Approaches to defeating an insurgency

Dave Kilcullen:

Discussion of the new Iraq strategy, and General Petraeus’s recent Congressional testimony have raised the somewhat obvious point that the word “counterinsurgency” means very different things to different people. So it may be worth sketching in brief outline the two basic philosophical approaches to counterinsurgency that developed over the 20th century (a period which I have written about elsewhere as "Classical Counterinsurgency"). These two contrasting schools of thought about counterinsurgency might be labeled as “enemy-centric” and “population-centric”.

The enemy-centric approach basically understands counter-insurgency as a variant of conventional warfare. It sees counterinsurgency as a contest with an organized enemy, and believes that we must defeat that enemy as our primary task. There are many variants within this approach, including "soft line" and "hard line" approaches, kinetic and non-kinetic methods of defeating the enemy, decapitation versus marginalization strategies, and so on. Many of these strategic concepts are shared with the population-centric school of counterinsurgency, but the philosophy differs. In a nut-shell, it could be summarized as "first defeat the enemy, and all else will follow".

The population-centric approach understands counter-insurgency as fundamentally a control problem, or even an armed variant of government administration. It believes that establishing control over the population, and the environment (physical, human and informational) in which that population lives, is the essential task. Again, there are many variants within this approach, including some very hard-line methods and some softer approaches, but the underlying philosophy is "first control the population, and all else will follow".


The real art is to "read the battle" and understand how it is developing, fast enough to adapt. Neither the enemy-centric nor the population-centric approaches are always or universally appropriate -- there is no cookie-cutter, and no substitute for situation-specific analysis informed by extremely deep local area and cultural knowledge.

He goes on to discuss his experience in East Timor.

I have argued a different approach to reach some of the same conclusions. The enemy in an insurgency uses a raiding strategy because he is too weak to use a more effective combat persisting strategy. To combat the raiding strategy an an adequate force to space ratio must be in place that denies real estate to the enemy. An enemy using a raiding strategy is most vulnerable when moving to contact. Having an adequate force to space ratio makes his movement to contact much more complicated and difficult. It effectively fights the enemy where he is most vulnerable and protects the population at the same time.

When you have an inadequate force to space ration your forces tend to have to buy the same real estate more than once. It is a false economy of force doctrine. It also gives the enemy an advantage because of the inherent superiority of retreat over pursuit. It leads to a constant chase scene that results by default into an enemy centric strategy.

When you have an adequate force to space ratio you still must deny the enemy any sanctuary which is why the an ink blot approach with an inadequate number of troops will not solve the problem alone.

How you get that force to space ratio is also important. The indigenous population has to be an important participant in achieving that ratio. One of the problems in Iraq at this point is that a significant portion of the indigenous population while they are in opposition to the enemy, have their own agenda that is not consistent with ours. That is a problem that has to be solved.

One of the problems we had in Iraq earlier was a belief by some that our having fewer troops would make the Iraqis more likely to step up and participate, but the enemy would not wait for that participation. Withdrawing US troops too early will create a similar problem. The enemy in Iraq is weak, but we should not let this divert us from having an adequate force to defeat him.


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