Small Wars Journal

The Classical Principles of Counterinsurgency are Inadequate for Countering Global Insurgency

Wed, 12/30/2015 - 3:06pm

The Classical Principles of Counterinsurgency are Inadequate for Countering Global Insurgency

Jesse A. Heitz

This article will argue that the classical principles of counterinsurgency, while still exceptionally appropriate for countering regionally dominant insurgencies, are inadequate for countering modern global insurgency, making specific reference to the still present al Qaeda global insurgency.  The classical principles which will be examined come from David Galula’s Counter-insurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, as well as Robert Thompson’s Defeating Communist Insurgency: the lessons of Malaya and Vietnam

We will start with Thompson’s first principle of counterinsurgency; this principle fixates on the premise that governments in the throes of dealing with insurgency are weak and ineffectual, and that the totality of the insurgency is powered by legitimate political grievances[1] and the resultant social unrest, rather than the inexplicable extremist motivations that dominate today’s global insurgency.    

If one looks at the nations in which al Qaeda is most active, it can clearly be seen that the level of social unrest and political instability of a given Host Nation (HN) varies widely.  For instance, it is true that hotbeds of al Qaeda-linked or exploited local insurgencies such as in: Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kenya, and Niger, are all incredibly unstable.  However, other areas of al Qaeda dominance such as: Morocco, Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Yemen, and Tanzania, are all in the middle of the global pack in terms of stability.  More recently, al Qaeda, its operatives, and those who are influenced and adhere to its ideology, have not only planted roots, but have become quite active in the world’s most stable of nations[2], such as: France, Spain, the U.K., Belgium, Germany, and the United States.[3]  Worse yet, such an insurgency may have no readily identifiable political objectives[4] that could be attained through capitalizing on a HN’s weakness.

A folly that follows this train of thought comes from Thompson’s third principle, which stresses the necessity of “a balance between the military and civil effort, with complete coordination in all fields”[5].  This principle is beyond difficult to apply when countering a global insurgency.  Not only would it take tremendous unity and avenues of communication for besieged governments and their international allies to satisfy this principle, but with each HN being a distinguishable variable in terms of stability and resources, it is unrealistic to expect such a level of coordination and organization at the global or multi-regional level.[6]

Another problematic tenet of Thompson’s is his fourth principle, which states, “The government must give priority to defeating the political subversion, not the guerillas.”[7]  This principle strongly correlates with Galula’s second law, which prescribes that, “support is gained through an active minority”.[8]  Both of these principles/laws stress the importance of isolating insurgents from the civilian population within which they hide, whom they intimidate, and from the subversive political organizations that feed them.[9][10]

First, they assume that insurgents acting within a global framework, operate within defined and hierarchical formations, that they effectively exist in military comparable levels of strength and organization.[11]  However, organizations such as al Qaeda may exist in loosely affiliated networks with a few common logistical threads.  Some follow a cellular[12] or even lone wolf structure that only share a common ideology with an umbrella organization like al Qaeda.  Other similarly structured groups may use local insurgents as “sub-contractors” if their position could advance the insurgent group’s agenda.[13]

Yet another problem these classical principles encounter is urbanization.  They generally submit that insurgents heavily occupy rural areas.  Insurgencies in places such as the Philippines and Afghanistan take place largely in rural areas, yet the overwhelming geographic trend of many insurgencies is urban.[14]

Additionally, many modern insurgencies do not always openly engage host nation or counterinsurgent regulars in a traditional manner consistent with the goal of acquiring territory.  Instead, they hide in plain sight, utilizing acts of terrorism using limited personnel.[15]  Urban areas not only provide easier access to logistical necessities, but allow for the targeting of incredibly important and vital targets, all while the diverse populations of cities provide a veritable human canopy that government agencies have difficulty penetrating.[16]

Isolation of insurgents is further complicated by the current age of information and technology.  Individual al Qaeda affiliates can maintain ties with one another without any physical contact.[17]  Insurgents in the field can even receive information on the current state of jihad and even advice from fellow insurgents in the al Qaeda published magazines, Al-Shamikha and Inspire[18], in addition to a plethora of online mediums.  Classical principles are essentially at a total loss when it comes to measures that address the information and sophisticated propaganda war, which can virtually dictate the effectiveness of any “boots on the ground” isolation approaches by counterinsurgent forces.

Thompson’s fifth and final principle states, “In the guerilla phase of an insurgency, a government must secure its base area first.”[19]  While the immediate message proposed here is to firmly establish territorial security, this principle also calls for the establishment of a viable administrative and judicial system[20].  This principle corresponds to Galula’s second and third laws, which stress the need to gain the support of an active minority and the neutral portion of the population[21], and that the support of the population is conditional[22], respectively.

These principles run into a whole host of problems when applied to global insurgencies. The first issue is that both theorists advocate for what Galula aptly described in his fourth law, that the “intensity of efforts and vastness of means are essential”.[23]  Here, both Galula and Thompson stress the necessity of the use of direct military action[24] as opposed to the application of “soft power”[25].  That without security, the establishment and survivability of the government institutions required to gain the support of the citizenry[26] are doomed.[27]

With this in mind, the al Qaeda global insurgency’s goal is to bring about the end of the so-called U.S.-led global system and its continuous meddling in Middle Eastern affairs.[28]  As such, direct military action to establish security by a Western force if not carried to fruition, as was seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, not only emboldens the insurgency[29] through the perpetuation of the concept that counterinsurgency efforts represents a clash of cultures[30], but direct action also de-legitimizes the host nation by making it look feeble and incapable of providing for its citizens’ basic needs. 

Additionally, the application of force from external actors, such as the United States, is unsustainable in the long-run.  Both theorists concede that the counterinsurgent’s resources are limited, and thus advocate a “steamrolling”[31] course of military action that sees the insurgency crushed area by area.[32][33]  The problem with such an approach is that a global insurgency such as al Qaeda has been likened to being “dune-like”, which means that if it were to be quelled in one area, it might have in reality been pushed into an unaffected area, as was seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan.[34]  It is also possible that the insurgency may go dormant for a period and then flare up once occupying forces have withdrawn.  Therefore, Security Assistance (SA) measures might be the only feasible option when combating multiple insurgent hotspots at any given time[35] when one takes into account the counterinsurgent’s time and resource limitations.

Certainly, the classical principles of counterinsurgency have not yet been rendered obsolete, however, they do indeed need adjustments.[36]  The popular communist-inspired insurgencies that the classical principles were designed to tackle no longer necessarily resemble the extremism and unorthodox motivations that propel modern global insurgencies.  The al Qaeda insurgency is a remarkably complex insurgency that spans the globe, and by virtue necessitates a unique and flexible strategy for each local outbreak.  There is no place for a one-size-fits-all approach to engaging global insurgency[37], instead, the only answer is mix-and-match strategy that is adapted to each locale’s unique situation.

End Notes

[1] Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency: Experiences in Malaya and Vietnam. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1966), p.51 

[2] "Al-Qaeda around the World." BBC News, BBC, 05 May 2011.

[3] Economist Intelligence Unit. "Social Unrest." ViewsWire. The Economist, n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2013.


[4] Frank G. Hoffman, "Neo-Classical Counterinsurgency." Parameters Summer (2007), p.73

[5] Thompson, p.55

[6]David J. Kilcullen, "Countering Global Insurgency." The Journal of Strategic Studies 28.4 (2005),  p. 607

[7] Thompson, p.55

[8] David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare; Theory and Practice (New York: Praeger, 1964), p.57

[9]Thompson,  p.56-58

[10] Galula, p.57

[11] Thompson, p.56

15 Kilcullen, p. 607

[13]Kilcullen,  p. 602

[14] Hoffman, p.76

[15] Hoffman, p.82

[16] Hoffman, p.76

[17] Kilcullen, p. 601

[18] Mona Alami, "Al-Qaeda Using Magazines to Spread Message”, USA Today, 19 April 2011.

[19] Thompson, p.57

[20] Thompson, p.57

[21] Galula, p.56-57

[22]Galula,  p.57-58

[23]Galula,  p.58

[24] Galula, p.58

[25] Daniel S. Roper, "Global Counterinsurgency: Strategic Clarity for the Long War." Parameters Autumn (2008), p.100-101

[26]Thompson,  p.57

[27]Galula,  p.58

[28] Daniel G. Cox, "The Struggle Against Global Insurgency." Joint Forces Quarterly 1st Quarter 2010.56 (2010), p. 137

[29] Cox, p. 139

[30] David M. Witty, "Attacking Al Qaeda's Operational Centers of Gravity." Joint Forces Quarterly 48 (2008), p.2

[31]Thompson,  p.58

[32] Galula, p.59

[33] Thompson, p.59

[34] Cox, p. 137-38

[35] James A Bates, The War on Terrorism: Countering Global Insurgency in the 21st Century. Publication no. 05-8. Hurlburt Field: Joint Special Operations UP, 2005, p.1

[36] Hoffman, p.84

[37]Hoffman,  p.72



About the Author(s)

Jesse A. Heitz has written and presented over a dozen history research papers at both domestic and international history conferences, and has written pieces for International Policy Digest, Fire Engineering , International Fire Fighter Magazine, and International Fire Protection Magazine.  Additionally, he has numerous publications to his credit either forthcoming or already released, including a presentation that aired on C-SPAN 3's American History TV series, and three books due out in 2016-17 entitled, Steel Castles: The Rise and Fall of the American Battleship, Fire Resistance in American Heavy Timber Construction: History and Preservation, and A Military History of Big Oil.

He obtained his BA in History from the University of St. Thomas in 2010.  In July of 2014, he obtained a MA in War in the Modern World from King's College London.  Currently, he is in the final year of a MSt in Building History from the University of Cambridge.  He began studying for a MA in International Relations at the University of Oklahoma.  Beginning in September 2016, he will begin studying for a Ph.D. in Modern History at the University of St. Andrews.


Robert C. Jones

Mon, 01/04/2016 - 1:46pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C. (And I have half-seriously decided you are actually Bill Clinton, so that is my visual from now on when I read your posts...)

Consider this: AQ and ISIS conduct UW.
- They provide support to various revolutionary insurgent movements around globe. Many of these have adopted an AQ brand as a sign of their acceptance of AQ support, or have sworn fealty to ISIS as a sign of accepting their support in their respective revolutionary endeavors.
- They accept fighters from these efforts to apply to some focused effort that is important to the UW headquarters of ISIS or AQ. Why does this appeal to a nationalist revolutionary in some place like Mali or France? Often it is the logic of contributing to a main effort that is designed to break foreign support to the governments of the region. Many probably go just because they are young, available and it is a grand adventure with purpose.
- They seek support to their terrorist activities aimed at the outside powers who support the governments of the region that are the targets of the respective revolutionary movements. Think of this as a source of resistance insurgency energy. Much more about "occupation by policy" for the West than physical occupation (simply withdrawing troops or closing bases will not remove this source of resistance energy). When people believe some external governance is affecting their local/national governance in ways it has no right to do, it creates a resistance effect.

So it is this blend of revolutionary and resistance energy that AQ and ISIS rely upon to have effective influence with these disparate population groups. Any effective strategy must be designed to reduce both of these sources of energy if it is to have durable strategic effects. Neither CT nor COIN approaches are designed to address both. In fact, both CT and COIN approaches applied as we have applied them are most likely to make these sources of energy STRONGER even as they often succeed at suppressing symptoms in some localized space and time.

A Counter-UW approach, however, should and can be designed to reduce both sources of energy, tailored for each place, population and government it affects. A C-UW campaign does not seek to "defeat" insurgents or to preserve governments as they are. A C-UW campaign is far more agnostic and neutral. It seeks to mitigate and disrupt the activities of those conducting UW or acts of terrorism. It seeks to outcompete UW actors for influence with revolutionary populations and organizations (ROBIN SAGE), gain influence and attempt to steer them toward approaches that are less harmful to our interests; it focuses partner capacity building more on helping security forces to be less provocative in their activities against insurgents and more respectful of populations within whom the insurgency exists. C-UW also uses all of the tools of statecraft to put pressure on partner and allied governments afflicted by these conditions to open talks and seek to be more inclusive of those who feel oppressed or excluded from full participation currently. It is truly a comprehensive approach, and must be executed on a scale that fits the problem, not one that is truncated to fit neatly within national or GCC boundaries.

(Feel free to share with Hillary)


Bill C.

Mon, 01/04/2016 - 11:45am

When discussing a "global" insurgency, it does not seem appropriate to discuss such matters, as the author does in his third paragraph above, in individual host nation terms:

"If one looks at the nations in which al Qaeda is most active, it can clearly be seen that the level of social unrest and political instability of a given Host Nation (HN) varies widely. For instance, it is true that hotbeds of al Qaeda-linked or exploited local insurgencies such as in: Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kenya, and Niger, are all incredibly unstable. However, other areas of al Qaeda dominance such as: Morocco, Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Yemen, and Tanzania, are all in the middle of the global pack in terms of stability. More recently, al Qaeda, its operatives, and those who are influenced and adhere to its ideology, have not only planted roots, but have become quite active in the world’s most stable of nations[2], such as: France, Spain, the U.K., Belgium, Germany, and the United States.[3] Worse yet, such an insurgency may have no readily identifiable political objectives[4] that could be attained through capitalizing on a HN’s weakness."

Rather, in discussing such things as a "global insurgency," a more-global aspect, such as that provided by Kilcullen on Page 3 of his 2004 "Countering Global Insurgency," would seem to be more useful:

"Usama bin Laden, leader of the World Islamic Front (commonly known as Al Qa’eda, ‘the Base’ or Qa’idat al-Jihad, ‘the Base of Jihad’) declared war on the United States, Israel and by extension the rest of the liberal-democratic world on 23 February 1998. The declaration was made in a statement entitled ‘World Islamic Front Declaration of War against Jews and Crusaders’5. Bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al Zawahiri, former leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, subsequently published a strategy paper describing a two-phase strategy for global jihad against the West. Neither statement was treated particularly seriously at the time, but in retrospect each provides an insight into a developing global pattern of Islamist militancy."

"Bin Laden’s declaration of war announced a global campaign against the United States and the West. It issued a fatwa to all Muslims, calling for jihad, thereby indicating that Bin Laden claimed religious authority (needed to issue a fatwa) and political authority as a Muslim ruler (needed to declare a jihad). Subsequent Al Qa’eda statements refer to Bin Laden as the Sheikh or Emir (Prince or Commander) of the World Islamic Front, indicating a claim to political and military authority over Islamist militant fighters throughout the world. Thus Al Qa’eda’s statement declared a worldwide state of war against the West, and claimed authority over the forces engaged in that war. Unlike a traditional declaration of war, the declaration also claimed authority over a worldwide Islamist movement for jihad."

Thus, in a "global insurgency," it would seem, the insurgents do not see themselves as having a grievance against any individual state alone -- whether they reside in that state or not.

Rather, in a "global insurgency," as described by Kilcullen (and AQ) above, the insurgents appear to see themselves as having a grievance against a "global" opponent/governor; one which they declare, in no uncertain terms, to be the United States, Israel -- and/or -- the "liberal-democratic world/the West" as a whole.

How much more "globally" clear must our opponents be if they have:

a. Declared themselves to be the "World" Islamic Front? And have:

b. Declared a "worldwide" state of war against the West?

Thus, and continuing with this "global" rather than "individual host nation" theme, to suggest that the accommodation/resolution/approach etc., that must be undertaken/made -- re: such a "global" insurgency -- logically cannot be between (1) the individual insurgents and (2) the individual nation-states within which they presently reside.

Rather, such an accommodation/resolution/approach, logically it would seem, must be made as per:

b. The "global" insurgents, to wit: the "World Islamic Front" and its various off-shoots and present and potential future incarnations. And

b. Their opponents, who these global insurgents view as as their oppressive, alien and profane "global governors," to wit: the United States, Israel, and/or simply the liberal-democratic world/the West.

These are the global folks, these are the global parties (see "a" and "b" immediately above) who are at odds with one another.


Sun, 01/03/2016 - 7:55am

The biggest flaw of this text is the failure to identify, classify, detail and unambiguously define «global insurgency».

Clearly this is a «concept» that has no much value neither in Political Science nor in military doctrine, be it «strategic», «tactical» or «battlefield».

Nuno Rogeiro
Lisbon, Portugal

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 01/01/2016 - 11:16am

All insurgencies, just like all wars, are indeed unique in character. That is truly a matter of the unique facts if each case. For tactical purposes one can stop thinking right there, read your doctrine and set to work attacking the factual symptoms before you. This is "the American way of COIN" and is a proven failure. Temporary suppression of symptoms is often "good enough for government work" - but it is no cure.

Great strategists through history, however, appreciated that human endeavors are regulated by human nature, and that at a fundamental level exist common truths from which strategic perspectives can be derived. We see this in the brilliant work of Thucydides, Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz.

Where I believe we go wrong is when we lump internal revolutionary insurgency into the same war box along with external resistance insurgency and other forms if more traditional warfare. Revolution is more illegal democracy than war, and must be treated as such and has its own human nature-based fundamentals to guide one's strategic thinking.

We get too dogmatic(cling to doctrinal definitions), too simplistic ("war is war"), or too complex ("every insurgency is different"), or an odd frustrated blend of all three. As Einstein appreciated, to solve such problems one must be willing to break the rules, and also seek to understand how apparently random and complex systems are fundamentally also the same and operating within natural laws.

Global UW is not "global insurgency." We need to counter the UW strategy of those who seek to leverage and combine the energy within multiple distinct revolutionary and resistance insurgencies through a common ideology toward a common end. To do this the US need not help all the affected governments "defeat" their respective insurgencies, but we do need to disrupt the UW actors and outcompete them for influence with the aggrieved populations they target with their UW campaigns and rely upon for their relevance.


J Harlan

Fri, 01/01/2016 - 10:00am

I thought we had put away any notions of "Principles of COIN" as hogwash. For the record insurgencies are unique and Malaya was the greatest outlier of them all- geographically isolated. no outside support, the insurgents drawn almost exclusively from a visible minority, pre-mass media and the occupier starting the campaign by announcing it was leaving. Thompson seems to have overlooked the existence of 13 NVA divisions and a land border with China when advising the US in Vietnam. Galula famously was given a chance to test his theories in Algeria and failed.

The only factor which is a must is continuing domestic political support for the campaign. Everything else- including the amount of force used- is flexible. Unfortunately a modern democracy can't (NFL flag ceremonies not withstanding) simply order up support that translates into the public pushing the politicians to keep at it. COIN abroad has a shelf life and that is the only thing that matters.