Small Wars Journal

The Simple Truth? Securing the Population as a Recent Invention

Wed, 05/30/2012 - 5:49am

In the first chapter of Victory Among the People, Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff General Sir David Richards asserts ‘If we needed reminding, the major UK interventions in the first decade of the twenty-first century have reinforced the simple truth: the principal task for security forces in COIN is to secure the population from violence’.  This article does not enter the debate whether or not this is indeed the ‘principal task’ of security forces in a counter-insurgency war.  This may be right. The intention of this article is more basic. It is to argue that far from being a ‘simple truth’, securing the population as the principal task of security forces is a recent, Anglo-Saxon orthodoxy, promoted by US doctrine and parroted by America’s most faithful ally, the British.  It is not shared and certainly not practised by most European allies, even in the same war. It has been followed by other Anglo-Saxon allies, in limited ways and with limited success, mainly because the contingents of these countries have been small.  More widely, it cannot be described as a universal counter-insurgency doctrine practised from Peru to Thailand.  Lastly, and with no little irony, the country that promoted the doctrine has recently begun to show signs that it is no longer enthusiastic about becoming embroiled in intractable conflicts, still less in securing some other nation’s population, and is returning to ‘push-button warfare’ – to use the 1950s phrase – or bombing your enemies, from a distance, at a time of your choosing, and preferably with an unmanned drone.  Some turnaround.

It’s not British

British experience of ‘small wars’ over two centuries has been second to none so it is to be expected that this experience eventually produced a significant body of official and unofficial literature on fighting insurgencies and rebellions.   It is worth noting in passing that for the larger part of Britain’s imperial history it did not.  The notion that putting down a Sikh rebellion, for example, required doctrine, would have struck a contemporary as odd.

The 1909 Field Service Regulations and 1934 Notes on Imperial Policing are two early doctrinal works, influenced in part by Colonel Charles Callwell’s popular Small Wars and Major General Sir Charles Gwynn’s Imperial Policing, which are cited as important examples of early British counter-insurgency doctrine. The near-constant insurrectionary state of Ireland and the 1919 Amritsar massacre were two sores that coloured these works. The cardinal principle of minimum force has its genesis in the fiasco at Amritsar when British soldiers massacred 379 protestors.

In the post-war period, when communist revolutionary warfare seemed to pose the biggest threat to Western powers, the Army updated its doctrine in Keeping the Peace (1959) and in the 1969 and 1977 editions of Counter-Revolutionary Operations.   Works like Low Intensity Operations, written by the retired General Frank Kitson, were seminal in guiding British military thought during this period, as was Sir Robert Thompson’s Defeating Communist Insurgency (1966).  The experience of Northern Ireland forced a re-evaluation of this doctrine and resulted in the 1995 Counter-Insurgency Operations, the last major doctrinal work before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The important point about this corpus – apart from the 1995 manual – is that it was written when a British government had an inescapable legal obligation to ‘secure the population’, or to police the population as would have been understood at the time, because it was the legal authority, or was in the process of transferring that authority to a previous colonial charge.  The three great principles that fall out of British counter-insurgency – minimum force, political primacy and unity of effort – naturally reflect that colonial experience.  ‘Securing the population’ is not emphasised in any of the works. This is partly because it is a self-evident function of government, and partly because British counter-insurgency practice consistently, and legally correctly, vested ‘securing the population’ in the police forces. Military forces were for killing or capturing insurgents.

Nor is it European

At the time of writing, 49 nations are participating in the Afghanistan War, including all 28 NATO countries.  The most successful region has been the Italian-Spanish Regional Command West (measured by incidence of violent acts, civilian and security force deaths, and reconstruction).  Why have the Italians and Spanish succeeded where the rest are floundering?  Clearly, a lack of widespread support for insurgent or militia movements in Western Afghanistan is a decisive factor, but it is not the only factor.  Neither contingent has attempted to ‘secure the population’ (or start gun fights with local fighters, as the British did so disastrously in 2006). The opposite has been the case. The last time the British were in Herat they became embroiled with the locals and destroyed a number of the city’s historic towers, an act of cultural vandalism that has not been forgotten. The Italians and Spanish were never going to follow that route. Instead, both have deliberately maintained a low profile, away from Afghan civilian centres, and both have focused on training and reconstruction. It has paid off. In 2010, a Spanish journalist team reporting for the El Pais Sunday magazine was surprised that it could freely wander the streets of Herat  and be greeted in a friendly manner by Heratis.  They were given the explanation that the locals liked the Spanish because ‘they don’t shoot at Afghans’ [author’s translation]. This is only one anecdote but it cannot just be dismissed by Anglo-Saxons.  To argue that there is nothing to learn from the Italian-Spanish approach to counter-insurgency in Afghanistan may be arrogance.

The difference between Anglo-Saxon counter-insurgency practice and the practice of nations in the other Regional Commands is also evident.  Mostly, this is a measure of the tiny contingents offered by the ‘minnows’ (as well as national caveats).  Are the Czechs really ‘securing the population’ in Logar Province?  Or the Koreans in Parwan Province?  Or the Latvians in Maimanah? To argue that they are defies credulity. These nations are mostly represented by reinforced company-sized outfits operating in hundreds of square miles.  The reality is that the minnows are engaged in ‘military tokenism’; they focus on a few worthwhile projects; and they are necessarily limited to small areas. This is not criticism. Many have performed commendably.

Broadening the survey somewhat it becomes clear that ‘securing the population’ is a modern Anglo-Saxon counter-insurgency doctrine.  During the 1960-70s, Central and Latin America suffered an irruption of insurgencies, from Nicaragua to Argentina.  Governments fighting these insurgencies (some abetted by the United States fearing Communist infiltration through the back door), did not secure the people. Rather, they killed the people, or at least rojos (‘Reds’) supporting the insurgencies. In kind, this approach to counter-insurgency was no different to British ‘butcher and bolt’ operations in Afghanistan in the late 19th century.  The reactionary strategy worked.  Aside from the particular exceptions of Colombia and Peru, insurgency on the South American continent was snuffed out.  This same punitive approach has been followed by other countries, Sri Lanka and Burma for example, with a decisive outcome in the former case.

Where did ‘securing the population’ come from?

Undeniably the most significant piece of doctrine drafted in a generation is FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency (2004), authored by General David Petraeus and an able cast of bright staff officers. This military doctrine manual entered the New York Times bestseller list, a unique achievement. FM 3-24 became the precursor to the British version, Army Field Manual Volume 1 Part 10 – Counterinsurgency Operations (2009).  Many sections of the American manual borrowed from previous British doctrine and personalities like the former SAS commander, Major General Graeme Lamb reportedly influenced Petraeus, but to all intents and purposes, AFM Vol 1 Part 10 is FM 3-24 in a different cover.  The two Anglo-Saxon military forces were and remain in lockstep, as ever, and at the heart of the counter-insurgency doctrine espoused in these manuals is the mantra ‘the prize is the population’.

To proponents of this doctrine, the Iraq ‘surge’ is a great example of ‘securing the population’.  General Petraeus the architect of the surge, through no fault of his own, was mythologized, as was the ‘surge’. Myth-making invites myth debunking, which swiftly followed.  To critics, the success of the Iraq ‘surge’ is greatly over-stated.  In simple terms their argument is this: the Iraq ‘surge’ would never have worked without the ‘Sunni Awakening’ but the converse is not true.  The ‘Sunni Awakening’ may have succeeded anyway, without a US military ‘surge’.  Wherever truth lies, it should be acknowledged that ‘securing the population’ is not without its critics.

The problems with ‘securing the population’

The most obvious argument against ‘securing the population’ is that the population has frustratingly not wanted to be secured.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, locals have wanted Western soldiers to clear off (but leave your dollars behind, as Afghans joke).  This is entirely unsurprising.  Western forces aggressively entered two Muslim countries.  The chances that these military adventures would end in fraternal embraces were always remote.

Numerous polls have been conducted over the years in Afghanistan.  To cite specific numbers would only invite someone to quote a counter-statistic.  The most comprehensive and consistent poll has been the annual and dense Asia Foundation report.  The author can only assert that trawling through these reports it is far easier to make arguments that nothing is being won - and certainly not the prize of the population - than to make the counter arguments that progress is measurably evident.

A second strong argument (specifically to surges intended to secure populations) is the counter-proof of Afghanistan.  There has been no comparable outcome as a result of the ‘Obama surge’.  No matter how hard the Anglo-Saxon ISAF countries have attempted to secure the Afghan rural population, it remains very difficult to prove that this strategy has succeeded in any meaningful way.  It is easier to argue the opposite case, for example, by using the crude measure of civilian deaths that continue to manifest year-on-year increases.  Exactly the same frustrations fill page after page of analysis of the Pentagon Papers examining the ‘Pacification’ strategy of the Vietnam War.

The reference to Vietnam is a deliberate cue. The third argument is that we have been here before.  Observed through a long telescope it is difficult to peer at Afghanistan and not wonder whether someone is attempting an exercise in ‘Vietnam Take Two’.  Every aspect of the current Anglo-Saxon counter-insurgency strategy has roots in Vietnam: Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), pacification, the Marine Combined Action Platoons (CAPs), Clear and Hold, Find and Fix, the special force Phoenix program, the railliers (Viet Cong re-integrees), the Popular Forces, the panoply of advisory and assistance initiatives, the economic and military aid programs, and not least, the maddeningly fraught relationship between the US Embassy and South Vietnam’s succession of leaders.  From 1960 – when the VC irrupted after a dormant period – there was unanimity that the war was going to won or lost in the countryside.  What followed was a grand and tragically doomed experiment in attempting to ‘secure the population’.  In the end, the naysayers were proved right.

Vietnam has haunted Washington’s deliberations over Afghanistan – how could it not?  Under the current Democrat administration, the signals have become unmistakeable.  America is getting out, responsibly and with dignity, but she is getting out.  Libya was a pointer.  ‘Boots on the ground’ is no longer viewed with any enthusiasm.  Securing truculent locals in Third World countries is rapidly dropping down the list of US foreign policy objectives.  It is not in America’s self-interest, and it has proved difficult to demonstrate that it has been in the interest of the ostensibly secured locals.  Let’s move on.


This article has sought to argue that ‘securing the population’ is a recent, Anglo-Saxon counter-insurgency doctrine, championed by the United States and copied by allies like the British.  It is far from universal, even in NATO.  Whether or not this is the right way to go, it is also evident that the bitter experiences of Iraq and the unfinished war in Afghanistan have made the United States drift away from its own counter-insurgency doctrine and towards what amounts to a stand-off, remote-control, counter-terrorist doctrine.  Donald Rumsfeld, who always advocated ‘war-lite’, may be smiling in his retirement.  ‘Securing the population’ is not the ‘simple truth’ of counter-insurgency.’

About the Author(s)

Sergio Miller is a former British Army Intelligence Corps officer.  For the last almost 20 years he has worked in defence industry as a military SME and he continues to support the Reserves. He is an occasional contributor to journals such as British Army Review.



Fri, 06/01/2012 - 12:21am

It is a mistake to view population centric COIN as anything other than a control of resources. You achieve this by different means depending on the relationship between government-population-insurgent. If we use Malaya as an example, the rural Chinese population was by and large sympathetic to the CPM because of the socio structure of pre and immediate post war Malaya. They saw themselves as Chinese, not Malayan. Communist influence was extensive, especially in education.

Therefore the initial step was to isolate the CPM from a ready source of intel, soft logistics and recruits. This was achieved by curfews and then the New Village program. It was followed by education and counter-propaganda activities as well as punitive measures such as ration controls.

The latter is important because the loss of easily available food made operations much more difficult for CPM field units who wound up having to carry food, operate covert farms or risk contact with the Min Yuen.
This resulted in the CPM switching to Malay villages which were less readily accessible. They had some success as they had Malay cadres but the depth of support was much less than the traditional Min Yuen apparatus.

The lesson is that there is no abstract method. It is driven entirely by local relationships and understanding of these dynamics. Equally, strategies must encompass the full spectrum from protection to coercion, often at the same time.

Perhaps the greatest shortcoming is the inability to build institutional memory and feel due to turnover and political considerations. It makes it impossible to create the feeling of permanence, of inevitability that ultimately breaks the will of an insurgency.

G Martin

Fri, 06/01/2012 - 11:41am

In reply to by Mark Battjes

<em>the population must be secure from violence</em>

But if each population interprets that subjectively- what use is it as a principle? In other words- if a certain level of violence is accepted by others- then we have to be very careful about our attempts to label and measure violence from our U.S.-centric understanding. I think it is possible that violence stems from some emergent phenomena and an external agent attempting to secure the population can be (not always) very problematic and might actually lead to less security.

Maybe your comment "somehow the endstate must be met" meets that point if it means that somehow the populace has to subjectively perceive that they do not have to support one group or another in active or passive violence themselves to the extent that it upsets governance efforts...?

Mark Battjes

Thu, 05/31/2012 - 4:32pm

An interesting article, but I think it swings too far the other direction. It is true that much recent writing on counterinsurgency has tended to favor one factor as being all important while ignoring or minimizing others. However, to say that securing the population is a recent Anglo-Saxon invention is not accurate either.

While neither Thompson nor Kitson lists "protection of the population" as a specific pillar, they both mention it repeatedly thorughout their work. Thompson does so specifically in his discussion of strategic hamlets, which he views as a tool to both protect and control the population. In Bunch of Five, Kitson points out that the public cannot possibly stand up to terrorism unprotected. He is implicitly stating that the government and the counterinsurgent must therefore protect the population in order to win. Kitson also makes clear throughout both Bunch of Five and Low Intensity Operations that intelligence can only be gleaned from the population if they feel secure enough to provide it without retribution.

Galula and Trinquier both make similar points. Trinquier states that the first objective in modern warfare is to assure the protection of the population. Both emphasize that intelligence will only come from the population if it feels secure. In Algeria, the French regrouped huge portions of the population to isolate and protect them from the insurgency. Recall that the FLN killed and intimidated Muslim Algerians just as much as it targeted French soldiers and European settlers. Protecting the population is as much a part of French COIN history as it is British or American.

Where you make a good point is that in most of the 20th century counterinsurgencies the Western powers were the colonial power and therefore the responsibility to protect the population was inherently part of governing. The question then becomes what does an intervening power do if the friendly government is incapable of protecting the population from the insurgency? Should it try to provide security directly? Should it focus on targeting the insurgency and through that secure the population indirectly? Should it focus on training local security forces to directly secure the population? It is likely that the intervening power will have to do all three in varying degrees depending on the specific circumstances of the locality.

The mix of tactics must be matched to the characteristics of the conflict in the specific area where they are being applied. It is correct to assert that actively and directly securing the population is not necessary everywhere, but it is not correct to say that that is inappropriate everywhere. It all depends on the specific conditions which the counterinsurgent finds on the ground. Ultimately, for an area to be stable and have solid governance the population must be secure from violence. The manner in which that is achieved may vary from place to place and over time, but somehow that endstate must be met.

Mark O'Neill

Wed, 05/30/2012 - 8:11pm


A good piece, well written and well argued. Thanks.

Your point about 'securing the population' being MIA in Callwell and Gwynne (you might have added in Simson)is spot on.

The view you offer finds considerable support in French's recent work 'The British way in Counterinsurgency 1945-1967' as well as relatively recent journal articles by Thomas Rid, Douglas Porch and Michael Fitzsimmons.

I have always found it interesting that Galula's 'The population is the prize' has been twisted to advocacy of 'securing the population'. The two are clearly not the same, and arguably the latter can be seen as being at odds with Galula's intellectual roots in guerre revolutionnaire. Your interpretation of how this twisting occurred is plausible.



Mike Few

Wed, 05/30/2012 - 2:31pm

To add on to Dave Maxwell, it seems that we're still haunted by sound bites. As Karl Hack reminds us,

"You cannot, for instance, go straight to a comprehensive approach for 'winning hearts and minds‘ and expect it to work, if you have not first broken up the larger insurgent groups, disrupted their main bases, and achieved a modicum of spatial dominance and of security for the population of the area concerned."…

I wonder what modicum of spatial dominance will be required in Yemen, Syria, and Honduras in order to achieved our desired results?

Securing the population only becomes the primary one when the population is at extreme risk from the insurgent. Otherwise, COIN could be more akin to CT than the whole protecting the pop and building government structures thing. And as with Malaya, resolving the underlying political issues (Chinese minorities were severely discriminated against) becomes more important to resolving the insurgency. Insurgents, when they attack the population, don't do it for giggles, but to achieve a political effect.

In year one of Iraq most of the attacks were against CF or orgs working with or indirectly "helping" CF (Red Cross/UN) by allowing us to "succeed" and not have to spread ourselves to thin on other tasks (as if we weren't spread to far out already). Our adversaries then weren't against the population.

After the Feb 2006 bombing of the Shia shrine in Samarra the population was mainly at risk due to sectarian warfare and the criminal gangs who sprang up and preyed on the populace due to the lack of security, and this prevented us or Iraqis from doing anything and were very bad optics. AQI was simply doing spectacular events and assassination. Our task became securing the population because the with the chaos nothing could get done and we couldn't "honorably" extract ourselves.

That said, post-9/11 insurgencies may have evolved to protecting the population because of the loss of what aid workers call the "humanitarian space," specifically, the understanding by combatants that neutrals (NGOs, civilians) are off limits. So existing and future ones may fit in more with our existing doctrine. Insurgents now benefit in terms of financing and survival by maintaining the chaos and can wait out the occupier or existing government, which is probably corrupt and just as willing to prey on the population if given the opportunity.

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 05/30/2012 - 10:55am

Sometimes I think our search for strategic concepts, operational art, and doctrine comes down to a search for buzz words, catch phrases, and talking points. E.g., secure the population; clear, hold, build; government in a box; the surge, and many more.