The Origins of Counterinsurgency

"You hear that humming sound?"

The editors of the Journal of Strategic Studies kindly made some articles in the current issue available for free. One of these texts, “The Nineteenth Century Origins of Counterinsurgency Doctrine,” asks, Where does the theory of counterinsurgency come from?

Four things are remarkable here. A few thoughts that are a bit more daring and go beyond what’s outlined in the article. So readers with an interest in the history of modern armed conflict – which is to say: probably you – are encouraged to have a look at the full text.

First, “counterinsurgency” is a relatively new word that only took off in the 1960s. But the history of ideas in that discipline doesn’t begin with the publication of David Galula’s slim 1964 book. Nor with the British experience in Malaya. And neither with the American war in the Philippines – all popular reference points in the ongoing debate. At closer view, that now-famous French lieutenant colonel was not nearly as innovative as his American colleagues at the Rand Corporation initially thought, although Galula certainly had some fresh ideas. Yet he mostly said in English what seems to have been more or less common wisdom at the time among French officers with an intellectual and historical interest. In short: the real roots of today’s counterinsurgency thinking reach back to proper colonial campaigns in the 19th century, not merely to decolonization in the 20th century. Bugeaud, Gallieni, and Lyautey should be studied as much as Galula. Or more.

Second, countering insurrections long had a harsh as well as a soft edge. In Bugeaud’s day, the punishment was the razzia and the reward the work of the bureau arabe. 170 years later much has changed. But a balance still has to be struck: between special operations raids and drone strikes on the honed side and provincial reconstruction and protecting the rural population on the gentle side. Perhaps armies and organizations geared more to fighting than farming needed overstating the significance of the latter for its effect to trickle down. And then politicians and politically shrewd officers saw the need to understate the former, to keep indignation down. Both came with the risk of confusing those who took arguments at face value. But the coin, we see then and now, usually had two sides.

Third, counterinsurgency found one of its major inspirations in Muslim lands. Not because the doctrine rose again in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s. And not because Algeria, be it in Galula’s late 1950s or in Bugeaud’s early 1840s, was a predominantly Muslim country. The “razzia,” the French punishment tactic, goes back in name and example to an old, pre-Islamic Bedouin raiding practice, the ghazya, apparently also a historic precursor to the prophet’s jihad. The French modification, in turn, may be seen as one historical antecedent and enabler of the later evolution in counterinsurgency thinking, as the article outlines. In fact “razzia” entered the French and other European languages through transliteration from the Arabic after the invasion of Algeria in the mid-19th century.

Lastly, a note of humility: your academic blogger here is not trained as a historian (what I sometimes regret). Real historians might abhor drawing long daring lines, from Bugeaud all the way to Petraeus. Indeed that can be problematic. But it can also be highly insightful. And it may spark an interest in reading more history.

Those curious about the past of colonial campaigns may already be familiar with Douglas Porch’s seminal works. For them another must-read is in the works: a careful historical book on the “Gallieni-Lyautey method” by Michael Finch, of the University of Oxford’s Pembroke College. Finch’s focus is on Tonkin and Madagascar between 1885 and the turn of the century.


8 thoughts on “The Origins of Counterinsurgency

  1. Speaking as an erstwhile historian (I’ve long since abandoned academia in favour of “work,” a somewhat less enjoyable proposition) I think its always good to be careful about drawing long trends through history, as its all too easy to project back over vast periods of time and see things which don’t necessarily exist.

    However, that said, the discipline of counterinsurgency does draw heavily on historical precident. I think its fair to assume that just as we look back at whats gone before in developing new thinking around counter insurgency, so did our forebears when trying to deal with similar issues.

    Regardless of what our forebears did or didnt do, its increasingly important to understand the history if we’re going to deal with the problems of today. It’s not just the Russians who might have had something to say about invading Afghanistan. The claim of Afghanistan being the place where Empires go to die is overstated, but certainly Afghanistan has always been a problem to invades, with a relatively consistent pattern of resistance.

  2. Hi Thomas,
    Btw, let me wish you a happy new Year!
    As I previously said about your historical work (yes, you are skilled at History, as so many of my former academic comrades are too shy to draw such lines on the “longue durée”, which is precisely one of the chronological level of time revealed by French Historian Fernand Braudel), it is worth the reading in that it reminds us the “orientalist” flavour of the first “counterinsurgency”. As you (successfully in my view) demonstrate, the whole European intelligentsia was interested in those warfare experiences Bugeaud and its colleagues made during the Algerian Conquest (whose conquest was a specificity in the “second european colonial age” in that its goal was to build a Nation and a State tied to the Republic….)

    • Your reference to the “orientalist” flavor is fascinating. Do you know, by the way, of a systematic historical treatment of the men and women who combined work for the military and the government with early anthropology in the context of colonial campaigns? Who were Germaine Tillion’s predecessors?

    • Thomas,
      A French Professor of Geography wrote a book last year on the lnks between “colonial knowledge” and conquest/pacification:
      Pierre Singaravélou (PARIS-I/EHESS) (dir.), L’empire des géographes. Géographie, exploration et colonisation (XIXe-XXe siècles), Paris, Belin, coll. “Mappemonde”, 2008. He is a specialist of a “political history of colonial knowledge”
      I send you a review of this book by mail

  3. Al says:

    The atmosphere around this discussion seems to be fundamentally at odds with what I just finished reading in the JSS. In, “Reframing the Historical Problematic of Insurgency,” Jon E. Gumz argues that the “historical narrative of war and insurgency from professional military circles” is “a deeply flawed narrative.” It includes a number of “ahistorical, transcendent absolutes” that prevent use from fully appreciating the unique context in which most wars are fought.

    To me, this question of adopting the approach of “longue durée” smacks of universalism and raises serious questions about the soundness of our historical interpretations. As the father of modern history, Leopold von Ranke, once said, “Every period is immediate to God.”

  4. DE Teodoru says:

    It is very suggestive that during the Vietnam War we all recognized that ours was a counterREVOLUTIONARY War as the enemy was a revolutionary movement and made sure that it was seen as such by the peasant “sea.” The Viet Minh and later Viet Cong, encouraged by Stalin based on the Indonesian Communist experience, to build the revolution around land redistribution became key; all other grievances seemed incredibly legitimate to a peasantry enticed by land ownership—NOT the land socialization that became the ultimate reality. The anti-Communists fighting the Viet Cong consisted of everyone else with no interest in rural life. Needless to say, their resistance didn’t work.

    But once Le Duan imposed the sending of NVA regulars, beginning in 1964, to destroy ARVN before the US could send in troops, the American salvation of South Vietnam manifested as kill-all-burn-all as if peasants are the enemy. At no time previously had the US the air and artillery capacity it brought to bear on the South Vietnamese rural “injun country.” Hanoi’s 1955-1964 peasant mobilization was nothing new, but the American “total war” was. So many peasants did our conventional weapons revolution kill that the peasant “sea” poured out of the countryside into the cities as refugees, leaving the VC guerilla “fish” high and dry. Hanoi had no urban infrastructure, per Le Duc Tho in official histories. It was ONLY then that America became truly counterREVOLUTIONARY through the leadership of that fat wonder man, “Blowtorch” Komer, lord of CORDS. Thus in a few years, the peasant refugees from American ordnance thrown at the countryside, thanks to CORDS, integrated themselves into the made-in-America URBAN REVOLUTION. In just a few years, South Vietnam went from 85% rural to 75% urban; and, more important, per Radio Hanoi, the urbanized peasants quickly became “petites bourgeois,” integrated into the American made urban economy. Desperate, Hanoi called for total war by VC/NVA units against the cities, the 1968 Tet Offensive. And here the counterREVOLUTION manifested in that South Vietnamese realized that Hanoi offered them nothing but a socialized rural existence so they fought to keep the Communists out of the towns. How the war ended has little to do with the success of CORDS’s counterREVOLUTION. Alas, it came too late for us to take advantage of our successful urban revolution.

    But did the post-Vietnam crop of generals learn anything from this? I think not as they are still fighting a rural-centric counterINSURGENCY War which is all boom, boom, boom and broken promises. After US forces take an area, all they have to offer is the Karzai regime as the made in America “government in a box.” Petraeus– the ambitious commander seeking to ride COIIN to the presidency– characterized that regime as “a criminal syndicate.” On the other hand, Muslim Afghans regard the Taliban as a reliable source of rapid and reasonable “SHARIA JUSTICE.” Americans, they’re just a long trail of broken promises, imposing themselves as if they know what they are doing. A recent book., OPERATION DARK HEART, by a LtCol Anthony Shaffer designed as a bragging rights, “I was there” story betrays all the traits that makes the Afghan war a case of criminal negligence where shooting substitutes for thinking, graphically reflected in the story.

    One comes to wonder how it is that a Commander who did a PhD thesis on the Vietnam War, nevertheless, repeats the worst mistakes of the Vietnam War. He seems totally incapable of understanding that because people respond passively to someone shooting at Americans, it’s no excuse for indiscriminately dropping J-DAMs on them. This disproportionality, as in Vietnam, is due to the notion that no American commander can be successful unless he maintains the metrics of low casualties (ours) and high body count (theirs). So, intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb, our people are put into harm’s way only to shoot Afghans before Afghans shoot them, as in Vietnam, where our troops served as bait for ordnance (70% of firefights were initiated by NVA). In Afghanistan, when people are alive, we call them “Afghans,” when dead we call them “Taliban.” In the meantime, the Taliban builds secret local regimes by delivering swift Sharia justice while America imposes on the Afghans that survive our fire power OUR “government in a box” which Petraeus characterized “a criminal syndicate.”

    If only we would apply to Petraeus the same standards we apply to the neurosurgeon that operated Congresswoman Giffords, he wouldn’t be able to bully Obama while keeping top secret his kinetic-centric COIN warfare. But just as Americans didn’t care much about how many “gooks” an American had to kill to stay alive through his Vietnam tour, they don’t care how many “towel heads” an American kills to stay alive. Because no one back home cares, as in Vietnam, we will never realize how incompetent were our commanders in achieving COIN success until we long after lose. But by then the American people will only want autobiographic “reality-show”-type “I was there” stories, like Shaffer’s– about American super-heroes cutting down the “bad guys.” And so, next time, like Petraeus, some other Commander will repeat all the same mistakes. The reason is that an all-volunteer army serves the interests of its commanders, not of the people its COIN war seeks to effect. So far– a decade later– we have only achieved an expensive “hold” of strategically irrelevant villages and nothing else. As we prepare to cover our defeat with a Vietnam-like negotiated withdrawal, we will never realize that the whole world is watched carefully and notes that Americans are blinded to intel by hubris, leaving behind an indigenous desire for revenge. No plagiarized COIN manual will ever hide the fact that our commanders never inculcated the lessons from the past, never thought through the data and chose kinetic disorder over building a counterREVOLUTIONARY order as a solution. To paraphrase an old saying: those who choose to misrepresent history self-servingly are doomed to be aped by those who follow them, forever-after covering-up their incompetence with secrecy so that the next time someone else will be forced to repeat their past sins in ignorance.

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