Small Wars Journal

Credible Commitments and Population Resettlement in Counterinsurgency Warfare

Mon, 09/05/2022 - 3:36pm

Credible Commitments and Population Resettlement in Counterinsurgency Warfare

By Matthew P. Arsenault and Jay Hochstein


            As Brigadier General S.B. Griffith succinctly points out, “From a purely military point of view, anti-guerilla operations may be summed up in three words: location, isolation, and eradication” (1961, p. 32). This brief paper focuses on one isolation strategy of counterinsurgency warfare. Specifically, the “separation of guerrillas from their sources of information and food, [which] may require the movement and resettlement of entire communities” (1961, p. 33). I examine population resettlement programs from the recent past to gauge the success and failures of various resettlement strategies.  I find strategies where the counterinsurgent credibly commits to promote improvements in the quality of life prove more successful than strategies that simply relocate the population with little or no thought to the welfare of the relocated.

Fitting Population Resettlement in COIN Approaches

            Traditionally counterinsurgency strategies fall into one of two camps, the population-centric approach, and the enemy-centric approach. Population resettlement, with its focus on population control coupled with “kinetic and physical efforts to diminish support to the insurgents,” spans a middle-ground between population-centric and enemy-centric approaches to COIN (Paul, Clarke, Grill, & Dunigan, 2013, p. 7).  The concept of COIN population resettlement consists of two assumptions. First, insurgencies are sustained by the population. Second, insurgents must be separated from the population to minimize insurgent violence (Paul et al., 2013, p. 100). 

            Physically separating a population from an insurgency is not new.  As Plakoudas points out, forceful population resettlement as a COIN strategy can be traced back to the Byzantine Empire (2016, p. 683).  Byman (2015) writes, “Population transfers are a common result of war, as residents in dangerous areas flee the fighting.  Authoritarian regimes (and some democratic ones, particularly in colonial situations) may engineer such transfers as part of the counterinsurgency policy” (p. 77). 

            However, Paul et al. (2013), and Greenhill (2004) find that merely physically separating the population from the insurgent is rarely enough. Rather, success lies with the implementation of the broader resettlement programs. Strategies in which the counterinsurgent credibly commits to actively promote improvements in the quality of life, or otherwise compensate the relocated, proved more successful in combating an insurgency than strategies that simply relocate the population with little or no thought to the welfare of the relocated.

Failure in Counterinsurgency Resettlement Programs

            Scholarship suggests that population resettlement programs provide little value in counterinsurgency campaigns (Greenhill, 2004; Paul et al., 2013).  The cases below suggest the lack of clearly established credible commitments between the population and the counterinsurgents lead to unsuccessful resettlement programs.

Protected Villages in Rhodesia           

            Rhodesian Security Forces (RSF) cleared large swaths of traditional tribal land and transplanted the inhabitants to areas far removed from their customary social networks. The stated purpose was to provide safety, and a higher standard of living to Africans in rural areas (Weinrich, 1977). In reality, the purpose was to prevent insurgents from accessing support, supplies, and intelligence from the population (Hoffman, Taw, & Arnold, 1991; O'Brien, 2017; Weinrich, 1977).

            Trinquier (2006) writes, “Since the stake in modern warfare is the control of the populace, the first objective is to assure the people their protection by giving them the means of defending themselves” (p. 27).  The Rhodesian government failed to heed Trinquier’s suggestion.  Unlike the development of self-defense forces in Vietnam’s Strategic Hamlet program, or the Briggs’ Plan in Malaya, the Rhodesian government failed to develop credible commitments to provide a self-defense apparatus to those in protected villages. In part, this is a result of the racist ideology of the regime, but also, the Rhodesian government lacked the resources to develop the necessary self-defense forces. The end result of a poorly planned protected villages program was an increase in the power of the insurgent armies.

Portuguese Resettlement in Angola and Mozambique

            In the 1970s, the Portuguese regime fought to maintain control over its African colonies (Venter, 2013).  The colonial governments implemented three types of resettlement programs: aldeamentos or strategic resettlements, reordenamentos, rural resettlements, and colonatos de solados or soldier settlements (Bender, 1972; Jundanian, 1974).  Although strategies differ between the three resettlement strategies, the goals are similar. Resettlement strategies were “to provide an effective countermeasure to the spread of nationalist insurgency” (Jundanian, 1974, p. 519).  

Bender (1972) applies a within-case design to examine multiple types of resettlement programs implemented by the Portuguese powers in Angola.  He examines resettlement programs in the geographical north, east, central, and south of Angola and identifies some generalizable themes.  The Portuguese achieved early success in the geographical north.  Bender argues that early success lies in three unique characteristics of the Angolan north.  First, the population was already displaced by conflict.  The strategic villages provided a modicum of protection from both government and insurgent forces.  Second, the north – characterized by extensive coffee production – was able to provide employment to those displaced persons living in resettlement communities.  Lastly, the culture of the population – living in large groups, a previous history in agricultural labor, etc. – was more accepting of the population resettlement than their neighbors in the other geographical regions (Bender, 1972, p. 339).

The results were different in other parts of Angola.  The population was settled far from traditional areas. Resettlement camps were often incompatible with existing socio-political and economic institutions. Haphazard implementation, and limited Portuguese credible commitments, fomented discontent on the part of the resettled population. 

Jundanian (1974) finds similar outcomes for Portuguese resettlement programs in its sister colony in Mozambique. Displacement from traditional homelands, disruption of traditional structures, and disturbance of customary livelihoods spread discontent among the resettled.  The Portuguese resettlement programs over-promised and under-delivered.  The Portuguese colonial government promised improved economic sustainability and increased access to education. However, the promised land, tools, schools, medical clinics, etc. never materialized. 

 “Portuguese motives in promoting rural resettlements, though cloaked with the desire for economic and social development of the population, are actually intended to provide effective countermeasures to the spread of nationalist insurgency in Mozambique” (Jundanian, 1974, p. 519). As such, little attention nor resources were expended towards the claimed commitment of improving the daily existence of the interned African Mozambicans.  Jundanian argues that the failure of the Portuguese to uphold their end of the bargain (to credibly commit) may have actually created a boomerang effect.  He finds a “correlation between intensification of the aldeamento program in a district and the spread of the insurgency” (1974, p. 540).

            In sum, the Portuguese colonial government’s resettlement policies failed for a number of reasons.   First, the government resettled the population in a manner that took them away from their traditional homelands and livelihoods. Second, the Portuguese colonial government failed to uphold its end of the bargain.  Third, insurgents were able to infiltrate resettlements and “capitalize greatly on the dissatisfaction [of the African internees] engendered by the resettlements” (Bender, 1972, p. 349). The failure to establish credible commitments between the population and counterinsurgent created opportunities for insurgents to sway the loyalty of discontented population to the guerrilla side. 

Strategic Hamlets in Vietnam

Writing in 1961, Roger Trinquier argued for the use of strategic hamlets to isolate guerrillas from the population.  The goal of the strategic hamlets program was to cut off supplies, recruits, and information to the insurgent armies, while providing security and services to inhabitants (2006). It is likely that Trinquier was influenced by the relatively successful “New Villages” program, part of the Briggs’ Plan in Malaya. 

In 1959, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem initiated the “Agrovilles” and strategic hamlet programs to separate Viet Cong guerrillas from the population. As Leahy writes, “The strategic hamlets were the major component of a comprehensive campaign to bring peace to South Vietnam by isolating the rural population from the Viet Cong guerrillas” (1990, p. 171).  According to Neil Sheehan (1992), 67 percent of the rural Vietnamese population were living in strategic hamlets (pg. 338).  However, most were forced from traditional agricultural areas into the highly restrictive strategic hamlets.  Corruption, extortion, and failed promises characterized the strategic hamlet program.  Villagers were forced to construct hamlets, pay bribes for basic construction materials, and pressed into military service (Sheehan 1992, pg. 310). As Leahy explains, “The South Vietnamese peasants who had been identified as the focus of the Strategic Hamlet Program, resented and largely rejected the program because of a general perception that there was little in it for them” (1990, p. 171).

The United States Marine Corps Combat Action Program (CAP) provided a more efficient model.  Instead of displacing the population, and resettling civilians into government-controlled strategic hamlets, a squad or platoon of Marines would live, work, and fight alongside rural peasants in their native villages. Additionally, the Marine platoons actively recruited, trained, and fought along Vietnamese Regional Force (RF), Popular Force (PF) militiamen. The militia forces, being drawn from the local population, had a greater interest in actively opposing Vietcong influence than villagers physically relocated to strategic hamlets (West, 2000).

            In short, the Vietnam case offers mixed results. The counterinsurgent developed institutions which ensured credible commitments from the civilian population in both CAP and CIDG programs.  This was not the case in the Strategic Hamlet programs.

Successful Counterinsurgency Resettlement Programs

            A critical variable in successful resettlement programs lies in the tacit support of the population.  Jundanian succinctly illustrates, “although resettlement programs of various types and degrees of effectiveness seem to constitute a basic component of counterinsurgency strategies in war-torn nations around the world, they can succeed only with the support of the peoples – and often this is not forthcoming” (1974, p. 519).  As our examples suggest, it is only through the thoughtful design and implementation of credible commitment mechanisms that the population will support a resettlement strategy.

Briggs’ Plan in Malaya

The Brigg’s Plan in Malaya proves a successful case of population resettlement. The reasons are two-fold. The first lies in that British forces removed a small, ethnic minority of the total population, namely Chinese immigrants squatting in the Malay countryside (Markel, 2006). As such, it proved relatively easy for the British to control, and effectively intern a small, ethnically different, and unpopular minority population. 

Second, the Chinese had fewer long-standing ties to the land.  Most Chinese worked in the large and labor intensive rubber industry.  Circumstances parallel the relatively successful resettlement programs in northern Angola in which “inhabitants lived in relatively large groups and worked as farm laborers [on large coffee plantations] in the past, factors that reduced the severe disruption in living patterns” (Bender, 1972, p. 339).  This relationship differs from the reliance on subsistence farming in the less other cases. 

Third, the British applied a two-prong strategy to the resettlement program.  First, the British spent a significant amount of money and effort to truly improve the standard of living in the government villages. Second, the British developed a highly effective and efficient psychological operation designed to persuade the targeted persons to resettle in the government villages (Hoffman et al., 1991, pp. 25-26).  Such an approach differs significantly from the forced resettlement programs within the authoritarian model.


Isolating the insurgent from the population is an instrumental aspect of counter-insurgency warfare and proves imperative to the success of any counter-guerrilla operations. However, the strategies discussed above took the opposite tract in that they sought to isolate the population from the insurgent.  This may seem merely an issue of semantics, but the results prove deadly serious.  By removing large segments of the population from their traditional homelands, the counterinsurgent creates massive resentment in those they most wish to bring to their side.  This is especially the case where a population is removed from traditionally held, socio-cultural homeland.  As was seen in Rhodesia, Angola, Mozambique, and (to a lesser extent) Vietnam, resettlement camps nearly always prove fertile grounds for insurgent recruitment. 

As the cases above illustrate, the likelihood of an indigenous population to actively support the government following their removal from traditional lands, and exclusion from traditional livelihoods is slim and subsequently limits the probability of counterinsurgency success. Doing so minimizes the ability to form credible commitments between peasants and the government.

About the Author(s)

Jay Hochstein is an expert in counter-threat finance and the economic line of effort in counter insurgency. He holds a graduate degree in economic development and an MBA in Islamic banking and finance and currently teaches at Jacksonville University. Mr. Hochstein served with the US Army Human Terrain system, in Afghanistan.

Dr. Matthew P. Arsenault has published in National Identities, Small Wars Journal, and Real Clear Defense. Dr. Arsenault served with the US Army Human Terrain system in Iraq.