On Counterinsurgency: How We Got to Where We Are

Summary:  The greatness of a nation depends as much on its ability to learn as much as its power. Failure to learn can prove fatal. As with German’s refusal to learn from its defeat in WWI, substituting resentment for wisdom. As with America’s refusal to learn from its defeat in Vietnam, and belief that the doctrines of counterinsurgency could win if tried again. This required ignoring clear analysis showing the folly of this, explaining the inherent flaws of foreign armies fighting entrenched local insurgencies.

As the first phase (Iraq, Af-Pak) winds down of our 21st century mad foreign wars — and the second phase expands — we can still learn and turn from this path. So today we look at one such analysis, by Martin van Creveld — one of the West’s greatest living military historians.

The most astonishing aspect of this paper is that after 60 years of failed counterinsurgencies by foreign armies, ten years into our second wave of failed counterinsurgency, it lists simple facts that remain unknown to so many Americans — including a large fraction of our geopolitical gurus.

This is a follow-up to The first lesson of our failed wars: we were warned, but choose not to listen.

CI used to work, both a home & abroad


“On Counterinsurgency” by Martin van Creveld

From Combating Terrorism, edited by Rohan Gunaratna (2005). Posted with the authors’ generous permission. This paper falls into four parts, posted separately.

  1. How We Got to Where We Are is a brief history of insurgency since 1941 and of the repeated failures in dealing with it.
  2. Two Methods focuses on President Assad’s suppression of the uprising at Hama in 1983 on the one hand and on British operations in Northern Ireland on the other, presenting them as extreme case studies in dealing with counterinsurgency.
  3. On Power and Compromises draws the lessons from the methods just presented and goes on to explain how, by vacillating between them, most counterinsurgents have guaranteed their own failure.
  4. Conclusions.

This is three thousand words; the print button appears at the end of the post.  It is posted here with the author’s generous permission. Red emphasis added.

The photo at the right is Hanging Insurgents at Cavite, from the Philippines War circa 1900.

How We Got to Where We Are

At a time when much of the world is either engaging in counter-insurgency, preparing to do so, or writing about it, something is rotten in the kingdom of Denmark. Just when the rot began is not entirely clear, but a good starting point is provided by the 6th of April 1941. On that day the German Wehrmacht, assisted by Italian, Hungarian and Bulgarian formations, launched its offensive against Yugoslavia.

ABC News, 7 May 2011

Opening with a ferocious bombardment of Belgrade that left much of the city in ruins, the attack developed very rapidly, indeed more rapidly even than the 2003 American campaign in Iraq. The Yugoslav Army was 800,000 strong. During World War I it had given an excellent account of itself and made itself famous for its bravery. However, it hardly possessed any heavy modern weapons and was still dependent on oxcarts for transportation. As a result, it was scarcely able to mobilize and, coming under attack from several directions at once, was easily cut to pieces.

Two weeks later Hitler was able to proclaim victory. At the cost, to the Wehrmacht, of no more than 400 dead.

As was later to happen in other occupied countries as well, however, the end of major combat operations in Yugoslavia did not mean that the war was over. Resistance — whether one calls it guerrilla, or terrorism, or banditry (as the Germans did) — got under way in a matter of weeks; as early as May 1941, Belgrade had to witness the first partisans being executed. Repeatedly, Wehrmacht soldiers on patrol, escorting supply convoys, and similar detached forces were attacked, stabbed, shot, or blown up.

NAZI fighter: Serbian General Dragoljub (Draza) Mihailovic

At peak, no fewer than 29 Axis divisions were deployed in the country and engaged in harsh reprisals. Far from those reprisals serving to quell the uprising, though, resistance grew and grew until it developed into the mother of all ulcers.

Over the next 3 1/2 years the Wehrmacht, ably assisted by such “kind-hearted” organizations as the Waffen SS, the Gestapo, and other exotic formations, did what it could. It used every weapon at its disposal, tanks, heavy artillery and dive-bombers not excluded. It tortured tens of thousands, laid waste to entire districts, and lashed about with such ferocity that an estimated 800,000 Yugoslavs died — many of them in internecine warfare between Croats, Serbs, Chetniks, Communists, and other resistance groups.

Yet in the end, Yugoslavia became the only Nazi-occupied country to rid itself of its conquerors before it could be overrun by one of the major allied belligerents, a fact whose significance for the post-war world was very great. So much, then, for suppressing terrorism by the most brutal means.

While the Yugoslavs were exceptionally quick off the mark, to a greater or lesser extent the same experience was repeated throughout occupied Europe. The Poles, the Russians, the Greeks, the Italians, the French, even the civilized Danes and Dutch, all found themselves engaging in armed resistance. Some of the resistance movements took less time to get organized, some more. Some were more effective, others less. None succeeded in emulating the Yugoslavs by liberating their countries before outside help was able to reach them.

On the other hand, by the time outside help did reach them none was even close to being suppressed. Most were becoming more and more effective; Greece, Italy, and France being particularly good examples of this.

By way of an intellectual exercise, suppose the Germans had won the war in some sense. To do this they would first have to break the USSR as a functioning polity, a task that, towards the end of 1941, did not seem out of reach. Next, building up their navy and air force, they would have had to fight Britain and the USA to a standstill, a task which, given that they would have had the entire resources of Europe at their command, may not have been out of reach either.

Even so, no country, not even Nazi Germany, can permanently keep 10% of its population in uniform — the more so because those 10% invariably comprise the healthiest, economically most productive, part of the available manpower. Had the Germans won the war, then presumably about 80% of their armed forces would have been demobilized and sent home. Even assuming twice as many men would have been kept on active duty as were available in the pre-1939 peacetime Wehrmacht, their number would only have stood at 1.5 million. Their task would have been to hold down an entire continent; an area which, reaching from Brest to the Ural Mountains and from Narvik at least as far as the Brenner Pass and the Peloponnese, had a population of approximately 200 million.

Let others calculate the resulting ratio of German troops to occupied people and square kilometers of land. In all probability it could not have been done. Given 10 or 20 years, most of the subject-peoples would almost certainly have risen, engaged in extensive terrorism and guerrilla warfare, and made the continent so ungovernable as to virtually liberate themselves. Albeit at the cost of millions of civilian lives lost; and albeit at the cost of physical destruction as great, or greater than, that which actually took place.

Far from being exceptional, the German experience only acted as a prelude for countless similar defeats to come.

In Palestine, the British with 100,000 men tried to hold down a population of 600,000 Jews — of whom no more than a few hundred were active terrorists — and failed; yet this was as nothing compared to what was to follow. Partly because the British considered the Jews a “semi-European” race, partly because they had to operate in full view of world opinion, which, then as now, took a special interest in the Holy Land, their operations there were relatively civilized.

No such limits applied to subsequent counterinsurgency operations in Malaysia and Kenya where the exchange rate was a hundred blacks killed to every white farmer slain; the attempts to keep Cyprus and Aden also failed.

Other counterinsurgents were no more successful. The French in Indo-China and Algeria used hundreds of thousands of troops to kill hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Arab “natives”, but to no avail. The Dutch, the Belgians, and the Portuguese all lost their Empires. By the time the latter finally gave up in 1975, additional hundreds of thousands had been killed.

Then it was the Americans’ turn. For some 10 years on end over two million G.I.s saw service in South East Asia, the peak being reached in 1968-69 when there were over half a million of them. They used every available technological means, from heavy bombers to people sniffers and from remotely piloted vehicles to napalm. And yet, after six million tons of bombs had been dropped — more than twice as many as were used against Germany and Japan combined during all of World War II — 1,500 helicopters lost, over 55,000 troops killed, and $ 125 billion spent they too were forced to concede failure. In 1975 the world was treated to the spectacle of the last Americans hanging on to their helicopters’ skids as they fled from the roof of their embassy in Saigon.

As long as it was “Western” powers that went down to defeat, people attributed their failures at least in part to the moral scruples under which those powers had labored; although, in truth, such scruples were not much in evidence either in Algeria or in Vietnam. But no scruples could be, or were, attributed to the Red Army operating in Afghanistan.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan started in late 1980 when 8 mechanized divisions, perfectly armed with everything that the largest military-industrial complex in history until then could provide, drove south by way of the Khyber Pass {sic; perhaps should read “Salang Pass”} towards Kabul. Next, having set up a puppet government, they spent 8 years trying to “pacify” the country against various groups of mujahedin, or holy warriors. Doing so they killed perhaps a million Afghans and sent perhaps another 5 million fleeing across the border into neighboring Pakistan. Hardly a weapon in the Soviet arsenal that was not deployed; from time to time there were even reports of chemical and biological warfare (“yellow rain”), though these were never substantiated.

However great the Kremlin’s efforts, in the end it too was forced to concede failure. Having suffered 13,000 casualties in dead alone, and abandoned much of their equipment, finally its divisions reeled back the way they had come. As they did so, they were jeered by the mujahedin who did not even bother to open fire at them

To list all the other countries that, starting in 1941, have tried but failed to put down guerrilla and terrorism would be tedious. Even a short list would have to include:

  • the Vietnamese (in Cambodia);
  • the Indians (in Sri Lanka and Kashmir);
  • the South Africans (in Namibia);
  • the Indonesians (in East Timor);
  • the Philippines (in the south); and
  • the Russians (in Chechenya).

Some of these would-be counterinsurgents were as ruthless as ruthless can be. The Indonesians in East Timor killing perhaps half a million people.

Others, such as the Israelis in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories, deployed some of the world’s best troops and the most modern available technologies to no visible gain. Having spent 32 years fighting in Lebanon, during which they even occupied Beirut, the Israelis were unable to cope with Hizbollah and finally found themselves back at their starting positions. After 16 years during which Israel did what it could to put down the first and second Palestinian uprisings Ariel Sharon, a hard-liner if ever one there was, reached the point where he felt he had no choice but to pull out of the Gaza Strip. Yet only a few years had passed since a former deputy chief of staff, General (ret.) Mathan Vilnai, had referred to the terrorists Israel was facing in Gaza as “bird-brained”; one does not know whether to laugh or cry.

As these lines are being written in the summer of 2004, the uprising against the Americans in Iraq is also spreading. Having taken just 3 weeks to break Saddam’s Army — the same which, back in 1991, had been advertised as the 4th largest in the world — and occupied Baghdad, the Americans hoped to be welcomed as liberators. Instead, right from the beginning, they met with resistance.

As in Vietnam, the Americans are totally at loss amidst a foreign culture where it is virtually impossible to tell friend from foe and where every translator may be a spy. Much more than in Vietnam, where the opponent was first the Viet Cong and then the North Vietnamese Army, they are unable to discover who is behind the uprising. Be it former members of a mysterious Iraqi intelligence organization known as M-14; or Al Qaeda; or the Sunnis; or the Shi’ites. In both cases their intelligence was or is limited to what they can photograph, intercept, or learn from low-level prisoners. With the exception of Saddam Hussein, so far no senior terrorist leader has been captured.

As a result, they thrash about wildly. They do what they used to do in Vietnam: publishing statistics, some of which are probably bogus, on how well the “war for hearts and minds” is going; calling for additional troops in order to defend hopelessly overextended supply lines; and, when meeting resistance, showing little restraint in using their immensely superior firepower in places such as Faluja and Najaf.

So far the ratio of Iraqi insurgents killed to dead American troops is said to be approximately 10 to 1. Even though, and again with Vietnam, Afghanistan, and similar non-trinitarian” conflicts in mind, there is very good reason to suspect that most of the Iraqi dead are actually civilians who happened to be around when the fight broke out.

As the German and American experiences prove, many of those who tried their hands at the counterinsurgency game during the period in question were, for their time, the most modern, most powerful, most heavily armed, best trained, and most experienced on earth. Quite a few were also utterly ruthless, to the point that they did not hesitate to kill millions of people and turn entire districts into deserts; in the case of the Americans in Vietnam, the method by which this was done by spraying defoliant gases over the jungle. Yet in case after case the forces in question went down to defeat.

Very often those defeats were inflicted by small, if highly determined, groups of men and women who, certainly at the beginning and often even at the end of the campaign, did not even have 1% of the military power their opponents did. In many places in Asia and Africa a large percentage of the insurgents could barely read. On other occasions they wore sandals with bottoms cut out of old tires or else went barefoot. Often they were without a strong organization, untrained, inexperienced, and lacked any but the most rudimentary medical care. What they did do was to prove themselves prepared to fight and die; in the end, that was what mattered.

Each time a counter-insurgent army went down to defeat, legions of military and civilian experts engaged on a post-mortem analysis to find out what had gone wrong. To focus on Vietnam, perhaps the most-analyzed counter-insurgency of all, the following are some of the reasons adduced.

  • The political leadership did not provide adequate direction, never telling the armed forces what their mission was but instead tying their hands — as when imposing limits on the targets that could be bombed — and trying micro-manage the war from the White House.
  • The public, misled by those nefarious characters who had taken over the media, did not understand the importance of the war and, unwilling to make sacrifices, withdrew its support.
  • The number of agencies that tried to fight the war was too large, coordination among them deficient or nonexistent.
  • Not enough men, money and machines were allocated to finish the job. The strategy adopted (“attrition“) was wrong. The tactics adopted (“search and destroy“) were also wrong.
  • The war was not waged ruthlessly enough or else, to the contrary, it was waged in such a ruthless manner as to be counterproductive.
  • The war for hearts and minds was not given as much priority as it deserved.
  • Concerned with their own promotion and failing to provide leadership, the commanders were to blame. Unwilling to fight, unfamiliar with the country, and increasingly coming under the influence of drugs, the rank and file were to blame.
  • The South Vietnamese were to blame, given that they mostly stood aside, allowing the Americans do their work for them while at the same time enriching themselves as much as they could.
  • The demonstrators who burnt their country’s flag and wished departing troops that they would come to an early grave were to blame.
  • The draft resisters were to blame. Everybody was to blame. Nobody was to blame.

By the time the War in Vietnam reached its inglorious end each of these explanations was quite old. At the time it started each of them was already quite old; see, for example, the excuses offered by the commanders of the British Army concerning the reasons behind their failure to hold on Palestine in 1944-48.

As an American defeat in Iraq appears all but certain, no doubt we shall hear more such explanations in the future, and already now some pundits are sharpening their pens. Yet as the repetitive character of the explanations and the continuing failures prove, little is to be gained from continued work along these lines. Instead I propose to break new ground by focusing on two modern counter-insurgency campaigns that succeeded; to wit, the one conducted by late President Hafez Asad in Hama, 1982, and the British one in Northern Ireland.

———————-  End Excerpt  ———————-

About the Author

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of 4GW theory (aka non-trinitarian warfare) is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW, preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same.

Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war — technology, logistics, air power and maneuver warfare, the training of officers, the role of women in combat, military history (several books), nuclear proliferation, and strategy (several books). He has written about the future of war – The Transformation of War (which I consider the best work to date about modern war) and The Changing Face of War. And his magnum opus: The Rise and Decline of the State – the ur-text describing the political order of the 21st century.

For links to his articles see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see these posts about COIN:

  1. COIN – a perspective from 23rd century textbooks, 10 June 2008
  2. Is COIN the graduate level of military hubris?, 30 July 2008
  3. COIN as future generations will see it (and as we should see it today), 1 July 2010
  4. COIN – Now we see that it failed. But that was obvious before we started (when will we learn?), 6 December 2011
  5. COIN, another example of our difficulty learning from history or experience, 7 December 2011
  6. A look back at the madness that led us into our wars. How does this advice read 6 years later?, 26 June 2012
We cannot accept that our weapons do not produce victory.


10 thoughts on “On Counterinsurgency: How We Got to Where We Are”

  1. No hope for successful COIN if America remains trapped in a La-La-land of self-delusion. Before Americans can successfully impose their will on the rest of the world, Americans must first become aware of reality.

    Case in point: This joke of a country isn’t going to be able to accomplish anything until we wake up from our dreamwalking slumber and start paying attention to the real world in front of our noses. Unfortuantely, there’s no indication of that happening anytime soon. As witness this latest entry in America’s deluded movie view of the world in 2012:

    Official theatrical trailer for RED DAWN, 2012.

    The 1984 version of RED DAWN was a bad joke 30 years ago, considering that it appeared when the Soviet Union was crumbling and just a year before perestroika broke out and dissolved the USSR completely. But this 2012 remake is so bizarrely hallucinogenic that during filming, the enemy was identified as Red China, but because that became so ludicrously unlikely (because how could China possibly launch an invasion of the USA without destroying its single biggest export market for all its cheap Chinese-made goods and destroying its own economy?) that after filming the enemy troops were hastily changed to North Korean.

    Think about that. A movie premise so ludicrous that the “enemy” had to be changed after the film was already in the can, because no one would believe it.

    And North Korea? This is an economically dead country whose total GDP is estimated as smaller than Albany, New York — a starving nation whose people find themselves reduced to eating grass and tree bark. They can’t even invade South Korea, much less America. It’s a gigantic joke. The world is more peaceful than at any time in 200 years, with nuclear weapons rendering large land battles entirely obsolete — and yet Americans tremble in their beds at all the terrifying imaginary enemies who supposedly threaten us…

    America in 2012 is like a drunk shivering in his bed, screaming at imaginary horrors that don’t exist. It’s a grotesque spectacle, and would prove pathetic beyond description if America’s violent convulsions and bellicose ravings weren’t so disruptive to the ongoing efforts of the rest of the planet to deal with real 21st century problems like Peak Oil, overpopulation, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, and catastophic overfishing of the world’s oceans.

    1. “Think about that. A movie premise so ludicrous”

      I interpret it in a slightly different way than you do. The fact that a remake of “red dawn” is shot may indicate a longing for the “good old times”, when ideological certitudes reigned, where the enemy was well-identified, real, and scary, and where all genuine threats could be fought off with armed force.

      This does not contradict the gist of your analysis: after all, this still means that the country just does not want to see the world as it is — except that the cognitive dissonance accumulated over the past 11 years is such that it prefers to imagine that nothing has changed and that the situation is still the same as in the past — small town USA, hordes of invading communists, no economic decadence, no climatic catastrophes, no police state, no irrelevance of an over-armed military. But to achieve this, ludicrous contortions and outrageous scenarios are necessary indeed.

      In any case, not a good sign of the mentalities in the USA.

      1. “In any case, not a good sign of the mentalities in the USA.”

        Ditto, NCIS. I enjoy it, at least thru the rescue of Ziva (after which they ran out of ideas). But it is a horrific view of America. Not just that it’s so dark, but that so many viewers find the darkness attractive.

        We can curse the darkness. Or we can strike a light. We might have decided to take door #3: embrace the darkness.

    2. Thomas More: First of all, you’re right about the absurd premise of the 1984 “Red Dawn”, that the USSR might invade the USA, and the even crazier 2012 version with North Koreans. And if you’re like me it also starts you wondering: what does it say about us culturally that we keep re-making movies? Are we too lazy to come up with something new?

      All that said, there is something uniquely strange about “Red Dawn”: once you get past the premise, its portrayal of American insurgents fighting against a state power actually feels plausible. They show the way local kids are encouraged by their parents and friends to fight a strong invading power. They take up this nationalistic cause because the occupiers lack legitimacy in their eyes. Their fumbling, sputtering rebellion is allowed to unfold without clear victory of any kind, until the somewhat incongruous ending where they are hailed as martyrs and heroes.

      What is strange about “Red Dawn” is actually its believable aspects. The American right wing loves the movie but they are oddly blind to its message of resistance. Why did the same people who love “Red Dawn” refuse to believe Iraqis or Afghans could make American/Western occupations fail in their objectives?

      1. atheist has a possible winner for “best of thread”!

        “Why did the same people who love “Red Dawn” refuse to believe Iraqis or Afghans could make American/Western occupations fail in their objectives?”

        That’s a powerful question! My guess (emphasis on guess). They see us — Northern European descendents — as better people. It’s the core belief that makes Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories so appealing to us. Whether on Mars or in Africa — or on Pandora — what the locals need is a white guy to lead them. Without that they’re just helpless victims.

    3. Yes Fabius, it does seem like racism, or perhaps simple empathy failure. The inability or refusal to view things from another’s point of view.

  2. We are a strange country, carefully “brain washed” by talk radio, and 24 hour “news”.

    Our values, and view of the world come from the one hour tv program where the complex and impossible are easily resolved.

    Critical thinking is extinct. The criminal has successfully blamed the victim, and the execution is in progress.

    Years ago in a (military) NCO academy I found the answer to most problems, and not the one I wanted, when the instructor stated ” there are two world’s, the real, and the ideal. You know where you live, and it’s your job to make the real world work.

    Americans do not live in the real world, and work hard to correct that which is not the problem.

    Just my 2 cents.

  3. Oh, and please thank van Creveld for giving you permission to post this great essay of his! I eagerly await the next parts.

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