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Insurgency has been the subject of extensive study, ongoing debate, and endless controversy. Like most forms of irregular war, it confounds efforts at precise definition. Long associated with communist "wars of national liberation," insurgency has been widely considered illegitimate by Western governments, who often faced such conflicts as their empires collapsed after the World War II. The tendency of the United States since the attacks of 11 September 2001 to label all forms of political violence below the level of conventional war as "terrorism" adds to the confusion surrounding this form of conflict.

The emotional connotations surrounding the term, its imprecise use, and its confusion with terrorism point to the need for clear definitions of insurgency and its corollary, counterinsurgency. Such clarification must precede any historical overview of this most persistent form of conflict.


Insurgency is a campaign to gain control of a state from within through a combination of propaganda, guerrilla warfare, and terrorism. Guerrilla warfare refers specifically to the military activities of insurgents, usually against military units and police of a threatened state. Analysts distinguish between insurgent guerrillas and partisan guerrillas (usually referred to simply as partisans) who operate behind enemy lines and in support of regular forces resisting an invasion. Guerrillas operate out of uniform in small bands using hit-and-run tactics. They attack isolated government outposts, ambush small military and police units, and disrupt communications within a state. Faced with superior force, they disappear into the general population, which either actively supports them or at least acquiesces to their presence.

Terrorism, like guerrilla warfare, is a weapon in the insurgent arsenal. Calculated to spread fear, such acts aim to disrupt the normal functions of a state. Insurgents will assassinate officials, bomb government buildings, and murder members of the general population who support the existing order as a warning to others. In contrast to contemporary religious terrorism, insurgent terrorism seeks to make a dramatic statement without producing mass casualties. Both prefer symbolic targets and foster the impression that they can strike anywhere at any time. Insurgents, however, find killing people they seek to win over to their cause counterproductive. Two historical examples make this contrast abundantly clear. When the Irgun Zvai Leumi bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946 as part of their campaign to expel the British from Palestine, they phoned in a warning before detonating their bomb. More than ninety people died when the British ignored the warning, but killing them was not as important to the insurgents as destroying a symbol of British power. When Al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center in 2001, it sought both to destroy a symbol of American economic strength and to kill as many people as possible.

The political objective of gaining control of a country links guerrilla warfare and terrorism into a coherent insurgent campaign. Insurgencies usually occur within states characterized by significant degrees of misrule and popular discontent with the status quo. Insurgents seek to exploit such discontent by persuading disaffected people that conditions would improve once the insurgents gain power. They communicate their agenda, which usually includes an attractive list of reforms and social programs, through propaganda. To succeed, insurgents need not persuade that many people to support them. They require only the active support of the few and the tacit acceptance of the many. Most people with a poor standard of living (absolute or relative), limited opportunities, and few political rights will be fence-sitters during insurgency, struggling to survive while waiting to see who will make their lot better.

Counterinsurgency, as the name suggests, consists of those efforts by a threatened state to defeat insurgency. Any counterinsurgency campaign, however, that merely reacts to insurgent attacks will fail. For this reason, one of the gurus of Western counterinsurgency, Sir Robert Thompson, objected to the term entirely. A threatened state must, first and foremost, identify and address the causes of unrest that foster the insurgency in the first place. These sources of discontent may be economic, social, political, or any combination of the three. Like the insurgents who threaten it, a reforming government will try to sell its program to disaffected people through propaganda. Unlike the insurgents, though, the state will actually have to show some progress in improving conditions. Meeting the needs of its people is, after all, the raison d'être for any government. Because such measures aim to regain the trust of a disaffected population, this aspect of counterinsurgency is often referred to as "winning hearts and minds."

Because a reforming government is even more vulnerable to attack than a repressive one, it must take measures to protect people, institutions, and critical infrastructure from terrorism and guerrilla warfare. Given the extent of such vulnerability, the state must also undertake offensive action against the insurgents. In doing so, it must make every effort to use force in a limited and selective manner. An overreliance on force will alienate people further and drive them into the arms of the insurgents.


The foremost practitioner of insurgency and the man who wrote the first practical guide for conducting it was the Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976). In his decades-long struggle to overthrow the government of Chiang Kai-shek, Mao adopted a phased approach to Karl Marx's general theory of proletarian revolution, which he later articulated in his book On Guerrilla Warfare (1937). Mao envisioned and implemented a strategy specifically designed for China's demographic situation. He planned to secure an isolated area as a base, win support of the country's vast rural population through propaganda, engage in guerrilla operations, and then, when his movement was strong enough, engage Chiang Kai-shek's regular forces, which were often tied down protecting urban areas. Mao would thus "drown the cities in a sea of peasants."

Mao's victory in 1949 led many insurgents to emulate his methods. Few actually succeeded, and those who did enjoyed the advantage of attacking "soft colonial targets." Only Fidel Castro pulled off a truly Marxist insurgency against the decidedly corrupt government of Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar in Cuba. Mao's success had the unfortunate effect of convincing the West that all insurgencies were communist-inspired. By far the largest number and the most successful were primarily anticolonial, even if the insurgents espoused communist doctrine. Failure to distinguish between these two motivations had tragic consequences for the United States in Vietnam.


The World War II left European colonial powers severely weakened. Virtually all of them had suffered defeat at the hands of the Germans and/or Japanese, shattering the myth of Western military invulnerability. Asia in particular saw the emergence of revolutionaries who had fought the Japanese and who were not about to accept the restoration of colonial powers. The postwar anticolonial insurgencies produced distinctively national counterinsurgency responses. The French and British experiences in particular provide a vast body of information and a stark contrast in opposing strategies.

French counterinsurgency

France experienced by far the most extensive and humiliating experience in World War II. Defeated by the Nazi blitzkrieg in 1940, the country suffered four years of occupation, during which the Japanese overran its colony in Indochina. A communist resistance movement led by Ho Chi Minh fought the Japanese and determined to secure independence after the war. The Vietminh organization launched a highly effective campaign, assassinating pro-French village leaders while winning the support of local people.

In combating this threat, the French made every mistake a counterinsurgency campaign can make. They deployed a heavily armed, mechanized, road-bound army to fight lightly armed, mobile guerrillas. They relied on brutality and excessive firepower and tied their forces down in cities and fortified garrisons, thus losing touch with the Vietnamese people. The climax came in 1954, when the frustrated French tried to establish a fortified outpost at Dien Bien Phu. They sought to draw the insurgents into battle and destroy them with heavy artillery. General Vo Nguyen Giap, however, turned the tables on the French, cutting off the garrison and overrunning the position.

This stunning defeat led to French withdrawal from the northern part of Indochina, but it did not lead to reform of French methods. Within a few years the nation found itself tied down in yet another desultory conflict in Algeria. Despite some successes, French forces again relied on repressive methods that alienated Algerians, French citizens at home, and the international community. The inevitable ignominious withdrawal occurred in 1962.

British counterinsurgency

Britain enjoyed a greater degree of success in its counterinsurgency campaigns than the French or any other colonial power. This success derived from trial and error during more than a century of "imperial policing" and from some unique features of British common law. British counterinsurgency strategy rested on four broad, flexible principles: minimum force, winning hearts and minds, civil-military cooperation, and tactical flexibility. English common law dictated that use of force to subdue unrest had to be the least amount necessary to achieve an immediate result. Limitations on the use of force led the British to address the causes of unrest that led to insurgency in the first place, in an effort to "win the hearts and minds" of the disaffected population. Once people saw their lives improving, they might support the government rather than the insurgents, even to the point of providing intelligence to the security forces. To implement the counterinsurgency strategy, the British relied on local committees of police, military, and civil officials. They applied the same decentralization to military operations, in which junior and noncommissioned officers enjoyed considerable latitude in discharging their duties.

The British achieved their greatest success against communist insurgents in the Federation of Malaya (1948–1960). Like the French, the British had experienced a humiliating defeat by the Japanese. The Marxist Malayan People's Liberation Army, which the British had trained and equipped to fight the Japanese, launched an insurgency against colonial rule after the war. They gained support of Chinese peasants who lived a subsistence existence in squatter villages along the jungle fringes. To separate the insurgents from this support, the British relocated the population into new, protected villages with better homes, running water, medical clinics, and schools. They offered the Chinese land and citizenship. This approach produced the intelligence that allowed small units to pursue the insurgents deep into the jungle.

Critics of the British approach maintain that it was achieved under favorable circumstances and, in any event, represented little more than a holding action. To be sure, British counterinsurgency did not produce an unbroken string of victories, as the withdrawal from Palestine in 1947 and South Arabia in 1967 indicate. However, a Malayan-style victory in Oman (1970–1975) and what appears to be success in Northern Ireland suggest that the success of British counterinsurgency derives from more than fortuitous circumstances and good luck.


While most insurgencies target colonies, two occurred within Europe itself. Basque separatists in Spain sought an independent homeland consisting of Basque provinces in Spain and France. Catholic insurgents in Northern Ireland pursued unification of the province with the Irish Republic

Basque Fatherland and Liberty, better known as ETA from the Basque acronym, drew support from a Basque population deprived of its language, culture, and institutions by the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1892–1975). ETA launched its campaign in the 1960s with attacks on police and government institutions within the Basque region and Madrid. The insurgents' greatest success came with the assassination of Franco's handpicked successor, Admiral Louis Carrero Blanco, in 1973. This success also marked the beginning of ETA's decline. The reestablishment of democracy following Franco's death in 1975 resulted in a new Spanish constitution that granted the Basque provinces limited autonomy, use of the Basque language, and cultural independence. Continued violence in spite of these concessions, particularly a bombing that killed twenty-one in Barcelona in 1987, turned public opinion against ETA. Improved counterinsurgency methods, including an extradition treaty with France, contributed further to ETA's decline. The organization declared a cease-fire in 1998, and although it announced an end to the cease-fire in late 1999, ETA was much less visible in the first years of the early twenty-first century. The Northern Ireland insurgency began in 1969 as a civil rights movement against what had become an apartheid regime oppressive of Catholics. The Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) gained control of the movement and launched an insurgency against British rule. After initial blunders, including the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972, the British rediscovered their traditional approach to counterinsurgency, combining economic development and political reform with selective use of military forces. The PIRA's failure to achieve military success led them to seek a political settlement. Both sides agreed to a cease-fire in 1994 and the Good Friday Accords in 1998. Despite some setbacks, this settlement has held.


The war in Iraq has made it painfully clear that insurgency remains one of the most persistent forms of conflict. Unfortunately, the conduct of this war shows that conventional armed forces have learned little from past wars. The American-led coalition was ill prepared for a protracted war and only slowly adapted to what was finally acknowledged as an insurgency rather than mere terrorism. A few participants, however, most notably the British and the Dutch, took their own painful historical experience to heart and applied a more patient, comprehensive approach to the struggle. If the counterinsurgency experience of the last century is any guide, this is the only approach that will work.

See alsoAlgeria; Basques; ETA; Palestine; Vietnam War.


Beckett, Ian F. W., and John Pimlott, eds. Armed Forces and Modern Counter-insurgency. New York, 1985.

Mockaitis, Thomas R. British Counterinsurgency, 1919–1960. London, 1990.

Nagl, John A. Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. Westport, Conn., 2002.

O'Neil, Bard. Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse. 2nd ed. Washington, D.C., 2005.

Thompson, Robert. Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam. London, 1965.

Thomas R. Mockaitis