Surveillance remains an integral and increasingly important part of modern counterinsurgency. Modern technology, such as facial recognition software and boundless smartphone data, has bolstered the capabilities of this arm of the coercive apparatus. As revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013, the National Security Agency (NSA), among other institutions, actively and illegally monitors and collects the data of citizens, major internet providers and world leaders.27 While it requires little imagination to conceive how this can be used, the decade-long surveillance of Muslims by the New York Police Department (NYPD) provides a clear example of the contexts where it has and will be implemented.28
Finally, in a depraved alliance of settler colonial nations, the US has turned to importing practices from Israel. U.S. police departments are sent to learn ‘counter-terrorism’ from Israel’s military and intelligence forces in the West Bank and Gaza,29 where apartheid, occupation and dispossession are constantly being perfected in the twenty-first century. The powerful exchange of solidarity and advice between Palestinians and Black activists during demonstrations against brutality by heavily armed police in Ferguson in 2014 exemplified these parallels, showing just how tangible and relevant they are.30
COIN: Constantly Innovating but Never changing
While the core motivations, tactics and goals of counterinsurgency throughout history have remained the same, there is a constant compulsion to innovate and repackage it. Reforms have almost always, but particularly in the twentieth century, centred around professionalisation and modernisation. The two often go hand in hand and, in practice, cannot be fully separated.
Generally speaking, professionalisation involves the use of objective criteria, such as standards, metrics and systematic routines, in order to ensure a minimum acceptable level of qualification for a given task. Modernisation, especially in the counterinsurgency context, involves the incorporation of new technologies that promise to improve the execution of that task. Innovations such as the two-way radio, patrol cruiser, 911 system, tear gas, ‘stop and frisk’ and ‘broken windows policing’ have all emerged from these reform processes.
On the surface, professionalisation and modernisation appear to be constructive practices – and that is precisely the point. Each of these ‘reform’ strategies is politically expedient for the survival of institutions that have often come under intense scrutiny, and for good reasons. They are practices that quite literally justify and self-perpetuate themselves by failing. Excessive violence, among other shortcomings common to counterinsurgency, logically creates the need for more training and new technological developments.
Due to its purported embrace of politics and tactical flexibility, the pursuit of counterinsurgency will continue to be alluring to those interested in upholding the status quo. The promises of reform through professionalization and modernization create the illusion of change while always failing to disrupt its fundamental nature.
Combatting counterinsurgency: Empowering social movements
For the world’s marginalised, the counterinsurgency agenda is neither abstract nor obscure but is an everyday lived reality. The constant surveillance, harassment, and killing are grotesque manifestations of bigger social and political projects of domination: capitalism, fascism and imperialism. The coercive apparatus is the corporal enforcement mechanism through which these oppressive structures are maintained. Dismantling the global counterinsurgency agenda has to be an essential element in the pursuit of a more comprehensive emancipatory vision.
The struggles seeking to overturn the current global coercive apparatus are highly unbalanced. Those in power, regardless of political ideology, benefit enormously from the order it sustains. While these same individuals package various ‘reformist’ agendas as crisis-management tools, social and political liberation movements have been and continue to be the vanguard of substantive reimagination and transformative change.
The question, then, is how reconceptualising the US and contemporary global coercive apparatus as a form of counterinsurgency warfare can inform emancipatory political and social movements. Just as applying the framework of counterinsurgency can help explain the historical and institutional legacies of the coercive apparatus, it also helps shed further light on many well-studied aspects of social and political movement theory and practice. The counterinsurgency lens makes three of these particularly salient:
1. A globalised movement
The realities of the US empire following the Second World War have meant that its own expertise in population-based control tactics have become the model for much of the world. For social movements, this increasingly means that international solidarity, cross-movement information sharing, and globalised initiatives are more important and relevant than ever.
Solidarity remains at the heart of articulating a global struggle. For many, the concept may feel intangible and rely too much on lofty ideals such as a universal concept of what it means to be human, and a willingness to see the suffering of others as collectively detrimental. These are indeed important components of building a deeply interconnected emancipatory movement. But for anyone who finds it hard to see such interrelatedness in the abstract, the use by the most powerful of counterinsurgency across history and geography illustrates a far more concrete and direct connection among so many contemporary struggles. The elite concentration of wealth, the destruction of the world’s natural ecosystem, and the insidious violence of racism and imperialism everywhere are all enforced using the same tactics.
Studying and understanding the history of the counterinsurgency doctrine and its pervasiveness will be crucial to the success of emancipatory movements.
- The primacy of the political
Movements are by their very nature political: they involve advocating for the interests of groups and people by navigating the avenues of power and confronting them. Conversely, counterinsurgency behaves paradoxically by trying to embrace the political nature of conflict while hinging its own legitimacy on rejecting the opposing political claim. The zero-sum nature of the political terrain that counterinsurgency requires is in fact its greatest point of vulnerability: if the ‘insurgency’ gains legitimacy, then the counterinsurgency must lose it.
Exploiting this contradiction and targeting it as an area of weakness needs to be a central focus of movements’ strategic repertoires. In order to do this effectively, movements must wage the struggle where they are strongest – on the political terrain. This is particularly clear when trying to overpower the coercive apparatus with force, which is evidently quite delusional.
Rather, moral isolation and flipping the switch of legitimacy become central. Confrontational tactics remain essential, but only insofar as they help to outflank the opposition politically. To invoke Eqbal Ahmad again, ‘the major task of the movement is not to outfight but to out-administer the government’.31 Ironically, movements must achieve what counterinsurgency purports to do but is inherently unable to achieve: ensure the primacy of the political.
- Centering popular resistance
Popular resistance, sometimes referred to as nonviolent resistance, lends itself to political struggles characterised by large asymmetries of power. It is a strategic repertoire based on the view that power relies on multifarious levels of consent. Waging a successful struggle means undermining these systems of power by withdrawing the everyday forms of consent that are fundamental to their persistence.
This is particularly salient in the counterinsurgency context, where attempting to outfight the coercive apparatus through violent means is an unwise strategy, mainly because it serves to further legitimate the existence of the apparatus and tactically engages it where it is strongest. Conversely, popular resistance seeks to undermine institutions of power and target them where they are weakest: their political rigidity.
It is important not to view popular resistance as passive, moral or one-dimensional and embrace it as active, strategic, and dynamic. People power, or popular mobilisation, involves adopting a range of tactics that go far beyond street protests. Mass-based confrontational acts such as protests are far more effective as part of a diverse tactical repertoire, complemented by dispersed acts of resistance and opposition, like boycotts and strikes, and the development of parallel institutions. For this reason, popular resistance encourages broad and diverse participation, ensuring that movements stay more inclusive and democratic.
While popular nonviolent forms of resistance offer a strategically rigorous path ahead, we need to sound a cautionary note about co-optation. As the main arbiters of violence, states are extremely influential in defining which acts of resistance are deemed ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’. This dichotomy is reproduced through academia, the media, and non-government organisations (NGOs), which collectively can become a top-down force in a way that is exploitative and patronising. Movements and their prospective constituents must be steadfast in challenging this socialised and oppressive dualism, which seeks to define the parameters of resistance in such a way that neuters the potency of any genuine challenges to its hegemony.