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Pseudo Operations and Counterinsurgency: Lessons from Other Countries

Authored by Dr. Lawrence E. Cline. | June 2005

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Pseudo operations, in which government forces and guerrilla defectors portray themselves as insurgent units, have been a very successful technique used in several counterinsurgency campaigns. Pseudo teams have provided critical human intelligence and other support to these operations.

These operations, although of considerable value, also have raised a number of concerns. Their use in offensive missions and psychological operations campaigns has, at times, been counterproductive. In general, their main value has been as human intelligence collectors, particularly for long-term background intelligence or for identifying guerrilla groups that then are assaulted by conventional forces. Care must be taken in running these operations both to avoid going too far in acting like guerrillas, and in resisting becoming involved in human rights abuses.

Just who should control pseudo operations has been somewhat contentious, but the teams typically have worked for police services or intelligence agencies. This has been largely a result of weaknesses in the military intelligence system. Ideally, strengthening military intelligence structures to support pseudo operations would be the best solution since it would provide better connectivity between the pseudo teams and response forces.

Several factors have marked successful pseudo operations. First has been a system of incentives for insurgents to defect to the government. These incentives can be positive, usually monetary rewards for surrendering; or negative, causing insurgents to cooperate to avoid severe punishment. A mix of these forms has proven to be very effective, with very few incidents of insurgents redefecting to the guerrilla side. In general, the role of guerrilla defectors has been critical in successful operations.

A critical environmental factor enabling pseudo team success is weakness in insurgent command and communications systems. Pseudo forces can thrive in environments in which guerrilla forces have problems in their communications and in which centralized control of the guerrilla groups has been weakened. Pseudo teams,in fact, can help create a synergistic cycle by further weakening insurgent command and control, leading to even more opportunities for their use.

The final critical element of these operations is the effectiveness of the response to the intelligence the teams collect, and coordination with other government forces. Unless government response forces, whether military, police, or intelligence services, are well-trained and prepared to take full advantage of the intelligence provided by pseudo teams, these operations are unlikely to have their maximum impact. Also, unless secure systems are established to avoid interference between the pseudo groups and other security forces, the teams can be in as much danger from their own side as they are from the insurgents.

Pseudo operation strategies used in earlier counterinsurgency campaigns can offer valuable lessons for future missions. It is likely that most guerrilla movements have become more sophisticated in their operations; as a result, pseudo teams must also develop better techniques. Still, the pseudo operations strategy should provide major benefits against insurgent groups.


Pseudo operations have proven to be a valuable tool in several foreign counterinsurgency campaigns. In general, they have been best suited for collecting intelligence information that would be difficult to acquire through other means. When used for offensive operations, the best use for pseudo teams is to capture or kill key guerrilla leaders. The teams typically have been controlled by police services, but this largely was due to weaknesses in the respective military intelligence systems.

In the best situations, pseudo teams can enter a synergistic cycle in which their capture of guerrillas leads to more accurate intelligence which in turn results in capturing more guerrillas. Capture should always take priority over killing insurgents. Whether the captured guerrillas are used primarily for gaining current intelligence or are actually part of pseudo teams, their willing and active cooperation is essential for the success of pseudo operations.

Many of the early pseudo operations look in retrospect to be rather amateurish in terms of tradecraft. Nevertheless, they worked very well. It is likely that most guerrilla movements have become more sophisticated in their operations; as a result, pseudo teams must also develop better techniques. The pseudo operations strategy, however, still should provide major benefits against insurgent groups.