1. Introduction

In 1896, Colonel C.E. Callwell published his first edition of Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, in which he provides a strategic framework for assessing these challenges posed by insurgents. This work was the first reputable codification of counterinsurgency strategy. Max Boot highlights some key strategic suggestions of the manual in his work Invisible Armies; these include: dividing “the whole area of operations…into sections, each of which has its own military force,” a tactic employed by the British during the Boer War; utilizing mobile troops, like Crook, who championed the use of mobile pack mules during the American Indian wars; and lastly emphasizes “a well-organized and well served intelligence department,” a strategy that was thoroughly utilized by the French in Algeria (Callwell qtd in Max Boot 2013). Callwell also asserts that, “wholesale destruction of the property of the enemy may sometimes do more harm than good,” a point both the French and Americans missed in Indochina, Algeria, and Vietnam (Callwell qtd in Max Boot 2013). Many of the strategic suggestions devised by Callwell are either prevalent or lacking during the French Indochina War, the war for Algerian Independence, the Malayan emergency and the American Vietnam war. For this reason, Callwell’s 1896 manual serves as an effective starting point for the study of the evolution of counterinsurgency policy.

This paper seeks to analyze the evolution of counterinsurgency policy from the first French Indochina war through the American Vietnam experience by exposing the cases in which policy progressed and regressed and where leaders not only failed to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors, but also where leaders were able to build on successful policies from preceding conflicts.

2. The French in Indochina, 1945-1954

The French policy in Indochina reveals a stark contrast to some of the suggestions made by Callwell. For example, during Operation Lea in October of 1947, the French deployed several “motorized princer movements designed to trap the insurgents” (Max Boot 2013). However, Ho Chi Minh and his insurgents were able to escape because “the armored thrusts bogged down along the narrow, winding roads as the Vietminh felled trees, planted mines, dropped bridges, and dug trenches” (Max Boot 2013). Failing to build off previous experiences of counterinsurgency practitioners and their successful use of lightweight mobile units the French counterinsurgency policy failed to win a decisive victory and was even forced to retreat.

In addition, the French continued to beat, rape, and pillage defenseless peasants and “the French reaction to attacks was particularly brutal” (Max Boot 2013). They also began using American shipments of napalm, which burns at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit to literally burn their opponents alive. Rejecting earlier counterinsurgency policy suggestions in Callwell’s manual to avoid destroying all the land and property of the enemy reveals a digression in policy. While the Vietminh directed their brutal tactics towards those who opposed them, the French were “indiscriminate in their wrath” (Max Boot 2013). These indiscriminate and brutal policies were successful in turning more would-be French sympathizers into agents of the communists. The French effort ignored nearly all aspect of “population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine by adopting a conventional, big-unit, firepower-intensive strategy that alienated the populace” (Max Boot 2013). The French also failed to prevent outside support from China, whom was pleased to assist their communist friends in Vietnam. China was able to provide a safe haven for insurgents to escape and regroup. This issue would later be addressed by the fortification of the Morice Line during the Algerian war for Independence, exhibiting a positive evolution in French counterinsurgency policy.

3. The French in Algeria, 1954-1962

Embarrassed by their recent defeat in Indochina, the French were determined to modify their counterinsurgency tactics and learn from their past mistakes to retain control over their North African colony. According to Commander H. Canuel, “French military forces actually waged a successful campaign in Algeria, virtually eliminating the insurgent forces in the field but losing the war at home” (Commander H. Canuel 2010). Taking suggestions right from Callwell’s manual the French relied on a thorough intelligence apparatus, civic action, and a cleansing of potential insurgent recruits in the densely populated Muslim quarter of Algiers. The French use of torture for intelligence was a key component of their anti-FLN campaign. By using torture, the French were able to identify key individuals within the FLN network and were therefore able to “dismantle the FLN structure inside Algiers within a matter of months” (Max Boot 2013). While it may have morally reprehensible, “there is little doubt that, at least in Algeria, it was tactically effective” (Max Boot 2013).

Moreover, in Algeria the French were far more committed to civic-action programs designed to win over the population. They granted more voting rights for Muslims and spent more money on Muslim schools and social services. Despite these efforts the Muslim Algerians were not satisfied with the French policies. What the Muslims really wanted was a road to independence, which the French were not willing to grant. As the violence continued, the FLN began targeting French civilians in Algeria with terrorist tactics. These attacks were not only designed to harm French citizens and destroy their will to fight, but also intended to “goad the security forces into reprisals that would turn the apathetic Muslim population toward the FLN” (Max Boot 2013). The French response was unequal in force and resulted in the indiscriminant killing of “the whole lot of [Muslims]” (Major Paul Assures qtd. in Max Boot 2013). Because of mishaps like these it is surprising that the French were successful in their counterinsurgency campaign.

In addition, similar to the concentration camps employed by the British during the Boer wars in South Africa in the late 19th century, Colonel Marcel Biegard was tasked with cordoning of the Muslim neighborhood and isolating the population from the insurgents. According to Boot, Brigadier General Jacques Massu and his tenth parachute division conducted house sweeps “breaking down doors and dragging hundreds of suspects in for questioning” (Max Boot 2013). Similar styles of urban counterinsurgency warfare would be conducted in Iraq during the mid-2000s. These house sweeps greatly contributed the intelligence campaign and torture programs, which were a main contributor to the French success.

In the end, through the fortification of the Morice Line border with Tunisia, the external disruption of FLN arms shipments, and the targeting of “top FLN leaders in exile,” the French were able to put enough pressure on the FLN to prevent them from transitioning from a guerilla terrorist army into a conventional force, capable of taking and holding territory, like general Giap’s Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu. This success exposes a positive evolution in policy from the French failure in Indochina.

4. The British Counterinsurgency in Malaya, 1948-1960

The British counterinsurgency methods in Malaya reveal a continuation of the policies of civic action, isolation, and has been deemed one of the most successful abroad counterinsurgency operations (Max Boot 2013). The Briggs plan brought together the most effective concepts of counterinsurgency policy in precious cases. Resettlement programs for Chinese people provided them with land titles, a safe place to live, and isolated them from insurgents. According to Boot, these new settlements provided clean drinking water, schools and clinics, a “ stark contrast to the ill-fated French attempts to implement a similar policy in Algeria” (Max Boot 2013). Briggs championed the idea that you “find and disinfect the enemy’s breeding ground in order to defeat an insurgency” (Max Boot 2013).  According to James Flint, the Malayan “initiative was won through the Briggs plan” (James Flint 2015). His successor, Lord Templar would share a similar view. Templer emphasized “political, rather than kinetic, warfare” (Max Boot 2013).

He renovated schools, opened hospitals to civilians and offered a path to independence, a major shift in practice from the French in Algeria. Learning from previous counterinsurgent failures and building off some of Callwell’s ideas, “Templer realized that…blunderbuss tactics only drove more recruits into the communist camp” (Max Boot 2013). Instead, Templer “took a more measured approach in which small units would act on the basis of good intelligence” (Max Boot 2013). In the case of the Malayan counterinsurgency one can see the maturation of several years of both successful and failed COIN policy. Both Briggs and Templer should be credited with their measured patience in both military and social approach to fighting the insurgents in Malaya.

5. Americans in Vietnam 1954-1973

Aside from the failure of General Westmoreland’s “firepower-intensive war throughout the Johnson administration,”(James McAllister 2010). American COIN policy in Vietnam reveals an interesting innovation that is not prevalent in any of the other cases. During Colonel Lansdale’s time in Saigon from 1954-1956 the concept of nation-building is implemented as a strategy for preventing impending insurgencies. According to Boot, “an important part of any successful counterinsurgency effort, to blunt the appeal of a rebel force, is…to establish governmental institutions that safeguard the populace and respond to its concerns” (Max Boot 2013). In order to achieve this necessity, Lansdale provided free medical care to Vietnamese peasants, fostered the idea of self-rule in the countryside, paraded Diem as a hero, and worked to identify with the people. Lansdale also build rapport with Vietnam’s leaders, especially Diem. According to Boot, by the time Lansdale left Saigon at the end of 1956, South Vietnam had…become a functioning state” (Max Boot 2013). For the most part Lansdale met his goals for South Vietnam by creating a functioning state with the hope that it would be strong enough to defy an impending insurgency. However, Diem’s corruption and lack of popular appeal was too strong a force for him to remain in power.

Furthermore, as the American military moved in on Vietnam other COIN strategies, such as combined action programs, which dispatched marines to live in Vietnamese villages and provide protection alongside popular militia forces; reconnaissance patrols, the mobilization of ethnic minorities, and the Phoenix Program, an intelligence effort to root out communists, were not given the necessary resource and were therefore ineffective. According to Boot, nearly “95 percent of American resources” were consumed by search and destroy missions (Max Boot 2013). Counterinsurgency operations were merely an afterthought. This created a stark contrast to the success of the British in the Malayan emergency and reveals that counterinsurgency policy is full of progressions and regressions as new people and new countries fail to build off the successes and failures of their predecessors. Westmoreland’s war of attrition strategy played right into the hands of the communists, who despite the increasing communist body counts, continued to grow their ranks.

6. Conclusion

According to Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, future wars will consist of insurgencies, which he terms “Fourth Generation Warfare,”  capable of causing great harm to the United States (Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, USMC 2006).  For this reason, it is important to reflect on these key historical cases. In the present day case of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria the United States military faces a breakdown of governing institutions in those countries. The innovations made by Lansdale in Vietnam become increasingly relevant to these three countries. Americans must seek to build schools and hospitals, assist in political institution building, and build relationships with the tribal leaders and local people. Some of these policies were attempted in Iraq during the Surge strategy of 2007, however the initiative was shut down by the Obama administration.

Finally, like Lansdale and Diem, diplomats in present conflicts must seek to build relationships with the leaders who are actually relevant to the future of the divided countries. Today, in Iraq the Maliki government in Baghdad is no longer the most relevant decision making force in the country. Americans must put diplomats on the ground in Kurdistan, the Sunni regions in the northwest, as well the Shia regions in the south in order to develop effective policies with the tribal and clan leaders who have taken control. COIN tactics and operations will reach their full maturation when military policies are frequently coupled with relationship-development and nation-building in vulnerable states.


1. Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, USMC. 2006. The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century. Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press.

2. Commander H. Canuel. 2010. “French Counterinsurgency in Algeria: Forgotten Lessons from a Misunderstood Conflict.” Small Wars Journal.

3. James Flint. 2015. “Assesing the British Counter-Insurgency Effort in Malaya,” February.

4. James McAllister. 2010. “Who Lost Vietnam? Soldiers, Civilians, and the US Military.” International Security 35 (3): 95–123.

5. Max Boot. 2013. Invisible Armies. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation.