Introduction: Case Studies in Colonial Counter-Insurgency

Bruce Collins


This issue of the journal is dedicated to articles on the history of colonial counter-insurgency. The whole subject has become increasingly controversial, with interest in part sparked by the Western interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The re-emergence of interest in counter-insurgency doctrine has been well-documented in recent work by, for example, Keith L. Shimko for the United States and Michael Finch for France and in a thorough historiographical review by Ian Beckett for the United Kingdom. A simplified summary might run on the lines that nineteenth-century interest in counter-insurgency operations was limited essentially to the application of light infantry tactics to such campaigns, with the addition of political efforts to win over selected tribal leaders. The French developed arguments that their colonial order also advanced a civilising mission, while the British claimed that their rule would promote economic progress and good governance. A more systematic study of counter-insurgency did not emerge until the decolonisation campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s. Interest then receded during the 1980s, partly under the pressure of the challenges of the intensified Cold War and partly because Western colonies had largely disappeared. The Americans in particular wanted no more Vietnams and the British had the very special 'urban guerrilla' campaign of Northern Ireland to manage. Such indifference, however, turned into occasionally frenetic interest from 2004 in reaction to the insurgencies against Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan and the proliferation of non-state militias and armies particularly in the Muslim world. Given this revived interest in counter-insurgency, Geraint Hughes’s paper on the wider question of military interventionism provides an incisive analysis of the context in which the case-studies of colonial counter-insurgency may be placed and an assessment of the many forms which interventions can take. Another purpose of this issue is to stress how widespread colonial counter-insurgency was. We have deliberately sought a range of national case-studies. In this regard, Thijs Brocades Zaalberg’s paper is particularly valuable in providing a re-assessment of the typically overlooked effort by the Netherlands to crush the independence movement and restore its authority in the Dutch East Indies after 1945.

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