Counterinsurgency: Fighting Back

The Basics

For an accurate definition of counterinsurgency (and the flipside, insurgency), we can look to one of the definitive texts on the topic.

In Counterinsurgency, David Kilcullen writes:

An insurgency, according to the current US military field manual on the subject is ‘an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict…Stated another way, an insurgency is an organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power or other political authority while increasing insurgent control.’ The same field manual defines counterinsurgency as the ‘military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency.’ Counterinsurgency therefore is an umbrella term that describes the complete range of measures that governments take to defeat insurgencies…there is no template, no single set of techniques for countering insurgencies. Counterinsurgency is simply whatever governments do to defeat rebellions.

In essence, counterinsurgency involves the attempts governments make to restore peace. The aim is to minimize civilian deaths while strengthening the influence of governments.

No rulebook or particular strategy exists-counterinsurgent forces combine psychological, military, economic and political techniques. In the end, counterinsurgents try to create stability in the least harmful way possible, allowing a country to return to normal functioning.

How Counterinsurgency Works

Counterinsurgency is complex and delicate, full of metaphorical minefields.

Combat can be viewed as a sped up evolutionary process, wherein both sides adapt constantly in response to the behavior of the other. Each learns to defend themselves and to predict risks to their agenda.

One critical, omnipresent element is the effort to forge partnerships with civilian populations.

We often see photographs of soldiers handing out toys and sweets to children in war zones. What seems like a simple act of kindness is actually a clever military tactic. Small efforts like that compound to create trust and subsequent cooperation. The more a population sides with counterinsurgents, the less power insurgents have.

Kilcullen writes:

Insurgents cannot operate without the support…of the local population…violence against noncombatant civilians by security forces, whether intentional or accidental is almost always entirely counterproductive.

One common method is to force the population to move to a different area, making insurgents easier to identify. Civilians may be forced to carry ID and have it checked at regular intervals. Food supplies for insurgents can be cut off, such as through the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam to kill crops.

In Counterinsurgency Warfare, David Galula expands upon this key component of counterinsurgent efforts:

The population represents this new ground. If the insurgent manages to dissociate the population from the counterinsurgent…he will win the war…Thus the battle for the population is a major characteristic of the revolutionary war.

Other theorists have explained that the objective is to gain support, not terrain. Another typical technique is the restoration of as much stability as possible to reduce the power of insurgents.

Galula writes:

Prompting disorder is a legitimate objective for the insurgent. It helps disrupt the economy, hence to produce discontent; it serves to undermine the strength and the authority of the counterinsurgent. Moreover, disorder- the normal state of nature- is cheap to create and very costly to prevent.

Populations of people tend towards entropy without coherent political, economic, social and educational structures. Insurgents aim to disrupt these, while counterinsurgents aim to rebuild them.

Looking at conflicts he has experienced, Galula considers the perspectives of both sides. Despite the liquid nature of counterinsurgency, he outlines the key principles. Firstly, the goal is to gain support rather than control. Once a population supports its governing bodies, conflict becomes unlikely. Even an uncooperative population must be kept safe while mutual trust builds. Galula advocates starting in one location and spreading out, using it as a safe base until the surrounding areas can be controlled. This is known as the ‘oil spot’ strategy. He sums up his attitude thus: “Build (or rebuild) a political machine from the population upwards.”

Counterinsurgency techniques tend to be formed through trial and error, based on our understanding of a particular location and feedback loops. As David Morris, a former Marine, put it: “In order to learn a lesson, you had to lose somebody.”

According to Dr. Lorenzo Zambernardi, counterinsurgency involves three main goals:

1. The protection of counterinsurgent forces. A classic rule for firefighters states that the safety of the rescuer is always more important than that of the person being rescued. The same applied to counterinsurgents.
2. The formation of a separation between insurgents and non-combative civilians. Counterinsurgents must create a physical or mental barrier. Sometimes this is done by moving noncombatants to a different location or providing them with ID cards. Separation can also be psychological – teaching people that they should not side with insurgents and are not part of the conflict. Understanding of the ‘human terrain’ is required
3. The destruction or conversion of insurgents. This might involve undermining power structures, cutting off resources or strategic assassinations.

The Origin of Counterinsurgency: Santa Cruz de Marcenado

We can trace the roots of counterinsurgency back to the 18th century when Santa Cruz de Marcenado wrote of the concept in Reflexiones Militaires.

Santa Cruz wrote that a leader must win the trust of a population, rather than battering them into submission with physical force- a somewhat modern attitude for the early 1700s.

Recognizing that rebellion is a risky endeavor, he cautioned leaders to realize that people do not revolt without strong logic.

Santa Cruz’s writing was based on his own experiences during the war of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714.) The conflict occurred both within Spain and with rival nations. He would ultimately lose his life in a Spanish colonial war.

Santa Cruz’s principles, outlined in the text, are still relevant today. He encouraged leaders to take preventative measures against insurgencies, namely the fair treatment of all. People must be respected and allowed to continue their traditions and cultural practices wherever possible. Counterinsurgent forces must behave according to strict protocol, with punishments for anyone who express cruelty. However, Santa Cruz did still advocate cutting off food supplies to a population and using intense military force to end insurgencies in the shortest time possible.

The Impact of Frank Kitson on Counterinsurgency

The works of Frank Kitson have foundational importance in counterinsurgent doctrine. Kitson is a controversial figure, due to his role in assassinations and the Bloody Sunday massacre during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. He was not adverse to discarding legal and ethical considerations for the sake of his goals as a leader.

Expanding upon the ancient writings of Sun Tzu, he advocated mirroring insurgent behavior in order to understand them. Kitson also made use of spies within insurgent groups to garner information. His strategies created uncertainty and confusion amongst rival power structures, as well as destabilizing their public image.

One soldier summed up the tactics used under Kitson’s guidance: “We were not there to act like an Army unit, we were there to act like a terror group.” His theories stress the importance of the media in counterinsurgency.

Kitson’s theories formed the basis of the way the British counterinsurgents handled the Northern Irish conflict. A counterinsurgent group (the MRF) targeted the insurgents (the IRA) by essentially using enhanced versions of their own tactics against them. Many of their strategies were morally repugnant.

Civilians were killed to show the population that the IRA could not protect them. Innocent people were shot at random to create further unrest.

As this illustrates, counterinsurgency is a complex, delicate technique which often leads to moral dilemmas. It is undeniable that Kitson’s strategies led to many innocent deaths. However, the risk was high at the time of unrest spreading to the rest of the UK, with the potential for huge numbers of casualties. Counterinsurgents in Northern Ireland aimed to quell this risk as soon as possible before the situation worsened. Kitson saw the transgression of legal boundaries as necessary during counterinsurgency.

There are always going to be controversies surrounding counterinsurgency. In part, this is due to the confused relationship between cause and effect during the conflict.

No one can quite say what lead to or ended a period of unrest. Consequently, the efficacy of counterinsurgency is difficult to gauge. Individuals such as Kitson often come under fire, as the public seeks to blame someone for the loss of lives. Removed from the situation, we cannot expect to understand counterinsurgent motivations. We also cannot know what the consequences of acting differently (or not at all) would have been.

Examples Of Counterinsurgency in Action- Malaya

Between 1948 and 1960, an insurgency broke out in Malaya. The causes brewed for a while- British taxes lead to a rise in poverty and tension between Malays and Chinese people working in traditional industries. Japanese occupation during the Second World War further complicated matters, forcing Malays to focus on subsistence farming (rather than exporting goods.) By the time the Japanese withdrew, severe famine-wracked the country and the economy was at its historic worst. Protests broke out from 1946 onwards as a result.

The British were motivated to protect Malaya, due to the tin and rubber industries. As occurs all too often, the British administration attempted to counteract protests with violence which only worsened the tension. Eventually, a critical mass of rebellious people formed.

The tipping point occurred in June 1948, when insurgents killed 3 European plantation managers. British counterinsurgents were brought in to undermine Malayan Communist and left-wing groups. Once again, this further aggravated insurgents who clustered in rural areas to plan attacks on mines and plantations.

The British counterinsurgents attempted gentler measures, offering money to insurgents who agreed to surrender. Even so, over 4000 insurgents refused to disband and went into hiding. Echoing Santa Cruz’s statement that people only rebel for a good reason, Chinese people in Malaya were treated as second class citizens and denied rights. Supporters (mostly Chinese immigrants) assisted them and many joined the insurgents, who organized themselves into ranks, with their own media, education and supply chains. Even so, they were never able to establish any real control over the nation due to British counterinsurgency. This consisted of a number of strategies. Locations which were probable targets received protection, food supplies were cut off and civilians were encouraged not to join the uprising. Large numbers of people relocated to newly built, guarded camps.

Over several years, counterinsurgents restored order by degrees. This conflict illustrates Galula’s point – disorder is easy to create and difficult to resolve. It took 40,000 counterinsurgents to defeat 8000 insurgents. It is believed that the most effective strategies used in Malaya were:

  • Minimizing the deaths of noncombatant civilians and counterinsurgents.
  • Building support from the population of Malaya, making them less likely to join the uprising.
  • Enforcing an understanding that the insurgents were a risk to everyone.
  • Creating organised political strategies and undermining those of insurgents.
  • Reducing the incentives to rebel by providing Chinese citizens with fairer rights.
  • Offering enticing sums of money to those who provided useful information and supported counterinsurgent efforts to locate insurgents.
  • Giving insurgents the opportunity to surrender, without the risk of punishment. Although few actually opted for this, it created a sense of the government as trustworthy.

The Issues With Counterinsurgency

Counterinsurgency is never perfect and mistakes are always made. There are a number of key issues:

  • Counterinsurgent efforts usually attempt to enforce Western attitudes and values. Most nations have a clear, although not always accurate, sense of their own equilibrium. Ignoring the importance of cultural relativism, counterinsurgents force round pegs into square holes. We think that our own way is the best, but who can decide what is best for a different country? Who says that modernization is the preferable route?
  • Counterinsurgency is costly in terms of both human life and resources. In order to kill insurgents, civilian lives must be risked, while protecting civilians means more counterinsurgent casualties. Insurgents are often decentralised and spread out over large areas, meaning they have the advantage of surprise attack.
  • Counterinsurgency is often ineffective. The solution for unrest is usually political changes, not military intervention. Combat alone cannot solve fundamental instability. There is also a lack of clear information as to the long term results. In some cases, it can backfire and worsen a situation.
  • Counterinsurgency often lacks a clear end goal, or objectives may differ. The concepts of ‘peace’ and ‘stability’ are objective.

Counterinsurgency is part of the Farnam Street Latticework of Mental Models.