracy, which acts as a form of a brake on severe conquest and abuse.

However with East Timor roughly 100k died from the occupation, and the nation’s population is barely 1 million.

It seems to me that the failure of counter insurgencies is also due to better communication tools and more small arms. As long as a minority who have popular support can set up road side bombs, use sniper rifles, set up booby traps, bomb infrastructure, shell buildings, etc. then conquering a nation will always be a far bigger headace than it is worth.

The reason I’m looking at a recent time period is because I’m curious if modern weapons and communications has empowered individuals to such a degree that counter insurgencies are not going to work anymore.

“Worth” is a word that can mean a lot of things. I’ve heard people argue, with a straight face, that our national prestige was “worth” whatever price other people might have to pay. Myself, I pretty much always thought they really meant plain ol’ dumbass pride, the kind of thing they warned you about in sunday school. They claimed it was important to keep up our prestige, because people being afraid of us was an important factor in keeping the peace.

I remain skeptical.

Chechnya also appears to be an example of a insurgency not winning. Perhaps you can explain why Russia hasn’t actually prevailed there, for starters.

Maybe you can also explain why we should or why we shouldn’t count the Good Friday Accords as a British victory over unionist insurgents in Northern Ireland.

I might have been wrong about Chechnya. I thought it was still in a rebellion, but apparently the Russians already pulled troops out since the pro-Russian president is able to keep the peace.

However, I don’t know how long this will last. The president uses human rights abuses to keep the peace from what I’m reading. I don’t know if an autocratic human rights violator in a nation with 20 year history of insurgency against Russia can keep the peace long term.

I don’t know enough about Ireland.

Well, yes and no. When they wanted to outright destroy a people, yes they could do it with enough ruthlessness. But permanent subjugation is another matter; look at all the resurgent ethnic groups, subcultures and religious groups that keep coming back despite having been ruthlessly suppressed long ago. Even that can be accomplished - but it requires not just ruthlessness, but literal generations of effort. Centuries of occupation by the British empire never really eliminated the local determination for independence all over the world. The Christians did pretty much eliminate the pre-Christian cultures in Europe - but look at the time it took.

So in my view it’s not just a lack of ruthlessness that leads to things like the Soviet failure in Afghanistan or the Americans in Vietnam; it’s because modern powers aren’t willing to stay there in overwhelming force for generation after generation.

The USA would still be fighting in Vietnam today if they hadn’t pulled out. Bombing back to the Stone-Age or no. They want it more - it’s their country and they’ve been fighting for independence for a thousand years.

And count me in the ranks of those that think it a good thing democracies aren’t able to do the things it would really take to break a people fighting as they see it for their freedom, nation, religion etc.


But which general public? If the American public all thought like Dick Cheney (without his aversion to military service), mopping up Afghanistan would take 6 mos. We have a legacy of “conservative” regimes in Central and South America which we installed and supported, overtly and covertly, often with the help “ex” Nazis. This was possible because the public was generally out of the loop.

With Vietnam and TV, that all changed … carnage in the living room and potential draftees conveniently gathered at universities for an active anti-war movement. The Pentagon Papers put the icing on the cake making (anyone who thinks about it) suspicious of any stated policy motives our govt offers for invasion anywhere.

We’ve lost TV pretty much to media consolidation and “embedded” journalism. We do have the internet, however.

More or less. We weren’t going to “win” unless we were willing to sit there for another thousand years or so; or do something like slaughter the adult population and raise the kids in indoctrination camps; or just plain drive out/genocide everyone and colonize it ourselves. Oh, maybe we could have terrorized them into submission for a time with massive enough bloodshed; but it doesn’t last. As you say; in the end they are going to be there, and sooner or later we’ll get tired it and leave.

Well, as you say for the counter-insurgent power it’s a matter of costs vs benefits. If it costs a lot to occupy a country or region, and there’s very little benefit, then what’s the point?

Plenty of colonies have been abandoned, not because there was a military insurgency, but simply because the imperial power decided maintaining the colony was no longer worth it. Take the Phillipines. We brutally crushed the Phillipine insurgency in the 1900s, and then dominated them for close to another hundred years, in various ways. In the end we gave up when our puppet ruler Marcos was ran out of town, and the Phillipines has full independence from the US.

So it’s not that insurgency always works, it’s that in many cases colonies are of marginal value, or are net losses. Add in an insurgency and instead of a small net gain or loss, you’re looking at a large cost. So what’s the point? Even without the insurgency maintaining the colony often wouldn’t make sense, and with the insurgency it makes even less sense.

And there’s a great deal of confirmation bias in the OP’s question. If insurgency always worked it would be impossible for any large country or empire to exist. But of course, large countries and empires do exist, and insurgencies are routinely defeated. It’s just that when the insurgency isn’t very successful you barely even notice it.

If you look only at post-WW2 history, it may appear that revolutions always succeed.

But, to point to just one example, England managed to squash every Irish revolt for about 600 years.

I think Ireland is exceptional, on a lot of counts. Ireland is comparatively unpopulated, not having a lot of arable land and a climate poorly disposed to agriculture. Otherwise, they would never have become so dependent upon the potato. The Irish didn’t have enough people for a viable insurgency, nor the money for the weapons. Irish insurgency was always pretty much hopeless.

But insurgency kept arising because insurgency became an issue of survival, not preference. Its not so much that the Irish would have preferred their own country, but that the subjugation they endured was brutal and constant. Millions of Irish didn’t emigrate to America because it was the land of opportunity, they emigrated because in America, you could get food.

Old Irish joke: why did the snakes leave Ireland? Why stay?

I’m wondering at what point Ireland’s resistance to England’s invasion and occupation morphed into insurgency. About the same time the armored internal combustion engine and machine gun came on the scene, I would imagine. The newly minted insurgents were left with dynamite. In the end, things got so crowded that nobody wanted to live around them.


China-Tibet comes to mind. The USSR kept the Iron Curtain countries under their thumb for 40 years.

In most cases counter-insurgency failed when the insurgents were backed by a foreign power. Without that backing the success rate of the insurgents is much lower.

I agree, again :smack:

He did say “recent history” though.

Yeah . . . What was the French Resistance actually able to accomplish, before D-Day?

Rescuing downed airmen, providing intelligence to Allied spies, sabotage… all sorts of things, actually.