Re-post: The Rhodesian Counterinsurgency, Failure to Adapt and a New Marine Corps Doctrine

Re-post: The Rhodesian Counterinsurgency, Failure to Adapt and a New Marine Corps Doctrine

I have a specific project going for the wife and work commitments so we are going to have to have a re-post while I get caught up. I have been able to keep the sidebar up to date in the What Others are Writing section so you can always go there for new content! In the mean time, here is a re-post of one of our most read articles in case you missed it.

The goal for today was a Speaker Series article about China. A couple days ago I watched a FRONTLINE episode titled China Undercover and it was a great production about horrible actions and the intent was to write an article about Human Rights violations in China. I worked the better part of yesterday afternoon researching and reading. Unfortunately there were plenty of horrific examples to choose from, Human Rights Watch: China’s Global Threat to Human Rights, NBCNEWS: China forcefully harvests organs from detainees, tribunal concludes, New York Times: The Xinjiang Papers: ‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims and China Wants the World to Stay Silent on Muslim Camps. It’s Succeeding. This list goes on but while I was trying to go to sleep, I was struggling with the question why. Why or how is this important to today’s warfighter? I couldn’t come up with an adequate answer unless it could be tied to a grand strategy so, I shelved it, for now. Maybe I will come back to it but its going to require more development.

As I was laying there, all I could think about was adaptability. Kilcullen’s book, which we have discussed here and here, has been on my mind and I could not shake the thought of a paper I wrote on the Rhodesian Counterinsurgency, which we briefly touched on here . How The Selous Scouts continuously adapted and how the Army studied their methods but was either slow to implement or outright rejected some of recommendations from their own study. I was struggling with why. Why would you study something and not implement things that were proven successful?

I had decided to modify that paper and post it here to get your thoughts when an advisor to this this project sent me a link to an article on titled After Mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, Marines Create New Learning Doctrine. Interesting…we will discuss the article after my short paper.

The Rhodesian Counterinsurgency

The Rhodesian Counterinsurgency has been considered one of the most successful counterinsurgency campaigns in the modern era. [1] While this counterinsurgency campaign was ultimately not successful it can provide a case study to as to why certain tactics were chosen and how they were implemented. To properly understand the countermeasures to the insurgency we must first briefly explore the background of the protracted struggle.

Rhodesia was a former British Colony that began the process of seeking independence in the 1960s. [2] In November 1965 the Rhodesian Prime Minister unilaterally declared independence from Great Brittan. [3,4] This action provoked a trade embargo from England and in 1968, economic sanctions from the United Nations. [5] The embargo and sanctions would severely limit the Rhodesian’s access to funds and equipment. [6, 7] Two principle black nationalists movements grew out of the quest for independence, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU and reorganized as ZIPRA) were primarily sponsored by the Soviet Union and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU and reorganized as ZANLA) who were primarily trained in insurgent tactics by Chinese sponsors. [8] Both organizations utilized areas of sanctuary in the adjacent countries of Mozambique, Zambia and Botswana however, the ZIPRA employed mostly conventional tactics while the ZANLA utilized the Mao inspired insurgent tactics of rural support. [9] The Rhodesian government was severely outnumbered and had limited resources due to the embargo and economic sanctions. However, the South African government did provide access to some fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft. [10, 11] These limitations forced the Rhodesian government to rely on simple cost-effective tactics preferred in low intensity conflicts. [12]

The counter measures chosen by the Rhodesian government included the use of communist guerillas that had been turned to fight against their former comrades and employed as a military tracking unit called the Selous Scouts. [13] The Scouts would be employed along border towns sent into villages and gather information on the terrorist activities there which provided the indispensable human intelligence for follow on operations. These tracking units also worked in three groups, one tracking the terrorists, while one group followed the trail backwards in hopes to intercept additional terrorists and a third that would leap frog in front in an attempt to pick up the trail more quickly. [14] In addition, the Rhodesian police force created Urban Emergency Units used to quell riots, relied on an extensive intelligence network primarily sourced by informants and created an effective public awareness campaign. [15] These countermeasures and the use of security guards to control access to shopping centers enabled the police to completely stifle insurgent activities in Rhodesian cities.  [16] To combat landmines, engineers developed several modifications such as filling tires with water and air, attaching a ‘V’ shaped hull to the vehicle chassis and tires that would easily blow off the vehicles thereby reducing casualties by 90 percent and injuries by 20 percent. [17] The Rhodesian military also aggressively employed special operations forces in cross border raids that killed more than 4,000 insurgents, destroyed assets, conducted kidnappings and targeted assassinations. [18]

The Rhodesian counterinsurgency, while ultimately not successful, displayed many innovative techniques on a limited budget. While vastly outnumbered they managed to repel the insurgents for more than 15 years with 7 years of heavy fighting. Driven mostly by cost restraints due to economic sanctions and inferior numbers due to limited popular support the government was successful for so long because they used many of the same techniques like civilian dress, sneakers, living off of the land and limited amounts of gear as the insurgents used. [19] The effective employment of human intelligence derived from turned insurgents and an extensive urban network of informants was invaluable to their success. While the counterinsurgency was not successful primarily due to overwhelming numbers, foreign sponsorship and terror safe havens, many lessons can be applied to the multiple low intensity conflicts of today.

Slow to change

After re-reading the paper I realized that a lot more of the countermeasures recommended in the Rand Study were implemented in and during the troop surge. But, as someone who was there during the ramp up in violence in 2004-2006, these changes were slow and cost many lives considering the study was completed in 1991! The Rhodesians faced overwhelming numbers and on a shoestring budget lasted 15 years. The similarities are stark. Why were we so slow to adapt?

I believe that Kilcullen nails this in Chapter 2 of his book The Dragons and The Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West in which he discusses the Adaptive Enemy. The enemy faces various mechanisms of evolution in irregular warfare or “Combat Darwinism.” Kilcullen states the insurgents have learned through Social Learning, Natural Selection in Irregular Warfare, Artificial Selection and Institutional Adaption. These are processes of evolution that the allied troops really did not face. Our attrition was high, but not so high as to quickly force change. In my opinion, unsuccessful leaders were often left in place instead of immediately removed due to relatively short deployments and a touch of careerism. After almost 20 years of fighting, I think that it is safe to say that overall, we were unprepared for an insurgency and slow to adapt to the changing environment.

Marines Create a New Learning Doctrine

Which brings us back to the article introduced near the beginning of this post. Gina Harkins writes:

If military leaders had properly studied the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq upfront, the wars might have been more successful, said a Marine two-star general who oversees the service’s training and education command.

That’s one of the reasons the Marine Corps has its first new doctrinal publication in nearly two decades. The 81-page doctrine lays out a path for creating a culture of learning throughout Marines’ careers — driven, in part, by missteps military leaders have made during the country’s longest war. [emphasis mine]

Maj. Gen. William Mullen continues…

Lessons from the Vietnam War, Mullen told reporters Tuesday, should have better informed strategy after 9/11.

“The frustrating part was we had similar problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I kept thinking to myself, ‘We really have learned much,'” he said. “So that goes back to … how do we get Marines to understand the why behind learning?”

The new learning doctrine

is centered around the warfighter. It includes sections on problem solving, professional expectations, creating good learning environments, and the role leaders play in promoting professional learning through example.

Here is the Forward of the New Marine Corps Doctrine in its entirety:

The purpose of this publication is to describe the Marine Corps’ learning philosophy and explain why learning is critically important to the profession of arms. While many of the concepts in this publication have been passed on by Marine leaders throughout our history, this publication seeks to formalize them and provide aspirational goals. Learning is an institutional priority and a professional expectation for all Marines. This mentality is key to the Marine Corps becoming a more effective learning organization.

The most important factor in this philosophy is the importance of continuous learning throughout our careers for warfighting. Continuous learning is essential to maneuver warfare because it enables Marines to quickly recognize changing conditions in the battlespace, adapt, and make timely decisions against a thinking enemy. These skills required in war must be learned, developed, and honed over time—if neglected, they quickly atrophy. Marines leverage the art and science of learning, technologies, and learning environments that reflect the changing operational environment to tailor learning and provide each other with constructive feedback. Leaders hold Marines to high professional standards of performance, conduct, and discipline—to include learning. As Marines rise in rank and position, continuous learning and developing our professional skills are a professional expectation. We must make the most of every learning opportunity, fostering our subordinates’ learning while continuing our own.

Continuous learning is important to Marines because of the fundamental nature of war and its ever-changing character. The nature of war carries a combination of fear, uncertainty, ambiguity, chance, horror and, above all, friction that Marines must prepare to counter. Marines must seek out education and training opportunities that simulate these conditions. We must train how we fight. As Marines, we must understand how important learning is and be committed to the principles laid out in this publication. Our professional responsibility—as Marines—is to engage in continuous learning so that we may best support our fellow Marines, our Corps, and our Nation

But will it work? I think we are all hopeful that it will and I am trying to do my part here with this site. But if adaptability and a willingness to change as the situation dictates is not embraced at all levels, then I am afraid that we will continue to be bogged down and only react to what the more agile enemy is inflicting upon us. It is my belief that the Military at all levels, needs to be more informed, more mentally agile, more innovative, more adaptable and I think this doctrine, if embraced, is a good start. I, for one, have hope, and some reading to do


Works Cited

[1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 10, 19] Bruton, James K. (March 1979) Military Review, Counterinsurgency in Rhodesia. Weblog post retrieved November 17, 2018 from:

[3, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18] Hoffman, Bruce et al (July 31, 1991) Rand: Lessons for Contemporary Counter Insurgencies, The Rhodesian Experience. Weblog post retrieved November 17, 2018 from:

[13] Murphy, Jack (November 7, 2011) The Selous Scouts, a uniquely Rhodesian solution to counter insurgency.  Weblog post retrieved November 17, 2018 from:

12 thoughts on “Re-post: The Rhodesian Counterinsurgency, Failure to Adapt and a New Marine Corps Doctrine

  1. Reply
    Claudia Clement
    May 27, 2020 at 4:36 PM

    Hi, We are wondering if you would be interested in our service, where we can provide you with a dofollow link from Amazon (DA 96) back to

    The price is just $87 per link, via Paypal.

    To explain what DA is and the benefit for your website, along with a sample of an existing link, please read here:

    If you’d be interested in learning more, reply to this email but please make sure you include the word INTERESTED in the subject line field.

    Kind Regards,

  2. Reply
    When Two Projects Collide: Two Paths to Victory in the New Great Game | The Cognitive Warrior Project
    May 28, 2020 at 5:51 AM

    […] idea of another China article for a while and briefly touched on this topic in our discussion about adaptability. There exists two very different paths to victory in The New Great Game. Which are we going to […]

  3. Reply
    June 1, 2020 at 7:02 PM

    Like!! I blog frequently and I really thank you for your content. The article has truly peaked my interest.

  4. Reply
    June 1, 2020 at 10:38 PM

    Like!! Great article post.Really thank you! Really Cool.

  5. Reply
    June 1, 2020 at 10:39 PM

    A big thank you for your article.

  6. Reply
    June 1, 2020 at 10:40 PM

    A big thank you for your article.

  7. Reply
    June 7, 2020 at 7:30 PM

    I am regular visitor, how are you everybody? This article posted at this web site is in fact pleasant.

  8. Reply
    June 7, 2020 at 8:01 PM

    I always spent my half an hour to read this web site’s articles or reviews daily along with a mug of coffee.

  9. Reply
    June 14, 2020 at 2:13 PM

    I used to be able to find good info from your blog posts.

  10. Reply
    June 14, 2020 at 2:16 PM

    Your site is very helpful. Many thanks for sharing!

  11. Reply
    sikis izle
    November 14, 2020 at 1:00 AM

    Perfectly written written content, Really enjoyed looking through. Goldina Ginger Archer

  12. Reply
    November 16, 2020 at 11:53 AM

    Hello mates, good paragraph and good urging commented here, I am genuinely enjoying by these.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *