In a Counterinsurgency Far, Far Away

After Return of the Jedi, the victorious Rebels declared "mission accomplished" a bit too early. Here’s how they can win, for good this time.


The first great struggle between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire ended with the destruction of the Death Star and an apparent victory for the Rebels at the Battle of Endor. Yet we now know that the struggle has raged on for the last 30 years. Why did the defeat of Emperor Palpatine and the much heralded “return of the Jedi” not produce decades of peace under a restored Republic?

In hindsight, it’s clear that for the Rebel Alliance the Imperial defeat at the Battle of Endor was a classic example of a catastrophic victory: a sudden collapse of a seemingly unbeatable foe that produced opportunities it was unprepared to exploit. Rather than capitalizing on their historic gains and establishing the hoped-for New Republic, the Rebels simply allowed the Galactic Empire to fragment, ushering in a period of chaos.

Now, facing a more virulent version of the Empire under the guise of the mysterious First Order, the Resistance, the successor of the Rebel Alliance, must succeed where its progenitor failed: It must be prepared to “win the peace” and show that it represents the best hope to end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.

From the vantage point of a galaxy far, far away, we draw on our own history from a not-so-long time ago — chiefly, the experiences and lessons of the conflicts and unrest in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya — to offer a set of strategic recommendations to the leaders of the Resistance that will allow them to not only defeat the First Order, but to make its defeat absolute.

I. Horror vacui

Much of what we thought we knew about the Empire, the aftermath of its collapse, and the rise of its successor, the shadowy First Order, has now been shown to be a collection of unreliable legends. Newly unearthed research now enables us to assemble a patchy and incomplete picture of what happened in the years after the Rebel victory at Endor. What at first appeared to be an overwhelming victory with the destruction of the second Death Star, we now know, was little more than the prequel to a longer saga pitting the heirs of the Empire and the Rebel Alliance against each other in a battle for the soul of the galaxy.

While most of the details of this struggle have yet to be revealed (we’re not reading spoilers just yet), its rough outline is clear. Once held together by force, terror, and Emperor Palpatine’s cult of personality, the Imperial order collapsed into chaos, producing autonomous zones and ungoverned spaces in systems long ago governed by the Republic, the Trade Federation, and others. This power vacuum enabled remnants of the Empire to undertake devastating, if strategically counterproductive, reprisal strikes against entire worlds.

This wanton destruction and chaos predictably invited violence, piracy, and criminality, led by powerful warlords like the Hutts or bounty hunters like the Fetts, amid other scum and villainy. The multiplication of “failed planets” across the galaxy created a hunger for the restoration of stability. The growing chaos eventually fueled the rise of the First Order, a neo-fascist descendant of the Empire with revanchist ambitions, led by the ruthless General Hux, with possible ties to a hard-line mystic cult known as the Knights of Ren.

Much of the chaos following the Rebel Alliance’s victory was predictable. Its wartime leaders were overwhelmingly focused on avoiding missteps and destroying their vastly more powerful enemy while ignoring the problems of violence, factionalism, and criminality that plague post-conflict environments across the universe. It is not unusual for processes that bring about a democratic transition to result in violence and ultimately fail, especially if the resistance forces fail to consolidate power. Moreover, any sharp historian of the Old Republic could have told them that empires rarely end neatly. The collapse of empires has traditionally led to new conflicts, fomenting hypernationalist forces that conjure a mystical, glorious past and seek to punish those who cost them their privileges and position.

The First Order clearly falls into the latter category: deifying the great figures of the Empire, such as Darth Vader, and seeking to punish those star systems that were not kept in line by the technological terror of the Empire’s weapon of planetary destruction. The First Order may, in fact, attempt to one-up its Imperial predecessor through an escalation in the arms race, allegedly developing a weapon of stellar destruction. This combination of bitter historical grievances and technological know-how will make the First Order a dangerous and violent successor to the widely feared Galactic Empire.

Like many insurgent groups, the Resistance faces intense military pressure and therefore keeps its organizational structure and tactical plans secret. We know little about the Resistance, except that it carries the mantle of the old Rebel Alliance, after the latter’s failure to transition into a governing authority.

There is a troubling possibility that the Resistance, like the First Order, is connected to another religious sect known as the Jedi — related to but, they claim, distinct from the dark Sith. The whereabouts or even the existence of their cult leader Luke Skywalker are unknown, though his supposed family connection to the highest levels of the Empire is troubling, if true. Even more worrisome are other rumors suggesting the Jedi may be establishing a hereditary and undemocratic religious dynasty around the next generation of the Skywalker-Solo clan.

As Libya, Iraq, and Syria have shown us, the combination of intense religious factionalism and a chaotic post-conflict environment is a toxic one that can lead to escalating violence and brutality. To avoid that outcome, the new Resistance must learn from the mistakes of the Rebel Alliance and quickly devise a plan to destroy the First Order and re-establish the Republic on the basis of indirect rule.

II. Boots on the ground

During the last conflict, the Rebel Alliance focused its attention on destroying the Empire’s most powerful weapon but lacked a coherent plan for destroying its remnants, scattered across the galaxy. Moreover, the Rebels deployed only small numbers of ground forces, relying instead upon unskilled indigenous tribal forces for the Battle of Endor. This left the Rebels with few “boots on the ground” to maintain their hold planets after their victory and provided an opening for the Empire to regroup and rebrand itself in the ungoverned spaces of the galaxy.

If the Resistance is to defeat the First Order, it has no choice but to follow Mao Zedong’s guidelines for guerrilla warfare, mounting an ambitious conventional military campaign to destroy the First Order’s military capabilities. As the conflict evolves, it must be prepared to shift from the hit-and-run guerrilla warfare strategy used on Endor to a sustained ground and air campaign against First Order forces. On the ground, the Resistance must be prepared to match the fearsome AT-AT and AT-ST battalions. It can no longer use ground forces for mere delaying operations, as it did in the Battle of Hoth, where casualties were heavy and the senior leadership escaped through luck and the help of local pirates. A crucial part of this new strategy will be to train and equip combat-ready local forces like Wookies and Gungans into organized battalions to hold planets on the Outer Rim of the galaxy.

Similarly, the Resistance will also need to make better use of its impressive, dual-use B-wing, X-wing, and Y-wing fighters, capable of both atmospheric and space-borne combat. But aging Mon Calamari Star Cruisers, Corellian corvettes, and Nebulon-B escort frigates have a poor reputation against Imperial Star Destroyers, let alone the dreaded Super Star Destroyer. If the Resistance builds the same strike force it had at the Battle of Yavin, it will do little more than replicate its previous failures.

It is crucial that the Resistance not attempt to “fight the last war,” as the United States did in Iraq in 2003. Rather, it must realize that this is a different kind of struggle, necessitating new tactics and new allies. Crucially, this strategy must also include building a “coalition of the willing” under a unified military command in order to destroy First Order forces. The Resistance will need to make common cause with its old allies — Gungans, Wookies, Ewoks, and others — while reaching deals of accommodation with previously hostile forces, such as the Ugnaughts and Neimoidians. Even hostile tribal forces, such as the Gamorreans and Tusken Raiders, are candidates for this coalition who could be deployed effectively as paramilitaries operating behind enemy lines, provided that they can accept the command of the Resistance forces.

III. Build, hold, govern

One bitter lesson from years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq is that victory is meaningless unless the winners have a comprehensive plan to “win the peace.” Assuming the Resistance defeats the First Order, it must demonstrate to the people of the galaxy that the Resistance represents a safer bet for long-term stability and prosperity. It is no longer sufficient to allow planets of the Outer Rim, especially weakly governed ones like Tatooine or Nar Shaddaa, to remain on the margins of political order or under the sway of organized crime. From our own experience here on Earth, we know that failed states and ungoverned territories remain breeding grounds for insurgents and provide an ideal space for your enemy to regroup and rearm.

Instead, Resistance officials must work to co-opt planets along the Outer Rim and offer a more representative and pluralistic regime than the Jedi-dominated Old Republic. Critics may doubt the feasibility and cost of such an approach, but the existential nature of the struggle against the First Order means that no planet can remain on the sidelines without risking its own destruction.

Once these planets have joined the Resistance, it is crucial that its leaders build a government that is more democratic than the Old Republic. The weakness of the Old Republic’s executive and judicial institutions to check the legislature allowed the rise of Emperor Palpatine; to prevent this from happening again, these branches must be strengthened and the powers of the Senate curtailed. With any luck, the Resistance will be capable of building a legislature that boasts more capable members than Sen. Jar Jar Binks, or his contemporaries in the U.S. Congress today. Further, the Resistance will need to avoid granting substantial political power to veto-players such as the Jedi Council, whose political stagnation, inflexibility, and repeated intelligence failures enabled the rise of the Empire.

At the same time, to bolster its legitimacy, the Resistance may initially need to adopt some of the symbols of the Jedi cult as a new state religion, particularly if the support for this faith grows in the course of the struggle. The Resistance could even go so far as to encourage the hereditary religious dynasty that appears to be taking shape, so long as the dynasty remains a figurehead with little real power. It is not unusual for new governments to cloak themselves in religious and nationalist symbols in this way, provided that the standard-bearers of the religion support the authority of the government, rather than undermine it. The question at present is whether the standard-bearers for that religion will be a force for order in the galaxy or will instead follow their ancestors in destabilizing it.

Ultimately, the success of the peace will depend on the Resistance’s ability to hold territory and provide law and order, especially in places that were once dens of criminality. For this reason, the stability of planets like Jakku and Tatooine is crucial and can no longer be left to the control of crime bosses like the Hutts. The Resistance may find itself concluding — as Britain and later the United States did — that the only way to re-establish order over fragmented, politically diverse territories is indirect rule supported by indigenous law enforcement. Carefully cultivating local leaders will be crucial to providing a legitimate “face” for the new Resistance-led government. Otherwise, if the Resistance fails to govern, or governs too directly as the Empire did, there will be no end in sight to the generational wars among the stars.

Photo credit: Lucasfilm, Ltd.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2 ‏

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