The Strategic Logic of Sieges in Counterinsurgencies

By Beehner, Lionel M.; Berti, Benedetta et al. | Parameters, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

The Strategic Logic of Sieges in Counterinsurgencies


Beehner, Lionel M., Berti, Benedetta, Jackson, Michael T., Parameters


ABSTRACT: This article examines the strategic logic of siege warfare in counterinsurgencies and questions the perception that siege warfare as an effective and relatively low-cost form of counterinsurgency. Sieges do allow the besieging side to conserve its military resources, avoid direct contact with the enemy, and minimize a rapid escalation of civilian casualties. Yet, on a strategic level, siege warfare is ineffective without major outside military support or the willingness to use overwhelming force.

Sieges, among the oldest and most recognized forms of warfare, are often poorly understood by military planners and policymakers alike. Siege warfare is almost completely absent from current US military doctrine. From the Joint perspective, the term "siege" does not appear in, and is not defined in, either the Joint capstone document discussing Joint operations, the Joint doctrinal publication providing the fundamental principles of Joint operations, or the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. (1) Similarly, siege is not included or defined in the US Army Doctrinal Reference Publication 1-02 Terms and Military Symbols. Nor does the term appear in the Army doctrinal publication discussing Army operations or the specific doctrine covering offensive and defensive operations. (2) There is some discussion of siege warfare in the US Army Field Manual 3-06 Urban Operations; however, the majority of that discussion is in an appendix focusing on a single case study regarding the siege of Beirut in 1982. (3)

Interestingly, that discussion indicates a list of factors deemed central to the success of siege warfare that include understanding the importance of information and psychological operations, preserving close combat capability, avoiding the attrition approach, minimizing collateral damage, controlling essential services and critical infrastructure, separating noncombatants from combatants, and transitioning control to civil authorities as quickly as possible. (4) Even so, these lessons have not been well integrated into the doctrinal frameworks of offensive or defensive urban operations. In fact, sieges are not included as a form of offensive maneuver or a type of urban offensive operations. (5) Similarly, little academic research theorizes about the tactical and the strategic advantages of siege warfare as a tool of counterinsurgency. Moreover, most of the existing literature on siege warfare hails from strategic studies or military historiography and focuses primarily on the use of sieges in the context of conventional interstate wars. (6)

This article fills that gap by addressing the logic, motivations, and some of the internal contradictions of siege warfare in modern counterinsurgencies. The authors predict siege warfare will become even more relevant in the future if urban migration patterns persist since counterinsurgencies will be carried out increasingly in dense urban environments or megacities, not in the jungles of Southeast Asia or the empty deserts of Mesopotamia. (7) Still, few academic studies have looked at sieges in the context of modern counterinsurgencies, which are increasingly asymmetrical,

urban, and fought with methods--including the use of chemical weapons or the deliberate targeting of civilians--that are blunt violations of international humanitarian law.

Siege Warfare and Counterinsurgencies

A siege is any attempt by an adversary to control access into and out of a town, neighborhood, or other terrain of strategic significance to achieve a military or political objective. The military objective of a siege during the Middle Ages was to drive out enemy forces by weakening their defenses and denying them access to reinforcements. In effect, sieges provided a way to subdue an enemy while limiting direct hostilities and reducing one's own casualties. Whereas strong fortifications during medieval times favored the defense, more infantry weapons from cheaper iron in modern warfare favored the offense. …

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