war on the rocks

The Real Myths of Counterinsurgency

June 10, 2014

The counterinsurgency debate must go on, but is it going anywhere? As expressed in my recent review essay on two books dismissive of counterinsurgency, many critics are more concerned with burying the term than with understanding it and propose no serious alternative for how to address non-state threats and instability around the world. For these critics, rather than identify the requirements, contributions and limitations of counterinsurgency as an approach, just one lesson dominates: “no more counterinsurgency.” This nihilistic intent dominates and distorts the discussion, to a point where it risks losing the important function it should have in unpacking the lessons, both negative and positive, from recent wars.

As a government priority and area of study, the future of “counterinsurgency” now looks very bleak indeed. But even if we forget this term and move on, this in no way obviates the ongoing nature of international counterinsurgency (e.g. AMISOM in Somalia), nor of national counterinsurgency (e.g. Colombia, Philippines, Iraq), or the difficulty of knowing what to do when these struggles affect U.S. interests. Therefore, we must not return to an understanding of warfare as militarily decisive, apolitical, and wholly separated from its inevitable aftermath. Indeed, abandoning the term will not help us avoid the operational challenges most associated with it but will – more likely – leave us unprepared next time we are asked to act.

While the debate must go on, it must also move beyond the zero-sum battle provoked by the loudest of counterinsurgency critics. Ignoring counterinsurgency, declaring it to be dead, or throwing at its doorstep all the missteps and frustration of the past two wars are not meaningful ways of engaging with the past – or the future. Hence the following list of debunked myths about counterinsurgency; it is not exhaustive (for a fuller treatment, see the aforementioned review article), but aims to establish a shared understanding among policymakers and scholars of what counterinsurgency is and is not, so as to enable a more constructive discussion of its contributions and limits.

Myth 1: counterinsurgency theory holds a template for victory

A trenchant argument against counterinsurgency is that it misleadingly promises a template for strategic victory, thereby encouraging politically naïve governments to take on over-ambitious exercises in state-building. Such allegations do not reflect the field manuals and literature. Any objective analyst would be hard-pressed to find therein pretensions of a technocratic method that can “solve” insurgencies. Already in 2006, US Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency doctrine emphasized that “following the principles and imperatives,” while helpful, “does not guarantee success.” Similarly, David Galula, an influential counterinsurgency expert roundly dismissed by the critics, cautioned that counterinsurgency “may be sound in theory but dangerous when applied rigidly to a specific case.” Accordingly, much like any doctrine, the counterinsurgency field manuals were never intended or presented as step-by-step guides. Instead, the doctrine repeatedly affirms the specificity of each case – to a point where it is now criticized for its many qualifiers and overall caution.

For this reason, it is also inaccurate to state that counterinsurgency proponents advocate tactics posing as strategy – another common criticism. The 2006 FM 3-24 manual is again cited, not as the best (or most recent) source of counterinsurgency wisdom, but because it reflects the U.S. Army and Marine Corps’ institutional understanding over the past decade. It states that “tactical actions… must be linked not only to strategic and operational military objectives but also to the host nation’s essential political goals. Without those connections, lives and resources may be wasted for no real gain.” This is no isolated quotation, plucked from its context; counterinsurgency theory tirelessly underlines that insurgency is mostly (or 80%) political and that a tailored political solution, not just tactics, will be needed. Legitimacy looms large, and as the 2006 field manual notes, legitimacy is contextually bound so there can be no one mechanism whereby it is gained. Of course, translating these abstractions into practice is seldom easy, but that is not the task of doctrine.

Myth 2: counterinsurgency wins or loses wars

Whether counterinsurgency is lauded for successes in Iraq or lambasted for failures in Afghanistan, the focus is, in a sense, misplaced. Counterinsurgency does not win or lose wars; that is the function of strategy – and, as the recent update on the 2006 counterinsurgency manual states, “counterinsurgency is not a substitute for strategy.” The theory offers insights collected from past operations, which, if adapted to local context, can help in the design and execution of a campaign plan. This occurred in Iraq, where the a counterinsurgency strategy was developed on the basis of the specific contextual enablers relevant to that campaign: the Anbar Awakening, Sons of Iraq, and splits within the main Shia political structures. Counterinsurgency was then implemented in Afghanistan, but against a different context and with different constraints, resulting in a different outcome. As Frank Hoffman has put it, “best practice is not best strategy.”

Much as counterinsurgency theory cannot be relied upon as strategy, it also cannot be blamed for poor strategic decisions. Both tendencies betray a misunderstanding, whether deliberate or not, of what counterinsurgency can and cannot do. The modest yet valuable contribution of the doctrine to campaign planning and strategy is its emphasis on legitimacy, mobilization, and politics in subduing subversion and societal breakdown. But it does not offer a plan for how to do so.

Myth 3: counterinsurgency proponents are interventionists

Since counterinsurgency doctrine calls for forces and commitment proportionate to the task, it is sometimes suggested that proponents of counterinsurgency will advocate major engagement in nation building, because they are zealous about their doctrine and fervently believe it will work. This view leads to criticism of foreign policy recklessness and blame when campaigns go awry. It also fuels strange claims about counterinsurgency proponents wishing to subvert civilian control of the military, so as to quench their thirst for colonial adventure.

Amid the frustration caused by the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, allegations such as these easily find fertile ground. Yet such deductions are logic in reverse: if anything, awareness of the costs and duration typical of counterinsurgency make those well versed with the theory and history less comfortable with intervention. These are typically, as one counterinsurgency proponent recently put it, “unsatisfying wars.” To the degree that counterinsurgency pushes for greater and larger commitments, it is in recognition of what is required to fulfill the lofty ambitions defined at a higher political level, far beyond the precepts and principles of the field manuals. Thus, in Iraq, counterinsurgency emerged as a way out of quagmire, caused not by FM 3-24 but by an understanding of war from which any awareness of counterinsurgency had been rigorously excluded. And whereas some leaders and pundits associated with counterinsurgency pushed for a larger footprint and greater commitment in Afghanistan, which may now be regretted, this was a policy response to the strategic intent set at a higher level and a preference with which other counterinsurgency scholars and practitioners disagreed.

Nor must these engagements necessary be large scale. One has only to turn to the Philippines, or Colombia, for examples of U.S. involvement that, appropriately, is scaled to the problem at hand. This should give pause to those who claim counterinsurgency proponents unerringly adapt their way toward large-scale population-centered nation building conducted by U.S. soldiers. The spectrum of how and whether to intervene is far broader – and relates to determinations of national interest as well as the context wherein these interests are to be met. Accusations of foreign policy recklessness, in contrast, lack both data and credibility.

Myth 4: counterinsurgency promises a kinder war

It is sometimes suggested that counterinsurgency holds out the dubious promise of a “kinder, gentler war,” where populations are secure, hearts and minds are won, and no one gets hurt. Critics are therefore keen to bring up the violence of past and present campaigns to “prove” the hypocrisy of counterinsurgency theorists, who prescribe one form of warfare in their manuals but conduct bloodier campaigns on the ground. Missed here is the original meaning of “winning hearts and minds,” which the doctrine defines as the shrewd process of “persuading people that their best interests are served by COIN success… that the force can protect them and that resisting it is pointless.”

Still, it is true that some counterinsurgency experts have, at times, emphasized the more pleasant-sounding facets of these operations when engaging with the press, perhaps to obtain buy-in for unpopular campaigns. Others, of a humanitarian bent, have mistaken counterinsurgency as a humane activity concerned with altruism rather than national interest.More generally, though, the criticism ignores the vital context in which counterinsurgency tends to be re-discovered and conducted.

The 2006 field manual was the antithesis of the previous operational approach in Iraq, an approach overwhelmingly concerned with rooting out individual terrorists yet without considering local perceptions of legitimacy, the perspective of the population, and the drivers of violence. This explains why the 2006 manual emphasized the “softer” facets of counterinsurgency: how to build legitimacy, co-opt local elites, or address the reforms that counterinsurgency – as armed politics – necessary implies. Counterinsurgency theory never gainsaid the importance of coercive operations as part of the campaign, but the dialectic explains the way the balance is struck.

The related accusation against counterinsurgency – that it is bloody and coercive – is not incorrect, but requires qualification. Counterinsurgency is an approach adopted in war so it should not surprise that people, including civilians, suffer and die. This is true for all war, so the charge relates not to counterinsurgency but to our involvement in armed conflict. What then of the focus in counterinsurgency on hearts and minds, legitimacy, and the appropriate use of force? Whereas these precepts suggest a less coercive approach, decisions over the use of force are always contextually bound and a function of a commander’s assessment. Counterinsurgency must therefore vary according to structure and agency, as well as contingency. The theory merely recommends that excessive force be avoided, which in itself is hardly controversial.

The underlying etiology is important. The initial motive for resurrecting past counterinsurgency campaigns, typically that of Malaya, is to underline its more exceptional facets, at least when compared to other wars: the notion of addressing the causes of violence, of building buy-in, and of integrating social, economic, and political concerns into war planning. This leads over time to a second wave of scholarship that challenges what it sees, with some justification, as a skewed reading of history. The issue arises when this second generation over-corrects, equating past campaigns, and soon enough all counterinsurgency, with war crimes and genocide. Both schools of thought bring something to the table but both are also flawed if their meaning is to paint a static picture of counterinsurgency as either benign or brutal. Given a long and varied history, it is difficult to find just one answer to this question. Instead, it is important to move beyond totalizing notions in favor of a richer understanding of variation both between and within specific cases.

Myth 5: you are either for counterinsurgency or against it

Perhaps no jargon has been more destructive to the counterinsurgency debate than the labeling of its participants as “coindinistas” and “cointras.” Created purportedly for comic effect, these terms have come to define the boundaries of the discussion, doing serious damage to the precision necessary for it to progress. Counterinsurgency is not a flavor of ice-cream or a sports team, to be liked or disliked, but an ambiguous term with many meanings. It should therefore be eminently possible to appreciate counterinsurgency for its contributions, all while understanding its limitations. Indeed, this is the only way of getting beyond the tired polarization that has stifled the debate.

Specifically, in discussing counterinsurgency, there is a need to differentiate between the theory (as in the field manuals and literature), the institutional priority (in terms of force structure, competences, resource allocation), and counterinsurgency as the policy choice (a matter of strategy). These aspects must remain separate for the term to have meaning. Indeed, such distinctions should be the starting point of any related discussion, so that we are clear and specific in our scope.


The Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced a polemic on the merits and demerits of counterinsurgency. The critics score points with three irrefutable arguments: counterinsurgency theory is not a strategy and will fail when mistaken as such; its doctrine does not make intervention significantly easier; and even the most successful counterinsurgency campaigns have been bloody, violent, and protracted. Yet it is difficult to imagine many counterinsurgency proponents who would disagree with these claims. Instead, their effect is to subvert counterinsurgency’s real message about countering armed insurrection: the political essence of it all, the need for a more-than-military response, and for the local population to be understood and included as a significant player.

Even if we now purposefully take steps to avoid it, the complexity inherent to these campaigns is here to stay. Rather than needlessly wrestle with red herrings, the discussion of counterinsurgency could helpfully focus on more fruitful questions: how to recognize and address the incipience of insurgency; the challenges of pushing political reform onto resistant partners; the congruence between large- and small-footprint engagements (to include security force assistance); the fragile transfer from counterinsurgency to peace-building; and the capabilities needed to undertake these activities and more, both at home and in the field. The manifold challenges are unavoidable for any state with expeditionary ambitions. We have an unparalleled opportunity to learn from our past experience. Let us ensure that it does not go to waste.


David H. Ucko is associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University, and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Counterinsurgency in Crisis: Britain and the Challenges of Modern Warfare (Columbia University Press, 2013) and The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars (Georgetown University Press, 2009). His most recent article is “Critics Gone Wild: Counterinsurgency as the Root of All Evil” in the journal Small Wars & Insurgencies.