British Counterinsurgency: Returning Discriminate Coercion to COIN

British Counterinsurgency: Returning Discriminate Coercion to COIN

Zachary L. Morris

On 26 October 2014 British troops withdrew from Camp Bastion Afghanistan, ending a costly and ineffective counterinsurgency campaign.[i] Britain’s withdrawal and failure in Helmand province highlights many of the modern misperceptions about British counterinsurgency theory and practice. While much of the world perceived Great Britain as expert in population centric counterinsurgency, a new pervasive view has begun to examine the actual doctrine and practice of Britain illustrating a complex, controversial, and varied performance. 

British counterinsurgency doctrine evolved gradually over centuries of colonial warfare and low intensity conflict. Modern British doctrine, while espousing many successful principles, neglects some critical lessons from actual British practice. British counterinsurgencies demonstrate significant differences between doctrine and practice, and routine challenges when Britain combats insurgencies involving external support and insurgent popular support. Modern counterinsurgents should learn from British theory and practice by employing the theory while remembering the practice of legal, discriminate, and targeted use of coercion to defeat insurgents and control a population. This paper first examines the evolution of coercion in British written doctrine in three periods: colonial, post-world war, and modern. The second section examines differences between British use of coercion in doctrine and practice. The third section assesses some external factors impacting British ability to apply coercion including international support and popular support. Finally, this paper examines the requirement to relearn the principle of legal, discriminate, and targeted coercion that British doctrine failed to emphasize in modern counterinsurgency.

British counterinsurgency doctrine evolved gradually from coercive methods to gentler persuasive means while incrementally separating doctrine from practice. During the colonial period, Britain successfully integrated politics, social incentives, coercion, and repression to convince rebels to accept British rule. Major General Sir Charles Callwell and Major General Sir Charles Gwynn exemplify British doctrine during the colonial period. In 1906, Callwell’s third edition of Small Wars espoused the principles of political primacy, self reliance, intelligence, population control, and heavy use of coercion through collective punishment.[ii] Gwynn defined four key principles including: civil primacy over military effort, use of minimum force, requirement for firm and timely responses, and coordination between civil and military effort.[iii] This period most successfully integrated British doctrine and actual practice, recognizing the need for some coercive measures to both counter rebels, and control a population during conflict. Great Britain effectively controlled a global empire using targeted and specific application of force appropriate to the local circumstances.  

British doctrine following the World Wars failed to understand the new global environment, which required a more nuanced approach of discriminate coercion to defeat rebels and control resistive populations. The British conducted multiple failed campaigns including in: Ireland, Palestine, Cyprus, and Aden.[iv] These conflicts highlight the decline of British counterinsurgency principles as Britain misapplied doctrine and relied heavily on indiscriminate and uncontrolled brutality. Sir Gerald Templer, in Malaya, developed the best theory in this period. Templer’s efforts in Malaya developed and expanded the British principles of: balanced civil-police-military effort, unified conflict management, greater emphasis on intelligence and special branch work, protecting the populace and breaking links to the insurgents, and greater stress on outbidding insurgents for popular support.[v] Though Templer’s theory is sound, he routinely failed to highlight the degree or importance discriminate and targeted coercion played in the Malayan Emergency. Though the British did redevelop sound counterinsurgency principles in Malaya, the United Kingdom routinely failed during this post war period due to over reliance on brutality, lack of adequate intelligence functions, and external conditions.[vi] In multiple campaigns, the inadequacies of the British intelligence and police apparatus resulted in indiscriminate and ineffective brutal coercive campaigns alienating the local and external population. Further, significant external factors such as limited popular support, lack of international support, and environments permitting the unrestricted use of force could explain much of the British success during this period.[vii]       

Modern British counterinsurgency principles, based on the British experience in Malaya, largely ignore the role or importance of legal, targeted, and discriminate coercive means to defeat insurgents and control populations. These principles generally reflect a greater focus on population centric and gentler, or persuasive rather than coercive, counterinsurgency. In December 2010, the United Kingdom Counterinsurgency Centre identified the modern British principles as: civilian controlled operations with a unified political strategy, established and synchronized command and control system, police primacy over military actions, primacy of intelligence, population security, isolation of insurgents, providing governance and gaining popular support, criticality of psychological warfare, and use of host nation forces or population to counter the insurgents.[viii] While British forces using these principles succeeded in Northern Ireland, Britain’s counterinsurgency failed in Afghanistan. Future British use of these principles, without any significant discriminate coercion, denies Britain the ability to adequately gather intelligence, control the target population, or isolate insurgents. Without some degree of coercion, Britain cannot complete these three fundamental tasks in a complex counterinsurgency environment.  

Fundamental differences exist between British counterinsurgency theory and practice. Since the post-World War period, these differences existed as Britain struggled to correctly apply a nuanced approach of discriminate and targeted coercion to defeat insurgents and control populations. Britain reacted to public pressure and failure by removing much of the legal and targeted coercive measures from doctrine while forgetting critical lessons. Examining British practice illustrates the failure of indiscriminate brutality and struggle to achieve a suitable and discriminate level of coercion. During Great Britain’s colonial period much of the counterinsurgency campaigns relied on repression, or ‘butcher and bolt’ campaigns espoused by General Callwell.[ix] One example is the Tirah campaign in the North-West Frontier, now part of the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan, in 1897-1898.[x]  During this campaign General Lockhart seized Tirah to announce the British position, collectively punish the enemy, and coerce the rebels into submission.[xi] Similar tactics were employed with varying degrees of brutality throughout the rest of the British campaigns. Britain relied heavily on collective punishment in Malaya, which included pervasive population resettlement and strict food control.[xii] Lower level brutality and physical coercion also defined British counterinsurgency. In Kenya, British torture of suspected insurgents became institutionalized within detention camps as a codified system of violence.[xiii] While this is noted as extreme in Kenya, coercion also occurred in the other campaigns conducted by the British in this period. In most campaigns, Britain employed excessive indiscriminate coercion. However, the British learned the wrong lesson and instead removed the practice of legal and discriminate coercion from their counterinsurgency doctrine. The correct practice of targeted coercive means integrated into a political and social framework allowed Great Britain to effectively counter rebels and control large populations during most of the nation’s history.    

Britain justified many of these coercive policies through the extensive modification of the rule of law. The practice of modifying the rule of law, through emergency regulations, fundamentally allowed the British to exercise discriminate coercive policies legally. However, in many cases the degree to which Britain authorized widespread brutality is morally questionable. Malaya serves as one of the best examples, though still a little extreme, of the use of emergency regulations and targeted coercion that modern doctrine should emulate. In Malaya, the British imposed a 149 page emergency regulation permitting actions such as: detention without trial, right to search and arrest without a warrant, curfews, imprisonment for up to ten years for possessing insurgent documents, right to shoot on sight in specified areas, population resettlement, food control, detention of suspected persons, and deportation.[xiv] The emergency regulations in Malaya demonstrate the reliance on legal discriminate coercion necessary for successful targeting of insurgents and control of a population. Modern counterinsurgents should look to the lessons of Malaya and employ a slightly more nuanced and benign form of legal coercive measures to separate insurgents from the population, target insurgents, and control populations. Without measures such as these it is difficult to see how a modern campaign can succeed.

Great Britain is strikingly unsuccessful against insurgencies which have international support or broad based appeal. Britain routinely failed to understand how these external factors shape the environment and require modification in the application of coercion. These factors often require an even more nuanced, discriminate, and benign approach to coercion to maintain political support and control. Post WWII, insurgencies regularly receive international support and this support is the most influential external factor affecting British success or failure. Starting with the American Revolution through Afghanistan in 2014, British efforts routinely fail to account for the international support dimension of counterinsurgency. In Palestine, American perception of and support for the Jewish population following WWII significantly curbed British efforts.[xv] However, the British continued to employ heavy handed and indiscriminate coercion by declaring martial law, from 2-17 March 1947, in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as a form of collective punishment.[xvi] This indiscriminate and heavy coercion alienated much of the local population, upset the U.S., and created political challenges in Britain. The British should have recognized the international character of the conflict and modified coercion to enforce measures protecting the populace and isolating insurgents. Further, Britain often succeeded against insurgencies without international support because Britain could apply less nuanced and more coercive means. The Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya failed to receive any external political or material support.[xvii] Lack of international attention facilitated the British use of torture and extreme brutality to suppress the insurgency. Contrasts in support demonstrate one of the critical limits to current British counterinsurgency doctrine and difficulties inherent in applying nuanced coercive measures.   

Limited popular support is another critical external factor because limited support allows easier application of discriminate coercive means since the enemy population is generally small, and often geographically or ethnically distinct. While wide spread popular support does not define the defeat of British counterinsurgency efforts, limited enemy popular support is generally an attribute of most successful British campaigns. In Kenya the majority of insurgents originated from the poor and landless population of the Kikuyu ethnic group in the Central Province.[xviii] Limited insurgent appeal to a distinct ethnic population facilitated British targeting of insurgents, and allowed successful actions to divide and conquer the resistance. Further, in Malaya, the insurgency only appealed to the poor and disenfranchised portion of the ethnic Chinese minority.[xix] These limitations in insurgent popular appeal and base of support restricted insurgent strength and resources, aided British intelligence and targeting efforts, and overall made each counterinsurgency effort significantly easier than a popular wide spread conflict. 

While much of the British experience is unique and difficult to draw applicable lessons from for modern counterinsurgency, there are some significant lessons current counterinsurgents can learn from. The critical lesson for modern counterinsurgents lies in revising the notion that the key to British success was a kinder and gentler form of war.[xx] Coercion always formed the basis for British counterinsurgency.[xxi] The British use of minimum force was simply the level of force at which maximum force became impracticable, often due to external circumstances.[xxii] Modern counterinsurgency must learn that persuasion alone in unlikely to succeed. Government forces must relearn that ‘carrots’ rarely work effectively unless there is also a ‘stick’. Some degree of nuanced coercion and persuasive means are needed to successful control a population during an insurgency.[xxiii] Coercion does not mean that violating the Geneva Convention, law of war, or human rights are acceptable. However, properly structured coercive measures inside an expanded rule of law, such as emergency regulations, are required for future success in counterinsurgency. Coercion should focus on controlling, protecting, and gaining accurate intelligence from the population to apply force against insurgents. Future counterinsurgents require kinetic and coercive tools to combat insurgents in the highly dynamic environments of the future. Coercive methods need to combine with some form of emergency regulations similar to, but not as harsh as, the emergency regulations enacted in Malaya. Success requires tools such as population control, curfews, restrictions on movement, food control, and the ability to detain insurgents legally. Without some degree of coercive power to control the population, it is unlikely that a future counterinsurgent can succeed against a modern insurgency.  

In conclusion, analysis of British counterinsurgency theory and practice reveals that modern counterinsurgents should employ the doctrine while remembering the nuanced practice of legal, discriminate, and targeted use of coercion to defeat insurgents and control populations. British doctrine evolved gradually from coercive methods to gentler persuasive means because of struggles applying coercion in highly complex environments. Failures, and the changing environment, caused Britain to forget the requirement for legal, discriminate, targeted, and nuanced application of coercion. Modern counterinsurgents must learn from the British experience involving external factors affecting the use of coercion. Internal and external support for insurgencies impact greatly on the appropriate means, or levels of force, a counterinsurgent should apply. An adjustable spectrum of legal coercive means tailorable to a local or current situation is the future of successful doctrine. Continuing to ignore the fact that successful British counterinsurgency is always rooted in some degree of coercion denies modern efforts the ability to successfully fight and win conflicts. Counterinsurgents require some increased degree of legal and discriminate coercion to defeat insurgents and control a population in the highly dynamic and fluid environments of the future.

End Notes

[i] Rajeev Syal, “UK Troops Hand Over Camp Bastion to Afghan Forces, Ending 13-year Campaign,” The Guardian (26OCT2014); available from <>. Accessed 21MAR2016.

[ii] Daniel Whittingham, “’Savage Warfare’: C.E. Callwell, the Roots of Counterinsurgency, and the Nineteenth Century Context,” Small Wars and Insurgencies, vol. 23, No. 4-5 (October-December 2012): 599-600. 

[iii] Bruce Hoffman, Classic Theories of Counter-Insurgency (COIN), 31 JAN 2016, Slide 13.

[iv] U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Center. Conference Report, RUSI COIN Conference, London, 8-9 December 2010 (Fort Leavenworth, KS: 24 January 2011), 3.

[v] Robert Komer, The Malayan Emergency in Retrospect: Organization of a Successful Counterinsurgency Effort (California: RAND, 1972), 87.

[vi] David Cesarani, “The War on Terror that Failed: British Counter-Insurgency in Palestine 1945-1947 and the ‘Farran Affair’,” Small Wars and Insurgencies, vol. 23, No. 4-5 (October-December 2012): 663.

[vii] Simon Robbins, “The British Counter-Insurgency in Cyprus,” Small Wars and Insurgencies, vol. 23, No. 4-5 (October-December 2012): 735.

[viii] U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Center, Conference Report, RUSI COIN Conference, 3.

[ix] Whittingham, “Savage Warfare,” 594.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Komer, “The Malayan Emergency,” 53.

[xiii] David M. Anderson, “British Abuse and Torture in Kenya’s Counter-Insurgency, 1952-1960,” Small Wars and Insurgencies, vol. 23, No. 4-5 (October-December 2012): 701.

[xiv] Komer, “The Malayan Emergency,” 35.

[xv] Cesarani, “The War on Terror,” 663.

[xvi] Bruce Hoffman, The Failure of British Military Strategy in Palestine, 1939-1947 (Israel: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1983), 29.

[xvii] Thomas Gale, “Mau Mau,” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (2008); available from <>. Accessed 21MAR2016.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Komer, “The Malayan Emergency,” 78.

[xx] David French, “Nasty Not Nice: British Counter-Insurgency Doctrine and Practice, 1945-1967,” Small Wars and Insurgencies, vol. 23, No. 4-5 (October-December 2012): 745.

[xxi] Ibid., 757.

[xxii] Matthew Hughes, “Introduction: British Ways of Counter-Insurgency,” Small Wars and Insurgencies, vol. 23, No. 4-5 (October-December 2012): 584.

[xxiii] Karl Hack, “Everyone Lived in Fear: Malaya and the British Way of Counter-Insurgency,” Small Wars and Insurgencies, vol. 23, No. 4-5 (October-December 2012): 676.


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