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Does counterinsurgency work?

Published on 08 December 2014
Updated on 06 March 2023

Since ISIS has crashed onto the Middle East scene, counterinsurgency (COIN) has received a new lease on life. Pundits have opined on how best to defeat this novel insurgency. Being ignorant of the matter, I have looked into the book by David KILCULLEN,[1] who is considered to be one of the most knowledgeable authors on this subject. Here is his definition:

“Counterinsurgency,” therefore, is an umbrella term that describes the complete range of measures that governments take to defeat insurgencies. These measures may be political, administrative, military, economic, psychological, or informational, and are almost always used in combination.

Importantly, the precise approach any particular government takes to defeat an insurgency depends very much on the character of that government, making counterinsurgency, at its heart, a form of opposed or contested governance, albeit a hideously violent one.” (p. 1)

Is the insurgent an enemy?

One is struck by the term “defeat”, which occurs twice in this quote, and recurs often in the Introductory Chapter and beyond. It reveals categorical thinking – a “them vs. us” mindset – in which one side wins, and the other is “suffocated.”[2] (p. 9) In the author’s view, insurgents will always be insurgents – there may be deceit and disguise on their part, never ambiguity or opportunism.

The only question for him is “how to neutralize insurgents?” Henceforth, the main thrust of the book is tactical. The author has a new approach: rather than the conventional “enemy-centered approach,” he proposes a “population centered approach.” (p. 9) Judging non-combatants to be either hostile or passive, the conventional model aimed at encysting the population (e.g. in strategic hamlets as in Vietnam – “drain the pond to catch the fish”); the modern and more ambitious approach the author proposes is to encyst the insurgents by assisting the population, now left in place, in actively rejecting them.[3]


Needless to say, this second approach is far more resource-, skill-, and time-intensive. More fundamentally, it synchronizes security and peace-building efforts, creating a perilous chicken-and-egg situation.[4] It smacks of counsel of perfection, a favorite mindset of the advisor.[5] From a different perspective, “security” can be focused on hot-spots; “peace-building,” however should “leave no citizen behind,” lest he resort to insurgency to get attention.[6]

Leaving the feasibility of either approach aside, KILCULLEN’s mindset excludes reconciliation: once an “enemy” always an enemy. On the other hand, if at heart of the conflict there is “contested” governance, it should be possible to move gradually to a “better peace” in which both sides come to an enduring compromise and move forward together (Northern Ireland would be a case in point). The fog of peace seamlessly replaces the fog of war – an emergent and unpredictable process.[7]

Third-party counterinsurgency

In the West, major instances of “contested governance” were called civil wars (e.g. US, Russia, Spain, and Greece); lesser ones “banditism” (Italy) or “terrorism” (Germany, Italy). The term “insurgency” originates in a colonial – or third-country – setting. After WWII, France bore the major brunt of insurgency (Indochina, Algeria), and developed corresponding doctrines.[8] It was not alone, though: the UK has significant events (Malaysia, Cyprus, Kenya, and so had the Netherlands and Portugal).

The US inaugurated “third-party counterinsurgency” – from the first covert efforts in South America to Vietnam: it intervened on behalf of a “threatened” sovereign government.[9] Since then, third-country counterinsurgency has disappeared for all practical purposes: we only have third-party counterinsurgencies.

Third-party counterinsurgencies are fraught with problems of their own:

(a) Third-party counterinsurgency is extremely resource intensive. Such resources may not be forthcoming (France in Vietnam), or may be poorly applied (Iraq, Afghanistan). What then?

(b) The third party having indicated its intention to leave, the insurgents may simply play a waiting game, hit-and-running just enough to wear it down – employing what KILCULLEN calls playing the “longevity advantage.” On the third party side, “short-termism” may skew the choice of means. In addition, the loss of face for the side which in the end is been left to fend for itself tends to be fatal (Vietnam, Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal);

(c) Intended as supportive and supplementary, a third-party intervention tends to substitute for the government effort (Vietnam, Iraq). Moral hazard ensues when the government leaves the political and material cost of the initiative to the third party, while expecting to reap the benefits;

(d) The “principal-agent problem” from economics is all over the place, and more. In the original problem, the principal has the means to incentivize the agent, so as to align the latter’s actions with the principal’s goals. In a third-party counterinsurgency, the agent, not the principal has the means; the latter thus lacks the wherewithal to coerce the agent (Iraq, Afghanistan);

(e) The third party is seldom selfless: its intervention often (mostly?) reflects larger geopolitical considerations of its own.[10] Once these overarching considerations change, the third party loses interest (Laos, Vietnam, Middle East). Whether such considerations are in fact applicable, is another matter;[11]

(f) The very presence of a third party tends to harden and transform the conflict by rising nationalistic feelings all round (Algeria,[12] Vietnam, Iraq, [13] Afghanistan);

(g) A disproportion of means between the third party and the government inevitably leads to widespread or even terminal corruption as it becomes the main source of income for elites (Afghanistan[14]);

(h) While there might be agreement over the “security” part of counterinsurgency (in itself a tall order), major divergences over “building the peace” are inevitable. What degree of reconstruction, human rights compliance and democracy should one aspire to in order to achieve a “better peace?” Third-party interventions tend to be maximalist and universalist in their aspirations;[15]

(i) “Security” and “peace building” may be at loggerheads due to the inherent ambiguity of the situation. With or without prior conversion, insurgents will have to enter the peace-making process. When do they stop being “enemies” and become “peace-builders?”

KILCULLEN remarks in this respect:

“As the counterinsurgency expert Erin Simpson has shown, the theory that democracies are less effective than autocracies in maintaining long-term counterinsurgency efforts is unsupported by the facts. Rather, the evidence she cites suggests that both democracies and autocracies do poorly when operating overseas, while both do better when operating in home territory. [16] (p. 10)

Conflating third-country and third-party counterinsurgency is not innocent, I suspect. It implies that past failures were contingent and mainly due to insufficient cultural and tactical skills, which can be remedied through a Counterinsurgency Manual as the one he has set out in the rest of the book (culture is doable – if one takes an anthropological approach). It hides the structural difficulties of third-party interventions.

KILCULLEN’s book concentrates on the means, and in doing so, suggests “doability” under all circumstances. It implies that tactics can overcome poor strategy: brave brawn is better than brain. This is a dangerous attitude to propose when “doing nothing is not an option.”


[1] David J. KILCULLEN (2010): Counterinsurgency. Oxford University Press, New York. See also: https://bit.ly/15WZ2vQ

[2] In order to visualize his thinking, on p. 8 KILCULLEN draws an “iceberg” in form of a pyramid, with the insurgents (above and below a “detection threshold”) – in black -forming the tip, and separated from the underlying levels of “sympathizers” and “population” – in white – by a dark gray block labelled “Supporting infrastructure.”

[3] The experience of the French in Algeria is indicative of the frailty of such an approach. French colonial powers succeeded in coopting local elites to do their bidding. For a period this worked. Cooperation, however, undermined the elite’s power base. See: Eric R. WOLF (1969): Peasant wars of the twentieth century. Harper, Torchbooks, New York (p. 221). The success of the “surge” in Iraq may have had more to do with opportunistic behavior of the Sunni elites than with truly “winning hearts and minds.”

[4] See e.g. Fernando GENTILINI (2013): Afghan Lessons – Culture, diplomacy, counterinsurgency. Brookings Institution, Washington DC.

[5] The author lists “28 articles” as fundamentals of company-level COIN. These are critical “do-and don’t” items on a checklist. As useful as a checklist is in routinizing conflict, it tends to mislead the combatant into believing that combat is a routine. As an example: “6. Find a political/cultural advisor” is great stuff, but what if you can’t find one?

[6] DENG Xiaoping’s dictum: “Let some get rich first” is fine, if the others have no alternative. In a counterinsurgency setting, however, changing side is the permanent alternative.

[7] The “fog of peace” may include large dollops of myth formation – face-saving devices. Interestingly, Switzerland has made extensive use of national myth-formation in order to cover-up the murky balance of interest. See Volker REINHARDT (2014): Die Geschichte der Schweiz. Von den Änfängen bis zur Gegenwart. H. C. Beck, München.

[8] David GALULA (1964): Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice: Praeger Security International, Westport, Connecticut.

[9] In some instances the US has backed military coups; occasionally, it has backed insurgents, with limited results Afghanistan after 1980).

[10] NIXON’s opening to China may have in part reflected his guess that he could in this way defuse the “domino effect.”

[11] The “domino theory” was the prime mover behind American involvement in Vietnam. Fighting “global jihad” in the deserts of Afghanistan is a more recent avatar.

[12] Colonial presence in Algeria spawned the Badissia movement in the 20s:”Arabic is my language, Algeria is my country, Islam is my religion.” Eric R. WOLF (1969): Peasant wars of the twentieth century. Harper, Torchbooks, New York (p. 228).

[13] See e.g. Mark DANNER (2003): How not to win a war. Reprinted in: Mark DANNER (2009): Stripping bare the body. Politics, violence, war. Nation Books, New York.

[14] See e.g. Anand GOPAL (2014): No good men among the living. America, the Taliban, and the war through Afghan eyes. Henry Holt, New York.

[15] The BUSH administration tried to finesse this issues by positing a spontaneous emergence of peace, one the fetters of Saddam Hussein had been removed.

[16] Erin M. Simpson, “Politics, Popular Support and the Paucity of Victory in Third-party Counterinsurgency Campaigns” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, forthcoming 2010).

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