Counterinsurgency Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Counterinsurgency, often referred to as COIN by the U.S. armed forces, refers to the attempt by a government to maintain its legitimacy against an armed uprising of a part of the populace.


Counterinsurgency, often referred to as COIN by the U.S. armed forces, refers to the attempt by a government to maintain its legitimacy against an armed uprising of a part of the populace. The insurgents may receive external support as well. The government may utilize military, political, economic, and civic actions in the pursuit of preserving itself in power. The single most significant factor in the effort to maintain political control by government when facing an insurgency is retaining the loyalty of the populace at large. Many of the conflicts fought throughout recorded history possess characteristics that serve to qualify them, partially at least, as counterinsurgencies.CounterinsurgencyCounterinsurgency


An appreciation of counterinsurgency is significant to a broader understanding of warfare in all periods. Many conflicts over the course of history possessed a counterinsurgency component. At the same time, this aspect of warfare is very often overlooked, as much attention is focused on the insurgency dimension and not the manner in which these uprisings are subdued. Likewise, this is the direction toward which many current military theorists see warfare heading in the twenty-first century, with a great emphasis placed on nonstate actors that seek to undermine the legitimacy of established governments.

History of CounterinsurgencyAncient World

Among the earliest counterinsurgencies in the ancient period was that of the Jews;Seleucid EmpireJews against the Seleucid EmpireSeleucid Empire, one of the successor states to the empire of Alexander the Great, in the second century b.c.e. At issue was the ability of the Jews to practice their religion. The revolt finally ended when the Seleucids extended religious tolerance to the Jews. The significance here is that the Seleucids received the loyalty of the Jewish people when they were allowed to practice their religion. The Romans, as well, contended with numerous uprisings of peoples whom they sought to control. These included the revolts of the CeltiberiansCeltiberians (195-179 b.c.e. and 153-133 b.c.e.), Sertorius, QuintusSertorius, QuintusQuintus Sertorius (c. 123-72 b.c.e.), and the gladiator SpartacusSpartacusSpartacus, (109-71 b.c.e.). The Roman solution in these cases was usually quite harsh, including Scorched-earth strategy[scorched earth strategy]scorched earth, the enslavement of peoples who rose against their control, and the colonization of Romans on their lands in order to disrupt the ability of the restive populace to stand against the empire.

The approaches utilized by the Romans for putting down rebellions failed to be effective in the long run. Many provinces of the empire rose in rebellion on several occasions. One method of counterinsurgency practiced in both the ancient and medieval periods was that of constructing fortifications at strategically significant points. This method met with only limited success.

Medieval World

During the medieval period in European history, probably the best-documented counterinsurgency is that of Edward IEdward I (king of England)[Edward 01]Edward I (r. 1272-1307) against the WelshWelsh. Edward sought to confirm his control over their lands. He succeeded in disrupting the control of the Welsh leaders by waging a simultaneous land and sea campaign through which he managed to disrupt their food supply, thus undermining the legitimacy of the local rulers. In addition, he had the leaders of the revolt executed. Edward likewise dealt with the challenges to his authority in the areas of Scotland that were nominally under his control. The Scottish insurgentsScots were revolting against English rule in some of the border areas, while the English sought to expand their domination of Scotland. In suppressing these challenges to his power, Edward tended to make use of fairly harsh methods.

The Hundred Years’ war (1337-1453)Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) as well witnessed a fair amount of counterinsurgency, as there were several major revolts in both England and France. These were very much related to the heavy exactions placed on the peasants of both countries in order to wage the war. In France, the revolt was known as the Jacqueline Revolt (1358)Jacqueline (1358). This insurgency was put down when the leader, Caleb, GuillaumeCaleb, GuillaumeGuillaume Caleb, met with the leaders of the French nobility. He was arrested and decapitated. Much the same fate befell Tyler, WattTyler, WattWatt Tyler’s Rebellion (1381)Tyler’s rebellion in England (1381). In this case, the rebels were following the lead of the French. When they marched into London, King Richard agreed to meet with them. Watt Tyler was killed in front of his people by the king’s men. In both cases, once deprived of their leadership the insurgencies lost their momentum and collapsed.

Modern World

Among the counterinsurgency campaigns that receive the most attention at the start of the modern period is the fighting in the southern states of the United States during the American Revolution (1775-1783);insurgentsAmerican War of Independence. In the fighting in this theater, both sides resorted to partisan tactics, and both sought to create some semblance of a legal authority. In the south, especially in South Carolina, political legitimacy devolved into a contested ground after the British capture of Charleston in May, 1781. The Whig government was literally on the run, and the British set up a military government. This was as far as British measures went, however. The British failed to reinstall a civilian authority in any of the former colonies save Georgia, while the American revolutionaries under Greene, NathanaelGreene, NathanaelNathanael Greene reestablished civilian authority in South Carolina and, through his efforts at restoring order, eventually made the Whig side the one with more legitimacy.

The government of revolutionary France faced a number of internal challenges while simultaneously fighting many of its European neighbors. The most persistent of these came from the northern region known as the Vendée, Wars of the (1793-1800)Vendée (1793-1800). Here several groups of counterrevolutionaries rose up against the Paris government in defense of the local nobility, and even more so of their Roman Catholic religion, which the revolutionaries were attempting to suppress. These conditions led to a challenge to the government’s authority. Responses to the rebellion at first fell short of the task of breaking its cohesion. At the same time, there were some very harsh methods employed in the region, such as when hundreds of rebels were drowned by Carrier, Jean-BaptisteCarrier, Jean-BaptisteJean-Baptiste Carrier in December, 1793. The task of subduing the revolt fell to General Hoche, LazareHoche, LazareLazare Hoche. Hoche lived off the land, and in the process he deprived his opponents of resources. He began with fortified bases and then worked to expand his control. Likewise, he took hostages, whom he refused to return unless the rebels retuned their arms. These methods proved successful at restoring some level of control to the Vendée. It is worth noting, however, that the revolutionary government did not so much gain legitimacy or even acceptance as simply crush the resistance of the populace. The region would rise again during the latter phases of the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815)Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815).

During the Napoleonic Wars, there were several revolts against the emperor’s control. The most famous of these was the revolt in Spain that began May 2 Uprising (1808)Dos de Mayo Uprising (1808)May 2, 1808, and eventually played a role in the downfall of Napoleon I. There was a revolt in Prussia as well.

In the early nineteenth century, the Greek Revolt (1821-1828)Greek Revolt (1821-1828) against Ottoman rule sparked some efforts at counterinsurgency operations on the part of the Turks. To a large extent, these efforts were the same as those used against other insurgents, dividing the population and use of violent repression. What makes the Greek Revolt significantly different is that it was one of the first instances in which a foreign state became involved in supporting the insurgents.

The next counterinsurgency operation worthy of note took place in the late nineteenth century, in 1898; the United States went to war with Spain in what has become know as the Spanish-American War (1898)Spanish-American War. As a result of the Paris Treaty of 1899Treaty of Paris (1899), which ended the war, the United States took possession of the Philippine Insurrection (1902)Philippines. At first, the transition was peaceful, as the United States had previously backed Philippine rebels against the Spanish. When it became clear that U.S. control over the Philippines would not translate into their independence, the insurgents, under their leader Aguinaldo, EmilioAguinaldo, EmilioEmilio Aguinaldo, took to the jungles against American forces. The initial response of the U.S. military was to utilize standard military tactics against the insurgents. Predictably, this approach met with little success. At the same time, there was resort made to the burning of villages and the indiscriminate killing of civilians, all of which served to undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. government. Two factors contributed to obstruct the momentum of the rebellion. First was the capture of Aguinaldo by an American volunteer named Funston, FrederickFunston, FrederickFrederick Funston. Second, more humane methods were used to counteract the rebellion, with a greater reliance then placed on civil government.

The comte de La Rochejaquelein leads a group of peasants during the Wars of the Vendée.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

In Mexican Revolution (1910-1920)Mexico, in 1911, there arose another Civil wars;Mexicocivil war–actually a combination of two challenges to government power, one in the north, led by Villa, PanchoVilla, PanchoPancho Villa (Doroteo Arango), and one in the South, led by Zapata, EmilianoZapata, EmilianoEmiliano Zapata. Zapata’s revolt was among the first insurgencies to place a heavy reliance on certain social classes. The Mexican government responded to the threat with repressive measures that included mass deportations and the confinement of large numbers of the population in concentration camps. In the case of Zapata, while these activities certainly inflicted damage on his movement, they did not destroy it. His resistance collapsed only after Zapata’s death in an ambush in 1919.

The aftermath of World War II brought on another series of insurgency and counterinsurgency operations as the Europeans’ colonial empires were dismantled through wars of national liberation. The most successful counterinsurgency operation of this period was that of the British in Malaya, referred to as the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960)Malayan Emergency (1948-1960). At first, the British were unsuccessful against the communist-backed insurgents. Then they adopted the plan of Lieutenant General Briggs, Sir HaroldBriggs, Sir Harold[Briggs, Harold]Sir Harold Briggs. The plan comprised four stages: (1) to create a sense of stability in the populated areas that would lead to solid intelligence on the insurgents; (2) to disrupt the hold of the communist organizations in the populated areas; (3) to isolate the guerrillas from logistical support in the populated areas; and (4) to destroy the insurgents through forcing them into armed confrontations on terms benefiting the government forces. This plan worked very well. Coupled with the military arrangements was support for civilian projects to better the living conditions of the bulk of the Malayan populace.

Finally, in Iraq War (beg. 2003)March of 2003, a coalition of nations built around U.S. forces invaded Iraq. The initial military contest was brief and ended resoundingly in favor of the coalition. By the end of the year, however, an insurgency was growing within the country against the occupying troops. Initially, the insurgents inflicted much damage and imposed heavy casualties on the occupying forces. Beginning in 2007, however, there was an increase of troop levels of some 20,000, known informally as the Surge strategy (Iraq)surge. The troops were placed in the most dangerous areas in the country, and by 2009 it appeared that this strategy may have led to a turning point in operations there.Counterinsurgency

Books and Articles
  • Aspery, Robert B. War in the Shadows: The Guerrilla in History. New York: William Morrow, 1975. Considered a classic in the field of insurgency and counterinsurgency warfare.
  • Ellis, John. A Short History of Guerrilla Warfare. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976. A short but useful work that provides much information in a condensed format.
  • Galula, David. Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. London: Praeger, 1964. A classic work that is based on the author’s own experiences in several insurgencies in Greece, China, and Algeria.
  • Linn, Brian M. The Philippine War, 1899-1902. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002. An excellent treatment of the Philippine insurgency that examines it in great detail.
  • Lynn, John A. “Patterns of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency.” Military Review 85, no. 4 (July/August, 2005): 22-27. An excellent brief introduction to the subject.
  • McCuen, John J. The Art of Counter-revolutionary War. St. Petersburg, Fla.: Hailer, 2005. This study encompasses a solid discussion of the theory and practice of counterinsurgency warfare.
  • Metz, Steven, and Raymond Millen. Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the Twenty-first Century: Reconceptualizing Threat and Response. Carlisle Barracks, Pa.: U.S. Army War College, 2004. Places the war on terror in historical context.
  • Sepp, Kavlev I. “Best Practices in Counterinsurgency.” Military Review 85, no. 3 (May/June, 2005): 8-12. As the title states, the work provides a clear discussion of the most effective techniques for dealing with insurgencies.
  • Taber, Robert. War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare. Dulles, Va.: Potomac Books, 2002. Looks at counterinsurgency from the insurgents’ perspective, describing their strengths and how these can be overcome.
  • Trinquier, Roger. Modern Warfare: A French View of Counter-Insurgency. New York: Praeger, 1964. Based on French experiences, this work advocates unrestrained methods for disrupting insurgencies.

Civilian Labor and Warfare

Education, Textbooks, and War

Paramilitary Organizations

The Press and War


Revolt, Rebellion, and Insurgency

War’s Impact on Economies

Women, Children, and War

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