About Me

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I saw active service in conventional, clandestine and covert units of the South African Defence Force. I was the founder of the Private Military Company (PMC) Executive Outcomes in 1989 and its chairman until I left in 1997. Until its closure in 1998, EO operated primarily in Africa helping African governments that had been abandoned by the West and were facing threats from insurgencies, terrorism and organised crime. EO also operated in South America and the Far East. I believe that only Africans (Black and White) can truly solve Africa’s problems. I was appointed Chairman of STTEP International in 2009 and also lecture at military colleges and universities in Africa on defence, intelligence and security issues. Prior to the STTEP International appointment, I served as an independent politico-military advisor to several African governments. Until recently, I was a contributing editor to The Counter Terrorist magazine. All comments in line with the topics on this blog are welcome. As I consider this to be a serious look at military and security matters, foul language and political or religious debates will not be entertained on this blog.

Friday, February 14, 2014


I thoroughly enjoy discussions on conflicts, insurgencies and wars and the countering of these actions, regardless if I agree with them or not. I know many criticise and do not agree with my viewpoints and view them as too simplistic. What I consider to be critical in the ending of a conflict, an insurgency or civil war has been very successfully applied in practise. Food for thought is, however, never bad food regardless of how it is served.

Insurgencies are not new, nor does fighting them require a “new” way of fighting. Nor do fighting insurgencies need to be long, protracted and costly affairs if the strategy is balanced. However, there seems to be a misguided belief that if we can define an insurgency precisely, we can defeat it. Whereas a definition holds value, its value is lost if the cause is not fully understood.

Ending an insurgency may not always be easy but it is certainly very possible. Contrary to the belief of some, an insurgency is not a spontaneous event but rather a threat that has been allowed to develop over a period of time. It is a political problem that has been brought about by dysfunctional or poor governance, a sense of political isolation and the suppression of hope along with a combination of anger, hatred and revenge that has impacted negatively on the populace and caused the populace immense distress. When the populace feel they have lost hope and have nothing more to lose by rising up against the government, they will do exactly that.

One of the strategic objectives of an insurgency may be to develop their planned armed struggle into a civil war to pit citizen against citizen and in so doing, collapse the Pillars of State and along with them, the established political order. This requires mobilising the quiet majority of the populace to disrupt government efforts through armed violence, civil disobedience, terrorism, violent crime, civil unrest and violent protests. Tribalism, religion, racial and ethnic tensions along with economic disparities are often used as motivators in the calls for the populace to rise up.  

If an under-threat government makes use of a foreign allied military force to assist it suppress the insurgency, the populace’s “silent majority” will generally accept this decision as long as the combined force does not target them. The foreign forces will, however, be closely watched in terms of their actions, discipline and attitude towards the populace. Uncontrolled behaviour, unlawful acts and/or attacks on civilians by the foreign forces will simply become a rallying call for the populace to join – or at the very least – support the insurgency.

Conversely, the populace may believe that the arrival of foreign forces allows them to take the law into their own hands and extract revenge against those insurgents and their supporters hiding in plain sight. Once this cycle of violence begins, it is very difficult to stop and its effects are usually long-lasting.

However, relying solely on foreign forces to ultimately defeat the armed insurgents will result in a hollow victory for the government forces as when the foreign forces leave, the insurgency will simply resurface and be characterised by more intense violence.

If a country has been invaded and occupied by a foreign force that shows little or no respect towards the government, the law enforcement agencies, the armed forces and the populace, their property, culture, traditions, political system and religion, the anger, discontent and humiliation of the subjugated will in all probability give rise to a rebellion or an insurgency in order to eject the occupiers. Added to this is the oft-imposed morality and ideology of the occupying forces that results in additional anger, confusion and discontent. It is this anger that will result in attacks on the occupying force by the populace and the local soldiers and policemen that have been “forced” to partner with the occupation forces – the so-called “green-on-blue” attacks.

The ability of an insurgent group to attack across numerous spheres of the state gives them a flexibility the government has allowed them to have – by creating a condition of dissatisfaction that can be exploited. This is in part due to a lack of a coherent realistic national strategy and a poor, unstructured and unaligned national security strategy and its various components, coupled to poor governance and neglect of the populace. Add to this a lack of credible intelligence and the means to act/react on intelligence and the insurgents are given the initiative whilst the security forces fall into the trap of becoming reactive.

By exploiting both the mainstream and social media for disinformation and propaganda purposes, insurgents create the perception that they are more successful and stronger than they really are. It also gives them an instrument for reaching other fence-sitting or neutral members of the populace. Every action and success is aimed at showing their determination and even minor tactical successes are proclaimed to be major tactical victories. This can, along with the collateral damage caused by the security forces, harness both local and international support and sympathy for their cause.

International support such as funding, weapons, training and sanctuaries and sympathy – along with unvetted NGOs and “charity organisations” -  especially when the insurgents are acting as a proxy force on behalf of a foreign government or sponsor whose intentions are the placement of a puppet government, can result in sanctions on an international level. These sanctions are aimed are weakening the government whilst strengthening the insurgents. Apart from the wholesale death and destruction of innocents and their property, the international support has a tendency to escalate out of control and bring additional governments into the conflict to support one side or the other.

The first-line of defence against an insurgency is – apart from good governance – aggressive, pro-active intelligence gathering coupled to coordinated law enforcement actions. Sadly, many governments choose to ignore the wall as the writing becomes more obvious, especially if it does not match their perception of reality.

When the armed forces are called on to provide counter insurgency support to the law enforcement agencies, it is usually an indication of failure by government and the intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The mission of the armed forces ought to be the creation of a climate in which government can govern and the law enforcement agencies can again begin enforcing the law.

When an insurgency or conflict has entered into the armed or military phase, the Trinity of Gravity needs to be identified, isolated, attacked and neutralised, allowing the government to regain control. 

I believe the concept of using the armed forces to establish control over the entire Trinity of Gravity is both flawed and wishful thinking as soldiers are neither trained to govern nor enforce the law – nor are they trained to be diplomats. The bottom line is that if the armed forces do not take effective control of the insurgents, the insurgents will simply take control of the populace – at the expense of everyone including the armed forces.

Preventing and/or defeating an insurgency, therefore, begins with the display of political will by the government coupled to ever-improving delivery of government services, the continued gathering of intelligence and the enforcement of law in all its facets – and not with the armed forces trying to play politics and govern.  


Herbert said...


As I read your counterinsurgency writing I cannot help but think of the mistakes my country has committed in its efforts. To wit, using the armed forces to provide everything, government services to governance itself, along with fighting the conflict. Which brings up something that you don't say but I suppose imply: You need a decent government that can function to begin with, i.e., one that is worth saving, one that can do the right things when the armed forces create the proper room for it to do so.

The NGO problem is serious here. US aid, or should I go ahead and write that USAID of the State Department, is inextricably lashed to NGOs. Contracting to them is how business is done. Shall I just say that some of them are absorbed by their own interests. You use the term "unvetted NGOs." In my view, some are vetted, found wanting, and approved anyway based on their politics.

You've put up a good piece.


Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thanks, Herbert.

Yes, I believe it all begins with the government. However, when those governments (especially in Africa) do not jump to the tune of some foreign governments, they are targeted for replacement. That said, many have themselves to blame for the looming chaos as they ignore the power of the silent majority of the populace.

I have met some NGOs who are dedicated and who really want to bring about an improvement but then again, I have met others who see the ending of a conflict or war as a threat to their bank accounts. I have a problem with that.



graycladunits said...

Dear Eeben:

How would armed forces create a climate that would allow a gov't to govern and allow law enforcement agencies to enforce the law again?


Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

The role of the armed forces is not to attempt to "nation-build" GCU. They are not trained in governance. However, they are trained to find, fix and destroy the enemy. This can only be done if there is a coherent strategy and the troops are correctly trained. All too often I note "strategy by panic" and a lack of training.
If the military succeeds in its mission, governance can do what it is supposed to do - govern.

simon said...

This is a very blunt and to the point and 'simplistic' truth that we as Americans seem to just not accept because it will upset everything that we have been doing. Again, though we can win battle and contact one after the other, 'the hearts and minds' simply are lost and conversion takes place. I once asked a missionary friend of mind from my childhood who was in Thailand spreading the Christian faith, what would you do if you had never come here and were living a poverty stricken 'american' life and two Buddhist's showed up with
expensive clothes and a super luxury car and told you that unless you converted to Buddhism, you would go to everlasting torment. First you would resent the wealth and sophistication you lacked and then would reject their foreign ideas especially on things that are inherent in your world paradigm.

I think that America has rolled in to Afghanistan and Iraq and tried to solve things in this fashion assuming that this will alone win the wars. Ideology is great but the actual nuts and bolts of winning starts with a willingness to do the things you have outlined and ignore the propoganda used by liberal press, the insurgents and have the determination to quash the insurgency, whatever it takes, without concern for what the world thinks.

The desire for many western powers is to be loved and accepted. Battle plans and ROE's are established on an outcome of being
The good guy and not get your hands dirty...

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Well said, Simon. You have, I believe, hit the nail on the head. But this does not apply exclusively to the US. It seems to be an almost international approach to COIN.
I believe we are seeing modern armies falling into the trap of accepting the Clausewitzian belief that there is only a Centre of Gravity and nothing else. We have moved on from the old classical field army engagements of the 1800s.
Political and military will is critical but even more so, I think that armies must not underestimate the beliefs, feelings and traditions of the populace in conflict or war zones. By trying to impose/force foreign political concepts on them, one is merely awakening a deep-seated anger that will eventually turn to bite you.
Your comment that “The desire for many western powers is to be loved and accepted” is not how many in Africa currently view the West. People are starting to develop an intense distrust towards the West as they have come to realise that these conflicts and wars are not about them but the resources they have beneath their feet.
That in itself complicates any attempts to intervene in a pure military manner.
For this reason, I believe the west is doing itself more harm and damage than good and that its approach to gaining influence is approached incorrectly.

Die Stoor said...


It is upsetting to hear of the blacklisting of STTEP by the US DoS. In light of the successes that the organisation and yourself have achieved in providing humane African-centric solutions to the various conflicts ravaging the continent. It really solidifies the belief that the US DoS long term plans for the continent have very little to do with peace stability and prosperity.

This view is re-enforced by the condition that the long list of countries that have found themselves the recipients of US liberation democratisation programs. Of course you can simply substitute the words Invasion, Occupation and Subjugation.

It is a really worrying prospect for us that call Africa home that this power that has been responsible for the emergence of insurgencies the like that has not been seen since Rome was overrun has now turned their sights upon Africa. I truly hope that African leaders can find the wherewithal to resist the admittedly very powerful coercive forces aligned against them.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Die Stoor, I think if the average US citizen knew what was really happening, they would make their voices heard loud and clear. Sadly though, this places US folks in Africa in danger.
I know of at least 2 African governments that have been threatened if they use STTEP. That certainly makes me think!