Burn Your Boats and Cooking Stoves: Defeating Terror through Local Pressure

A central theme of Critical Conflict Analysis is the inseparability of humanitarian efforts and security efforts. Above any particular theory, thoughtfulness and truth seeking must be valued in order to arrive at the best possible theory. This involves open discussion and reasoned disagreements. In the spirit of continued discussion, this article from a new contributor argues that humanitarian work and security are not always mutually supportive in resolving asymmetric conflict. The two sectors may even undermine each other in the effort to end widespread Islamic terrorist regimes. 

(This article is in response to one written by CCA’s editor. Read that article here.)


Iraqi Soldiers’ Abandoned Equipment. Photo: Rudaw.net


By Stu Hashimoto

It is certainly true that considerations of physical security are inseparable from any humanitarian effort. But the relationship between humanitarianism and security is a little more complicated than mere mutualism. There is always a relationship, but the relationship may be positive, or it may be negative, depending on the situation. In the positive relationship, strengthening one effort reinforces the other. But in the negative relationship, strengthening one degrades the other. The humanitarian effort to accommodate refugees and migrants degrades the security of the migrant’s own country of origin. This view departs from Editor Sydney Fernandez’s characterization of migrant accommodation as an important tool for reducing insurgents’ ability to draw recruits. In this case, Fernandez sees a positive relationship between humanitarianism and security, while I see the relationship as negative. The reason for my view has to do with what it takes to truly end an insurgency.
Defeating an insurgency requires pressure from the local populace. A population that will not resist the insurgency will never be free from it. I saw this when I was in Afghanistan. The US did everything it could as a third party: more military might, more monetary resources, and more infrastructure than the locals could dream of bringing to bear on their own. But it was fundamentally an American initiative. The locals would simply not fully buy in, and so the Taliban was never fully resisted and flushed out. Fernandez rightly points out that The US strategy “proved ineffective throughout the Iraq and Afghan wars, and is unlikely to be any more effective in places such as Yemen or Libya.” But the reason it didn’t work is not because of some additional thing the US failed to do, but because no third party (like the US) is in a position to make counterinsurgency work. This is halfway acknowledged in the official counterinsurgency strategy, but the supposed solution—to get the locals to like the US—is wishful thinking. We can never get the locals to like us enough to incept our goals and initiatives into their minds.
Flushing out the insurgency has to be an initiative that originates from the local’s own motivations. They must decide that the insurgency must be resisted, at great peril to themselves if necessary. So the question shifts to what motivates good people to stand and fight. Sun Tzu had an answer that remains relevant thanks to its game theory-esque logic.


Wikimedia Commons

Death Ground

“Throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape, and they will prefer death to flight. If they will face death, there is nothing they may not achieve. Officers and men alike will put forth their uttermost strength. Soldiers when in desperate straits lose the sense of fear. If there is no place of refuge, they will stand firm. If they are in hostile country, they will show a stubborn front. If there is no help for it, they will fight hard.”
”At the critical moment, the leader of an army acts like one who has climbed up a height and then kicks away the ladder behind him. He carries his men deep into hostile territory before he shows his hand. He burns his boats and breaks his cooking-pots… To muster his host and bring it into danger—this may be termed the business of the general.”

“Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.”

A general who burns his own boats takes away his men’s ability to escape. It may be counterintuitive, but the possibility of escape necessarily reduces the probability of resistance, since it is ,after all, impossible to resist an insurgency from across the Mediterranean. The living conditions under insurgent conflicts is unacceptable. What does one do under unacceptable conditions? He runs or he resists. By accommodating the ‘run’ option for the good people of a conflict-torn nation, host countries prevent the resistance of good people against the insurgents that terrorize their homelands. That is, host countries prevent the only thing that can truly end and an insurgency. In Sun Tzu’s terms, to accommodate migrants is the opposite of kicking away their ladders, burning their boats, and breaking their cooking pots. Instead, it is “a golden bridge” across which they are retreating. That is, it perfectly sets the stage for insurgents to conquer territory virtually unopposed.

Consider that in June, 2014, Iraqi officials told The Guardian that two divisions of Iraqi soldiers – roughly 30,000 men – simply turned and ran in the face of assault by an ISIL force of just 800 fighters (Chulov). This dramatic example shows the devastating consequences of the ‘run’ option. The possibility of escape for the Iraqi soldiers led to ISIL gaining control of a large territory, imposing their brutal regime on all its inhabitants. This example of soldiers running from a battle is not exactly the same as civilians running from their country, but it demonstrates a principle: that people are less likely to resist when they can escape, even when their resistance is the only thing that can prevent absolute disaster.


This principle implies that it may sometimes be better not to facilitate the escape of the only people who can truly end an insurgency. Of course, leaving innocent civilians to suffer and die may be deemed unacceptable, and understandably so; it is cold-hearted to say the least. Accommodating migrants has its moral merits. But the decision to take the humanitarian route comes with its costs in the currency of security.

Chulov, Martin. “Iraq army capitulates to Isis militants in four cities.” The Guardian. June 11th, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/11/mosul-ISIL-gunmen-middle-east-states

A note from the Editor: 

I am thoroughly elated to have Stu join our team here at CCA. I look forward to spirited discussion with him in early March regarding the best practices of counterinsurgency. His firsthand experience is substantial, and his insight is unmatched. Stay tuned for more on this issue, and others. – Syd 


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