In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Counterinsurgency in the Modern World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Autobiographies
  • Classical Theorists
  • Asymmetric Warfare
  • American Perspectives
  • British Perspectives
  • French Perspectives
  • Soviet/Russian Perspectives
  • Imperial Counterinsurgency
  • Nato and United Nations’ Peacekeeping Operations
  • Afghanistan
  • Africa
  • Iraq
  • Latin America
  • Middle East
  • South Asia
  • New Wars

Military History Counterinsurgency in the Modern World
Scott Gates, Kaushik Roy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 February 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0075


Together, terrorism and guerrilla warfare for the most part constitute insurgencies. While terrorism is mainly urban, guerrilla warfare is primarily rural. Insurgency is the weapon of the weak and is mainly resorted to by nonstate actors. Attempts by the polity to crush insurgencies are known as counterinsurgency (COIN). If COIN fails, then the insurgents might develop conventional forces to capture state power. This constitutes the third and final stage of Maoist insurgency. COIN is known by a variety of names. In the late 19th century, it was categorized as “small war.” In the 1970s, a British officer called it low-intensity operations, and the Americans termed it low intensity conflict (LIC). Some call it irregular warfare. In the 1990s, Western military analysts termed this war as operations other than war (OOTW). The latter includes both military and nonmilitary means. This essay focuses on the theory and praxis of COIN. Temporally the essay covers the 19th and 20th centuries and the first decade of the 21st century. The rise of the modern industrial state gave rise to modern COIN. Imperialism, decolonization, and the Cold War generated changes in the character of COIN. The geographical net is cast wide, that is, around four regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Special focus is given to regions that have generated a very high number of insurgencies. How the COIN campaigns differ in the various regions is also brought under our scanner. An attempt is made to compare and contrast the varying approaches of the great powers’ COIN policies. The debate regarding the philosophy of minimum force in British COIN is touched upon. Further, it is contrasted with the use of brute force by the Americans in dealing with the insurgents as well as with their evolving approach to COIN. In order to understand the evolution of COIN, some understanding of the insurgencies is also necessary. Hence at times this essay focuses on the rebels and their ideologies and activities.

General Overviews

For a beginner, Ellis 1995 is a work of synthesis that is a must. Ellis traces the origin of insurgency from Roman times and shows the changes in the dynamics of irregular warfare in differing political contexts. Unfortunately, he stops before the end of the Cold War. Taber 1965 claims that insurgency will never fail if genuine economic inequalities and social discrimination exist. In Taber’s metaphor, the fleas (guerrillas) will be infallible against the dog (counterinsurgency forces) if the former conduct a political and psychological war featuring the grievances of the exploited. Fairbairn 1974, a survey of the counterinsurgency (COIN) against the Marxist insurgencies in rural regions, concludes that social discrimination, economic exploitation, and revolutionary ideologies were not important in the origins of insurgencies. Rather, support from foreign countries was crucial. Military personnel superiority, good intelligence, and special training are necessary for a successful COIN. Probably, the best wide-ranging overview of modern insurgencies is Beckett 2001. Beckett asserts that, despite technological advancement, the principles of COIN remained constant during the 19th and 20th centuries. The same argument is put forward by another British scholar, Thomas Mockaitis, in Mockaitis 2003. Good intelligence is the key to effective COIN, and it can only come through implementing a “hearts and minds” policy. Duyvesteyn 2005 argues that features of conventional warfare are present in so-called irregular warfare. Fowler 2005 writes that the post–Cold War era is experiencing a different form of insurgency due to transnational connections, NGOs, modern communications, etc. The COIN forces must mesh traditional and innovative elements. Light mobile forces, emphasis on HUMINT (human intelligence), and a flatter command structure will make the security forces more adept in fighting the insurgents. The American military officer Robert Cassidy makes a comparative analysis of the American, British, and Russian COIN campaigns in Cassidy 2006. In his analysis, the British Army, based on regiments, is best suited for fighting the insurgents, and the American and Russian preference for brute force is self-defeating. Further, the British institutional culture is geared toward preserving historical lessons; and the American and the Russian militaries have forgotten the COIN campaigns they conducted during the 19th and early 20th century. Kilcullen’s experiences in East Timor and as advisor to General David H. Petraeus in Iraq and Afghanistan shape his best-selling book, The Accidental Guerrilla (Kilcullen 2009). As most Western forces are likely to be third parties engaged in COIN operations, they should be aware of how their role is perceived by the locals. Many will regard the intervening forces as invaders of their physical and cultural space. Global movements (e.g., al-Qaeda or, in the past, Communism) opposed to these Western forces more generally often are able to exploit this resentment. Successful COIN therefore must account for both the local and globalized dimensions of insurgency by developing positive relations with the local population (through the promotion of political and economic development and security) and reduce the influence of the global movement.

  • Beckett, Ian F. W. Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies: Guerrillas and Their Opponents since 1750. London: Routledge, 2001.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203402450

    The British historian shows the evolution of insurgencies from Napoleon’s time till the beginning of the new millennium in a lively engaging style.

  • Cassidy, Robert M. Counterinsurgency and the Global War on Terror: Military Culture and Irregular War. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.

    Organizational cultures of the armies, says Cassidy, shape the COIN campaigns. The British regimental system is suited to decentralized small team infantry operations. In contrast, the American penchant for a firepower-based approach and the Russian culture of using overwhelming force alienate the people in the insurgent-infested zones.

  • Duyvesteyn, Isabelle. “The Concept of Conventional War and Armed Conflict in Collapsed States.” In Rethinking the Nature of War. Edited by Isabelle Duyvesteyn and Jan Angstrom, 65–87. London: Frank Cass, 2005.

    Decentralized operations at the tactical plane, centralized planning at the strategic level, etc., are required for conducting both regular and irregular wars.

  • Ellis, John. From the Barrel of a Gun: A History of Guerrilla, Revolutionary and Counterinsurgency Warfare, from the Romans to the Present. London: Greenhill, 1995.

    Written in a simple but engaging narrative style, this volume introduces the subject beautifully for an undergraduate student. Revised edition of A Short History of Guerilla Warfare, originally published in 1975.

  • Fairbairn, Geoffrey. Revolutionary Guerrilla Warfare: The Countryside Version. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1974.

    Not popular and economic grievances but organizational strength of the revolutionaries and the government forces, asserts Fairbairn, determined whether insurgency in a particular region succeeded or not.

  • Fowler, Michael C. Amateur Soldiers, Global Wars: Insurgency and Modern Conflict. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.

    By focusing on politics and copying the unconventional forces, a state’s security agencies have a chance to take on the insurgents effectively.

  • Kilcullen, David. The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Insurgency and counterinsurgency are played out in a globalized environment. Kilcullen argues that Western forces engaged in COIN activities abroad need to recognize this if they are to succeed.

  • Mockaitis, Thomas R. “Winning Hearts and Minds in the ‘War on Terrorism.’” Small Wars and Insurgencies 14 (2003): 21–38.

    DOI: 10.1080/09592310412331300546

    The principles for fighting Islamic terrorism, says Mockaitis, remain the same as those used half a century ago for effectively fighting the Communist guerrillas.

  • Taber, Robert. War of the Flea: A Study of Guerrilla Warfare Theory and Practise. New York: L. Stuart, 1965.

    The author, an investigative journalist, portrays insurgency as the harbinger of social revolution.

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