military insurgency

Written by Sarmad Ishfaq 7:02 pm Current Affairs, International Relations, Pakistan, Published Content, Research Papers

Is Military Force Effective in Responding to a Terrorist Insurgency?

Military force becomes mandatory when a deadly insurgent group, the likes of an ISIS or the LTTE, is present in a country. However, contemporary history reaffirms that the role of the military should be limited to defeating an insurgency militarily only. In other words, military force is one part of a larger counterinsurgency framework and is thus a means to an end. A true victory is achieved when the causes of an insurgency are addressed.
Subscription banner youtube
About the Author(s)
+ posts

Sarmad Ishfaq is an independent researcher and writer whose work has been published by Harvard Kennedy School Review, The Diplomat, Open Democracy, Paradigm Shift, Mondoweiss, and Eurasia Review to name a few. He has also been published by several international peer-reviewed journals such as Taylor and Francis' Social Identities. Before becoming an independent writer, he worked as a research fellow for the Lahore Center for Peace Research. He has a master's degree in International Relations from the University of Wollongong in Dubai where he was recognized as the 'Top Graduate'.


Initially, the paper highlights certain conditions under which a military response becomes a necessity against terrorism – military use under the wrong conditions can be catastrophic. The primary reason for its necessity against terrorism is when a terrorism-based insurgency emerges. It then explains the primary reasons why militaries fail against terrorism-based insurgencies, citing the misadventures of America in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also discusses whether militaries can defeat an insurgency by themselves.

In other words, can military power be used as an end (i.e. to finish an insurgency completely), rather than as a means (i.e. only to take back territory, kill the leadership, destroy terror compounds, and so on)? To answer this question, the paper analyzes the cases of the Sri Lankan military’s victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Pakistan military’s victory over the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Analysis of both cases reinforces what other scholars state about military use, that is, military force is one aspect of defeating an insurgency and therefore is a means to an end.

There are only a few examples in history where an insurgency ended simply by the use of military force. It is therefore asserted by experts, and concluded in this paper, that military force is a means to an end. The paradigm that can completely end an insurgency has several components including military, political, social, and economic. The military should, therefore, be tasked with weakening or destroying the insurgency militarily.

Submissions 2023

Other institutions need to play their part whether that is in rehabilitating the population or reconstructing damaged infrastructure. As Western COIN (counterinsurgency) studies argue, the government must win “hearts and minds” to ensure that the reasons and schisms that led to an insurgency in the first place are remedied.

Conditions That Necessitate the Use of the Military

Certain conditions and situations make it mandatory for states to use the military as an essential part of their counter-terrorism framework, especially for terrorist-based insurgencies. Usually, such insurgencies are characterized by a large number of recruits, deadly weapons, effective funding, and/or the control of territory in a sovereign nation. Stating the preceding fills one’s heads with images of Al Qaeda and ISIS fighters.

These fighters, many in number, either use guerilla or hybrid tactics in harsh and rugged terrain and/or have control of towns and cities where their rule is the law (think ISIS-held towns/cities). In circumstances similar to the aforementioned, policing and the use of intelligence becomes difficult due to lack of or no police networks in insurgent-occupied terrains and/or towns. Jones and Libicki (2008) state that when terrorist groups convert into insurgencies, policing is rarely effective as they are outmatched juxtaposed to the insurgents.

Therefore, a military response becomes essential in such cases to retake captured territory, free citizens, deter terrorist recruitment, and destroy terror infrastructure, etcetera. Military use becomes effective 70% of the time when it is responding to groups with more than 100 members (Jones & Libicki, 2008). Offensive action and offensive military capabilities are essential parts of an effective counterterror strategy (Posen, 2001).

In situations where terrorists target civilians and public infrastructure killing innocents, the nation’s right of self-defense is legitimized and must be pursued. The public incensed over the deaths of their countrymen rightfully demand stern action against the terrorists. The government needs to mollify public anger and avenge the deaths of its people – to do this the military becomes central.

Ganor (2012) contends that retaliatory attacks have to be executed by the military due to the public will, which is especially true for democracies. Negotiations also become arduous with terrorists that indiscriminately target the masses and cause widespread panic. Furthermore, governments contemplating negotiations following a terrorist attack or an all-out insurgent war sets an extremely dangerous precedent. In other words, if a government offers to negotiate with a group that is constantly terrorizing and killing a country’s people, it would decrease the people’s confidence in the government.

Furthermore, it signals to the insurgent group and others, that the state is not willing to take serious action against them and that the group can get away with murder. Trying to negotiate to reach peace by providing terrorists with economic or other material aid also simply legitimizes their illegal and inhuman methods. Lastly, in many cases, terrorist-based insurgents are so motivated that they do not want to negotiate with the state.

A combination of the above-stated conditions (especially true for terrorism-based insurgencies) should force the government’s hand and justify military use. Ganor (2012) argues that proactive military tactics are effective in responding to terrorism. He asserts that the use of proactive methods like target killings and destroying bases disrupt future attacks the terrorists might have planned.

Why Do Militaries Fail Against Insurgencies?

Militaries fail when they are used in conditions where a military response is unwarranted. For example, as mentioned earlier, one condition where militaries become useful against terrorists is when the latter has an adequate supply of recruits and control territory (towns and cities). Therefore, it would be unfitting to rely on military means against small terrorist groups that have minimal or no control over territories – such as the leftist terrorists that plagued Europe in the 1970s and 80s.

In situations where insurgents are hiding in urban centers, it is easier, more effective, and safer to use the police and intelligence agencies. This is, of course, only one example of the conditions not being correct for military use. Secondly, one of the primary reasons for failure cited by experts is that since many armies are trained in conventional warfare, they suffer when pitted against the guerilla warfare or hybrid tactics employed by terrorists/insurgents.

Terrorism is an old phenomenon but has evolved rapidly – scholars cite four waves of terrorism: the Anarchist wave (1878-1919), the Anti-Colonial wave (1920s-early 1960s), the New Left wave (mid-1960s-1990s), and the Religious wave (1979-present). Terrorism has metamorphosed dramatically from the Anarchist wave to the Religious wave in terms of ideology, weapons used, insurgency goals, communication methods, areas of operation, etcetera.

Since the current wave mostly relies on guerilla tactics or a hybrid of guerilla and conventional warfare, most conventional militaries find themselves inexperienced in fighting such a war. If military strategy and operationality do not adapt to the threat, there is little chance for success. Although there are certain common facets amongst terrorist groups that are part of the current wave of terrorism (such as guerilla warfare, massive funds, radical ideology, reliance on media, indiscriminate violence etcetera), there is no “one size fits all” counter-terrorism framework in the world.

This is because even though some generalizations can be made for various insurgent/terrorist groups, there is still a plethora of idiosyncrasies that they each possess. For example, two insurgent groups might have a few common characteristics such as the use of suicide bombings, indiscriminate violence, foreign funding, etcetera, but the terrain they operate in, weather, local support, ideology, weapons used, number of recruits might all be different.

Jalal (2011) comments that “each counterinsurgency has unique dynamics…Each situation, therefore must be analyzed on its individual characteristics” (p.188). Militaries and governments, therefore, must heed the advice of Sun Tzu and know their enemy to tailor a counterinsurgency framework that is based on a particular group.

Fourthly, military force leads to collateral damage – the worse the military plan and execution, the more collateral damage there is. The unfortunate and unintended deaths of innocent civilians and the destruction of public infrastructure at the hands of the military due to the fog of war can create a climate of anger against government forces. Shrewd terrorist groups can use this anger to encourage more people to join their ranks – a terrorist group thrives on public support. This sympathy for the insurgents is therefore resultant due to counterproductive military tactics employed.

Even if the public does not sympathize with the insurgents and simply becomes apathetic towards security forces due to civilian casualties, it is extremely detrimental to the government. Akin to how insurgents require a certain level of public support to be effective, the government and the military require great public support to validate the use of force. Therefore, if the use of force due to ineffective employment has turned the public apathetic to the government, its further use becomes invalidated and the government risks losing future public support.

The Cases of Iraq and Afghanistan

The paper will now briefly examine the cases of the American failures in Iraq and Afghanistan to further elucidate why militaries fail. According to Jones and Libicki (2008), the war on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan relied too much on the military and hence led to failures. The spectacle of the colossal failures of America in Iraq and Afghanistan has put military power to shame. It would be unwise, however, to restrict one’s thinking to only these cases as there have been many military success stories vis-à-vis insurgencies in recent history as well.

There are numerous reasons why the U.S.’s adventures in both countries failed. Firstly, they were not just counter-terrorism operations but occupations. They were foreign occupations where the occupiers knew very little about the enemies, the local cultures, the people, the politics, the language etcetera, and this conspicuously made things extremely demanding. Secondly, the U.S. fell victim to the guerilla tactics of the insurgents, while they were conventional fighting armies.

Iraq war protests in London
Iraq war protests in London. Attribution: Photo taken by William M. Connolley. CC BY-SA 3.0

Thirdly, the U.S. military was asked to do too much: it was not only asked to destroy the Taliban in Afghanistan and the subsequent insurgents that emerged after Saddam’s removal in Iraq but also tasked with rebuilding infrastructure; gaining the confidence of the people; providing security to the locals and outsiders; training the respective armies and security agencies of both countries; and providing support to politicians and parties that were prepared to tow the American line, etcetera.

Fourthly, the occupiers overstayed their welcome and quickly became villains from heroes. The Iraqi people for example who cheered the Americans when Saddam was toppled quickly came to despise them for not leaving and worsening the situation. Many also saw the Iraq War as illegitimate because Saddam’s Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction in contrary to what was perennially touted by the Bush administration. People began discerning that American interests were in reality tied to Iraqi oil and viewed the Americans as a Christian force occupying Muslim land.

Lastly was the ineffective military tactics the U.S. relied on. Although the West wrote and rewrote the book literally on how to defeat insurgencies (from military means to winning hearts and minds), the American forces ostensibly missed the memo as thousands of civilian casualties took place due to the fighting which led, ironically, to the creation of an incubator of anti-American sentiment amongst the population.

A study conducted for Brown University calculated the human cost of the post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The author found that in Iraq between 182,272 to 204,575 civilians died (March 2003 – October 2018) while in Afghanistan 38,480 died (October 2001 – October 2018) due to the American wars (Crawford, 2018). This climate of fear was the perfect breeding grounds for the expansion of Al Qaeda and later ISIS in Iraq and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Therefore, ironically, America played a massive part in the inception and proliferation of insurgencies and terrorism in the countries it invaded. The U.S. war in Iraq was based on the pretense of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction (therefore immoral and illegal) and their use of the military was extremely counterproductive, while in Afghanistan, the legitimacy of American military use might have been valid, but the implementation was anything but.

Can Militaries Defeat Insurgencies by Themselves?

The use of militaries against terrorism-based insurgencies is widely believed to serve as a means to an end, that is, the weakening of a group’s infrastructure, retaking territory, killing integral insurgent leadership, etcetera. True victory in an insurgency is considered to be achieved when the insurgency has been subdued and the root causes of unrest have been identified and remedied (so a future insurgency does not take place). This requires a harmonious effort from the military to the political realm.

If the military is successful in its armed endeavors against an insurgent group, but the government does not remedy the root causes of the insurgency, one cannot call it a complete victory over the insurgency. However, there are a few instances in history where terrorism-based insurgencies were completely destroyed by the military – making the military an end rather than a means.

According to the study conducted by Jones and Libicki (2008), military use has “rarely been the primary reason for the end of terrorist groups”. They state that since 1968, military force has only been successful 7% of the time in ending the terrorist group but this number jumps to 25% when the terrorist groups become insurgencies. The authors also found, as mentioned earlier, that the military was effective 70% of the time when it was responding to groups with more than 100 members.

They cited how the militaries of Britain (and others) ended the insurgency launched by the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. Such scarce examples of militaries succeeding as an end reiterate what modern-day scholars believe about effective counterinsurgency frameworks, that is, it is a multi-faceted process of which the military is only one part. To test this hypothesis further, the paper examines the relatively recent cases of the Sri Lankan military’s victory over the LTTE in 2009 and the Pakistan military’s victory over the TTP in 2017.

The Cases of Sri Lanka and Pakistan

Sri Lanka

The LTTE was a nationalist terrorist-based insurgent group that formed in 1976 and had the aim of creating a separate homeland in Sri Lanka. During its peak, the LTTE had artillery power, a naval wing, and even a small rudimentary air force. They killed many innocent civilians and were engaged with the Sri Lankan armed forces in four wars. Their annual revenue was estimated to be around $200 to $300 million. They were considered as one of the most deadly terrorist groups and many thought that they could not be beaten including Sri Lanka’s own governments.

The LTTE’s use of their suicide group, the Black Tigers, was infamous due to the large scale suicide bombing campaign they undertook from 1983 to 2009. So how did the Sri Lankan’s defeat them? The last campaign against them, in 2006, named Eelam War IV, was the first time the political establishment was adamant about defeating them, but mainly the changes made to the military proved to be the turning point. According to Hashim’s (2013) book, he cites that victory was achieved due to several changes being made in the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Sea tigers LTTW
The LTTE’s Sea Tigers wing.

This included the new ability of the army to conduct parallel operations; a larger army size due to tackling budgetary problems; special training in medicine and also in jungle warfare; the commando units and their role in flank support etcetera. In 2009, the Sri Lankan army militarily crushed the LTTE. Although it is commendable how the Sri Lankan forces adapted and transformed into a counterinsurgent force, one major criticism of the operation is that to defeat the LTTE, the Sri Lankan forces partook in indiscriminate violence (Ishfaq, 2017).

During the final stages of Eelam War IV, around 300,000 Tamil civilians were trapped in the warzone and were caught in the crossfire. Furthermore, thousands of civilians were displaced and killed in the culminating stages of Eelam War IV. The United Nations (U.N.) estimates that 40,000 civilians died due to indiscriminate Sri Lankan army shelling in the final phase of the war (Beehner, et al., 2017).

The U.N. estimates that 7,000 civilians were killed and over 13,000 were injured from January to May 2009, while other estimates suggest that 20,000 civilians were killed (Human Rights Watch, 2010). Sri Lankan war crimes have been exposed many a time by the mainstream media and human rights organizations since the war. These egregious human rights violations stemmed from both the Sri Lankan side and the LTTE.

The Sri Lankans might have militarily defeated the LTTE in Eelam War IV but at the cost of killing thousands of Tamils. The largest ethnicity in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese, have been at odds with the Tamil minority since independence in 1948. Tamil grievances led to the creation of separatist political parties and insurgent groups like the LTTE. When Sri Lankan forces killed thousands of Tamil civilians in Eelam War IV, it sent an extremely adverse message to the Tamils whom the government should have tried to placate.

Lastly, even after the war that ended in 2009, the Tamils have been continually ostracized. From January 2014 to April 2015, it was revealed that the “Tamils are still internally displaced and remain without land or livelihoods” (Mittal, 2015). The U.N. stated that it was deeply concerned regarding the conditions of the internally displaced persons (IDPs), the majority of whom were Tamils (U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 2016).

Tamils report being surveilled, discriminated against in all spheres of life, and are forced to bear the Sinhalization of their culture. According to a 2016 report by the International Truth and Justice Project Sri Lanka (2016), “one year after the change of government in Sri Lanka the security forces continue to detain, torture and sexually violate Tamils in a network of sites across the island”.

Therefore, the Tamils remain discontented and antagonized in Sri Lanka. This indicates that the grievances of the Tamil people with the Sinhalese and the state of Sri Lanka remain. Whether this will translate into another insurgency is up for debate but the seeds of discontent remain. The creation of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), which is a government in exile that seeks an independent Tamil nation, proves this point.


Lastly, coming to the Pakistani counterinsurgency operation named Zarb-E-Azb. The operation remains the most effective counterinsurgency operation in the country’s history. The joint military operation was conducted by the Pakistan Armed Forces against various terrorist groups, the main of which was the TTP. It took place in Pakistan’s tribal belt primarily in the North Waziristan Agency near the western border of the country. The operation found success as it broke the backbone of the TTP.

The operation led to a serious decline in overall terrorism in the country (Javaid, 2015). In 2015, there were a total of 706 militant attacks in Pakistan which dropped to 420 in 2017 and 229 in 2018 (Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, 2019). The Pakistan Armed Forces had learned how to adapt to an effective counterinsurgency force via the lessons learned and mistakes made in prior counterinsurgency operations, especially in the South Waziristan Agency in 2004, 2005, and 2008.

Pakistan’s forces adapted by learning strategic knowledge about the terrain and the use of precision weapons (Shah, 2014). Moreover, akin to the Sri Lankan forces, the Pakistan army learned how to fight in small groups. They learned how to conduct surprise offensive actions and even began using birdcalls to signal approaching terrorists (Craig, 2015). Unlike the Sri Lankans, however, Pakistan avoided any kind of indiscriminate violence.

According to a retired 3-star general of the Pakistan Army that the author interviewed, the operation, like those preceding it, was based on the ideals of “hearts and minds” rather than blunt force. The general stated that firstly, the army began by cordoning off an insurgent-laden area and sent a notice to the people in the villages and towns to clear out. After this, a screening process of the departing people took place, which was conducted by village elders, the local government, and the army – the screening was to ensure that insurgents could not escape under the guise of civilians.

The civilians were then housed and taken care of in IDP camps until the operation culminated. Lastly, the air force and army proceeded to fight the insurgents only when all civilians had cleared out. It can be a tedious process, he said, but one that is obviously necessary. This showcases that Pakistan’s counterinsurgency operations were not based on kinetic force alone. After the TTP was militarily dismantled in 2017, the government’s political and social institutions had to step in to make sure that such an insurgency does not take place again.

Deep-rooted grievances of the tribal people had to be addressed such as the lack of infrastructure, high unemployment, low education levels, and subpar medical facilities in the tribal belt of Pakistan. This disconnection between the state and its people in the tribal belt allowed TTP and other proxy groups to garner support in the first place. Pakistan since, and after, Zarb-E-Azb has taken various steps to appease the tribal Pashtuns.

Hundreds of thousands of the IDPs were rehabilitated; reconstruction of roads, houses, shops took place on a massive scale; and under Prime Minister Imran Khan’s leadership, FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) became a part of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). Before this merger, FATA was always handled by the federal government through political agents. Pakistan, a developing country, has spent millions of dollars on the development of the tribal areas to benefit the people, however, there is much more that needs to be done.

India and Afghanistan played a huge role in aiding the TTP and other insurgents against Pakistan in the tribal belt and Balochistan province. The apprehended Indian spy, Kulbushan Jadhav, admitted that he was assisting anti-state rebels in Balochistan at the behest of the Indian spy agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) (Dawn, 2017). Pakistan, therefore, needs to eliminate, or at least limit, such ignominious foreign meddling in its sovereign affairs as well as concurrently improve the development in FATA and Balochistan.

This is especially important because, since the defeat of the TTP, a political party called Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) has emerged resembling the TTP’s political wing. Although there is nothing wrong with creating a political party, the Pakistani state has uncovered that the PTM is funded by India’s RAW as well as Afghanistan’s spy agency National Directorate of Security (NDS) (Global Village Space, n.d.). The government of Imran Khan and the military are on the same wavelength by asserting that the demands of the local people are genuine, but the PTM is using such demands to raise a wave of contempt against the Pakistani state.

Therefore, in sum,­ the military aspect of the counterinsurgency might have been successful and the government is doing its part in developing the tribal belt, but the local grievances must be fully addressed as soon as possible so that foreign-funded proxy groups such as the PTM are unsuccessful in sowing future discord. Banning such proxy groups as well as exposing and eliminating their funding is also a mandatory step.


In conclusion, military use only becomes justified and obligatory under certain conditions – and therefore should not be used when the conditions do not demand it. Secondly, when the conditions are right (for example the emergence of a well-funded and heavily armed terrorist-based insurgency), the military response must be effective by adapting to the idiosyncrasies of the threat, or else the campaign will be an endeavor in futility.

When the military is effectively prepared and given certain manageable responsibilities, collateral damage will be lower, terrorism will abate, and public support shall be higher – America showed how not to do this in Iraq and Afghanistan. This segues to the last point, that is, a military’s use must be discerned as a single part of a larger counterinsurgency framework – a means to an end. The military, therefore, should not be intended to be the end-all solution.

A counterinsurgency framework’s efficacy can be gauged from how its individual components (i.e. political, social, economic, military) each play their respective parts in defeating an insurgency. Even with the military completing its objectives, it is only half defeated because the other institutions have not fulfilled theirs. The Sri Lankan and Pakistani cases prove this point. Although their militaries might have defeated the insurgency threat militarily, the concerns of the aggrieved segment of the population still need to be mollified.

Pakistan has been cognizant of this as the country’s Zarb-E-Azb operation reflected such. Therefore, Pakistan continues to make headways into uprooting the root causes of the insurgency, but unfortunately, Sri Lanka is not – as they used indiscriminate violence during their military campaign and did not make amends with the Tamils afterward.


If you want to submit your articles and/or research papers, please check the Submissions page.

The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

(Visited 557 times, 1 visits today)
Click to access the login or register cheese