Summary of "Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice"

Summary of

Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice

By David Galula

Summary written by Brett Reeder, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Galula, David, 1964, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, Praeger Security International, Westport, CT


It's hardly surprising that Counterinsurgency Warfare is often near the top of the reading list for contemporary military officers--even though it is over forty years old. Though many of its empirical examples are dated, its insights remain hauntingly relevant. It is still considered by many to be the "Bible" of counterinsurgency warfare. In it, Galula, a French military officer with experience in China, Greece, Southeast Asia, and Algeria, seeks to provide a "compass" for the counterinsurgent, much as Mao did for the revolutionary. This "compass" is comprised of the laws and principals of counterinsurgency warfare, and corresponding strategy and tactics.

He begins this task by describing the basic characteristics of revolutionary war in general, because an insurgency (along with revolution and coup d'etat) is thought to be a type of revolutionary warfare. While a revolution is a sudden and "accidental" mass movement and a plot (or coup) is an intentional effort to overthrow the top leadership in a swift action, an insurgency is intentional, but not swift. It is a protracted struggle conducted methodically in order to attain intermediary goals with an eventual aim of overthrowing the existing power structure. While the book is primarily concerned with insurgency, it often refers to both revolutions and plots as well.

A key characteristic of all three types of revolutionary warfare is their inherent asymmetry. Counterinsurgents hold a virtual monopoly on tangible assets, such as material resources and legitimate power. On the other hand, insurgents lack power, but have the advantage regarding intangible assets such as ideology and a general lack of responsibility. While counterinsurgents are powerful, they are obliged to uphold law and order, which limits their potential action. On the other hand, insurgents lack power, but they are much more free to violate both their promises and social norms. Insurgents also decide when and where the conflict will begin, since they become insurgents through their own contentious actions. Indeed, a counterinsurgency exists only in reaction to an insurgency. The asymmetric nature of this relationship requires the successful counterinsurgency to capitalize on its tangible advantages and limit the insurgent's ability to benefit from its intangible advantages.

The "Laws"

According to Galula, there are four "laws" of counterinsurgency.

  1. The first law is that the population is paramount. That is, the support of the people is the primary objective of a counterinsurgency campaign. Without the support of the population, it is impossible to root out all the insurgents and stop further recruitment.
  2. Such support is most readily obtained from an active minority. Those willing to actively support a counterinsurgency operation should be supported in their efforts to rally the relatively neutral majority and neutralize the hostile minority.
  3. Having attained the support of the population it is imperative to remember that this support is conditional. What you do matters, and support can be lost if your actions are unfavorable to the population.
  4. The fourth and final law of counterinsurgency regards the "intensity of effort and vastness of means." Because counterinsurgency requires a large concentration of effort, resources,and personnel, it is unlikely that it can be pursued effectively everywhere at once. Rather, action should be taken in select areas, and resources moved as needed. Thus, according to the laws of counterinsurgency, it is important to continuously make efforts at gaining and maintaining the support of the populace in distinct areas by leveraging an active minority.

Counterinsurgency "in the Cold"

As long as an insurgency's activities remain "on the whole legal and nonviolent," (p 43) the insurgency is referred to as "cold". When this is the case, the essential problem for the counterinsurgency is that the "actual danger will always appear to the nation as out of proportion to the demands made by an adequate response" (p 4.) That is, the response necessary to eliminate the insurgency is likely to be seen as excessive by the general population.

This leaves the counterinsurgents with four options (which are not mutually exclusive):

  1. They can act directly on the insurgent leaders,
  2. they can act indirectly on the conditions that are propitious to an insurgency,
  3. they can infiltrate the insurgent movement,
  4. or they can reinforce their own "Political Machine".

Acting directly on insurgent leaders (arresting them, or limiting their actions) is difficult in democracies and often backfires. Such direct action should only be attempted when the insurgent's cause in not popular, the counterinsurgent has the legal authority to act, and significant publicity of such action can be prevented.

Indirect action consists of either co-opting the insurgent's cause, or addressing the weaknesses of the state. A successful insurgency requires a viable cause to rally support. If the demands of an insurgent can be met through state action (without undermining its own authority) the insurgent is deprived of his/her cause. For example, insurgent farmers demanding land reform can be stripped of their cause when the state provides land reform. Unfortunately, an insurgent's cause is often impossible for a state to adopt, without relinquishing its power. In this case, indirect action can be taken to ensure that the judicial, police, and military institutions are strong (thus discouraging insurgent action).

The infiltration of an insurgency seeks to destroy it from within by turning it against itself. Though potentially quite effective, such action can backfire and anger the general population. The final option, strengthening or building the "political machine" of the state, consists of convincing the population to buy into the state's legitimacy and moral authority. While important in "cold" insurgencies, this is the primary activity of counterinsurgents in "hot" insurgencies.

Counterinsurgency "in the Heat"

As soon as an insurgent's activities become openly illegal and violent, it is considered "hot". In some ways, this aids a counterinsurgency because the "moral fog" surrounding the insurgents dissipates and the counterinsurgency is free to act more decisively. But decisive action does not necessarily mean military action. Indeed ,as Galula put it, "Essential though it is, the military action is secondary to the political one, its primary purpose being to afford the political power enough freedom to work safely with the population." (p 63)

Keeping this emphasis on political action and the laws of counterinsurgency in mind, Galula develops a comprehensive strategy for dealing effectively with hot insurgencies. His strategy is divided into eight steps:

  1. Concentrate enough armed forces to destroy or to expel the main body of armed insurgents.
  2. Detach for the area sufficient troops to oppose an insurgent's comeback in strength, install these troops in the hamlets, villages, and towns where the population lives.
  3. Establish contact with the population and control its movements in order to cut off its links with the guerillas
  4. Destroy the local insurgent political organizations
  5. Set up, by means of elections, new provisional local authorities.
  6. Test these authorities by assigning them various concrete tasks. Replace the softs and the incompetents, give full support of the active leaders. Organize self-defense units.
  7. Group and educate the leaders in a national political movement.
  8. Win over or suppress the last insurgent remnants.

Each of the steps is to be undertaken in a specific area (consistent with the fourth law) and then repeated in other areas as necessary. Though Galula presents this eight-step process as a guide to hot counterinsurgency operations, he is quick to point out, "Like every similar concept, this one may be sound in theory but dangerous when applied rigidly to a specific case." (p 56).


Having developed a strategic base for counterinsurgency, Galula turns his attention to tactics. While he acknowledges the importance of conventional military tactics in counterinsurgency, he focuses primarily on ways to build an effective "political machine" capable of garnering the support of the people. At the heart of this political machine is the development of a counterinsurgent cause (to compete with the insurgent cause). This requires political programs aimed at placating the insurgent's base. Such programs are often based on reason, and will be relatively ineffective in the early stages of an insurgency when "passion is the prime mover," but as the conflict progresses and the pragmatic implications of the war become the "the prime mover," rational programs which improve the lives of the populace will become highly persuasive.

The development of these programs requires a coordination of efforts on the part of the counterinsurgency. According to Galula, this coordination can be achieved through committees and integrated military-civilian hierarchies but, "more than anything else, a doctrine appears to be the practical answer to the problem of how to channel efforts in a single direction" (p 65). Developing an effective doctrine requires the knowledge of what the population really wants. To do so, it is necessary to keep a single static or holding force in place. This ensures that soldiers do not have to constantly relearn the cultural nuances of a local area. Further, the counterinsurgency must learn and adapt as it goes along. As such, the first area should be viewed as a test area in which policy is adapted to the reaction of the population. Lessons learned should then be rapidly applied to subsequent areas.


While insurgencies often fail on their own accord, "Relying on luck...does not constitute a policy." (p 47) This book seeks to take the luck out of counterinsurgency operations by defining "the laws of counterrevolutionary warfare, deduce from them its principles, and outline the corresponding strategy and tactics." In doing so Galula has provided a "compass" for counterinsurgency operations, giving them direction.

An essential aspect of this "compass" is the realization that public support for the state should be the primary goal of counterinsurgency and that this makes counterinsurgency operations above all, political operations. In this book, Galula provides the basic strategy and tactics necessary to successfully defeat insurgencies through the development of a "political machine" capable of garnering public support. However, he cautions that the lessons of this book do not guarantee success and that, "As long as the revolutionary situation exists, even in a dormant form, as long as the problem that gave rise to the insurgency has not been eliminated, the danger persists" (p 96).