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From peacekeeping to counter-insurgency: military operations in the grey zone between war and peace.


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


During the US-led military interventions that followed the events of 11 September 2001, the thin line that divided peacekeeping from countering insurgencies seemed to blur at an accelerated pace. In Afghanistan, for instance, different NATO troop contributing nations used the two denominators for similar military activities while operating under unified command. Peacekeepers in the Congo have been fighting insurgent movements for more than a decade while UN-forces in Mali are currently suffering heavy casualties because they are perceived as supporting the state against rebel factions. However, the close connection between fighting rebellious movements and ‘keeping the peace’ is certainly no 21st-century phenomenon. From Albania on the eve of the First World War to ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland around 1970, history is littered with examples of quasi impartial (international) military forces trying to monitor peace agreements or to contain a conflict, only to end up fighting insurgent or separatist movements.

During this course students will learn to examine the tension between peacekeeping and counter-insurgency through various academic lenses. Operating primarily as historians, they will discover why the close connection has been disregarded and rediscovered in the past. They will analyse how different historical contexts, ranging from colonial times to ‘the New World Order’ in 1990s and the post 9-11 era, often determine the (euphemistic) framing of military interventions. From a strategic studies and international legal perspective, they will learn to critically analyse UN-mandates as well as peacekeeping and counter-insurgency principles and doctrine. They will also learn to understand how seemingly opposite types of military engagement at the political and strategic level can result in almost similar activities for the soldiers actually on the ground. In the end, the students will come to grips with the conceptual divide and theoretical blur surrounding past as well as current military operations in the grey zone between war and peace.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  • 1) The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 2) The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 3) The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 4) The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 5) The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;

  • 6) The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;

  • 7) The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;

  • 8) The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;

  • 9) The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;

  • 10) (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

  • 11) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following: in the specialisation Political Culture and National Identities: political practices, symbols and perceptions, nationalism, and national identities in a cultural and societal context from 1800.

  • 12) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subspecialisation in question, with a particular focus on the following: in the specialisation Political Culture and National Identities: international comparison and transfer; the analysis of the specific perspectives of secondary studies; a cultural-historical approach of politics and a political-historical approach of culture.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student:

  • 13) acquires thorough understanding of the concepts of peacekeeping and counter-insurgency, their political and military dimensions and the tension between theory and practice of irregular military operations in the wider 20th Century.

  • 14) acquires insights into the historiographical debate and theoretical controversies in this field of research

  • 15) acquires, through the scrutiny of doctrine, mandates and other primary sources, an understanding of the influence of various time-frames as well different strategic cultures on way interventions are framed.

  • 16) For their final paper Research Master students analyse a corpus of sources with a higher complexity in comparison to regular MA students; and they also set up original research which raises new questions and pioneers new approaches of research.


The timetable is available on the MA History website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours

  • Lectures: 13 x 2 hours = 26 hours

  • Preparation compulsory literature / assigments: 13 x 6 hours = 78 hours

  • Assignments (paper a.o.): 176 hours

Assessment method


  • Written paper: ca. 7500 words (partly based on research in primary sources, including footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 1-8, 11-14

  • Oral presentation
    measured learning objectives: 3-7, 11-14
    Assignment 1 (identifying and selecting literature and primary sources)
    *measured learning objectives: 1-8; 11-14

  • Assignment 2 (literature review)
    measured learning objectives: 1-8; 11-14


  • Written paper: 70%

  • Oral presentation:10%

  • Assignment 1: 10%

  • Assignment 2: 10%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficent.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Exam review

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • Practical information

  • Power Points,

  • Links to primary sources, additional literature etc.

Reading list

To be announced


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


Dr. Thijs Brocades Zaalberg Prof.dr. Ben Schoenmaker