Essays & Reviews

Uncovering the French Origins of COIN

In 2006, the U.S. army released a new field manual, The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual: U.S. Army Field Manual no. 3-24: Marine Corps Warfighting Publication no. 3-33.5 (FM 3-24) on counterinsurgency operations (COIN), which was hailed at the time as a significant shift in thinking about how to approach fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.[1] Although counterinsurgency was not new to the U.S. Military, the armed forces had largely ignored the doctrine since Vietnam because it was not the type of war it preferred to fight. Yet as Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, one of the authors of the COIN manual, quipped, “Unfortunately, the enemy has a vote.”[2] Since then, and until very recently, COIN has dominated the strategic landscape of warfare at the Pentagon.[3]‘Winning hearts and minds’—a shorthand colloquialism for the crux of counterinsurgency doctrine—rests on the supposition that placating, bribing, coercing, or swaying a general population against militants, cuts off necessary support to the rebels, making it substantially more difficult for them to feed, shelter, and arm themselves. Moreover, winning local trust and support helps build up a robust informant network to aid in ongoing efforts to dismantle the insurgency. In the United States, the provenance of contemporary counterinsurgency is typically located in the mid-twentieth century and the independence movements of (now former) colonies. Nagl himself notes that he and his co-authors relied heavily in their thinking on Lieutenant Colonel David Galula, who wrote about his experiences in Algeria in the 1964 classic Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice.[4] However, counterinsurgency as a discrete military (and political) practice dates even further back—to the nineteenth century and to the height of European imperialism.

Certainly, ‘unconventional’ wars, broadly defined as rebellions against authority where those taking part are not recognized as lawful combatants, are as old as time. However, it was not until the turn of the nineteenth century that countering insurgencies gained sufficient traction in popular and military lexicons to merit a separate doctrine. Historians generally trace COIN’s doctrinal origins to the Peninsular War (1807-1814; a sideshow of the Napoleonic Wars), when ‘irregular’ rebels made enough of a disruption to garner their own name. Faced with conquest by Napoleon’s vastly superior military, the peasants of Spain, and later Portugal, took up arms in 1808 against the French. This organic wave of popular revolt became known as ‘guerrilla’—the diminutive form of guerra—meant to signify the asymmetric nature of the contest between a formal, professional army and a ragtag band of rebels. The word ‘guerrilla’ first appeared in English a year later to refer to the fighters, as well as to their specific type of warfare.[5]

The notion of a conflict being defined by an imbalance in putative strength took on further significance and formality as Europe continued its colonial expansion through Africa and Southeast Asia. By the end of the nineteenth century, a number of military veterans had written about their experiences overseas, culminating in the first manual explicitly devoted to irregular warfare, published in 1896. The author, British Major General Sir Charles Callwell, a veteran of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) and the Boer Wars (1880-1881; 1899-1902), categorized such engagements as ‘small wars’, which occurred, in his definition, “whenever a regular army finds itself engaged upon hostilities against irregular forces, or forces which in their armament, their organization, and their discipline are palpably inferior to it, the conditions of the campaign become distinct from the conditions of modern regular war.”[6] Callwell’s book was well received: It quickly became a British Army textbook, was translated into French, and later served as the model for the first U.S. Small Wars Manual published in 1935.

Callwell’s ‘small war’ describes asymmetrical warfare, with much of the definition falling on a comparison of military force and capability. It does not, in and of itself, offer any details on the political element of conflict. In that respect, and borrowing from the terms of biological taxonomy, it equates to a sort of genus of warfare of which there are different species. Callwell himself wrote about three different war species: wars for territorial conquest; wars to avenge a wrong or remove a dangerous enemy; and wars of pacification. This last category specifically addresses internal campaigns—insurrections and lawlessness in conquered lands. But even here, the manual eschews statecraft for military maneuvers. The population-centric model of ‘winning hearts and minds’ (as we know it today) evolved not from the British, but from French colonial interventions beginning in the mid-1800s.

In this essay, I trace the history of COIN doctrine across Francophone Africa and Southeast Asia to better understand how it is used or misused today. Perhaps because many counterinsurgency tactics have evolved and been adapted away from those used in the nineteenth century, analysis of contemporary COIN often ignores the doctrine’s colonial origins. Doing so, however, fails to consider how the foundational assumptions of the doctrine may well still limit its successful application in the twenty-first century. This essay, accordingly, sets out to unearth the possible repercussions of adopting the heart of a doctrine without a firm understanding of its initial purpose, seeking to understand whether that purpose is compatible with today’s geostrategic objectives.


The Birth of COIN


As Sir Charles Callwell notes, colonial expansion in the nineteenth century first required military conquest, often accomplished by overwhelming brute force, and subsequent pacification campaigns against native resistance. That resistance, although often weaker and less organized, benefited from intimate knowledge of the terrain; shared ethnic, cultural, religious, or social ties with the rest of the population; and a more vested interest in the stakes involved. Given the David and Goliath dynamic, many resistance groups relied on tactics outside the then-European norms of Continental warfare. Instead of armies facing off against other armies, those resisting colonization mostly engaged in hit-and-run-style engagements, emerging and then blending back into their surroundings,[7] very much like the guerrillas in Spain, except these ‘insurgents’ were ethnically and racially perceived to be inferior, thus barbaric. As France encountered such insurgencies again and again, military leaders learned that these small wars required a more specialized response than anything they were taught at l’école spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr. Countering insurgencies required a very different skillset. It required not just agile physical force but political skill at selling colonial rule. The mindset and rhetoric of la mission civilisatrice therefore aimed to legitimize colonial control and to demonize and belittle those resisting it (in order also to convince the metropole of the worthiness of the cause).

Interestingly, metropolitan France in the mid-nineteenth century was fairly ambivalent about colonization, for both moral and practical reasons, not to mention because of ongoing political unrest at home.[8] However, given the growing competition with other European powers, the imagined economic benefits, and a sense of lost national honor and prestige as a result of Napoleon’s defeat, France joined in the land-grab across Africa and Asia. Unlike its peers who saw new colonies as places for resettlement, successive French governments viewed colonization primarily as a military affair meant to secure resources, or better yet, to get the indigenous population to work the land and provide the resources for them.[9] Three figures stand out during this period as pivotal to the development of counterinsurgency warfare as we know it today: Maréchal (Marshal of France) Bugeaud, Maréchal Gallieni, and Maréchal Lyautey.


Thomas Robert Bugeaud and the Bureaux Arabes

Thomas Robert Bugeaud began his military career fighting the guerrillas in Spain during the Peninsular War. Over the subsequent years, as he vacillated between service and self-imposed retirement, he earned a reputation as a pugnacious, irascible, and unfriendly man, with strong political opinions and an obdurate sense of self-righteousness.[10]King Louis-Phillippe I first sent him to Algeria in 1836 to relieve a French garrison besieged at Tafna by Abd el-Kader, the Del or Emir of Algiers. Abd el-Kader’s father, a prominent religious leader, had declared jihad against the foreign invaders in 1831, and his son had taken up the reins after managing to unite the tribes of the region behind him (no small feat). Kader’s army proved difficult to suppress. By the time Bugeaud was posted to Algeria, political opinion in France had soured on the war as a long drawn-out affair, of no immediate value to the nation.[11] Bugeaud quickly crushed Abd el-Kader’s army at Tafna, which lead to a peace treaty in 1837. However, the treaty collapsed two years later in 1839, and Kader, having learned his lesson at Tafna not to engage in conventional confrontations, returned to systematic raids and ambushes against the French.

Bugeaud returned to Algeria in 1840 as governor-general and soon adopted the razzia method of attack common to his opponents. These “flying columns” were designed to be small, agile, lightly armed, and mobile—they could attack quickly and retreat quickly. Multiple columns could work in tandem to swarm the enemy. With this, Bugeaud was able to push his adversary back. Although more adroit than his predecessors’ use of conventional tactics, the razzias were no less deadly. Indeed, they were designed precisely to terrorize both the enemy and the civilian populations, and often incited public condemnation back in France for their viciousness. Callwell praises Bugeaud as one of the first to perceive “that he had to deal not with a hostile army but a hostile population… and that to bring them to reason he must reach them through their crops, their flocks, and their property.”[12] While maneuverability and surprise were imperative, razzias had three other benefits compared to traditional Continental-style warfare. First, raids enabled the army to feed themselves along the way; this did away with the reliance on supply lines. Second, along with taking food, soldiers were allowed to loot the villages, ultimately meaning that the war paid for itself and was not solely reliant on Parisian budgetary approval.[13]Third, the lack of restraint in terms of violence—the massacres, rape, forced relocation, internment, and destruction of property—had the anticipated effect of cowing civilians into submission, ostensibly pacifying the countryside and denying Abd el-Kader his support base.[14]

Bugeaud was not sentimental or naïve; he was quite aware of the tradeoffs involved in such a strategy. Ruthless control over the indigenous masses bred contempt and racial animosity. He said repeatedly that force or the threat of force was ultimately the only guarantee for France to maintain control of Algeria.[15] Nonetheless, he also acknowledged that military success was unsustainable without some sort of social buy-in.[16] Consequently, even as Bugeaud adopted the fighting tactics of irregular warfare, his true contribution to contemporary COIN was what one might today refer to as a form of ‘nation-building’.[17]

To gain compliance from the conquered tribes, Bugeaud established a “pyramid of authority” predicated on his strong belief in “the necessity of governing Arabs by Arabs.”[18] Pacified territories were subdivided and placed under the control of French officers. Within these military districts, he reestablished the bureaux arabes, which were designed to oversee day-to-day affairs and offer a bridge between the French and native populations (then numbering about two million people).

Spread throughout the country, a typical bureau included a mix of French and indigenous soldiers and civil functionaries (such as judge, doctor, secretary), and was led by an Arab Affairs official.[19] Bugeaud’s aim was to force the two cultures to work together, ultimately to encourage greater commercial development between the colony and her metropole.[20] Moreover, he organized these bureaux to reflect local tribal structure, arguing that any French administration of Algeria had to incorporate existing hierarchies, traditions, and customs. Arab affairs officials were tasked with intelligence gathering to maintain control and domination, yet they always performed under the guise of impartiality to maintain and foster an image of the French as benevolent protectors. To do so, Bugeaud argued, the officer “should not hesitate by any means to put himself often among the populations: visit the markets, the tribes, and listen to the locals’ complaints.”[21] Petraeus and his coauthors advocated for the same practices in the Army’s 2006 counterinsurgency manual, as did David Kilcullen in his “Twenty-eight Articles,” succinctly summing up the dictum: “know your turf.”[22]

The success of Bugeaud’s bureaus was mixed. They worked in the short term insofar as they quelled organized resistance, which they managed through a combination of diplomacy, persuasion, civil works projects, bribes, punishments, and violence. Of violence, bureaux officers employed small teams of local thugs known as goums to ‘enforce’ French control through razzias. The fruits of the raids incentivized some tribes to switch allegiance to France—a divide-and-rule tactic meant to destroy the Muslim solidarity that Abd el-Kader had worked so hard to create in the 1830s. In reality, however, bureaux were often poorly staffed, thinly spread, and with only a weak grasp of local laws and customs. Moreover, the growing settler population viewed these bureaus as anti-European and therefore a threat to French civilian rule.[23]

Whether or not the bureaux ultimately succeeded in their hoped-for strategic ends, Bugeaud was one of the first colonial strategists to recognize that pacification was not just about overpowering the enemy. As governor-general, later Marshal of France, Bugeaud actively and aggressively campaigned for more funding and greater military control of the colony, asserting that “war in Africa and continental war have no similarities;” that successful occupation required as many as 60,000 men to remain after the initial conquest “for an indeterminant time,” and that that time “could be long.”[24] He stressed that those men were not simply soldiers but were construction workers, administrators, cultural experts, and other required related blue- and white-collared professionals,[25] in yet another similarity with today’s ‘COIN-dinistas’, who argue that “counterinsurgency is armed social work.”[26]

By and large, Paris ignored Bugeaud. After Napoleon, the metropole’s popular understanding of war had solidified around professional armies with enemy positions, fortifications, classic supply lines, lines of communication, and decisive battles.[27] But according to Bugeaud, the nomadic nature of the Arabs made most of these conventional tactics obsolete in the field. Still, though France’s primary military occupation from 1815 to 1870 centered on small wars outside of the metropole, the few continental wars France did fight and win seemed to demonstrate to the public that colonial warfare was no different in professionalization than conventional wars, obviating any need to distinguish the two.

This changed dramatically after the defeat of the French army by the Prussians at Sedan on September 2, 1870, and the capture of Emperor Napoleon III. While the Franco-Prussian War continued until 1871,the failure at Sedan released a torrent of public condemnation against policymakers and military leaders for their failure to uphold the honor of France. This recrimination rested on the assumption that the focus of the last several decades on irregular warfare overseas had corrupted and withered the French army’s ability to defend the country against ‘real’ threats on the continent.

As a result, the mood soured on colonial aggrandizement even more after 1870; it was untenable politically, morally, and militarily.[28] Money funneled to the colonies now had to be diverted back to the homeland in an effort to adapt France’s military posture to the immediate threat of Germany. Conscription under the Third Republic aimed to create a mass conventional army, sustained by a shared love of country and the willingness to protect its territory against hostile neighbors. Continental warfare and colonial warfare did indeed become distinct categories of conflict, though not in the sense that Bugeaud wanted. Small wars were of secondary interest and subsequently relegated to mercenaries and the marines, who were often considered to be the worst soldiers coming out of the military academies.[29] Paradoxically, despite this shift in posture, the growing competition between the European powers translated into a renewed race for overseas possessions. France, having suffered a huge blow to its ego in 1870, took up competition voraciously, though the stain against small wars remained. From this point forward “imperial soldiers dealt in a devalued professional currency.”[30]


The Cercles Militaires of Joseph-Simon Gallieni

Joseph-Simon Gallieni joined the Troupes de Marine (Marine Troops, a then-subdivision of the French Army) in 1870 as this shift was taking place. After the Franco-Prussian war, he served in several African and Caribbean colonies before landing in Tonkin (northern Vietnam) in 1892. At the end of 1893, the governor-general of French Indochina gave Gallieni command of the northern region bordering China. The area was plagued by bands of ‘pirates’—mostly Chinese, though Vietnamese mercenaries as well—who preyed on the local inhabitants (indigenous tribesmen known collectively as les montagnards, or mountain men), and who effectively stopped regional commerce and colonial railway construction.[31] Once installed, Gallieni, like Bugeaud, broke up his troops into small, independent units dispersed across the region. He then employed what became known as the tâche d’huile (oil spot) tactic, where pacification spread from an initial location outward, and which required a combination of physical force and political skill. The purpose of these expanding circles was not to eradicate piracy altogether. Gallieni was aware that he did not have the manpower, resources, or situational intelligence to do so. Instead, he sought to separate the bandits from the villagers as much as possible and to make the lives of the pirates hazardous and uncertain enough to disincentivize their financial backers.[32] This then would instill confidence in the villagers that the French could protect them as they went about their day-to-day lives.[33]

In practice, these efforts had three characteristics. First, the military would provide some social service like a well for water or a market to attract locals. Intelligence officers would then mingle with the crowd and gain a sense of the human terrain. This led to the second step, which was to employ “flying columns” against networks of Vietnamese and Chinese thugs, who often hid in the mountains. As in the twentieth century, terrain and spies limited the usefulness of force. Still, the bandits were largely separated from the montagnards, and this division was deepened by offering the villagers money for any Chinese or Vietnamese rebel’s head that they took.[34] The third aspect of Gallieni’s strategy was political. Known as la politique des races, this strategy was one of divide and conquer, whereby the French removed any preexisting ethnic social caste divisions and made separate treaties with each group to force them all to work together under French rule. Gallieni negotiated with the regional Chinese warlord to police the Chinese border (after demonstrating his ability to use force), and he then arranged for the montagnards to run the opium trade in the North, thereby forcing the Vietnamese and Chinese pirates to create a sustainable economic relationship with the locals.[35]

Gallieni was sent to Madagascar in September 1896 to put down an intensifying peasant rebellion (known as the Menalamba Rebellion) against foreigners, Christianity, and the long-term political corruption of the Merina kingdom. Deploying his tâche d’huile method, Gallieni immediately reorganized the entire political landscape of the colony into territoire militaire; exiling the queen, Ranavalona III, and establishing a network of governance that spread out from the capital into the periphery. Reminiscent of Bugeaud’s bureaux arabes, these cercles militaries coincided (roughly) with pre-existing Malagasy districts and were divided into smaller secteurs in an effort to consolidate military control under the auspices of ‘nation-building’.[36] At each constituency level, complete military and civil control (and discretion) rested in the hands of a French officer, who was then held accountable by the head officer of the larger division, up to Gallieni himself.[37]

As in Tonkin, the onset of this reorganization was accompanied by an ongoing show of force to push back the insurgents as well as convince the other inhabitants of France’s ability to ‘protect’ them.[38] Gallieni again employed la politique des races by abolishing slavery and eliminating the ethnic caste system that had elevated the Merina tribe above all other tribes. He himself wrote that successful counterinsurgency depended on a combination of political action and military might. Pacification and possession of a colony required “intimate contact” with the indigenous population, he argued, in order “to seek to know their patterns of behavior and mental state, to strive to satisfy their needs,” so to draw them to the new colonial institution and to persuade them of its merit.[39] As Gallieni’s circles pushed farther inland, he was able to control increasingly more of the population through social institutions like schools and hospitals, as well as by maintaining the Merina kingdom’s policy of corvée (forced) labor in lieu of taxes.[40]

Gallieni’s military circles were very similar to Bugeaud’s Arab bureaus. Both men believed that the military was the only viable form of authority in a territory that was not yet fully tamed, where rebels only seemed to value the universal currency of brute force.[41] At the same time, both Gallieni and Bugeaud also believed in adopting native political and administrative practices within French military oversight as a means of making clear “the blurring of civilian and combat spaces.”[42] In fact, the men’s efforts to reorganize administratively their respective native landscapes—a proto-nation-building—were key to their maintaining control of vastly larger indigenous populations.

One reason for this success is that the “technologies of rule”[43] prescribed by Bugeaud’s bureaux arabes and Gallieni’s cercles militaires required quantifying and categorizing occupied populations—in other words, making them visible to French rule. At the time, European philosophers, scientists, and politicians were increasingly interested in how to render public bodies visible as a means of social control, whether through censuses, taxation, or even architecture and city planning. Borrowing from one such intellectual named Jeremy Bentham, the French theorist Michel Foucault would later develop the idea of ‘panopticism’ as a means of biopower and governmentality.[44] At its core, the state “disciplines and normalizes bodies through the exercise of a visual power that seemingly has no limits.”[45] Foucault referred to this panopticism as “a state of conscious and permanent visibility.”[46] The surveillance societies fostered in both Bugeaud’s Algeria and Gallieni’s Madagascar were built and operated not only with physical power but also as an “architecture of power through visual means.”[47]


“Bugeaud at his Best”: Louis-Hubert-Gonzalve (Hubert) Lyautey

Hubert Lyautey served under Gallieni in both Tonkin and Madagascar; he brought Gallieni’s playbook to Morocco, first in 1903 to Oran (an Algerian border city), and later in 1907 to Morocco proper—against orders and under the pretext that a prominent French doctor had been killed in Marrakesh. He returned to Morocco in 1912 to put down a rebellion in Fez, and, after the Convention of Fez established the country as a French protectorate, he was made Resident-General, a role he occupied until 1925. Lyautey wholeheartedly espoused Gallieni’s methods and believed that conquest would only succeed if force were sustained by political and social efforts to win ‘hearts and minds.’[48] He firmly bought into the rhetoric of la mission civilisatrice as justification for any use of (excessive) force in putting down insurgents.[49]Indeed, he often described his methods as “Bugeaud at his best.”[50] Using a combination of the razzia fighting style and la politque des races, Lyautey was able to crush existing and nascent rebellions and to deftly maneuver across the treacherous political terrain of the Moroccan sultanate, various tribal and rebel leaders, competing European claims to the territory, and the political machinations of his superiors in Paris. Lyautey, also, was an outspoken advocate for recognizing the merits and advantages of small wars and small war warriors, publishing a number of small monographs and pamphlets beginning in 1900.

All three officers recognized that a foreign ruler could never completely win the loyalty of the people he ruled over by force. As a result, all three officers believed that military control over conquered lands and peoples was the only way to “destroy any seed of rebellion that might arise.”[51] In this capacity, colonial soldiers were tasked with far more than tactical maneuvers. As the First World War approached, Lyautey in particular passionately distinguished the colonial soldier from conventional troops. After all, “destruction is easy, reconstruction is much harder.”[52] All three officers believed that successful counterinsurgency centered on the civilian population. While Bugeaud let loose on unpacified villages the razzias with their indiscriminate violence, Gallieni and Lyautey took a more measured approach, reserving the brunt of the violence mostly for the insurgents. They instead tried to cultivate goodwill among the people—or at least persuade them of France’s benevolence (often through the rhetoric of la mission civilisatrice).[53] All three employed native troops and cultivated collaboration with indigenous civil society.

Still, their relationships with the local populations highlight the main challenge of COIN, then certainly, but particularly as it applies to today’s practices. That challenge is to at once kill the ‘bad’ guys and protect the ‘good’ guys, even as the bad and good guys by and large come from the same place, eat the same food, and pray to the same God. How then to distinguish between civilian and insurgent? The narrative that has evolved since Bugeaud’s time reflects this challenge, but in increasingly liberal terms. Bugeaud did not really care about the fundamental welfare of the local Algerians, so long as they were compliant to French military power and French rule. To him, COIN was first and foremost a tactical affair. Gallieni and Lyautey both recognized that convincing the locals that they did indeed care about their welfare (whether true or not) was necessary to successful military operations. That is to say, Gallieni and Lyautey in particular recognized as fundamental this truth about counterinsurgency: the tactical elements of counterinsurgency must fit into a nation’s broader strategy of long-term occupation and rule.

All three French military officers were deemed victorious in their pacification efforts. Success in counterinsurgency warfare, however, very much depends on what timeline one goes by, as much as by whether one judges COIN as an operational affair simply or as part of a more holistic colonizing strategy. After all, conquest in Vietnam and Algeria ultimately ended in military defeat for the French, even if those defeats were not immediate and only manifested a century or a half-century later. Importantly, these defeats suggest that the broader French goal of winning sustained popular support—or at least complacency—for French rule never completely materialized on the ground, despite the ‘civilizing’ elements of the ‘nation-building’ they had engaged in.


Contemporary COIN: The Postmodern Manifest Destiny?


Rehabilitating the colonial legacy of pacifying foreign populations highlights several crucial but most-often overlooked characteristics of past and present counterinsurgencies. Specifically, what rises to the fore in reexamining COIN’s development and application in nineteenth and early twentieth century French colonial adventuring is the unmistakable fact that COIN was created as a long-term occupying doctrine, not as a doctrine applicable for short-term nation-building escapades and quick exits. Moreover, despite Gallieni’s and Lyautey’s tempered views on acceptable levels of civilian casualties, all three progenitors of modern COIN theory strenuously argued for a military occupation sustained by the threat—if not use—of force to maintain local complacency. Even if the contemporary rhetoric of winning over local populations through a public relations-friendly slogan of ‘hearts and minds’ is far less bellicose than colonial-era articulations, the supposition remains from Bugeaud’s time, that the only reliable way of preventing popular backlash is ultimately through the public’s fear of punishment.

Today’s COIN is in some ways the postmodern Manifest Destiny. Territorial aggrandizement is no longer recognized as the motivating or driving force. Rather, in employing COIN, modern mostly western, liberal states seek to spread their political, economic, and cultural influence as a means of reconstituting others in their image. Ostensibly, the motives (at least over the last twenty years) have been both to prevent terrorism and to stabilize a geopolitical region. Yet, if military practitioners and political theorists have (re)learned anything from the last two decades of the Global War on Terror, it is that opposing insurgencies is distinctly not the United States’ strong suit. And yet, despite America’s poor record, counterinsurgency as a military doctrine seems to retain its place in contemporary history as a valuable tool in the irregular warfare toolbox. This remains true, even while acknowledging the U.S. Department of Defense’s recent pivot back to conventional warfare and ‘Great Power Competition’ due to the threats posed by China and Russia, and as announced in the 2015 and 2017 National Security Strategies.

To ignore the French origins of COIN is to fail to recognize that as a military tactic, the practices of counterinsurgency were initially rooted in an ongoing system of imperial control and governance, and thus necessarily were designed for decades-long continuous application. The French military officers (and administrators) Bugeaud, Gallieni, and Lyautey were all three reacting to a population and a geographic space in which they intended to stay. Galula, the man so influential to the crafting of the United States’ FM 3-24 over a century later, was also part of an operation that fought to remain in Algeria. That attitude and purpose stands in sharp contrast to repeated claims by contemporary U.S. Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, that the United States does not engage in nation-building and has no intentions of staying in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere any longer than strictly necessary.[54]

COIN was originally designed to be a necessary component of a broader occupation strategy, and it was designed with the longue durée in mind.[55] Although the wars in Malaya and Algeria (amongst others) in the 1950s are still used as tactical and strategic models within the Pentagon and U.S. Service Academies, not to mention among national security practitioners, the United Kingdom and France were at the time both fighting to stay in those locations over the long term, or at the very least, to control a slow-paced if eventual departure. These fundamental aspects are explicitly forgotten or ignored today. Rather, what seems to be most often remembered about COIN is COIN as a military tactic vaguely related to ‘strategy,’ not as an actual practice of colonization. Doctrines of warfare, as much as of foreign policy, of course adapt over the years, to meet the challenges of new circumstances and in the face of new technologies and geopolitical realities. But such historical evolutions do not absolve us from understanding and clearly grasping the origins of those doctrines we continue to invoke in contemporary situations.  Rehabilitating an awareness of COIN’s past origins forces those of us who think about foreign interventions to face uncomfortable facts—that the supposedly benevolent modern tools we would use to uphold liberty and human rights in the Global South were once used to sustain colonial empires; and if we blindly allow ourselves to be lulled by a softened rhetoric of pacification, as by myths of empire, they may do so yet again.[56]


M.L. deRaismes Combes is an adjunct at American University and at George Washington University. She is a former postdoctoral fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin (2019-2020).






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[1] United States, John A. Nagl, David H. Petraeus, and James F. Amos, The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual: U.S. Army Field Manual no. 3-24: Marine Corps Warfighting Publication no. 3-33.5 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). For its reception, see Richard Shultz Jr. and Andrea Dew, “Counterinsurgency, By the Book,” The New York Times (7 August 2006), A15; Sarah Sewall, “He Wrote the Book. Can he follow it?” The Washington Post (25 February 2007); and Oliver Belcher, “The Best-Laid Schemes: Postcolonialism, Military Social Science, and the Making of U.S. Counterinsurgency Doctrine, 1947-2009,” Antipode 44, no. 1 (2012): 258.

[2] Interview on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, August 23, 2007.

[3] Gventer et al. note that the COIN discourse has been appropriated and used as a “political commodity” to more broadly justify Western—and U.S. in particular—interventions abroad as morally appropriate and necessary. See: Celeste W. Gventer, David M. Jones, and MLR Smith, “Deconstructing counter-insurgency: COIN discourse and the devaluation of strategy,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 28, no. 3 (2015): 348-371.

[4] FM 3-24, xix.

[5] The Duke of Wellington first used the term ‘guerrilla’ to refer to the combatants in a dispatch sent on 8 August 1809. See  (accessed 19 September 2021). The Peninsular War also influenced Carl von Clausewitz’s thinking on small wars, particularly on the benefits of civilian militias. See: Carl von Clausewitz, “Strategy: Defensive” Principles of War, trans. Hans W. Gatzke (The Military Service Publishing Company, 1942), III.2.3. (accessed 18 September 2021).

[6] C. E. Callwell, Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, third edition (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1996 [1906]), 21.

[7] Mao describes insurgents as fish swimming in water (On Violence, Chapter 6).

[8] Charles-André Julien, Histoire de l’Algérie Contemporaine: La Conquête et les débuts de la colonisation (1827-1871) (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1964).

[9] Thomas Rid, “The Nineteenth Century Origins of Counterinsurgency Doctrine,” 33, no. 5 (2010): 728; Joseph-Simon Gallieni, Lettres de Madagascar (St. Gilles les Bains: Salines Éditions, 2020 [1928]). The big exception is Algeria, which by its independence in 1962, included over one million pied noirs.

[10] Douglas Porch, Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Rid, “Nineteenth Century Origins;” Julien, Histoire de l’Algérie.

[11] Julien, Histoire de l’Algérie; Porch, Counterinsurgency.

[12] Callwell, Small Wars, 128-129.

[13] This also attracted local clans and tribes to join with the French to reap the benefits of plunder.

[14] In one such incident in June 1845, Bugeaud’s men under Colonel Pelissier suffocated over 100 Muslims—men, women, and children—by trapping them in a cave and setting fire to the exit. The incident, known as les enfumades, made it into the French Press back in Paris and shocked the public, further eroding support for the ‘endless’ war. See Henri d’Ideville, Le Maréchal Bugeaud, d’après sa correspondance intime et des documents inédites, 1784-1849, volume II (Paris, 1884), 165-6 for a first-hand account.

[15] Julien, Histoire de l’Algérie, 223; Ideville, Le Maréchal Bugeaud, vol. II, 144-145.

[16] Julien, Histoire de l’Algérie, 187.

[17] Bugeaud was adamant that any form of governance must remain under the control of the military. He excoriated the civilian authorities in Algeria as incompetent and dangerous. See: Julien, Histoire de l’Algérie, 210-216. It should also be noted that ‘state-building’ (creating governing institutions that consolidate authority)—which is what Bugeaud was actually doing—is semantically often confused with or consolidated into ‘nation-building’ (creating institutions that foster a sense of national identity)—which is what the United States was accused of doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this essay, I have used the term ‘nation-building’ with scare quotes to highlight the family resemblance to contemporary COIN discourses.

[18] Anthony T. Sullivan, Thomas-Robert Bugeaud, France and Algeria 1784-1849 (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1983), 102. See also: Julien, Histoire de l’Algérie, 224.

[19] See Albert Ringel, Les Bureaux Arabes de Bugeaud et les Cercles Militaires de Gallieni (Paris: Université de Paris, 1903), 25-61.

[20] Sullivan, Thomas-Robert Bugeaud, 102.

[21] Henri d’Ideville, (1882) Le Maréchal Bugeaud, d’après sa correspondance intime et des documents inédites, 1784-1849, volume III (Paris, 1882), 137-138.

[22] David Kilcullen, “Twenty-Eight Articles,” Military Review (May-June 2006): 2.

[23] Rid, “Nineteenth Century Origins,” 740-742; Stephen H. Roberts, The History of French Colonial Policy, 1870-1925 (London: Routledge, 1929), 96; Rigel, Les Bureaux Arabes, 83-87.

[24] Julien, Histoire de l’Algérie, 171, 174. This complaint has stayed the test of time and was a common refrain in Vietnam and justification for both surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.

[25] Ideville, Le Maréchal Bugeaud, vol. II.

[26] Kilcullen, “Twenty-Eight Articles,” 8.

[27] Bugeaud gave testimony before the Chamber of Deputies on 15 January 1840 critiquing his peers for judging his actions in Algeria based on this traditional view of warfare. See: Le Moniteur universel, 16 Janvier 1840. (accessed 17 September 2021); See also: Rid, “Nineteenth Century Origins,” 733-734. The German military strategist Karl von Decker also drew this distinction in his books on “small wars,” arguing that asymmetrical wars (“guerre de partisans”) were fundamentally different from secondary operations in “normal” wars, which is what he referred to as la petite guerre). See: La Petite Guerre, ou Traité des Opérations Secondaires de la Guerre, M. Ravichio de Peretsdorf, trans. (Société de Librairie Belge, 1838), 15-17.

[28] This was a fair assessment, given the rapidity with which Prussia overwhelmed France. Porch, Counterinsurgency, 41-45; Douglas Porch, The March to the Marne: The French Army 1871-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Roberts, French Colonial Policy.

[29] Porch, March to the Marne, 152-153.

[30] Porch, Counterinsurgency, 47.

[31] Louis de Grandmaison, L’Expansion Française au Tonkin en Territoire Militaire (Paris: E. Plon, Nourrit et Cie, 1898), 87.

[32] Grandmaison, L’Expansion Française, 90.

[33] Grandmaison, L’Expansion Française, 87-90.

[34] A practice that the French had encouraged among the goum in Algeria as well, yet one that also ‘confirmed’ the natives’ barbarity to the French public. See: Porch, Counterinsurgency, 31.

[35] Joseph-Simon Gallieni, Trois colonnes au Tonkin, 1894-1895 (Paris: Librairie Militaire R. Chapelot & Cie, 1899).

[36] Rigel, Les Bureaux Arabes, 107-115.

[37] Hubert Lyautey, Du rôle colonial de l’armée (Paris: Armand Colin & Cie, 1900), 6. For a thorough analysis of the Madagascar campaign and each pacification circle, see: Joseph-Simon Gallieni, La Pacification de Madagascar: Opérations d’Octobre 1896 à Mars 1899 (Paris: Librairie Militaire R. Chapelot & Cie, 1900).

[38] In one letter to the Secretary General, Gallieni specifies: “Avec les indigènes de nos colonies, … il faut toujours, sinon être, du moins paraître les plus forts” (With the indigenous populations, we must at least always appear to be the strongest, even if we aren’t). See: Gallieni, Trois colonnes, 48. See also: Rigel, Les Bureaux Arabes, 111.

[39] Joseph-Simon Gallieni, Neuf Ans à Madagascar (Paris: Librairie Hachette, 1908), 47; Gallieni, Trois colonnes, 157-160.

[40] Arnaud-Dominique Houte, Le Triomphe de la République (1871-1914) (Paris: Seuil, 2014), 149.

[41] Rigel, Les Bureaux Arabes, 122.

[42] Oliver Belcher, “The Best-Laid Schemes: Postcolonialism, Military Social Science, and the Making of U.S. Counterinsurgency Doctrine, 1947-2009.” Antipode 44, no. 1 (2012): 260; Rigel, Les Bureaux Arabes, 111-113. Rigel argues that Bugeaud was less successful than Gallieni at population pacification because Bugeaud created a redundant (in Rigel’s opinion) tier of ‘indigenous administrators’ that hampered simple French military oversight (114-123).

[43] Belcher, “Best-Laid Schemes,” 260.

[44] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of a Prison (London: Penguin, 1991).

[45] Nicholas Gane, “The Governmentalities of Neoliberalism: Panopticism, Post-Panopticism, and Beyond,” The Sociological Review 60 (2012): 614.

[46] Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 201.

[47] Gane, “Governmentalities,” 615.

[48] Lyautey, Du rôle colonial, 17.

[49] Even so, Lyautey had a firm respect for Islam and local customs, and he often ‘went native’ in appearance when governing Oran. See: Hervé de Charette, Lyautey (Paris: J. C. Lattès, 1997), 176; J. Lecrecq, Ma Première Bibliothèque: Conquérants d’Empire (Paris: Éditions Bias, 1947), 106-109.

[50] Hubert Lyautey, Lettres du Tonkin et de Madagascar: 1894-1899 (Paris: Armand Colin & Cie, 1921), 112-113. See also: Rid, “Nineteenth Century Origins,” 752.

[51] Gallieni, Trois colonnes, 160.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Bugeaud did this as well, but only to an extent.

[54] For an excellent analysis of presidential aversion to nation-building during the war on terror (and before), see: Dominic Tierney, “Avoiding Nation-Building: From Nixon to Trump,” Parameters 48, n. 1 (2018): 25-36.

[55] I am currently working on another project that examines how the United States has adapted COIN to contemporary warfare, and whether those adaptations successfully take into account and compensate for the longue durée of colonial occupation.

[56] I should point out that I am not equating all efforts to promote liberty and human rights with ‘myths of empire’. Rather, I am cautioning that best intentions have the power to paper over the realities and interpretations of others.