Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the author’s article in the Journal of Strategic Studies, “‘The People are Revolting’: An Anatomy of Authoritarian Counterinsurgency.”
Scores of dead civilians, smoldering wastelands where villages used to be, a cowering people, and a regime thriving on tyranny and fear — these are the images evoked by the mention of “authoritarian counterinsurgency.” Most recently, in Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s brutal and uncompromising campaign against his own people provides an unnerving illustration of its execution. Russia’s bloody entry into this war, on the side of Assad, has only sharpened the juxtaposition of authoritarian counterinsurgency and the approach attempted, however ineffectively, by Western, democratic states. Whereas democracies strive to win hearts and minds, authoritarian states “waste them in the shithouse,” as Vladimir Putin put it in 1999. Whereas democracies are constrained by law, authoritarian states act with impunity. And whereas democracies contend with a critical media and electorate, authoritarian regimes own both and control the narrative.
Regime-based comparisons such as these often betray frustration with recent Western counterinsurgency campaigns. Be it the Russians in Chechnya or the Chinese in Xinjiang, we face the uncomfortable possibility that authoritarian counterinsurgency is simply more effective. In some circles, such suspicions lead perversely to envy, based on the tantalizing promise of a better, if inconveniently repressive approach. After all, what adversary could withstand the full force of the American war machine, were it let loose? Legitimacy, reform, hearts and minds — this is also where Western counterinsurgency has faltered, so what better solution than to push these concerns aside?
Not only is this a perverse conclusion, but it is based on a troubled and confused comparison. Rather than be divided into democratic and authoritarian absolutes, most regimes fall somewhere in the middle. Between 2004 and 2014, “about 70% of authoritarian states held legislative elections and 80% held elections for the chief executive,” giving rise to the term “democratic authoritarianism” or “anocracy.” Better coding might help, but presumably, if regime type truly matters, analysis must anyway go further and consider different types of authoritarianism: bureaucratic, monarchical, military, and one-party systems. Such nuance is rarely found, even within the attendant literature.
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