Small Wars Journal

A Unified General Framework of Insurgency

A Unified General Framework of Insurgency Using a Living Systems Approach by Ensign Shanece Kendall, Naval Post Graduate School, June 2008.

This thesis develops a unified general framework of insurgency. The framework is "unifying" in that it includes all the physical and social science formulations of insurgencies and both contemporary and historical insurgencies. It is "general" in that it describes all insurgencies rather than a specific one. This thesis first redefines the definition of insurgency in the context of the twenty-first century and addresses the military, political, social, and economic elements. Next, it adopts the view that an insurgency is a living system. This idea is based on the characteristic that every insurgency consists of a group of people embedded in a larger society. Using this concept, this thesis argues that James Grier Miller's Living Systems Theory, from his book Living Systems, is the most fitting theory to study insurgency. To demonstrate the framework's effectiveness, it is applied to the Iraq Sunni Insurgency.

The framework is used to describe the structure of the insurgency system using three levels - insurgency, Improvised Explosive Device (IED) Unit, and IED Cell—and the twenty critical subsystems that process information and matter-energy in the insurgency's IED Cell. This framework should help clarify, focus, and support the current debates about policy, operations, and tactics for insurgencies.

A Unified General Framework of Insurgency Using a Living Systems Approach


Bill Keller (not verified)

Wed, 07/02/2008 - 10:59pm

Ens Kendall's thesis provides a needed and differing perspective that is in itself valuable.

Strategy and tactics needed in conflict have grown into an infinite portfolio of methods for changing the dynamic process of a living system so as to gain dominance in the target.

Competition among the participants can classified not just as insurgency but also as a civil, small or limited, general or total war using the comparative size or structural position in a universal living system.

Within such a universe, a denigrated living system could also offer a fertile opportunity for other opportunists that could infect the system; however, apocalypse as a measure of finality is limited since there remains not absolute boundry on life's ability to rejuvenate the system in other dimensions.

As with Newton's physics, religious absolutes and parade marching, past perspective are also being recognized for the limitations of their horizons. In this case by an officer whose profession still remains proficient with the sextant, chronometer and long glass even when their feet are very dry.

Gordon H. Bradley (not verified)

Wed, 07/02/2008 - 2:55pm

The thesis by ENS Kendall addresses a larger research agenda that has three major premises:

1. A clear understanding of insurgency (definition, vocabulary, description of structure and process) is necessary to understand and then evaluate proposals for counterinsurgency actions. Absent a framework for insurgency, counterinsurgency proposals are answers without a clear question. It is easy to propose superficially plausible counterinsurgency actions and to construct analogies to previous insurgencies (e.g. Malaya and Vietnam); but without a clear insurgency framework it is not possible to evaluate their positive (or negative) impact. The starting point for an historical analysis of counterinsurgencies and the development of government policy and military doctrine is a framework for insurgency.

2. An insurgency is best understood as a system; this allows the application of systems theory and General Systems Theory. Since insurgencies are organizations of people, the concepts and definitions of living systems, in particular James Grier Millers Living Systems Theory, apply. Living Systems Theory is an inclusive framework that includes all life from the cell to supranational organizations. It is a "general" framework in that it describes the shared structure and processes of all living systems rather than the details of any specific system. Millers work contains a particularly elegant discussion of the necessity for and the value of a general approach to understanding living systems.

A general framework for insurgency is valuable because it attempts to identify the structure and processes that all insurgencies must have and thus provides a framework to understand the details of any specific insurgency. A general framework provides an organization for "lessons learned" and for the case studies of specify insurgencies. Analysts and policymakers are prone to extract details from particular insurgencies (esp. Malaya and Vietnam) and to quickly elevate them to general principles and even immutable laws. A general framework abstracts from particular details to general structure and common processes and thus supports better analogies between specific insurgencies. A general approach also helps avoid overemphasis on the most visible aspects of insurgencies (e.g. attacks, weapons flows) by providing a description of the hidden processes that every insurgency must have (e.g. recruiting, vetting, communications, control, intelligence).

3. A unified framework for insurgency is better than any of the many existing frameworks such as those based on historical analysis, warfare, political science, anthropology, sociology, and other disciplines. Each of the existing frameworks brings its own definitions, vocabulary, frame of reference, and assumptions. It is difficult for analysts and policymakers to integrate insights from disparate sources when there is no commonly accepted definition and no unambiguous vocabulary. In addition, existing frameworks tend to lock policymakers into views of insurgency that may be limiting. For example, the warfare framework used by DoD uses definitions and vocabularies that exclude a "whole-of-government" approach used by some other frameworks. A necessary first step is to adopt an inclusive definition and replace the multiple vocabularies with discipline neutral terms that support a unified framework. Millers work contains a discussion of the need for a unified framework and his Living Systems Theory demonstrates how this can be achieved for living systems.

I have set up a web site to highlight research on developing a unified general framework for insurgency (definition, vocabulary, and description). Initially it will include the thesis by ENS Shanece Kendall, USN, that uses a Living Systems Theory approach and the related research that she references (e.g. social network analysis, sociobiology, population modeling, complex adaptive systems, and systems dynamics). The web site is organized to support ongoing research; it will include major categories to provide links to other papers of interest. It will also host comments and critiques of ENS Kendalls thesis and more generally the research program and other papers on this topic.

Sample-read from the thesis, and would likely give it about a B-, or less. The writing is somewhat awkward and repetitious, and heavily belabors the obvious at times.

Nevertheless the core point is worth making: a coherent descriptive framework will be vital to doing analysis of any particular insurgency or insurgency in general.

The "Living" part of the Systems Approach amounts to acknowledging that there are adaptive processes, active guidance, and external involvements. I'm not sure why this is news, but perhaps it is.