Small Wars Journal

Two Schools of Classical Counterinsurgency

Sat, 01/27/2007 - 9:32pm
Discussion of the new Iraq strategy, and General Petraeus's recent Congressional testimony have raised the somewhat obvious point that the word "counterinsurgency" means very different things to different people. So it may be worth sketching in brief outline the two basic philosophical approaches to counterinsurgency that developed over the 20th century (a period which I have written about elsewhere as "Classical Counterinsurgency"). These two contrasting schools of thought about counterinsurgency might be labeled as "enemy-centric" and "population-centric".

The enemy-centric approach basically understands counter-insurgency as a variant of conventional warfare. It sees counterinsurgency as a contest with an organized enemy, and believes that we must defeat that enemy as our primary task. There are many variants within this approach, including "soft line" and "hard line" approaches, kinetic and non-kinetic methods of defeating the enemy, decapitation versus marginalization strategies, and so on. Many of these strategic concepts are shared with the population-centric school of counterinsurgency, but the philosophy differs. In a nut-shell, it could be summarized as "first defeat the enemy, and all else will follow".

The population-centric approach understands counter-insurgency as fundamentally a control problem, or even an armed variant of government administration. It believes that establishing control over the population, and the environment (physical, human and informational) in which that population lives, is the essential task. Again, there are many variants within this approach, including some very hard-line methods and some softer approaches, but the underlying philosophy is "first control the population, and all else will follow".

(Note that we're talking about classical counter-insurgency theory here, not modern counter-insurgency practice, so much. Also, I'm not suggesting one school is always right and the other always wrong -- both can be well-done, and both can be hopelessly counterproductive if done badly. The key to "good counterinsurgency practice" is the agile integration of civil and military measures across security, economic, political and information tracks -- and this is something that has to be done regardless of which approach you adopt, and is just as necessary in both).

Now, some people are quite committed to one or the other school of thought (Galula, for example, flatly states that the population-centric approach is always correct, and the new FM 3-24 takes a similar but less absolute stance). But my experience has been that both are applicable in varying degrees in most insurgencies, and at different times in the life of any one insurgency - since, over time, the nature of insurgencies shifts.

The real art is to "read the battle" and understand how it is developing, fast enough to adapt. Neither the enemy-centric nor the population-centric approaches are always or universally appropriate -- there is no cookie-cutter, and no substitute for situation-specific analysis informed by extremely deep local area and cultural knowledge.

As an example of the need to read the battle and adapt, I hope you will forgive a brief personal anecdote. In Timor in 1999 I worked closely with village elders in the border districts. I sat down with several of them one afternoon to discuss their perception of how the campaign was progressing, and they complained that the Australians weren't securing them in the fields and villages, that they felt unsafe because of the militia (the local term for cross-border guerrillas) and that we needed to do more to protect them. In actual fact, we were out in large numbers, securing the border against infiltration, patrolling by night, conducting 14 to 21-day patrols in the jungle to deny the militias a chance to build sanctuaries, and working in close in the villages to maintain popular support. There had not been a single successful attack by the insurgents on the population for more than two months. So, "objectively", they were secure. But -- and this is the critical point -- because our troops were sneaking around in the jungle and at night, staying out of the villagers' way and focusing on defeating enemy attempts to target the population, they did not see us about, and hence did not feel "subjectively" secure. This was exacerbated by the fact that they had just experienced a major psychological trauma (occupation, insurgency, mass destruction and international intervention) and as a society they needed time and support for a degree of "mental reconstruction". Based on their feedback (and that of lots of other meetings and observations) we changed our operational approach, became a bit more visible to the population and focused on giving them the feeling, as well as the reality, of safety. Once we did that, it was fine.

In other words, we had to shift from a more enemy-centric approach to a more population-centric approach to adjust to the developing situation. My personal lesson from this experience was that the correct approach is situation-dependent, and the situation changes over time. Therefore the key is to develop mechanisms that allow you to read the environment, to be agile and to adapt, as John Nagl showed so brilliantly in Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife.

So, in summary, two broad philosophical approaches in classical counterinsurgency (and remember it's classical 20th century counterinsurgency we're discussing here) -- population-centric, and enemy-centric. Both have merit, but the key is to first diagnose the environment, then design a tailor-made approach to counter the insurgency, and - most critically - have a system for generating continuous, real-time feedback from the environment that allows you to know what effect you are having, and adapt as needed.


Dr. Kilcullen,

I share your views of the various aspects of counter insurgency posted on the blog here, however in particularly with the East Timor reference posted here. I was in 1999 in Dili, shortly after the Australians landed in Timor and saw the pacification process first hand. What struck me was the speed of the Australian troops were walking around which greatly amused the local popolous.

I like to pose a question in the forum to obtain your views and perspectives in the same time trigger a bit of a debate.

I agree with your enemy-centric & population-centric approach. In my view a lot of it is common sense and it does strike me odd why an institution such as the US Army lost itself by going big what clearly was an small oppossing force. However in the defense of initial actions, East Timor had very little serious forces facing the Australian Army with the Indonesian TNI despite itching for a fight, been under political control by its masters. The lessons out of Dili was almost immediately after the landings the population was not opposed to foreign presence and the "white men" a.k.a "buleh" was by and large left on his own. In Iraq the invading force compromises largely of ineffective governance and the best the Iraqi expected in fact were sometimes the worst, "we" offered. Trust was lost and likely will require a protracted strategy not necessarily lead by the military to regain.

The population centric approach often talks about "hearts and minds", which in my view is being beaten with a stick to death and perhaps requires a more current phrase, but in essence addresses the basic fundamental needs of society, liberated or occupied, such as food, safety, water, electricity, basic employment and some form of normalcy under the circumstances.

Although in the current stage heavy military presence is the ultimate power, i am not certain it serves U.S or coalition interests being perceived as an occupation force, therefore the creation of a credible police and local form of goverance must remain the top priority.

In my humble experience in Peru, one of the key successfactor of Fujimori CI strategy was the impression of employment of things getting better. Regardless of the political aspects, the counter insurgency in Peru has been by and large forgotten by the events surrounding Fujimori and Montesino, the kinetic solution was combined with a rudimentary economic policy and the clear priority to eliminate the top leadership of Shining Path. After three years of taking office, the Fujimori government was able to eliminate the leadership of Shining Path. We of course could argue and i am certain plenty of comments will follow, today the Al Qaeda ideology and Global insurgency is different, however in essence the leadership must be neutralized as a part of a Global Counterinsurgency. Recent discussions in Singapore with some university classmates of mine, argued the Al Qaeda leadership is not relevant in the ideological counterinsurgency game however i disagree. Without being actively challenged and neutralized the invisibility of the movement grows. We can argue the current leadership will be replaced but the combination of counter ideology, economic prosperity which like in Peru was the biggest enemey of Shining Path, and active elimination of the Al Qaeda leadership should be a priority in order to implement an enemy/population centric counterinsurgency.

Andreas Wimmer, MSc. (strategic studies),
NTU Singapore

Miles Kitts (not verified)

Wed, 05/02/2007 - 1:18am

Dear LTC Kilcullen,
My name is Miles Kitts. I am a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland at Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. I am making this post so I can contact you in regards to my PhD research. I have contacted Dave Dilegge and he says he has forwarded my email address on to you.

I intend to focus my PhD on assessing different approaches to counterinsurgency. Specifically, I am thinking of building my conceptual framework on your blog concerning the Two Schools of Classical Counterinsurgency. For this reason, I would like to ask you which authors you include in the different Schools? In particular, I have not been able to find any authors who could be labelled enemy-centric. If you could provide me with authors' names for each school, that would be very much appreciated.

Also, I have contacted Col. H.R. McMaster, and he has agreed for me to interview him in regards to Operation Restoring Rights. I mention this so you have a clear idea of my research intentions.

Thank you,
Miles Kitts.

The Timor anecdote was interesting. It was essentially security theater, which is a dimension to the population-centric approach that I haven't thought of before. I suppose it would depend on the location though--coming out in force in a hostile, anti-American environment would be counterproductive.

Mike Sullivan (not verified)

Mon, 02/12/2007 - 10:34am

Great comments, especially regarding getting your leaders out to see how the local police departments run daily operations. COIN really is more about law enforcement than combat operations in 99% of the situations. I'll add to your point with some other tips. Get your BCT leaders to meet with all the adminstrative organizations you can in the community ranging from the police, the fire department, the water works, sanitation departments, the highway department, hospitals, morgues, etc. All the leaders need to have a working familiarity of all these governmental functions which support the daily lives of the local population. I'll never forget having to develop a SNIC (Snow and ice clearance) plan while in Kosovo to keep roads open inbetween towns since there was no functioning organizations to do so. By exposing your leaders to these SWEAT-MS functions, the first time they have to think about trash removal or water distribution will not be while they are in country, wearing body armor and worrying about IEDs.

bg (not verified)

Sun, 02/11/2007 - 10:22am

It is very interesting to read what everyone has to say about the similarities of COIN and police work. Prior to my last deployment to Iraq, my Brigade commander took all of the company commanders to a large metro police department and we spent an afternoon with the police. We rode in patrol cars and answered calls. I was amazed by the number of unique situations the officer dealt with on a daily basis, and was equally amazed at how he was able to handle each situation as a different problem. (being a two time veteran of Iraq already, I immediately recognized the value and relevance of such a training event)

We didn't have time prior to our last trip, but something that I would recommend to anyone who is on their way to a counterinsurgency is to let small unit leaders (squad leaders, platoon leaders) spend some time with their local police department and learn how they do day to day business. It is amazing how much it will apply to their mission down range.

bg (not verified)

Sun, 02/11/2007 - 10:14am

"These two contrasting schools of thought about counterinsurgency might be labeled as "enemy-centric" and "population-centric"."

Shouldn't there be a third school of thought, the "economic centric" approach? I feel that one mistake we've made in Iraq is that we have this assumption that security (enemy centric) is the first and foremost strategy. This shouldn't be a surprise since the military leadership has been brought up to believe that security is the first step in any tactical operations (principles of patrolling). But the problem with this approach is that when you apply all of you effort to defeat the current insurgents, you tend to (by accident) create more. When we target HVIs and kick in doors, we disregard the real issue. Why are citizens becoming insurgents in the first place?

I would argue that if you create a good environment (broken windows theory) and simply try to isolate the insurgents, employ the people, set up a good economy, overtime the people will no longer need the insurgents and will simply turn on them. This is, of course, is an oversimplification of the approach, but I think it should be considered separate from the "population-centric" and included in the COIN tool bag.

Mike Sullivan (not verified)

Tue, 02/06/2007 - 12:48pm

Growing up as the son of a retired NYPD officer, I've always been a big fan of utilizing LE techniques in a COIN environment. Some population control measures incorporating biometrics and modern technology seem to me making gains in Iraq. The biggest problems, it seems, is simply getting started. Units often are overwhelmed when realzing they may need to catalog, track and register hundreds of thousands of people. However, every path to success needs a first step. As soon as we start these efforts, we move forward towards an effective method of population control. It appears units in Al Anbar are gaining in this effort thanks to persistence and modern technologies.

I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment that having the mechanisms that allow you to read the environment, to be agile and to adapt, are vital to a successful COIN operation. Just as a typical Mao-style insurgency is a fluid movement between phases, so should our COIN efforts. If we have success in one area, we can move forward. A lack of success or setback in another area may cause COIN forces so shift to a different style of COIN operations, but should not be considered a failure. To defeat an insurgency, COIN forces need to think more like the insurgents and their measures of effectiveness.

One other note which I belive most if not all here understand. We (the US) cannot win the counterinsurgency fight for the Iraqis. They have to be the ones to eventually mitigate the insurgency. This directly correlates into the unity of effort between our advisory efforts and conduct of COIN operations.

Thanks for the insightful comments. Great food for thought!

Tom Odom (not verified)

Thu, 02/01/2007 - 5:36pm


The tension between these two schools of thought was very much at play in Rwanda as the old government fought the RPA from 1990 to 1994 and in post-genocide Rwanda as I watched the former rebels fight a COIN campaign from 1994-1996.

In the 1990 to 1994 fight the government focused on the rebels militarily and simultaneously prepared the Hutu majority to turn on the Tutsi minority and Hutu moderates. With the shoot down of the President's plane in april 1994, the genocide restarted the war. The old Rwandan government essentially conceded the military campaign and bet on turning the population against itself through genocide. Militarily they lost decisively; politically they won at least temporarily by crystalizing the ethnic political issue. And in losing the military fight, they withdrew into Zaire, Tanzania, and a lesser degree Burindi with the Hutu population largely under their control. From there they soon began their own insurgent operations.

From 1994 to 1997 the new government dominated the security scene in Rwanda. But even as they stabilized Rwanda in late 1994, then VP Kagame made it clear they could not accept a continuation of the status quo with the external refugee camps and the internal displaced persons camps as hard core base camps. Kagame said on more than one occasion that he had to get the Rwandans in those camps back home.

The clearing of Kibeho IDP camp in the spring of 1995 served very much like a failed experiment for the new government. In clearing that camp, the RPA focused on securing the insurgents/hard core elements responsible for the genocide rather than securing the population by allowing them to leave the camp (under pressure of course because they would not have left any other way). The result was a massacre that killed at least 2000.

But the RPA learned from that disaster. In finally moving to clear the camps in Zaire in 1996, they and their client forces out maneuvered the Hutu military forces and forced them to uncover the Rwandan border. The refugees picked up en masse and headed back to Rwanda. They were not allowed to form new camps inside Rwanda; they were directed to their homes.

From that point on, the Rwandan government and the military were able to divide their efforts into conventional operations against the forces still in Zaire and counter insurgency operations inside Rwanda. Ultimately they won the COIN fight when the Hutu majority accepted that the hardliners in Zaire could never win and when the new Rwandan Army adjusted its operations to protect the population rather than destroying hardliners. Key to that adjustment was integration of former Rwandan Army forces into the new Rwandan military, an effort begun in late 1994.

Steve (not verified)

Sun, 01/28/2007 - 4:28pm

The LE link or connection has always been a sticking point for me as well. If you look back at historical examples of small wars (to include Haiti and other Latin American involvements) those that were successful combined major aspects of LE practice (or what has now become standard LE practice) with more traditionally "military" methods.

I would also agree that we have gutted the ability of junior officers and NCOs to do their jobs properly. If you look at the Indian Wars era Army or the Marine forces in Latin American during the 1920s and 1930s you will see forces that had junior officers and NCOs doing a great deal. Sergeants and lieutenants routinely led major scouts into hostile territory during the Indian Wars, and the record of Marine junior leaders in Latin America is also very strong. I think we lost some of this focus during the major conflict buildups, and especially the manpower train wreck that was Vietnam.

When you get right down to it, most of the COIN population control techniques come straight from LE-style practice. And they all require a level of training and confidence for and in junior leaders and NCOs. We have a very intelligent military right now: perhaps the best it has ever been. To me it borders on criminal conduct to not allow them to use their intelligence in this way. Senior "leaders" need to wake up and understand the quality of their personnel and the possibility of integrating LE-style techniques and procedures. If they don't, we will be seeing "more of the same" for some time to come (at least in my view).

slapout9 (not verified)

Sun, 01/28/2007 - 3:04pm

Somebody say Amen! I am retired LE and have seen 21 year old police officers handle similar situations very well (they were trained to do that from the start). I think we don't give enough credit to NCO's and junior officers. They can handle these situations just fine if we a) let them do it. b)train them to do it. I come from the Vietnam era when officers were in short supply, so having NCO's run things is not new to me at all. I have also talked to several friends in NG units that were LE in their day job but were deployed to Iraq and have commented on how well LE techniques fit into COIN type situations especialy in the area of gaining intelliegence. These were often low tech methods and cheap too.

Dave Kilcullen (not verified)

Sun, 01/28/2007 - 2:41pm

Totally agree. I would also suggest that law enforcement command-and-control techniques, especially the system of incident control points and incident commanders who control all assets reacting to a given incident (regardless of worn rank), are useful here. Too often we see senior officers turn up to an incident that a Sergeant has been running since it started, and say "stand down Son, I'll take over here". This is rarely the way to go, since the commander on the spot is usually the only one with enough situational awareness to prosecute it properly. Instead, we need a system where the commander on the ground when an incident starts -- almost always a noncom or junior officer -- runs the incident, controls all assets reacting to it, and only conducts a hand-off to "higher" authority once the immediate situation is stabilized. This is a standard law enforcement C2 approach (at least where I come from) and highly applicable to this sort of environment. The counter-argument we sometimes hear is "well, my NCOs aren't trained for that". OK, but the environment is what it is -- so train them already.

slapout9 (not verified)

Sun, 01/28/2007 - 2:25pm

I have said this before, there is a very simple Law Enforcement theory that applies to this situation. It is based on the Routine Activity Theory, which states that when you have a Motivated attacker in a Location that allows Access to an Unguarded victim you will have a crime or attack happen. This is often called the crime triangle. The Attacker-Victim-Location triangle is the Law Enforcemnet holy trinity. This is why you need to be flexible in your response. Sometimes you go after the attcker,sometimes you protect the victim,somtimes it is modification of the location, sometimes you have to do all three at once! All three at once is what I think needs to be done in Iraq.

Dave Kilcullen (not verified)

Sun, 01/28/2007 - 2:15pm

I agree, Steve. Indeed, one of the problems here is in finding an approach that works for both "people's war" insurgencies (as in Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan) and "netwar" insurgencies, such as we currently face in Iraq. As you rightly point out, this is not new - it was very much the case in Vietnam. And as previously discussed, in Iraq the insurgency is only one part of a four-part problem. As Prairiepundit observes, force-to-space ratio is key (as is force-to-population ratio) -- the next few months in Baghdad are likely to look a lot more like heavy peace enforcement than traditional pacification.

Steve (not verified)

Sun, 01/28/2007 - 1:28pm

Another factor here, in my view, is the nature of your opponent. If you're dealing with a terrorist-type group as opposed to a more population-based insurgency, it is probably much more effective to center your efforts on the enemy as opposed to the population. That said, I feel that, as you point out, Dave, that truly successful COIN efforts will be a blend of these techniques dictated by the unique situation on the ground. You need to be prepared to shift focus as quickly as your opponent does (quicker, if possible, by anticipating his moves).

The problem of local population goals is not unique to Iraq in any way. In Vietnam we faced at least three population groups within SVN alone, each with its own goals and agendas. Some we worked well with (the Montagnard minority), others we did not have as much luck with (the SVN peasants, although the Catholic minority proved a different case).

I have argued a different approach to reach some of the same conclusions. The enemy in an insurgency uses a raiding strategy because he is too weak to use a more effective combat persisting strategy. To combat the raiding strategy an an adequate force to space ratio must be in place that denies real estate to the enemy. An enemy using a raiding strategy is most vulnerable when moving to contact. Having an adequate force to space ratio makes his movement to contact much more complicated and difficult. It effectively fights the enemy where he is most vulnerable and protects the population at the same time.

When you have an inadequate force to space ration your forces tend to have to buy the same real estate more than once. It is a false economy of force doctrine. It also gives the enemy an advantage because of the inherent superiority of retreat over pursuit. It leads to a constant chase scene that results by default into an enemy centric strategy.

When you have an adequate force to space ratio you still must deny the enemy any sanctuary which is why the an ink blot approach with an inadequate number of troops will not solve the problem alone.

How you get that force to space ratio is also important. The indigenous population has to be an important participant in achieving that ratio. One of the problems in Iraq at this point is that a significant portion of the indigenous population while they are in opposition to the enemy, have their own agenda that is not consistent with ours. That is a problem that has to be solved.

One of the problems we had in Iraq earlier was a belief by some that our having fewer troops would make the Iraqis more likely to step up and participate, but the enemy would not wait for that participation. Withdrawing US troops too early will create a similar problem. The enemy in Iraq is weak, but we should not let this divert us from having an adequate force to defeat him.