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Counterinsurgency: Best Practices and Why They Still Fail

Updated on December 6, 2016

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When defining the center of gravity, the population would be the most obvious answer and is argued by most, but less obvious is the tangible support that is provided by the population and as external sources (Paul, 2010). While the COIN manual points to the population as being the center of gravity and most necessary to control, this paper argues that it is the supply lines that feed the insurgency and allow for its continued existence. The population may be the “water that the fish swim in”, but if there is no food source in that water – the fish will die or be forced to go elsewhere to get it and the population can quickly deny food and tangible support to COIN troops should alliances need to change for survival. The erratic nature of extremist groups and their willingness to act on civilians create a fickle nature in the population and generate a complacency to act making it impossible to ever truly trust or appease. This is particularly amplified when a counterinsurgency is spearheaded by an external actor as no inherent allegiance exist between the people and the troops. Internal counterinsurgencies are much more productive and likely to succeed; thus, this paper focuses on counterinsurgencies in which an external actor occupies a state to combat the insurgents, provides an educated speculation into why counterinsurgency fails and identifies metrics for gauging that success or failure.

As long as any insurgent poses a threat to the population it cannot be the center of gravity due to four factors: 1) it will rarely unify – someone will undoubtedly feel enough pressure to aid the insurgent(s) if they think they can get away with it or are pressured into it, 2) the arrival of the counterinsurgent force is not a motivating factor for the population to take a side, especially if the counterinsurgent force is an known occupying force, 3) the population lives in a world in which the adage “if it can be built, it can be destroyed” is a regular fact of life - development does not necessarily encourage complicity nor does it imply respect and 4) the population intangible support therefore reduction of tangible support encompasses some degree of pacifying the population ultimately anyway. Therefore, the center of gravity must be what the insurgent may pose a threat with - not to – which is his tangible support and resources, not the population as argued by the COIN manual.

The population will almost always exist so it cannot be destroyed, it will always have a will of its own, so it cannot be manipulated – tangible support can. If you remove tangible support then insurgents are left with passive political negotiation and protests to gain their support which, under democratic ideals, is preferred and legal. It is should be considered that legitimacy, strategic communication, leadership, (and its necessary traits) border control and tangible support reduction are superior COIN methods to pacification and development methods. While important and somewhat necessary, they are not the most critical, except for creating a capable native police force.


While a population centric approach, legitimacy is necessary to begin the flow of successful methods (Connable & Martin, 2010). Without a foundation of legitimacy, the population and external supporters will undoubtedly join the insurgents and the tangible support for the insurgency will become nearly unlimited. There are two levels of legitimacy: the legitimacy of the government or governments leading the counterinsurgency (whether internal, external or both) and the legitimacy of the counterinsurgency itself.

Even if the government is the only actor in fighting the insurgency, it must be legitimately doing so and must be doing so in a way that minimizes the number of opponents and attracts the most support (Jones, 2008). The government itself must be legitimate to begin with and reform may be necessary once security is obtained (Connable & Martin, 2010); a corrupt government threatens the population by taking advantage of it and by abusing it. If the government is controlled by oppressive leaders who took power rather than having it bestowed upon them then the insurgency, not the counterinsurgency, becomes legitimate.

If the counterinsurgent force is to prove itself legitimate, it must begin by proving that the insurgency is illegitimate and by maintaining consistency in military, political and social promises (Connable & Martin, 2010). As most insurgencies are begun because of illegitimate rulers or governments, establishing legitimacy in both the government and the counterinsurgency must be the first task of the counterinsurgent forces. Additionally, legitimacy must be defined by the population of the nation in proximity to the insurgency not the occupying nation.

The government must be meeting the actual demands of the population and not the needs assumed by the COIN forces. Human Terrain Teams can be helpful in advising here. The demands must also be met in a timely manner, to the closest specification possible and consistently throughout the various micro-populations making them. Courts and a legal system that is applied fairly and consistently should be established (Galula, 2006). This should be done by the home nation’s government and never the occupying nation. The jobs in meeting those demands should be given to locals, the designing should be done by locals and, if possible, the resources to build should be provided by local businesses. This keeps the financial tangible support in a cycle of development and local paychecks rather than funneling out towards corrupt officials or insurgents. It also keeps locals busy so that they are less inclined to use themselves as tangible support to the insurgents. Meanwhile, it places some semblance of control in their hands for the first time, hopefully empowering them towards a more passive path to survival i.e. pacifying them. In addition, they will begin to see their needs being met and will be more likely to support the government for a longer period, waiting to see how it plays out in their favor.

Metrics for gauging legitimacy would only be measurable in factors such as economic flow increasing as locals receive paychecks for their new jobs and spend them, development and its degree of sustainability, how long the development lasts or is maintained, used and protected by the people, and the number of the local population involved in the projects and the time in which it takes them to complete them. Financial stability should increase in an area where jobs exist and money is being cycled through the economy. From that, the new status quo should favor the government creating the jobs and the financial stability expressing a key reason for the government, not COIN forces to control development. If the tangible resources are flowing through the government back from the people and then back to them, legitimacy is maintained and resources being diverted to insurgents are limited. Numbers of kinetic episodes, insurgent activities and recovered resources should lower as less support is available and legitimacy should grow.

Leadership & Strategic Communication

Once legitimacy is established, superior leadership becomes the next method of COIN that will lead to success and, as a by-product of that leadership, superior strategic communication will be established. Leaders must embody all the necessary traits of a successful counterinsurgent specifically flexibility, adaptability and discernment. Rank is nothing, talent is everything (Kilcullen, 2010). Leaders must also be able to help their subordinates adapt their mindset from the apolitical conventional theory to the diplomatic COIN theory (Galula, 2008). Leaders set the moral standard for their subordinates, and therefore must be morally and emotionally ethical per the Constitution of their country and human rights policies dictated by the United Nations and agreed upon by most countries (Petreaus, 2007). Leaders must also trust each other to have these traits; there is no room for micromanagement in COIN operations. All leaders on all levels from political to military, national to local, kinetic to psychological, must have those traits and exercise them always.

Flexibility should extend from tactical to physical; a leader must be willing to change his plan and his equipment at the last minute to adapt to a changing situation, unlike the experiences of Vietnam in which leaders were neither willing to adapt, willing to unify nor willing to exchange the comforts of conventional forces weaponry for more vulnerable small, light units (Nagle, 2005). All operations should be communicated to all leaders on all levels before being exercised, apart from defensive and spontaneous operations. Unification of command over both civilian and military is necessary and agreement on the protocol of operations must be unanimously agreed upon by the leaders to complete them (Galula, 2006). The communication sent to all leaders must be consistent with the overall approach to the COIN operation, must be coherent and actionable, must not undermine legitimacy, must not consist of unreachable goals and all leaders must be unified behind the operation communicated (Paul, 2010). Leaders must recognize that the insurgents goal is to exhaust the will of the counterinsurgent and therefore must discern what actions will be of the greatest benefit to not only destroying insurgent will, but encouraging popular will of the host nation and, if applicable, the domestic nation of the occupying force to aid in exhausting the insurgents by demolishing their tangible support lines and discrediting their propaganda (Cassidy, 2008).

Criticality of intelligence is a primary asset in accomplishing this as well as knowing the enemy’s tactics (Andrade, 2008). Doing nothing may be better than doing too much or anything at all if it leads to growth of legitimacy and unification of leadership and will of the people in favor of counterinsurgent forces. Additionally, if the intelligence leads to capture of tangible resources then it may be more critical than the capture of insurgents themselves and therefore may lend to less violence and more progress. Those captured resources may then be turned over to the political and local leaders to recycle into the legitimate economy or military forces and help in balancing power in favor of the COIN force. Assumptions of victory, expectations of extensive resources and illusions of grandeur and superiority over the enemy all create rigid barricades from success particularly with will of the COIN forces and the populations so they should be avoided but encouragement of success in general as a steady standard should be maintained.

The only assumption a leader should make is that all his assumptions will be wrong. The only expectation a leader should have is that no expectation will be met. No promises should be made that cannot be immediately met and no hopes should be falsely established. Leaders should communicate candidly and truthfully with all other leaders, subordinates and populations. There should be plans of action, but there should be back up plans for back up plans (Kilcullen, 2010). Transparency is key unless a covert operation is specifically underway.

Strategic communication also includes the aspect of propaganda towards the public. Political and social leaders must communicate to the local public, the national public and the global public successes and limited goals (Kilcullen, 2010). The goals should be: to get a measure of approval at most, understanding at least, for measures to be taken that will cause minimal effect on the population during the COIN force stay, to lay a foundation of dissociation between the civilians and insurgents and to prepare sympathetic but neutral elements (Galula, 2008). Short-term investments should be made and ideal situations should never be portrayed or predicted.

All communications should be realistic and positive; they should be free from violence or anything that might invoke emotional response from either the host nation population or the occupying force’s population. Transparency post-operation should be maintained and information relayed to the public pre-operation should be vague. Insurgents thrive on surprise, panic shock and awe so keeping the population apprised of any possible threats or risks can minimize the momentum they can gain from those surprises but relaying such information should be done in a fashion that encourages preparedness while minimizing fear (Guevara, 1985).

Word of mouth can quickly destroy or elevate leadership, public will and legitimacy so it is necessary for all counterinsurgents to maintain appropriate behavior always. Propaganda should also aim at convoluting the insurgent’s political goal. “Without a political goal, guerilla warfare must fail” Mao states (Tse-tung, 2005), therefore confusing the insurgent’s political goal or emphasizing the irrational aspects of it, particularly for insurgents and would-be insurgents, limits the fuel for their fire and legitimacy of their actions.

Metrics for successful strategic communication are clear: the amount of tangible resources captured and recycled into legitimate use and the waning or waxing of popular support for the COIN forces, leadership working in concert and clearly communicating with each other and the population at large (as well as the domestic population of the occupying force, if necessary) will make an obvious wake in the process, success of operations is another metric, assuming success is measured by collection of tangible resources and intelligence, not body count. An operation that only collects intelligence, but not people or resources is still successful if that intelligence can be critically used to later capture support. Turnover of command is also a metric of success. Rats will jump from a sinking ship; if leaders are cycling out because of disagreement or corruption or insubordination to superiors’ commands then the system is flawed. If large numbers of leaders cannot stand behind the operations, then the operations may be questionable. If leaders are unified and comfortable in the actions they have agreed upon then they will maintain their positions. Metrics of communication are obviously intertwined with this. If communication is clear, accurate and consistent then operations will be successful and leadership will be unified. If propaganda is effective, popular support will be stable or increase in favor of the COIN forces.

Border Control and Tangible Support Reduction

Border control is a key element of COIN forces. Borders may include localities, nations or, in modern time, internet access. Border control is necessary and most functionally done by “putting a local face on it”. Census information should be taken, but not by occupying forces or military. Identification should be issued by the legitimate governing bodies. Occupations of individuals should be noted and reported to the military and social leaders so that resources can be accounted for. The occupation of an individual may be of high value to an insurgent or counter insurgent depending on what it is and can be listed as a possible tangible resource to be monitored or cycled into the legitimate system – whether blacksmith, farmer or physician. Ideally, all zones should be go-zones and secure for people to travel through therefore monitoring, not closing, borders should be done rigorously and by locals under military supervision.

If possible, air support should be used to watch rural border areas – ideally local air support. Insurgents should be secondary targets to tangible support making it across the border. For instance, if the choice is between a group of armed insurgents and a known supply route run by civilians, the supply route should be pacified first. Identification of strangers should be addressed immediately and appropriately.

Force should not be used unless necessary; no assumptions should be made about strangers – they should be treated as individuals who have committed no crime. It is important to remember that the host nation should not appear to be a military state and should only discourage average tourists and business travelers if violence is imminent or likely. The consequences for being an insurgent or supplying insurgents be clearly displayed along border crossings and in propaganda. Customs forms describing purposes of items brought across the border should be filled out and checked if items are of possible tangible support value. Items should not be requisitioned by COIN forces unless dangerous or assuredly heading towards insurgents but should be taken account of and monitored for trafficking patterns. Support reduction should be the primary goal of the counterinsurgent. Like taking candy from a child with a cavity, it encourages the health and safety of the nation to remove any tangible support from insurgents and populations that may be known supporters of the insurgency. A population that has nothing to offer insurgents will most likely be left alone and a population with minimal offerings will make it easy to discern targets of insurgents.

Jobs should be created and offered by the host nation and its local governments to discourage complacency and availability of the population, particularly males, so that insurgent’s opportunities to work with, compromise, or threaten them is limited. Jobs also work for census maintenance as absences from employment can work like roll call for individuals who may be supporting insurgents (Galula, 2006). All forms of support recovered from insurgents, aside from illicit materials like drugs, should be recycled into the legitimate system. Food should never be commandeered from the population; it is the one resource that should always be monitored but never commandeered unless already in the hands of the insurgent.

External support is a valuable asset to insurgents; insurgences with external state support won more than fifty percent of the time, those with external non-state support won thirty percent of the time and those with no external support won only seventeen percent of the time (Jones, 2008). Today, the internet allows for insurgent propaganda to be more widely spread and for various unexpected avenues of support to arise. While the internet is not the major source of support, censoring of internet access, usage and communication can be a valuable kind of border control. Financial border control through banks and financial institutions can also dissipate external support. Following money trails can lead to external factors that may be sanctioned, or if individuals, imprisoned. Physical border control is necessary to limit arms, medical and able body support from external sources. Recent awareness of American converts being found aiding insurgents is proof of this.

Metrics for border control include: support reduction that would be seen in conjunction of record keeping and inventory of captures of supplies and diminished insurgent use of those supplies - one cannot exist without the other. No amount of capturing supplies matters if a supply line is keeping the insurgents well stocked; it supplies are being minimized in an area, insurgent activity should decrease and they should begin to find other “water” to swim in. It is the goal of the insurgent to keep moving fluidly throughout the population, if you can minimize the places he might be inclined to go, there is an opportunity to predict the places he might go to next. By limiting the border with avid border control, whether it be in a province, a village or a country, the insurgents will be forced to use alternative means or rely heavily on a support system that was previously unknown to COIN forces but will become evident with increased use. Other border control metrics include census counts, occupation monitoring, profiling, resource item inventory, reduced financial support for insurgents and increased defections due to starvation, insecurity and waning will. No single metric will be enough to gauge success; all metrics should be used cumulatively.

Pacification: “Boots on the Ground” and Local Policing

A perception of security must be maintained among populations in areas of conflict and within areas not yet in conflict (Paul, 2010) but according to David Kilcullen (2010), “for your side to win, the people do not have to like you but the must respect you, accept your actions benefit them and trust your integrity and ability to deliver on promises particularly regarding their security.” To gain their respect a certain amount of acknowledging them as equal human beings with equal human rights and wills to live is necessary. They must believe that you do not find them inferior or view them as a charity case but that you are there to aid in their security. The easiest way to do this is to have knowledge of their culture, act according to their culture and if possible, know their language (which in itself has tactical advantage for intelligence gathering) (Burgoyne & Marckwardt, 2009). The idea is that this type of “boots on the ground approach” will give the perception of friends rather than occupiers. This is a fallacy – you are an occupier if you are not a native - but that does not negate the fact that attempting to understand their customs is a sign of respect for them and it will be appreciated for bridging this gap of uncertainty. This approach also allows for you to find the immediate and actionable goals that need to be met for each population as well as aiding in intelligence gathering.

Conversing with the general population also helps in keeping tabs of individuals that may keep strange hours or act less than forth coming. It allows for leaders to discern more easily how to divide the population from the likely insurgents hiding among them. Also, should a kinetic operation take place, identifying friend from foe is more easily done under high-stress situations. Any promises made should be kept and trust should be built on all possible levels with local leaders and townspeople. This will make resource inventory easier and will allow for more identifiable sources of tangible support for insurgents to be routed out.

Finally, local military training is mandatory for counterinsurgency. Training of local militias and creation of local police forces is necessary. They should be trained to fight the insurgents in the area, should know the area to the greatest detail and should never mirror occupying forces (Kilcullen, 2010). Greater knowledge of the local area, increase chance of more useful intelligence gathering, deterrence of criminal activity and insurgent support and a bridge between the COIN forces and the local population are all developed by a local police force. Militias should not work cross-purpose for COIN forces but should work solely for the security of the population. This bridge, in addition to the repetition of the “beat cop” approach, will help enable trust building, familiarity and positive relations with COIN forces.

Minimum sufficient force should be used at all time with populations. Both COIN forces and local police should run unscheduled, erratic patrols so that they cannot be predicted (Burgoyne & Marckwardt, 2009). Pay will most likely be necessary for these local forces so collection of taxes for the purpose should fall to the local government leaders. The local police should be trained under the notion and to the degree that COIN forces can vacate the area at any time and trust that the area will remain secure (Burgoyne & Marckwardt, 2009). Ideally local forces will know the area so they will be able to identify tangible support systems that insurgents may have active in the locality.

Metrics for the success of “boots on the ground” and local policing include: increases in intelligence from locals, increase in economic activity due to security, free communication between locals and COIN forces and decrease in passing of tangible resources from the population to the insurgents, decreased insurgent activity may or may not be a sign of success; insurgents may simply be adapting their plans to include local police interference as an obstacle (Kilcullen, 2010), defections of locals back to their villages or towns because of increased security may also be a metric of success, a lack of distrust or cultural ostracizing of COIN forces may also be a metric of successful pacification or “boots on the ground” consistency. All metrics in this category should be viewed together, not individually for accuracy.

Why Counterinsurgency Still Fails: What Goes Wrong

There are several factors that create situations that cannot be overcome and failure becomes imminent despite the use of successful COIN tactics. Keeping a balance of tactics when so many variables are constantly being inputted into the equation is almost impossible. Knowing the future is impossible – America, for instance, may have chosen a more diplomatic approach to Iraq had it been aware of its coming economic meltdown. While still successful to a degree, the cost was overwhelming and the transition to Afghanistan even more so. At no point in COIN operations can success be assumed, let alone guaranteed. Establishing credibility at a local level happens at around the same time that maintaining credibility with your own domestic population becomes impossible. The power of individuals making bad decisions coupled with the power of the media can destroy credibility and legitimacy instantly. Knowing a local culture is not living it and therefore COIN forces will always remain outsiders at the very least, occupiers in most cases.

These factors lead to one main factor: the variability of the population involved in the conflict is clear evidence it is an expendable target and not a necessity of the insurgent such as tangible resources. COIN experts would argue that pacification of the population is the sure ticket to success, and the COIN manual depicts steps towards that success. It is the goal of the counterinsurgent to attempt to sway the neutral group to be passionately against the insurgent group. However, it is worth considering that there are people, either so weak in their current state or so complacent about the status quo, that they are not capable of the passion necessary to end fighting, much less to take a side.

Support from the population will always be conditional particularly while the insurgent group remains active on any level which makes security (Galula, 2008), especially kinetic, a greater factor than cultural understanding and personal connection. When a controlling group asserts power over the neutral parties, the neutral group begrudgingly or willingly allows it, because, as they see it, this is their new place (Kilcullen, 2010). They will never view either group – COIN force or insurgent - as more than a controlling group. Insurgent and occupier are indifferently revered as no more than what they are and the neutral group continues about what business they are allowed or compelled to continue without fight, retaliation or uprising because those actions are not in their nature. People may truly be indifferent to the cause of either controlling group; they are, in most cases, truly unalterable in opinion and will always respond by doing what is necessary for themselves and their loved ones to simply survive when threatened and no more. They are no more likely to be swayed by the development of their nation by an occupier than they are by the terrorism of an insurgent from their own neighborhood as they are fully aware what is given can be taken away.

It is believed by some that it is often possible that a counterinsurgent can cause a multiplying force by making one obtrusive mistake, such as killing civilians accidentally. It would imply that the mass population is irrational which is unlikely. While in some cultures there may be an occurrence of multiplication due to the taking up of arms as a cultural norm that a non-combatant must adhere to when a kinsman is killed or they are violently compelled by insurgents rather than the impassioned to violence or deviants may latch on to a cause compelled by the media frenzy, but mass mood transition of the population from one side to the other over an isolated event is unlikely.

However, there is a rare individual that can turn the other cheek, sustain the sacrifice and allow violence to continue un-repaid. Leaders by their nature are controllers, not neutral and they must be willing to defend a population of unimpassioned sideliners, rather than rally a group of impassioned fighters to successfully operate a counterinsurgency. The odds are most definitely against them. It is because of this indifferent mindset that the population is prone to capriciousness and thus creates an abundance of variables that can never be accurately portrayed in the metrics of COIN studies. When the inconsistency becomes overwhelming, as in the Second District of the Philippines (Linn, 1989) or with the LTTE of Sri Lanka (Indian Defence Review, 2009), conventional forces may be necessary either to appease the population in conflict or the domestic population of the COIN forces.

Development and cultural integration are not primary factors of successful COIN operations. The population’s lack of commitment renders such factors useless. If the population cared about their infrastructure in a measurable way they would surely be on the side of the insurgent seeking to overturn the government that has failed to provide them necessities and would in no way tolerate an occupying force that’s very presence threatened what little provisions they currently maintained. If the population wanted a system of legitimate taxation that paid for infrastructure, not insurgents, they would naturally be taking local collections to insure the creation of that infrastructure but they have not or they cannot, so do not.

The population comes from a long line of people that accept their lot in life and are not interested in defying their God’s will enough to better it or they would join the fight against the “oppressors” and “imperialists” but as it stands, God will be their leader, their judge and their code of laws is defined by their historical texts or prophet (whether it be Muslim, Roman Catholic or Christian). Further, once leaders have gained control in any capacity of the complacent, neutral populace they will undoubtedly wield that control in a way that is only slightly (if at all) beneficial to the population to maintain their complicit nature and those leaders will continue to do as they please (Kilcullen, 2010). While external forces may be of the mindset that they are training locals to police themselves and the Afghani army to defend its own people, they may be building a strong military that will be wielded in the form of a police state not a democracy by leaders who have little interest in the wellbeing of the masses. This would have happened already had it been the intention of any of the mujahedeen after the Anti-Soviet conflict.


The goal of this paper was to identify that the center of gravity is the tangible support insurgents receive, rather than the population. Further, to clarify that the population seems only neutral on occasion of insuring their own survival and that because it has a will and is tangible support it is not necessarily the center of gravity. When shifting that center of gravity to tangible support, development and pacification are secondary methods because of their unsure results.

Methods that will most likely lead to success flow from gaining and maintaining of legitimacy, establishment of superior leaders on political, military and social levels and the strategic communication between them and the population, the traits that necessarily define those leaders as superior, border control and tangible support reduction and finally, pacification particularly through creation and training of local police forces. It has been pointed out that because of the capriciousness of the population and its numerous variables that COIN forces may use every successful method and still lose.

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