by Andrew Wright
Counter-insurgency is never studied as seriously as conventional warfare. This
is despite the fact that there were more insurgencies during the latter half of
the 20th century than conventional wars. Even the most professional armies
barely spend the necessary time and effort in order to understand these
asymmetrical conflicts, focusing instead on preparing for the next great
conventional war of the 21st century. The result is that the most powerful and
technologically advanced militaries that can defeat most standing armies with
relative ease find it extremely difficult to crush insurgencies. This is
because a strategy meant to defeat a conventional army in battle is usually
counter-productive in counter-insurgency. Whereas in conventional warfare the
maximum use of violence is used to rapidly defeat the opposing army, in
counter-insurgency it is necessary to use violence more discriminately in order
to prevent alienating the population. Cutting off the insurgents’ internal and
external support and then hunting down their military units is the cornerstone
Successful insurgencies depend on both internal and external aid. Internally
they are dependent upon the indigenous population for base areas, recruits and
supplies. External support is necessary because insurgents usually cannot
produce or procure many weapons or equipment. Thus a neighbouring country can
provide the insurgents with valuable weapons and equipment, as well as safe
areas on their side of the border. The real turning point for the Vietminh
during the French Indochina War came when the Communists came to power in
China, as the Chinese quickly began to supply them with invaluable material
assistance. While military operations can kill scores of insurgents, as
American operations did in Vietnam, if the insurgents continue to receive
recruits and supplies, they can recuperate their losses. It is vital to deny
the insurgents’ internal and external aid before seriously attempting to
eliminate their military units.
To wipe out the insurgents’ internal support, it is necessary to protect the
people from reprisals, and win their hearts and minds. This is necessary
because even if the population sympathizes with the government’s cause, it will
not support the government if it fears the insurgents.
Obviously the only way to guarantee the safety of the people is to separate
them from the insurgents. This is a painstaking process that requires much time
and effort. First, the army must move into a guerrilla-controlled area and
force out the main body of insurgents. Then, the army must garrison the
population centres in order to prevent the insurgents from returning.
Afterwards, the people must be controlled in order to prevent them from aiding
the insurgency, and identifying remaining insurgents. This requires various
security measures such as constant surveillance of the people, controlling
their movements, widespread interrogations, issuing I.D. cards, creating a
census, etc. While the population may resent some of these measures, they are
necessary in order to protect the people, gain their trust, and weed out the
insurgents and their political agents. These political agents are vital to the
insurgency because their political organizations are vital in indoctrinating
and recruiting followers to the cause. Only then, after the insurgents have
been forced out of the area and their political organisms have been eliminated,
is it possible for the population to feel safe from insurgent reprisals.
Winning the hearts and minds of the people is also vital. While it is true that
the population may eventually help the government if it looks as though it will
ultimately prevail in the conflict, there is no better substitute for effective
counter-insurgency than having the population wilfully supporting you. While it
may be impossible to gain the complete support of the population, it is
possible to gain enough support to guarantee victory, as well as marginalizing
those who support the insurgency.
Winning the support of the people requires a sincere effort to listen to and
address their grievances. Needless to say, astute insurgents will have already
promised to address the population’s grievances, and if it is at all possible
for the government to pre-empt the guerrillas and implement the necessary
reforms, the insurgency will lose its legitimacy, as the British promise to
give independence to Malaya destroyed the cause of the Malayan Communist Party
during the Malayan Emergency. Therefore if the insurgents were fighting to
end religious persecution, or for the fair distribution of land, a wise
government would take steps to promote religious tolerance, or to distribute
Even if the government is unable to destroy the legitimacy of an insurgency by
eliminating its cause, it can still win over the population. If the insurgents
are fighting to liberate a country from foreign domination or to replace an
indigenous regime, it is necessary for the government to convince the
population that the existing government is preferable to that which the rebels
propose. This can only be done if the government clamps down on corruption and
incompetence within its own ranks and makes an honest attempt to improve the
lives of its subjects and respect their beliefs. Also, heavy handed responses
that cause high civilian casualties and abuses by the army should not be
tolerated. If the people sees that the government is genuinely interested in
their welfare, and can protect them from insurgent reprisals, their support can
be won, and the rebels will be isolated.
The other way to strangle an insurgency is to cut off its external support. As
mentioned above, while the insurgents rely mostly on the native populace to
supply them with recruits; they generally receive their most valuable weapons
and equipment from foreign nations. Usually this involves neighbouring
countries, but supplies can also be shipped in from the sea and the air.
Without this support most insurgencies are unable to maintain effective
guerrilla warfare, never mind building up conventional forces with the object
of overthrowing the government. To prevent supplies from reaching the
insurgents, it is necessary to seal off or patrol hostile borders, coastal
areas and the nation’s airspace. Perhaps the best example of sealing off a
border is the “Morice Line” the French built near the Algerian-Tunisian Border
that more or less prevented the Algerian F.L.N. from being supplied from
Tunisia. This line covered most of the border, was comprised of minefields and
electrified barbed wire fences, and was constantly patrolled by mobile French
forces. If it is deemed too costly or impractical to seal off a hostile border,
the best that can be done is to constantly monitor and patrol the border areas,
and if possible, win support of the neighbouring country so that both nations
can help seal the border. Patrolling the coastline and securing the airways
should be easy, provided the government has enough ships and planes.
Once the insurgents have been isolated from internal and external support they
will be extremely vulnerable. Not only will they be short on weapons, manpower
and supplies, but two of their greatest advantages, safe havens and
intelligence on the counter-insurgents’ movements, will be neutralized as well.
Since the insurgents have been isolated from both the indigenous population as
well as their external allies, they will be unable to effectively hide among
the population, and will either hide in the cities, and be caught or rendered
harmless without the support of the people, or flee to remote parts of the
country, as Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communists fled to the Shaanix region of
China after barely escaping annihilation by the Nationalist Forces in 1934.
As well, their initial advantage in intelligence, which would usually alert
them to forthcoming offensives by the counter-insurgent forces, will be
eliminated thanks to the separation of the insurgents from the population.
Now it is only a matter of hunting down the remnants of the insurgents and to
capture or destroy them. Needless to say, even though the primary purpose of
the counter-insurgent forces so far has been to gain the support of the
population as well as isolating the insurgents’ support, this does not mean the
military has been inactive in attempting to find and destroy the enemy. While
at best its results are usually modest before the insurgents have lost their
essential support, it is still necessary to hunt the insurgents, keep them
moving, and rob them of the initiative.
The key to subjugating the remaining insurgents is to hunt them continuously
and methodically, and trap them between several cordon and search operations. A
perfect example was General Challe’s offensive during 1959 in Algeria that
moved from the west of the country to the east to push what was left of the
F.L.N. insurgents into the Morice Line. The forces involved in these
operations must be lightly armed formations that are mobile enough to keep up
with the insurgents. They should be supported by short range planes and
artillery that can provide quick and close covered fire support, and by
helicopters and all terrain lorries, that can quickly insert or evacuate the
troops depending on the circumstances.
While previously it would have been difficult to find and destroy the rebels,
thanks to their initial advantage in human intelligence and their ability to
withdraw to other parts of the country, the counter-insurgent forces would now
have the advantage since the population is now actively supporting them, and
the continuously mounted operations should catch most, if not all, of the
insurgents between the numerous cordon and search operations. These operations
should be conducted as long as it takes, in order to clear the affected areas
of all insurgents, as well as to destroy or remove all resources that could be
of use to the insurgents. The operations will probably not eliminate all
the remaining insurgents, but they should break the back of the insurgency and
severely demoralize the insurgents. At this point, it would not be insensible
to offer the depleted insurgents amnesty to try to end the insurgency. Either
way, most will either accept the amnesty, or become captured or killed. The
very few remaining insurgents that evade the counter-insurgent forces will no
longer constitute a serious threat to the state.
To defeat an insurgency it is necessary to cut off its internal and external
support, and then to hunt down the remaining insurgents. Insurgencies are
dependent upon internal support for recruits, base areas and supplies, and upon
external support for weapons and equipment. Without this support they cannot
effectively replace their losses or build up enough forces to overthrow the
existing government. To cut off the insurgents’ internal support the
counter-insurgent forces must protect the people from insurgent reprisals as
well as winning their hearts and minds. To cut off the insurgents’ external
support, it is necessary to seal off the nation’s borders, coastal waters and
airways. Once the insurgents are denied their internal and external support
they will be weak and vulnerable to destruction. Lightly armed mobile forces,
backed by artillery, short range planes and helicopters must methodically
conduct overlapping cordon and search operations, moving from sector to sector,
until the back of the insurgency has been broken and most of its members have
been killed or captured. Effective counter-insurgency is long, expensive and
difficult to implement. Success should be measured by the active cooperation of
the populace rather than the number of insurgents killed or captured. As
frustrating as this is to the majority of conventional soldiers trained to win
battles rather than appeasing civilians, it is the best way to save a nation
Show Footnotes and
. Ian F.W. Beckett, Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies: Guerrillas
and their Opponents since 1750 (New York: Routledge, 2005), 24-25.
. Anthony James Joe, Resisting Rebellion: The History and Politics of
Counter-Insurgency (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky,
. Leroy Thompson, The Counterinsurgency Manual (London: Greenhill
Books, 2002), 71-72.
. David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Westport:
Praeger Security International, 2006), 25-27.
. Daniel Moran, Wars of National Liberation (London: Cassell,
. Roger Trinquier, Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency
(Westport: Praeger Security International, 2006), 27.
. Ibid., IV; 75-83.
. Ibid., IV; 53.
. Wikipedia article on the Malayan Emergency:
. Ibid., IV; 71.
. Ibid., III; 73-77.
. Ibid., II; 94-104.
. Ibid., I; 72.
. Ibid., III; 52-53.
. Ibid., III; 120-121.
. Ibid., V; 123.
. Ibid., IV; 65.
. Ibid., VI; 69, 72.
Beckett, Ian F.W., Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies: Guerrillas and
their Opponents since 1750. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Galula, David. Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Westport:
Praeger Security International, 2006.
Joes, Anthony James. Resisting Rebellion: The History and Politics of
Counterinsurgency. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2004.
Moran, Daniel. Wars of National Liberation. London: Cassel, 2002.
Thompson, Leroy. The Counterinsurgency Manual. London: Greenhill
Trinquier, Roger. Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency. Westport:
Praeger Security International, 2006.
Wikipedia article on the Malayan Emergency:
Copyright © 2007 Andrew Wright
Written by Andrew Wright. If you have questions or comments on this article,
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About the author:
Andrew Wright is attending his second year at the University of Regina,
majoring in History and minoring in Political Science. His hobbies include
reading, writing, politics, history, Halo (X-Box) and other strategy games like
Chess, Axis and Allies etc. He has lived in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada most
of his life, but have also lived in London England for a year and travelled
around Europe including: United Kingdom, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium,
Italy, Greece. He has an extensive military history book collection (500 or
more books). He is the author of After Iraq: A Year in the Middle East.
Published online: 02/17/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.