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What is an insurgency? An insurgency is essentially the refusal to carry out a higher authorities’ orders, and so, opposing the law. Counter-insurgency is so, the terminology that comprises the activities to secure an insurgency and stabilize an uncertain environment.

Counterinsurgency (COIN) can be defined as both a civilian and military effort taken against the insurgent force, to overcome rebellions with a controlled and proportionate amount of force of protecting the population.

Successes in counter-insurgency operations depend on certain capacities. Which include intelligence, adaptableness, securing the population, propaganda, and a clear political aim.

Is the success in counter-insurgency about the military defeat of the enemy? Or by gaining and maintaining popular support? Exploring the Afghan and Iraq examples can give insight and offer an answer to this question.

The Terminology:

When regarding insurgency as a term of allocation, which refers to specific and unique events in countries, the term is allocated differently from one society or another. Therefore, precisely defining its concept helps countries in how to deal with a certain insurgency and how to control it. As the saying goes, ‘one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist’.

Considering people’s aspirations has always been a government’s goal, whether democratic or not, in any country, and when it fails to take into consideration what the people want, then insurgencies always take place.

The insurgency is an abnormal situation in the country when people feel the government is not considering their needs. So, they lose confidence in their government to hold a strong environment of power. Populations then contribute to fomenting ideas leading to the elimination of the government, and so, resulting in an insurgency. Therefore governments must take the population’s considerations into account and also have to communicate with its citizens to prevent any attempt to foster and so exploit their resentment. Therefore avoiding an environment that incubates the rise of insurgencies.

What Is Counter Insurgency?

Counter-insurgency requires a complex combination of civilian and military activities, through a focus on the population for preventative and monitoring actions. This can then be narrowed down to preventing vulnerable sectors of the population from becoming insurgents, rather than just focusing on the enemy in action.

Focusing on defeating only a small group of the enemy does not mean that counter-insurgency is less violent than any other conflict, as it involves an extensive loss of life similar to any other form of war. It is a very complex multi-faceted task often very hard to control, and susceptible to political controversy.

Governments have in the past, seen little need for a long term and with it a relatively high-cost commitment (financial, political, capital, military resources, and human life).

How Does Counter Insurgency Work?

The capacities required for counter-insurgency are often very similar to those required for peacekeeping operations and other humanitarian assistance. However, the counter-insurgency campaign is intended to build popular support for the government while fostering dissent within the rebels and opposition by the local population. It is essentially a political competition backed by force against insurgents or a hybrid assault on insurgency. Thus, control of the local setting (the environment, the population, the level of security, and the pace of the enemy) is the primary objective of the counter-insurgency campaign. It is a goal that distinguishes it from peace operations and other humanitarian interventions.

The complex nature of any counter-insurgency stems from 3 key aspects:

    1. Characteristics of the environment (physical, political, and the population).
    2. The nature of the rebel group(s).
    3. The nature of the government fighting the insurgency and troops.

Different forms of counter-insurgency.

States face very important notional and practical differences when carrying out a counter-insurgency operation within its national borders and when intervening in a foreign country in support of another government.

A counter-insurgency, which involves an intervention in a foreign country, is often optional, while local counter-insurgency is not a choice. The forces operating in the territory of another government are exposed to the superiority of the rebels with advantages such as their knowledge of the land. They live in the country and never plan to leave, while foreign forces must eventually plan to move out. The population is aware of this, and therefore the prospects for their support diminish. The foreign government, thus fighting the insurgency on external soil must have great strategic patience to survive a long-running conflict.

Thus a foreign intervention must undoubtedly reserve much of its resources for researching the geography, culture, history, sociology, and policies of the country.

Counterinsurgency in (Iraq/Afghanistan)

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the governing power decided to deal with guerrilla fighters with the strategy of eliminating the insurgency rather than terrorism. The focus is no longer on eliminating the enemy but focusing on winning the population and isolating the insurgency by setting up local security forces in the cities and so, cutting off support for gangs, instead of chasing gangs throughout the state. The military force will, in addition, provide urban dwellers stability and protection, also training local security forces as a form of empowerment.

After a while, the military force will start to retreat slowly, giving the gangs a limited number of choices, either to accept living far away in remote areas where they will be out of reach of any support, so when they appear in the cities, seeking support, they become an easy target to kill and hunt. Unfortunately, however, it is the gangs that are killing the people of the country, either by mistake or on purpose (as a punishment for cooperation with foreign military powers). The people of the country therefore become resentful, not only to the gangs, but also to the intervening military power, and so, popular support diminishes. So, it becomes obvious that a multi-faceted approach should prioritize the strategy.

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Very few counter-insurgencies have ended successfully. In Afghanistan and Iraq, guerrilla fighters usually receive arms from richer supporting elements and so; have resilient advantages in the war. This includes the fact that they are fighting in their country, which they know and understand better than the intruder. At the strategic level, counter-insurgency warfare is a defensive war, and as a result, another advantage is that the attacking force will find it difficult to overcome the fact that the local population will always resent an invading force. Winning the local support is thus the most important and most difficult goal of any counter-insurgency war.

In the rugged region of Afghanistan and rural Iraq, guerrilla groups have benefited from the familiar environment by effectively disrupting the intervening military forces. In addition, the military forces have more restrictions, including their rules of engagements and agreements like that of the Geneva Convention, than the insurgents Iraq and Afghanistan utilize when at war or when dealing with the local population.

The Taliban have been known for their cruel methods of justice, where Iraqi guerrillas have killed civilians with suicide bombings. In both countries, the military forces have developed infrastructure projects, helped fight poverty, and even gave candy to children, but they still failed to win the people’s hearts and minds because of the excessive killing associated with air and ground attacks. The most important point is that the foreign invader, who is trying to be more compassionate and involved, remains a foreign aggressor.

History shows that the presence or intervention of foreigners ignites the flames of any rebellion, which is then described as defending the state against external aggression. In Iraq, military power was able to take advantage of the brutal killings of civilians by al-Qaeda to split Sunni and Shiite guerrillas. The problem in Iraq is that as the number of military forces declines, the insurgency develops as it takes advantage of the political vacuum, turning into a civil war between sectarian, Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish groups.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban are indisputably savage, but the Afghans see the foreign military forces as an alien occupier with long-term military presence, and so, do not support the surge and do not believe it will defeat the Taliban. Thus, could consider supporting a negotiation with the rebels. The expectations are not good either way.​​

The control of the insurgency both in Iraq and Afghanistan remains difficult because of the circumstances experienced by both countries. However, the counter-insurgency results in Iraq were better than the counter-insurgency results in Afghanistan, where the government’s cooperation with the intervening military force in Iraq was an important reason for the success of some counter-insurgencies during the period of increasing the military forces post 9/11. The Iraqi government was far from perfect, however. Comparing the Iraqi government with that of the Afghani shows favorable to Iraq, as the Afghan government has proved unable or unwilling to act against the controllers of the war who have strengthened their position in recent years.

Another factor is the ability of the military force in Iraq to exploit the emerging dispute between al-Qaeda and Sunni tribes in some provinces. This is due to the division making the counter-insurgency operations simple, however, the military has not found a similar situation in Afghanistan, meaning that more counter-insurgency operations had to be carried out in Afghanistan in comparison to Iraq. Attempts to create domestic counter-insurgency affiliates in Afghanistan have failed, and local military forces lack the necessary unity of leadership and training, which in turn has resulted in a lack of discipline, accountability, and effectiveness.

Success in Counter Insurgency

Success in counter-insurgency is about the defeat of the enemy and winning the people’s hearts and minds. Military power is required in some cases, however, there is a limit to using power to defeat the enemy. Intelligence, clear political aim, securing the population, patience, adaptability, and propaganda are the keys to making a successful counter-insurgency no matter how hard and complicated the insurgent situation is.

The successful planning of counter-insurgency operations depends largely on knowing the rebels’ intentions and background, and it is the intelligence that provides the leader with that information. This denotes the importance of intelligence in counter-insurgency operations.

Securing the population is one of the most important elements of successful counter-insurgency operations because protecting the people increases trust between the population and the military force, which makes the job easier for the troops.

The counter-insurgency war consists of a clear political aim as part of a state administration, for its foreign and sometimes even internal affairs therefore the clear political aim is an important principle of counter-insurgency warfare. The political objective must be clear, military operations begin their tasks for many purposes and goals, is the goal to destroy the opponent? Or pressure it? Or strike it? Or eliminate the opponent state? The political aim here must be clear and easy to understand so it can be transformed to the military forces to set the goal of military action based on their military capabilities.

Patience in counter-insurgency operations is another key reason for the success of counter-insurgency warfare. It is clear that a counter-insurgency needs a long time to adapt to the surrounding environment and the local population, also understand insurgent ideas and carefully study the rebel tactics.

Adaptability is vital, as military forces have to understand the enemy well and make the surrounding environment for their benefit where adapting to the environment is in their favor, and so increases the success of achieving their goals in counter-insurgency operations. Understanding the enemy plays a major role in counter-insurgency operations where it is easy for the military forces to fight the rebels even in difficult circumstances.

Propaganda or winning the hearts and minds of the population lays the backbone for a successful counter-insurgency operation. Propaganda spreads rapidly in the region and must be keen to spread positive thinking peacefully to win the hearts and minds of the people.


It is important to recognize that the decision to intervene in Afghanistan and Iraq, although both counter-insurgency campaigns are strategically differently implemented and considered. Thus, the use of these examples as a study of counter-insurgency is useful to acknowledge that no two counter-insurgency campaigns are the same.

Counter-insurgency differs from other civilian and military operations, both in methods used and in terms of purpose. The actual goal of counter-insurgency is to build public support for a government that suppresses insurgent movements. It is clear that counter-insurgency is a response to a specific set of insurgent threats and requires an in-depth assessment of threats based on a solid understanding of the relevant social, cultural, economic, political, and security conditions, as well as detailed knowledge of the insurgents like their motives, objectives, organization, and methods.

Success in counter-insurgency is complex but using the right tactics and taking the knowledge and experiences of previous counter-insurgency operations such as winning people’s hearts and other factors may facilitate the success of counter-insurgency operations in the future.

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