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Counterinsurgency: Strategy and the Phoenix of American Capability

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz. | February 1995

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Today, there is no pressing strategic rationale for U.S. engagement in counterinsurgency but history suggests that if the United States remains involved in the Global South, one may emerge. American counterinsurgency strategy has unfolded in a distinct pattern over the past 50 years. At times, policymakers saw a strategic rationale for engagement in counterinsurgency. When they did, the military and Department of Defense formed or reconstituted counterinsurgency doctrine, concepts, and organizations. When the strategic rationale faded, these capabilities atrophied. This pattern may be repeated in the future.

During the last decade of the Cold War, the U.S. military developed an effective approach to insurgency and implemented it in El Salvador, but this focused on one particular type of insurgency: Maoist "people's war." The El Salvador model may not apply to post-Cold War forms of insurgency. Moreover, many of the basic assumptions of American counterinsurgency strategy appear obsolete. Trends such as ungovernability, the routinization of violence, and the mutation of insurgency change the costs/benefits calculus that undergirded Cold War-era strategy and doctrine.

During the current period of remission in insurgency, the Army should use its intellectual resources to analyze ongoing mutations in insurgency and to open a debate on the nature of a cogent post-Cold War counterinsurgency strategy. This strategy should expand its conceptual framework and stress three principles: selectivity, multilateralism, and concentration on secondary support functions including indirect or second-tier engagement. Such efforts will pave the way for the reconstitution of American counterinsurgency should it be required.


The insurgents of the world are sleeping. Few new old-style insurgencies have emerged since the end of the Cold War and many old ones, from the Philippines to Peru, from Mozambique to El Salvador, from Northern Ireland to the West Bank and Gaza are lurching or inching toward settlement. But sleep is not death-- it is a time for rejuvenation. Since the means and the motives for protracted political violence persist, it will prove as attractive to the discontented of the world in the post-Cold War global security environment as it did before. Eventually insurgency will awaken. When it does, the United States will be required to respond.

Since the late 1940s, the importance American policymakers attached to supporting friendly states facing guerrilla threats has ebbed and flowed. Often counterinsurgency was not considered strategically significant and the defense community paid it little attention. When the president did decide that insurgency posed a threat, the military and the defense community had to craft or update an appropriate conceptual framework, organization and doctrine. Like a phoenix, American counterinsurgency capability periodically died, only to be reborn from the ashes. And always, how the period of remission was spent shaped the process of rebirth. When the military and defense community maintained a cadre of counterinsurgency experts to ponder past efforts and analyze the changing nature of insurgency, the reconstitution of understanding and capability was relatively easy.

Today there is no pressing strategic rationale for U.S. engagement in counterinsurgency but history suggests one may emerge if the United States remains involved in the Global South.This is the time, then, for introspection, assessment, and reflection--for keeping the intellectual flame burning, even if at a very low level. Just as conventional combat units train after an operation in order to prepare for future ones (while hoping they never occur), the U.S. military and other elements of the defense community must mentally train for future counterinsurgency. This entails both looking backward at previous attempts to reconstitute counterinsurgency capabilitiesand looking forward to speculate on future forms of insurgency and the strategic environment in which counterinsurgency might occur. To do this now will shorten the period of learning and adaptation should counterinsurgency support again become an important part of American national security strategy.

Conclusions and Recommendations.

American counterinsurgency strategy and doctrine must be revised to reflect the post-Cold War strategic environment. Because counterinsurgency is not a central element of current U.S. national security strategy, such revision must deal with broad concepts rather than specifics, thus paving the way for a reconstitution of capability should the strategic calculus change and a new rationale for counterinsurgency emerge.

Conceptual expansion should be the first step. The definition of insurgency itself must be expanded to reflect the complexity of the new security environment. The first post-Cold War revision of FM 100-20--now called Operations Other Than War-- recognizes the variegation of insurgency that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union. While continuing to emphasize Maoist "people's war," it pays greater attention to urban and subversive insurgency than its predecessors. It also stresses that U.S. neutrality in insurgencies "will be the norm." The new doctrine argues that "Success in counterinsurgency goes to the party that achieves the greater popular support."89 There are two problems with this. First, it does not offer practical advice on the spiritual and psychic dimensions of legitimacy. Americans often assume that legitimacy arises solely from the provision of tangible goods and services and thus overlooks the importance of spiritual and psychic fulfillment. Second, the current American approach to counterinsurgency as evinced in existing doctrine is accurate for forms of insurgency that seek to seize power by mobilizing greater support than the regime, but offers little guidance for confronting gray area phenomena, "irrational" enemies for whom violence is not a means to political ends, or what Ralph Peters calls "the new warrior class"--"erratic primitives of shifting allegiance, habituated to violence, withno stake in civil order."90 In a study that brilliantly captures changes in the global security environment, Hans Magnus Enzensberger writes,

Nothing remains of the guerrilla's heroic halo. Once ideologically armed to the teeth and exploited by their shadowy backers, today's guerrillas and anti-guerrillas have become self-employed. What remains is the armed mob. All the self-proclaiming armies of liberation, people's movements and fronts degenerate into marauding bands, indistinguishable from their opponents.. .What gives today's civil wars a new and terrifying slant is the fact that they are waged without stakes on either side, that they are wars about nothing at all.91

For American counterinsurgents, this is a sea change. As John Keegan points out, cultures with a Clausewitzean belief in the connection of war and politics often have difficulty comprehending--much less defeating--opponents with other motives.92 The job of experts in the military and defense community is to help overcome this. Some movement in this direction has taken place. New joint doctrine, for instance, states that foreign internal defense "has traditionally been focused on defeating an organized movement attempting to overthrow the government," but in the future "may address other threats" such as civil disorder, narcotrafficking and terrorism which "may, in fact, predominate in the future as traditional power centers shift, suppressed cultural and ethnic rivalries surface, and the economic incentives of illegal drug trafficking continue."93 To transcend the conceptual limits of the Cold War, insurgency should be considered simply protracted, organized violence which threatens security and requires a government response, whether revolutionary or nonrevolutionary, political or nonpolitical, and open or clandestine.

Building consensus on basic principles should be the second step. In the post-Cold War security environment, four seem appropriate. One is rigid selectivity. The key factor when the United States considers engaging in counterinsurgency support is whether the threatened state and regime warrants the effort.94 During the Cold War, the simple fact that a non-communist regime faced a communist challenge led American policymakers to support counterinsurgency. In the post-Cold War world, the United Statescan and must be much more discerning. The international system is not domestic society where every citizen, no matter how reprehensible, deserves assistance.

The second principle of post-Cold War American counterinsurgency strategy should be multilateralism. When engaging in counterinsurgency, the United States should engineer an international support coalition both to enlarge the assistance available to the threatened state and to avoid staking U.S. credibility on the outcome of the conflict. Even though American counterinsurgency strategy has long called for multinational efforts, policymakers seldom attempted to be "one among equals" but instead formed hierarchical coalitions where the United States clearly bore the brunt of the effort. Horizontal coalitions should be the way of the future. In the Western Hemisphere, the United States might lead such coalitions but elsewhere rely on others.

The third principle should be concentration on secondary support. The United States might lead efforts to deter, isolate, and punish external sponsors of insurgency. In general the United States should be an indirect or second-tier supporter providing assistance to regional states with greater experience in counterinsurgency and a more direct stake in a conflict. They are more likely to truly understand the conflict and, since they have a greater interest in regional stability, to persist if the struggle becomes prolonged. One thing that made the Soviet Union an effective supporter of insurgency was reliance on surrogates like Cuba and North Vietnam. The United States should adopt this practice. If the United States does join a multinational counterinsurgency support coalition, it should focus on special skills such as intelligence, mobility, planning support, and psychological operation.

The fourth principle of post-Cold War American counterinsurgency strategy should be organizational coherence. The United States may need a new organization to confront new forms of insurgency. With the exception of secessionist/separatist insurgency, all post-Cold War forms will be far removed from the Army's traditional areas of expertise and will be more police functions than military ones. The Army should thus encourage the formation of a permanent civil-military cadre of experts with a strong emphasis on law enforcement and intelligence collection and analysis. Rod Paschall's argument that Western military forces are not proficient at counterinsurgency and should be replaced by "an international corporation composed of former Western officers and soldiers skilled in acceptable counterinsurgency techniques" rings even truer today than when written in 1990.95

What can the Army do to preserve residual counterinsurgency capability? Working closely with the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, the Army should use its intellectual resources to "keep the flame burning," at least at a low level. Sponsored research, symposia, workshops, conferences, discussion papers, working groups, publications, and debate in the Army educational system can contribute to this. The wargames, planning exercises, and case studies used in the Army's professional educational system should deal with commercial, subversive, or spiritual insurgency rather than Maoist "people's war." The Army should also make sure it retains a cadre of counterinsurgency experts within its ranks during downsizing. With luck, no strategic rationale for extensive U.S. involvement in counterinsurgency will emerge and this cadre will never be activated. But it is the fate of the military to prepare for the worst even as it hopes for the best. With clear thinking now, the U.S. military can be ready to offer effective advice should the strategic calculus change and the United States once again see a rationale for major involvement in counterinsurgency support.


89. FM 100-20, Operations Other Than War, Initial Draft, Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army, September 30, 1994, p. 4-20. This draft is for review purposes and does not represent approved Department of the Army doctrine.

90. Ralph Peters, "The New Warrior Class," Parameters, Vol 24, No. 2, Summer 1994, p. 16.

91. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Civil Wars: From L.A. to Bosnia, New York: New Press, 1994, pp. 17, 30. Emphasis in original.

92. John Keegan, A History of Warfare, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

93. Joint Pub 3-07, Joint Doctrine for Military Operations Other Than War, Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 1994, p. III-6.

94. Collins, America's Small Wars, p. 79. 95. Paschall, LIC 2010, p. 125.