Small Wars Journal

A Primer on Counterinsurgent Warfare

Fri, 08/05/2016 - 1:01pm

A Primer on Counterinsurgent Warfare

Vince Tumminello

It is true that the success of the counterinsurgent is linked to the correct selection of approach, military capability and force composition, tactical and operational execution, available resources, and degree of popular and outside support.  However, it is important to acknowledge that counterinsurgency is simply an effort to counter an insurgency[i].  As such, the approach and nature of any individual insurgency must always inform the tailored approach of the counterinsurgent.  To be successful, the counterinsurgent must identify and subvert the advantages of the insurgent, while exploiting the weaknesses in his organization, composition, support, and capability[ii].  Notably, the nature of these efforts may not always be violent[iii].

Further still, the counterinsurgent is restrained- by his position as governor, by the opinions of his countrymen, and (most recently) the opinions of other nations.  Mirroring these restrains, the insurgent derives his support from the population and its resources- and is so limited.  Consequently, the three counterinsurgency approaches presented here (population-centric, enemy-centric, and punishment) mirror three insurgent approaches (guerrilla, conventional, and punishment).  The resulting asymmetries in approach selection lead as a success indicator[iv].  Thus, while this paper focuses on the actions of the counterinsurgent, the actions and decisions of the insurgent must also be kept in mind.

Population-Centric Counterinsurgency

The population-centric approach to counterinsurgency was developed[v] largely in response to the proliferation of Maoist-style insurgency[vi]. Rather than fixing the insurgent to physical terrain[vii] (as in conventional conflict) and destroying him in violent confrontation, the population-centric approach isolates by targeting the vital link between the insurgent and the population who supports or tolerates him[viii].  Implementation of this approach spans from the mild (“hearts and minds[ix]”) to the extreme (“Boer Camps[x]”).  Bottom-up[xi] practices focusing on building soft power (controlling the population) at the local level are often combined with top-down[xii] practices focusing on legitimacy, development, politics, and border control in more successful campaigns[xiii].

Despite the intuitive logic of this approach, population-centric counterinsurgency is very difficult to do in practice. As such, the historical record of population-centric campaigns is mixed.  Notable counterinsurgent wins include Philippines (Huk) 1946-1956, Malaya 1948-1955, Philippines (MLNF) 1971-1996, and Sierra Leone 1991-2002).  Notable counterinsurgent losses include Columbia (La Violencia) 1948-1958, Algeria 1953-1962, Angola 1961-1974, and Mozambique 1962-1977. 


Population-centric counterinsurgency, often viewed as the ‘enlightened approach’, is very seductive to ‘civilized societies’- those democratic powers that are answerable to its citizenry.  Rarely, however, is the population-centric approach used in non-colonial/occupation situations.  Ignoring a small number of outliers[xiv] (most of which were advised by Western countries), only the United States[xv], France[xvi], Britain[xvii], and Portugal[xviii] have implemented this approach with regularity.

This paradox can be explained in two ways.  First, population-centric counterinsurgency requires responsive government institutions[xix], sensitive to the needs and wants of its population.  Often, weak, oppressive, and unresponsive governments prompt insurgencies. Such a government, facing an insurgency, would thus have to completely change its character, nature, and function to implement an effective population-centric campaign.  In practice, even powers such as the United States, Britain, and France often pursued failed enemy-centric or “iron fist” approaches before switching to a population-centric approach. 

Second, population-centric warfare is often presented as the ‘softer’ or ‘kinder’ approach to counterinsurgency.  Protecting the population is a stated tenant of population-centric campaigns, a cause that resonates with Western liberal ideals.  The US Army Manual for counterinsurgency FM 3-24, stresses the non-violent facets of this approach: coalition building, economic growth, building legitimacy, understanding popular perception, and political development.  This idea of a “kinder war[xx]” is, of course, a myth.  Nevertheless, the softer perception of population-centric counterinsurgency lends much needed popular support to the occupying powers conducting the campaign.  Conversely, in cultures that value strength and force over the indirect approach, population-centric methods may be less appealing.

Core Requirements for Success

  1. A large, dynamic, disciplined force- Since the population-centric approach is most often used against a disparate insurgent organization, spread across a large land mass in both rural and urban areas, the counterinsurgent force must necessarily be large[xxi].  Rather than focusing on air power[xxii], as in some modern enemy-centric campaigns, the focus is on a large ‘in-your-face’ ground presence.  Because contact with the population needs to be so close and intimate, the force is often exposed to both internal and external threats.  Attempts to mitigate these threats (armored vehicles, fortresses) only serve to further distance the population[xxiii].  The force must also be dynamic, disciplined, and intelligent- able to adapt to local customs and practice restraint against hit and run attacks (no ‘warheads on foreheads[xxiv]’).
  1. Robust intelligence collection effort[xxv]- This approach requires a robust intelligence collection effort, beginning from the outside with technical and atmospheric intelligence- in an attempt to identify key population centers, key leadership, social structures, and insurgent causes.  In time, with a successful campaign, the people must become the source of intelligence.  This will, in effect, help to solidify tangible gains on the soft power progress of ground forces.
  1. Integration of a broader political strategy- While population-centric COIN at the tactical level is the crux of the effort, it must be paired with a broader political strategy to undermine the cause of the insurgent and increase legitimacy of the government.  Further still, the counterinsurgent must gain the support of neighboring countries and cut off external support to the insurgent cause[xxvi].
  1. Responsive and legitimate government institutions- Governments must be willing to make concessions and reform to undermine the cause of the insurgent.  Often, these reforms will only be made if forced through leverage of an outside power.  Governments are rarely compelled through force to make reforms and an existentially threatened authoritarian regime will often escalate violence rather than capitulate on reform.
  1. Deep understanding of religion, culture, and society[xxvii]- The insurgent has a natural advantage in that he lives among the population. He understands the religion, culture, and society of the people that support him.  An outside power will never reach this level of understanding, but must always attempt to further his understanding and apply it to his strategic thinking.  This can be very difficult for younger, less-educated forces to achieve.  At the end of the day, it is not the general who conducts real tactical COIN, but the private. 
  1. A long commitment[xxviii] – Population-centric counterinsurgency is not an efficient approach.  It is costly- in both manpower and money.  It takes a very long time, especially for an occupying force, to make the requisite progress and gain the trust of the population.  Even then, the relationship between counterinsurgent and population is very fragile.  Democracies are especially vulnerable to this long timeline- popular support back home will only last so long in the face of rising costs and mounting casualties.  This issue becomes less of a problem when the counterinsurgent is the home regime and their survival depends on success.
  1. Ample financial, technical, and military resources- Finally, the population-centric approach is very resource intensive[xxix].  Weak governments with few military assets and fewer financial resources will find it very difficult to run an effective counterinsurgency in this manner.  As such, backing by foreign powers is usually necessary.  This, however, can have the effect of further undermining government legitimacy.

Enemy-Centric Counterinsurgency

The enemy-centric approach reflects a preference of dealing with the enemy force rather than the civilian population or underlying causes of an insurgency.  In this approach, the counterinsurgent channels most of his resources towards decimating the military capability of the insurgent, rather than protecting the population.  Isolation can also be sought in this approach, but only as a means to force a conventional showdown between the government and insurgent forces[xxx].  The typical asymmetries of counterinsurgent versus insurgent favor the counterinsurgent in decisive confrontations[xxxi].

Enemy-centric counterinsurgency has four main manifestations- all of which would be considered ‘direct approaches’ and variations on conventional warfare.  The first is described as ‘decapitation[xxxii]’- targeting the leadership and core support mechanisms of an insurgency to destroy it from the top.  This method is most effective against insurgencies with more concrete command and control structures[xxxiii].  It is often less effective against disparate, linear insurgencies.  The second manifestation is described as eradication, whereby the counterinsurgent seeks to root out and destroy insurgent elements from the ground-up. The third is ‘isolation’.  The counterinsurgent seeks to cut off the insurgency from the population, by isolating its core into rural, unpopulated areas (like a jungle or mountain)[xxxiv].  The counterinsurgent can then conduct cordon and clear operations to eradicate the insurgency.  The fourth manifestation, ‘indiscriminate annihilation’, attempts to crush an insurgency through sheer firepower and force.  This method often causes high civilian casualties but can be very effective[xxxv].  Notably, this method has significant overlap with the third counter-insurgency approach: ‘punishment’. In all cases, enemy-centric counterinsurgency employs the language of violence to get results (at least on paper) and to manage costs (much more efficient than population-centric COIN).

With the enemy-centric approach comes the realization that, in dealing primarily with the enemy forces, the counterinsurgent largely ignores the large recruiting and support base of the population.  Thus, in targeting the insurgent he risks 1) legitimizing him, 2) increasing his recruiting base by playing into the repressive narrative, 3) increasing support for insurgent causes due to indiscriminate use of force, and 4) sewing seeds of discontent that can manifest in future conflict (i.e. short term solution).

Notable enemy-centric counterinsurgency wins include: Iraqi Kurdistan 1961-1975, Northern Ireland 1969-1999, Jordan 1970-1971, Baluchistan (1973-1978), Peru (1980-1992), and Turkey (PKK) 1984-1999.  Notable losses include: UK in Palestine (Colonial) 1944-1947, Laos (US-assisted) 1959-1975, Nambia 1960-1989, South Africa 1960-1975, South Vietnam (Phoenix Program, US-assisted) 1960-1975, Guinea-Bissau (Colonial) 1962-1970, Yemen 1962-1970, and Afghanistan (Anti-Soviet) 1978-1992. 


There is a simple logic to enemy-centric counterinsurgency.  As such, the asymmetrically advantaged often favor it.  As discussed, there are different manifestations of enemy-centric counterinsurgency, each requiring different levels of competency, technology, intelligence, and vision.  Accordingly, the chosen manifestation often mirrors the government- unless outside support of more advanced nations is available.  In sum, almost every government facing an insurgency will implement some form of the enemy-centric approach- at least in the early phases of their counterinsurgency efforts.  If the chosen approach does not yield results, governments must then decide whether to escalate the violence or refocus their efforts on the population.

The enemy-centric approach is particularly useful for governments that do not wish to reconcile the interests of the insurgents/population with their own.  In this regard, there is great incentive to escalate the level of violence to deter present and future opposition (of course, oppression can often lead to an escalated insurgency in the long run[xxxvi]).  This approach also provides quantitative progress- an important aspect in continued support for foreign occupiers.  For casualty sensitive counterinsurgents, the enemy-centric approach focuses on force protection over population protection.  Thus, a nation that is able to compartmentalize civilian losses and manipulate the perception of the campaign may find continued support for their actions[xxxvii].

Core Requirements for Success

  1. Military Superiority and Mobility- In enemy-centric COIN, military superiority is tantamount to success.  Superiority may be numerically (eradication, isolation, annihilation) or in capability[xxxviii] (decapitation).  Mobility is also crucial.  The ability to move and consolidate forces quickly is key in creating conditions for decisive engagements.  Mobility must also be achieved in different terrain[xxxix].  Forces must be equipped to fight in mountains, jungles, and deserts.  Often, the insurgent will select the place of engagement and the counterinsurgent must be prepared for anything.
  1. Intelligence Gathering, on a spectrum- Intelligence is important to any counterinsurgency effort.  It is most vital in the decapitation approach[xl] but becomes less valuable as the counterinsurgent moves closer to the annihilation method.
  1. Battlefield Asymmetry- The counterinsurgent must always maintain battlefield asymmetry- specifically in battlefield technology and weapons systems[xli].  A conventional victory by insurgent forces can do great damage to the legitimacy of government forces[xlii].  The insurgent will typically attack in areas where the government forces are weak- thus the ability to reinforce quickly (i.e. mobility) is also paramount to maintaining asymmetry[xliii].
  1. Approach Flexibility- The counterinsurgent must always be willing to reassess his approach through clear-headed analysis. He must not fall victim to the quantitative trap[xliv], mixing political rhetoric (i.e. PowerPoint to Congress) and actual battlefield progress[xlv]
  1. Border Control- In an enemy-centric campaign against a guerrilla enemy, eradication of safe havens, logistics lines, and external support becomes crucial[xlvi].  In addition, religious and even some nationalist causes attract foreign fighters from abroad[xlvii].  If the counterinsurgent cannot control the borders, then his efforts will become futile. 

Punishment Counterinsurgency

In the punishment approach, the counterinsurgent again turns his attention away from direct encounters with the armed insurgent and focuses on the population.  His focus, however, is not in protecting the population but making it pay the cost (in blood, property, quality of life) for the insurgent.  The punishment approach, also known as barbarism, involves the systematic and deliberate targeting of non-combatants to achieve four possible objectives:

  1. Decrease civilian morale and drive the population to actively oppose the insurgency  (or actively support the regime)
  2. Eliminate the insurgent base of support (supplies, food, arms, and shelter) through sheer destructive force
  3. Escalate the violence in such a way that the insurgent and the population cannot possibly view continued resistance as desirable.  This, in turn, will compel the insurgent to stop fighting and surrender.
  4. Undermine the ability of the insurgent to govern

While the outcome may be similar, the punishment approach differentiates itself from both ‘annihilation’ and other wartime atrocities (rape, murder, theft, collateral damage, etc.) because of the existence of a deliberate strategic objective. The punishment approach can manifest in both air (strategic bombing) and ground (destruction of property, targeting of civilians) campaigns, where the potential actions of civilians are specifically tied to the pain inflicted. While there is no denying that a decimated population can no longer support an insurgency (loss of lives, personal resources), the logic of the punishment approach is severely flawed for three primary reasons (placing ethics aside):

  1. The punishment approach poisons prospects for a post-conflict political settlement, re-integration of the insurgent forces, and long-term national stability; it also sews seeds for future internal conflict.
  2. Rather than lower the morale of the population and turn it away from the insurgent cause, it often hardens the resolve of the insurgency and increases popular support.  This, in turn, decreases the legitimacy of the government in the eyes of those not directly involved in the campaign.
  3. Due to the proliferation of technology across the globe, punishment approaches cannot be kept away from international eyes.  Barbarism tends to push coalitions into action against the counterinsurgent, manifesting in covert action campaigns to support the insurgent or outright military/economic/political action.

Notable punishment counterinsurgency wins include Tibet (1956-1974), Syria (Hama) 1982, South Africa (Boer) 1899-1902, and Iraq (Kurds) 1975.  Notable punishment counterinsurgency losses include Indonesia (East Timor) 1975-2000, Vietnam (Rolling Thunder) 1965-1968, Indochina (French) 1965-1975, Yugoslavia (Nazi intervention) 1941-1943, Afghanistan (Soviet intervention) 1979-1989, and China (Japan-intervention) 1937.  A recent and notable mixed outcome is the Israel campaign against Hezbollah and Lebanon in 2006.  Ongoing punishment counterinsurgency campaigns include Syria 2011-2015 and Yemen (Saudi-coalition) 2015.


One might posit that the nature of the punishment approach might constrict its modern practitioners to oppressive authoritarian rulers.  However, this is not the case. Both strong democratic and authoritarian actors have, at times, partaken in a punishment strategy[xlviii].  In addition, the punishment strategy is often seen as the logical escalation of violence for threatened regimes- those looking to do anything and everything to keep their regime in power (and keep their lives). 

While the pursuit of the punishment approach, or barbarism, is less common today in more developed nations- several ongoing campaigns could be classified as ‘punishment’.  This approach, often using ‘strategic bombing’ campaigns[xlix], can be attractive to the counterinsurgent because it lowers risk to his own forces.  At the same time, counterinsurgent governments can point to quantifiable progress to project the perception of positive momentum and retain public support (while denying civilian casualties or non-combatant objectives).

Core Requirements for Success

  1. Air superiority- Strategic bombing campaigns require air superiority and freedom of movement in the air to succeed.  As such, punishment campaigns might first have to take a more conventional approach to defeat anti-air capabilities before a successful air-based punishment campaign can be initiated[l].  Further, air capabilities must be sufficiently advanced to be able to identify strategically important civilian targets. 
  1. “Special Forces” or “Paramilitaries” for ground action[li]- Barbarism (the act of committing violent action against civilians) can have a very damaging effect on the morale and psychology of normal combat forces.  As such, the counterinsurgent might seek to create “Special Forces” or use paramilitary elements to do the work of barbarism[lii].  The modern application of this could be considered ‘grey zone’ tactics, where the individuals committing barbarism are not directly attributable to government forces[liii].
  1. Willingness to escalate to extreme barbarism- Data compiled by Ivan Arreguin-Toft[liv] suggests that barbarism campaigns often have the effect of lengthening insurgencies, rather than ending them quickly.  Only in cases where the strong actor committed to acts of extreme barbarism, was he successful in shortening the conflict. 
  1. Compartmentalization of activities- When governments proceed along a course of barbarism, global public opinion may quickly turn against them as images of violence are broadcast over Twitter, Facebook, and news media.  Thus, it may be desirable to attempt to compartmentalize these activities by shutting down communications and Internet access in areas where barbarism occurs.  These may only have a short-term positive effect; however, and eventually reports of these activities will be released into the public domain.  Thus, it becomes a race to secure victory before public opinion can shift momentum against your cause.
  1. Patience and Large Financial/Military Reserves[lv]- Some punishment campaigns may take a long time to coerce the population.  As such, the counterinsurgent must be patient and carefully analyze the effects of his campaign to ensure maximum effectiveness.  Large financial reserves may be required if opposition nations impose economic sanctions.  Military aid may also be cut due to public opinion shifts.  As such, large financial and military reserves may be necessary.
  1. Ironclad Economic/Military Alliances[lvi]- Conversely, if the counterinsurgent has complicit nations taking part in the punishment campaign, they may be relatively immune to the damaging effects of public opposition (assuming the ally is economically and military strong enough to support the counterinsurgent).
  1. Nuclear Weapons- As a punishment campaign progresses, coalitions of nations may begin to formulate plans for external intervention (even regime change).  If the counterinsurgent has nuclear weapons (preferably multiple in areas that cannot be readily identified through conventional intelligence gathering means), he may deter such intervention[lvii]

End Notes

[i] For the purpose of this paper, insurgency will be defined as “a protracted violent conflict in which one or more groups seek to overthrow or fundamentally change the political or social order in a state or region through the use of sustained violence, subversion, social disruption, and political action.” From “The Basics of Counterinsurgency.” By Scott Moore.

[ii] Debate, especially in modern theaters such as Iraq or Afghanistan, is often hung on an over-arching prescription.  This debate, however, ignores the reality that insurgencies are usually complex (in makeup, in origins, in action)- requiring a balanced approach, tailored to the human, political, military, and geographic terrain.  Major Nathan Springer attempts to normalize this debate in his dissertation: “Stabilizing the Debate between Population and Enemy-Centric Counterinsurgency.”

[iii] The term ‘violent’ here, of course, refers to military operations. In “Occupying Iraq”, James Dobbins, Seth Jones, Ben Runkle, and Siddharth Mohandas discuss the inherent problems the Coalition Provisional Authority and Coalition Forces faced in ‘Phase IV’ after conventional military operations ended after the invasion of Iraq in 2003:

[iv] In “How the Weak Win Wars”, Ivan Arreguin-Toft systematically analyzes the approaches of insurgent and counter-insurgent in five cases.  The results of these strategic interactions are displayed in Table 3, page 218.  Toft, Ivan M. How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 218.

[v]David Galula (French), Robert Thompson (British), Roger Templer (British), and Roger Trinquier (French) are credited with the development of modern population-centric COIN.  In the United States, the idea of “Counterinsurgency” is often used interchangeably for “population-centric counterinsurgency” due to its rising popularity gained through promotion by David Petraeus (FM 3-24), John Nagl (Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife), David Kilcullen (Accidental Guerrilla) and others.

[vi] Insurgent groups around the world reference Mao’s seminal work “On Guerrilla Warfare”, which focuses on the importance of popular support and political aspects of an insurgency.  Mao, Zedong. On Guerrilla Warfare. New York: Praeger, 1961.

[vii] David Kilcullen outlines the surface and subsurface elements of an insurgency and discusses the concept of “fix and destroy” in both enemy-centric and population-centric COIN: Kilcullen, David. Counterinsurgency. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 5-10.

[viii] This approach has manifested in a variety of forms ranging from the Village Stability Operations (VSO) model in Afghanistan to the Strategic Hamlet program in Vietnam.  The approach is well summarized by French General Maurice Challe: “Withdraw the water, and the fish cannot swim.”  The quote alludes to Mao’s treatise on guerilla warfare: “The guerrilla must swim in the people as the fish swims in the sea.”  Some counterinsurgents have sought to physically separate the insurgent from the population by means of relocation- again, with mixed results.

[ix] General David Petraeus is known as the architect of the “hearts and minds” campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The approach was built around local security and economic development- both of which required a great deal of money and personnel:

[x] The British attempted physically separate the population from the insurgency using concentration camps during the Boer War:

[xi] ‘Bottom up’ practices include establishing local defense/police forces, justice systems, dispersing propaganda, providing basic services, reconstruction efforts, efforts to improve quality of life, and local economic development.

[xii] ‘Top down’ practices include political concessions and reforms, efforts to cut off external support, and network-centric targeting of insurgent leadership.

[xiii] In modern population-centric campaigns, the best example of a balanced and successful approach may be the US-assisted efforts to combat the Huk Rebellion in the Philippines.  Edward Lansdale, a U.S. advisor to the Philippine government, provides his account of the population-centric campaign in his book “In the Midst of Wars”:  Lansdale, Edward Geary. In the Midst of Wars; an American's Mission to Southeast Asia. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. 1-125.

[xiv] Outliers include: Philippines (MNLF) 1971-1996- the Philippine government was supported and advised by the United States; Columbia (La Violencia) 1948-1958- the Columbian government implemented some population-centric practices to gain popular support.  These were trumped, however, by repression and violence under President Gustavo Rojas Pinilla.

[xv] Some examples of the United States practicing population-centric counterinsurgency include Philippines (Huk Rebellion) 1946-1956, Vietnam (CAP Program and Strategic Hamlet Program) 1965-1971, Iraq (Post-Invasion) 2006-2008, and Afghanistan (Taliban) 2009-2014.

[xvi] Some examples of France practicing population-centric counterinsurgency include Indochina 1946-1955 and Algeria (1954-1962).

[xvii] Some examples of the British practicing population-centric counterinsurgency include Malaya 1948-1955, Sierra Leone 1991-2002, and Afghanistan 2009-2013.

[xviii] Some examples of Portugal practicing population-centric counterinsurgency include Angola 1961-1974 and Mozambique 1962-1977.

[xix]   Bernard Finel recognizes this critique in his Foreign Affairs article “A Substitute for Victory”:

[xx] Micheal Cohen unravels this myth in his World Policy article “The Myth of a Kinder, Gentler War”:

[xxi] John Ford compares the relative success of the Iraq surge with the relative failure of the Afghanistan surge.  He uses geography and the spread and size of the population to demonstrate how the urban nature of the Iraq insurgency and the close proximity of forces helped the Iraq surge to succeed:

[xxii] Angelina Maguiness discusses the relative merits of using air power with COIN and determines that, while indiscretion can be counterproductive, air support does make ground operations more successful.  She argues that air power cannot solve the complex problems on the ground and should be considered another tool in the counterinsurgent’s toolbox:

[xxiii] From the US Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual: “Ultimate success in COIN is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents.”

[xxiv] David Kilcullen in The Accidental Guerrilla: “Effective counterinsurgency provides human security to the population, where they live, 24 hours a day. This, not destroying the enemy, is the central task.”

[xxv] Dr. Brian Jackson used the British experience in Northern Island to demonstrate the importance of intelligence in a long counterinsurgency.  While the British campaign was not strictly population-centric, it did have many aspects that were in line with this approach- especially in its intelligence gathering efforts:

[xxvi] The most obvious example of this requirement is the relationship between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  With the Soviet-backed PDPA and the American-backed Karzai governments, the scope of support from across the Pakistan border was vital to the success of the insurgency.  Steve Coll goes into this relationship in detail: Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.

[xxvii] In T.E. Lawrence’s 27 Articles, he places great emphasis on understanding and following the cultural norms of the people. Lawrence, T.E. “The 27 Articles of T.E. Lawrence.” The Arab Bulletin. 1917.

[xxviii] Gill Merom discusses the problem of democracies and wars; outlining the difficulties these governments face in long conflicts (he uses France in Algeria, Israel in Lebanon, and the US in Vietnam as case studies).  Merom, Gil. How Democracies Lose Small Wars: State, Society, and the Failures of France in Algeria, Israel in Lebanon, and the United States in Vietnam. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Chapter 4.

[xxix] In his memoirs, Robert Gates (“Duty”) discusses the “huge effort required to divert resources away from weapons acquisitions to the requirements of ongoing wars.”  Justin Lynch discusses this and other aspects of resources counterinsurgency:

[xxx] In the later phases of the Turkish counterinsurgency campaign against the PKK between 1980 and 1992, the Turkish forces successfully isolated the PKK into the mountains.  Turkey then used a “big stick” approach to hunt down guerrillas with small, mobile strike forces.  Paul, Christopher, and Colin P. Clarke. Victory Has a Thousand Fathers Detailed Counterinsurgency Case Studies. Santa Monica, CA: RAND National Defense Research Institute, 2010. 90-93.

[xxxi] When the mujahedeen resistance attempted to convert to a conventional force approach too quickly (Jalalabad), the Soviet-backed Najibullah regime was able to inflict heavy casualties on the group.  There are cases, however, where this logic is contradicted- for example ISIS efforts against the Iraqi military in 2012-2014.

[xxxii] Patrick Johnston assesses the effectiveness of decapitation campaigns and concludes that more decapitation campaigns fail than succeed:

[xxxiii] Near the end of the Peruvian campaign against Sendero Luminoso, the capture of Abimael Guzman Reynoso contributed significantly to the ending of the campaign.  In 1901, General Frederick Funston captured insurgent leader (President) Emilio Aguinaldo in the Philippines, helping to end the conflict. Crandall, 72-88.

[xxxiv] Isolation of the insurgency was used by both the British in Malaya and by Magsaysay in the Philippines to great success. Taber, Robert. War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare. Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 2002. 157.

[xxxv] The Italians used this method in Ethiopia with success between 1935-1940. In certain phases, the Italians escalated the level of violence to barbarism (targeting of non-combatants) to combat guerrilla warfare strategy by Ethiopia, Arregion-Toft, Chapter 5.

[xxxvi] Fearon and Laitin conclude that the “prevalence of internal war is mainly the result of a steady accumulation of protracted conflicts.” Fearon, James D., and David D. Laitin. "Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War." APSR American Political Science Review: 75.

[xxxvii] Merom discusses the requirement for democracies to compartmentalize overseas brutality and its importance to counterinsurgent success (colonial/occupation). Merom, Chapter 4.

[xxxviii] United States technical intelligence capabilities and direct action force mobility allowed for a successful enemy-centric campaign against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after the resurgence of the Taliban in 2003.   Sean Naylor discusses the evolution of Joint Special Operations Command and the global direction action capabilities of the United States: Naylor, Sean. Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command.

[xxxix] The Soviet Union had a difficult time adjusting to mountain warfare in their campaign against the Afghan insurgency: Grau, Lester W. The Bear Went over the Mountain Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1996. Chapters 2 and 3.

[xl] Crandall discusses the intelligence-driven approach of JSOC in Iraq: Crandall, Russell. America's Dirty Wars: Irregular Warfare from 1776 to the War on Terror. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 459-461.

[xli] During Operation Cyclone, the United States supplied the insurgents (mujahedeen) with Stinger missiles.  This significantly reduced the relative asymmetry between the Soviet-backed PDPA government and the insurgency.  Alan Kuperman discusses the Stinger Missile and U.S. intervention in Afghanistan during the Cold War: Kuperman, Alan J.. 1999. “The Stinger Missile and U.S. Intervention in Afghanistan”. Political Science Quarterly114 (2). The Academy of Political Science: 219–63.

[xlii] ISIS success against the Iraqi army in 2013 and 2014 delegitimized the government forces and helped ISIS gain momentum:

[xliii] Captain Brett Friedman (USMC) discusses Clausewitz, counterinsurgency, and centers of gravity in his article “Creeping Death”:

[xliv] In “Rise to Globalism”, Stephen Ambrose discusses the US Government’s use of select figures and metrics to prove the administration was on the road to victory.  Ambrose, Stephen E., and Douglas Brinkley. Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy since 1938. 8th Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. 220-221.

[xlv] Even today, in the war against ISIS, military officials have been accused of ‘cooking the books’ in terms of casualties inflicted.  Still, a numbers debate (despite accuracy) can become a straw man debate to avoid answering hard questions about strategy:

[xlvi] The Taliban found safe haven in the Pakistani FATA region, allowing resurgence in 2003 after initial defeat in 2001.  Bard O’Neill discusses this case and similar cases of external support: Neill, Bard E. Insurgency & Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare. Washington: Brassey's (US), 1990. Chapter 7.

[xlvii] Thomas Hegghammer discusses the power of Pan-Islamism in supplying many insurgencies with funding, weapons, and fighters: Hegghammer, Thomas. Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

[xlviii] How the Weak Win Wars. 16.

[xlix] Julius Rigole discussed Mitchell, Douhette, and Air Power Theory in his dissertation on the Allies’ strategic bombing campaign in Germany during WW2:, 3-19.

[l] The Israeli strategic bombing campaign in Lebanon and the Golam Heights area in 2006 required air superiority.  Similarly, the ongoing Syrian campaign requires air superiority.  

[li] Eastern Territories Commander Johannes Blaskowitz wrote of the effects barbarism was having on the German regular forces. Toft, Ivan M. How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 9-10.

[lii] Vice News covers the barbarism of Shi’a “Death Squads”, linked to the Iraq government with support from Iran:

[liii] Frank Hoffman discusses the not-so-new threat of hybrid warfare, the ‘grey zone’ and a new age of dirty tricks’ (War On the Rocks 2014):

[liv] Arreguín-Toft, Ivan. "The [F]utility of Barbarism: Assessing the Impact of the Systematic Harm of Non-combatants in War." 2003. 35.

[lv] The ongoing punishment campaign in Yemen has yet come to settlement.  The commitment has been costly for Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Allies- even more so with the recent commitment of ground forces to the conflict:

[lvi] The ongoing counterinsurgency efforts by Syria are contingent on support from Russia and Iran.  Ben Rich discusses the punishment approach in “Sticks over Carrots”:  

[lvii] While not technically a counterinsurgency campaign, the North Korean regime partakes in barbaric action to compel its citizens into subjugation.  In compared to non-nuclear cases, NK nuclear weapons have certainly changed the calculus for Western intervention.  Robert Kelly discusses nukes and other reasons why intervention in North Korea would be a bad idea:


About the Author(s)

Vince Tumminello is a former U.S. Marine and OEF advisor.  He is a recent graduate of the Strategic Studies Program of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.