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Counterinsurgency Reading List | Hand of Reason

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Counterinsurgency Reading List

Note: This is very much a work in progress, there are numerous sources and material for those seeking to deepen their knowledge of counterinsurgency (COIN).  The material I have included below merely reflects the sources I’m currently familiar with. For the moment, this list will be fairly informal and includes some speculation. Please feel free to correct me if a judgement of mine is skewed. I by no means espose to be an expert on COIN. For a more authoritative reading list, I recommend Andrew Exum’s reading list or the Annotated Bibliography of The U.S Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Service members will find LtGen James Mattis’ reading list particularly helpful.

The Classics

Galula, David. Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice: Galula’s book is cited frequently and considered one of the foundational pieces of counteirnsurgency theory. Drawing from his experiences of irregular wars in China, Greece, Indochina, and Algeria, Galula provides an easy read for those new to COIN. Keep in mind that Galula developed theory that does not account for a host nation and occupying powers like the current conflict in Afghanistan, his experience was restricted to colonial powers. Nevertheless, Galula’s book is an excellent place to start for learning about COIN as it is both a quick and easy read.

Robert, Sir Thompson. Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam: The other pivotal work for COIN theory. While I haven’t read it, Thompson is cited frequently and I’ll be looking to get my hands on a copy.



Lawrence, T. E. “The Evolution of a Revolt”: Instead of reading the book, download this PDF for the key points of Lawrence’s argument. This article of T.E. Lawrence synthesizes the lessons of COIN from his Seven Pillars of Wisdom and will let you skip the rest. It’s only about 20 pages and is critical to developing an understanding of COIN.



Contemporary Theory

The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual: This is the commercially published version of Field Manual 3-24. There’s numerous versions of this manual floating around as PDFs so only purchase it if you absolutely want to. The manual can also be found on Scribd here. The first two chapters serve as an excellent introduction to the prevailing theory of COIN and should be read by everyone. Read the first two chapters in conjunction with Galula to get both perspectives. The rest of the manual is useful to those involved with counterinsurgency operations but may be a bit detailed for others.

O’Neill, Bard E. Insurgency & Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse: O’Neill gives a contemporary overview of COIN that’s highly accessible. For someone looking for a book that introduces concepts of COIN without getting too heavy on theory, this is probably one of the better choices. I’ve read portions of of the book and will post my review and summary when they’re done.

Colonel Hammes, Thomas X. The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century: I have read Colonel Hammes work but it was some time ago. If I remember correctly, he focused on the evolution of warfare through four stages with the fourth stage being asymmetric conflicts. I’m planning on doing a close reading of it and will post my summary and review as soon as it’s done.

Kalyvas, Stathis N. The Logic of Violence in Civil War: Cited by both Nagl and Kilcullen as a source of theory for analyzing political violence, I’m expecting it to be very in-depth and heavy since it is usually assigned in graduate-level coursework. Once I’ve read it, I’ll post a more specific recommendation.

Kilcullen, David. The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One: This is Kilcullen’s first published book on COIN. If you’re seeking a quick overview of this book, watch the Authors@Google talk by Kilcullen which covers the main points. I haven’t read it yet but I’m curious to see how far Kilcullen advances COIN theory or if he simply adapts already established principles to modern circumstances.

Kilcullen, David. Authors@Google Talk: During a talk at Google, Killcullen gives an overview of the main points within The Accidental Guerrilla. If you’ve already read the book, skip to the 25 minute mark and catch the Q&A. The video also serves as an excellent introduction to COIN.

Kilcullen, David. Counterinsurgency: This is a collection of previously published work on COIN by Kilcullen and includes his “Twenty-Eight Articles” that went viral, his article “Globalization and the Development of Indonesian Counterinsurgency Tactics” which summarizes the research of his doctoral dissertation, a personal reflection of an operation on the border of East and West Timor, a keynote address given at the University of New South Wales, and finishes with “Countering Global Insurgency” which uses a systems analysis to formulate a more effective strategy for the War on Terror. Our full review and summary can be found here.

RAND. Reconstruction Under Fire: Unifying Civil and Military Counterinsurgency: RAND explores the civil componant of COIN and how civil operations can be conducted during an active insurgency. The recommendations of RAND include how to prioritize civil operations, allocate security forces, integrate security and civil operations, and other general requirements necessary for effective operations. RAND has also published a companion volume to Reconstruction Under Fire that focuses on three case studies: Nangarhar province in Afghanistan, Nord-Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Al Anbar province in Iraq. The full PDF is available for free through the link.

RAND. Victory Has a Thousand Fathers: Sources of Success in Counterinsurgency: For this report, RAND has used data from the 30 most recently resolved insurgencies to test basic tenets of COIN. The full PDF is available for free through the link. Even though importance of popular support is confirmed, the ability to deploy tangibles like personnel, resources, and financing is the single greatest indicator for success. A full PDF is available for free through the link.



Ricks, Thomas E. Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005: One of the most widely read books on the Iraq War and the subsequent insurgency. For much of the book, Ricks applies COIN theory to chronicle the initial mistakes made by the Bush Administration, even referencing Galula.

Ricks, Thomas E. The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008: The Gamble is the follow-up to Fiasco. While I haven’t read it yet, I’m expecting it to use similar analysis.

Ucko, David H. The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars: Ucko centers his work on how the United States has adapted to the the insurgency of Iraq. Historically, the United States Military has largely avoided learning COIN. Despite the apparent adaption over the course of the Iraq occupation, Ucko concludes that the United States Army continues to resist fundamental change that prioritizes COIN.




Peters, Gretchen. Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda: Peters provides a fairly thorough account of the narcotics dynamic within Afghanistan. She does not utilize COIN theory in her analysis but her work will prove useful for those seeking to better understand how narcotics impacts the populace and provides funding for the Taliban. Peters concludes that Afghanistan resembles the FARCO insurgency in Columbia more closely than Iraq. Our full review and summary can be found here.


Krepinevich, Andrew F. The Army and Vietnam: I have yet to read it but many consider it to be the seminal work on Vietnam as it directly contradicts the consensus that the failure of Vietnam resulted from political constraints, not strategy. Krepinevich, supposedly, analyzes Vietnam through a COIN lens and comes to a completely different conclusion.

Nagl, John A. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Half of Nagl’s book covers the American response in Vietnam while the other half covers the British response in Malaya. Nagl explores the strategic culture of both the American and British militaries for explanations on why one was able to adapt to an insurgency and the other wasn’t. This is a great starting point for anyone researching Vietnam, Malaya, or how militaries respond to insurgencies. Keep in mind that this is Nagl’s doctoral dissertation and contains a great deal of depth. We have a review and summary posted here.

El Salvador

Wood, Elisabeth Jean. Insurgent Collective Action and civil War in El Salvador: As I understand it, Wood has given a detailed account of a counterinsurgency campaign that can be described as an “advisor” or “indirect” approach. This kind of counterinsurgency utilizes small teams of US personnel to assist local forces in stabilizing an insurgency. I have yet to read it but am incredibly interested in any lessons that could be drawn from it.

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