The Colonial Lineages of the New Counterinsurgency

Ryan Toews


The aftermath of the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq led to a new emphasis on population-centric counterinsurgency. This ‘population-centric’ approach has a history in both the colonial warfare practices of the 19th and early 20th century as France and Britain, in particular, extended their imperial rule, and in the response to communist and nationalist insurgencies that challenge colonial rule and American backed regimes after World War Two. Contemporary counterinsurgency proponents are quite aware of this history and evaluate and justify the doctrine explicitly through its adherence to principles and practices discovered by previous colonial and counterinsurgent practitioners. They also frame counterinsurgency as an approach forgotten by contemporary militaries obsessed with conventional warfare, and thus argue for the recovery of this history to address the contemporary challenges posed to US power by a so-called ‘Long War’ of terrorism and insurgency that is understood by counterinsurgents to have been a result of globalization.

Counterinsurgency, like its colonial forbearers was not just about crushing resistance, but was self consciously intended to be ‘productive’ of societies and institutions conducive to capital accumulation that could be integrated into the economy of the imperial center. This broadens the focus of counterinsurgency from violence to issues of governance, state-building and development. In this sense, counterinsurgency is also about the overcoming barriers to capital accumulation. This article will locate the lineages that link current counterinsurgency doctrine to its broader history, and examine the way that history informs the new doctrine with a particular focus on its ‘productive’ side.