Review: The Insurgent Archipelago

If you’re a British Army Review reader you may have seen this review of John Mackinlay’s The Insurgent Archipelago already. However, as the BAR is not published electronically (why??!!) I’m posting it here on KOW for those of you who don’t receive a hard copy.

First, go buy the book.

Now read why.

John Mackinlay has been thinking about insurgency and counterinsurgency in one way or another for the better part of a lifetime, from 1964 when he first reported for duty in Borneo as a junior officer in the 6th Gurkha Rifles, and then after a twenty-year military career as a research academic during which time he has written many highly regarded scholarly articles and monographs on the subject. This book, The Insurgent Archipelago, is the product of those many years of observation and thought. It is an important book because unusually for the insurgency and counterinsurgency literature which, as I shall describe below, is relatively slow-moving, and repetitive (even static), it has something new to say. It is a timely book because eight years into the inaptly named ‘Global War on Terror’, about which Mackinlay says insightful and needful things, with the cost in blood and treasure of the two major expeditionary campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan far exceeding the hopes and expectations of those who launched them, and with meaningful success still elusive, it is past time for a strategic rethink. This elegantly written book, without jargon and largely unburdened by academic hokum, provides an essential guide to the ‘when the rubber hits the road’ issues of global insurgency, what it is, how to understand it, and, possibly, how to deal with it.

But by way of full disclosure before I review the book’s most important findings I should tell a short story. Just over five years ago I was sat with John Mackinlay on the pleasant terrace of Somerset House on The Strand, which is located beside King’s College London, where we both have the pleasure of working in the War Studies Department, talking about an article I was writing on the adaptation of land forces to operating in the environment which Rupert Smith describes as ‘amongst the people’.[1] This was a new area of research for me and so, naturally, I craved the advice of the most knowledgeable of my more senior colleagues on the matter: John Mackinlay. ‘You’ve got a lot to learn about insurgency’, he remarked after hearing my plan. I write this for three reasons. First, obviously, because I must declare a bias in reviewing the book of a colleague whom I admire and with whom I work closely; second, because it illustrates, I think, one of Mackinlay’s qualities—he is willing to speak uncomfortable truths; and third because he is a good teacher. I did indeed have a lot to learn and I did so in substantial part by listening to what he had to say. Readers of this book will have a similar experience. He has the knack for, as the Americans put it, ‘cutting to the chase’—demystifying a (now) highly popular subject plagued by too much punditry and humbuggery, cutting away extraneous and tangential detail to focus on the underlying dynamics of the phenomenon under study.

The book is sweeping, as the subtitle ‘From Mao to Bin Laden’ suggests; yet it is also admirably succinct at 292 pages including notes and index.[2] In design it is exceedingly clear, consisting of three parts—‘Maoism’, ‘Post-Maoism’, and ‘Responding to Post-Maoism’, which reflect the basic components of his argument. Insurgency’s classical form is the brainchild of the carnivorously ambitious strategic and political genius Mao Zedong who gave meaning to the now familiar bumper sticker that insurgency is ’80 per cent political and 20 per cent military’. Mao’s innovation was to figure out what to fill that 80 per cent with: industrial scale political subversion by which he was able to harness the latent power of an aggrieved population to the wagon of political change, to whit the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War which ended with the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.[3] This ‘Maoist prototype’ of insurgency was subsequently adopted and adapted widely by various revolutionaries in the course of the myriad ‘wars of national liberation’ which wracked the decolonizing world from the 1940s through to the beginning of the 1970s. Western countries, most notably Britain, in turn, developed techniques of defeating Maoism which were laid down in doctrine and in quasi-doctrinal works such as those of Thompson, Galula, and Kitson.[4]  Though unevenly applied in practice and repeatedly forgotten by the major armies of the world, there exists a well-developed body of theory informed by practice for defeating Maoism. The celebrated US Army/Marine Corps field manual FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency represents something of an apotheosis of this genre.[5]

The problem is that what we now face in the form of ‘global insurgency’ is not Maoism but Post-Maoism—a form of insurgency which differs significantly from that which preceded it.[6] We have, in essence, been searching for the right tool to defeat today’s most virulent insurgency in the wrong conceptual tool box. This is perhaps the most uncomfortable truth to be laid out in this book; another worrying one is that the security interests of Western Europe differ markedly from those of the United States—because the threat in the former emerges from their own undigested Muslim minorities which are alienated further by their involvement in expeditionary campaigns which, arguably at least, serve the needs of the latter well enough. But there are many other useful observations in the book which, perforce, in the interests of time and space I shall aggregate and summarize them into just two for the purposes of this review.

The first of these is that whereas the study of insurgency and counterinsurgency has been static and repetitive for decades, meticulously combing through the same campaigns—Malaya, Vietnam and Algeria, for the most part—and, more or less, coming up with the same conclusions,[7] the practice of insurgency has not; it is constantly changing and therefore what worked to defeat it in the past may not necessarily work again. The second is that insurgency naturally reflects the society from which it emerges. Insurgents exploit the features of whatever terrain that is available to them in order to offset the gross disproportion of their military strength as opposed to that of the government and its security forces which they oppose. If what’s available is steaming jungle then it is beneath its leaf-thatched and leach-infested canopy that they will make their encampments; if it is trackless desert then like Lawrence of Arabia it is in that vastness that they will lose themselves; similarly, if it is dense urban  conglomeration that defines their territory than they will hide in plain sight in the anonymous multitude; and if, as Mackinlay argues, their milieu is the increasingly globally networked and borderless human society that will mean that it is the ‘virtual territories of the mind’ that they will seek to exploit. This is not so much true of the counterinsurgent, however, because the counterinsurgent possesses infinitely more baggage—a fact which was apprehended so clearly and presciently by C.E. Callwell a hundred years ago when he observed that the fundamental asymmetry between insurgency and counterinsurgency lies in the fact that, while tactics favour the regular army, strategy favours the irregular.[8] Insurgency naturally reflects the society from which it emerges; counterinsurgency, by contrast, must consciously laboriously adapt structure, organization, and mindset to the realities of the new environment. If the insurgent is the proverbial ‘fish’ swimming amongst the sea of the people, as Mao put it, the counterinsurgent tends to be the metaphorical fish out of water.

This is not a book to be agreed with a priori; Mackinlay has a story to tell—albeit a carefully constructed one informed by a lifetime of study—but a story nonetheless which he invites the reader to come along with. Not all readers will or necessarily should. Rather this is a book to be challenged by, to consider carefully and deliberately, and to debate. I myself who have good reason to agree with most of it cannot bring myself to agree with all of it. Mackinlay, for instance, identifies Propaganda of the Deed as the essence of the global insurgent’s concept of operations. He maintains that it is solely a tool of the insurgent and not one available to the counterinsurgent. I personally am not ready to concede that point—though to Mackinlay’s credit I have not a better theory yet. I am, instead, simply reminded of Galula’s famous injunction about the asymmetry of insurgent and counterinsurgent propaganda:

The insurgent, having no responsibility, is free to use every trick […] Consequently, propaganda is a powerful weapon for him […] The counterinsurgent is tied to his responsibilities and to his past, and for him, facts speak louder than words […] For him, propaganda can be no more than a secondary weapon, valuable only if intended to inform and not to fool. [9]

There is much wisdom in what Galula says in general but this passage in particular represents one of  the most fundamental and widespread theoretical mistake in the entire literature. Facts speak louder than words for both sides; both sides strive to shape the information environment in part through harnessing the media; in crude terms, the job of the counterinsurgent propagandist is to make the insurgents stand up for their actions.[10]

But this is also why the book is to be treasured for what Mackinlay does, unusually for this literature, is say something new. With The Insurgent Archipelago he has planted a flag on new territory which others may explore too, to contest or to confirm. His theory is complete and clearly articulated and sorely needed. It deserves to be apprehended by all those whose task it is to defeat the challenges posed to the post-industrial West by global insurgency. Looking for the cutting edge of theory on insurgency and counterinsurgency? Here it is.


[1] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (London: Penguin, 2006)..

[2] Compare this with Robert Asprey’s two-volume 2000 plus pages War in the Shadows: The Guerrilla in History (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2002) which says much less in almost ten times the length.

[3] See Peter Zarrow, China in War and Revolution, 1895–1949 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005).

[4] See Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency (St. Petersburg, FL: Hailer, 2005—originally published 1966); David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (New York: Praeger, 1964); and, Frank Kitson, Low-intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping (London: Faber and Faber, 1971).

[5] United States Army and Marine Corps, FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

[6] On ‘global insurgency’ see David Kilcullen, ‘Countering Global Insurgency’,  Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 28, No. 4 (2005), 597–617, and by the same author The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (London: Hurst, 2009).

[7] There is little difference in the spirit or even the detail of the principles of counterinsurgency outlined by Thompson, Galula, or Kiston, noted above, or for that matter in Charles Gwynn’s Imperial Policing (London: Macmillan, 1934).

[8] C.E. Callwell, Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice (London: HMSO, 1906), 85.

[9] Galula, 14.

[10] See Neville Bolt and David Betz, Propaganda of the Deed 2008: Understanding the Phenomenon (London: RUSI, 2008).

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13 thoughts on “Review: The Insurgent Archipelago

  1. Ryan says:

    Great review about a great book. I part ways with some of Mackinlay’s conclusions, but this book is truly required reading for anyone who seeks to understand the evolved insurgent threat.

  2. omar says:

    I have a semi-digested theory that all of this is crucial to the insurgent and counter-insurgent, but to a distant observer it can seem that the most crucial element is “historical necessity”. There are broader trends in human history that play out THROUGH insurgency and counter-insurgency. Tactical successes and failure may determine how a particular group does (whether insurgent group X or counter-insurgent army Y “succeed”) in the immediate term, but neither can buck the broader historical trend for too long. IF the counter-insurgent army has adopted overall aims that are contrary to the “zeitgeist”, then the best tactics will only go so far (and the same for the insurgents). For example, I think the current pakistani taliban insurgency (in itself…there may be an element of being used by superior intelligences in some of their actions and that is a different story) is led by young cadres of “true jihadis”, whose vision of the world is out of touch with the broader trends in modern human society. Knowing this, I suspect they will fail even though the army arrayed against them is not the most competent, etc. etc. On the other hand, anti-colonialism (the notion that every society should be ruled by its own people) is a modern trend that is very well established and IF the Afghan taliban have that as their aim, they get a huge boost, even if their tactics and day to day decisions are not the best. In turn, that means that it is very important for ISAF to be NOT an occupying force, even if that means sacrificing some efficiencies. And so on…
    Or, to a different example, I would suggest that in terms of planning and intelligent analysis of tactics and counter-tactics, the Israeli “counter-insurgent” effort is likely much more sophisticated and capable than the “insurgent” effort of the Palestinians, but its the Israelis who are trying to buck the historical trend (in this case, the trend that “civilized” modern countries do not like to see themselves as oppressors of alien nationalities and other civilized people dont like to see them doing that) and while they can delay the inevitable, they will have to concede to the “insurgents” at some point.
    Does that make any kind of sense?

    • Ben says:

      As Ryan says: great book and great review.

      I sympathise with David’s point about propaganda of the deed to some extent. That said, as I see it, the problem with counter-insurgents trying to exploit propaganda of the deed is that COIN practitioners are usually governments / states, or offshoots thereof. While there is no theoretical impediment to them harnessing the power of deeds, govts / states tend to lack creativity and agility, and are often out of touch with the target population.

      Omar: your argument reminds me of something Stefan Aust said about the Red Army Faktion (or Baader Meinhof Gang):

      “But every kind of terrorism is always embedded in a larger conflict. Only out of such a conflict does terrorism draw its power and win support for its murderous clandestine groups. So when we look at the history of the RAF, it relates to German history—both before and after World War II. The RAF is like an auxiliary craft floating along in the stream of time, a gunboat, if you will. This does not diminish the responsibility of those involved, but explains it, perhaps.”

    • David Betz says:

      That makes lots of sense, Omar. It’s a good argument which I have heard before in various places. For instance I like the way that Douglas Porch says it in his chapter on French Imperial Warfare in Carter Malkasian and Daniel Marston’s edited book Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare:

      ‘The French Army proved to be fairly innovative on an operational and tactical level in its Asian and North African theatres of conflict. But this virtue could save it in neither Indochina nor Algeria because the political objective was compromised. There was no way to engage a population with a message of colonialism–with its subtext of defeat, racial and economic domination, and humiliation–at a time of growing anti-imperialism in the early Cold War years.’

    • Formerly Grant says:

      On anti-colonialism, don’t forget that it took place under very specific circumstances.
      The majority of the empires had at least some basis in liberal democracies which meant that from the start they had a potentially fatal flaw.
      Many of the insurgents served in the First and/or Second World Wars where they learned something of that imperial nation’s tactics.
      In Asia the Japanese victories proved to the host populations that the Western nations could be defeated, and the American victory over Japan didn’t really change that.
      In fighting the World Wars the imperial nations spent a huge amount of resources and then had to fund a continuous war in another part of the world. Admittedly I imagine a large percentage of the imperial populations supported this at first (even the Communists, look at France), but as time went on they started to question it.
      Lastly, many of these nationalist insurgencies started within years of one another, giving each one more viability than they would have normally had.
      To summarize, I agree that the Western nations were fighting a losing battle, but thinking it was inevitable is a mistake. Nationalism is no more inevitable than the idea that history inexorably leads to Communism, it is a matter of chance and circumstance.

    • omar says:

      I was not trying to pass judgment on WHY trends are what they are. Its “turtles all the way”…every turtle is standing on some other turtle. My point was that its still possible to see that some things are more in line with broader historical trends and some are sharply contrary to them. Taking advantage of a rising trend is an easier job, going against the spirit of the age makes an already difficult job almost impossible….
      On a smaller time scale, contingency and chance and the best laid plans of mice and men can mean the difference between victory and defeat…But it sometimes seems to me that even then, the really ironic thing is that if anti-colonialism is the flavor of the age, then the victorious colonist may end up finishing the colonial operation off anyway (didnt victorious Maoists become the most capitalist capitalists on the planet??)

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  4. Formerly Grant says:

    If I understand the thrust of this article correctly, it means that even as the United States military is switching the immediate focus from conventional wars to counterinsurgencies we are still fighting the last war instead of the current one. How delightful.
    I’m starting to think the only incentive I have to remain here is that I’m not good at other languages.

  5. I am very glad I saw this review. I did as you instructed initially and bought it.. It’s filled a few important gaps in my knowledge, and rather gratifyingly, has confirmed some conclusions that I’d come to myself.

    I wonder if Mackinlay is in contact with David Kilcullen? When he analogised some aspects of the global insurgency as being something like a virus at one point, it reminded me of Kilcullen’s description of al-Qa’ida’s strategy. Either way, I think The Insurgent Archipelago and The Accidental Guerrilla support one another quite well.

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