The Arab War on Terror is in full swing. Never has the region seen as many terrorist networks, guerrilla groups and militias fighting against governments as now. In Egypt, Iraq, Algeria and Yemen, central governments are struggling with insurgencies of one type or another, with Western governments providing tacit or overt support.
Unfortunately, counterinsurgency is a difficult business for Arab states – for all states for that matter.
Egypt’s Sinai campaign is now in its fourth year; Yemen’s Houthis have come back with a vengeance after a decade in which six military campaigns were run against them; Algeria fought an outright war against Islamist networks in the 1990s but low levels of terrorism have persisted since then and are now on the rise.
Years of training and $25 billion in aid failed to produce an Iraqi security force capable of eradicating, or even containing, a proto-state organisation like ISIS. The Libyan and Syrian forces did not manage to put down the uprisings they were supposed to quell.
So why is it that counterinsurgency does not come easily to regimes in the Middle East and North Africa?
A non-military task
To begin with, counterinsurgency is counterintuitive in military terms; violence countered by violence usually does not yield the desired results.
Although insurgency uses violent tactics such as car bombs, snipers, kidnappings and suicide bombings, its prospects of a military victory are slim, but so are the chances of the central government.
Even where the military tactically manages to crush the insurgency temporarily – as colonial France did during its 1957 operation Batailled’Alger or the American forces in Iraq – more insurgents are created in the process. Short-term victories therefore do not translate into long-term stability.
In fact, several of the ongoing insurgencies today in the Arab world are the outcome of previous counterinsurgency operations, such as in Yemen or Iraq.
Instead, successful counterinsurgency operations are anything but violent. Based on its lessons in Vietnam and Iraq, the US government's counterinsurgency guide points out that “unlike conventional warfare, non-military means are often the most effective elements, with military forces playing an enabling role.”
This is because in contrast to inter-state war, insurgency constitutes a legitimacy crisis of the central government; it is therefore not an issue over resources or territory, but over a relationship between the governed and the governing.
Quelling an insurgency completely means not only neutralising the insurgents, but also addressing the root causes of this crisis and avoiding burdening the already fraught relationship with excessive force – essentially separating the insurgents from the surrounding and potentially enabling population.
In the process, actions taken against insurgents enmeshed with the population tend to punish the latter and create an environment where more recruits become available to the insurgency.
The two aspects that Arab states often struggle with are: the political level; settling a conflict with the majority via compromise, and the military level; neutralising the minority with the necessary delicacy which protects the civilian population at large.
Insurgency: politics with other means
In many Arab countries, politics is a zero-sum game where whoever is in power will monopolise resources and the political space as well as exclude opposition of any type.
More often than not, Arab insurgencies are the result of exclusion from the political space and point towards a lack of other options to voice criticism of the central government. Extended to the military sphere, this means that insurgencies will be approached with the same "winner takes all" mentality: opponents must be crushed rather than convinced.
Iraq is such an example. Since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, it has lived through several insurgencies simultaneously; between 2003 and 2007, at least four different types of insurgents fought the government as well as the international troop presence.
These included former Baathists, Sunni Jihadi networks, Iraqi nationalists and Shia militias.
The insurgency was cut down considerably mainly because several of the insurgents were co-opted politically. Sunnis from the Anbar province decided to join an American effort against what was then the "Islamic State in Iraq", while Shia militias such as the Mahdi Army disarmed under a cease-fire-like agreement with the government.
This left the Iraqi security forces only dealing with Baathists and Jihadi networks, reducing the level of violence dramatically.
However, the counterinsurgency effort proved to be unsustainable. After American withdrawal in 2011, political frustration across Sunni and Shia camps refuelled an almost extinct anger.
Promises of Sunni integration into Iraqi security forces in exchange for fighting against ISIS went unmet; de-Baathification by a largely Shia leadership continued unabated; peaceful demonstrations against the government were met with violence; and tribal leaders were discredited by a Baghdad that delivered hollow messages and no jobs.
Soon, Sunnis became a recruitment pool for ISIS to tap into. On the Shia end, the supposedly disbanded Mahdi army began to regain power after its leader, Muqtada Al-Sadr, returned from his self-imposed exile in Iran in 2011.
While the Mahdi's reincarnation, the Peace Brigades, now fights ISIS, Al-Sadr has made it no secret that he is willing to use it against the central government.
Yemen is another such example. The current insurgency is in fact related to another insurgency dating back to 1962.
Then, an Egypt-supported rebellion ousted the centuries-old Zaidi Shia Imamate (which, in a twist of history, was supported by Saudi Arabia) and established a somewhat militarised system which then went on to marginalise the largely Shia area the Houthis today hail from.
When cleric Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi founded a theological movement with anti-governmental tones in the 1990s, Sana'a saw this as an attempt to reverse the events of 1962.
Efforts to arrest him in 2004 triggered an insurgency largely rooted in northern Yemeni/Shia frustration with the central system.
However, six military campaigns against the Houthis have failed to produce lasting stability. Yemen’s military managed to reduce the Houthis’ capacities, but it did not eradicate the root causes that led to the insurgency in the first place.
A ceasefire in 2010 did not hold because Houthis continued to be excluded from Yemen’s political system, even after president Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted in 2011.
Even though it is presented as a sectarian conflict, Yemen’s insurgency is at heart a rebellion over Sana’a’s legitimacy.
The solution to the ongoing crisis will therefore not be of military nature, but will have to give the Houthis a political way out. At the moment, neither the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi nor his military support in Saudi Arabia are inclined to compromise.
Of course, political integration of insurgents is not always an option, and is often criticised for delivering amnesia rather than amnesty.
There is a fine line between the two, requiring a considerable amount of wisdom to make the difference between concessions or repression that go too far.
Adolf Hitler, who had tried an insurgency in Germany in 1923, was released from prison after only a year and went on to establish a brutal dictatorship.
Most importantly though, a political compromise is possible only with the insurgency "envelope"; the population that is even passively condoning the groups and those elements of the insurgency that are actually willing to compromise on the use of violence.
In the case of ISIS, this reduces the option to the Sunni community of Iraq, and perhaps certain low-level fighters – the rest of the organisation has a maximalist approach and shows no willingness to compromise.
Eating soup with a knife
On the military end of things, the fight against insurgents is “messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife”, as noted by TE Lawrence (of Arabia) – himself a participant in the Arab insurgency against the Ottoman Empire.
Counterinsurgencies are messy because they are infantry-based operations taking place amid the civilian population, and they are slow because they involve the separation of rebels from civilians.
Armed forces have two options to try and find the insurgents, one being "enemy-centric" and the other "population-centric". It can focus either on killing the opponents and punishing the population for helping them, or starve the rebels of their support network by convincing the population that not assisting them is the better option.
One way or the other, just eliminating the insurgents is not enough, their existence is always related to the society they are embedded in, and therefore by default has a political component at least tacitly shared with the population.
One example is the process of counterinsurgency in Egypt. Sinai has been difficult to control ever since Israel returned it in 1982.
Attempts to sedentarise Sinai’s largely Bedouin population and control their illicit networks turned them against the central government in the 1980s.
North Sinai is one of the poorest governorates of Egypt. Its residents find it difficult to purchase land and they feel excluded from the emerging tourism industry on the Red Sea. The fact that most security personnel in the peninsula are from the mainland only reinforces a sense of segregation.
The problem with the Sinai insurgency is that it involves not one but several networks and grievances. The Jihadi component, which makes up 2,000 or so, is embedded in a Bedouin population of 300,000.
For Egypt’s security forces to eradicate the Jihadi networks, they will have to separate the Bedouin component from the insurgents – an effort which requires local knowledge of both population and geography.
Although the government has voiced a commitment to "care and respect" the local population with an aim to "win the hearts and minds", the destruction last year of over 800 houses, displacement of over 10,000 people and disruption of illicit economic activities during the current military campaign have achieved the opposite.
At the heart of the problem stands the mainland perception of Sinai Bedouins, succinctly portrayed in the 2012 movie Al-Maslaha (The Goods): in it, Bedouin Salim is lazy, drug-smuggling and brutal, whereas his opponent Hamza is a kind, hard-working and loyal police officer. To win on the human terrain, Egypt’s military needs to perceive the population as part of the solution rather than the problem.
Losing hearts and minds
Algeria had to learn the limits of countering violence with violence the hard way in the 1990s; its insurgency erupted after the armed forces abolished the first national democratic elections as Islamist parties were projected to win in 1992.
As Islamist guerrillas formed all over the country, the military targeted the parties’ supporters, arresting large numbers and cracking down hard on demonstrators.
An extensive counterterrorism law and a curfew gave the regime the necessary breathing space. After what appeared to be an initial success, the insurgency came back even stronger in 1994.
In an ever-increasing spiral of violence, both the regime and the insurgents managed to lose the hearts and minds of the population amid which the conflict took place.
Where Islamists imposed harsh rules and extorted money from the civilians under their control they lost the previously sympathetic support of the pious middle class; where the government indiscriminately cracked down on the civilians they equally created more hostility. Soon, the violence from both sides keeping the population hostage had generated the phrase “qui tue qui en Algerie” (“who is killing whom in Algeria”).
The insurgency finally died down in the early 2000s after 150,000 people had been killed; a combination of military pressure against the insurgents and two laws extending amnesty to repentant militants proved to deplete the pool of insurgents dramatically.
Although Algeria’s military has not eradicated the phenomenon completely, it has learned that if it wants to keep AQIM at a manageable level, it needs to shield the civilian population from violence – or more potential recruits will be created in the process.
Florence Gaub is a senior analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris. Her work focuses on Arab military forces, Arab states in conflict and inter-Arab relations.
This article was originally published in the Democracy Review Quarterly, a publication of Al-Ahram Foundation