Counterinsurgency, a brief history

June 19, 2012 • #

I’ve been reading a lot lately about sociocultural geography — about how people interact with their environments and with one another across space and time. This topic is more relevant than ever with today’s borderless conflicts, asymmetric warfare, and technology behind the scenes leveling the playing field for groups at all levels. On a journey across the internet reading and watching various things about human geography, I stumbled upon this fantastic piece by Adam Curtis on his BBC blog.

It tells the story and background of counterinsurgency doctrine from its inception in revolutionary communist China and Indochina to implementation in modern-day Iraq and Afghanistan. Fascinating stuff.

The post begins with some background on David Galula, the French military theorist popularly credited as the father of counterinsurgency warfare. During his time as a military attaché in China during the 1940s, he observed the tactics of Mao’s communist guerrillas, taking to heart the tactics used by the communists against the Kuomintang — in short, they turned the population to their side.

The meat of the article’s background on the history of counterinsurgency is seen in several documentary clips about the actions of the French government during Algeria’s War of Independence in the late 50s and early 60s. Galula and the French instituted an experimental “village reeducation” program in the Aures Mountains region (a refuge for opposition forces), with French soldiers living and working with the locals. Questioning and interrogation of the now-moderately-friendly villagers rapidly devolved into torture and cruelty.

If you could persuade the local people to come over to your side - then that would leave the insurgents who lived among the people drastically weakened. And that meant you could destroy them.

But to do that you had to identify the insurgents - and that meant getting information from your new “friends” the local villagers. But sometimes they didn’t want to give that kind of information, possibly because they were frightened, or they might even be an insurgent themselves, just pretending to be a villager.

And that led to the French soldiers finding ways to persuade the villagers to tell them who was an insurgent. It was called torture.

The first true American experiment with counterinsurgency tactics happened in the midst of Vietnam. Galula’s theories along with the work of a couple of economists (including Samuel Popkin’s The Rational Peasant) produced a hybrid approach to fighting in the jungles of Vietnam that fused Galula’s traditional battle for “hearts and minds” with “selective incentives” (i.e. money for information from villagers). After a number of village “pacification” experiments, the CIA’s Phoenix Program was put into place to not only identify friend from foe, but to target and kill the enemy. And just as in Algeria, the plan mutated into what some former participants describe as a “full blown torture and assassination campaign”.

The article wraps up with a clip of Petraeus in Baqubah, Iraq during the 2007 surge, reviewing the fruits of our revival of the counterinsurgency. The net long-term effects of the modern COIN approach remain to be seen, but let’s hope it doesn’t metastasize into the horrific programs of previous conflicts.

I think we still have a long way to go perfecting the right balance of support, direct involvement, and advisement — and in the messy, protracted, and stateless conflicts of today, we certainly won’t get anywhere with a standoff approach. Getting down in the trenches is a requirement.

For further reading, take a look an original research work from David Galula published by the RAND Corporation (originally published in 1963), analyzing the pacification campaign in Algeria. A couple other works I’ll be checking out along these same lines are David Kilcullen’s Counterinsurgency, and also the film The Battle of Algiers, which I’ve always wanted to see, and Curtis mentions in his article.