A perspective on the historical development of counterinsurgency population management
theory and the relative reliance on force and influence
12 March 2010
Over the past century, counterinsurgency theory has undergone a dramatic shift. Over
the years, strategists have developed a series of approaches designed to defeat insurgent
movements, the most successful of which pay special attention to the core challenge of
separating insurgents from the greater contested population, or "population management."
Beginning with the coercive methods employed at the turn of the century by the Americans in
the Philippines, continuing through to the more recent shifts towards persuasive techniques in
Iraq and Afghanistan, counterinsurgencies have pursued this issue of population management
through strategies defined by a comparative reliance on force and influence. The approaches
advanced by Utley, Trinquier, Thompson, The US Army/Marine Counterinsurgency Field
Manual, McChrystal, and Kilcullen each fall somewhere between these two absolutes, and a
comparative analysis through the lens of this coercive-persuasive spectrum yields insight into the
development of approaches to counterinsurgency population management. A trend of scandals
arising as a result of coercive methods, and later on a demonstrated pattern of success through a
more persuasive approach, have resulted in a gradual shift since the beginning of the twentieth
century from the promotion of forceful "hard" coercion towards the advocacy of influential
Writing in 1931, Marine Major Harold Utley, drawing on the Corps' historical
experience, laid out his views on waging "small wars." The Marines involvement in the
Philippines at the turn of the century was characterized by a coercive, force-oriented approach
towards controlling the conflict-area population. As the Filipino resistance to American
occupation adopted a guerrilla strategy in 1900, US forces instituted a "re-concentration
program" aimed at moving local populations from areas of insurgent operations so as to
physically divide out the guerrillas; in the newly-cleared areas, American forces were authorized
to shoot anyone who refused to surrender. Word of atrocities-most notably the Samar massacre-
eventually reached the US press, causing an uproar and precipitating court-martials and
Congressional inquests; Utley's approach, written three decades later, responds to the US
experience in the Philippines. He outlined four "traditional" counterinsurgency tactics:
"killing...or capture" of enemy combatants and the "destruction of their property," "destruction of
property" of those who aid insurgents, "laying waste of entire sections inhabited" by enemy
sympathizers, and "removal and dispersion of all of the inhabitants in an area of unrest."1 These
measures physically filter out guerrillas at the cost of displacing civilians-reminiscent of the
highly-coercive population management in the Philippines. And yet, he discards these methods-
with the exception of eliminating insurgents and their property-noting that they would
"exasperate the people," leading to a loss of support and giving rise to other problems.2 Utley's
is a slightly less coercive approach than that which preceded it; his consideration of the effects of
counterinsurgency on populations is a significant departure from previous methods. However,
he ultimately rules out the most coercive of tactics not because of their effect on the indigenous
1 Maj. Harold H. Utley, "An Introduction to the Tactics and Technique of Small Wars," Marine Corps Gazette, May
2 Utley, 51.
population, but due to the scandal they inevitably cause in the United States; the handicap of
public relations renders useless the most effective methods.3
Roger Trinquier, thirty years later, addressed many of the same issues of population
management, but with a different historical context. Writing in response to the recent failures of
the Indochina and Algeria counterinsurgencies, Trinquier was frustrated with France's reliance
on conventional-style warfare; after losing so spectacularly in Indochina, France had employed
the same approach in Algeria to the same result. He argues that an insurgency's power is rooted
in its ability to disrupt life and undermine government control.4 To parry this threat, Trinquier
favors a coercive counterinsurgency; the population must be forcibly integrated into the national
defense so as to separate it from and deny support to the insurgency.5 Beginning with order-
enforcing "mobile gendarme squadrons," he sketched out tactics pursuant to his approach. A
"careful census," followed by the issuance of photo identification cards, enables the gendarme to
easily track the population and maintain tight control.6 Trinquier further distances the population
from the insurgency through compulsory civilian service in a collective defense organization.
The organized population would be used, under Trinquier's theory, for actions as resource
rationing and local intelligence, thus denying material support to the enemy while aiding in his
detection. But this body would not only "participate in the tasks of the forces of order,"7 it would
serve to augment government population control-a hierarchy channels power to its chief.
Trinquier's approach is unmistakably coercive, that much is clear. It is "softer" than Utley's only
in that it doesn't demonstrate the same degree of disregard for the population; Trinquier's theory
prizes popular support,8 although his methods seem less than conducive to such a goal.
After the Second World War, Britain faced insurgency in Malaya. Early efforts to
counter the Communist guerrillas with conventional warfare proved fruitless, and the insurgency
continued grew amongst the Min-Yuen. The British transition to a more effective
counterinsurgency and focused on appealing to the Squatters' hearts and minds gradually turned
the tide; programs to improve the well-being of the Min Yuen through land reform, as well as to
inspire nationalism and support for the government through enfranchisement, were instrumental
in defeating the insurgency. A British advisor during the Malayan Emergency, Robert
Thompson, later published the product of his experiences: a theory of counterinsurgency
including a "soft" approach to separating populations from insurgents. Thompson's method of
population management revolves around maintaining order and depicting the government as an
equitable protector of the population, thereby disparaging the insurgents as criminals and forces
of destruction. He argues that through the elimination of sympathizers who liaise with the
insurgents, populations can be effectively distanced from the insurgency; then, that division can
be widened through various civil measures promoting support for the government, cutting off the
insurgency.9 Thompson advocates manipulating nationalism and material well-being, forces
3 Utley, 52.
4 Roger Trinquier, Modern Warfare: A French view of counterinsurgency (London: Pall Mall, 1964), 8.
5 Trinquier, 11.
6 Trinquier, 11.
7 Trinquier, 11.
8 Trinquier, 5.
9 Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam (New York and
Washington: Frederick A. Praeger), 56-7.
which determine a population's allegiance.10 School construction, land reform, and other
situation-appropriate measures serve to massage the people's interests and appeal to hearts and
minds, with the long-term aim of integrating the discontented population into the general
population;11 little-if any-of this approach could be called coercive. "Soft" tactics such as
enfranchising populations can encourage the dissatisfied to develop a psychological investment
in the government; similarly, a social security program leads to an actual investment in the
government.12 Thompson stresses the importance of perception in winning favor; effective Rule-
of-Law is key in consolidating popular support and to denying it to the insurgents-and is in this
case a tool of persuasion. Transparency and due process under the law reinforce faith in the
government as equitable protector of the people while casting the insurgents as criminals,
eroding their support; Thompson's approach presents the population with a visibly better option
and influences the people to decide to support the government.
Towards the end Cold War, American defense strategists adopted a framework of
aggressive conventional unit maneuvering with close air support. While this doctrine may be
suited to full scale conflict, within a few years it became clear in both Iraq and Afghanistan that
it was ill-suited to counterinsurgency. The US missions in both theaters had deteriorated to the
point where the Department of Defense had determined to overhaul its counterinsurgency
doctrine, culminating in the development of the US Army/Marines Counterinsurgency Field
Manual. The Manual, crafted under the aegis of General David Petraeus with the assistance of
prominent experts, was intended to set the stage for a more effective approach to
counterinsurgency. The Manual promotes continuous, visible security, coupled with persuasive
appeals to hearts and minds, as the ideal methods of separating populations from insurgencies.
It emphasizes, like Thompson, achieving government legitimacy in the eyes of the people
through its primary aim of sustaining population security and fostering Rule-of-Law.13 The
Manual advocates sincere commitment to defending the population so as to both insulate it from
insurgent influences-indeed, "establishing security for the civilian populace" is the "cornerstone"
of the Manual's counterinsurgency approach;14 accordingly, the decisive battlefield is that of
people's minds. As such, a campaign of influence, general persuasion, and leading through
action-"soft" population management-serves to best garner popular support and thereby separate
population from an insurgency; such persuasive tactics include addressing legitimate grievances,
respecting cultural norms, and sharing risks with the population (a corollary of the constant
security concept).15 In addition, the manual advocates a "money is ammunition" (a Petraeus-
coined axiom16) attitude towards development assistance; one not only appeal to the emotional
"heart," but also to the rational-and often self interested-"mind;" selfishness can be a strong
motivation. General David McChrystal, a committed practitioner of Field Manual
counterinsurgency, developed his own take on the Manual's approach, which he outlined in his
10 Thompson, 63.
11 Thompson, 64.
12 Thompson, 66-7.
13 U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Army/Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Chicago and London: The
University of Chicago Press), 2.
14 Department of Defense, Field Manual, 42.
15 Department of Defense, Field Manual, 18, 27, 48.
16 Michael Gordon's ew York Times article quotes Petraeus using the term in 2003.
2009 "Commander's Initial Assessment." In that document, he builds on the Manual's methods
of population management, scaling them up to fit a full campaign. In particular, he stresses the
importance of an organizational culture geared towards understanding and connecting with the
population, with the aim of building lasting relationships, through which counterinsurgents
influence confidence in government. 17 He also extends the Manual's principles to a larger
strategy of counterinsurgency-one reminiscent of the British "white zones" in Malaya; instead of
pushing outwards and risking over-extending forces, a counterinsurgency consolidates its hold
over one or more regions, thereby "increasing the space in which the population feels protected
and served by their government."18
David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert, toured Iraq and Afghanistan
between 2006 and 2008, keeping extensive notes on his observations over that period. He later
drew lessons from these notes, incorporating them in his theories of counterinsurgency put
forward in The Accidental Guerrilla. Kilcullen's approach to population management is
grounded in an understanding of local political and cultural dynamics; he advocates undermining
popular support for insurgency through full-time security presence in and engagement with
communities.19 "A residential, long-term, high-force-density approach"20 physically insulates
villages from insurgent coercion, thus facilitating discussions with traditional local leaders,
through whom support groups can be persuaded to the side of government-"soft"
counterinsurgency. However, Kilcullen asserts that a successful counterinsurgency not only
influences a population to choose the government over insurgents; it uses persuasion to enforce
that choice.21 As populations are secured, earning the endorsement of community leaders further
cements support.22 The counterinsurgency casts itself as actively rescuing the population from
insurgent intimidation and coercion; as the counterinsurgency's influence grows, so does the
degree to which populations are divided from insurgent influence. The development of local
defense forces and police serves to further improve security while simultaneously establishing a
government presence,23 and facilitates popular participation in the government's cause, therefore
distancing the population from the insurgency's. Even in military operations, Kilcullen promotes
actively incorporating hearts and minds appeals.24 Much like the approach advanced by the
Army/Marines Counterinsurgency Manual, he advocates acting to increase the legitimacy of the
host government through security and economic aid; as the population accepts the government as
a legitimate ruling body, the insurgency will find itself increasingly separated from the people it
once easily controlled. That said, Kilcullen does not shy from relatively "hard," coercive
measures, such as the establishment of gated communities. In the context of civil war-Iraq, for
example, such a measure protects the population inside, and that in the event of a successful
attack it permits counterinsurgents to limit retaliation. However, such methods are employed
only to advance the greater goal of population management through ensuring security.
17 Gen. Stanley A McChrystal, "Commander's Initial Assesment," (2009), 1.2.
18 McChrystal, 2.19.
19 David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: fighting Small Wars in the midst of a big one, (Oxford and New York:
Oxford University Press, 2009), 66.
20 Kilcullen, 130.
21 Kilcullen, 67.
22 Kilcullen, 69.
23 Kilcullen, 98.
24 Kilcullen, 106-7.
"Hard" population management isn't necessarily ineffective; some of Trinquier's coercive
methods were highly successful in clearing Algiers of FLN early in the Algerian War. However,
as Utley put it, "the most efficient [measures] available must frequently be eliminated from the
plan of campaign as not being in accord with public policy;"25 coercive population management
fails because it makes for bad publicity. However, this dynamic doesn't fully explain the shift to
persuasive approaches in population management-persuasion has demonstrated its efficacy in
multiple counterinsurgencies, from the British victory in Malaya to the recent turnarounds in
Iraq. The historical progression from "hard" to "soft" counterinsurgency theory is a product of
hard-earned lessons, observation, and study; an influence-based approach has been catching on
not only because it looks better abroad, but because it quite simply works.
25 Utley, 52.
Kilcullen, David. The Accidental Guerrilla: fighting Small Wars in the midst of a big one.
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
McChrystal, Gen. Stanley A. "Commander's Initial Assessment." 2009.
Thompson, Robert. Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam. New
York and Washington: Frederick A. Praeger.
Trinquier, Roger. Modern Warfare: A French view of counterinsurgency. London: Pall Mall
U.S. Department of Defense. U.S. Army/Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Chicago and
London: The University of Chicago Press.
Utley, Maj. Harold H. "An Introduction to the Tactics and Technique of Small Wars." Marine
Corps Gazette, May 1931, 50-53.
Gordon, Michael R. "THE STRUGGLE FOR IRAQ: RECONSTRUCTION; 101st Airborne
Scores Success In Northern Iraq." The ew York Times, September 4, 2003.