Can an insurgency be stamped out solely by military means?

The vast majority of ‘success stories’ in counterinsurgency operations have relied not only on military means but on political and economic reforms to accommodate the grievances that caused the insurgency in the first place.

Marina Petrova
21 August 2014

Cheering crowds of young Malays welcome the return of British forces to Singapore in 1945. F Wackett/Wikimedia. Public domain. Insurgency is armed struggle over a distinctive terrain by a group demanding change of the status quo – whether this means putting an end to the influence of a colonial or occupying power, autonomy, secession or a shift in the current politics of the government (Boyle, 2012). Insurgents rely on clandestine attacks against a state’s security forces and use irregular forms of fighting due to the fact that they don’t have the military capacity to fight a conventional war against a modern army. Attempts at defeating insurgencies in the last century have taken various forms, strategies and tactics, but the military has always been an indispensable part of every counterinsurgency.

In enemy-centric and population-centric counterinsurgency approaches, militaries play a vital role in countering insurgencies, but overall victory in counterinsurgency operations is dependent on a wide range of variables. Whichever counterinsurgency path is embarked on, it is possible to be successful only if key factors such as capabilities, coordination, cooperation and information are combined. Still, the vast majority of ‘success stories’ in counterinsurgency operations have relied not only on military means, but also on a comprehensive strategy involving social, political and economic aspects including but not limited to enhancing the capabilities of the armed forces, working on better inclusion in social, economic and political terms, and making political and economic reforms to accommodate the grievances that caused the insurgency in the first place.

The framework

The concept of victory is crucial for this discussion since we are looking at what leads to the ending of the conflict. Here victory for the counterinsurgents is defined as the achievement of long-lasting political stability and the absence of violence stemming from the insurgents (Mandel). For the purposes of this essay counterinsurgency missions are divided into two categories: enemy-centric and population-centric operations. The former refers to counterinsurgencies where the military is the sole or at least the leading factor in all operations. These missions rely overly on kinetic approaches since the ultimate goal of the campaign is the total elimination of the insurgency movement (Kilcullen). Such kinds of operations often don’t seek to engage the civilian population, or aren’t focused on any socio-political solutions to the root causes of the insurgency. On the other hand, in population-centric counterinsurgency operations the military still plays a key role, but there are great efforts made in order to balance military action with political, economic and social endeavours at addressing the conflict. In such types of campaigns the function of the military usually expands from its ordinary tasks to the provision of support operations to humanitarian and socio-political responsibilities, often in joint operations with the other law enforcement units of the state. The goal of population-centric approaches in counterinsurgency is to isolate and protect civilians from both the influence of the insurgents and the threat they might pose to the ordinary people (Jardine).

The local population needs to be convinced of the significance of the counterinsurgency and most importantly its commitment to the campaign. Mao Zedong compared insurgents to ‘fish swimming’ in the ‘sea’ of popular support, and counterinsurgents need to focus on decreasing the assistance and approval that the local population grants to the rebels in order to break the backbone of the insurgency (Nagl). There are a few but vital points to be followed in every counterinsurgency doctrine: efforts at the preservation of a state’s legitimacy and political capacity, abiding by the law, and focusing not only on the military aspect of counterinsurgency, but also on the political, economic, and social elements. In other words, the counterinsurgency campaign has to secure its operational bases and territory, but at the same time address the grievances and the politics of resolving them while balancing all these aspects with its respective military means. The preparedness to lead a potential prolonged conflict and not to lose the political and military will is also quintessential (Thompson). It can be argued that the population-centric approach is more comprehensive than the enemy-centric approach. Still, victory is dependent on a diverse range of variables.

The RAND Corporation Report ‘Paths to Victory: Lessons from Modern Insurgencies’ has provided an extensive comparative analysis of counterinsurgency efforts from WWII to present. The report focuses on 59 cases, divided into two categories: ‘Iron Fist’ (covering the definition of enemy-centric approach in this discussion) and ‘Motive-Based’ (covering the definition of population-centric approach in this discussion). The key finding of the report is that in 44 of the cases where enemy-centric approaches were prevalent, the success rate of the insurgents over the counterinsurgents was 61%, while in the 15 cases where population-centric approaches were predominant counterinsurgents were defeated only in 4 instances. The findings of this analysis suggest that even if it is possible to resolve insurgencies solely with military force, the vast majority of ‘success stories’ in counterinsurgency operations has relied not only on military means, but on comprehensive strategies involving military, social, political and economic aspects. Any discussion on the reasons for this must look at the wide spectrum of determinants of the outcome of the counterinsurgency campaign.

How to achieve victory?

Insurgencies require popular support for the goal of overthrowing a government, colonialism or occupiers by the application of a wide range of tactics such as guerrilla, hit-and-run assaults or terrorism. Governments confronting such forms of instability adopt a strategy to deal with the situation which should be based primarily on two components: first, the ability of the government to successfully assess the circumstances and the environment in which it has to operate a counterinsurgency campaign, and second, the relationship between the government/military and the civilian population (Shafer). In addition, there is often interplay between the components, in the sense that the civilians may deem the government illegitimate, or the civilian population can be extremely divided in relation to government policies and the cause of the insurgents. Public opinion isn’t constant and while a country is experiencing an insurgency, the government should be cautious about the policies it takes so as not to create a backlash (Taber).

We should note that the type of government isn’t of central importance in this discussion since autocratic regimes can be equally good at solving insurgencies, regardless of their approaches, as democracies can be disastrous in their counterinsurgency operations. For instance, in the case of Peru and the fight against the Shining Path, which began in the 1980s, it wasn’t until the highly controversial and authoritarian rule of Alberto Fujimori in 1992 that the counterinsurgency doctrine was revised and some progress made. Previous administrations had relied exclusively on military approaches, while Fujimori managed to embark on a more population-centric approach, which ultimately won him the victory over the Shining Path (McCormick). If we take governments as rational actors, making decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis, then we can expect their approach to the insurgents to be determined by a wide range of economic, social and political considerations. On the other hand, more liberal states such as Turkey in its counterinsurgency campaign against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party focused exclusively on military force to squash the insurgents. Both Peru and Turkey achieved victory in their counterinsurgency campaigns disregarding their type of government and the counterinsurgency approach they took.

Despite the fact that victory of the counterinsurgents proves not to be conditional solely on the approach used, there are some central determinants of the ‘success stories’ that need to be addressed. One important factor is the capabilities of the military, namely the military capacity of the armed forces and also the ability of the military to adapt to the irregular nature of insurgencies. This aspect is essential in both enemy and population-centric approaches. In the former the military has to have the capacity to destroy the insurgents and outwit their irregular tactics, which can be a difficult task to achieve due to the fact that often militaries aren’t trained to fight in such asymmetric conflicts. In population-centric counterinsurgency campaigns, the military might need to take responsibilities such as supporting the law enforcement forces, aiding in the distribution of humanitarian assistance and other roles, which are substantially different from the basic task of fighting wars. Counterinsurgents need good military equipment and also the ability to distinguish the type of force and the right time for that force to be applied so as not to dissuade the population from their sympathy for the counterinsurgency. In Chechnya (1994-1996) the Russian conventional armed forces were inexperienced in leading an asymmetric conflict; the Russian counterinsurgency defeat in Chechnya showed the vulnerability of the Russian military to unexpected assaults on Russian military equipment, vehicles and personnel (Kramer).

It is crucial for the counterinsurgents to recognize the specificities of the conflict environment and to adapt strategy accordingly. For instance, the British in Malaya (1948-1960) focused on an enemy-centric approach initially, but this course of action generated huge losses for them. ‘Winning the hearts and minds of the population’ strategy, or the population-centric approach, made it possible for the British to collaborate with the local population for intelligence purposes and with the appropriate technology to isolate Communist guerrillas, cutting off food and equipment supplies, convincing the locals that they are better off not joining the insurgents (Stubbs). Careful relocation of Chinese Malayan and well-staged propaganda campaign made it possible to separate the insurgents (Carruthers). The less the support for the rebels, the easier for counterinsurgency is to crack down the insurgency. The jungle terrain which made it impossible for British troops to fight the guerillas at first, turned against the insurgents once they were cut off from food supplies and equipment, which greatly impaired their sustenance.

Members of the Malay Regiment inspect captured equipment, supplies and documents, 1949. UK Government/Wikimedia,Public domain.As demonstrated in the British experience from Malaya, territory and its population is key for counterinsurgents because their primary task is to deter insurgents from self-governance, ensure the population is secure and limit its connection to the insurgents. However, hard terrain such as unreachable mountains, jungles and swamps could be difficult to keep under close supervision and control. The ‘hearts and minds’ approach (here used interchangeably with the population-centric approach) addresses the need for counterinsurgency to regain the loyalty of the people who have tendencies to or are alienated from the government to ensure that the country is still under the control of the central authority. The main focus is on economic and social improvements, while the military has a supplementary role for small operations and mainly for the provision of security. Victory in counterinsurgency campaigns requires well-managed collaboration and coordination between the military and the civilians on the ground so that basic operations like intelligence gathering, policing, training can be achieved. Counterinsurgency endeavours, be they enemy- or population-centric, are more about cross-organizational cooperation, coordination and collective decision-making than solely military deployment.

The counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan prove this point most vividly – the civil-military and politico-military relations in the war-torn country have been contradictory at best. In fact the interplay between the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the Karzai Administration and other major stakeholders has been riddled by miscommunication, misinformation and marred by discrepancies in relation to tactics and the execution of operations and reforms (Eikenberry). As a result, in spite of military successes, the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan lacks the cohesiveness and collaboration with the Afghan government and other sections of the society, which would guarantee a truly joint venture in stabilising the country. Thus, the Afghan case demonstrates the idea that collaboration and coordination are crucial for a counterinsurgency campaign and even the vast resources employed by the US and ISAF cannot compensate for inadequate cooperation and organization.

Information is also critical due to the fact that use of force can be consistent and justified only when counterinsurgents understand their enemy, its tactics and associations with the general population (Gompert and Gordon). From a different perspective, information dissemination by different media outlets and social media about the counterinsurgency campaign can be a double-edged sword, which potentially could affect the mission, and more importantly the support for the counterinsurgency effort. For instance, a wide audience is watching the progress of the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan and there is a danger that what is broadcast in the media is inconsistent with the reality on the ground in ways that the media downplays, maybe overestimating the achievements of the counterinsurgents (Betz). Proportionality in all military actions should be taken into account; there is always the question of how much military force is enough due to the fact that if counterinsurgents use too much violence, they may lose legitimacy, whereas if not, they may be deemed as not determined enough. Quantitative and qualitative violence are terms used to correctly address this problem: quantitative violence values the number of killed as opposed to qualitative violence in which what is important is who you kill (Lynn). By leading a massive extermination campaign, counterinsurgency could alienate the local population, suffer collateral damage, and even make people join the insurgents. Still, there is the flip side of the coin where decisive military action on behalf of the counterinsurgents could boost support for the mission among an already dissatisfied and anti-insurgency population. Here again strategy, and on a tactical level the proportionate use of force, are conditional on the development of the conflict and the domestic realities.

Finally, when a state is leading a counterinsurgency campaign on a territory outside its national borders, this could present a wide spectrum of difficulties such as gathering intelligence and making troops familiar with the landscape and its specificities (Kiras). For instance, US troops in Vietnam (1955-1975) weren’t adequately trained and prepared for irregular, small-scale operations, intelligence gathering and collaboration with the locals, despite their great military capabilities (Nagl). It is always essential for the counterinsurgent military force to adjust to the reality on the ground.

The French counterinsurgency in Algeria (1954-1962) demonstrates another aspect of counterinsurgency campaigns taken outside national borders – it is essential to have the support of the public at home. Perhaps in such cases the type of government of the state sending the counterinsurgency mission abroad plays a key role. The fight against the National Liberation Front indeed generated huge economic and political costs, numerous troops lost, but what made French troops withdraw wasn’t the insurgents per se, but French people at home who were not willing to take the costs of the military campaign (Mack). The disproportionate and indiscriminate use of violence by the French together with the lack of a clear-cut strategic goal brought insurmountable negatives to the counterinsurgency effort and alienated both the French and Algerian people from their support for the campaign (Frémeaux). In other words, despite gaining the majority of the military victories, the French counterinsurgents lost not only the ‘hearts and minds’ battle with the civilians in Algeria, but also failed to keep adherents in France of the counterinsurgency (Canuel). The French experience in Algeria points to the necessity of reconsidering the political and civilian aspect of counterinsurgency, and re-examining the military means, which could prove to be extremely costly and inefficient without the support of the general population at home and in the host country (Long). This example substantiates the argument that population-centric counterinsurgency approaches have better chances of being successful if they adopt comprehensive means to the ends of putting the insurgency down and establishing stability.


Overall, a wide range of factors determines victory in counterinsurgency and there are no straightforward answers. While the military presence is an indispensible part of every counterinsurgency campaign, in most cases the predominance of the military force has given mixed results or outright defeats for the counterinsurgents. Often, conventional armed responses to insurgencies have proven to be unsuccessful because of the asymmetry of the conflict and the constant implementation of new tactics by the insurgents. Thus, the military should be prepared for tactical innovations and new approaches, and in more population-centric approaches, to have as a supplementary role political efforts at solving the insurgency. The challenges of modern insurgencies require constant adaptation to the specific circumstances; with a focus on the military mainly as a guarantor of security and stability, good management of intelligence, and high levels of coordination. Analysis of the insurgency environment is crucial. The exhaustion of military and political capability could shift the balance to the advantage of the insurgents. All in all, counterinsurgency campaigns are extremely difficult ways to bring back stability to the country. Most successful counterinsurgency campaigns have focused on the grievances that caused the insurgency in the first place, through political, economic and social endeavours, while the military has had a supplementary role. 

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