Counterinsurgency and its Discontents

Irregular Warfare Scholarship of the Cold War and Beyond

This article is part of a series I’ll be doing on counterinsurgency history and theory (the main focus of my senior thesis). I wrote this about a year ago for a preliminary senior thesis course and, since then, have been lucky enough to travel to the British National Archives to look at some primary sources in person. While the nature of my research has changed over the past year as I’ve incorporated new topics, this paper formed the basis of the thesis that I’m currently wrapping up.

Snapshots of the war in Afghanistan (Wikimedia Commons)

In the mid-20th century, European hegemony began to collapse as previously-colonized nations started to push for independence.  In Africa and Asia, peoples previously governed by the British, French and other European powers began to shift their alignment.  As the Soviet Union amassed power and influence, formerly colonized nations attempted to throw off the yoke of imperial rule and align themselves with allegedly anti-imperial communist leaders in its stead.  Faced with massive war debt and struggling to save face as imperialism grew steadily less popular, Western powers attempted to maintain control over their former colonies, prevent the loss of their power and material resources to the Soviets and, when decolonization became inevitable, transition power to native peoples as smoothly as possible.

The old world order did not go quietly: conflict, insurgency, and civil wars often marred these turbulent power transitions as the West and the Soviets vied for influence.  Although many people considered these conflicts morally reprehensible—or at least worthy of political reconsideration—policymakers often sidelined objections in the name of containment, the “domino theory” and the larger, global struggle against Soviet control.  The Vietnam War, for instance, continued for over a decade despite massive protests across the U.S.  Western powers often supported anti-communist dictatorships even when they implemented their own forms of authoritarian brutality.

The ensuing independence struggles, fought around the world within the span of a few decades, forced Western powers to reevaluate their established political and military tactics.  Accustomed to large-scale conventional wars, large military powers often found themselves stymied by local-scale guerrilla campaigns.  The ability of Western powers to moderate, control, and learn from military independence movements proved crucial to the campaigns themselves and, ultimately, to the success of the newly-independent nations.  The proxy wars and decolonization struggles of the Cold War—conflicts that seemed local and isolated, but in totum ultimately realigned the existing world order—have important implications for modern-day politics and military efforts.

This essay examines the historiography of counterinsurgency and irregular warfare scholarship, focusing on a selection of especially useful case studies.  Specifically, I’ll focus on two historical case studies—the Mau Mau insurrection and the Malayan Emergency, both of which exemplify different views of counterinsurgency and its strategies—and provide a historiographical survey.

Existing Scholarship

Counterinsurgency as Modern Military Challenge

20th century history offers the wisdom of dozens of noted heroes of irregular (guerrilla, as opposed to conventional) warfare—T. E. “Lawrence of Arabia,” John “Black Jack” Pershing, David Petraeus, and others, to name just a few.  Irregular warfare and counterinsurgencies have had a major impact on world history, contemporary politics, and popular culture.  Many others would argue that the West’s response to irregular insurgencies—Vietnam being the most prominent American example but certainly not the only one—defined the second half of the 20th century.  Still, militaries struggle to succeed in and extricate themselves from counterinsurgency efforts abroad.  America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan against the Taliban insurgents, the longest-lasting war in American history, acts as a perfect example.

T. E. Lawrence, one of the first noted military scholars to examine and engage in a “small war,” once likened irregular warfare to “eating soup with a knife.”[1]  Although guerrilla wars and insurgencies have many of the same objectives as conventional wars, they are fought with vastly different, and often counterintuitive, tactics.  No two insurgencies—or counterinsurgencies, for that matter—are exactly the same, but all have certain features in common.  As civil wars, insurgencies and other “small wars” continue to crop up in the wake of decolonization, military guidebooks and strategic journals have struggled to pinpoint the techniques that distinguish “successful” counterinsurgency campaigns (campaigns that minimize violence while still achieving political and military objectives) from unsuccessful ones.

Counterinsurgency, known in military circles as “COIN,” has been analyzed in noted texts such as David Petraeus’s Army Field Manual 3-24 (FM 3-24).  This guidebook defines counterinsurgency as “military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency.”[2]  FM 3-24 discusses the history of counterinsurgency, focusing on many 20th century case studies.  It offers analysis of and commentary on counterinsurgencies against the Irish Republican Army, the Viet Cong, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias drug traffickers in Colombia, and several others as well as specific counterinsurgency strategies for both urban and rural settings.  In this way, it serves as an excellent historiographical resource.

Snapshots of the American COIN campaign in Iraq (Wikimedia Commons)

In terms of strategy, FM 3-24 uses its many case studies to pinpoint effective methods.  It emphasizes conventional militaries’ need to “learn and adapt” to localize wars, minimize violence, prioritize the safety of civilians, and promote communication between senior and subordinate officers so that on-the-ground learning and adaptation may take place.  FM 3-24 also emphasizes the role of geography, as well as militaries’ need to support development and education—the “schoolbooks and krags” school of thought—in addition to fighting insurgents.[3] 

Because insurgents often conceal themselves within civilian populations, gaining the trust of local actors is key.  Intelligence plays a valuable role, as does propaganda.  Militaries must understand the region’s language and culture if they hope to communicate with locals, protect them from violence at the hands of insurgents, and win them over to their cause.  Complicating matters, militaries must occasionally act as political forces, demonstrating knowledge of “governance, economic development, public administration, and the rule of law.”[4]

FM 3-24 also emphasizes the importance of “moral legitimacy”—in other words, the avoidance of excessive violence and torture.[5]  Unfortunately, as a historiographical review of both primary and secondary documents shows, counterinsurgency measures often fall short of moral standards.  FM 3-24 acknowledges the many roles that the military must play, calling on soldiers to act as “nation builders as well as warriors.”  It states that militaries “must be prepared to help re-establish institutions and local security forces and assist in rebuilding infrastructure and basic services,” in addition to working with “many intergovernmental, host-nation, and international agencies.”[6]

FM 3-24 sets the stage for the historical, military, and moral evaluation of both successful and unsuccessful counterinsurgencies.  It acknowledges the “doctrinal gap” in counterinsurgency scholarship, points out the unusual aspects of irregular warfare, and aims to address them.  Acting as both a guidebook and a historical analysis, it delves into a vast array of case studies, and its nuanced description of counterinsurgency demonstrates that Western powers have learned a great deal, at least theoretically, from “small wars.”  However, a further study of two specific wars is required for a complete understanding of the context of American counterinsurgency research.  The Malayan Emergency and the Mau Mau insurrection—both of which occurred prior to Vietnam and which America condoned, but in which the U.S. did not directly participate—provide key context for a historiographical analysis of counterinsurgency.

Learning from Counterinsurgency: Malaya and Kenya

Over time, counterinsurgency scholars have examined case studies such as the Malayan Emergency and the Mau Mau Insurrection in an attempt to pinpoint the causes of these uprisings and the most humane and effective methods for their peaceful resolution.  As the Cold War began and similar Communist-associated movements of national liberation took hold around the world, political and military understanding of the phenomena of irregular warfare became all the more crucial.

Historians often laud Britain’s COIN campaign in Malaya following WW2 as a “more successful” Vietnam War. While this is something of an oversimplification, many parallels do exist between the two wars, and Malaya can teach contemporary scholars a great deal about “hearts and minds” strategies in counterinsurgency. In this photo, police question a local man about the whereabouts of insurgents. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

After what most scholars consider to be the disaster—the enormous waste of funding, the widespread civilian casualties, and the failure to prevent South Vietnam’s loss to communist forces—of the Vietnam War, scholars became especially interested in counterinsurgency scholarship.  Specifically, many military and political experts have investigated the use of “minimum-force” counterinsurgency methods and “hearts and minds” techniques that persuade, rather than terrorize, potentially belligerent populations into cooperation. 

Many scholars, such as John Nagl, draw parallels between the Malayan Emergency and Vietnam, emphasizing that Americans failed to learn from the successes of the British in Malaya.  During the Malayan Emergency, the British were able to gain the trust of locals and make effective use of propaganda, ultimately convincing civilians to turn against “Communist Terrorists” and even persuading some enemy combatants to give up fighting altogether.  The Americans in Vietnam, on the other hand, slaughtered civilians en masse, wasted funding on ultimately useless military technology, and encouraged resistance rather than cooperation.[7]  By the time the Nixon Doctrine and Vietnamization took effect, the war had already been lost.

Many contemporary political and military historians argue that America continues to fail in its counterinsurgency efforts, namely those in the Middle East.  The military has spent almost two decades in Afghanistan, for instance, and many policymakers would argue that very little has been accomplished relative to the amount of money the U.S. government has spent.  Nagl, for instance, argues that the British Army, a “learning institution” with a culture of adaptability, has proven able to meet the challenges of counterinsurgency in certain cases.[8]  American forces, on the other hand, “failed to learn…that the army’s strategy in Vietnam was ineffective.”  Nagl adds that, in recent irregular conflicts, the U.S. has “continued to prepare itself to fight the wrong war.”[9] As the historiography makes clear, scholars and the public have expressed disappointment with America’s response to Afghanistan’s insurgents.  How can we apply the lessons of the past—if such lessons do exist—to modern counterinsurgencies?

Small Wars, Unusual Strategies: Winning “Hearts and Minds” in Malaya

Many scholars view the Malayan Emergency, which began when mostly ethnic-Chinese “Communist Terrorists” (CTs) attacked British plantations in Malaya, as the paragon of counterinsurgency campaigns.[10]  For decades, scholars have looked to Malaya as an example of a successful campaign based primarily on the use of propaganda and persuasion; many have likened it to a less bloody, more successful Vietnam.  Led by British officer Gerald Templer, the campaign against the CTs focused on “hearts and minds” strategies.  After brutality failed to extinguish the insurgency, British military leaders implemented minimum-force strategies—the use of propaganda, community-level social interventions, and ethnicity-focused recruitment and outreach efforts—with great success.

From a historiographical point of view, many military historians have portrayed Gerald Templer as a new kind of colonial hero—one who used curfews, philanthropic work and secret-ballot elections to root out CTs within the Malayan population.[11]  In a manner of behavior that his contemporaries would have considered highly unusual, Templer aimed to “crusade against racial barriers.”[12]  Much like a mid-20th century T.E. Lawrence, Templer remains known for the care he took to gain Malayans’ trust—rather than behaving in a patronizing or condescending fashion towards Malayan natives, he invited them into his home, shook their hands and even danced with them at dinner parties.  Templer and the British even coaxed insurgents out of the jungle and into the public eye by advertising the conditions within their camps.  They targeted their advertising campaigns at particular individuals known to be at large, air-dropping propaganda leaflets into jungles and blasting messages through loudspeakers on trucks.[13]  The British forced captured soldiers to write pleas for surrender, encouraging Communist Terrorists to lay down their arms and paving the way for a dual-ethnicity independent government.

Templer’s comparatively benevolent strategies paid off: Malays often revealed Communist Terrorists of their own volition, and many insurgents simply turned themselves over to British forces.[14]  In an era characterized by the rise of anti-colonial (and especially anti-British) sentiment, Templer remains a respected political and military figure: a reading room in Britain’s National War Museum bears his name, a testament to the diplomacy and respect he displayed in Malaya.

FM 3-24 discusses the British response to the Malayan Emergency in great detail; it reports that by making Malayan citizens themselves central to their counterinsurgency efforts, the British defeated ethnic Chinese Communist Terrorists and peacefully installed a stable Malay-Chinese government.  At the beginning of the conflict, the British hastily trained thousands of Malayan police officers to root out Chinese insurgents dwelling in Malaya.  Many of these officers, however, proved corrupt, excessively violent, and ultimately ineffective.  The British responded by improving their training program, sending top Malayan officers to Britain to study intelligence strategies, and recruiting twice as many ethnic Chinese officers.  According to FM 3-24, “the ethnic Chinese saw this reaching out as a sign that the government was addressing their interests.”[15]  With this simple strategy, the British prevented many Chinese citizens from joining the insurgents.  The Americans attempted to achieve similar success in Vietnam with “Vietnamization,” but for the most part their efforts proved too little and too late.  Britain worked with Malaya’s high levels of ethnic diversity by employing not only the ethnic Chinese themselves, but also by cooperating with fighters in multi-ethnic groups known as the “Ferret Force.”[16]  By blending different cultures’ fighting strategies, the British demonstrated the cultural aptitude that FM 3-24 emphasizes.  Eventually, Malaya was able to transition from a British colony to an independent state controlled by both Malays and Chinese.

Female counterinsurgents train to fight the “Communist Terrorists” during the Malayan Emergency (Wikimedia Commons)

Minimum Force: Myth or Reality?  Scholarly Responses to the British Counterinsurgency Against the Mau Mau

The memory of the British response to the Mau Mau (also suspected Communists, although scholars debate the legitimacy of this claim) in Kenya exists in significantly more infamy than does the British response in Malaya.  Scholars, including David Anderson, Caroline Elkins, Huw Bennett, and David French have written about British abuses in Kenya.  The titles of their studies alone—“The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya;” “Nasty Not Nice;” and “British abuse and torture in Kenya’s counter-insurgency” call into question the legitimacy of hearts-and-minds history.[17] [18]  Caroline Elkins, for example, has used oral histories and archival research to examine the Mau Mau investigations, during which the British detained around 1.5 million suspected insurgents.[19]  Elkins reports horrific interrogation techniques—beating, burning, whipping, and other methods—and squalid conditions in the camps, which were often overcrowded.[20]  One camp with thousands of detainees experienced “a major typhoid epidemic” due to its “close living quarters” and officials’ failure to dispose properly of human waste.[21]  In contrast to Malaya, where the British rewarded surrendered insurgents with safer lives in relatively clean and comfortable camps, British officials in Kenya were loath to clean up their detainment camps for fear of “rewarding” the insurgents.[22]  Although some critics denounce Elkins’s magnum opus Imperial Reckoning (originally created as a graduate dissertation and later published as a book) as sensational and non-academic, other scholars’ findings have since corroborated her image of British policy in Kenya.  As more primary evidence becomes publicly accessible, established scholarly and societal confidence in “minimum force” has begun to erode.

The British in Malaya, despite Malaya’s public perception as a model counterinsurgency, used many of the same techniques found in the suppression of the Mau Mau.  While peaceful “hearts and minds” strategies were emphasized, the British did use similar “population control” strategies, including the use of internment camps to root out insurgents (on a smaller scale than in Kenya, of course).  While some of the camps were maintained for the sake of propaganda, others remained filthy and disease-ridden.  Scholars continue to debate the extent to which British forces used nonviolent “hearts and minds” strategies not only in Kenya, but throughout the Third World at the end of the Cold War.

British COIN Scholarship Over Time

With historical background and context established, as well as some historiographical context in place regarding general irregular warfare scholarship, I will briefly focus on the historiography of British counterinsurgencies.  Ian Beckett points out that until the 1980s,when the fall of the Soviet Union caused a significant shift in the world’s political alignment, counterinsurgency was widely understudied in universities.  Beckett focuses on several important authors and major works surrounding the field of counterinsurgency history.  He discusses the six counterinsurgency principles of John Pimlott, an influential 20th-century military scholar.  These principles provide interesting context for further military research and continue to inform military policy: “recognition of the political nature of insurgency;” “recognition of the need to ensure coordination of the military and civil response;” intelligence coordination; “separation of the insurgents from their base of popular support either by physical means or by a government campaign designed to win the allegiance of the population;” use of force against insurgents; and “long-term reform addressing those political and socio-economic grievances that have contributed to the insurgency.”[23]

Pimlott wrote about these principles in the 1980s, around ten years after Robert Thompson popularized counterinsurgency scholarship (especially through the lens of the Malayan Emergency, during which Thompson himself had fought).  According to Beckett, another influential scholar, Frank Kitson, who had fought during both the Malayan Emergency and the Mau Mau uprising, later “challenged the assumptions underpinning Thompson’s approach” and “called for British soldiers not only to consider the practical requirements of counter-insurgency, but also to look beyond the Malayan example.”[24]  Beckett describes how the research and writing of Thompson and Kitson led into the scholarship of the 1980s, during which educational and military institutions seemed to view counterinsurgency as a subject worthy of academic attention.  The prestigious British military academy Sandhurst, for instance, dedicated specific courses to counterinsurgency in the 1980s.  These courses focused on worldwide counterinsurgency strategy and ultimately leading to the development of a new book, Armed Forces and Modern Counterinsurgency.

Although these concepts seem familiar when considered in conjunction with the Malayan Emergency and Mau Mau Insurrection, Beckett points out repeatedly that for a long period of history, very little academic or military writing existed on “small wars.”[25]  He quotes James Alexander, a military author who stated in 1873 that he “could find no good manual on bush fighting.”[26]  However, Beckett does point out that certain influential British figures—T. E. Lawrence and Major B. C. Denning, for example—who discussed small warfare during the “inter-war period.”  Interestingly, Lawrence wrote his famous memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom about his work galvanizing Bedouin tribesmen to fight against the Turks in the Middle Eastern theater of the Great War, a massive conflict that few would consider a “small war.”  This work, much of which has been referenced in FM 3-24, functions as a cross between military guidebook and historical account.[27]  Lawrence, much like the British in Malaya, achieved success by integrating himself into local culture and tailoring his strategies to match Bedouin fighting styles.

TE Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) helped lead the Arab Revolt, galvanizing disunited Bedouin tribes against the Turks during WWI. His writings provide a basis for twentieth and twenty-first military strategy, specifically the study of insurgencies. This photo, taken by Lawrence himself, depicts a scene from the march through the Howeitat. (Imperial War Museum via Wikimedia Commons)

Beckett emphasizes that although the academy briefly examined counterinsurgency during the “Troubles” (the Irish Republican Army’s uprising in Northern Ireland), even late-20th century British military literature has primarily focused on conventional warfare.  Even during the 1980s, he points out, Sandhurst’s counterinsurgency course frequently changed its emphasis and, before long, the institution had returned to its focus on the study of “antiquarian fife-and-drum” warfare.[28]  Regarding the current state of the profession, Beckett argues that “perusal of the journals shows a lively interest in evolving British practice in Iraq and Afghanistan.”[29]  He also states that while the military remains “obsess[ed]” with Malaya because of its success compared to other counterinsurgency campaigns, the true nature of “minimum force” has come into question.[30]  Beckett mentions the instrumental work of Elkins and Anderson, the former of whom was largely responsible for uncovering British atrocities during the Mau Mau uprising.

Beckett concludes the essay by emphasizing the importance of primary documents, stating that “increasing depth of primary research is constantly forcing a reconsideration of what seemed so certain a quarter of a century ago, when no one in Britain seemed really interested in counter-insurgency.”[31] 

Present and Future Challenges: Conclusions and Policy Implications

After decades of hegemony, the sun finally set on the British empire, and eventually on the Soviet Union as well.  The fall of the Berlin Wall installed the U.S. as a global power, responsible for managing its security in “small war” theaters around the world.  Many scholars have drawn parallels between British counterinsurgency efforts and American involvement in its own “small wars”—specifically, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  FM 3-24 discusses Iraq and Afghanistan in great detail.  Although it points out that militaries “cannot fight former Saddamists and Islamic extremists the same way you would have fought the Viet Cong, Moros, or Tupamaros,”[32] it argues that policymakers and the military can still stand to learn from history.  After all, FM3-24 points out, “all insurgencies, even today’s highly adaptable strains, remain wars amongst the people.”[33]

Continued instability in Iraq and Afghanistan—as well as the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, and other ongoing security threats in the Middle East—makes the study of past and present counterinsurgencies all the more necessary.  Moreover, ongoing Middle Eastern challenges persist: the continued existence of al Qaeda, the ever-looming Iranian nuclear threat, and the constant threat of proxy clashes between warring ethnic groups, for example.  The U.S., a global hegemon with a vested interest in Middle Eastern stability, will need to respond to these security challenges.  It will be interesting to see how the field of counterinsurgency scholarship, and the ensuing historiography surrounding both recent and early “small war” campaigns, progress in coming years.  If the Iraq and Afghanistan “quagmires” are any indicator, the U.S. still has a great deal to learn from the history of counterinsurgency.

As irregular warfare becomes more common and America’s defense budget continues to expand, policymakers must learn from both the successes and failures of past counterinsurgency campaigns.  Naturally, violence is unavoidable in war; however, by understanding “hearts and minds” strategies, militaries can facilitate peaceful transitions of power with minimal loss of life and funding.


[1] Lawrence quoted in John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), ii.

[2] David H. Petraeus and James F. Amos, Army Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency (Headquarters Department of the Army, 2006), 1-1.

[3] John Morgan Gates, Schoolbooks and Krags: The United States Army in the Philippines, 1898-1902 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1937), 5.

[4] Petraeus, Field Manual, x.

[5] Petraeus, Field Manual, 7-9.

[6] Petraeus, Field Manual, Foreword.

[7] Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife, 220.

[8] Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, 11.

[9] Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, 208.

[10] Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, 68.

[11] Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, 89.

[12] Templer quoted in Michael Burleigh, Small Wars, Faraway Places: Global Insurrection and the Making of the Modern World, 1945-1965 (New York: Penguin, 2013), 179.

[13] Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, 92.

[14] Templer quoted in Michael Burleigh, Small Wars, Faraway Places: Global Insurrection and the Making of the Modern World, 1945-1965 (New York: Penguin, 2013), 179.

[15] Petraeus, Field Manual, 6-22.

[16] Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, 69.

[17] David French, “Nasty not nice: British counter-insurgency doctrine and practice, 1945-1967.” Small Wars and Insurgencies 23(2012): 744-761.

[18] David M. Anderson, “British abuse and torture in Kenya’s counter-insurgency, 1952-1960.” Small Wars and Insurgencies 23(2012): 700-719. https://doi.org/10.1080/09592318.2012.709760.

[19] Elkins, Imperial Reckoning, xii.

[20] Elkins, Imperial Reckoning, 136.

[21] Elkins, Imperial Reckoning, 144.

[22] Elkins, Imperial Reckoning, 149.

[23] Ian F. W. Beckett, “British counter-insurgency: a historiographical reflection.” Small Wars and

Insurgencies 23 (2012): 781-798. https://doi.org/10.1080/09592318.2012.709770.

[24] Beckett, “British counter-insurgency.”

[25] Beckett, “British counter-insurgency.”

[26] Beckett, “British counter-insurgency.”

[27] T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1997).

[28] Beckett, “British counter-insurgency.”

[29] Beckett, “British counter-insurgency.”

[30] Beckett, “British counter-insurgency.”

[31] Beckett, “British counter-insurgency.”

[32] Petraeus, Field Manual, Foreword.

[33] Petraeus, Field Manual, Foreword.

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