The Classical Principles of Counterinsurgency are Inadequate for Countering Global Insurgency
Jesse A. Heitz
This article will argue that the classical principles of counterinsurgency, while still exceptionally appropriate for countering regionally dominant insurgencies, are inadequate for countering modern global insurgency, making specific reference to the still present al Qaeda global insurgency. The classical principles which will be examined come from David Galula’s Counter-insurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, as well as Robert Thompson’s Defeating Communist Insurgency: the lessons of Malaya and Vietnam.
We will start with Thompson’s first principle of counterinsurgency; this principle fixates on the premise that governments in the throes of dealing with insurgency are weak and ineffectual, and that the totality of the insurgency is powered by legitimate political grievances and the resultant social unrest, rather than the inexplicable extremist motivations that dominate today’s global insurgency.
If one looks at the nations in which al Qaeda is most active, it can clearly be seen that the level of social unrest and political instability of a given Host Nation (HN) varies widely. For instance, it is true that hotbeds of al Qaeda-linked or exploited local insurgencies such as in: Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kenya, and Niger, are all incredibly unstable. However, other areas of al Qaeda dominance such as: Morocco, Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Yemen, and Tanzania, are all in the middle of the global pack in terms of stability. More recently, al Qaeda, its operatives, and those who are influenced and adhere to its ideology, have not only planted roots, but have become quite active in the world’s most stable of nations, such as: France, Spain, the U.K., Belgium, Germany, and the United States. Worse yet, such an insurgency may have no readily identifiable political objectives that could be attained through capitalizing on a HN’s weakness.
A folly that follows this train of thought comes from Thompson’s third principle, which stresses the necessity of “a balance between the military and civil effort, with complete coordination in all fields”. This principle is beyond difficult to apply when countering a global insurgency. Not only would it take tremendous unity and avenues of communication for besieged governments and their international allies to satisfy this principle, but with each HN being a distinguishable variable in terms of stability and resources, it is unrealistic to expect such a level of coordination and organization at the global or multi-regional level.
Another problematic tenet of Thompson’s is his fourth principle, which states, “The government must give priority to defeating the political subversion, not the guerillas.” This principle strongly correlates with Galula’s second law, which prescribes that, “support is gained through an active minority”. Both of these principles/laws stress the importance of isolating insurgents from the civilian population within which they hide, whom they intimidate, and from the subversive political organizations that feed them.
First, they assume that insurgents acting within a global framework, operate within defined and hierarchical formations, that they effectively exist in military comparable levels of strength and organization. However, organizations such as al Qaeda may exist in loosely affiliated networks with a few common logistical threads. Some follow a cellular or even lone wolf structure that only share a common ideology with an umbrella organization like al Qaeda. Other similarly structured groups may use local insurgents as “sub-contractors” if their position could advance the insurgent group’s agenda.
Yet another problem these classical principles encounter is urbanization. They generally submit that insurgents heavily occupy rural areas. Insurgencies in places such as the Philippines and Afghanistan take place largely in rural areas, yet the overwhelming geographic trend of many insurgencies is urban.
Additionally, many modern insurgencies do not always openly engage host nation or counterinsurgent regulars in a traditional manner consistent with the goal of acquiring territory. Instead, they hide in plain sight, utilizing acts of terrorism using limited personnel. Urban areas not only provide easier access to logistical necessities, but allow for the targeting of incredibly important and vital targets, all while the diverse populations of cities provide a veritable human canopy that government agencies have difficulty penetrating.
Isolation of insurgents is further complicated by the current age of information and technology. Individual al Qaeda affiliates can maintain ties with one another without any physical contact. Insurgents in the field can even receive information on the current state of jihad and even advice from fellow insurgents in the al Qaeda published magazines, Al-Shamikha and Inspire, in addition to a plethora of online mediums. Classical principles are essentially at a total loss when it comes to measures that address the information and sophisticated propaganda war, which can virtually dictate the effectiveness of any “boots on the ground” isolation approaches by counterinsurgent forces.
Thompson’s fifth and final principle states, “In the guerilla phase of an insurgency, a government must secure its base area first.” While the immediate message proposed here is to firmly establish territorial security, this principle also calls for the establishment of a viable administrative and judicial system. This principle corresponds to Galula’s second and third laws, which stress the need to gain the support of an active minority and the neutral portion of the population, and that the support of the population is conditional, respectively.
These principles run into a whole host of problems when applied to global insurgencies. The first issue is that both theorists advocate for what Galula aptly described in his fourth law, that the “intensity of efforts and vastness of means are essential”. Here, both Galula and Thompson stress the necessity of the use of direct military action as opposed to the application of “soft power”. That without security, the establishment and survivability of the government institutions required to gain the support of the citizenry are doomed.
With this in mind, the al Qaeda global insurgency’s goal is to bring about the end of the so-called U.S.-led global system and its continuous meddling in Middle Eastern affairs. As such, direct military action to establish security by a Western force if not carried to fruition, as was seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, not only emboldens the insurgency through the perpetuation of the concept that counterinsurgency efforts represents a clash of cultures, but direct action also de-legitimizes the host nation by making it look feeble and incapable of providing for its citizens’ basic needs.
Additionally, the application of force from external actors, such as the United States, is unsustainable in the long-run. Both theorists concede that the counterinsurgent’s resources are limited, and thus advocate a “steamrolling” course of military action that sees the insurgency crushed area by area. The problem with such an approach is that a global insurgency such as al Qaeda has been likened to being “dune-like”, which means that if it were to be quelled in one area, it might have in reality been pushed into an unaffected area, as was seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is also possible that the insurgency may go dormant for a period and then flare up once occupying forces have withdrawn. Therefore, Security Assistance (SA) measures might be the only feasible option when combating multiple insurgent hotspots at any given time when one takes into account the counterinsurgent’s time and resource limitations.
Certainly, the classical principles of counterinsurgency have not yet been rendered obsolete, however, they do indeed need adjustments. The popular communist-inspired insurgencies that the classical principles were designed to tackle no longer necessarily resemble the extremism and unorthodox motivations that propel modern global insurgencies. The al Qaeda insurgency is a remarkably complex insurgency that spans the globe, and by virtue necessitates a unique and flexible strategy for each local outbreak. There is no place for a one-size-fits-all approach to engaging global insurgency, instead, the only answer is mix-and-match strategy that is adapted to each locale’s unique situation.
 Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency: Experiences in Malaya and Vietnam. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1966), p.51
 "Al-Qaeda around the World." BBC News, BBC, 05 May 2011.
 Economist Intelligence Unit. "Social Unrest." ViewsWire. The Economist, n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2013.
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