On Counterinsurgency: On Power and Compromises, the difference between victory & defeat

Summary:  In this third chapter of “On Counterinsurgency” Martin van Creveld describes the operational differences between winning and losing methods of counterinsurgency.  Victory comes to those who take difficult paths. Most nations take the easier path, and lose.

As the first phase (Iraq, Af-Pak) of our mad foreign wars winds down — and the second phase expands — we can still learn from this analysis by one of the West’s greatest living military historians. We can still turn off this path.  The passage of time closes options; we might soon pass the last exit to avoid serious war.

Successful counterinsurgency in Hama, Syria


“On Counterinsurgency” by Martin van Creveld

From Combating Terrorism, edited by Rohan Gunaratna (2005). Posted with the authors’ generous permission.


For background see The first lesson of our failed wars: we were warned, but choose not to listen.

This paper has into 4 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.

Part three:  On Power and Compromises

According to the well-known proverb, success has many fathers whereas failure is an orphan. However true this may be in respect to every other aspect of life, in the case of counter-insurgency clearly it does not apply.

As noted, entire libraries have been written on counter-insurgency campaigns that failed. Often the authors were the very people who had participated in, or were responsible for, the failures in question. For example, the term “low intensity war” itself was invented by the British General Frank Kitson; having taken part in a whole series of them, he was finally made commandant of the Staff College so he could teach others how it should be done. Very great efforts have been made to analyze the reasons and suggest ways to avoid a repetition. Judging by the way the Americans are conducting themselves in Iraq, to no avail.

By comparison, very little has been written about counterinsurgency campaigns that succeeded. One reason for this is because, since 1941, the number of such successes has been so limited that nine out of ten people cannot even remember them.


A successful insurgent leader

Another is because the methods used may be so unsavory as to make it difficult for soi-disant civilized persons to write about them or, which is probably even worse, attract research money for them. Here again I may call on my own experience as a military scholar. Years ago I spent months trying to interest people in and around the Pentagon in the way Asad pere had operated, first in Hama and then in putting an end to the Lebanese civil war and bringing that country under his control. Had such a study been available today, it might actually have done some good; however, nobody cared.

Thus, whoever will look to the modern literature on the subject will do so almost entirely in vain. Nevertheless, for those who, instead of feeble excuses, want real answers an excellent short analysis of how it should be, and has been, done is readily available. In chapters viii and xvii of The Prince the 16th century writer, Niccolo Machiavelli, explains the way a ruler should use cruelty when necessary. To prevent misunderstanding, let it be said that there are such circumstances; and that no one who does not recognize this should ever aspire to rule any country except Disneyland.

This much having been conceded, what Machiavelli, using examples from the ancient world as well as his own time, has to say boils down to 4 points.

(1)  Strike suddenly

Should you feel you have no choice left but to resort to cruelty, then the blow should be sudden. The more like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky it comes, the greater the effect; therefore, continue to talk softly while secretly completing your preparations.

(2)  Strike hard

Having made up your mind to strike, you cannot strike hard enough. Better to kill too many people than too few. Strike so hard as to make sure you do not have to strike again; or else, the very fact that you have to do so will weaken the impact of your original blow. Besides, you must consider the effect a repetition will have on your troops. However well trained and hard bitten they may be, if they are made to commit one atrocity after another (and very likely resort to alcohol or drugs in order to muster the necessary will), it will only be a matter of time before they become demoralized.

Facing an organization most of whose operations are covert, it is an illusion to think that you can ever “get” all or even most of them at once — something not even Saddam Hussein, using gas against the Kurds, succeeded in doing. Even if you do, chances are that, like the mythological hydra, the organization in question will re- constitute itself.

Witness the French interception and arrest of the entire FLN leadership back in 1956; just 6 years later, the same people were sitting across their captors at Evian and negotiating the independence of their country. To prevent this from happening, while aiming to kill as many insurgents and their leaders as possible your true target should be the spirit of the population from whom they draw their support and without whom they cannot exist. To put Mao on his head: you must refuse to admit a distinction between “active” fish and the “passive” sea in which they swim.

In other words, the true objective of your strike is less to kill people than to display your ruthlessness and your willingness to go to any lengths to achieve your objective-a war on hearts and minds, only in reverse. Clausewitz once wrote that war is a moral and physical contest by means of the latter. The same is even more true of the massacre that accompanies a war; if you do it right, it may even prevent a war. Careful consideration should therefore be given to the means.

Forget about infantry, it is too slow. Riding in APCs, it cannot see anything. [EDITOR: not true, look at the pic of the M113 Gavin in Iraq. Infantry can see in all directions from open hatches behind gunshields] Riding in soft vehicles, it is too vulnerable (currently the War in Iraq is causing a whole literature to develop about this subject). Its weapons are small and will only kill people one by one. Besides, if the enemy has similar weapons and fights back, then the process is going to be very expensive. Early in April 2004, 5 days’ fighting cost the U.S marine brigade at Fallujah 10% of its troops in casualties (killed and wounded). Yet when the operation ended the Brigade had only re-taken 10% of the city; had the marines continued in this way, it might have become a second Stalingrad.

Successful counterinsurgent: Syrian President Hafez al-Assad,

Airpower and missiles are much better, but still problematic because they are deployed from a distance so that the victims, being unable to see who is massacring them, will not be properly impressed by your determination. Modern airpower also has two other disadvantages.

First, it is too fast. Fighter-bombers appear out of nowhere. They discharge their weapons and disappear; just as a colony of ants that is stirred with a stick will quickly recover, so their disappearance permits the opponent to recover their breath.

Second, most of the precision-guided weapons it uses carry relatively small warheads and can only do limited damage to selected targets. For example, following 3 months’ continuous bombardment by a thousand NATO aircraft 95% of Belgrade were still standing. To inflict real damage, old-fashioned, heavy, dumb iron bombs are much superior. The problem is that only one country, i.e. the U.S, still retains the kind of bomber force that can carry them in any numbers; and even in its case that force is down to 1/6 of what it used to be.

Everything considered, and recalling Asad at Hama, the weapon of choice should probably be artillery. Heavy guns are sufficiently accurate to be aimed at individual targets, especially, as is desirable, if they can be made to fire point blank. At the same time they are sufficiently powerful to do just the kind of spectacular damage you want; to see the results, search the Internet for pictures of Hama. Unlike aircraft, they can fire non-stop for hours, even days. Still their greatest advantage is that they can be deployed in such a way that, before being blown to hell, the victims can look straight into the muzzles of the guns that are trained at them. When Napoleon famously spoke of a whiff of grapeshot, he knew what was he was talking about.

(3)  Be unashamed; act openly

Do what you have to do openly. At any cost, prevent the media from messing with your operations while they are going on. Once you are done, though, you should not try to hide them or explain them away; indeed you should do exactly the opposite. There should be no apologies, no kwetching about collateral damage caused by mistake, innocent lives regrettably lost, “excesses” that will be investigated and brought to trial, and similar signs of weakness.

Instead, make sure that as many people as possible can see, hear, smell, and touch the results; if they can also taste them, e.g. by inhaling the smoke from a burning city, then so much the better. Invite journalists to admire the headless corpses rolling in the streets, film them, and write about them. Do, however, make sure they do not talk to any of the survivors so as not to arouse sympathy.

(4)  Appoint someone else to do the dirty work

Do not command the strike yourself but have somebody else do it for you — if at all possible, without ever giving him written orders. This method has the advantage that, if your designated commander succeeds, you can take the credit. Presenting yourself to the world, you will offer no regrets and shed no tears. Instead you will explain why it absolutely had to be done and make sure everybody understands that you are ready to do it again at a moment’s notice.

But what if, for one reason or another, your deputy fails and resistance, instead of being broken, increases? In that case, you can always disown him and try another course such as negotiation.

Whether Asad read Machiavelli is doubtful. Be that as it may, by his operations in Hama he gave clear proof that he knew what he was doing. Of course his actions deserve to be called horrible, barbaric, cruel, and inhuman. Yet not only did he die peacefully in his bed, but he probably saved Syria from a civil war in which far more people might have died; over 20 years later the results continued to speak for themselves.

Events at Hama have not been forgotten and continue to be denounced when and where opportune. Still, as far as Asad’s international standing goes they did him little damage. If he was perceived as a brutal dictator, at any rate the greatest crime he committed was in the past; there was no need for an endless series of small crimes, as with those who take a more gradual approach. He emerged as an effective ruler with effective forces at his command with whom it was possible to do business. Provided you have what it takes to do what is necessary, the Asad method promises better, and certainly faster, results than any other.

If, on the other hand, one reason or another prevents you from emulating him, then the other approach is the British one in Northern Ireland. However, doing so is very hard and the method may not be practical for the troops of certain nations who simply do not possess the necessary mind-set.

For example, the Americans combine aggressiveness with impatience. Putting blind faith in technology and using far more firepower than is needed, they regularly end up by alienating whomever they face-as happened in Vietnam, Somalia, and now in Iraq.

Or take the Israelis. As anyone who has been to Israel knows, they are the least disciplined people on earth. As long as they fought Blitzkrieg campaigns against external enemies this factor worked in their favor, given that individual soldiers often displayed high courage, initiative, and resourcefulness. However, faced with a struggle where self-restraint is everything they are apt to make a mess of it. A long legacy of persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, also causes Israelis to combine self-pity with the shedding of crocodile tears. As Ms. Meir supposedly said, “we are angry with the Palestinians for forcing us to shoot them”. Whoever feels like this will hardly win a counter-insurgency campaign.

The cost of counterinsurgency: March 2009 funeral of Sapper Patrick Azimkar (BBC photo)

The first indispensable condition for adopting the British method is to have truly excellent troops and even better officers to command them and keep them in line.  Next come professionalism, strict discipline, and endless patience.

Yet none of these will be of any avail if there is not also present a certain mixture of phlegmatism and pride. Only pride will prevent one from hitting innocent people who are far weaker than you, thus making new enemies faster than you can kill the old ones and creating a situation where, sooner or later, you are no longer able to look at yourself in the mirror.

Only phlegmatism can make a unit take casualties and keep going, if necessary for years. Until the other side, realizing he will never be able to provoke you or to cause you to disintegrate, will finally be ready to sit down with you and talk about peace.

Paying the price of counterinsurgency: funeral of UK soldier (March 2008 BBC photo)

On the surface of things the two approaches, the Asad one and the British one in Northern Ireland, are so different as to constitute direct opposites. This is true, but it is also true that, at a deeper level, they have something very important in common.

As the demoralization and progressive disintegration of so many counter-insurgent forces-from the French in Algeria through the Americans in Iraq-shows, the greatest problem they face is time. In an asymmetric struggle the insurgent, so long as he does not lose, wins; his very presence acts as the best possible proof that the counter-insurgent does not have thing well in hand. The situation of the counter- insurgent is just the opposite. As long as he does not win, he loses; as sure as night follows day, the result will be demoralization. Which, of course, is the prelude to defeat.

Each in its own way, both the Asad approach and the one the British, after much trial and error, adopted in Northern Ireland represents a way of dealing with this problem. The former forestalls demoralization by reducing the campaign to a sharp, powerful blow after which most of the troops will hopefully be able to wash their hands and go back to their barracks. The latter inculcates them with such strict self-control as to prevent them from losing their pride, thus enabling them to sustain their morale for a long time, perhaps forever.

Both approaches, the second perhaps even more than the first, require enormous courage and strength if they are to be consistently applied. Such being the case, it is no wonder that the vast majority of counter-insurgents tried to apply now one policy, one another, until they fell between two stools.

Take, as a perfect case in point, the Americans in Vietnam. Right from the beginning President John Kennedy announced his determination to bear any burden in the cause of liberty. However, the approach that he, and after him Lyndon Johnson, took belied their words. With domestic considerations in mind, neither President was prepared to go to the point where the domestic economy would be affected. Johnson’s slogan, indeed, was “guns and butter”; engaging in Vietnam, he was trying to win the war on poverty as well. Partly for this reason, partly because they feared Chinese intervention as had happened in Korea, both he and Kennedy adopted an approach that was reactive and incremental. Being reactive and incremental, to all the world it signified hesitancy, weakness, and a lack of will; and how could it be otherwise, given that most Americans had never even heard of Vietnam?

Unsuccessful CI; photo by Hugh Van Es, Saigon 1975

At times, the American desire to treat war as an instrument of politics looked as if they were begging their opponents to negotiate. Meeting a stony silence on Hanoi’s part, now they tried to bomb North Vietnam into surrender, now they called a unilateral halt to bombing. Now they fought all out, now they declared a holiday and agreed to a truce. Now they took over from the South Vietnamese, now they “Vietnamized” the war.

While this was going on they were constantly defending their record, trying to conceal the extent of the devastation they were inflicting-which, of course, came out nevertheless-and inventing excuses to explain why their troops were killing as many civilians as they did.

Against such a background it is scant wonder that the entire world, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese leadership presumably not excluded, soon understood that the U.S had no idea as to what it wanted to accomplish. Not having an idea, it allowed its course of action to be determined by the means at its disposal, putting the cart before the horse. As to the rest of the story and all the glorious deeds the Americans committed before pulling out, lo they are written on the Vietnam Memorial in the Mall in Washington D.C.

————————–  End excerpt  ———————-

Other post about the work of Martin van Creveld

Themes of MvC’s work:

  1. A history book to help us better understand our rapidly changing world –  The Culture of War by Martin Van Creveld
  2. The Changing Face of War:  Lessons of Combat, From the Marne to Iraq, by Martin van Creveld — one of the major books about 4GW
  3. Women as soldiers – an update, 25 August 2009
  4. A discussion about advanced education of military personnel, 10 January 2010
  5. Martin van Creveld explains the essence of Airpower Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, 29 January 2010

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

  1. The Plame Affair and the Decline of the State, 25 October 2005
  2. The Rioting in France and the Decline of the State, 8 November 2005
  3. What’s Going On in Greece? What does it mean?, 26 December 2008
  4. US Army – the antidote to US civil disorder, 3 January 2009
  5. Does this economic crisis make the State stronger – or is it another step in the decline of the state?, 16 January 2009
  6. The Decline of the State in Europe and the US, a big but invisible theme of current news, 9 May 2010

For a list of his publications and links to his other online works see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld

12 thoughts on “On Counterinsurgency: On Power and Compromises, the difference between victory & defeat”

  1. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe there were NO significant insurgency campaigns during the US and Allied occupations of Japan and Germany during the late 1940’s.
    If that’s the case, I think it is definitely noteworthy in this context.
    Was there some master technique used by MacArthur or Eisenhower? Perhaps the local population was so demoralized by years of war and devastation, followed by bitter defeat, that they lost whatever will they may have otherwise had?

    1. “Was there some master technique used by MacArthur or Eisenhower? ”

      By MacArthur and Zhukov (with an assist by Ike). The formula is Kill and capture their armies. Burn their cities to the ground. Occupy their land and install military governments. It works, but is a bit much for fighting an insurgency.

    2. I think one point to consider in the case of post WW2 occupations is that the spirit of the conquered people’s was more or less broken, not necessarily in the sense of pride they had in themselves, but in the immediate realization that they were not the superior master races they once willed themselves to believe they were. When you claim before the world and in front of your armies that you are unbeatable and superior to all other people’s and then those same “mongrel races” come back and kick your ass and force you to surrender, it has to cause some reflection and break your will to fight, especially if your war-machine has already been destroyed or rendered ineffective.

      There is also in my opinion the notion that at some level the Germans and Japanese knew very well what they had done and felt a sense of guilt once there was no powerful flag or country to hide behind. This is in sharp contrast to most colonial wars and insurgencies against foreign powers where the conquered people do not have any sense that they did something wrong or that they conquest was a result of some failure on their part.

      I think this points to an undercurrent in the second option described by van Creveld, where showing restraint and refusing to sink into wholesale brutality makes it very difficult for an insurgent force to keep seeing itself as the oppressed victim fighting back against the barbaric conqueror, especially if they resort to terrorism as a means of resistance.

      Taking things even further, the analysis might also further support the idea of non-violent resistance where the very foundation of the tactic lies in preventing the enemy from being able to paint you as a threat or danger and in forcing them to recognize that they are the bad-guys and thus move to settle the dispute in some way that lets them retain their honor or save face.

      It is interesting to me that the universe favors the extremely committed and strong, regardless of whether that strength forms the basis of unyielding brutality or almost saintlike restraint. It is those who try to have it both ways that are really punished as van Creveld’s analysis seems to show.

    3. It is interesting to me that the universe favors the extremely committed and strong, regardless of whether that strength forms the basis of unyielding brutality or almost saintlike restraint

      I don’t think it’s the universe, exactly. It’s more like human nature. If you read Altemeyer on authoritarianism, you’ll realize pretty quickly that there is a clearly measurable thread through humanity that respond to repression by re-adjusting their world-view to justify it. These authoritarian followers are going to be found on both sides of a conflict. On the winning side, they’ll be the ones dehumanizing the losers and claiming “they deserved it:” and on the losing side they’ll be accepting their fate because they’ll convince themselves there’s something wrong with them and – again – they deserved it. If Altemeyer is right and there’s a percentage of the population that is pretty much always going to swing into alignment with main force, then strength – whether saintlike or brutal – will be the might that makes right. That’s the scary thing, to me, about Altemeyer’s research: for a significant percentage of people, might really does make right.

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  3. It is a bit ironical to read Creveld’s appraisal of Hafez al-Assad performance in 1982: his brutality gained a respite of just one generation.

    This follows a pattern set by all those older, famous, much referenced examples of failed counter-insurgencies. After all, the French had to contend with a succession of massive insurrections in Algeria — 1864-1865, 1871, 1881-1892, 1914-1916 — which were all crushed in al-Assad manner: the term used by French colonial authorities was “extermination”. The last wave of protest in 1945, that started with demonstrations to request independence, was put down in the usual manner — historians are still debating whether the toll was 6000, 20000 or 45000 deaths. We know what happened after 1954.

    We could find many similar examples, but history is carefully stashed away in archives and erudite books. Dutch in Indonesia — who failed at their own counter-insurgency in 1947-1949? They had actually been ceaselessly waging counter-insurgency wars all over their colony since the 1850s (see “The Caliphate in the Dutch media: The resistance against Dutch colonialism in Indonesia – Part 1 – Islamic Civilisation” at New Civilization, 10 December 2011) — and they were not squeamish either (one gets glimpses of the methods used when reading “Max Havelaar” for instance).

    Far from these Western-centric history (basically European colonial and American post-colonial operations), there are very important cases of counter-insurgency that I see rarely handled, but would deserve due consideration: Kurdistan, India (Naxalites), Burma — all festering for generations.

    All those counter-insurgencies are waged with ferocity — but for what results? There too, each generation sees a new crop of insurgents rising. When the grand-father and the father fail, the son takes over, and if he is vanquished, the grandson will carry on the torch.

    1. Guest,

      Thank you for this helpful comment!

      The insurgencies on which the west focuses ( with exceptions, such as the RAND study), are mostly foreign armies fighting locals.

      The reason (guessing) for the focus is those are sort the west wants to fight. As we have in Iraq and Af-Pak, to shape the societies in to forms pleasing to us.

      The UK- IRA match is local vs local, but of interest because it involves one of us.

      The crushing of the Syrian insurgency is of interest IMO not because of the number dead (how much do our news media cover the Congo war?) but because it’s what we’d like to do — and that it shows that insurgents can be crushed.

  4. It’s probably not a good idea to mention this, because his methods are deprecated – but Reinhard Heydrich’s combination of forced deportation, labor re-assignment, brutal repression, and “carrot and stick” politics with locals was fairly effective in Bohemia and Moravia. It would serve as a textbook example of how to prevent insurgencies from happening, except – well – yeah. All those things Creveld lifts from Machiavelli were Heydrich’s textbook. And he would have been unquestionably hanged for his troubles, had he survived long enough. You know who else was good at counter-insurgency? Lavrenti Beria.

    One of the topics that counter-insurgency texts and proponents ignore is that the truly successful counter-insurgencies are genocidal; or near enough to genocidal that they convince the would-be insurgents that submission is the only alternative.

    1. Marcus,

      Great points! And add Stalin to the list. He was a babysitter nobody wanted to mess with.

      But these methods become problematic in the integrated post-ww2 world. Major nations are too vulnerable to outside pressure, unless they are willing to remain locked in poverty. Like N Korea.

    2. Well, Bohemia and Moravia were very much in the middle of the III Reich, almost surrounded by the core territories of Greater Germany (Austria and Germany), and had a significant population of ethnic Germans. That made things a bit easier. And it worked so well that Heydrich was ultimately assassinated, so…

      In other places farther away and with no “5th column”, such as Byelorussia, Germans would work with willing local collaborators as much as they could and apply genocidal violence thoroughly — with no satisfactory results.

      But you are right: “truly successful counter-insurgencies are genocidal” — which shows what one should think of “hearts and minds”. However, for a really paradigmatic example, one should look at von Trotha and the way he organized the action against the revolted Namas and Hereros with his “Vernichtungsbefehl”. This was, I believe, the 1st genocide of the 20th century, with the proportion of the target population killed the same as for Jews in Europe during WWII.

  5. Great Post and a very interesting comments section.

    On a moral level I find the implications of the above analysis deeply troubling. The British approach to counter insurgency is only useful when the insurgents have a very small level of popular support. In that case Patience, fortitude, and the ability to turn the other cheek are very important (and Christian) virtues.

    Machiavelli, that most unchristian of commentators poses great challenges for me. Hama and other and other horrors from the Cathars to the present day, is justifiable if we abandon the moral elements of our christian inheritance. Only those extremists of the enlightenment could possibly carry out the horrors of counter insurgency detailed above. The Americans, both devoutly christian, and also inheritors of a rational enlightenment tradition, can be forgiven for there confusion when confronted with the dim moral murk of Iraq. Perhaps this is the reason that there policy wavers so.

    The British, who on a deep and fundamental level rejected the more Utopian elements of the Enlightenment and excepted only the the more secular christian values of the enlightenment, have to be convinced of there innate racial superiority before they can act in a truly brutal manner. Hence even during the appalling treatment of the colonies they never believed they could remake the natives into perfect creatures, the best the British could hope was that they could become a little less beastly.

    The communists, and the Americans(in part) are/were convinced that the world could/should be remade in the image, and that this would create a global peace and prosperity. Hence the belief that America could remake Iraq into a desert version of itself, Capitalist, Democratic ect.

    This is in my view the fundamental problem America has, and it is in my opinion, why it is unsuited to insurgent warfare. Because at its basis is the belief that if the population is made more like them, the impulse to resist will fall away.

    1. merocaine,

      You raise some deep points! Here are two brief notes.

      (1) The British approach to counter insurgency is only useful when the insurgents have a very small level of popular support.”

      Most insurgencies have a small base of support for most of their history. As insurgencies go, the IRA had a relatively large base of support in Northern Ireland. See section 3(b) about the history of COIN on this Reference Page.

      (2) “Because at its basis is the belief that if the population is made more like them, the impulse to resist will fall away.”

      That’s what we say. That’s not how we fight. In Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan we rely on a trinity of force:

      1. Popular front militia
      2. Massive firepower on civilians
      3. Sweep and destroy missions

      We never paid much attention to the prescriptions of FM 3-24. For examples see these posts:

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