Book Review: The Thai Way of Counterinsurgency by Jeff M. Moore PhD

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Anybody who has read this blog over the past few years will know that I am not a big fan of COIN doctrine as currently espoused by the US Army.  My objections to COIN are mainly that it doesn’t work, not because the US gets it wrong but because the US is the wrong vehicle to execute the COIN fight in a foreign land.  Foreigners are automatically hamstrung in implementing a successful COIN strategy by the fact that they are foreigners and my argument is that history shows that.  Dr. Moore’s book, The Thai Way of Counterinsurgency illustrates another example of successful COIN waged by indigenous troops.

First, the facts.  The book is 372 pages of text separated into 4 parts with a glossary, notes, and references section.  There are also a series of maps and charts in the introduction.  The four parts are topical with the first detailing the historical context of Thai internal governance and development.  The second through fourth detail the three insurgencies that the Thai government has defeated since the 1960s.

Dr. Moore presents an interesting revision of the current COIN paradigm in his COIN pantheon that graphically illustrates the relationship of the various factors of a successful COIN strategy.  It is an interesting and slightly different way of analyzing COIN operations and assessing their effectiveness while also providing a model for how to develop a successful COIN strategy.  The only criticism I have of the model is that I don’t think it stresses the legitimacy of COIN forces enough as I believe that the legitimacy of COIN forces or the lack of legitimacy is THE key factor in whether a COIN strategy will succeed.  I further believe that true legitimacy can only come from indigenous forces and the government, it cannot be imposed from outside the indigenous population.  That inherent lack of legitimacy of foreign forces is the single key factor why US COIN efforts have continually failed to succeed.  Intent does not matter in COIN, perceptions do.

The three insurgencies that the Thai government has faced down since the 1960s are a communist insurgency from 1960-1985 and two ethnic Malay insurgencies from 1980-1998 and 2004-the present.  He provides detailed narratives of all three insurgencies and the work benefits greatly because he interviewed the principle actors in the COIN efforts of the central government.  As you read the narrative accounts one thing is paramount, government legitimacy.  As the COIN efforts became more successful this is invariably after the government stepped up efforts to improve government legitimacy in the eyes of the people.  This is true whether it was government efforts to improve the economic lot of hill tribesman and enforce the rule of law in the north against the communists or efforts to include the majority Muslim Malay in the administration of their own territory while working with the central government in the south.

Dr. Moore is entirely correct to note that combat against insurgents is at best a minor (but important) part of COIN.  The most important part of COIN is getting local buy-in to the central government.  The Thais, despite some initial failings and disjointed efforts at the outset of their COIN efforts seem to have grasped this in the implementation of their successful COIN strategies.  This is not to say the Thai did not get outside assistance, they did, but it came in the form of assistance that was largely invisible to the population.  What the population in the Insurgent areas saw was the Thai government and its representatives making things better and removing the grounds for insurgency.  That is the hallmark of how to successfully implement COIN.  It is also a lesson US planners seem to have never learned, as long as the US continues to visibly prop up corrupt and unpopular regimes they will not be successful at COIN.

This is a very well written book and should probably be on a professional reading list or two, most notably the SOCOM reading list.  Dr. Moore has presented a vivid portrait of what successful, indigenous COIN operations can and should look like.  It can be dry in places but overall the narrative flows well.  I highly recommend this book for anyone that wants to know what COIN should look like.