Small Wars Journal

The Galula Doctrine: An Interview with Galula's Biographer A.A. Cohen

Tue, 01/22/2013 - 3:30am

Editor's Note: A.A. Cohen is a senior infantry officer in the Canadian Army and the author of Galula: The Life and Writings of the French Officer who Defined the Art of Counterinsurgency which was published in summer 2012 by Praeger.


Reason strengthens Strength;

Reason, because of Strength, can spread.

Strength without Reason, shall wither;

Reason, without Strength, shall fail to spread;

(Words addressed by Marshal Yen His-shan to “Chalula” at the height of the Chinese Civil War.  29th of March 1947)

OM: Which were the role of Mao and the exposure to Chinese civil war in Galula’s story? It seems to be his decisive formative lab experience like Russia was for George Kennan.

AAC: Unquestionably, of all the influences exerted on Galula’s treatise, Mao and the Chinese Civil were the greatest. Galula had a strong intellectual admiration for Maoist revolutionaries, despite being very opposed to what they stood for. Before the Chinese Civil War, Galula had no interest in insurgency or counterinsurgency. He had not fought as a Partisan during WW2; he had no experience or interest in these fields until he was exposed to China as of late 1945, in the thick of its civil war. There, his analytical penchant led him to see himself as the decipherer of Mao, intent on getting to the bottom of what the revolutionaries were fundamentally about. Galula cut through the egalitarian propaganda and all that surrounding the People’s revolution. Above all, he wanted to understand why these guys were gaining momentum as they were despite the unfavorable odds. When he figured it out, he reverse-engineered their methods to arrive at a counter-process to revolution and insurgency. His embrace of Chinese dialectics, and with these, the notion of unity of opposites or yin and yang, was helpful in achieving this.


Is counterinsurgency to Galula more of a strategy or  more of a technique and a methodology?

What Galula offers, first and foremost, is a doctrine – not a strategy. His doctrine is underpinned by an important theory about people and what motivates them to take up arms, or to side with those who do. The theory goes that in times of danger (war), the majority of people will be motivated primarily by a fundamental need for security. Galula is adamant about this. But he also recognizes that there will be a minority of people – the instigators at the core of a movement – that will be ideologically, or even fanatically motivated. These are the true believers. He makes no qualms about prescribing that this is the group that the counterinsurgent or counterterrorist will need to find and neutralize, while protecting the rest of the population that aspires to a normal, if not better life. If you buy into this theory, Galula’s doctrine offers a multi-step framework for operations; in other words, a method to counterinsurgency. His famous eight steps are there to provide some logical linearity to what is otherwise a very nonlinear form of warfare. Within that framework, you have the flexibility to formulate your strategy and to conduct your operations to achieve your objectives.


So does this mean that in the wars amongst people or in the people’s wars, understanding the motivation of the people that support the insurgency is the first key step of the entire COIN process? And that based on reading that motivations the counterinsurgent should develop the strategy and the incentives package to attract the targeted-audience on his side?

You’re bang-on. Yes to both. To illustrate these points, I consider in my book that there are two very critical assumptions at the heart of the Galula Doctrine – or at the heart of any other doctrine for that matter that seeks to pacify a population through anything else but unbridled force and terror. The first assumption is that the population you are trying to pacify is not hostile to you from the get-go. If you are a detested dictator or a detested foreigner in the eyes of the majority, protecting the population will do you little good, because even if the population feels “safe”, it will not willingly choose to side with you. The second assumption is that the cause that you uphold, representative governance for example, and the improvements that you make to the population’s everyday life, must be greater and more appealing than what the insurgency will [counter-] offer. Failing this, again, the population will not choose to side with you, as it will perceive the other side as being better suited to address its higher order needs and beliefs beyond security. And so, failing either assumption, the counterinsurgent would be left with the sole alternative of pacifying a population through fear; that is, by imposing violent, limitless consequence to non-collaboration. Examples of this abound in history. But how you fight reflects who you are.


Why have you chosen to talk about a Galula doctrine? Which are its defining ingredients?

I called it a doctrine because Galula’s work goes well beyond theory. There is a large practical aspect to it. It’s no surprise that Bernard Fall deemed Galula’s work to be the best “how-to” book in the business. It’s prescriptive, without being dogmatic. Galula’s doctrine boils down to this: you need to address a population’s hierarchy of needs more effectively than the enemy. Protect first, please second. Undoubtedly, his doctrine shares a number of common elements with those of other thinkers of his era and before. This said, Galula achieved a level of clarity, conciseness, and practical usefulness that others were unable to. Moreover, there are quite a few golden nuggets that are both unique to him and likely to prove timeless. Naturally, it’s important to recognize the spirit in which Galula formulated his doctrine. Again, it is not a strategy. As such, it’s obtuse to dismiss Galula today on the basis that we can no longer afford to invest ground forces to subdue insurgencies in areas of strategic concern. Strategy here is about deciding whether you invest your own forces to do the work, or whether you leverage local forces and allies by providing them advisory and material support as we are now seeing in Mali. But in the end, whether you are directly or indirectly involved, the essence of logic behind Galula’s works still applies. (You may not wish to protect the population against the radical insurgents’ reprisals with your own troops, but the Malian Army will certainly have to.) The theory of war doesn’t change, after all, just because you’ve changed your strategy. Some pundits fail to understand this. Too bad. The real downside to this is that it encourages the abandonment of lessons learned and capabilities – cognitive and material – within your armed forces that will be needed again in the future.


There is a tendency in the contemporary COIN language to emphasize the imperative of influencing “hearts and minds” as a simultaneous package. But in the case of Galula he seems to advise for “a minds first, hearts second” approach. But this reminds me about something that General Stanley McChrystal pointed in a talk at Council on Foreign Relations: "You don't win hearts and minds by going in and just being popular. You first provide security that they think is credible and durable. Then the hearts and minds tend to be in a position where you can convince them.”

General McChrystal is absolutely right. A brilliant strategist in his own right, he too has studied Galula’s doctrine closely. I recall a statement he made to French media about reading Galula’s works prior to going to bed at night, so-to-speak, while in Afghanistan. Hearts and minds is something of a spectrum. “Hearts” is about what you believe in, what you love, ideology sometimes, and the hope that all of this provides. “Minds” is about security, self preservation and rational calculation. Both can motivate you to varying degrees. In French counterinsurgency theory, I would think of Trinquier as sitting at the “minds” extreme of the spectrum. Trinquier believed that hearts and ideology did not really matter in “people’s wars”. According to him, what mattered for the insurgent was to get into power above all else. Cause or ideology, regardless of rhetoric, were secondary to the political contest of who achieved power. Trinquier, therefore, believed that insurgents would strive to obtain the population’s support primarily through coercion (terror). (In doing so, however, he discounted the evidence that terrorist and insurgent groups will almost inevitably combine coercion with more holistic methods of gaining support. Hezbollah provides a good latter-day example.) Galula, on the other hand, sits closer to the middle of the spectrum, although still pretty far on the side of “minds”. Like Trinquier, he believed that security primes over ideology for the majority of people. Galula wrote that “when a man’s life is at stake, it takes more than propaganda to budge him”. Unlike Trinquier, however, Galula believed that legitimate causes, injustices, etc. could be at the root of insurgencies, and that these should be absolutely addressed if and when possible.


What is the difference between Galula school of thought and Lansdale school of thought? Lansdale seems to be highly critical on some of Galula’s recommendations.

I dedicate a fair share of analysis to Lansdale in my work. Lansdale, on the spectrum of hearts and minds, sits at the opposite end of Galula and Trinquier. Lansdale’s view of counterinsurgency is deeply rooted in the need to appeal to a people’s aspirations for liberty, freedom, justice, etc. He often references the American Constitution, in fact, as the golden standard to uphold. Whereas the French counterinsurgents argued for the need to control populations in order to protect them, for instance, Lansdale would argue the opposite, considering such methods as oppressive and steeped in colonialism, which he detested. Lansdale was a strong supporter of Galula, but felt that his friend should have been still more sensitive to a people’s natural aspiration for self-determination.


Do you see Galula doctrine as a civil-mil networked whole of government framework?

Yes, inevitably. Galula’s doctrine is steeped in Maoism as we’ve said. Accordingly, it does not allow for politico-civil and military affairs to be looked at separately from one another. Galula, like Mao, believed that 80% of a people’s war consisted of a political struggle, and that the rest, 20%, consisted of a military struggle. As a result, the Galula doctrine is as much a doctrine for statecraft as it is a military doctrine. This is not by choice, but by necessity. A campaign must be designed to address both the security imperative and the post-security imperatives. You can’t really avoid the constructive part of counterinsurgency or the “build” function in the so-called “clear, hold, build” approach. To Galula, there is no other way to approach the problem.


To what extent is Galula doctrine about state/nation-building?

Counterinsurgency, as defined by Galula, is nation building, or rebuilding, in many ways. I would argue that all stability operations are always aimed at addressing some part or step of nation building. It’s fantasy to believe that nation-building can systematically be avoided. Firstly, your enemies and geopolitical competitors will gladly fill power vacuums where you don’t. And secondly, you can’t always choose the problems you wish to solve; they sometimes choose you. We quickly forget that the campaign in Afghanistan was not initiated out of humanitarian concern for the Afghans. The problem we initially sought to address was one of our own national security. Nation building was seen as a necessary effort to eliminate the possibility of a terrorist-sponsoring regime’s return to power. Whether the best strategy to achieve this was chosen at the time, or not, is another matter.


What is the difference between defensive COIN and offensive COIN?  

The Galula doctrine is defensive in the sense that it was formulated to preserve existing regimes from insurgencies (at the time, from communist-sponsored insurgencies.) Iraq and Afghanistan, on the other hand, were “offensive” scenarios. Those expeditionary campaigns sought to topple regimes, and then to build and sustain new ones. Galula was applied to scenarios, therefore, that his doctrine was neither designed nor intended for. This does not mean that his doctrine fails to apply; but that adaptations are required. The overarching theme is that leverage is the key. As much as possible, it is important for the foreign power to leverage local power structures, and as someone described it to me, paint everything it does with a local paintbrush so-to-speak. Galula’s basic tenet of power still applies: the active minority in favor of the new regime must be sought and leveraged to sway the majority and to suppress the irreconcilable opponents.


Briggs and Templer in Malaya, Magsaysay in the Philipinnes, Uribe in Colombia, they all had at their disposal strong coordinated civil-mil machineries to manage the whole COIN effort. To what extent is the Galula doctrine for waging COIN dependent on a strong administrative/bureaucratic machinery for advancing COIN policies?

Galula’s doctrine focuses primarily on rebuilding a political machine, a system of governance, from the bottom-up. In light of this, his doctrine is not very dependent on the existence of a strong, centralized power. This can be convenient in places like Afghanistan, where centralized government has held a backseat to local governance since time eternal. This said, I would mention two caveats. The first is that Galula, like everybody else, was a product of his own experiences. He fought as a company commander in Algeria. His lens was therefore close to the ground, in a conflict where the rebels owed much of their success to the very absence of effective governance at the grassroots. The FLN never governed Algeria while the French were there, but they were very successful in establishing shadow governance structures and even justice systems at the local level. The French apparatus, for budgetary and other reasons, failed to reach down to the bottom. Adopting a bottom-up approach to counterinsurgency therefore made good sense to Galula who was seeking to fill a void. But that may not always be what’s best. Iraq, as a counter-example, had a tradition of robust top-down governance. It follows that hybrid approaches that seek to reestablish governance from the bottom-up as well as from the top-down are likely to work best. The second caveat that I would raise is that centralization aside, Galula did believe in the primacy of civilian authority in counterinsurgency. The old colonial powers understood this well. And in those instances where putting a civilian in charge of pacification proved to be impractical, they would often resolve the issue by combining the roles of the military theatre commander with that of the civilian overseer into one.


Can a foreign power hope waging a successful offensive COIN in the absence of a strong host nation coordinated civil-mil administrative/bureaucratic machinery?

It wouldn’t help, as you suspect. But then again, it depends on the effectiveness of the country’s new leadership in rapidly establishing such machinery; time is seldom on the counterinsurgent’s side. We have seen a remarkable example in Libya recently, where the NTC and its successor pulled off a quasi-miracle in setting up some essential services and institutions quite successfully, as elections were being held, and as a new constitution was being drafted. Thankfully, the feared insurgency against the new regime has so far been avoided.


Is the Maoist analytical framework still useful in understanding and responding to the post 9/11 local/global  insurgencies? Al Qaeda is sometime understood as a domestic/internal insurgency inside the global ummah.

I think that with few fanatical exceptions aside, what truly pushes people to take up arms has to be tied to localized, or more immediate grievances. An insurgent in Mali today may harbor strong sympathies for Al Qaeda, but in all likelihood, he will put his life on the line for other reasons than that said sympathy. Insurgencies and counterinsurgencies are fought where they occur. That’s reality. And that’s why I’m always cautious in considering global theories. Even the most ideologically fuelled insurgents will seek to leverage local grievances to rally supporters. Of course, ideologies can certainly help ignite such conflicts – communism back then, jihadism or theocratic democracy today. As for Mao’s model for revolution, it can still apply to insurgencies that seek to topple and substitute their governments, but less so to terrorist groups that may have more limited goals – such as influencing governmental policy etc.


To what extent do you think that Galula influenced the drafting of FM 3-24?

Based on the interviews that I conducted with FM 3-24’s lead authors, my understanding is that there unquestionably was an influence. (The extent of it depends on who you speak to, as different authors worked on different chapters.) This, of course, should not take away from the very great and original intellectual effort that was invested by FM 3-24’s authors. Nonetheless, Galula was said to have had a greater influence over the new doctrine than any other classical thinker. I think that the whole notion of protecting the population is by far the strongest influencing theme that crossed over. This led to other prescriptions crossing over, too, such as the need to control the population through checkpoints, identity cards, curfews, and even the need to garrison villages; all of which are needed to provide security while denying the enemy freedom of movement. Another important Galula theme you’ll find in FM 3-24 is the belief in the basic tenet of political power – or that the active minority must be leveraged to sway the neutral majority and to suppress the active minority in opposition. I think that these and other themes were very important to the education of Western forces going into fight insurgencies.


Legitimacy is at the core of FM 3-24. How important and what role did local legitimacy play for Galula?

It’s important, no doubt. Galula believed strongly in establishing strong, representative governance. In his view, counterinsurgency warfare could be summed up as doing everything required to “build (or rebuild) a political machine from the population upwards”. His counterinsurgency method begins with steps that are very much geared towards destroying rebel or terrorist cells and occupying villages with a view of affording the population protection. Then, his method moves on to address issues of governance: electing local leaders, establishing self-defense units, promoting economic development, etc. Galula understood that legitimacy begins with security, since security is the first thing a population expects from its government. Nevertheless, he believed that the counterinsurgent’s role did not end there. Post-security needs such as a fair and effective judiciary, employment, education, (etc.) also have to be addressed to ensure a lasting peace in his view.


Having in mind all the Galula’s experience, which are the skills of a successful counterinsurgent?

We can speak of a trinity of attributes that is needed to complement traditional military acumen: analytical intelligence, openness of mind, and broad culture. General Petraeus places a lot of warranted emphasis on personal resilience and leadership as well. I humbly submit that he is exactly right. History’s most successful counterinsurgents have displayed such traits, along with strong skills in statecraft – negotiating, alliance building, media handling, and general politicking. Back to the attributes, you need the analytical intelligence to process huge quantities of information pertaining to multiple lines of operation on a daily basis; you need the openness of mind to distance yourself a bit from the soldier that you are and to realize that you have numerous roles to play at once, while staying attuned and open to feedback and different perspectives; and finally, you need general culture, or at the very least, intellectual curiosity to draw lessons from history, to adapt to environments and situations that are totally unfamiliar to you, and most evidently, to seek an understanding of the local human terrain.

About the Author(s)

A.A. Cohen is a senior infantry officer in the Canadian Army. He serves in the Reserves and works as a strategic international trade adviser. Cohen fought in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he was awarded the Chief of Defense Staff Commendation for outstanding initiative and motivation, and for his establishment of vital relationships with the local population. He is the author of Galula: The Life and Writings of the French Officer who Defined the Art of Counterinsurgency (Praeger, 2012).

Octavian Manea was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University) where he received an MA in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced  Studies in Security Studies.



Mon, 01/28/2013 - 12:20am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert C. Jones:

Time for my objection to your characterization of Taliban & Co. as a manifestation of the Pashtun people yearning to breathe free. They are, judging by the number of dead bodies they leave littering the place, totalitarian cutthroats. When they ran the outfit they showed not the slightest hesitation to subjugating any anti-Taliban people and their families to the hard terms of whatever half-educated pseudo religious whim their monopoly on power enabled them to enforce. (Boom! There goes the Buddha.)

Time also for me to observe, again, that any analysis of the situation in Afghanistan without including the Pak Army/ISI in every other breath can't be taken seriously.

And finally, time for me, once again, to completely agree with you about us paying lip service to the concept of respecting the primacy of the Afghan gov and then ignoring them when they ask us to knock off the night raids. Stats trump all.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 01/26/2013 - 12:17pm

I don't have my copy of Galula handy, so I won't have the comment exactly right, but I believe he makes this observation toward the front of his book. It is a comment made offhand, indicating to me he truly did not grasp the causative effects of France in the colonial insurgencies he lived within and worked to counter throughout his life.

He observed that the insurgents invariably were dissatisfied with the ineffectiveness of the local (i.e., illegitimate puppet regimes created locally and theoretically "sovereign" but in reality drawing their legitimacy from France rather than from the populaces they purported to serve, and their sovereignty only existed with in the parameters defined for them by France.) government, and not against the agents of France in those respective places. France was an agent of good, but he had to admit the locals just didn't govern very well...

I find this to be a common perspective among members of large powerful foreign countries who find themselves sent to help some government they have elevated into power to resolve revolutionary challenges from segments of the populace who reject such foreign influence over them.

We in the US share this shame bias aluded to by Galula. A "hold harmless" mindset. The British were the same way, as were the Spanish. We all rationalize away the glaring impropriety of co-opting the legitimacy and sovereignty of some place and the people who live there by focusing on our good intentions and all of the modern implements of civilized society that we bring to these less developed places and people. We bring democracy, we bring railroads, we bring government services, etc, etc. All we ask for in exchange is their dignity. I get this from Europeans, as they make no such bold claims to principles of rights to self-determined governance and indivdual liberty as we Americans proclaim in our founding documents enshrined today just off the Capital Mall in Washington, DC.

I really like Galula's thinking on insurgency. But it is the reason it did not work to truly resolve the insurgencies he dealt with (temporary suppression of active challenges is not resolution), and why it has not worked for us in Afghanistan most recently. Until we are willing to remove the hold harmless blinders and remove that primary thorn of causation from the places and populaces we impose ourselves upon in this manner - we are not likely ever to achieve more than just some temporary degree of suppression of the symptoms of the problem.

In Afghanistan we say we "promote democracy," yet equally we are dedicated to the complete exclusion from participation in governance of the segment of society represented by the Taliban unless they first subjugate theirselves, their families, and their futures to the hard terms of the current Constititution that guarantees the Northern Alliance monopoly.

In Afghanistan we say we "support the sovereign government of Afghanistan," yet when President Karzai asks us to modify our tactics in ways we know will reduce our tactical effectiveness we tell him firmly "no." The entire COIN campaign has been planned, led and largely excuted by foreign military forces. We tell the Afghan military what the plans are, and then when they copy them into Dari and parrot them back in public forums we applaud ourselves for how "partnered" we are. This is not any form of sovereignty that any of us would tolerate in our own countries.

So, IMO, Galula made one unrecoverable mistake in his understanding of insurgency, and we have copied that mistake with the same gusto that we have bought into the very good tactical approaches he promoted. Thus the tendency to win many battles in these types of conflicts, but ultimately to lose the war. Strategic errors of this magnitude are difficult to overcome.

This another in the excellent series of interviews done by Mr. Manea. And like all the others, the interviewee, Mr. Cohen, has insightful things to say and expresses himself extremely well.

I liked how Mr. Cohen didn't mince words by calling some of the criticism of Galula "obtuse" and why it is so. Galula created a doctrine, not a strategy, so to criticize it because it isn't a strategy misses the point. And then, "The real downside to this is that it encourages the abandonment of lessons learned and capabilities – cognitive and material – within your armed forces that will be needed again in the future."

Now I have to buy another book.