Why “counter-insurgency” is a misnomer (and counter-productive).

My first “real” job involved creating a Latin American Studies program for US military and civilian intelligence officers at a military post-graduate institution. One of the factors that contributed to my being hired was that I had familiarity with how Latin American guerrilla organizations fight. When asked at the job interview about how to “counter” them, I noted that the very term “counter-insurgency’ was self-defeating on two levels, one semantic and one practical. That impressed and surprised my  interlocutors, who then allowed me to teach my interpretation of counter-insurgency (COIN) theory to my Latin-America bound students. In return, I got to learn and participate in their business. But that was two decades ago. Since the doctrine of counter-insurgency has resurfaced and been applied in recent years to Afghanistan and Iraq, and is seemingly back in vogue and unchallenged in those settings, I thought I would reprise my argument against its use.

“Insurgency” refers to counter-hegemonic or anti-status quo groups that use armed struggle as the means to the end of political victory. It is not a form of warfare per se, but instead a term used to describe the nature of a particular guerrilla (or irregular or unconventional) group using irregular warfare as the means to their end. Thus one does not “counter” insurgency by fighting, but by ideological means. Hence “counter-insurgency” properly applies to non-coercive measures employed by political status quo regimes to thwart the ideological appeal of (most often nationalist) guerrillas. The term is therefore misused when applied to the kinetic part of asymmetric warfare, which more properly can be termed “counter-guerrilla” or irregular warfare operations.

But even then the practical problem remains: by defining kinetic operations as “counter-guerrilla” or (mistakenly) “counter-insurgency,”  the conventional fighter begins on the back foot. Anyone familiar with guerrilla warfare knows that you do not “counter” it, or merely respond to guerrilla operations. That is because such an approach gives the guerrilla forces the initiative as to how and when to stage their operations. Such a “countering” strategy inevitably allows guerrillas to remain on the offensive and dictate the timing, nature and tempo of armed confrontations. It is, therefore , often a self-defeating strategy doomed from the onset.

In order to be successful, counter-guerrilla operations need to be offensive, irregular and consequently symmetrical to those of the guerrillas themselves. The idea is to fight guerrillas on their own terms but with all of the capabilities afforded to conventional militaries (e.g. air cover, precision-munitions, satellite guidance, signals and technical intelligence). That involves small group operations–such as what the NZSAS is trained to do–acting with excellent and precise tactical intelligence to strike preemptively at guerrilla targets, focusing on leadership and command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) structures. Rather than large group operations that rely on massed force and kinetic friction, the irregular approach emphasizes fluidity and maneuver. In other words, it operates the way guerrillas do.

Therein lies the problem with Western counter-insurgency strategy. It confuses the nature of a guerrilla grievance with a type of irregular warfare, and in doing so legitimizes the grievance in contexts in which the status quo regime is unpopular. In such contexts “insurgents” are awarded popular appeal as symbols of resistance to the unpopular regime and foreign oppressors, thereby undercutting any “hearts and minds” efforts undertaken by the latter. This in turn undermines efforts to obtain precise, reliable and timely intelligence on guerrilla targets, which is a function of the rapport between the civilian population and various armed actors. Instead, the intelligence flow preferably goes to the guerrillas, and what passes for intelligence to the conventional actor is often disinformation.

To that can be added the mindset created by the “countering” posture of irregular operations. Such a strategic posture condemns the countering party to react to the actions of the guerrillas, which although leading to tactical success on occasion, denies the countering side the possibility of strategic victory. So long as guerrillas can avoid confrontations with massed force, they survive to fight another day, another week, and years thereafter. “Countering” strategies also have the drawback of not being fine-tuned to the cultural norms and fighting styles of irregular opponents. Although much has been written about the different approaches to conventional warfare adopted by different nations (such as American, Arab, British, Chinese, Israeli and Russian fighting styles), much less attention has been paid to different unconventional or irregular fighting styles. Not all guerrillas copy the Guevara, Guillen, Marighella or Mao  playbook when undertaking their campaigns, and many hybrid versions of guerrilla warfare exist that are rooted as much in local armed  custom as they are historical examples. A “countering” strategy is less capable of embracing that fact.

I have refrained here from taking a position on the worthiness of the cause (pro or anti-guerrilla) in a given case. Readers can choose sides in any conflict as they deem fit. What I am doing here is briefly explaining why Western counter-insurgency strategy has elementary problems that seriously impede the possibility of success in any context in which its adversaries are well organised and highly motivated, particularly if the latter adopt a guerrilla strategy of fighting prolonged wars of attrition on their home soil against foreign forces that are not as committed to the long-term struggle (or who do not have the support of their home populations to do so).

As the old saying goes, in asymmetric wars, strategic stalemates are victories for the militarily “weaker” side. However, if the militarily “superior” side bases its campaign on erroneous assumptions and faulty strategic logics, then more than a stalemate is within the grasp of the ostensibly “weaker” side. After all, asymmetry in warfare works both ways.


PS: I have updated the post. For those interested, here is a link to US counter-insurgency doctrine. The Spec Ops community understands the problem, but as a minority component of a large conventional military, they ultimately are not determinants of the solutions offered.

9 thoughts on “Why “counter-insurgency” is a misnomer (and counter-productive).

  1. Chris

    Paul – I’m interested to hear your views on the rising popularity of ‘drone warfare’. The US is now effectively at war in Pakistan via drones. Successful assassinations in the last few months have a lot of people arguing that drones give nation-states the front foot (this is cricket lingo for the advantage), and are the most effective tactic when fighting unpopular irregular wars (avoiding body bag syndrome). Do you agree?

  2. Pablo Post author

    Chris: It depends on how they are used. At present drones are deployed as part of the countering strategy employed by the US and its ISAF allies against the Taliban and suspected AQ remnants (including Osama and al-Zawahiri). It is therefore susceptible (as has been the case on several occasions) to intelligence failure or disinformation, as the targets need to be acquired via human as well as technical intelligence, and the former is particularly lacking in that part of the world. This has led to strikes on innocent targets as well as legitimate ones.

    Thus, although it can offer decisive tactical advantages, drone warfare of itself cannot lead to strategic victory under the current US/ISAF battle plan.

    However, if a strategy were to be developed that used drones as part of a pincer or encirclement movement that drives the Taliban/AQ leadership in the Waziristans and the tribal homelands towards ISAF and Pakistani forces, then it stands a chance of success. They key is with the Pakistanis–they have to allow, or at least not interfere with an upgraded drone campaign while stepping up their own tactical intelligence collection efforts with a view to sharing it in a timely fashion with their counterparts on the Afghan side of the border. That is unlikely at this point in time.

    Drones are extremely useful as technical intelligence collectors and new micro-technologies will increase that capability along with the stand-off armed capability now in place. But the key is in precise verification of intelligence streams and that remains a human endeavour, so the utility of the technology remains dependent on the capabilities and acumen of its human counterpart. Given current circumstances, that means there is a fair way to go before it can assume pride of place in warfighting–especially against guerrillas.

  3. Chris

    True that about the human intel. I saw the latest count of civilian casualties inflicted by drones in the NWFP has crossed 1000.

    It seems to be looking more and more likely there will be no victory in Afghanistan as all of Pakistan’s strategic interests run against those of the US. Today I read this great description of the problem of Pakistan in US stratey:

    “It is the elephant in our strategy room – if the elephant was a rabid and schizophrenic trained mastodon, still willing to perform simple tricks for a neverending stream of treats, even as it eyes its trainer and audience with a murderous kind of hatred. “

  4. Hugh

    Chris – we heard exactly the same thing about avoiding body-bag syndrome during the almost entirely airborne US interventions in Europe and the Middle East in the 1990s – and in fact during the second Gulf War. What’s changed? During the 1990s the USA lost exactly one pilot to enemy AA, and he was promptly extracted. Does moving to drones really make an enormous difference? I certainly don’t think the Taliban have shot down any US aircraft.

  5. Ag

    You folks still looking for guest posts? I can’t remember who suggested it, I think it was Pablo.

  6. Pablo Post author

    Ag: Pitch the idea before putting a full post together. That gives us editorial control. But, since you know the rules and are a proven value, I see no problem in giving you space to opine.


  7. jcuknz

    From WWII I remember, I was a teenager when it finished, the expression “Over Here, Over Paid and Over Sexed” which could apply to any first world soldier in a third world country. So it strikes me, struck me quite awhile ago, that instead of flooding the country with troops the solution is to raise the living standard of the population so there are not dammed occupiers but a few helpful freinds. That was where NZ was going until recently I thought. One side issue which I think important is how one stops the drug crop polluting the world. Instead of simply burning crops with I assume no compensation the money saved through troop reductions would be given in compensation. If poppies are the best crop to grow then that is what should be grown. But the fly in that ointment is that the pay the troops get tends to come back to the home country. Reducing troop numbers has a detrimental effect on the base country ecconomy …. altogether a tricky subject.

  8. Pablo Post author

    jcuknz: The “nation-building” exercise first has to admit that in a place like Afghanistan, Western notions of “democracy” are currently impossible. But “good governance,” defined as delivery of public good and services without prejudice or coercion, is achievable on local terms. For that to happen local political and economic must be respected, which means giving tribal leaders and warlords their due while keeping the opium crop (which is, after all, only a problem for Western consumers with criminalized drug laws).

    But to admit that is to admit, in the eyes of the neo-imperialist “civilizers,” defeat in their project. So it will not happen, or at least not happen until they have pulled their troops out.

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