There is a big difference between fighting an insurgency and killing the insurgents. The latter cannot only by itself bring about the wanted results. To understand this better we have to firstly examine what insurgencies are. In a few words, insurgencies are popular movements that try to bring about the change of the status quo through the use or the threat of use of violence. They are run by radical elites, consist of people with certain socio-political background, and they use guerrilla and terrorist tactics to accomplish their political aims.
The key word in the above definition is “popular”. They acquire power and support from the people; that is their strongest spot. It is also important to note that insurgencies cannot be defeated unless they clearly accept their defeat. That is because they are not conventional armies and their power is not solely based on their military power. The most prominent characteristic of them is their political aims and the popular support. Even if there are only a few people left undertaking the insurgency, if they still have the support of the people to achieve their political aims, they can then keep going on. Likewise, if they lose the popular support, then their actions – whatever their political aims – have no legitimisation within the people, a fact which in turn weakens them and leads them to their end. Besides, guerrilla warfare has shown through history that it can accomplish great victories against strong nations and also that it can be defeated very hardly and only if it chooses to. Examples of die-hard insurgencies are the EOKA organisation in Cyprus (55’-59’) which – along with other factors – led the British to leave Cyprus; also the Kurdish insurgents and separatists in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran who have been fighting Turkey for almost a century. Example of an insurgency which admitted its defeat after many years of fighting is the one of Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. They accepted their defeat after a series of intense violent clashes with the Sri Lankan government in 2009. Lastly, we should not forget of course the ongoing insurgencies in Iraq which are giving the US a very hard time even after the major American counterinsurgency operation “The Surge”, in 2007.
Both the Tamil Tigers example and the example of the IRA can show how insurgencies can be either contained and to some degree defeated – their ideology or their political aims always find a way to keep on going through fractions or new followers. Killing the insurgents is – at best – not enough. The “centre of gravity” of an insurgency is its political aspect. This draws on Clausewitz’s theory about concentrating on battling your adversary’s most vulnerable point. In short, the war against an insurgency is about winning the “hearts and minds” of the people. If you can win the people – the insurgents’ supplier of both material and ideological power – then you have achieved the foundations for a successful counterinsurgency operation. You can do that by convincing the people about the wrongness of the insurgency’s goals, by undertaking certain actions that would win the support of the people (developmental projects or other projects that the people is in need for) or by addressing and actually meeting some of the insurgency’s political demands. In the case of Sri Lanka there was a decisive military victory of the Sri Lankan government against the Tamil Tigers but it is essential to be noted that the insurgency’s brutal tactics and methods over the years caused it the gradual loss of its massive popular support, thus making their defeat easier for the government. In the case of IRA, after years of violent and bloody clashes, some political demands were met from the British government thus satisfying both the largest part of IRA and the Irish people which the organisation had been expressing. Therefore it is clear how a political solution was more effective than a military one. Of course some more extremist factions of the IRA keep undertaking terrorist actions but without having any substance since they do not anymore have the popular support.
To conclude, killing the insurgents is a military action which does not address the political and most important dimension of an insurgency. In a counterinsurgency, political solutions must come first and that is why military counterinsurgency operations should be acting firstly based on the political aspect of the problem by trying to win the hearts and minds and secondarily deal with the military aspect. In addition, the governments should act by meeting – at least partly and within reason – the political demands. In any case a good balance between political and military means within a targeted strategy is ideal.