Small Wars Journal

Population-Centric Counterinsurgency: A False Idol?

U.S. Army SAMS Monograph Series: Population-Centric Counterinsurgency: A False Idol? Three Monographs from the School of Advanced Military Studies edited and introduced by Dan G. Cox and Thomas Bruscino.

Failed State: A New (Old) Definition by Major Kenneth D. Mitchell.

Toward Development of Afghanistan National Stability: Analyses in Historical, Military, and Cultural Contexts by Lieutenant Colonel Christopher D. Dessaso.

Algerian Perspectives of Counterinsurgencies by Major Jose R. Laguna.


Should we consider that:

a. Neither "population-centric" nor "government-centric" may be the best describe what we are attempting to do and why.

b. And that, instead, "modernization-centric" (which is synonymous with Westernization-centric) may be a better way to view our contemporary understanding of insurgency and, according, our contemporary view of what a counterinsurgency effort should look like and seek to accomplish.

Herein, what is perceived is that various states and societies present problems because of their "lack of modernity" (to wit: their lack of more Western-like political, economic and social systems, structures, beliefs and practices.)

Because of this "square peg in a round hole" effect (these old, outdated, obsolete [to wit: non-Western] political, economic and social orders no longer "fit" and, therefore, can no longer function in the modern world); this giving rise to states and societies who are no longer able to provide for their populations and no longer able to exist in harmony with the modern, more-Western world.

Thus, it is perceived that the proper corrective action is to "modernize" (Westernize) these states and societies such that they might become the round pegs that can both "fit" and "function" in the contemporary round peg international environment.

Once this "modernization/Westernization-centric" understanding of insurgency and counterinsurgency is adopted, then might everything related to these matters become easier to understand, easier to discuss and easier to deal with? (For example: what motivates "the resistance")?

Why? Well for one reason, because now "insurgency" and "counterinsurgency" -- addressed in the "modernization/Westernization-centric" context I have outlined above -- can be seen to be, not isolated and separate from our foreign policy focus and direction, but part and parcel to it.


Mon, 10/10/2011 - 11:10pm

Deleted repeat posting... apparently if you get a "service unavailable" message and click "refresh", the post repeats.


Mon, 10/10/2011 - 11:02pm

There's certainly something to the "government-centric" approach raised by RCJ. The risk, of course, is that some from the "can-do" crowd will conclude that since poor governance creates insurgency, we have to go out and fix other people's governments... a thoroughly cringe-worthy conclusion that's likely to create far more mess than it solves.

Understanding the role of government in generating insurgency provides a number of excellent reasons for staying out and letting nature take its course. It can also very easily spur a new round of pointless and destructive intervention. It's a two-edged sword, like most swords.

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 10/09/2011 - 4:19pm

"Populace-Centric" approaches fall apart as they are rooted in the false promise of "effectiveness" of governance as the cure to insurgency. Even a fairly casual study of insurgencies over the ages (including where they do not occur as well as where they do) demonstrates that populaces can be highly tolerant of "ineffectiveness" when they accept and recognize the right of their government to govern (legitimacy) and find the nature of that governance to be fair (justice under the law, and without overt discrimination of distinct segments of the populace).

"Threat-Centric" approaches also fall short (unless one is willing to implement a harsh regime of oppression, e.g. Ghengis Khan in Afghanistan) as they are rooted in the odd belief that insurgency is caused by insurgents or the ideology that they adopt to rally the people to a cause and to action. Many paths lead members of the populace to offer some level of support to an insurgency, but causation rests almost solely in how the government governs and how that governance is perceived by the segments of the populace that feels compelled to act out illegally.

No, one must first understand the populace and use their perceptions as the bellweather of COIN success or failure; but it is in the government itself that the cause and cure for insurgency lie. Stable countries are those where the populace perceives (rightly or wrongly) that they retain control over the government and accept shortfalls as being as much their fault for having the wrong team in office as in being the fault of the government itself. They also believe that they have legal venues for affecting change when things are not going well. In the US the Tea Party will never be an insurgency so long as they believe that trusted, certain and legal means will help them to achieve the changes they seek. Similar groups in other countries often lack that confidence and must resort to violent or non-violent, but equally illegal approaches to address their grievances.

Kudos to SAMs for encouraging the study of COIN, but I would encourage them to steer their students to first focus on the study of insurgency itself. As Stephen Covey wisely advises, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

Far too much of COIN theory and doctrine lacks that solid foundation in insurgency; and similarly far too much is viewed through the lens of "War" and "Warfare." Insurgency is illegal politics, no more, no less. To define in terms of degrees of violence adopted is to miss the underlying essence altogether.