Forward to the Past

By Beckett, Ian | Harvard International Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Forward to the Past


Beckett, Ian, Harvard International Review


Insurgency in Our Midst

With the end of the Cold War and its concomitant ideological competition, it is clear that the patterns of military activity have changed. Moreover, increasing globalization and the economic and political links that bind major states have made interstate conflict much more difficult to sustain unilaterally. In Western societies, growing unwillingness to risk large-scale casualties in warfare has coincided with the so-called "revolution in military affairs" resulting from technological development to produce the kind of "virtual war" practiced in the Persian Gulf and, to a much greater extent, in Kosovo.

Sanitized "cyberwar" and the supposed "New World Order" ushered in by the collapse of communism, however, have not prevented intrastate conflict. Indeed, insurgency is just as prevalent as it has always been, especially where the state system has remained underdeveloped, as in many parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. New imperatives have also encouraged insurgencies that in some cases have increasingly blurred the distinctions between war and organized crime. Insurgency, therefore, remains a crucial challenge in the contemporary world.

Insurgency in History

Insurgency became the most prevalent form of conflict in the 20th, century, if not before. Nevertheless, particular scorn has always been reserved for the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir George Milne, who remarked in 1926 that World War I had been "abnormal." In fact, the counter-insurgency campaign on the frontiers of the Empire, to which regulars were supposedly eager to return in 1918, actually did represent the collective experience of the interwar army. Low-intensity conflict has been the principal fare of the British army since 1945. While British soldiers died on active service somewhere in the world in nearly every year between 1945 and 1997, the only significant conventional experience comprised 35 months of British participation in the Korean War, involving no more than five battalions at any one time; 10 days during the Suez Crisis in 1956; 25 days of the land campaign over the Falkland Islands in 1982; and 100 hours of land operations in the Persian Gulf in 1991. To a lesser degr ee, much the same could be said of the experiences of the French, US, Soviet/Russian, Indian, and even Israeli armies since 1945.

A survey in 1983 cataloguing guerrilla or terrorist groups existing or having existed since 1945 found 147 such groups in Europe, 115 in Asia and Oceania, 114 in the Americas, 109 in the Middle East, and 84 in Africa. This provided a staggering total of 569 different groups, although many were small, obscure, and of little significance in either national or international politics. Since 1983, of course, many more groups have emerged. Moreover, there have been some very long-running insurgencies in the modern world. For all practical purposes, the struggle for control of China endured for 23 years until Mao Zedong's victory in 1949; that for South Vietnam lasted for 28 years until 1973; and that for Eritrean independence for 31 years until 1991. Negotiations finally ended intermittent guerrilla conflict in Guatemala in 1996 after 34 years, while a tenuous cease-fire has been in place in Western Sahara since 1991 after 25 years of conflict between Morocco and the POLISARIO (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguiet el Hamra and Rio de Oro). Insurgent conflicts have continued between the communist government and hill tribes such as the H'mongin Laos since 1976, and between the Kurds and successive Iraqi governments since 1961. While some of his erstwhile followers have reached an agreement with the Angolan government, Jonas Savimbi's UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) has continued its struggle since losing the civil war in 1975, having previously fought the Portuguese for nine years. "The Troubles" have affected Northern Ireland since 1969, albeit with a supposed cease-fire since 1997.

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