An Assessment of Population Relocation in 21st Century Counterinsurgencies

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which runs from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.

Sam Canter is an Infantry Officer in the United States Army and has completed an MA in Military History at Norwich University, where his thesis focused on the failures of the Revolution in Military Affairs.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government any organization, or any group.

Title:  An Assessment of Population Relocation in 21st Century Counterinsurgencies

Date Originally Written:  March 28, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  May 6, 2019.

Summary:  Despite its endlessly debated efficacy, population relocation represents a frequently employed method of counterinsurgency warfare. Notwithstanding the military usefulness of this technique, its deployment in the 21st century is increasingly tied to questions of human rights and international law. As other methods of counterinsurgency fail, population relocation will continue to hold the fascination of military planners, even as it grows increasingly controversial.

Text:  No domain of military operations has proven quite as difficult for Western nations to master as counterinsurgency operations (COIN). Many different techniques have been brought to bear in efforts to defeat insurgencies, stabilize governments, and pacify local populations. Historically, one of the most frequently employed techniques in COIN operations is population relocation[1]. Either through brute force or more subtle coercion, this technique entails physically removing a segment of the population from the battlefield, with the purpose of depriving insurgents of their logistical and moral support base.

On a fundamental level, this population relocation makes perfect military sense. In a traditional COIN campaign, insurgents and opposing military forces compete for the “hearts and minds” of a population. For occupying forces, this technique contains a fundamental military flaw: electing to directly engage an enemy in a domain in which they possess an absolute advantage – culturally, linguistically, and fraternally. Population relocation, therefore, represents an asymmetric tactic. Rather than engage the enemy in a favorable domain, a conventional force physically alters the military paradigm by changing the human terrain. Relocating the population theoretically allows for more conventional methods of warfare to take place.

Regardless of the military wisdom of population relocation as a tactic, broader considerations inevitably come into play. The moral and legal issues associated with population relocation naturally invite condemnation from the larger international community. There are negative connotations – both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union practiced forced population relocation with genocidal results. Given the history of population relocation, this practice is unpalatable and unacceptable to the vast majority of Western nations. The United Nations considers forced evictions a violation of human rights, except in rare cases of “public interest” and “general welfare[2].” A COIN campaign might well meet that rare case bar, but it remains an open question if such a policy – even well-intended – can ever be enacted without force.

A recent example of population relocation viewed through a human right lens occurred in Egypt. To combat the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt engaged in concerted efforts to remove the insurgent group’s local base of support. However, within the context of a COIN paradigm, Egypt’s efforts represented a fifty percent solution of sorts. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, Egypt has demolished almost 7,000 buildings in the Sinai, with virtually no efforts made to relocate those displaced, many of whom do not support the Islamic State[3]. In the absence of a practical and humane relocation plan, it is difficult to discern what Egypt hopes to accomplish. While Egypt is not a Western nation and is not necessarily bound by the moral or political consideration that Western democracies are, from a purely practical standpoint their relocation efforts have achieved little other than inviting international condemnation. Even so, given that Egypt’s efforts took place within the context of a legitimate COIN campaign – rather than a wholesale ethnic slaughter as a COIN tactic, such as recently occurred in Myanmar – their case is illustrative of the inherent tension in executing population relocation[4].

For Western nations, political tensions largely outweigh purely military considerations. In Afghanistan – the proving ground for North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries to execute COIN operations – population relocation has proven unviable for many reasons. Certainly, the culture, history, and geography of Afghanistan do nothing to suggest that such a tactic would succeed. Unlike the British experience in Malaya during the 1950s – usually cited as the textbook example of successful resettlement – attempts to implement population relocation would alienate the Afghan people, in addition to encountering a myriad of practical difficulties[5]. Therefore, the opportunity for Western nations to implement a “case study” of sorts in Afghanistan did not present itself. The United States instead recalls the failed legacy of the Strategic Hamlet program in Vietnam as its most recent military experience with population relocation[6].

With all this considered, it is quite evident that in the 21st century, population relocation as a COIN tool has been the purview of some less than exemplary militaries and has remained mostly unpracticed by Western nations. However, this does not necessarily forbid its use in a future COIN operation. If population relocation is to prove viable in the future, a series of conditions must be met to make this course of action suitable to the problem at hand, feasible to implement, and acceptable to Western governments and the international community.

In pursuit of population relocation efforts that are politically acceptable, first, the population must be amenable to such a move. This scenario will only result from the satisfaction of two sub-conditions. The population selected for relocation must be actively seeking greater security and lack historical ties to the land which they inhabit, factors which may preclude this tactic’s use in agrarian societies. Only upon meeting this condition can population relocation efforts avoid the condemnation of the international community. Second, before any attempts to implement this program, a site for relocation or integration will already need to exist. Ideally, the move to a new location should also equate to an increased standard of living for those resettled. Last, verifiable forms of identification are vital, as the process of separating insurgents from the general population must remain the central focus. It is crucial that those practicing COIN not underestimate the level of local support for an insurgency, as these techniques only stand a chance of success if the locals’ primary motivation is one of safety and security rather than cultural loyalty and ideology.

These are high standards to meet, but given the bloody history associated with population relocation, they are wholly appropriate. In COIN operations, many analyze the concept of asymmetry from the standpoint of the insurgent, but asymmetric tactics have a role for conventional occupying forces as well. If insurgents possess an absolute advantage in the human domain, then it is merely foolish for counter-insurgents to engage in direct competition. Therefore, and in the absence of other asymmetric practices, population relocation may still have some utility as a 21st century COIN practice, but only in scenarios that favor its use from a combined moral, legal, and practical standpoint.


[1] Examples in the 20th century include South Africa, the Philippines, Greece, Malaya, Kenya, Algeria and Vietnam among others. For a cogent examination of the effects of these various campaigns, see Sepp, Kalev I. (1982). Resettlement, Regroupment, Reconcentration: Deliberate Government-Directed Population Relocation in Support of Counter-Insurgency Operations. Fort Leavenworth, KS: Command and General Staff College.

[2] United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights. (2014). Forced Evictions (Fact Sheet No. 25/Rev. 1). New York, NY: United Nations.

[3] Human Rights Watch. (May 22, 2018). Egypt: Army Intensifies Sinai Home Demolitions. Retrieved March 28, 2018, from

[4] Rowland, Sarah. (2018) The Rohingya Crisis: A Failing Counterinsurgency. Small Wars Journal. Retrieved March 31, 2018, from

[5] For an analysis of Malaya as a prototypical COIN operation, see Hack, Karl. (2009). The Malayan Emergency as counter-insurgency paradigm. Journal of Strategic Studies, 32(3), 383–414.

[6] Leahy, Peter Francis. (1990). Why Did the Strategic Hamlet Program Fail? Fort Leavenworth, KS: Command and General Staff College.

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