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Essential Readings: Counterinsurgency

[U.S. Army Maj. Robert Holbert takes notes and drinks tea with local school administrators during a cordon and search of Nani, Afghanistan in June 2007. Image by Staff Sgt. Michael L. Casteel, U.S. Army.] [U.S. Army Maj. Robert Holbert takes notes and drinks tea with local school administrators during a cordon and search of Nani, Afghanistan in June 2007. Image by Staff Sgt. Michael L. Casteel, U.S. Army.]

This Essential Readings post is written by Laleh Khalili.

[Editors' Note: This is the second in a series of "Essential Readings,"  in which we ask contributors to choose a list of must-read books, articles, and new media sources on a variety of topics. These are not meant to be comprehensive lists, but rather starting points for readers who want to read more about particular topics.

Laleh Khalili, a senior lecturer in the Politics of the Modern Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies and author of Heroes and Martyrs in Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration provides a list of sources dealing with the topic of counterinsurgency. Some of Khalili's own writings on counterinsurgency can be found here, here, and here.]      

Counterinsurgency is today lauded as the preferred mode of asymmetric warfare in contexts where civilians need to be won over. Because it combines war-fighting with “civic action” (provision of social services) and ethnographic intelligence gathering, counterinsurgents describe it as “armed social work” – or, alternatively, “armed social science.” Critics are not so sanguine and locate the origins of today’s counterinsurgency in past colonial encounters.

The organic intellectuals of US counterinsurgency – ascendant since 2006 – include a significant number of soldier-scholars and military/war studies scholars, who very ably put their case forward. Critical readings of counterinsurgencies, on the other hand, tend to focus on specific aspects or historical moments, and as such, are rich but fragmentary. Comparative studies are rare. Sometimes when the voices of those subjected to counterinsurgency are recorded, the broader political and military praxis is given short shrift. At other times, a focus on the development of the practice and doctrine effaces the experiences of the victims. Indigenous collaborators with the counterinsurgents loom large in the vernacular narratives but are rarely studied.  The sources listed below variously remedy these drawbacks.

This collection includes primary sources, a film, academic books, general histories, and a novel. The historical counterinsurgencies highlighted below are those invoked paradigmatically as the progenitors of today’s U.S. counterinsurgency. As the focus of this list is on counterinsurgencies, classics of revolt such as Mao Tse Tung’s On Guerrilla Warfare or Frantz Fanon’s revolutionary writings are excluded.

U.S. Army, FM 3-24: The Counterinsurgency Field Manual (2006)

The ultimate primary source, this doctrine text, written by military officers, scholars, and human rights activists, published online by the Army and again by a university press, is an early articulation of counterinsurgency theory and practice in the new resurgence of this idea. “Chapter 1: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency” lays out the basic premises, and subsequent chapters detail the various aspects in great detail. The manual updates French counterinsurgent David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Praeger Security International, 2006). For more analytical and comparative studies of counterinsurgencies, and their implications for different branches of the military, the edited volume by Thomas Rid and Thomas Keaney, Understanding Counterinsurgency (Routledge, 2010) is a solid overview, written primarily by practitioners. A symposium organized by and published in Perspectives on Politics (June 2008) brings together defense policy analyst Stephen Biddle, political scientists Stathtis Kalyvas and Wendy Brown, and soldier-scholar Douglas Ollivant to provide scholarly critiques of the Manual.

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Eqbal Ahmad“Part I: Revolutionary Warfare and Counterinsurgency,” in The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad, edited by Carollee Bengelsdorf, Margaret Cerullo, and Yogesh Chandrani (Columbia University Press, 2006)

These brief and revelatory articles, written at the height of decolonisation and the U.S. counterinsurgency war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, lay bare the architecture of asymmetric warfare by imperial and neo-imperial powers. Ahmad’s surgically precise skewering of “liberal-reformist” counterinsurgency feels as fresh and cutting today as the day it was written, more than forty years ago.

Nasser Hussain, “Counterinsurgency’s Comeback” (Boston Review, January/February 2010)

This cogent essay by a scholar of habeas corpus in colonial India traces the origins of today’s counterinsurgency doctrine and practice in past colonial governance and policing practices.

James Ron, Frontiers and Ghettos: State Violence in Serbia and Israel (University of California Press, 2003)

The word “counterinsurgency” only appears a handful of times in this lucid and forceful comparative study of Serbian violence in the Balkans and Israeli violence in Lebanon and Palestine. Nevertheless, the book brilliantly shows the particular political conditions which produce different forms of counterinsurgency violence: unrestrained brutality in the “frontiers” and imperial policing in “ghettos.” Architect Eyal Weizman’s Walking Through Walls: Soldiers as Architects in the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict” (Radical Philosophy Review, March/April 2006) marvellously dissects the theoretical pretentions of Israeli counterinsurgents whose work culminates in the last instance in the unravelling of the fabric of civilian life in Palestine.

Anthony Short, The Communist Insurrection in Malaya, 1948-1960 (Frederick Muller, 1975)

The British counterinsurgency in Malaya is often lauded (not only by today’s counterinsurgents, but also during the Vietnam War) as the model to be emulated. Although long out of print and difficult to find, Short’s exhaustive history is an encyclopaedic resource, even if its “official” status means that it does pull its punches in some instances. Nevertheless, the avalanche of material collected here (and since made unavailable to researchers with the reclassification of the Malaysian archival material) clearly shows the brutal nature of a counterinsurgency often described as a “population-centric” conquest of “hearts and minds.” 

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Although in recent years two very substantial histories of the British counterinsurgency in Kenya have been published (David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged and Caroline Elkins’s Imperial Reckoning) I have chosen Branch’s book because of its focus on the Gikuyu “loyalists” who collaborated with the British overlord and the local settler government. The book is meticulously researched and, given the propensity of great powers to depend on local proxies, its examination of the indigenous allies is of great contemporary interest. The brutal British suppression of the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya also has in Kenya’s greatest living writer, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, an eloquent chronicler. Among Ngũgĩ’s many writings which incorporate that period, A Grain of Wheat (Penguin Classics, 2002 [1967]) affectingly traces the destruction the counterinsurgency wrought in the lives of ordinary Gikuyu villagers.

The Battle of Algiers (Directed by Gilo Pontecorvo, Italy/Algeria, 1966)

Perhaps the most influential political film ever is certainly one of the least propagandistic and one of the most aesthetically accomplished and intensely emotionally riveting (the film truly deserves the superlatives!). The film was made by a member of the Italian Communist Party in collaboration with an Algerian FLN commander (who also acts as a version of himself in the film), and has the peculiar distinction of having been used both as a training manual by the Black Panthers and taught as a manual of counterinsurgency in the U.S.’s International Police Academy. It was also screened at the Pentagon after the insurgency had begun in Iraq in 2003. The film, acted with one exception by a nonprofessional cast, unflinchingly shows bombings by FLN militants and devastating scenes of torture and violence by the French military. For those drawn in by the film and curious about the French counterinsurgency in Algeria, the substantial narrative history of the Algerian War of Independence by Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962 (New York Review Books 2006 [1977]), though problematic in some respects, still has not been surpassed (at least in English). The great Algerian novelist, Assia Djebar, draws on her own experience and that of other women of the FLN to produce a moving and harrowing portrait of the revolt and the brutal French response in Children of a New World (The Feminist Press, 2005).



6 comments for "Essential Readings: Counterinsurgency"


I am horrified that you recommend the Counternsurgency Manual! It was constructed to deny the very idea of "political resistance" and lump Iraqis and Afghans together in with other historical examples. Also, the comments about Muslims and islam in the initial version were blood-curdling. On a part of the Army's Iraq Handbook (which uses Egyptian Arabic as its essential phrases)

Sherifa Zuhur wrote on April 06, 2011 at 03:16 PM

I just wanted to respond, as the editor of this series, by saying that Laleh Khalili includes this source because it is important and influential, not because it is to be esteemed. It is crucial for us to be experts in issues and texts that we oppose and dislike. Otherwise, we wouldn't be doing our jobs as intellectuals. This will be true for future posts in this series as well: adding something to the list is only a way of noting its importance, not necessarily endorsing all of the views therein. Thank you for your comment; I'm glad to have the chance to clarify this point.

Essential Readings Editor wrote on April 06, 2011 at 04:49 PM

Sherifa, thank you for your comment and giving me the chance to clarify. In my current project on counterinsurgency, I have become a bit of a historian, which means that I give a lot of room and space to primary texts, and FM3-24 is a very important primary text, not only because it *is* a working field manual, but because it has become something of a symbol. I hope it is clear from my other choices, and from my own writings on the topic (linked above) that I am not an uncritical admirer.

Laleh Khalili wrote on April 06, 2011 at 05:04 PM

Brilliant, useful and illuminating. Thanks for uncovering the texts and contexts for types of wars and control that are often mistakenly seen as "new" and "humane" forms of combat.

Paul Amar wrote on April 06, 2011 at 05:45 PM

Thanks for illuminating post. Good you mentioned Ron, who's argument goes a long way to explaining the deterioration of the past 20 years. You might also have added some of the work by Charles Tilly, S. Kalyvas and especially Elizabeth Wood (the latter on Insurgent Collective Action in El Salvador) to emphasize the continuum from political protest and repression through to insurgency and counter insurgency, which we've just witnessed in Libya and managed to avoid in Tunis and Egypt. There's a great chapter in Naylor "Wages of Crime" on insurgent economies.

MT wrote on April 07, 2011 at 05:39 PM

I strongly urge everyone to pick up one of the seminal pieces of intellectual resistance to the COIN-fare: The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual by The Network of Concerned Anthropologists; published by Marshall Sahlins' Prickly Paradigm Press.

sepoy wrote on April 11, 2011 at 01:28 PM

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