COUNTER-INSURGENCY: A QUESTION OF VICTORY

DR CHRISTINA GOULTER

As Dr Huw Davies suggested in this post, how successfully the British armed forces incorporate their recent experience of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq into doctrine and planning is likely to shape future perceptions of those campaigns. The fight against the Taliban has not ended, even for the West, because some advisory work by core NATO partners is ongoing. However, the main point is that the Afghans have taken ownership of the counter-insurgency effort, and there is some optimism for the future. But victory will not come quickly or cheaply.

The issue of how host nations build up capacity and continue the fight after the withdrawal of intervening international forces is an area which merits far greater study, and is the subject of my current research. Over the past decade, there has been a proliferation of books focusing the inherent obstacles in counter-insurgency. While it is preferable for scholars and practitioners to be honest about the challenges, there has been an unhealthy appetite for books such as Frank Ledwidge’s Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan (Yale, 2011). But, worse, is the fact that the reading of such works has been superficial and selective. Several dangerous orthodoxies have arisen as a result: that there is no such thing as outright victory in counter-insurgency; ‘hearts and minds’ is just about soft power; and that if the population is the ‘prize’ in counter-insurgency, kinetic effect has no place in a COIN campaign. The latter point is a view which gained traction in both the US and the UK after the publication in 2007 of the US Army and Marine Corps’ capstone counter-insurgency manual, FM3-24, which was championed by General David Petraeus. Its primary focus on a ‘population centric’ model seemed to be vindicated by the success of the US engagement strategy in Iraq (for which the British Army’s Lt Gen Graeme Lamb should receive greater acknowledgement because of his input). The difficulty which has arisen is that a false dichotomy has been drawn between ‘population centric’ and ‘enemy centric’ strategies, and the use of kinetics is portrayed by many as unsophisticated and destined to cause campaign failure. Not helping is the odd statement from senior military levels, such as General Sir David Richard’s proclamation back in 2008 at a IISS conference in Geneva: ‘in wars among the people, if you are using a lot of firepower, you are almost certainly losing’.

With the current discourse now running perilously close to arguing that any type of kinetic use in counter-insurgency warfare is not merely counter-productive but unwarranted, it is worth making a number of quick observations about the role of kinetics in COIN. The main point, though, is that it depends upon the nature of the conflict that you are waging; a high proportion of kinetics may be required. This is, in fact, acknowledged in FM 3-24: ‘Sometimes lethal responses are counter-productive. At other times, they are essential’ (FM 3-24, 7-24). Several successful counter-insurgency campaigns can be classed as ‘enemy centric’, simply because the insurgents wielded a level of military capability which had to be dealt with by military means (the Greek Civil War, second and third rounds, 1944-45 and 1946-49; Oman, 1957-59; Angola, 1975-2002; Mozambique, 1976-1995; Turkey, 1984-1999). However, even in ‘enemy centric’ scenarios, there will be ‘hearts and minds’ elements. For example, during the ‘second round’ of the Greek Civil War, while air power, tanks, artillery and naval gunfire support were used against Communist insurgent strongholds in Athens, British paratroopers were feeding the local population. In other words, coercion and influence were being achieved through both soft and hard power. A second observation is that almost all COIN campaigns begin with a kinetic-heavy approach. This is because of an almost inevitable lack of intelligence at the start of a campaign; intelligence support to a specific campaign takes time to develop, and initial targeting may not be as precise or proportionate as military commanders may desire. But it is also worth noting that successful COIN campaigns are often those that kill or capture hardline insurgents early on, before the insurgency has had time to gain ground. If an insurgency is allowed to survive beyond a certain point, it will often develop capabilities which are indistinguishable from conventional forces and may even morph into a regular fighting force (the Viet Minh in Indochina and the Greek Democratic Army are good examples of this). Finally, while it is usual for the use of kinetic force to diminish as a COIN campaign progresses, there will always be spikes of insurgent violence which need to be answered with some level of kinetic force. Ironically, heightened insurgent violence is often a sign that a counter-insurgency force is winning, because insurgents will want to make the point that they are still a force to be reckoned with. Even when insurgencies feel that they are in the ascendant, the employment of violent ‘spectaculars’ is common in the lead up to negotiated settlements as insurgents try to gain extra leverage.

Of 71 recognised counter-insurgency cases since the end of the Second World War, half were successful, and of those, about one-third could be classed as ‘enemy centric’. It is also worth noting that of those ‘enemy centric’ COIN examples, most of them resulted in long-term peace and stability. Furthermore, several involved the host nation taking responsibility for a COIN effort before intervening Western forces departed. One of the host nation victories to have had little exposure is the Greek Civil War (1946-49). The orthodoxy among most Anglo-American historians is that the only reason the Greek armed forces were successful against a Communist insurgency was purely because of training and material assistance provided by the US and Britain. While it is true that financial and material aid under the Marshall Plan proved vital to defeating the Communist insurgency, the Greek armed forces learned while fighting and ultimately developed an indigenous strategy for victory. Indeed, on many occasions, advice provided by the Americans and British was politely disregarded because it bore little relation to Greek realities.

Between 1943 and 1949, Greek Communists made three attempts to take power, and what is generally referred to as the ‘Greek Civil War’ comprised the third round between 1946-1949. The first and second bids were prevented mainly because of British intervention, but the third round was characterised by the steady development of the host nation’s capability. After the Second World War, most of the Greek forces had to be rebuilt. The greatest obstacle facing the Greek National Army (GNA) initially was a chronic lack of manpower. By mid-1947, the GNA had 115,000 personnel, but these were spread very thinly throughout Greece. As a consequence, it had difficulty exploiting battles and holding territory gained.

In the meantime, the Communist insurgency was morphing into a regular army (DSE) after its senior leadership concluded that guerrilla tactics were not working. However, the Communists’ desire to create a regular army sowed the seeds of their ultimate downfall. A regular army called for a large support infrastructure and logistics footprint, and although manpower was always a significant constraint on the GNA’s ability to operate, recruitment was a far more serious problem for the DSE. Even at its height in April 1948, the DSE’s strength was no more than 26,000. Voluntary recruitment gave way to forcible recruitment. Women and children were not spared from frontline duty, and this proved to be a public relations disaster for the Communists. So, while the Communists benefitted from sympathetic northern neighbours (Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria), through which a steady stream of Soviet weaponry flowed, they were never able to replace the losses they increasingly sustained.

By 1948, the government’s forces totalled 168,000 personnel, with equipment supplied by Britain and the United States. The tide had turned, both militarily and economically, for the Greek state, but it is important to acknowledge that success against the DSE from 1948 onwards was also due to the GNA’s own conceptual work. Prior to this point, planning and execution of operations largely reflected Anglo-American doctrine, with a focus on traditional schemes of manoeuvre. From the beginning of 1948, the GNA started to apply what would be recognised today as a ‘clear, hold, build’ strategy throughout the country, starting in the south of Greece. The first step involved dismantling the Communist ‘eyes and ears’, followed by the destruction or capture of Communist forces. The final function included robust policing, to prevent the regrowth of Communist infrastructure, and the re-education of DSE prisoners and their eventual reintroduction to Greek society. This strategy was underpinned by Marshall aid totalling $273.2 million during the last year of the conflict, but the strategy itself was indigenous in conception.

British and American training missions remained in Greece for several years after the recognised end of the Civil War as an added insurance policy, but the Communists concluded that they could not match a reformed and re-energised Greek Army. The Greek government had taken ownership of the anti-Communist effort, and succeeded in the long-term.


For a full discussion of the counter-insurgency campaign in Greece, see Goulter, C. ‘The Greek Civil War: a National Army’s Counter-Insurgency Triumph’, Journal of Military History, Vol 78, July 2014, pp. 1017-1055. Moncado prize winner, 2015.

See also: Goulter, C. ‘Irregular Warfare: the Regular in the Irregular’, in A Century of Military Aviation, 1914-2014 (Air Power Development Centre, Canberra, 2014), pp.129-154.

Image: ELAS Guerrillas in the Greek countryside during the Second World War, via wikimedia commons.

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