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date: 22 March 2017

Counterinsurgency Warfare in Theory and Practice

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.

Counterinsurgency (known as COIN) is a theory of war that seeks to describe a proven set of techniques that a government may use to defeat a violent, internal, organized challenge to its authority and legitimacy. The term is sometimes also used to describe the set of activities itself (e.g., “conducting counterinsurgency”). The term originates from the middle of the 20th century, when it emerged from officials in U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s administration, as well as from British and French thinkers and practitioners with whom these officials were consulting. The Kennedy Administration and its allies were grappling with how to deal with what they viewed as Soviet attempts to destabilize post-colonial governments in the Third World and bring those nascent countries into the Soviet orbit. Encouraged by British and French experience in post-colonial rebellions and prior experience of imperial policing, the Kennedy administration hoped to apply their lessons learned to Cold War problems, most notably the growing challenges in Vietnam.

Rebellions, “irregular warfare,” “guerrilla warfare,” or “small wars,” or for that matter, thinking about means to put them down, go back to the beginnings of organized conflict itself. But 20th-century thinkers were informed most especially by British and French theorists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as British Colonel Charles E. Calwell and future Marshal of France, Hubert Lyautey. The most significant influence came from veterans, such as Sir Robert Thompson, of Britain’s “Emergency” in Malaya, from 1948–1960, and from David Galula, veteran of France’s conflict in Algeria from 1954–1960. Though these theorists differ on a number of points and on emphasis, the intellectual paternity is clear.

At its heart, the premise of counterinsurgency theory is that rebellions can only be eliminated by gaining the support of the population. Because rebels can hide amongst the people, influence them, and convince “fence sitters” to join in an insurgency, the government can only succeed when the majority of the population rejects the rebels and their message, refuses to offer them assistance, and ultimately turns them over to the authorities. Counterinsurgency theorists often invoke an image from a work by Chinese leader Mao Zedong, On Guerrilla Warfare, in which he described the people as water and guerrilla fighters as fish swimming in it.

Theorists argued for decades (indeed, the argument goes on) about whether America’s war in Vietnam failed because the nation was unable or unwilling to fully implement proper counterinsurgency practices. When the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 21st century began to falter, counterinsurgency and its proponents were once again center stage. Indeed, many maintain that, in 2007, the United States began to implement COIN, and that this turned the tide. But this argument remains in dispute, as do the theoretical and historical foundations of COIN more broadly.