There are some individuals—Donald Trump is now the most prominent—who seem to believe that a “population-centric” counterinsurgency is a waste of time. They don’t see the point of trying to win over the inhabitants and they reject the idea that counterinsurgency is essentially a governance contest. They believe that the way to win is by killing a lot of people. Kill enough, and there won’t be any more insurgents to oppose you.
Simple, right? Reality, however, is more complicated. A recent report from Chechnya by Wall Street Journal reporter Yaroslav Trofimov shows some of the complexities.
No one can accuse Vladimir Putin of taking a wimpy approach to putting down the Chechen uprising. Russia pursued a scorched-earthy policy that employed torture and the killing of civilians. There is no reliable figure but estimates of civilian casualties during Russia’s Second Chechen War, from 2000 to 2009, exceed 50,000 and may be as high as 200,000.
Today Chechnya is relatively peaceful, with only two attacks in Grozny in the past two years. But even Putin recognizes that it takes more than brute force to ensure long-term pacification. Trofimov writes that Chechnya, while remaining part of Russia, has been transformed into an Islamic republic of sorts under Russia’s proxy strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel who has close ties to Putin:
“Most women on the streets of Grozny, the capital, wear the Islamic hijab… Though no such rule officially exists, unveiled women are also banned from government offices… Alcohol, officially allowed for sale only between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. since 2009, has become virtually unavailable. Ostentatious new mosques are mushrooming, lessons in Islam are mandatory in schools, and the government sponsors youths who memorize the Quran.”
In short, to defeat the Islamist rebels, Putin has been compelled to adopt part of their agenda. The Journal quotes a human-rights activist saying: “With traditional Islam, Ramzan is keeping the people away from the kind of chaos that we had gone through in the past.”
It’s a clever strategy, and one that echoes the experience of empires dating back to the days of Rome, which found it necessary to grant “bread and circuses”—along with aqueducts, Roman citizenship, and many other benefits—to prevent its subjects from rebelling. In a similar vein, Britain defeated a communist insurgency in Malaya in the 1950s not only through military action but also by offering the people independence if they rejected the rebels.
Smart counterinsurgents have always understood that there must be an element of attraction as well as one of chastisement—that you can’t win with fire and sword alone. At least not for long.