The Delusions of Counterinsurgency

By David Martin Jones and Michael L.R. Smith

The theory and practice of counterinsurgency, ‘COIN’, preoccupied Western military thinking after 9/11. In the Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency, we argue that Counterinsurgency thinking may be distilled into four broad themes that ultimately sought to reduce war to technique. COIN neglected the essential Clausewitzian point about all war, that it is the pursuit of politics by other means. The avoidance of the contingent, political dimension has had tragic consequences for western statecraft.


Western military thinking’s fascination with counterinsurgency had its origins in the aftermath of the events of 9/11, in particular, the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan by Coalition forces. The costs, consequences, and controversies associated with this era preoccupied the thinking of policy makers and security analysts for the better part of two decades. Yet since 2011 Western forces have been drawn down from major theaters of operation, with, at most, advisory missions left behind in low-profile training roles. The likelihood is that these occupations that once loomed so large in the public mind will fade from view, displaced by new and very different crises on the world stage. After the troops have gone, therefore, what we might wonder should we make of Counterinsurgency (COIN) and what, if any, lessons emerge from it?

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Four broad themes may be identified in COINthink. The first that emerges is the elusive and ambivalent character of the phenomenon that COIN seeks to deter. Somewhat surprisingly, ‘insurgency’ is difficult to identify with any precision. At various times since 1949 practitioners and analysts have deployed terms as various as small wars, irregular war, unconventional war, guerrilla or revolutionary war in an attempt to capture this elusive phenomenon. These various terms have rarely succeeded in clarifying what precisely is an insurgency. Accordingly, the notion of counterinsurgency is equally obscure.

Even so, when carefully unpacked, the elasticity of the term counterinsurgency connotes not so much a concept, but a narrative. Its actual meaning may be contested, but as an explanatory device through which past events are filtered, it becomes a powerful tool. Between 2007-2011, the COIN narrative maintained that the confusion and complexity of Iraq’s post-invasion civil strife could be reduced to a single practice. In other words, it constituted “an insurgency” which required those commanders aware of the practice to prepare US forces to “surge” and thus achieve enhanced conditions of security. In so doing COIN applied the recently rediscovered tactics of classic population-centric Cold War counterinsurgency and distilled them into The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. The decline in violence in Iraq after 2007 seemed to vindicate the approach. Irrespective of whether correlation was cause, western militaries extolled the virtues of COIN. Indeed it became something of an intellectual movement that advanced through the corridors of power as well as the halls of academe and the world of think tanks.1

COIN’s narrative power lay, not only in the fact that it offered a simple, if deceptive, explanation of the decrease in violence in Iraq after 2007, but also that it appeared to identify recurrent patterns of conflict that yielded enduring tactical lessons for operational conduct. This claim rested on the analysis of supposedly classic counterinsurgencies, most notably the British conduct of the Malayan Emergency (1948–1960) and French practice during the Algerian War (1954–1962). Other cases also made fleeting appearances in the narrative, either as positive or negative examples. These included inter alia the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya (1952–1960), the Northern Ireland conflict (1968–1998) and Vietnam (1965–1975). The somewhat arbitrary categorisation of these distinct conflicts under the rubric of COIN gave historical veracity to the narrative.

COIN’s claim to universal applicability, however, conceals a normative project, namely, modernisation.

Thus COIN’s centrality to armed conflict derived from the apparent proof that past practice yielded lessons for current and future wars. That the theory identified a distinct form of conflict, characterised as insurgency, led to the further assertion that a series of palliative methods and core operational principles could be implemented that would, if correctly applied, ensure success. These practices invariably included: securing the loyalty of the population; grievance reduction; the integration of civic action plans; democracy and human rights promotion; and the minimum application of military force in “clear, hold, and build” exercises. This emphasis on technique, however, came at the expense of the contingency of political decision making that always give rise to war and exert their influence over military interventions.

The methodology of COIN, therefore, reflected an apparently scientific approach to military conduct that rationalised warfare into a series of steps or procedures.2 However, COIN’s overriding concern for the “how” of operational conduct preempted strategic questions about proportionality such as what crucial political values are at stake in interventions, and what costs are worth incurring to defend them? In other words, it is not just how one fights but why one chooses to fight that is important. The “why” question is political and depends upon contingent circumstances. COIN theory not only had no answer to it, rather worryingly, it failed even to ask it.

This leads onto COIN’s third characteristic, that although it eschewed overtly political statements, it was, paradoxically, covertly ideological in orientation. Superficially, COIN purports to be an apolitical technique. It offers an all-purpose recipe for action across time and space. The timeless dynamics of insurgency perpetually respond to the timeless techniques of counterinsurgency.3 COIN’s claim to universal applicability, however, conceals a normative project, namely, modernisation. The ultimate goal of counterinsurgency method, never fully articulated, must be to propel those conflicted societies mired in customary practice or authoritarian political cultures along the road of socioeconomic improvement and democratic development. Yet, the question of whether, non western, tribal and ethno religiously divided political cultures in the Middle East or South Asia were susceptible to such nation-building blandishments and whether it was worth the long-term costs of Western forces to attempt to engage in modernising them was rarely asked.4 In other words, buried within Western counterinsurgency thinking, as it evolved in the 2000s, was an ideology that successful nation building would conduce to a liberal democratic end of history.

This brings us to COIN’s fourth broad theme. Counterinsur-gency assumed an underlying end-of-history teleology. Consequently, its pretensions to historically nuanced case analysis exhibited instead a capacity to mythologise the past, distort historical understanding, ignore contingency, and obscure complexity. COIN’s promotion of an assumed British expertise in small war and counterinsurgency evinced all these limitations. Analysts repeatedly credited the British armed forces with an almost gnostic counterinsurgency expertise based on their experience with colonial warfare, particularly in winning over the population through techniques of minimum force and hearts and minds. Rarely was this reputation scrutinised. Commentators simply assumed the practice they needed to demonstrate from a sceptical analysis of the historical record.

The fact that the British armed forces bought into this myth, constituted one of the more bizarre effects of such historical distortion. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, the British military establishment came to assume that they possessed a distinctive competence in counterinsurgency, even though, until that time, the British Army rarely claimed such expertise, viewing its colonial encounters in terms of orthodox demonstrations of hard power to curtail rebel activity. As a consequence of buying into this myth, when shortcomings in British military interventions became evident, most notably in southern Iraq in the mid-2000s, commentators expressed dismay at the demise of this nonexistent tradition.

COIN is symptomatic of a fallacy at the heart of much contemporary Western social inquiry, which is the attempt to impose a structure on contingent conditions of the past that were never present at the time and will never recur in the future.

Such myth making, moreover, obscured a more prosaic but important reality, namely that Britain had prevailed in its small war as a result of the government’s commitment to see these campaigns through so that stipulated political objectives were met. Ironically, COIN’s cherry picking of the historical record misrepresented the tactical proficiency that the British did possess. This proficiency far from demonstrating a flair for minimum force, exhibited a talent for escalation into the dark arts of intelligence-led Special Forces operations and the penetration of rebel networks — from Malaya to Northern Ireland to the back streets of Baghdad —where Britain’s capacities really lay and continue to reside.5

Ultimately, what does the identification of these themes mean for our understanding of the theory and practice of those wars grouped under the label counterinsurgency? Rory Stewart, the British soldier-scholar-politician, traveler, and linguist, reflecting on his time as deputy governor of two southern Iraqi provinces under Coalition Authority, concluded in early 2014 that:

Our entire conceptual framework was mad. All these theories – counterinsurgency warfare, state building – were actually complete abstract madness. They were like very weird religious systems, because they always break down into three principles, 10 functions, seven this or that. So they’re reminiscent of Buddhists who say: “These are the four paths,” or of Christians who say: “These are the seven deadly sins.” They’re sort of theologies, essentially, made by people like Buddhist monks in the eighth century – people who have a fundamental faith, which is probably, in the end, itself completely delusional.6

Stewart’s revelation illustrates a simple but important truth: COIN is symptomatic of a fallacy at the heart of much contemporary Western social inquiry, which is the attempt to impose a structure on contingent conditions of the past that were never present at the time and will never recur in the future. COIN is, as Stewart contends, a delusion. Counterinsurgency “theory” in this respect is little different from many other systems of thought that attempt to read the past through an understanding of a social or political “science” as if they identify timeless patterns, lessons, and rules. It thus bears comparison with forms of magical or pseudo scientific thought. In this regard, counterinsurgency is not so much a false analogy but a distorting lens that narrows an appreciation of the past and overdetermines and oversimplifies the present.

Ultimately, it is the historical contingency of war that presents itself as much more enduring and valid than any cherry picking theory of history.

COIN is therefore a history distorting narrative and should not be regarded as a formula for comprehending present wars or prescribing the course of future ones. It might be somewhat trite to claim that a study of counterinsurgency reveals yet again that there are no lessons to be learnt from the past, only interpretations. But if one enduring truth may be extracted, it is that COIN-centric readings of history should be treated, like all grand social science theorising, with scepticism. Instead, a sceptical investigation into the incoherence of counterinsurgency suggests that we should return to the more modest, but no less shrewd, claims of realist thinkers such as Nicolo Machiavelli and Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz’s dictum that war is more than a true chameleon — always changing its surface manifestation but at heart remaining the same — offers a more stable basis for insight by identifying the one constant about war, that all wars are unique to their time and place, conditioned, as they are, by the unpredictable forces of passion, chance, and reason. The analysis of the interplay of these dynamic, volatile, ever-shifting forces gives the study of war its vitality. Ultimately, it is the historical contingency of war that presents itself as much more enduring and valid than any cherry picking theory of history.

Feature Image: The Marines conduct patrols to suppress enemy activity and gain the trust of the people

Image Courtesy of US Marine Corps

About the Authors 

David Martin Jones is Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London and Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland.

Michael L.R. Smith is Professor of Strategic Studies in the War Studies Depart-ment, King’s College London.
They have co-authored The Political Impossibility of Modern Counter-insurgency (University of Columbia Press, 2015) and Sacred Violence, Political Religion in a Secular Age (Palgrave 2014).

1. Jeffrey H. Michaels and Matthew Ford, “Bandwagonistas: Rhetorical Re-description, Strategic Choice, and the Politics of Counter-Insurgency,” Small Wars and Insurgencies 22, no. 2 (2011): 352–384.
2. See David Martin Jones and M. L. R. Smith, “Grammar but No Logic: Technique Is Not Enough—a Reply to Nagl and Burton,” Journal of Strategic Studies 33, no. 3 (2010): 430–441.
3. John A. Nagl and Brian Burton, “Thinking Globally and Acting Locally: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Modern Wars—a Reply to Smith and Jones,” Journal of Strategic Studies 33, no. 1 (2010): 123–138.
4. Joshua Rovner, “Questions About COIN After Iraq and Afghanistan,” in Celeste Ward Gventer, David Martin Jones, and M. L. R. Smith, The New Counter-Insurgency Era in Critical Perspective (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 299–318.
5. See, Mark Urban Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the SAS and the Secret War in Iraq [London: Abacus, 2011].
6. Quoted in Decca Aitkenhead, “Rory Stewart: ‘The Secret of Modern Britain Is That There Is No Power Anywhere,’ ” Guardian, January 3, 2014.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.


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