Small Wars Journal

Reflections on the Counter-Insurgency Era

Reflections on the Counter-Insurgency Era - General David Petraeus, RUSI Journal.

Abstract: This June, General David H Petraeus (Rtd) became the 35th recipient of the RUSI Chesney Gold Medal, awarded by the Institute to mark both his role in devising and implementing the US counter-insurgency doctrine that was used to such great effect in the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his distinguished lifetime service and contribution to international defence and security. In his acceptance speech – an edited version of which is presented here – General Petraeus reflects on the ‘Counter-Insurgency Era’ of the past decade and draws lessons for the future.

Read on.


People interested in the study of societies point how eastern societies often accept a cyclical view of life (don't worry, a chance missed will come around again) while western societies primarily adopt a linear concept of life (an opportunity past will not return). It is interesting how "eastern" counterinsurgency is, i.e. how often the same issues come around again and again. I recently gathered my thoughts and those of some other on-the-ground counterinsurgency advisors from Vietnam and asked for their reflections and "lessons learned." I think those lessons, if paid attention to, would save a lot of wasted resource including American lives. If you will forgive an advertisement, those thoughts have been recently released in a book the readers of this blog might find interesting. It is War of a Kind:Reflections on Counterinsurgency and Those who do it by David Donovan. It was recently released by PubGreen as an ebook on all major ebook stores. Take a look, if you're interested.
David Donovan

Insurgency and counterinsurgency today are often viewed within the context of a challenge -- not to states -- but to the current world order.

Herein one sees, for example, Al Qaeda, a non-state actor, challenging the hegemon (the United States), whose political, economic, military, and cultural power maintains that world order.

Thus in such countries as Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Libya and Mali, Al Qaeda challenges the United States -- and the world order it maintains -- indirectly, through its (the USA's) perceived partner governments?

Accordingly, the conflicts occurring within the "counter-insurgency era" (or the so-called "era of persistent conflict") to be seen -- not in such terms as "domestic struggles for power and influence," etc. -- but as challenges to the United States in its hegemonic governing role.

This requiring the United States to bolster the capabilities of its partner governments (see nation-building; building partner capacity) so as to meet and overcome these challenges.

Thus, not insurgency and counter-insurgency on the small-scale state level, but insurgency and counter-insurgency writ large, to wit: on a global scale and as relates to the governing capability (or lack thereof) of the current governing hegemon (the United States); whose credibility, capability, capacity, commitment and legitimacy in this relatively new role is now being tested.

Petraeus and Nagl possibly seeing things in this light?

Bill C.

Tue, 08/20/2013 - 10:17am

In reply to by Bill M.

For Bill M:

If we view the current counterinsurgency era from a post-Cold War perspective; thus, as relates to challenges to the current world order (that the United States created) and challenges to the United States (in its role as the leader/governor of this world order),

Then might this place insurgency/counter-insurgency in something of a new strategic context and suggest that our national interests today might need to be viewed somewhat differently than in the past?

For RCJ:

If the nature of the conflict is as I describe it here (to wit: as a challenge by Al Qaeda -- and others -- to the current world order and challenges to the United States in its role as global leader/global governor),

Then does your theory as to how insurgencies should be viewed, and how they should be handled, extend to this understanding of insurgency/counter-insurgency writ large, and to the new "era of insurgency" to which this understanding relates?

Thus, should the United States, in its role as hegemon/global governor, view and handle insurgencies in much the same way that you suggest individual states should view and handle insurgencies within their own, much smaller areas of authority, responsibility and jurisdiction?

Bill M.

Tue, 08/20/2013 - 4:29am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I have to admit I found this article very disappointed and I'm still wondering about what success he is referring to? Perhaps the temporary suppression of the violence? Unfortunately the excessive hype of the so called "age of insurgency," which wouldn't stand up to a historical examination, now seems to be nothing more than a cottage industry of self promoters and war profiteers.

What was it he wrote? Despite the pundits counterinsurgencies will continue? Is that supposed to be news flash? They have occurred for decades, but he failed to make a point on why we will need to get involved by tying these numerous insurgencies to our national interests, he failed to differentiate between COIN and FID, he failed to identify Iraq and Afghanistan as occupation operations and stability operations, and he failed to place these insurgencies in an overall strategic context. Sadly this was little more than self promotion which surprises me from a General who did provide much needed leadership in Iraq.

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 08/19/2013 - 11:32am

In reply to by Gian P Gentile

I concur with Gian.

I will only add that I found this perfect summation to be in equal parts unsurprising in content and disappointing in nature. Yes, we remain in an "age of insurgency," but we are yet to come to grips with a fundamental understanding of the true nature of such conflicts - or how to steer them effectively toward some form of naturally stable conclusion.

Gian P Gentile

Mon, 08/19/2013 - 11:03am

In this article General Petraeus provides a perfect summation of the counterinsurgency narrative.