Le’ Notes #9: Insurgency and counter-insurgency

This post discusses insurgencies and how to counter them, drawing examples from the Malayan Emergency and Vietnam War.

“These guerrilla operations must not be considered as an independent form of warfare. They are but one step in the total war, one aspect of the revolutionary struggle. They are the inevitable result of the clash between oppressor and oppressed…” – Mao Tse-tung, On Guerrilla Warfare

What is the first image that comes to mind when the word “insurgent” is uttered? A middle-aged man, wearing a black balaclava and battle fatigues, armed with an AK-47 and several IEDs, squaring off against a bunch of well-equipped American soldiers? That might be the most popular description of an insurgent that we have today. For most of the time, we’ve been focused on the “big wars”. Now, let’s take some time to look at the “small wars”, when small armies hold their ground against larger armies. Though there are more examples of small wars around the world, for this post, I learned specifically about the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War.

We’ll learn about what insurgencies are and the different methods to counter them.

An insurgency is only a part of the larger parent category of “irregular warfare”. It is “irregular” in the sense that it is not waged by states against other states. Rather, in irregular wars, the fighters are often small groups, driven by a common political goal, armed with inexpensive weapons, fighting against the established state/government in an attempt to overthrow the existing government and establish a new system. Or, in simpler terms, an insurgency can also be considered as a lengthy and violent struggle between a state and non-state actor for legitimacy and influence over a population.

Insurgents should also be differentiated from revolutionists. Though they may share similar characteristics (i.e. aiming to overthrow the government), an insurgency is much more subtle than a revolution and more often prolonged. You can imagine the difference between the French Revolution of 1789 between the many Communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia since the First Indochina War in the 1950s.

James Kiras [e-book] provides a typology of the different forms of irregular warfare, from coup d’etat to civil wars.

Since insurgents are almost always weaker than the “bigger state”, they would also fight differently from a conventional army. As my professor would say, “You either fight stupid or asymmetric.” Even David, when he fought against Goliath, did not face him directly in a contest of brute strength. Thus, guerrilla warfare is one of the central aspects of insurgencies. A typical insurgent would do well to familiarise themselves with the basics of guerrilla warfare.

One of the classics of guerrilla warfare is, of course, Mao’s treatise, On Guerrilla Warfare [HTML]. In it, Mao practically says that a key element in the success of an insurgency was the will to conduct prolonged guerrilla operations. Though Mao was an advocate of guerrilla warfare, he did view guerrilla warfare as only a temporary solution to a problem. At the end of the day, Mao still needed a conventional army to take over the legitimate government. Additionally, the conventional army would then be established as the regular army once his ideal state was formally established.

Some central points on guerrilla warfare:

  • Don’t confront the enemy on their terms. Fight only when it is advantageous to you. Courage is worthless when you’re dead. This is why most insurgents adopt hit-and-run tactics, followed a bit of terrorism. However, there are several exceptions to this, such as the battle of Dien Bien Phu, when General Giap combined aspects of guerrilla warfare with conventional warfare.
  • Your guns may be old, but it’s the will of the man firing them that matters. In Vietnam, the Americans were foiled over and over again despite their superior technological advantage. They lost to jerry-rigged booby traps, such as bodies laced with grenades, shit-covered spike pits, and more.
  • It is important to maintain an illusion of invulnerability. The end goal of an insurgent is not to destroy the enemy. You only need to make them say “Jesus Christ, this guy isn’t dying no matter how many bullets I fire on him. Fuck this, I’m out,” Bonus points if you manage to convince the people back home to withdraw their boys on the ground.
  • Most importantly, be prepared to fight for a long time. An insurgency isn’t over in a fortnight. No, it’s a long and arduous struggle from getting the people on your side to finally toppling the big bad government. After that, you still have to focus on building your own country from the ruins.

An overview of insurgencies across history has provided us with insight on how insurgencies are conducted. There are 5 approaches:

  1. The classical Maoist approach. This is perhaps the most labour-intensive approach to insurgency ever. The focus is to already have a “shadow government” ready, so that when the time comes to topple the government, you already have something ready to make repairs to all that destruction. This involves winning over the hearts of the people, training guerrillas, finding intellectuals to support you, etc. It’s a laborious process that not everyone can do.
  2. “Focoism“. Or, the Che Guevarra approach. This involves finding a small group of people to act as a “spark” to ignite a revolution. Finding such people is only the first part of the job; the next part would be to make sure they can start and proceed with an insurgency. This might not always work, as it is highly dependent on the conditions and capabilities of the people you’re trying to “ignite”.
  3. If trying to get a bunch of people on your side is a hard thing to do, maybe your insurgents can start trying to convince your oppressors that the costs of maintaining hold on the country would not be profitable for them. This can be achieved by launching more and more terror attacks or engaging in guerrilla warfare.
  4. If the conflict has reached a stalemate, there’s always diplomacy.
  5. “Propaganda of the deed”. Or, the “ISIS method”. This covers the use of dramatic action, such as beheading people, to galvanise the population. This form of insurgency has become increasingly prevalent today, especially thanks to ISIS and their digital campaign. We’ve all heard stories of how people were influenced by ISIS videos to go out and conduct terror acts in the name of ISIS.

Now that we’ve understood (at least a bit) about insurgencies, let’s move on to how to stop them. First of all, let’s face the facts. Big nations tend to lose small wars. Why is that? Here’s Henry Kissinger on why they lost in Vietnam:

We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion … the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win. – Henry Kissinger, 1969

As Mack [e-book] describes, in larger nations, especially democracies, counterinsurgency operations are often hindered by the fact that they are “limited” operations. In a Clausewitzian sense, limited wars do not necessarily require the mobilisation of the entire nation’s resources. More importantly, limited wars are highly dependent on the degree of political support from the people and government. Once the people and politicians withdraw their support, the war effort begins to crumble. That was the case in Vietnam. The loss of lives prompted the people back at home to protest against the government, who in turn called the order to retreat. This was also true in the earlier phases of the Global War on Terror, when the 9/11 attacks provided ample socio-political support for Operation Enduring Freedom.

Merom [book] proposes a similar argument. Merom argues that the disagreement between state and society over the degree of violence acceptable to conduct counterinsurgency tends to undercut counterinsurgency attempts. Simply put, when society cannot condone the government’s methods in counterinsurgency operations, popular support shifts against the war effort. Again, such was the case in Vietnam. Though it doesn’t have to be soldiers getting hurt. Images of children being napalmed also had an effect on society, striking their moral conscience and prompting them to call for an end to the war.

Images like these can erode public support for war.

So there’s one lesson already: if a country wants to conduct counterinsurgency, everyone has to be in favour of it.

Now, let’s visit Sir Robert Thompson’s classic work, Defeating Communist Insurgency [book], which an account on counterinsurgency operations in the Malayan Emergency. Thompson’s account is one of the successful counterinsurgency operations in history. In it, Thompson lays out his five basic principles in dealing with insurgencies:

  1. Governments should have a clear political aim and maintain a politically and economically stable state. Insurgents thrive when people are unhappy with their government (see Gurr, Why Men Rebel [book] for a sociological approach to understanding relative deprivation and its links to political violence). So, a surefire way to prevent an uprising is to make sure everyone is well fed. This principle also applies to when you’re conducting counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. It’s pointless to focus the entire national budget on COIN when it leaves people starving and unhappy.
  2. Governments must function in accordance to law. Not only does this give the impression of governments occupying the moral high ground, it also provides more legitimacy for the government to conduct COIN. So, extrajudicial killings are off the table, because if the government won’t act according to the rule of law, why should the people? Furthermore, laws need to be reasonable. Harsh laws, such as killing people in villages suspected to be harboring insurgents just creates more insurgents. Night curfews need to be justified with proper reason.
  3. The government must have an overall plan. If the government has to conduct COIN, that means all policies must have a bearing on making COIN successful. Military and socio-economic policies must be centred on the conduct of COIN.
  4. Priority lies in defeating political subversion, not guerrillas. The centre of gravity when it comes to insurgencies is the idea, not the forces themselves. So, what the British did during the Malayan Emergency was to isolate the communists from the population where they drew their resources from.
  5. During the fighting phase, the government should prioritise the defence of base areas. It’s important to maintain the core of the government first, which is usually located in the developed areas. These are important resource bases that will be used later in the fighting. The periphery can wait.

Furthermore, Thompson also emphasises on the restructuring of the conventional army when faced with insurgents. It was more effective for armies to be broken up into smaller groups to sweep the insurgents. A smaller chain of command leads to faster action. Thompson was also a fan of winning over the hearts of the population, which formed a large portion in the British strategy to counter the communist insurgency.

The bells ring…

To summarise, here are the main points you should remember:

  • Insurgencies are a form of asymmetric wars, where the belligerent is smaller than a conventional army. As such, they rely heavily on guerrilla tactics. Their main goal is to deliver a lot of small cuts so you eventually give up.
  • An important element of insurgencies is the people. Insurgents draw power from the people, either by coercing or co-opting them. Thus, the centre of gravity when dealing with insurgents is the population.
  • Big nations, though technologically and numerically superior, often fail in small wars due to discrepancies between social and political preferences.
  • Counterinsurgency works best when coupled with non-military tactics, such as enticing the population, propaganda, etc.

Le’ Notes is a collection of my lecture and reading notes, summarized, revised, and ready-to-go. Think of it as a bag of chips; it’s easy to eat, but don’t expect a lot of nutrition. Or, you can think of it as a starting point to learning more about other things that might interest you.

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