Counterinsurgency Operations: A Perspective from Italian History

By Robbin Laird

Dr. Federica Saini Fasanotti has written a fascinating study of the Italian experience in counterinsurgency operations as the Mussolini regime expanded its reach into North Africa.

She has worked with newly released files from Italian archives to provide a look at how the Italian military dealt with the challenges of controlling the territory which they had “won” with a more or less conventional force operation to “win” new colonies.

She looks at the experience first with Libya and then with Ethiopia. She looks at how the Italian military adapted to the challenge of controlling the territory and working to win over the population to support the Italian empire being put in place.

The use of airpower to support mobile operations, the redesign of the military to work in difficult conditions and to build lean and distributed force operations, working within the historical tensions within the Libyan society and recruiting locals to assist in the Italian occupation, the establishment of garrisons or in today’s words FOBs or Foreign Operating Bases is laid out in detail.

The activities of the insurgents against their Italian occupiers is detailed with a key focus of the insurgents on attrition of the Italian forces and disruptions of the lines of communications which allowed the Italians to reinforce forces throughout the occupied territories.

There is no notion of stability operations here for this is about establishing an Italian imperial presence, and for the Fascist administration harkening back in the Libyan case to the Roman Empire’s history is not far from the presentational narrative.

Of course, when the Romans showed up in North Africa, the only way they could finally subjugate the Carthaginians was more than draconic.

To me, this study raises a number of key aspects of counterinsurgency operations which continue today and will persist into the future.

There remains a key question which Americans really do not want to focus upon when engaged in their own counterinsurgency operations.

Stability operations without imperial purpose actually make little strategic sense.

That probably is a little blunt for most folks, so we can tone that down to this question:

Stability operations in a third world state without a clear strategic outcome and purpose to the intervening power makes little strategic sense.

No amount of massaging by Washington think tanks can get away from this blunt reality.

For the Europeans operating in Africa or wherever the point of using force was to reinforce their imperial rule in a particular country. That was pretty clear cut and that also sorted through why force was being used as well as the limits to the use of force, for what is the point of Empire if you can get not concrete benefit.

American incursions in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan have not been about empire but have served other purposes.

But one can really ask a rather blunt question: how are stability operations really devoid of imperial purpose meaningful over time to the external power doing the operations?

And do these operations really look different to the local populations than external power interventions for some advantage to the state or states doing them?

Or put more bluntly: how effective can counterinsurgency operations be if disconnected from a clear strategic gain for the external power or powers?

And how do such interventions avoid the historical and geographical realities of the countries in which external powers bring their military and other tool sets to bear?

The Italian regime was doing a power grab for its clear internal purposes and to work a power game within Fascist Europe.

It has never been all that clear what extended counterinsurgency operations for the US in Iraq for example have really had in terms of clear American interests.

And to be blunt about it: without direct correlation of gain to the intervening power, do counterinsurgency operations really make sense?