The Theory and Practice of Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency

By Fall, Bernard B. | Military Review, September-October 2015 | Go to article overview

The Theory and Practice of Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency


Fall, Bernard B., Military Review


Editor's note: Due to the events of 9/11, the U.S. Army was forced to undergo a major retooling of its doctrine, practice, and support systems in order to deal with a plethora of unconventional adversaries that have subsequently not gone away. Part of this retooling was resuscitation and revitalization of counterinsurgency doctrine, largely moribund since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Among the hard lessons relearned over the last fifteen years is that the outcome of counterinsurgency largely depends on a range of political, economic, and cultural factors over which the U.S. military, or even the U.S government, has marginal control. for example, most observers appear to agree that the highly successful counterinsurgency campaign that exploited the "Awakening" in Anbar Province, Iraq, from 2005 to 2008, which pitted largely Sunni tribes against al-Qaida operatives, opened a window of national reconciliation that was then completely undermined by the Shiaparochialism of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's administration. As a result, many tribal members who had fought against al-Qaida joined with the Islamic State starting in 2013 to fight the Shia-dominated army and government, resulting in regional chaos and laying waste to what was formerly regarded as a U.S. counterinsurgency success.

It is against the backdrop of the current situation in Iraq, as well as similar setbacks in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, and elsewhere, that the observations Bernard fall made fifty years ago concerning a similarly unraveling situation in South Vietnam still apply. "The Theory and Practice of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency" which attributed strategic as well as tactical counterinsurgency failure to the alienation of the people from central government due to the parochial hubris of those in power, rings with particularly disturbing familiarity. His essay unmasks a prerequisite for counterinsurgency success encapsulated by the timeless observation that "when a country is being subverted it is not being outfought; it is being out-administered"

Fall's work, based on a lecture delivered at the Naval War College on 10 December 1964, was originally published in the April 1965 issue of Naval War College Review, then republished in the Winter 1998 edition of that same journal. Minor edits have been performed here only to reflect Military Review style.

If we look at the twentieth century alone, we are now in Vietnam faced with the forty-eighth "small war" Let me just cite a few: Algeria, Angola, Arabia, Burma, Cameroon, China, Colombia, Cuba, East Germany, France, Haiti, Hungary, Indochina, Indonesia, Kashmir, Laos, Morocco, Mongolia, Nagaland [an Indian state on the Burmese border], Palestine, Yemen, Poland, South Africa, South Tyrol, Tibet, Yugoslavia, Venezuela, West Irian [Indonesia, on New Guinea], etc. This, in itself, is quite fantastic.

The Century of "Small Wars"

In fact, if a survey were made of the number of people involved, or killed, in these forty-eight small wars it would be found that these wars, in toto, involved as many people as either one of the two world wars, and caused as many casualties. Who speaks of "insurgency" in Colombia? It is mere banditry, apparently. Yet it has killed two hundred thousand people so far and there is no end to it. The new Vietnam War, the "Second Indochina War" that began in 1956-57 and is still going on, is now going to reach in 1965, according to my calculations, somewhere around the two hundred thousand-dead mark. Officially, seventy-nine thousand dead are acknowledged, but this is far too low. These may be small wars as far as expended ordnance is concerned. But they certainly are not "small wars" in terms of territory or population, since such countries as China or Algeria were involved. These wars are certainly not small for the people who fight in them, or who have to suffer from them. Nor are they small, in many cases, for the counterinsurgency operator. …

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