Small Wars Journal

Review: The Insurgent Archipelago

One of my pet peeves is that British Army Review is not published electronically. Dr. David Betz sums it up nicely -- why??!!. That said, David does us a service by publishing a BAR book review in full at Kings of War. See Review: The Insurgent Archipelago at KOW.

If you're a British Army Review reader you may have seen this review of John Mackinlay's The Insurgent Archipelago already. However, as the BAR is not published electronically (why??!!) I'm posting it here on KOW for those of you who don't receive a hard copy.

First, go buy the book.

Now read why.

John Mackinlay has been thinking about insurgency and counterinsurgency in one way or another for the better part of a lifetime, from 1964 when he first reported for duty in Borneo as a junior officer in the 6th Gurkha Rifles, and then after a twenty-year military career as a research academic during which time he has written many highly regarded scholarly articles and monographs on the subject. This book, The Insurgent Archipelago, is the product of those many years of observation and thought. It is an important book because unusually for the insurgency and counterinsurgency literature which, as I shall describe below, is relatively slow-moving, and repetitive (even static), it has something new to say. It is a timely book because eight years into the inaptly named 'Global War on Terror', about which Mackinlay says insightful and needful things, with the cost in blood and treasure of the two major expeditionary campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan far exceeding the hopes and expectations of those who launched them, and with meaningful success still elusive, it is past time for a strategic rethink. This elegantly written book, without jargon and largely unburdened by academic hokum, provides an essential guide to the 'when the rubber hits the road' issues of global insurgency, what it is, how to understand it, and, possibly, how to deal with it...

Much more at KOW.


Bob's World

Wed, 03/03/2010 - 12:58am

Waiting for the good people at Amazon to sort out my APO AE address...


Simplified, it's the addition of modern information effects and external populations to the equation.

Buy this book and you will understand.

Traditional COIN equation: (Maoist)

Insurgents + Population > Government + SecFor

Mackinlay: (Post or Neo Mao)

Ins + Population (local, national, ethnic, regional, external) > Host govt, ext supporters, security forces (internal and external)

Read the book. You won't regret it.

Can someone please explain or reference a book on the distinction between Mao's protracted warfare and Post Mao insurgencies? I'm confused although it's probably b/c my state is first in flight and 42nd in education :).



Ken White (not verified)

Mon, 03/01/2010 - 9:41pm


John Nagl, in a jacket blurb on the book says:<blockquote>(the) "work shows us how to disaggregate the insurgent archipelago and defeat it in detail..."</blockquote>Dr. Nagl's copy and mine differ -- mine definitely does not do either of those things.

Frankly, I didn't expect it to do so. Predictions are hard, especially about the future...

Plus the world political milieu is too diverse to produce a one size fits all response plan. As Mackinlay illustrates, the US, UK and Europe are so very different that getting those three entities to pull together even briefly is problematic.

What the book does do very well is use hindsight to tell us how we got where we are. It does not really offer any prescriptions for the future other than a couple of thoughts addressed by me below. His rendition of the flaws in politics, politicians and the US and British (among other) Armed Forces in the 1980-2000 period is I think quite accurate.

The failure is not damning as he explains but the effort certainly could have been improved upon...

He contends that the post Mao Insurgents do not have a Center of Gravity. Since (forgive me, Wilf) I'm not a dedicated Clauswitzian, I've never really believe in the fabled COG anyway. The enemy has nodes -- even post Mao Insurgents have nodes -- you just attack or bypass the nodes as appropriate. Wasting time trying to ascertain and then correctly attack or upset a COG which may or may nor exist (usually not) is most often pointless.

His future prescriptions are I believe correct: Realize that such Insurgencies are political violence and not really a form of warfare; avoid expeditionary efforts to contain it (in part because the West is not going to be ruthless enough to do it well); get the governmental machinery modified to cope with it.

Anyone that points out that so called COIN efforts are almost never a sensible effort and rarely achieve many of their ostensible goals is okay in my book. His was a good book for what it does. It is no more <u>the</u> answer than are books by Uncle Carl, John Boyd (who, perhaps wisely, wrote no book...) or Sun Wu. Like them, it is a decent contribution to the collective knowledge.


Fri, 02/26/2010 - 5:04pm

Very well, Niel, Ken and Gian (and eventually Omar when he finishes the book), but what was in the book that you found not quite right?

I still have some quibbles.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Fri, 02/26/2010 - 7:51am


Agree, I am getting ready to start a second close read of it.

Although as I read the book it has very different implications in terms of force structure and policy for Britain and the United States.

Building on Mackinlay's excellent book I think is to devise a correct American military force structure, strategy, and policy to counter this global insurgency. And expeditionary, population centric Coin, along with its dogmatic principles, is not the way to do it. That at least is how I view things.


Niel Smith (not verified)

Fri, 02/26/2010 - 2:25am

Add me as another fan. Best COIN theory book published in the last 30 years, IMO. Still digesting the first two sections. Must read for those interested in why classic COIN doctrines aren't as successful as they once were.


Mon, 02/22/2010 - 11:44pm

Cross posting from KOW, my 2 comments on this review:
I have a semi-digested theory that all of this is crucial to the insurgent and counter-insurgent, but to a distant observer it can seem that the most crucial element is "historical necessity". There are broader trends in human history that play out THROUGH insurgency and counter-insurgency. Tactical successes and failure may determine how a particular group does (whether insurgent group X or counter-insurgent army Y "succeed") in the immediate term, but neither can buck the broader historical trend for too long. IF the counter-insurgent army has adopted overall aims that are contrary to the "zeitgeist", then the best tactics will only go so far (and the same for the insurgents). For example, I think the current pakistani taliban insurgency is led by young cadres of "true jihadis", whose vision of the world is out of touch with the broader trends in modern human society. Knowing this, I suspect they will fail even though the army arrayed against them is not the most competent, etc.
On the other hand, anti-colonialism (the notion that every society should be ruled by its own people) is a modern trend that is very well established and IF the Afghan taliban have that as their aim, they get a huge boost, even if their tactics and day to day decisions are not the best. In turn, that means that it is very important for ISAF to be NOT an occupying force, even if that means sacrificing some efficiencies. And so on...
Or, to a different example, I would suggest that in terms of planning and intelligent analysis of tactics and counter-tactics, the Israeli "counter-insurgent" effort is likely much more sophisticated and capable than the "insurgent" effort of the Palestinians, but its the Israelis who are trying to buck the historical trend (in this case, the trend that "civilized" modern countries do not like to see themselves as oppressors of alien nationalities and other civilized people dont like to see them doing that) and while they can delay the inevitable, they will have to concede to the "insurgents" at some point.
Does that make any kind of sense?
I was not trying to pass judgment on WHY trends are what they are. Its "turtles all the way"... every turtle is standing on some other turtle. My point was that its still possible to see that some things are more in line with broader historical trends and some are sharply contrary to them. Taking advantage of a rising trend is an easier job, going against the spirit of the age makes an already difficult job almost impossible... .
On a smaller time scale, contingency and chance and the best laid plans of mice and men can mean the difference between victory and defeat... But it sometimes seems to me that even then, the really ironic thing is that if anti-colonialism is the flavor of the age, then the victorious colonist may end up finishing the colonial operation off anyway. e.g. didnt victorious Maoists become capitalist? and the United States "lost Vietnam" and Vietnam is now as capitalist as China?

Ken White (not verified)

Mon, 02/22/2010 - 6:08pm

Since Carl and Gian both said so, I bought it -- they're right. Very valuable book.

Confirms my long held suspicion about the evil, nefarious and pernicious influence of the 'Peace'lobby and allies -- among other things. Yes, I know that's doubly redundant. Deservedly so.

The book also brilliantly exposes the error of writing doctrine based on recent and popular as opposed to accumulated and properly analyzed history. Gian will likely agree...

Robert C. Jones needs to read it... ;)

gian p gentile (not verified)

Wed, 02/17/2010 - 10:17am

Ditto to Carl Prine's post and I also offer a strong endorsement for Dr Betz's review. The book is superb.



Wed, 02/10/2010 - 2:15pm

Professor Betz is right. The book is worth the pricetag.

Bill (not verified)

Thu, 03/04/2010 - 1:26pm

For those of us waiting to receive and read the book, we might wish to review MacKinlay's very early article (Oct 2001) in the Guardian entitled "Tackling bin Laden -- Lessons From History."

Herein, he noted that "the insurgents support and energy springs from a community that is somehow disadvantaged or excluded and as a result harboured an unbearable grievance."

MacKinlay also suggests how, at the national level, the Muslim community is so uniquely disadvantaged and excluded (to wit: it is not a member of the society of free nations?) and how this is achieved:

"... they see corrupt and undemocratic Muslim governments kept in power by American support and the constant spectical of the Israeli war machine crushing the Palestinians in their own homeland."

Is this (a unique and uncharacteristic lack of freedom) an example of the classic "unbearable grievance" and the classic "disadvantage and exclusion" which has inspired and fueled rebellions and insurgencies, from the very earliest of times, and still today?