Insurgency and Counterinsurgency

The most iconic form of irregular warfare is that of insurgency (not to be confused with guerilla warfare), and its necessary counterpart, counterinsurgency. COIN, as it is often referred to, is even more iconic of IW than many imagine, since counterinsurgency campaigns often take on the superficial guise of counterterrorism for political purposes. However, in many of these cases, any terrorism involved is simply a tactical sub-activity of insurgency.

But before diving head first into this subject, it is worthwhile to take a moment to discuss our basic approach to the topic at hand. Most of the US doctrine related to counterinsurgency is heavily focused on foreign internal defense (FID), since it does not foresee the need to conduct COIN at home. Thus, most US doctrine (understandably, and perhaps wisely) approaches COIN as a prelude to FID. However, our study of COIN will adopt a more theoretical and universal point of view, and questions such as transition to host nation (HN) control will be left to our FID inquiry. In addition, since counterinsurgency is by definition a response to insurgency, we must begin our discussion there.


Perhaps the best definition of insurgency to date is that proposed by the U.S. Special Operations Command, which identified an insurgency as “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of an established government or societal structure, or the expulsion of a foreign military presence, through the use of subversion and armed conflict.” If this definition is accepted, then insurgency is clearly nothing new. Political leaders and systems have been overthrown through violent means since the beginning of human history.

However, even this definition does not fully satisfy, since it would appear to encompass armed coups and assassination conspiracies. The common use of the term “insurgency” (and its etymological roots) is that of an “uprising.” This suggests that there must be a significant portion of the population that is either actively or passively supportive of the insurgency. If the purported insurgents cannot attract the support of at least a sizable minority of the population, then they cannot truly be called insurgents. And, as will later become clear, a counterinsurgency approach is probably not the most effective government response.

Additionally, this formulation implies a level of coordination that, while probably beneficial to the ends the insurgents seek, is becoming less and less of a requirement as communications technology allows ever-greater disaggregated and decentralized forms social interaction. As the Arab Spring shows, those who seek to overthrow a government through popular uprising (whether violent or peaceful) can on occasion do so with little or no formal organization. While it is difficult to predict where technology will take us in the future, it is not yet appropriate to categorize such minimally organized uprisings as insurgencies.


Counterinsurgency, as its name suggests, is the effort to reduce or defeat an insurgency. This is ordinarily undertaken by the government of the state in which the insurgency exists, but on occasion is undertaken by an occupying force or other outside power. However, this should not be confused with foreign internal defense, in which a foreign power assists a host nation with its efforts to secure itself from internal threats (including insurgency). We will turn our attention to foreign internal defense more fully in the next post.

Notably, JP 3-24, Counterinsurgency Operations defines counterinsurgency as “comprehensive civilian and military efforts taken to defeat an insurgency and to address any core grievances.” While this definition does bring up important concerns for a counterinsurgency effort, it is clearly aspirational. In practice, many COIN efforts are piecemeal and often fail to even consider, much less address, core grievances. In fact, US leadership has recently stated that as of 2015, we still do not have a clear understanding of the Taliban’s political objectives and fundamental interests.

From a purely theoretical point of view, addressing core grievances is not required to defeat an insurgency. History is replete with examples of dictatorships very effectively suppressing major insurgencies through the use of force. The United States itself, in the first 150 years of its existence, defeated multiple insurgencies at home almost exclusively relying on force.

However, most theorists agree (with data to back them up) that the most effective way to combat an insurgent movement is through an approach that balances military and socio-economic methods. In part, this is due to the current communications environment, which allows for too much transparency for states to violently suppress an uprising without drawing a great deal of attention both at home and internationally. For example, Gaddafi had violently repressed his people for decades, and would likely have been able to do so again with little difficulty if the international community did not have immediate visibility into his actions. In addition to transparency, the ubiquity of communications creates an opportunity for the people themselves to communicate about the government’s actions, sometimes with immediate effect. As noted above, leaderless organization is now possible, which allows protesters and rioters to avoid areas of police activity, thereby undermining the effectiveness of relying on security forces alone to carry out COIN.

But if the use of overwhelming violence to suppress an insurgency is out of the question, then much more subtle methodologies are required. There is much written on these “indirect approaches,” including very astute work from David Kilcullen and David Patraeus. What these thought leaders, and those in the US defense community who have followed in their footsteps, have taught us is that a tiered but comprehensive approach is required, in which the population is secured from violence and crime, empowered to carry out their day-to-day lives, and provided sustained progress toward a resolution of their core grievances, all while simultaneously isolating the insurgency (physically, politically and logistically). This latter part of the strategy may involve military force, but from a theoretical point of view does not need to. In theory, purely political activity could work to isolate the insurgents from the support they require, leading the people themselves to deny safe haven to the insurgents through anonymous tips, while the police forces make appropriate arrests of the insurgency’s leadership to be tried in a court of law, further undermining the insurgents’ legitimacy. However, in practice and in most cases, military forces will likely be required to assist in securing the population, isolating the insurgent forces, and capturing its leadership.

Nonetheless, civilian agencies will have a major role in the counterinsurgency effort. At the end of the day, it is civilian action that will most likely be the determining factor between success and failure, since insurgencies rarely arise purely out of public discontent with security issues. Instead, insurgent groups often emerge in response of the government’s failure to provide legitimate leadership or essential public services that leads to the discontent that fuels an insurgency. These are issues outside the purview of the military, and which must be solved by civilian agencies. In a later post, we will discuss in more detail the particular capabilities that these agencies can bring. We will also discuss the issues particular to conducting counterinsurgency as a foreign actor.

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