Counterinsurgency Warfare and the Importance of Political Action

This short paper examines David Gulula’s theory, which emphasizes the relative importance of political activity versus pure military force in defeating a full-blown insurgency.

Counterinsurgency Warfare and the Importance of Political Action

By Tom White

Since the time of the zealots, governments have wrestled with insurgents who have relied upon a strategy of terrorism intent on inflicting chaos and insecurity on society. Unlike conventional warfare that utilizes a strong military response, counterinsurgency requires different strategies. In counterinsurgency warfare, political action is the most important factor for defeating an insurgency, especially when linked with the effective use of the military forces.

One strong advocate for political response over a pure military response to insurgency was David Galula.  Galula was a French military officer and scholar who became quite influential in developing theories and practices for conducting counterinsurgency warfare.  His extensive military experience fighting irregular wars in China, Greece, Indochina, and Algeria led to his promoting an insurgency doctrine which emphasized political activity over the sole use of conventional military forces in defeating a full blown insurgency. Galula’s theory is derived from his belief that all power resides within the political sphere, and therefore every action is political.

The regime in power must engage in a balanced use of political action and military action to try to maintain their power, while dealing with an insurgency. Therefore Galula argues that the intricate interplay “between the political and the military actions which cannot be tidily separated”[1], must be constantly “weighed with regard to its political effects.”[2] Galula argues that conventional forces “are too prone to emphasize offensive actions…rather than the predominately political, economic, and security requirements upon which the ultimate defeat of the insurgency depends.”[3] Furthermore, use of military action alone can be easily exploited by an insurgency and turn the population against the regime. This is not to suggest that the use of conventional forces for maintaining political power cannot work, because as Gulula points out that is how regimes such as the Kadar’s of Hungary remained in power. However Gulula is quick to point out that a “policy of pure force could bring at best a precarious return to the status quo ante, a state of perpetual tension, not lasting peace.”[4] It is therefore important for a counterinsurgency to utilize a balanced political approach, while avoiding heavy-handed military tactics which will play into the hands of the insurgents.

The most successful counterinsurgency approach, according to Gulula, is finding a political program which will “take as much wind as possible out of the insurgent’s sails.”[5] To accomplish this task the political program should focus on a series of reforms which will undermine the insurgency. The timing of reforms, however, is critical; if done too hastily they can be construed as a sign of weakness and exploited by the insurgency. On the other hand, if the announcement of reforms is delayed too long, then the desired effect of winning the population over will be diminished. Just as in the case of a well-balanced and measured military approach as a political tool, political action alone can also produce positive results, timing being the key.

In trying to formulate an effective strategy which will defeat an insurgency the application of military force alone is ineffective, and at best produces precarious results. Therefore according to Galula, the most effective strategy should be one which emphasizes a political response that utilizes a well-balanced military force, because that approach holds the greatest promise for winning over the populace and ultimately the goal of preserving political power.


Galula, David. Counterinsurgency Warfare Westport: Praeger Security International, 2006.


[1] David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare (Westport: Praeger Security International, 2006), 5

[2] Ibid

[3] Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare,  viii

[4] Ibid, 72

[5] Ibid


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