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The Hundred Years War: An Analysis
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Hitler, Germany's Worst General
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Japan's Monster Sub
Britain's Participation Justified?
Popski's Private Army
The Maple Leaf Adventure
An Odd Way to View WWII
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Basic Counter-Insurgency
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The Battle of Pea Ridge
Tunisian Army in Crimean War
Japan's TA-Operation
The Cambodian Incursion
Hitler Youth: An Effective Organization
Dien Bien Phu: A Battle Assessment
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Lafayette Escadrille Pilots
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Barbarossa: Strategic Miscalculation
History of 138th PA
Giuseppe Garibaldi
The Story of a "Go Devil"
Long Range Desert Group
Island of Death
The Caterpillar Club
Foundation of Modern Army Regiments
One of Ten Thousand
The Design Was Not Passed On
Subverting the Sultan
John Paul Jones and Asymetric Warfare
The Liberation of Czechoslovakia 1945
Dien Bien Phu 50 Years Later
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"A Time of Testing": Battle for Hue
StuIG at Stalingrad
Only the Admirals were Happy
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What if?
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Tanks in the Garden of Eden
Early Texas Military History
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Role of Artillery in Korea
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Der Bund Deutscher Mädel
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Rulers of the World: The Hitler Youth
The Master's Misstep
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Breakout From the Hedgerows
St. Etienne: US 36th Division in WWI
Memories of D-Day
Life and Death of the 10th NJ Infantry
The Raid on Dieppe

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Andrew Wright Articles
Was Hitler right to invade Russia?
Why France Lost the Seven Years' War
Military History of War of 1812
Britain's Participation Justified?
Basic Counter-Insurgency

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Basic Counter-insurgency
Basic Counter-Insurgency
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.[1] 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 of counter-insurgency.[2]

Successful insurgencies depend on both internal and external aid. Internally they are dependent upon the indigenous population for base areas, recruits and supplies.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9] 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 land fairly.[10]

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.[11]

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.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14]

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.[15]

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.[16] 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.[17]

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.[18] 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 from anarchy.

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* * *

Copyright © 2007 Andrew Wright

Written by Andrew Wright. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Andrew Wright at:

Please take the time to visit Andrew Wright's site at

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.

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