Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 6, Issue 4  /  

A Typology of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency

A Typology of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency A Typology of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency
To cite this article: Stoker, Donald, “A Typology of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency,” Infinity Journal, Volume 6, Issue 4, summer 2019, pages 10-17.

Image: By Staff Sergeant Aaron Allmon – This Image was released by the United States Air Force with the ID 060203-F-7823A-008, Public Domain.

The literature on insurgency and counterinsurgency is voluminous and this is certainly not the place to discuss it, and wars in which insurgency is the dominant factor are invariably described as “limited.” What we must point out is that much of the writing on these topics is tactical and thus not directly related to our discussion. The literature suffers from an endemic lack of self-awareness on this point and does not deal with the reality that tactical fixes often cannot address the larger strategic challenges. This failing can lead to simplistic recommendations for addressing one of the most complicated military problems. Unfortunately, space requires us to risk making the same error.

The Foundation for Analysis: The Political Objective

As with all wars, we must begin the analysis by understanding the political objectives sought. Insurrections are invariably classified as limited wars because the insurgents—tactically—fight using traditional guerrilla warfare methods with forces that are usually (but certainly not always) small, weak, and poorly armed—at least initially. It is the political objective that provides the clearest basis for analysis, not the size of the force or the means and methods of warfare. Insurrections can pursue limited or unlimited political objectives, which will depend upon the situation at hand. Do the insurgents want the overthrow of the regime (an unlimited political objective) or do they want something less, say, for example, 13 colonies in an imperial backwater.[i] Mao Tse-Tung’s Communists sought an unlimited political objective—the overthrow of the Chinese Nationalist regime. The insurgents may also have different objectives against different opponents. The North Vietnamese sought the destruction of the South Vietnamese regime, but also the ousting of the US from South Vietnam. In either case, the primacy of politics reigns supreme. This is also true even if the political objective is clothed in religious rhetoric.

As always, the value of the political objective or aim is key.[ii] If the insurgents want the overthrow of the regime this implies a high value on the object for the insurgents as well as the leaders and supporters of the regime that is now protecting itself. It is the counterinsurgent who is fighting the war for a limited political objective. Indeed, the counterinsurgent—or counter-insurrectionist (a term taken from historian Jeremy Black)—is always seeking a limited political objective because they wish to preserve the regime and its control. Understandably, some will see this as counterintuitive. The political objective of maintaining control should not be confused with the fact that the government might be forced to destroy the enemy to achieve its limited aim. Do not confuse the aim with the means and methods used.

If the objective of the insurgents is not regime change but the redress of some grievances, the regime is wise to try and settle this via negotiations, which is historically one of the ways of ending an insurrection or insurgency and should not be balked at except under very unusual circumstances. Sometimes the counterinsurgent surrenders to impatience here when they should not, denies the legitimacy of any grievances, and fights when talking might be the answer. The counterinsurgent also sometimes wants to fight with the tools and methods they possess without having to incur much in the way of political or social costs while failing to realize when they need to adjust to the situation at hand.[iii] The classic 1940 US Marine Corps Small Wars Manual offers excellent advice here: “The application of purely military measures may not, by itself restore peace and orderly government because the fundamental causes of the conditions of unrest may be economic, political, or social.”[iv]

Negotiations can be even more useful if this can lead to quick achievement of the political objective desired, though one should be cautious about ceasing to apply military pressure during negotiations as this can be interpreted as weakness.

Setting the Stage

Insurgent or insurrectionist groups can be broken into two types: patriotic partisan resistance movements and revolutionary movements. Patriotic partisan resistance groups usually begin spontaneously in the wake of an enemy invasion and then become more organized. The Free French Resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War is a famous example. Resistance doesn’t end until the invaders are expelled or the insurgents convinced they can’t achieve their goals. Because they are usually directed at an invader, such movements can have larger bases of support than revolutionary movements because their appeal is broader.[v] Carl von Clausewitz studied and planned such efforts and offers what he calls “Conditions Under Which a General Uprising Can Succeed”:

  1. The war must be fought in the interior of the country.
  2. It must not be decided by a single stroke.
  3. The theater of operations must be fairly large.
  4. The national character must be suited to that type of war.
  5. The country must be rough and inaccessible, because of mountains, or forests, marshes, or the local methods of cultivation.[vi]

The second type of insurrectionist group—revolutionary movements—have ideological or religious foundations. In the modern era, they have most often been Marxist in character, though Islamic State and other similar groups represent religiously driven cousins.[vii] Mao Tse-Tung’s Communists are the most famous and among the most successful. These movements usually last until the enemy government is toppled or the rebels killed.

What most term “terrorism” and “guerrilla warfare” are the primary tools of violence insurgent groups use to get what they want. Terrorism is considered a tool of the weak, though it is conceptually flawed and limiting to view it this way. The North Vietnamese Communists commonly used terror against South Vietnam, but they were not weak in comparison to their South Vietnamese opponent. Some groups (such as the early Russian anarchists) went so far as to believe that terror alone would be enough to incite the masses and bring down the hated regime, though most realized this very unlikely.[viii]

There are many definitions of terrorism, but one of the best is this: “terrorism is the intentional use of, or threat to use, violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims.”[ix] Terror is used to obtain a political objective, but the point is not the death and destruction it generates, this is the visual result that is part of an effort to attack the target’s spirit while simultaneously creating fear, thus driving the target to make political changes.[x]

Terrorism is also often mistakenly called a tactic. One of the reasons for this is a failure to understand the differences between tactics and strategy. For the Algerians who launched the 1954 uprising against France, terrorism was a strategy, not a tactic. Terror against civilians was intended to provoke a heavy French reaction which would drive people into the rebel camp.[xi] Terrorism was a plank of North Vietnam’s strategy against South Vietnam. It helped undermine and destabilize the South Vietnamese government while driving people to support the Communist cause or face the murder of themselves or their families. Terror was a primary element of Islamic State’s warfighting strategy. The confusion here is that observers see the tactical application of violence in the form of car bombings or assassinations and then insist that terrorism is a tactic. This overlooks the concepts driving the tactical execution.

Terror also doesn’t always work. During the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) it drove people away from the insurgency.[xii] Islamic State gained much through their use of terror, but this also helped bring the US, France, and other nations into the war. Also, the counterinsurgents must work to ensure that they are not blamed for enemy acts. This can be difficult. The Algerian FLN successfully pinned one of its 1957 massacres on the French, and US forces in Iraq unfairly received the blame for a 2004 Baghdad bombing.[xiii]

Successful insurrectionist movements make great use of distraction and deception. They seek to draw the enemy to one thing while attacking another. Deception, maneuver, flexibility, concealment of their true purpose—these are the attributes of successful guerilla operations. Counterinsurgency theorist John J. McCuen argues that for the revolutionary to win they must take Mao’s advice and wage a “strategically protracted war” and 1) wear down the enemy’s strength through the cumulative effects of combat; 2) get stronger by gaining the support of the people while establishing base areas and taking needed material from the enemy; and 3) by obtaining outside support, political, and especially military.[xiv]

The counterinsurgent always wants a quick war and is too often surprised by the reality that counterinsurgency takes a long time and is almost always protracted. Scholars differ on how long insurgencies last as there are so many different variables involved in calculating this, most of which are very difficult to control. Six to 11 years is not unusual.[xv] Counterinsurgency expert Robert Thompson wrote: “If one tries to talk about speed in pacification, it must be remembered that it will take as long to get back to the preferred status quo ante as it took the other side to get to the new position.”[xvi]

There are many factors that contribute to the length of an insurgency—material and psychological—on both sides. Sometimes the counterinsurgent simply doesn’t understand the task facing them. Theorist John McCuen wrote: “Winning a revolutionary war will take massive organisation, dedication, sacrifice and time. The government must decide early if it is willing to pay the price. Half-measures lead only to protracted costly defeats.”[xvii] Insurgency theorist David Galula believed that one of France’s greatest problems in suppressing the rebellion in Algeria was “The political instability in France and the absence of a firm, continuing, clear cut policy on the part of the various French governments all through the war.” The counterinsurgent must have a clear objective that it keeps in sight and a coherent program that impresses upon the opponent that the counterinsurgent is “acting according to a well thought-out plan that leaves them no room for maneuvering.” Galula insists that the French, despite the experience of their wars in Indochina and Algeria, never possessed a coherent counterinsurgency doctrine.[xviii] Historian Jeffrey Record aptly observed that for the counterinsurgent “the combination of a weaker political will and an inferior strategy can be a recipe for defeat.”[xix]

A Typology of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency

Critically, when there is an insurrection or an insurgency both sides must strive to control the following three key factors: 1) the support of the people; 2) the control of internal or external sanctuary by the insurgents; and 3) whether or not the insurgent has outside support. If the insurgent secures all three of these, this will likely mean victory for the rebels. If the counterinsurgent force controls these factors, it will probably win.

1. The Support of the People

Winning the support of the people is crucial for the results of the insurrection. They are “the key to the entire struggle,” and their alienation from their rulers can be a source of insurrection.[xx] This is not always the case, though, as groups such as the Chinese and North Vietnamese Communists worked to alienate the people from their regimes, but the people are still the key. Mao Tse-Tung wrote: “Because guerrilla warfare basically derives from the masses and is supported by them, it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and cooperation.”[xxi] The challenge for both sides lies in determining how to win them to your camp while keeping them from the other side, or at least ensuring their neutrality.

The means issue in wars of this type is often a sticking point. One of the great mistakes made by counterinsurgents is to believe that they can win cheaply and use minimal force to do so. One must always use a level of means sufficient to obtain the political objective. Sometimes a small force is the answer. The level and intensity of the insurgency will reveal this. But one of the most common errors of counterinsurgents is to not send sufficient force quickly enough. McCuen writes: “The sooner the governing power reacts, the less will be the resources required and the shorter will be the period in which they have to be applied … Remember, that the most serious—and the most common—error in counter-insurgency warfare is to do too little too late.”[xxii] The Small Wars Manual advises that “when forced to resort to arms to carry out the object of the intervention, the operation must be pursued energetically and expeditiously in order to overcome the resistance as quickly as possible.”[xxiii]

Unfortunately, this is often easier said than done, and sometimes it’s not the whole answer. In an effort to quell the 1954 Algerian revolt, the French eventually put large numbers of troops on the ground. They mobilized reservists, extended the mandatory service time of conscripts, and committed elite units such as the paratroopers and the Foreign Legion, all to try to ensure they had sufficient forces to provide security as well as hunt down the insurgents. The French eventually destroyed the bulk of the insurgent force in Algeria, but this did not ultimately deliver victory. Numerous other factors, such as the existence of external sanctuary and support, succoured the Algerian cause.[xxiv]

When the insurgency began in Iraq in 2003 against the US and allied forces, the US had insufficient troops on the ground to exert control over Iraq and hunt down insurgents. Indeed, the US never got a handle on the situation in Iraq until it increased its own troop numbers, stood up large numbers of Iraqi police and army units, and armed anti-Al Qaeda Sunni tribesmen. Quickly dispatching larger numbers of troops earlier—and better military and civilian planning and leadership—might have prevented some of these problems, or at least made it possible to stabilize Iraq sooner.[xxv] The US should have remembered the advice of its hard-won past experience. The Small Wars Manual advised: “The occupying force must be strong enough to hold all of the strategical points of the country, protect its communications, and at the same time furnish an operating force sufficient to overcome the opposition wherever it appears.”[xxvi]

Gaining an understanding of the depths of the insurgency is also critical. One reason the British initially suffered failure in Malaya was that the Communist insurgency had already metastasized. It had begun during Japanese occupation in the Second World War and had been supported by the British. By the end of the war in 1945, it was well developed and had deep roots in the countryside. By 1951, the insurgency reached its peak strength of 10,000 active members, but also had more than 100,000 supporters.[xxvii] A similar thing occurred in South Vietnam. The famous soldier and writer Bernard Fall determined that in South Vietnam the evidence of Communist penetration could be seen in the assassination of village chieftains, the failure of the South to collect taxes in a district, and the success of the Viet Cong in taxing the area. Six months before the 1963 murder of South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, between March and May 1963 the Communists were collecting taxes in 42 of 45 South Vietnamese provinces.[xxviii] The insurgency had metastasized before the US escalation. This makes the counterinsurgent’s job much more difficult, though not impossible. More time, effort, and sacrifice will inevitably be required.

Winning back a population under insurgent control can be difficult. In Small Wars, C.E. Callwell advises keeping the enemy under constant pressure, but this can only be done by first properly preparing. To do this, he essentially argues for a version of what the French called quadrillage. The theater is divided into sections that include outposts for defense; these are supported with fast columns pursuing the insurgents. The size of the sections is based upon the geography and terrain. These zones are further subdivided so as to systematically strip them of the food supplies necessary to the enemy and methodically clear them of guerrillas. Troops should be moved from less troublesome to more difficult zones, a decision made based upon local conditions. The concept dates at least to the French Revolutionaries’ efforts to suppress the 1793 uprising in the Vendée.[xxix]

There are many similar ideas that seek to restore government control and separate the insurgents from the people. One is population resettlement. This famously worked wonders in Malaysia, where the primary source of the insurgency’s manpower—the ethnic Chinese minority—could be resettled in protected villages. The US and South Vietnamese launched a similar plan, known as the strategic hamlet program. The results were mixed, partly because of South Vietnamese failures in implementation of the program, and partly because the majority Buddhist South Vietnamese had ancestral ties to their land and resented being moved.[xxx]

Totalitarian states also undertake clearing operations and remove populations sympathetic to or susceptible to insurgent influence, but democratic states generally intend to co-opt the people, while the authoritarians usually punish them. Stalin’s forced population removal of minorities that might prove disloyal, as well as his wholesale murder of the population in places like the Ukraine, made it exceedingly difficult for an insurgency to emerge. Displacing the population by mass deportations, or mass importation of sympathetic populations, such as the Chinese Communist practice of moving Han Chinese into Tibet, is another way of controlling the situation.[xxxi] This, though, can produce resentments that create problems.

A related point is that one of the factors upon which the guerrillas can sometimes count is the self-restraint of the counterinsurgent when dealing with the civilian population. One cannot make a blanket statement here, but this is generally a rule of behavior among democratic states conducting counterinsurgency.[xxxii] This does not apply to totalitarian states. The Russians used essentially unrestrained conventional military power to prevent the insurgents from establishing themselves among the population in Ukraine in the post-Second World War era and Chechnya in 1999. In Chechnya, the Russian response convinced many Chechen leaders that it was impossible to resist. This allowed the Russians to co-opt them and shift the burden to local security forces. The Syrians acted similarly against the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. Such brutality can have effects that are, to some, counterintuitive: “Paradoxically, collective punishment has at times turned the population against the rebels, who are blamed for the devastation.” This has sometimes been the reaction of civilians in the Syrian Civil War who blame the rebels for Assad bombing them.[xxxiii] It is not so easy to predict the reaction of the population to violence in such circumstances. It seems to boil down to the harsh issue of whom the people fear the most.

How counterinsurgents should use force is a critical issue and will directly affect the direction in which the population sways. Killing the leaders of insurgent groups often increases the chances of a government victory and reduces the level of insurgent violence. The government rarely suffers any negative effects as a result of this, and it’s “likely to be more effective than capturing them.” The more the group is dependent upon the leader, the greater the effect. Killing insurgent leaders, though, does not guarantee success. This is particularly true if the group has a developed bureaucracy and popular support. Some studies have found that killing the leaders of terrorist organizations becomes less effective if the group has existed for more than 25 years.[xxxiv] As is so often the case, the result depends upon the circumstances.

One issue is whether the counterinsurgent should concentrate on killing the insurgents or winning over the population through other means. The answer is usually both. But what is also critical is establishing the rule of law, which is especially important for underpinning the credibility of the counterinsurgent. Insurgents exploit the contradictions in governance, law, land ownership, minority rights, or whatever else gives them an edge.

Insurgency expert Otto Heilbrunn boils down the counterinsurgent’s use of force:

To sum up: security operations will produce dividends only if the police and members of the population co-operate; the terrorists’ hold over the population is thus broken, and the security forces have a good chance to win the hearts and minds campaign. If this co-operation cannot be obtained, the security forces are unlikely to win. Military operations can only immobilise the terrorists, and their hold over the population will probably continue; while counter-terror can lead to the terrorists’ arrest but strengthens the people’s allegiance to the terrorists’ cause.[xxxv]

If one is a foreign state conducting counterinsurgency in another land, this adds another layer of difficulty, especially if the uprising is fuelled by nationalism.[xxxvi] During the Algerian War the French viewed themselves as protecting part of France, but the bulk of native Algerians saw them as an alien force.

The quality of governance can sway the people and is critical to consider, especially if one is conducting counterinsurgency in another state. If the host nation suffers from bad government, the counterinsurgency effort is less likely to succeed. This doesn’t mean it can’t, but one must assume the difficulty increases by an order of magnitude. American diplomat George F. Kennan wrote in February 1948: “You can help any government but one which does not know how to govern.” One reason George Marshall refused to allow the post-Second World War US mission to China to expand and assume the same roles as the advisory mission to Greece—meaning allowing US advisors to give tactical and strategic advice—was because Marshall believed US advisors could exert influence over Greek leaders more readily than they could China’s head, Chiang Kai-Shek. Rightly or wrongly, many of Truman’s advisors believed the Nationalists lost their civil war because of Chiang’s “inability to govern.”[xxxvii] If the decision is made to provide assistance, it must be appropriate. When advising, it is wise to remember Lawrence of Arabia’s Article 15: that it is better they “do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly.”[xxxviii]

It is critically important to find the source of the governing problem. Is it internal to the government itself, or external? Internal problems run to the obvious: weak, oppressive, or corrupt leaders are common, as are problems in the system itself. Sometimes the need for reform is obvious, and there is a general failure to address this. Here, it is important to determine whether or not the problems are self-generated, and if the regime has a willingness to tackle them. Unfortunately, it is too often the case that governments simply fail to understand the conditions in their own country. This can make them weak and susceptible to internal attacks.[xxxix] Addressing political, economic, and other grievances can be a useful tool for ending an insurgency as rebel groups often exploit these. Doing so removes points around which insurrectionists can rally support.

What is sometimes forgotten here is that at least some of the governing problem may be external, because the country is suffering from subversion or the effects of the insurgency. During the Vietnam War there were obvious problems of corruption and incompetence in the South Vietnamese government that dramatically reduced its effectiveness. But the South’s governance capability was seriously undermined by the Communist North’s constant propaganda and extensive campaign of assassination and kidnapping against Southern officials. This drastically increases the problem of governance while discrediting the regime, which is the point of the activity as the insurgents establish a shadow government to replace the state’s rulers. Counterinsurgency theorist Bernard Fall observed in regard to Vietnam: “When a country is being subverted it is not being outfought: it is being out-administered.”[xl]

The counterinsurgent should remember to treat prisoners well. If not, this can have negative effects upon their relations with the people. Don’t be afraid to treat them under the rules of the Geneva Convention if this is necessary to maintain internal or foreign support. One can certainly add the caveat that this does not mean recognition of the political legitimacy of the opponent, but that this is being done for administrative reasons and to demonstrate integrity to the international community. Exert public pressure upon the insurgents to do the same, though this will undoubtedly fail, because the insurgents, especially smaller groups, usually lack the willingness or ability to act according to any international norms. Mao argued for the good treatment of prisoners as a way to win them to his cause. But the Communists also never shrunk from using any form of violence they believed useful. Another option is to treat counterinsurgents as criminals. One then faces the problems of criminal prosecution and all this entails. Sometimes though, this might be the best solution. This will be determined by the circumstances. Don’t be afraid to give amnesty to insurgents if this will end the war on acceptable terms, and if you can bear the domestic and international political costs of doing so.

A harsh truth is that the counterinsurgent cannot fight as the insurgent fights. Their aims are different, which dictates what each side can and must do to achieve its goals. The guerrilla often holds the initiative, and often “has the freedom of his poverty.”[xli] Robert Taber writes:

By contrast, the purpose of the counter-revolutionary is negative and defensive. It is to restore order, to protect property, to preserve existing forms and interests by force of arms, where persuasion has already failed. His means may be political in so far as they involve the use of still more persuasion—the promise of social and economic reforms, bribes of a more localized sort, counter-propaganda of various kinds. But primarily the counter-insurgent’s task must be to destroy the revolution by destroying its promise—that means by proving, militarily, that it cannot and will not succeed.[xlii]

One problem is that counterinsurgents become so concerned with the tactical issues that they do not see the larger picture. Indeed, some examinations of counterinsurgency argue that counterinsurgency is largely a form of tactics.[xliii]

Critically, both sides will try to win over the people through propaganda or information operations. This is an arena where the counterinsurgent is often weak. Galula criticized the French effort in Algeria by noting: “If there was a field in which we were definitely and infinitely more stupid than our opponents, it was propaganda.”[xliv] This same argument has been made regarding US information operations against Islamic State.[xlv]

2. Controlling Sanctuary

For the insurgent, who is usually weaker than the regime he opposes, or, in the case of the North Vietnamese, weaker than the primary ally of its opponent, possession of sanctuary for its government and its military forces is a vital component for building toward success. For the counterinsurgent, removing insurgent sanctuary, both foreign and internal, is critical. One of the primary reasons the Afghan Taliban could continue its war against the US after 2003 was its possession of sanctuary in Pakistan.

The political objectives will, of course, affect sanctuaries, as well as where the war will be fought.[xlvi] This acts as a constraint upon military activity, particularly on the part of the counterinsurgent, who historically restricts where its military forces will fight by placing sanctuary countries off limits, or, such as in the case of the British in the War for American Independence, simply lacks sufficient forces to control enough territory to effectively remove the sanctuary. One observer notes this post-Second World War truth: “The respect for sanctuary has been carried to an extraordinary extent in twentieth-century limited war.”[xlvii]

The loss of sanctuary can be fatal to insurgents. The post-Second World War Greek Communist insurgents lost bases and support from Yugoslavia’s Tito after his 1948 rift with the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Greeks learned to do counterinsurgency, addressed economic issues, and had much US support.[xlviii] With UN help, South Korea isolated the battlespace and, in in the anti-guerrilla Operation Ratkiller, killed 20,000 insurgents and bandits by the end of January 1952.[xlix] Mao’s “Long March” allowed him to construct a sanctuary in the Chinese hinterland, and though the Japanese invasion also contributed to the survival of Chinese Communism, the ability to create and preserve a safe base also proved instrumental. Sanctuaries in Tunisia and Morocco did not prevent the French from essentially destroying FLN forces inside Algeria, but it did permit the FLN to build an army as an international symbol of resistance. The Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka had no sanctuary and no external ally. When the Sri Lankan forces penetrated the Tamil heartland and killed the rebel leader, the movement died.

One of the great benefits enjoyed consistently by the North Vietnamese Communist forces was sanctuary. As rebels against France, they had external sanctuary in China when needed, as well as internal sanctuary in many parts of what is now northern Vietnam. When the US began fighting the North Vietnamese conquest of South Vietnam, the Communist forces benefited from external sanctuary in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. This gave the North the ability to dictate the momentum of the war, the timing of their attacks, a relatively secure line of supply via Laos, and safe areas for refit and resupply in Cambodia.[l] The US inability to control the battlespace under such constraints meant that it could not protect pacification efforts from North Vietnamese attacks, which was important for ensuring their success, especially against a deep-rooted insurgency.[li]

3. Controlling Outside Support

Something that most successful insurgencies have in common is external assistance.[lii] Mao agreed.[liii] This can be material and political, with material usually but not always being the more important. The insurgents generally strive to secure external assistance, and with good reason. They are almost always weak in comparison with their enemies, and external assistance can give them arms, money, critical diplomatic recognition, and so many other things they need to succeed. The counterinsurgents must separate the insurgents from outside support. This can be as critical as separating the insurgents from the people, which also must be done.

Insurgent movements can win without outside support, but it’s difficult. The Bolsheviks fought their way to success without external help, securing their victory in 1921. In their 1919-1921 war, the Irish Republican insurrectionists succeeded in gaining most of what they wanted from Britain without significant outside support. Mao Tse-Tung’s Chinese Communists received outside support from the Soviet Union near the end of their struggle against the Nationalists, but this, arguably, sped up rather than determined their success. Possession of capable, resolute leaders, their ability to successfully appeal ideologically to the Chinese people, and the weaknesses of their opponent contributed greatly to the Communists winning.

Without external support, defeat is the more likely result for the insurgent. The Confederacy failed to achieve its independence partially because Abraham Lincoln helped ensure Great Britain and France didn’t join the war on the side of the rebel South. The Malaysian Communist insurgents (1954–1962) had no outside help and did not succeed. The West Papuan Independence movement against Indonesia has not succeeded, despite many years of resistance; it has no outside support. The mid nineteenth-century Taiping rebels had no foreign support, while the Chinese government received Anglo-French aid that helped it achieve victory. The 1967 Biafran revolt in Nigeria was quickly crushed because the Biafran’s sea links were cut. This made foreign aid impossible.[liv] The American colonists triumphed over Great Britain, but the intervention of France and Spain—particularly the former—proved decisive. The Vietnamese Communists won against France in 1954. Chinese aid (and sanctuary) were critical. Soviet and Chinese support also contributed greatly to the North Vietnamese victory over the US and South Vietnam. The Algerian insurgents triumphed even after suffering the near destruction of their forces in Algeria because of international political support.

Defining Victory in Insurgency and Counterinsurgency

Defining victory here depends upon what one is seeking. The political goals of the insurgents differ from those of the counterinsurgents. Usually, for the rebels, the control of their own state counts as victory. This was certainly the view of the Algerians and Mao’s Communists. For the counterinsurgent it’s not so simple. Galula points out that “counterinsurgency seldom ends with a ceasefire and a triumphal parade.”[lv] In his view, victory had been achieved when the counterinsurgent could remove the bulk of its forces, “leaving the population to take care of itself with the help of a normal contingent of police and Army forces.”[lvi]

The bottom line in counterinsurgency: will the people support the government? If not— one should consider quitting.


The above has touched upon numerous very complex issues and is obviously only an introduction to the topic. A knowledge of history and a creative mind are among the most important things that policymakers and soldiers can bring to the construction of strategy, but the above presents a clear framework for analyzing critically insurgency and counterinsurgency at the strategic level—not the tactical or operational—one that I believe is useful to civilian and military analysts and practitioners. Most importantly, it helps teach us how to think about insurgency and counterinsurgency in a clear manner. Finally, none of us should think ourselves beyond repeating the mistakes of our predecessors, especially when confronted with one of war’s most frustrating realms.


[i] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, trans. and eds. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 69; Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, Eric Grove, intro. and notes (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988 [1911]), 44-46.
[ii] Clausewitz, On War, 92.
[iii] Roger Darling, “A New Conceptual Scheme for Analyzing Counterinsurgency,” Military Review, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Feb. 1974), 27.
[iv] US Government, Department of Navy, USMC, Small Wars Manual (Washington: USGPO, 1987 [1940]), 15-16.
[v] Based upon Mao Tse-Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare, Samuel B. Griffith II, trans. (Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 47-48.
[vi] Clausewitz, On War, 480.
[vii] On Islamic State see Craig Whiteside, “The Islamic State and the Return of Revolutionary Warfare,” Small War & Insurgencies, Vol 27, No. 5 (2016), 743-776.
[viii] Peter R. Neumann and M.L.R. Smith, “Strategic Terrorism: The Framework and its Fallacies.” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 28, No. 4 (2005), 573, 576-577.
[ix] Boaz Ganor, “Defining Terrorism—Is One Man’s Terrorist Another Man’s Freedom Fighter?” International Institute for Counterterrorism (Jan. 1, 2010),
[x] Neumann and Smith, “Strategic Terrorism,” 574, 576.
[xi] Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962 (New York: New York Review Books, 2006), espec. 112, 118-122; Douglas Porch, The French Secret Services: A History of French Intelligence from the Dreyfus Affair to the Gulf War (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003), 362-363.
[xii] John J. McCuen, The Art of Counter-Revolutionary Warfare: A Psycho-Politico-Military Strategy of Counter-insurgency (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1966), 31.
[xiii] Neumann and Smith, “Strategic Terrorism,” 578.
[xiv] McCuen, The Art of Counter-Revolutionary Warfare, 30.
[xv] Patrick B. Johnston and Brian R. Urlacher, “Explaining the Duration of Counterinsurgency Campaigns” (Feb. 25, 2012),; Donald Stoker, “Insurgencies Rarely Win and Iraq Won’t Be Any Different (Maybe),” Foreign Policy (Jan. 15, 2007),
[xvi] Robert Thompson quoted in Kevin Dougherty, The United States Military in Limited War: Case Studies in Success and Failure (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), 92-93.
[xvii] John McCuen, quoted in Sarawan Singh, Limited War: The Challenge to US Military Strategy (New Delhi: Lancers Books, 1995), 141-142.
[xviii] David Galula, Pacification in Algeria, 1956-1958 (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2006 [1963]), 208, 268, 177.
[xix] Jeffrey Record, Beating Goliath: Why Insurgencies Win (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2007), 67.
[xx] Robert Taber, The War of the Flea: Guerrilla Warfare Theory and Practice (St. Albans, UK: Paladin, 1970), 22–23.
[xxi] Mao, On Guerrilla Warfare, 44.
[xxii] McCuen quoted in Singh, Limited War, 139.
[xxiii] USMC, Small Wars Manual, 13.
[xxiv] Anthony Clayton, The Wars of French Decolonization (London: Routledge, 1994), 156, 159; Porch, The French Secret Services, 372.
[xxv] The authoritative studies are: Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq (New York: Vintage, 2007); Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, Endgame: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf (New York: Pantheon, 2012.
[xxvi] USMC, Small Wars Manual, 15.
[xxvii] James S. Corum, “Building the Malayan Army and Police – Britain’s Experience during the Malayan Emergency, 1948–1960,” in Kendall D. Gott, ed., Security Assistance: US and International Historical Perspectives (Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2006), 292–295.
[xxviii] Bernard B. Fall, “The Theory and Practice of Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency,” Military Review (September–October 2015), 46.
[xxix] C.E. Callwell, Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, 3rd edition, Douglas Porch, intro. (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 130–135; Clayton, The Wars of French Decolonization, 121; Douglas Porch, Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 5–6.
[xxx] William S. Turley, The Second Indochina War: A Concise Political and Military History, 2nd edn. (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2009), 70–71; Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 25; Ian F. W. Beckett, “Robert Thompson and the British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam, 1961–1965,” Small Wars & Insurgencies, Vol. 8, No. 3 (1997), 41–63.
[xxxi] David H. Ucko, “‘The People are Revolting’: An Anatomy of Authoritarian Counterinsurgency,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1 (2016), 43–45.
[xxxii] Edward N. Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard, 1987), 132.
[xxxiii] Ucko, “’The People Are Revolting,’” 43, 45, 48–49.
[xxxiv] Patrick B. Johnston, “Does Decapitation Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Targeting in Counterinsurgency Campaigns,” International Security, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Spring 2012), 62–65, 68–69, 75, 77; Jenna Jordan, “Attacking the Leader, Missing the Mark: Why Terrorist Groups Survive Decapitation Strikes,” International Security, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Spring 2014), 10–11 and fn. 15.
[xxxv] Otto Heilbrunn, “When the Counter-Insurgents Cannot Win,” Royal United Services Institution Journal, Vol. 114, No. 653 (March 1969), 56–57.
[xxxvi] Michael Howard, “The Classical Strategists,” The Adelphi Papers, Vol. 9, No. 54 (1969), 31.
[xxxvii] Chester J. Pach, Arming the Free World: The Origins of the United States Military Assistance Program, 1945-1950 (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1991), 160, 176, 195.
[xxxviii] T. E. Lawrence, “The 27 Articles of T. E. Lawrence,” The Arab Bulletin (August 20, 1917),
[xxxix] USMC, Small Wars Manual, 20–21.
[xl] Fall, “The Theory and Practice of Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency,” 45–46.
[xli] Taber, The War of the Flea, 21–23.
[xlii] Ibid., 23.
[xliii] This is the major theme of Porch, Counterinsurgency.
[xliv] Galula, Pacification in Algeria, 104.
[xlv] Haroro J. Ingram and Craig Whiteside, “Outshouting the Flea: Islamic State and Modern Asymmetric Strategic Communications,” in Andrea Dew, Marc Genest, and S.C.M. Payne, eds., From Quills to Tweets: How America Communicates War and Revolution (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2019).
[xlvi] Ephraim M. Hampton, “Unlimited Confusion over Limited War,” Air University Quarterly Review, Vol. 9 (Spring 1957), 38.
[xlvii] Robert McClintock, The Meaning of Limited War (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1967), 200.
[xlviii] Jeremy Black, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: A Global History (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2016), chapter 7.
[xlix] Matthew B. Ridgway, The Korean War (New York: Da Capo, 1967), 191.
[l] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations Since 1776 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) 739.
[li] Gregory Daddis, Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 67–68.
[lii] Record, Beating Goliath, xi, 22, 132.
[liii] Raymond G. O’Connor, “Victory in Modern War,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 6, No. 4 (1969), 382.
[liv] Black, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency, chapters 5, 7.
[lv] Galula, Pacification in Algeria, 244.
[lvi] Ibid., 168.