Best Practices in Counterinsurgency

By Sepp, Kalev I. | Military Review, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview

Best Practices in Counterinsurgency


Sepp, Kalev I., Military Review


It is fashionable in some quarters to say that the problems in Southeast Asia are primarily political and economic rather than military. I do not agree. The essence of the problem in Vietnam is military.--General Earle Wheeler, 1962 (1)

WE CAN DISCERN "best practices" common to successful counterinsurgencies by studying the past century's insurgent wars. Historical analysis helps us understand the nature and continuities of insurgencies over time and in various cultural, political, and geographic settings. While this does not produce a template solution to civil wars and insurrections, the sum of these experiences, judiciously and appropriately applied, might help Iraq defeat its insurgency.

Nations on every continent have experienced or intervened in insurgencies. Not counting military coups and territorially defined civil wars, there are 17 insurgencies we can study closely and 36 others that include aspects we can consider. (See chart 1.) Assessment reveals which counterinsurgency practices were successful and which failed. A strategic victory does not validate all the victor's operational and tactical methods or make them universally applicable, as America's defeat in Vietnam and its success in El Salvador demonstrate. In both cases, "learning more from one's mistakes than one's achievements" is a valid axiom. If we were to combine all the successful operational practices from a century of counterinsurgent warfare, the summary would suggest a campaign outline to combat the insurgency in present-day Iraq. (See chart 2.)

Chart 1. Selected 20th-Century Insurgencies

Second Anglo-Boer War (United Kingdom [U.K.]
vs. Boer separatists, 1899-1902).

Philippine Insurrection (United States [U.S.] vs.
Filipino nationalists, 1899-1902 [1916]).

Arab Revolt (Ottoman Turkey vs. Arab rebels, 1916-1918).

Iraq 1920 (U.K. vs. Iraqi rebels, 1920).
China (Nationalist Party [KMT] vs. Communists, 1922-1949).

Nicaraguan Intervention (U.S. and Government of
Nicaragua [GoN] vs. Sandinistas, 1925-1932).

France, World War II (Germany vs. French resistance
and Special Operations Executive [SOE]/Office of
Strategic Services [OSS], 1940-1945).

Balkans, World War II (Germany vs. Tito's partisans
and SOE/OSS, 1940-1945).

Greek Civil War (U.K., then U.S. and Government of
Greece [GoG], vs. National Liberation Army [ELAS],
1944-1949).

Indonesian Revolt (Netherlands vs. Indonesian
rebels, 1945-1949).

French Indochina (France vs. Viet Minh, 1945-1954).

Palestine (U.K. vs. Jewish separatists, 1945-1948).

Hukbalahap Rebellion (Philippine Islands [P.I.] vs.
Hukbalahap, 1946-1954).

Malayan Emergency (U.K. vs. Malayan Communist
Party [MPC]/Malayan Races Liberation Army [MRLA],
1948-1960).

Kenyan Emergency (U.K. vs. Mau Mau, 1952-1956).
Algerian Revolt (France vs. National Liberation Front
[FEN], 1954-1962).

Cyprus (U.K. vs. Ethniki Organosis Kyprios Agoniston
[EOKA] (a Greek terrorist organization), 1954-1959).

Aden (U.K. and Aden vs. Yemeni insurgents, 1955-1967).

Cuban Revolution (Cuba's Batista regime vs. Castro,
1956-1959).

France (France vs. Secret Army Organization [OAS],
1958-1962).

Venezuela (Venezuela vs. urban-based Armed Forces
for National Liberation [FALN], 1958-1963).

Vietnam War (U.S. and Government of Vietnam
[GoVN] vs. National Liberation Front [NLF] and
Democratic People's Republic of Vietnam [DPRVN],
1958-1975).

Guatemalan Civil War (Guatemala vs. Marxist rebels,
1961-1996).

Angola (Portugal vs. Popular Movement for the
Liberation of Angola [MPLA], 1961-1974).

Guinea-Bissau (Portugal vs. Marxist rebels, 1963-1974).

Uruguay (Uruguay vs. Tupamaros, 1963-1972).

Mozambique (Portugal vs. Front for the Liberation of
Mozambique [FRELIMO], 1964-1974).

Colombian Civil War (U.S. and Government of
Colombia [GoC] vs. Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia [FARC] and National Liberation Army
[ELN], 1964-present).

Northern Ireland (U. … 

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