Book excerpt: ‘Bullets Not Ballots: Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare’

In “Bullets Not Ballots,” Jacqueline L. Hazelton challenges the claim that winning “hearts and minds” is critical to successful counterinsurgency campaigns. Good governance, this conventional wisdom holds, gains the besieged government popular support, denies support to the insurgency, and makes military victory possible. Hazelton argues that major counterinsurgent successes since World War II have resulted not through democratic reforms but rather through the use of military force against civilians and the co-optation of rival elites.

Hazelton offers new analyses of five historical cases frequently held up as examples of the effectiveness of good governance in ending rebellions—the Malayan Emergency, the Greek Civil War, the Huk Rebellion in the Philippines, the Dhofar rebellion in Oman, and the Salvadoran Civil War—to show that, although unpalatable, it was really brutal repression and bribery that brought each conflict to an end. By showing how compellence works in intrastate conflicts, “Bullets Not Ballots” makes clear that whether or not the international community decides these human, moral, and material costs are acceptable, responsible policymaking requires recognizing the actual components of counterinsurgent success—and the limited influence that external powers have over the tactics of counterinsurgent elites.

Chapter 1


Eating Soup with a Chainsaw

The United States and its partners destroyed the political order in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003. They have been trying ever since to create a new political order, one that is more just and thus more stable. The Western military term for what they have been trying to achieve is success in counterinsurgency: defeating armed, organized, persistent political challengers to the government. At the time of writing, they have achieved success in neither theater, while political violence and disorder have spread in the region and beyond, making the question motivating this book more relevant than ever to foreign and military policy in Western liberal states.

What explains success in counterinsurgency? I argue that government success against an insurgency is a nonviolent and violent competition among elites that leads to political stability after a single armed actor—the counterinsurgent government—gains dominance over the others within its territory. Fighting insurgents is important in this process. Ruthlessly controlling civilians and taking other measures to prevent the flow of food and other resources to insurgents is also important. Both are made possible by the government’s accommodation of domestic elites who provide cooperation, information, and fighting power. One might think of successful counterinsurgency as alliance building among elites within the state for the purpose of reducing the insurgent military threat to little more than an annoyance.

I define success according to the U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide as the “marginalization of the insurgents to the point at which they are destroyed, co-opted, or reduced to irrelevance in numbers and capability.” The guide is intended for the United States, but this definition is reasonable for democratic great powers generally because it recognizes that a small number of insurgents may remain active while unlikely to seriously threaten the counterinsurgent government. The core of this definition is that the counterinsurgent government remains in power.

“What succeeds in counterinsurgency is uglier, costlier in lives, more remote from moral and ethical considerations, and far less ambitious than what the United States and its partners are attempting in trying to build and reform the political systems in so-called weak states and ungoverned spaces today. Both the accommodation and the violence are necessary for success. Neither is sufficient. The use of compellence (the use or threat of force to change an actor’s behavior) and brute force (the power to take and to hold) together break the challenger’s ability and will to fight.

Successful counterinsurgency is not, contra the conventional wisdom, a process of building a centralized, modern, liberal, democratic state; providing political, economic, and social reforms intended to support such an effort; and providing public goods to the people to gain their support for the government. It is not a competition to govern with the people as the prize. Counterinsurgency is competition for power among armed groups. Successful counterinsurgency is one armed group coming to dominate the rest.

Explaining counterinsurgent success matters because of the dilemma that democratic great powers face when they back a threatened client government in an internal conflict, intervening militarily because they believe that client survival is an important security interest of their own. These powerful states can find themselves paying what can become exceptionally high costs in struggling to defeat a weaker adversary by what are intended to be moral means. The United States has struggled in Iraq and Afghanistan to restore stable governance after shattering the existing political order with a military invasion. The U.S. costs of the so-called Global War on Terror are at $6 trillion and counting, though the adversaries are fragmented, factionalized groups with relatively little financial and military power and even less political appeal to local and global audiences. Similarly, the United States struggled for twelve years and spent more than $4 billion to help the Salvadoran government succeed against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front and yet failed to defeat it militarily. It took Great Britain twelve years to defeat the small, isolated, and unpopular Malayan National Liberation Army. The French colonial state fell to Viet Minh insurgents in Indochina despite massive U.S. aid.

Questions about counterinsurgency success are not hypothetical or “academic” questions in the popular sense of the term. These are questions of immediate moment to U.S. and partner governments, their militaries and families, and millions of civilians experiencing the costs of internal conflict every day. These are pressing questions as the states of Europe and the United States grapple with the political effects of receiving refugees from war-splintered states. This book is not a prescription for counterinsurgent success. I do not advocate implementation of my findings. This book is an analysis of government choices with powerful implications for the decisions of great powers considering military intervention to back a threatened client government and considering continuing such interventions. It presents a theory explaining and predicting counterinsurgency success. It is not a plan for action.

Liberal Great Power Military Intervention

My research here focuses on counterinsurgency as a form of liberal great power military intervention with relevance to contemporary Western policy debates and also to better understand how the use of force may—or may not—help threatened governments attain their political objectives. I analyze how Western great powers attempt to create greater security within other states by using and supporting uses of force to shape the political landscape, and under what conditions they achieve their goal. In short, this book is about great power efforts to create greater order through the use of organized violence. …

This book develops a new dimension in the study of counterinsurgency by examining the counterinsurgent’s choices and the political outcomes of those choices rather than focusing on patron demands or client promises. It relies on comparative historical case studies to investigate the conduct of these counterinsurgency campaigns, deepening our historiographic understanding of the cases and systematizing what has often been a less than rigorous subject for study. It intervenes in the debate over whether politics or warfighting matters more in counterinsurgency success by tracing the political effects of counterinsurgent uses of force rather than assuming their outcomes.

I examine a specific type of military intervention into internal conflict: when a great power backs a client government facing an insurgency, an armed, organized, persistent, internal political challenge. Great power military intervention is not uncommon. Military intervention may include diplomatic support, weapons sales, military training and advising, and even provision of fighting forces, although this is less common because more costly to the intervening state. … Military intervention is a broad category; nondemocratic great powers also conduct such campaigns. Often it is studied in isolation to gain understanding of a particular type of intervention, as with work on peacekeeping operations. There is scope for further investigation of military intervention as a larger phenomenon with policy implications in multipolar and unipolar worlds. …

Costly Success

Counterinsurgency success is the outcome of a violent process of state building in which elites contest for power, popular interests matter little, and the government benefits politically from uses of force against civilians as well as insurgents. My theory of counterinsurgency success, which I call the compellence theory, differs in two important ways from the conventional wisdom, which I call good governance counterinsurgency for its focus on developing liberal democratic states. First, my theory identifies armed and unarmed elites as the key actors in counterinsurgency, rather than the populace or the great power intervener, along with the need to accommodate the few rather than provide benefits for all. The need for coalition building as part of the state-building process is not a new political insight, but it is not one that has previously been highlighted in the counterinsurgency debate. Second, the compellence theory identifies the government’s use of force against civilians as well as insurgents as an important factor in counterinsurgency success rather than a choice likely to damage or doom the government’s chance of success.

Counterinsurgency success requires neither good governance reforms that redistribute power and wealth among all citizens nor popular support for the state. Rather, success of a counterinsurgent has three requirements. The first is the government’s relatively low-cost accommodation of elite domestic rivals—that is, political actors such as warlords and other armed actors, regional or cultural leaders, and traditional rulers—to gain fighting power and information about the insurgency. The second requirement is the application of brute force to reduce the flow of resources to the insurgency, often but not always and certainly not only by controlling civilian behavior with brute force. The third requirement is the direct application of force to break the insurgency’s will and capability to fight on. These three elements represent a phased process in which the counterinsurgent government builds its strength and, as it does so, exerts its capabilities to directly and indirectly weaken the insurgency and remove the threat it poses to government survival.

These findings show that counterinsurgency success as the first step in establishing a relatively stable political order has moral and human costs. These findings also pose an important corrective to assumptions about the positive value of U.S. intervention in support of a counterinsurgent partner. My argument suggests that U.S. efforts to reduce violence in internal conflicts by introducing political reforms are unlikely to flourish, and that such efforts will continue to raise human, moral, and financial costs for the United States, as well as within its partners’ borders.

Why It Matters

My findings suggest the need for radical reconsideration of democratic great power intervention policies and efforts, current and future. If the intervention goal is humanitarian, then the great power’s interest should be in ending the violence as quickly as possible. If the intervention goal is to retain the government in power, then the great power’s focus should be on achieving that goal at the lowest possible cost in human and other resources, rather than a drawn-out effort to induce good governance reforms with the unwarranted assumption that these efforts will flourish and that counterinsurgency success will follow.

It is unlikely that the future will bring successful efforts to use good governance to succeed in counterinsurgency. Governments willing and able to make good governance reforms do so. Those that resist reforms continue to resist, and for logical reasons. Making governance more equitable and just, serving popular interests, institutionalizing and bureaucratizing the state, instituting free and fair elections, liberalizing the media, instituting the rule of law—these are all reforms that directly or indirectly reduce the power and wealth of government-aligned elites. Corrupt, repressive governments persist because corruption and repression serve the interests of those in power. They are not a function of ignorance or error. Any great power interested in forcing a client into making reforms needs leverage. Great powers that commit themselves to client survival, however, yield significant leverage over their client, leaving them with little power to impose reforms. Even when U.S. forces ruled directly in Japan, Germany, Iraq, and Afghanistan, they were forced to accommodate the interests of elites within the occupied state.

The scholarly and policy worlds have seen, see, and will see real-world experiments testing my theory. I expect that further Western efforts to press clients to institute what are expected to be insurgent-defeating reforms will not attain that goal and that counterinsurgency success is likely to continue to require the mistreatment of civilians, the deprivation of their human rights, and bloody-handed governments’ bargaining with warlords, killers, and other corrupt political players. Insurgents may be the bad guys, but it is also the bad guys who succeed in counterinsurgency. There are no good guys in this armed elite competition to rule. State building is a nasty business.

“The bad guys win” is not the answer that U.S. forces, policymakers, or civilians want to hear about counterinsurgency success, but the historical record is clear. The problem of insurgency challenging Western democratic states’ interests from afar is not a problem with an easy or a normatively palatable solution. Western great powers are, nonetheless, likely to embroil themselves in internal conflicts as long as great power policymakers continue to believe that another state’s type of government affects their own state’s security. A world of democracies is quite arguably a better world for all, but it is not one that democratic powers can attain through military intervention.

All the successful cases I examine here show surprisingly limited democratizing reforms, a disappointing result but an unsurprising one given the likelihood that elites everywhere prefer to keep what they have rather than to share it. The limits of reform efforts by the counterinsurgent’s great power backer are all the more evident given policymaker emphasis on major, systemic political changes within target states. These efforts highlight an underappreciated fact in military intervention and foreign policy: great power control over events and other actors’ choices is limited. The counterinsurgent government itself, fighting for survival, is the central actor on the state side.

Bullets Not Ballots: Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare” is available for purchase.

Jacqueline L. Hazelton is an assistant professor in the department of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College. Hazelton specializes in international relations, specifically international security. Her research interests include compellence, the uses of force, military intervention, counterinsurgency, terrorism, and U.S. foreign and military policy. She received her Ph.D. from the Brandeis University Politics Department. Her BA and first MA are in English literature from the University of Chicago. Her second MA, also from Chicago, is in international relations. Her book, “Bullets Not Ballots: Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare,” is published by the Cornell University Press Studies in Security Affairs series. Hazelton is at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and the International Security Program at the Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School, this year writing her second book, explaining why Western great powers sometimes try to use ambitious liberalizing methods in military intervention.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman,

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