“Insurgents” are people out to overthrow the government in some part, perhaps all, of a country and replace it with themselves.

“Guerrilla warfare” is a style of fighting.  It can be used for any purpose, including prosecuting an insurgency or resisting an occupying force of foreign troops.  It can also be an adjunct to conventional operations in a more traditional war between states.

So “The War Between the States” was a true insurgency but was fought largely, although not exclusively, by conventional armies on battlefields.

I’ve mentioned before that India hosts several insurgencies, all prosecuted primarily through guerrilla warfare.  The best known of these is probably the “Naxelite” insurgency, waged by the fighters of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).  WTF?? I hear you exclaim.  “Communist”?  “Maoist”??  Does anybody pay any attention to these completely discredited ideologies?

The answer is “yes.”  To gain some insight into why, read “Gandhi, but with Guns“, Arundhati Roy, The Guardian, 27 March 2010.  At some point, you’ll find yourself humming Kumbaya and fuming with rage at large landowners and multinational corporations.  Now you understand why (whether you buy Roy’s obvious biases or not).

Boyd never wrote specifically on insurgency or COIN, but he did explore guerrilla and counter-guerrilla warfare as used for those purposes:

Insurrection/revolution becomes ripe when many perceive an illegitimate inequality—that is, when the people see themselves as being exploited and oppressed for the undeserved enrichment and betterment of an elite few. This means that the guerrillas not only need an illegitimate inequality but they also need support of the people; otherwise, insurrection/revolution is impossible. (Patterns, 94)

People feelings and thoughts must be guerrilla feeling and thoughts while guerrilla feelings and thoughts become people feelings and thoughts; people aspirations must be guerrilla aspirations while guerrilla aspirations become people aspirations; people goals must be guerrilla goals while guerrilla goals become people goals.


Guerrillas become indistinguishable from people while government is isolated from people. (Patterns, 95)

Keep this in mind while you’re reading Roy’s article.  You might also recall Boyd’s advice for prospective counter-guerrilla operators:

Undermine guerrilla cause and destroy their cohesion by demonstrating integrity and competence of government to represent and serve needs of people—rather than exploit and impoverish them for the benefit of a greedy elite.*

Take political initiative to root out and visibly punish corruption. Select new leaders with recognized competence as well as popular appeal. Ensure that they deliver justice, eliminate grievances and connect government with grass roots.* (Patterns, 108)

The footnote, as many of you undoubtedly know (and it’s the only one Boyd put in any of his briefings), reads

* If you cannot realize such a political program, you might consider changing sides!

When briefing this, Boyd would explain that it’s a lot more fun to be on the winning side.

Point is that the efficacy of Marxist / Leninist doctrine is pretty much irrelevant to the success of a guerrilla campaign, although it may have everything to do with how well the country works after they seize power.

Another critical point is that although Boyd is describing injustice in materialistic terms, the argument works just as well if the “perceived inequality” is religious:  “They’re trying to destroy [insert the religious doctrine of your choice here]!!!”  Whether you believe their religious doctrine, or even find it believable, is likewise irrelevant.

What does all this say about COIN doctrine?  Of course, this should really be  “counter-guerrilla doctrine.”  Nothing, if the counter-guerrilla campaign is  waged by the local government because it has two options for successfully ending the insurgency:

  1. Kill damn near all of them (the “Hama” solution, named for the late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad’s successful campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood in that city)
  2. Some variation on Boyd’s scheme.

How easy is it for foreign troops?  Option 1 is open.  As for option 2, reflect upon:  “People feelings and thoughts must be guerrilla feeling and thoughts … ”  Not easy an easy game to play for an 18-year old Catholic kid from Passaic, New Jersey, unless the insurgency is in New Jersey.

Oh yes, what about the Naxelites?  India has a real problem.  It probably cannot do Option 1, and it appears unwilling to do Option 2.  So the Maoist mini-state will survive for a while, fed by the very real injustices that Roy documents, but so will the state of India outside the tribal territories.  Such a hybrid may also be the near-term fate of Mexico and other countries in Latin America, where the narcotrafficking cartels will be the de facto governments of sub-states, but won’t get (or want) seats in the UN.

[HT to Fabius Maximus for the Roy article.]

3 thoughts on “COIN

  1. Hey Chet. Very informative post. Thanks

    Did Boyd ever use the term “winning the hearts and minds” when discussing defeating guerrilla warfare?

    Just from my own attempt to interpret the slides in POC, it seems that he might have been less concerned with “winning” hearts and minds than with “losing” them. In other words, while it might be nice to win the non-committed over to your side, the most important thing is to prevent the non-committed from joining the other side. I say this because there are some situations where winning over the non-committed is extremely unlikely, but it might be possible to maintain neutrality – by taking the steps outlined in Slide 109.

    Am I far off here?
    Thanks in advance!

    • Thanks for the question. I never heard John use “winning hearts and minds,” and I don’t think he included it in Patterns.

      It has the flavor of “we have a position and we’re going to win the people over to it.” Instead, John talked about the guerrillas needing to take up the people’s cause, while at the same time leading them (hence the term “vanguard”) to the solution. If they can’t do this, they’re probably going to lose, and they should.

      Personally, the idea that we’re going to go into a completely alien culture and “win them over” to something fundamental strikes me as highly unlikely if not downright absurd.

      As for the uncommitted, check out his “Moral Design for Grand Strategy” in Strategic Game, charts 53 ff. Particularly chart 57, where he addresses the uncommitted. Basically, if we can’t attract them to our cause — as you point out probably the most likely scenario — they can say neutral, but they better not provide aid and comfort to our opponents.

  2. Thanks Chet. Your comment makes excellent sense. I was thinking about the issue when I read about the recent airstrike in Yemen that killed Jabir al-Shabwani. The American Security Project blog had a post echoing your comment in relation to this.

    I’ve made a similar point before in discussing the issue of winning over different cultures that not everyone in the world is interested in obtaining a new pair of Air Jordans, but no one wants their own shoes stolen. An oversimplification to be sure, but it resonated to me.

    Anyway, thanks again.

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