Land and Rebellion: Lessons for Counter-insurgency

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2014
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Survival 56(2), 1-20
Abstract: 

Recent years have seen the United States and its allies embroiled in major counter-insurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and lesser operations in such countries as Yemen and Somalia. These battles against local insurgencies are only the latest in a string of such conflicts that have erupted in nearly every developing region since the end of the Second World War. Sharply debated at home and abroad, they raise the fundamental question of what the counter-insurgents can reasonably hope to achieve in violent settings, even when they deploy an array of military, political and economic instruments. What are the ‘moving parts’ that foreign powers can manipulate in their effort to force or encourage violence-reducing reforms in these societies?

Answering that question requires, at a minimum, a theory of what is causing the violence to begin with, along with a theory of how to end it. This essay explores these issues from an historical perspective, focusing on land reform, which has been at the heart of many post-war insurgencies. Following the Second World War, US policymakers came to believe that land inequality was a leading cause of conflict in such countries as China, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as ongoing social turmoil in several Latin American states. The communists, it seemed to them, had successfully seized upon the grievances of rural peasants who worked as tenant farmers, and insurgents like Mao Zedong, and later the Viet Minh and Viet Cong, placed land reform at the very centre of their revolutionary programmes. Not to be outdone, Dean Acheson, US President Harry Truman’s secretary of state, proclaimed in 1952 that ‘land reform is absolutely foremost in our whole international policy.’