Small Wars Journal

Breaking Down “Hearts and Minds”: The Power of Individual Causal Mechanisms in an Insurgency

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Editor's Note: Roger D. Petersen is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has taught at MIT since 2001 and was recently named the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science. Dr. Petersen studies comparative politics with a special focus on conflict and violence, mainly in Eastern Europe, but also in Colombia. He has written three books: Resistance and Rebellion: Lessons from Eastern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2001); Understanding Ethnic Violence: Fear, Hatred, Resentment in Twentieth Century Eastern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Western Intervention in the Balkans: The Strategic Use of Emotion in Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2011). He is co-author, together with Jon Lindsay of Varieties of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Iraq, 2003-2009, US Naval War College, 2012.

Octavian Manea:Why do you talk about variety of insurgencies?  Should we see Baghdad, Anbar, and Basra as different insurgencies?

Roger D. Petersen: Different countries and different regions possess certain qualities that form the potential “building blocks” for sustained insurgency.  Whether that potential is realized or not depends upon the resources of government and the counterinsurgent and the way those resources are used. In Iraq, those building blocks included remnants of the former Baathist regime such as its bureaucracy and various security forces, tribal groups, clans, ethnic identities and religious and linguistic cleavages. When the combination of “building blocks,” resources, and strategies differ among regions, then those regions are essentially different types of insurgencies. I think the combination and interaction of these elements were very different in 4 different regions of Iraq: Kurdistan and the north, Basra and the south, Baghdad, and Anbar.  

OM: In your research you pointed out to a spectrum of conceivable individual roles in an insurgency. What is the methodology behind this typology?

RDP: This methodology comes from my 2001 book (Resistance and Rebellion: Lessons from Eastern Europe) which focused on Lithuanian resistance to Soviets in the 1940’s. Insurgency is a complex phenomenon, especially in how violent organization and networks are created and sustained, and the methodology of that book involved breaking down this complexity into component parts and then building back up into a coherent whole. At the base of this process is the way individuals position themselves relative to the dramatic and violent events of insurgency. Most people may wish to remain neutral and just take care of their families but events push significant numbers of individuals into roles of unarmed support of insurgents, or local armed position of a militia, membership in a mobile non-local organization, or equivalent positions in support of the government.  Furthermore, individuals may move back and forth along this spectrum of roles. If one is skeptical of broad and vague theories at a high level of aggregation, as I am, then you need to get down and observe dynamics at a basic level. Observing movement along this spectrum of roles is one way to do that. 

OM: What are causal mechanisms? Why are the causal mechanisms important for a social scientist trying to understand an insurgent setting?

RDP: There are different understandings of what defines a causal mechanism among social scientists.  My own definition is that a mechanism is a specific causal pattern that explains individual action over a wide range of settings.  A mechanism must be specific and causal, on the one hand, but general and able to apply to a wide range of cases.  For example, the “tyranny of sunk costs” is a mechanism.  There is a specific causal logic—previous heavy investment produces continuation of an action that is no longer optimal.  And the mechanism is general in that it can apply over a wide range of settings.  Tyranny of sunk costs can apply to car ownership—it might be best to get rid of a problematic car but I may be less likely to do so if I just put some money into fixing the transmission, and also to a bad marriage—maybe my marriage is hopeless but I just paid a lot of money to a marriage counselor so I keep going on. 

Given the spectrum concept above, with individuals moving back and forth along seven positions, the use of a causal mechanism approach is natural and crucial.  The method seeks to understand which causal mechanisms push and pull individuals from one position to another.  For example, which causal mechanisms—which small grained causal forces—pull individuals out of neutrality and into unarmed support for insurgents?  Which mechanisms pull them the other way into unarmed support for the government?  Which mechanisms pull them into armed participation?   

OM: What role do causal mechanisms play in shaping the decisions of the local population?

RDP: I think a relatively small number of causal mechanisms consistently have effects at specific points on the spectrum.  Emotions such as resentment push individuals into unarmed support.  Community-based norms of reciprocity often pull individuals into local militias.  Rational calculations operate between other nodes. All insurgencies are different, but most witness a similar basic set of mechanisms at play. Most or all insurgencies see a combination of rationality, social norms, emotions, and psychological mechanisms such as the “tyranny of sunk costs” at play.  An individual causal mechanism approach, applied to insurgency, forces the analyst to think through just how this repertoire of mechanisms is producing general outcomes. The approach forces the analyst to start at a fundamental level—specifying the individual level forces at work—and then build back up to the general outcomes. 

OM: In his 2009 IISS speech General McChrystal inferred that his main target audience is formed from rational people driven by extremely practical things:

“villagers are supremely rational and practical people: they make the decision on who they will support, based upon who can protect them and provide for them what they need. If a villager lives in a remote area where the government or security forces cannot protect them from coercion or harm from insurgents, he will not support the government – it would be illogical. Similarly, if the government cannot provide him with rule of law, the basic ability to adjudicate requirements legally, or just enough services to allow him to pursue a likelihood, it is difficult for him to make a rational decision to support the government.”

Is it FM 3-24 and the whole contemporary Western COIN discourse too narrow, too much focused on rational, cost/benefit models of decision-making? Is it too restrictive when making this inventory of driving motivations or causal mechanisms?

RDP: I think there is a tendency in the Western academic analysis to focus on rational theories. Those theories are straightforward.  But they also might be too straightforward, too simple.  In Iraq, the coalition did not plan on the emotion of resentment stemming from a status reversal affecting Sunni calculations in the beginning stages of the conflict. We did not understand the revenge norms that exist in some of the places. We did not fully understand the social norms that helped to produce the tribal militias in Anbar province.  We did not understand the psychological mechanisms underlying the Sunni view of the new world they were living in.

 OM: What other causal mechanisms (different than the rational cost/benefit calculations) could be responsible for moving the people from one role to the other in an insurgent ecosystem/setting? 

RDP: To elaborate on previous comments, in my previous work on violence in Eastern Europe I found that status reversal and the accompanying emotion of resentment was one of the most ubiquitous mechanisms. When individuals had a clear idea of group membership and where that group was located in a hierarchy, then situation when top groups find themselves below bottom groups almost always moved individuals toward support of violence.

In Iraq, the Sunni had positions of control in bureaucracy, military, the government was Sunni, so they were naturally on top going back to the British days. With democracy this is not going to work anymore, and you could predict a reaction against that.

In my previous work, I found that individuals joined local armed groups through social norms—they often got involved les through political ideology and more because a family member pulled them in. If you have a society like Iraq where you have family, clan, tribal structures with accompanying powerful social norms, then you can expect rapid mobilization.

I think that identifiable psychological mechanisms play powerful roles in a different ways in different insurgencies, but these two non-rational mechanisms—the emotion of resentment in an ethnically hierarchical society and the social norm of reciprocity in a society with strong communities—are absolutely essential in understanding the evolution of insurgency in states like Iraq. 

I would also emphasize that rational calculation is still perhaps the driving force in many insurgencies, but reliance on rationality alone is usually a mistake. 

 OM: Would you point out that for a counterinsurgent what matters most is to understand these motivational and causal mechanisms and try to influence them?

RDP: I think counterinsurgents need to understand that there are not only good guys and bad guys in the population, but also gradations. Counterinsurgents need to think about how their strategies move people up and down over these gradations. I hope my research might provide a manageable and intuitive framework for practitioners to productively consider the consequences of their strategies.

 OM: How do you influence these causal mechanisms?

RDP: This is a big question, and of course a critical one.  Jon Lindsay and I, in a recent study commissioned by the Center on Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups at the Naval War College, try to break down how four different strategies possess inherently differently logics on how to affect and trigger different causal mechanisms at different locations on the spectrum of roles.  No doubt the coalition, implementing this range of strategies influenced how these causal mechanisms operated. Our present work tries to understand just how those strategies did that. 

OM: In your research you emphasized that the Iraqi surge correlates with the decline in violence but also with the ethnic homogenization of Baghdad. What are the implications for the whole Afghan surge debate? Because at the time, the Afghan debate was very much influenced by some assumptions about why and what worked during the Iraqi surge.

RDP: There was a lot going on before and during the surge.  There were deals made with locals in Anbar, ethnic separation in Baghdad, and a myriad of things going on in the south of Iraq.  The surge brought both changes in the number of troops but also in their tactics. In Anbar, SIGACTS were declining before more boots were on the ground.  There will continue to be different efforts to unpack how these phenomena interacted. 

In Afghanistan you have more localized social structures, constant flipping, you don’t have a central government that can provide public goods to the local people, you don’t have social capital like in Iraq where you could create these game-changing local and regional deals as easily as in Iraq. Afghanistan is much more decentralized and the communication in social organizations is different. I don’t think that what we saw in Anbar province is likely to happen in Afghanistan. The Sunnis in Anbar were able to see what is happening in Bagdad with the Shia militias in the Sunni neighborhood and they knew that at a certain time that they needed to make a bargain. There is a different dynamic in Afghanistan, although I would again look at the group hierarchy (especially with the Pashtuns) and local social norms as critical forces breeding powerful mechanisms.

OM: What are the implications of emphasizing the role of +/-2 actors?    

RDP: We are very good at find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze. The coalition was doing 300 raids a month or more at one point in Iraq. But if the basis of the insurgency is in the local social structures then those killed and captured are likely to be replaced. You can get rid of the -3, the mobile insurgents (the Al Qaeda guys), but if the local people are behaving normal during the day and different during the night, it is difficult to root out an insurgency. In my previous work on late 1940’s Lithuania, the Soviets had an enormous advantage in power but they couldn’t destroy the locally rooted networks. In some localities they had to deport whole villages in Siberia.

OM: Historically, the COIN discourse was, and still is, about winning “hearts and minds” at the grass-root level. Is this the right frame, the right angle to conceptualize the problem and what a counterinsurgent needs to understand is what causal mechanisms/forces move one or the other?

RDP: I’d like to think that my approach will provide a more sophisticated way to think about “Hearts and Minds.”  There are perhaps eight or ten important mechanisms that are usually lumped together in the “Hearts and Minds” concept.  In my own work, I try to specify just how, why, and when those mechanisms come to actually affect the roles played by individuals during insurgency. 

About the Author(s)

Octavian Manea was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University) where he received an MA in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced  Studies in Security Studies.


Consider these thoughts and questions:

We are essentially wagging war against political, economic and social systems that are different from our own; systems which, in our view, fail to adequately provide for the wants, needs and desires of other populations and, correspondingly, fail to optimally provide for the wants, needs and desires of the more modern and more western-like world.

Within this context:

a. How does one "win" such wars.

a. How does one capture the hearts and minds of these differently oriented populations?

Is our job -- within the context offered above -- essentially to:

a. Steadfastly discredit the political, economic and social systems of these other peoples and constantly provide evidence of these other systems inferiority and inadequacy? And

b. Steadfastly praise our own political, economic and social systems and constantly provide evidence of our own such systems superiority and greater value and worth?

Should such discrediting of the political, economic and social system of the other -- and such praising of our own -- not provide, within the desired/required time frame, the necessary result (adoption of our ordering systems by these others), can one resort to force of arms to accomplish this mission?

(Herein note that, in our view, the inadequacy of the political, economic and social systems of these others is the root cause of many of our contemporary national security problems and of the current threats to our well being and way of life.)

Bill C.

Sun, 04/28/2013 - 11:21pm

In reply to by G Martin

G. Martin:

"Likewise, in attempting to address current and future issues - I think we would do well by examining how we come to the conclusions we come to. Being self-reflective will allow us to appreciate our own blind-spots ..."

I really cannot disagree with any of your suggestions without, in many ways, negating my own argument, to wit: that I feel that "our grasp of things" seems to consistently and conveniently disregard, ignor and/or simply not see, acknowledge and address how a foreign entity's (for example: the United States') rather straightfoward goals, ideas and objectives -- carried out significantly in an overt and well-announced manner and by, with and through friendly local governments -- can and does, at times, manifest in insurgency.

You are spot-on.

If we don't see this elephant in the room, due to it being in our "blind spot" -- and/or due to a lack of due diligence -- what else do we not see?

G Martin

Sun, 04/28/2013 - 9:33pm

In reply to by Bill C.

<em>But what if the government has more critical, more pressing and/or more important needs, objectives, goals or requirements...?</em>

<em>Is this not something that we can very easily (1) pin down, (2) explore and (3) explain re: these relationship problems?</em>

<em>Likewise can we not easily pin down, examine and explore the objective -- and related policies, practices and actions -- of foreign entities and determine whether these play a major role in these matters?</em>

As part of a multiple-approach, then, yes- I would imagine that we could "easily" explain relationship problems and "pin-down" the objective of foreign entities. I'd just caveat those efforts with a few more approaches as well- and constantly question whether any easy explanations and defined objectives are wrong or not.

But, the word "determine"- to me seems to be a little too permanent. We seem to determine lots of things - and then never question that determination. After all, it has been determined, hasn't it? We fail to learn, in my opinion, due to determining things. Have we really- as a country (or even a military)- determined what happened in Vietnam? Vietnam to me only makes sense when looked at through multiple prisms. Looking at it through only one brings paradox, confusion, frustration, and emotional disagreement and exception into view in my experience.

Likewise, in attempting to address current and future issues- I think we would do well by examining how we come to the conclusions we come to. Being self-reflective will allow us to appreciate our own blind-spots in logic- and not get too comfortable with our grasp of things. Failing to do that risks - or maybe guarantees- that we will learn the wrong lessons.

Bill C.

Fri, 04/26/2013 - 10:47am

In reply to by G Martin

G. Martin:

Let's say that we do abandon our effort to find the root cause(s) of - instead of the term "insurgency" -- let us say, the relationship problem(s) between governments and certain of the governed.

And let us say that there may, indeed, be multiple reasons for such difficulties and, thus, multiple approaches to the way that a certain goverment might deal with these issues; especially if this government's principle and primary goal is to simply resolve these internal relationship difficulties.

But what if the government has more critical, more pressing and/or more important needs, objectives, goals or requirements, for example: the need to modernize the state and society (or the need to protect the state and society from modernization), the need to implement austerity measures or the need to end slavery?

Is this (the governments objective and related policies, practices and actions) not something that we can very easily (1) pin down, (2) explore and (3) explain re: these relationship problems?

Likewise can we not easily pin down, examine and explore the objective -- and related policies, practices and actions -- of foreign entities and determine whether these play a major role in these matters? (Herein, in looking for why the grass is trampled, one must at least look to see if there are elephants nearby, yes?)

G Martin

Wed, 04/24/2013 - 1:49pm

Lots of good points in the discussion below all-around, but I tend to think a lot of our arguments are chasing at fleas. The search for a root cause (or one paradigm "to rule them all")- especially in cases of "insurgency"- I think are fruitless searches, as is attempting to put one paradigm on all insurgencies and view it in that one way no matter what. We all have worldviews and we'll gather whatever data/interpret the activities of any and all insurgencies to verify the paradigm that supports that worldview.

I would rather encourage us to do 2 things when looking at insurgencies- or anything abstract like that: 1) attempt to take a multiple-approach view to each and every instance- attempting to see the pros and cons of each approach/paradigm- and never being wedded to just one and, 2) looking at the issues of language and how it limits our appreciation of what we are studying (for instance- simply by using the term "insurgency"- that binds one to all kinds of assertions, paradigms, and limitations towards appreciation that will inevitably be both positive and negative: positive in the sense that it will save time, allow easier communication to others, and give one ideas from which to start thinking from; negative in the sense that it will inevitably lead one towards invalid comparisons, improper metaphors, short-cuts in critical thinking, and make creative thinking that much harder- to name but a few.

I really don't think that using any of our doctrine or recent academic treatises on insurgency and applying them to any insurgency example currently would assist the end-users in being more successful than if they just applied some critical and creative thinking to the situation (all politics are local???). In terms of where one paradigm or another may help- at the strategic level IMO- I think we have to entertain the possibility that the very thought that we can manage something with emergent and multiple causes IS perhaps our problem...

Move Forward

Mon, 04/22/2013 - 12:05am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

<blockquote>We will find that a foreign policy rooted in influence and led by diplomacy will be far less expensive and far more effective than one rooted in control and led by the military. We are out of balance as a nation. The executive and military have grown too powerful at the expense of the Congress and diplomacy. Right-sizing the military for peace would help to facilitate that rebalancing. But then our founders warned us about that as well.</blockquote>

IIRC, the military had some pretty critical roles in ending the Cold War. Diplomacy seemingly failed in that pursuit as it has in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and war between Israel and its neighbors. Diplomacy seems to be making no headway in solving the drug problems south of the border. No diplomatic solution has presented itself in Syria or other Arab Spring locations. Diplomacy is all about talk, attempted carrots, and sticks that stick it to populations rather than leaders. Sometimes other action is required.

Would agree that right-sizing our naval and airpower to become less of a threat of deep penetration into China would go a long way to reducing Chinese fears that we are attempting to contain or decapitate them, or take-out their tunneled and mobile conventional and nuclear missiles.

Seems that our founders were involved in some pretty militaristic pursuits for quite a few years as witnessed by the article elsewhere where battles of Lexington and Concord are described as the first of many.

Move Forward

Sun, 04/21/2013 - 11:47pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

<blockquote>For example, please name for me a single insurgency caused by any ideology, any place, in any time - let alone one "caused" by "Islamic-extremist influence." The Pied Piper is a fairy tale, and certainly no satisfied, stable populace group has ever been led into insurgency by any dynamic leader or persuasive ideology either one. There has to be conditions of insurgency within a populace first, and those conditions are invariable rooted in the perceptions of the systems of governance that affect the lives of those people.</blockquote>

Looks like I missed out on all the fun, however Bill M and Dayuhan have been up to the refutation task and then some. Maybe I don't understand what you are saying RCJ but many insurgencies listed in Stephen Melton's article were caused by communist or Islamic-extremist influence. Insurgencies in Pakistan are caused by Islamic-extremists in TTP and LeT. The Taliban by definition means religious student and their takeover in the 90s was far more than a Pashtun victory given the accompanying Sharia law. The 1979 Revolution in Iran was caused by Islamic extremists following the Ayatollah Khomeini. Many current insurgents in Syria are extremists. The Mali revolution was coopted by extremists, and the list goes on and on.

The Russian Revolution was caused by the ideology of Lenin and Trotsky. Obviously a communist ideology existed in North Korea and Vietnam to differentiate it from the South of either counterpart...and you still have not responded to why North Korea's or Venezuela's horrendous governments have not become a source of insurgency. Why is mainland China communist and Taiwan is not...could that have something to do with ideology?

In the Columbian example I have yet to see an example provided of how their system of government is flawed or how that is in any way the business of our military or anything that our military or theirs can or should attempt to interfere with or influence.

Given the wholesale destruction of tourism and outside investment in Egypt following their Arab Spring and Muslim Brotherhood take-over, how can you possibly contend that it is a superior form of government?

Bill M.

Sun, 04/21/2013 - 8:59pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Facts without context is simply data. It is focusing on the trees instead of the forest, so on this point we're in agreement. I'm neither a liberal or conservative, but of the two polar political opposites I find that our far left is much less tolerant of others' opinions and quick to enforce a stifling political correctness through any method they can to kill any meaningful intellectual debate. In many respects they're very close to the likes of Mao and Stalin, and some have even openly praised them. That is another issue, but I do think the way you make your case is overly dismissive of other views, which is why I associated it with our left leaning academia views, not because you lean one way or the other politically, but because of the way you argue it.

I think elements of your arguments have great merit in specific situations, but at this time we disagree on the impact of Islamic extremists. They can exist where governments are failing to address popular needs, and they can exist in Canada, the U.S., Australia, etc. where they have opportunities to pursue happiness within the law, yet choose to conduct hate crimes based on their religious beliefs. This is not a failure of government, and in many cases there is nothing to fix, so the tactical option becomes the strategic option. In other cases there may be deficits in governance, but even if those are corrected the extremists will pursue their ends through any means available. Ideology is extremely important in this case. Rarely do these clowns represent the majority.

You wrote, "But it is not the message; it is a simple fact that conditions and time are right." Agree that conditions and time are paramount, but so is the message, because the message equates to identity. I wrote the three critical factors are leadership, identity, and opportunity. All of these elements interact with one another much like the elements of Clausewitz's trinity, and in some cases identity is tied to ideology.

You also wrote, "These insurgencies do not threaten American interests any more than an American Presidential election threatens the interests of foreign nations."

Unfortunately we don't live in the time of George Washington, so even if I agree with him in principle those options are off the table, we are now entangled in the global system with a series of agreements, treaties, economic interests, etc., so some of these events do matter to our interests, and in some rare cases actually threaten our security.

1. The fall of Shah of Iran didn't help our interests in the Middle East or globally, despite the fact that the Shah should have fallen.

2. The jury is still out on the MB assuming control in Egypt, but so far it does appear to threaten our interests and a nation we vowed to defend (Israel), so it very much matters.

3. The situation in Syria appears to be no one's interests, if the extremists win it will threaten Lebanon, Turkey (NATO ally), Israel, Iraq, and perhaps serve a base of operations for the global jihad.

4. I assume you would agree that if Islamists took over Pakistan and that ignited a conflict between Pakistan and India (both nuclear powers) that it could impact our national security interests?

There are many more examples, but suffice to say in some cases it is in our national security interests to influence the outcome, so we better learn to do it smarter than we're doing now.

By smarter, this means I agree with your assertion, "Number one being that all were based upon some external power designing and forcing a political/security solution onto some weaker country in the name of the vital interests of the stronger. Time to move on from that. The cost of imposing such controls are going up and the durability of such systems are going down."

Given the above I don't think the fix is a doctrinal issue (that can come later), but an adjustment to our foreign policy. More of a focus on real diplomacy instead of our clumsy, bullying diplomacy we apply now because we view ourselves as a superpower that can impose our will. Obviously a lot of countries don't feel that way and continually ridicule us when we tell them they can't develop nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, when it comes to skillful diplomacy where we generate support for our views using soft power I don't think we're near as good as our State Department likes to pretend. If we were we wouldn't be so quick with the use of sanctions and the threat of military force. We should consider conducting diplomacy without a big stick, everyone knows we have one, but what else do we have to offer?

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 04/21/2013 - 2:44pm

In reply to by Bill M.


Facts are meaningless without context. I know I place great value on the thinking of dirty liberals like Washington, Madison, Monroe, etc. It is sad to me that when the words of our founders become inconvenient to our efforts to make Cold War Containment thinking work in a post Cold War world that we label them obsolete. Quaint thinking of a bygone era.

No, this is not about liberalism or conservatism, this is about reframing how we think about these timeless dynamics that lead to insurgency. The framework derived from colonialism and containment that you draw so much comfort from is IMO incredibly short-sighted and wholly inappropriate for the world we live in today. Same facts, just a different lens to view them through.

But this is a critical topic. It is one worth discussing in open forums. To examine common problems with facts agreed to by all, and then to simply apply the different lenses to reveal the different persectives they yield - and to then discuss the respective merits, etc. I am comfortable talking tactically and about the whys and hows of COIN in colonial and continment eras, and how we extrapolated that forward into our CT strategy of the past decade. I am also comfortable discussing the flaws of those approaches. Number one being that all were based upon some external power designing and forcing a poltical/security solution onto some weaker country in the name of the vital interests of the stronger. Time to move on from that. The cost of imposing such controls are going up and the durabiity of such systems are going down.


Bill M.

Sun, 04/21/2013 - 1:36pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Actually this appears to be a very bias, popular, and misleading interpretation, one promoted by left leaning, politically correct academia, who will go to great strides to ensure their view is promoted despite the facts.

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 04/21/2013 - 9:01am

In reply to by Move Forward


Certainly you state the majority position on this topic. What you express is what people perceive based upon what they have been taught, but it frankly does not stand up to deeper, unbiased analysis.

For example, please name for me a single insurgency caused by any ideology, any place, in any time - let alone one "caused" by "Islamic-extremist influence." The Pied Piper is a fairy tale, and certainly no satisfied, stable populace group has ever been led into insurgency by any dynamic leader or persuasive ideology either one. There has to be conditions of insurgency within a populace first, and those conditions are invariable rooted in the perceptions of the systems of governance that affect the lives of those people.

The Arab Spring movement is inevitable so long as the governments of the region are dedicated to the preservation of a status quo of governance that has been creating such conditions for generations. Of course the ideologies the work the best with Muslim people are rooted in Islam. Other messages have been tried and failed. But it is not the message; it is a simple fact that conditions and time are right.

These insurgencies do not threaten American interests any more than an American Presidential election threatens the interests of foreign nations. They will only serve to put pressure on governments to make long needed reforms (As in Jordan), or they will serve to take out systems of governance that refuse to evolve. We in the West need to appreciate that this isn't about us, and but for the very reasonable perception that we are a major obstacle to such reforms there would likely be little to no threat of terrorist attack against us that are linked to these movements.

We ignore the sage advice passed on to us by President Washington in his farewell address, advice that is every bit as relevant to a post-Cold War America today as it was to a post-Revolutionary America then. We value and cling to both enduring allies and foes to our peril. We have come to value the preservation of relationships with particular regimes because of the perceived criticalness of these tarnished, and in many cases, dysfunctional, relationships. We compromise the very principles our nation was founded upon in the pursuit of sustaining the certainty of the status quo and because of our fear of the uncertainty of what might come next. That is the problem with self-determination, one never knows what others will pick for themselves, far better to attempt to shape that for them in ways we think will be best for us, right? That warped logic was necessary to implement a containment strategy, but is completely inappropriate and unnecessary today.

Your other examples lack depth as well. While the FARC as an organization may be fairly small (much as is the MILF, MNLF and frankly insurgent organizations everywhere), they represent a vast majority of Columbian society that have suffered from the persistent residue of Spanish Colonialism. Yes, we have helped to Colombian security forces to effectively suppress the movement for a period of time, but we have done little to persuade and assist the governance of Columbia in working break free from the destructive inertia of the current culture of governance in that country. In many ways we enable them to not have to change - Likewise in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Israel, etc, etc, etc.

We need to reframe the way we think about the problem and about ourselves. We need to re-embrace the principles we were founded upon and refresh our approach to the rest of the world to act more consistently with what we profess to stand for. Our interests will be fine. We will find that a foreign policy rooted in influence and led by diplomacy will be far less expensive and far more effective than one rooted in control and led by the military. We are out of balance as a nation. The executive and military have grown too powerful at the expense of the Congress and diplomacy. Right-sizing the military for peace would help to facilitate that rebalancing. But then our founders warned us about that as well.

Bill C.

Wed, 04/24/2013 - 11:09pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M:

Look back over my more recent comments and you will notice that I have emphasized the words "foreign entity" and have noted "throughout history" (not just the current era).

This has been done to suggest that the problems we are discussing transcend both the United States and the current era and are common to cases involving great powers and lesser states and societies generally and the issues that each of these have in relation to one another.

I am, of course and via this process, asking us to consider whether the problems/dilemmas that the United States faces today -- and the problems/dilemmas that lesser states and societies face with regard to the United States today -- are similar to those faced by such differing states and societies in the past.

Likewise, the manner by which these problems may have to be solved/resolved.

This would seem to be a reasonable approach, one which, I hope, will help us better understand how great power needs (yesterday and today) can conflict with lesser states and societies desires, this leading to:

a. On the great power side: More forceful -- and/or ever-more-innovative -- attempts at transformation and assimilation of lesser states and societies.

b. On the lesser states and societies side: Insurgency, terrorism, etc. -- and the use of whatever tools are available (for example: extremism, ideology and allies) -- in attempt to avoid transformation and assimilation.

(The battle for "hearts and minds" -- yesterday and today -- to be viewed within this context?)

Bottom Line: The local government cannot serve two masters: Both the interfering/intervening great power and its requirements, and the local population and their often very different wants, needs and desires.

This would seem to be as true today as, indeed, it may have been in the mercantile or any other age.

Also consider that a nation and population that have been successfully transformed and incorporated may have some difficulty in claiming that they are being exploited. By way of their adoption of the foreign entity's ways and system -- and their lack of rebellion against same -- these nations and populations would seem to be indicating that the new relationship was one of mutual agreement and benefit.

Bill M.

Wed, 04/24/2013 - 5:16pm

In reply to by Bill C.

You are a hopeless conspiracy theorist whose view of history is locked in the time period of the mercantile age. What exactly do you think we are mining/exploiting from the Afghan people, or in Kosovo or a number of other countries we assisted? It time to move on from your unsupportable exploitation theories. The true fact that you conveniently dismiss is we are draining our economy to help others, which is the polar opposite of exploitation. You can actually take pride in being an American if you open your mind.

Bill C.

Wed, 04/24/2013 - 9:32am

In reply to by Bill M.

The problem, however, is that the imposing foreign power knows that it may be completely impractial -- in a national security sense -- to wait for the local population to, at some time in the future, voluntarily adopt its ways. This often being considered an untenable approach because:

a. It tends to leave the field (the hearts and minds -- and the human and natural "capital" and resources -- of the subject nation/people) open to the advances of and capture by other foreign powers. And

b. It provides that these civilizations -- due to their inadequate transformation and incorporation -- cannot be properly and fully utilized by the foreign power, to provide for the wants, needs, desires and goals of its (the foreign power's) population. (Along these lines, consider the practicality -- not the altruistic, etc., nature -- of such things as women's rights and the rule of law).


a. The Rock: Failure to rapidly transform and assimilate the subject state and society leaves the field open to other players and provides that the resources (human and other) of this state and society cannot be properly "mined" for the benefit of the foreign power and its population.


b. The Hard Place: Attempts to rapidly transform and incorporate the subject state and society -- via a "friendly" government who must pursue the requirements of the foreign entity at the expense of the often very different wants, needs and desires of the local population -- this can, and frequently does, lead to insurgency, extremism and terrorism.

Bill M.

Tue, 04/23/2013 - 11:55pm

In reply to by Bill C.

No to this one: "As one that works to service and support the wants, needs, desires and goals of the foreign entity."

Admittedly we may have interests that fall in the realm of realpolitik, but these are not to be confused with our efforts to transform societies into societies into virtuous societies that embrace our values. Our pursuit of virtue (women's rights) is largely altruistic, while our realpotik objectives are often far from altruistic.

Probably at least a partial Yes to this one: "As one that adheres to the values, attitudes and beliefs of the foreign entity's civilization and society."

Tying this all back to hearts and minds, I think the take away is we need to slow our roll. We can't rapidly transform societies who find our values completely foreign to them such as women's rights, all men created equal, all men equal under the law, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, etc. We see ourselves as liberating an oppressed people, yet in many cases the very people we're trying to liberate often see us as the oppressors pushing our lifestyle upon them. Liberalizing a society takes time and persistent effort, it can't be done via military force. Hopefully we learned our values are not necessarily something that people automatically gravitate to when you offer it to them.

Bill C.

Tue, 04/23/2013 - 1:21pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Throughout history (not just during the Cold War), a virtuous local government is seen -- in the eyes of the local people as:

a. One that works to service and support the local population's wants, needs, desires and goals. And

b. One that adheres to the values, attitudes and beliefs of this particular civilization and society.

In stark contast and also throughout history, a virtuous local government is often seen -- in the eyes a more-powerful, ambitious and interfering/intervening foreign entity:

a. As one that works to service and support the wants, needs, desires and goals of the foreign entity. And

b. As one that adheres to the values, attitudes and beliefs of the foreign entity's civilization and society.

Problems of insurgency and winning "hearts and minds" (and/or, as COL Jones notes below, "earning political legitimacy") to be largely understood within this context?

Likewise to be seen within this context the need for the foreign entity to "enlighten" and "educate" the local population (re: the foreign entity's wants, needs, desires and goals; re: the foreign entity's values, attitudes and beliefs; and re: the foreign entity's associated and corresponding political, economic and social structures)?

Bill M.

Mon, 04/22/2013 - 11:52pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C., I think you over emphasize our desire of foreign governments being organized to service our requirements. During the Cold War any dictator that was anti-USSR was a friend, so sadly your assertion was generally true during that time period. Move forward to the post Cold War Era and I think what we're trying to encourage and sometimes impose is a virtuous government based on what are commonly called American values, but during our revolution they were identified as inalienable rights of all men. Not all founders agreed with George Washington's wise words of not getting entangled with other nations, but had a global agenda, now being realized by many throughout the world who desire to liberate people from oppressive governments. Once enlightened with knowledge it is impossible to go back into the dark, etc. were the thoughts of the day, which I suspect is one reason we push education in developing nations as a transformational force which it is. Our revolutionary war didn't start with the English until we had already had a social and economic revolution. That resulted in a new identity, and a realization by a percentage of the population that the English form of government was inappropriate for enlightened men. Contrast that with our current approach where we violently over threw oppressive government without first fomenting a social revolution that eventually welcomed the removal of their government. In Eastern Europe there was a social and economic revolution first, and then either a non-violent or violent revolution to remove the government which was no longer seen as legitimate. We can over throw governments nearly anytime we please militarily (which is a bit scary), but we can't expect a society to naturally tranform/revolutionize overnight and conform to the values of so-called enlightened men. It may in fact be the natural path that mankind is drifting towards, but there is a process to get there.

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 04/22/2013 - 11:46am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C.

Yes, In political science terms, winning hearts and minds is more accurately "earning political legitimacy."

Too often foreign powers come in armed with a writ of legal legtimacy for their presence and actions and comfort their conscious in the knowledge that they "represent the rule of law." Such legitimacy is not with the paper it is written, signed and sealed upon. At least not for purposees of reducing the conditions of insurgency that are fueling uprising at hand.

We used to know this. When the British Army and Navy sailed into Boston harbor they came armed with such writs of legal legtimacy, as did every royal governor selectd by a distant King and then impossed upon each various colony. Not unlike the governors selected by Mr. Karzai under the terms of the Afghan constitution and impossed upon each District and Province. By and large such actions are de facto lacking in political legitmacy. That is a hard hole to dig out of. Even harder if you don't recognize or place any significance on the situation to begin with.

Bill C.

Mon, 04/22/2013 - 10:25am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


For consideration:

If a government appears -- to its people -- as being organized, oriented and ordered to provide for and service the requirements of a foreign entity, at the expense of the very different wants, needs and desires of the local populations, then might this government have rather severe legitimacy and good governance problems?

If these problems became a long-running trend, then might we see different members of the local population -- over time -- adopt and use various tools (for example: extremism, ideologies and allies) as a means to overcome these historical transgressions?

As to various governments today (who we feel govern atrociously) having little or no insurgency problems; could this be because they -- at an earlier time in their history and with the help of such tools as extremism, ideologies and allies -- resolved their "foreign entity-oriented=lack of legitimacy/lack of good governance" problems (as described in more detail at my first paragraph above)?

This suggesting that questions regarding -- and issues relating -- to "hearts and minds" might also be considered within the context offered here?

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 04/22/2013 - 6:23am

In reply to by Move Forward


I hesitate to point this out, but actually these are great examples to make my own case, not yours. But first you will have to open your aperture a bit to look beyond the war story or the gunfight, or the period of time where the US was directly involved. All of these are situations that had been brewing long, long before any American involvement. And in each case, when America did engage it has only been to attempt to shape the outcome to the one we felt would be best for us.

1. It is not how the Shah fell that has put US interests at risk in the extremely vital country of Iran, but rather how he rose to power. Iran and Turkey were the first flickers of democracy in the Middle East, and their constitutional revolutions over 100 years ago were the true beginnings of what we now call "Arab Spring." But then Iran dared to seek self-determined independence, and that pissed the Brits off, and the Brits then turned to us to help restore their waning control over the region. We crushed their fledgling democracy in the name of Cold War Containment, and the rest, as they say, is history. We created this mess, and are too stiff necked about how they tossed our solution back in our faces, and too manipulated by powerful Israeli and Saudi lobbies to get healthy with what are arguably the most pro-American populace and most important true nation in the region.

2. In Egypt we bought their support to build an Arab Coalition for the first Gulf War, and continued to buy that support and sustain Mubarak long past his relevance with his own populace. He sustained his legitimacy far more through military power and US support than through those he was sworn to serve. We felt our interests were better served by supporting illegitimate dictatorship over self-determined, legitimate democracy. It is little wonder Egypt became a hot bed for ideological support and foreign fighters for the AQ movement. The message that one must break the foreign support of the US to current dictators if one is to have a chance at regaining control of one's own destiny resonated across much of the populace there. And it is good to remember that revolutions rarely bring good governance, they happen to remove poor governance. Usually they create a power vacuum and chaos for generations. Certainly that happened in the US with our own revolution. Egypt will sort it out in time, better we support their journey rather than seek to overly shape or obstruct it.

3. In Syria and elsewhere, most all revolutionaries are "extremists." After all, revolution is by its very nature a very extreme approach to getting to a better system of governance. Our own founders were extremists, and ideals we think of as normal were hardly that at the time. There are many diverse factions competing for power in Syria, both internally and externally. I suspect to some degree Turkey, the US, The Saudis, Iran and AQ are all conducting UW there to back their own respective candidates for what happens next. Better the US focused on the current regime and helping them to evolve, than betting on some man or group we barely know, who represent some small part of a culture, history and geography we don't understand. If we are the global leader we profess to be, then we should lead. Trash talking the current leader and betting on dark horse challengers is hardly leadership. We're just mucking around in the scrum like everybody else and hoping our team turns out to be the good guys they promise us that they are. We keep falling for that one...

4. As to Pakistan, it was relatively stable until we decided to break their influence over Afghanistan and also to force the governmental forces in the Indus River valley to go up into the mountains and mess with the people there. Our policies and approaches to Afghanistan have done far more to advance the doomsday clock on a potential Pak-Indian conventional or nuclear war than anything any local groups have done. Our actions have disrupted nuclear deterrence, and when that happens it can lead to miscalculations. Pakistan has no strategic depth, so they will error on the side of being too quick to respond. It is a hair trigger, and we have done much to remove key factors they relied upon (strategic depth, peace with the tribal areas, regional influence, etc).

Move Forward

Sun, 04/21/2013 - 11:58pm

In reply to by Bill M.

<blockquote>1. The fall of Shah of Iran didn't help our interests in the Middle East or globally, despite the fact that the Shah should have fallen.

2. The jury is still out on the MB assuming control in Egypt, but so far it does appear to threaten our interests and a nation we vowed to defend (Israel), so it very much matters.

3. The situation in Syria appears to be no one's interests, if the extremists win it will threaten Lebanon, Turkey (NATO ally), Israel, Iraq, and perhaps serve a base of operations for the global jihad.

4. I assume you would agree that if Islamists took over Pakistan and that ignited a conflict between Pakistan and India (both nuclear powers) that it could impact our national security interests?

There are many more examples, but suffice to say in some cases it is in our national security interests to influence the outcome, so we better learn to do it smarter than we're doing now.</blockquote>

Great points and liked your four examples in response to RCJ where diplomacy or a hands-off approach has little chance of working or creating more effective governments for Muslim peoples.


Sat, 04/20/2013 - 6:58pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Problems arise not only when we reflexively see insurgency as something that must be countered, but also when we start seeing insurgencies as monolithic entities. In many cases - certainly not all, but many - the issues and goals of the rank and file fighters are quite distinct from those of the leadership. Often the issues and goals that motivate rank and file fighters are local grievances that can be reasonably addressed without tearing a state apart. Leaders are more likely to be driven by ideology and a quest for personal power. The Leaders are not likely to give up the fight without getting what they want, given the dimensions of their personal investment in the cause, but identifying and if possible resolving local grievances can disaggregate followers from leaders. Without followers, the leaders become little more than a few angry men.

This will not always work: at times local grievances may be very difficult to resolve, may threaten the integrity of a state, or may involve imposing equal grievance on someone else. It's always worth considering, though, and it never hurts to know what the guys holding the rifles are fighting for.

I'm perhaps over-attached to this idea, because I've seen it work. I live in a place that was not so long ago a hotbed of insurgency and a major drain on Philippine military resources. The regional insurgency had achieved effective military stalemate, but was largely resolved when Government figured out that what the insurgents at the grassroots level wanted was not unreasonable and would not compromise any major national interest, and simply let them have what they wanted. There are still insurgents in the area, particularly in one province with its own unique and still unaddressed issues, but at a much lower level that has only minimal impact on day to day life and requires only a minimal commitment of military resources. Their influence and capacity is steadily declining, and they are accepted, to the extent that they are, only because of the memory of military abuses.

There is no magic bullet or universally applicable strategy or method, but it's always worth considering the possibility that identifying and resolving local grievances could disaggregate insurgent leaders and insurgent followers. Whether or not Americans should be doing this in any given environment is of course another question altogether.

Bill M.

Sat, 04/20/2013 - 4:45pm

In reply to by Move Forward

Move Forward,

A lot of thoughtful points in this post, and I agree that an insurgency based upon Islam isn't the same as political identity groups ousting their colonial occupiers. The problem with applying the political legitimacy argument to all cases is this argument assumes the majority of people support the insurgency and oppose the government, and in many cases that simply isn't true. I'm not defending dumb policy and military decisions, but on the other hand is it inappropriate to use military/police operations against those insurgents who violently oppose the majority and want to forcefully impose their rule? Is it inappropriate to support the host nation government when they are struggling defending the government and the majority of their people against these insurgents? It seems that no matter we do the far left will attempt to paint the U.S. decision as stupid and side with the proclaimed legitimacy of the insurgents regardless of how little actual support they have, or how cruel their tactics are. When all cameras are focused on the X square and you see 10,000 plus people mobilized it creates a perception worldwide that the government is ill legitimate and will fall, but the media fails to account for the millions of others who are neutral or opposed to protesters, and the same holds true for media coverage of many insurgencies.

Bob, I do think that with the proper security strategy (always situation dependent, and it isn't in our COIN doctrine) that an insurgency that can be suppressed to the point it isn't a threat to our interests or the host nation's. Does the suppression only last 10-20 years? Maybe, but there are no permanent solutions in some cases, the so called underlying conditions don't always need to be addressed, with the underlying causes are extremism. Sorry, if 70% of the country doesn't want to live under Sharia Law, I see no reason the government should implement sharia law to stop one insurgency and form another.

The political landscape can provide reasons and excuses for people to fight, but ultimately it seems to me that identity (comes in many different forms), opportunity, and leadership are the keys. In many cases we need to move beyond the discussion of winning, what does it mean we're in Afghanistan to win? Maybe just preventing the Taliban from assuming control is winning enough? If they're restricted to areas of low value and only pose a harassment threat then that may be good enough.

Move Forward

Sat, 04/20/2013 - 12:14pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

<blockquote>What is "over played" IMO is the idea that insurgency is something that must be or can be "defeated." No, insurgency is simply a clear metric that governance is fundamentally broken or inappropriate as it affects the population group(s) the insurgents emerge from, are supported by, find sanctuary within, and represent.</blockquote>

It isn't essential to defeat insurgency unless it threatens critical territories, resources, and world stability through terrorist sanctuary or proliferation of WMD. Rogue states and terrorists are irrational actors not necessarily deterred by one-sided nuclear or conventional destruction. If some embrace or already live in primitive conditions, how much more do they have to lose? They also may not be able to fully control their militaries or individual state-sponsored terrorist cells. Even Gen Dunford mentioned this week in testimony before the House that one reason to retain a presence in Afghanistan is to preclude an Afghanistan sanctuary for factions that could threaten Pakistan's government and its control of their nuclear weapons.

Islamic insurgency clearly differs from other types of terror and insurgency. Islam itself isn't the problem. Rather it is the ability to use Islam to motivate and brainwash military-aged males to do stupid things and commit suicidal acts in the name of religion. Witness Boston. Examine madrassa memorization of un-comprehended Arabic Quran passages just as Catholics once had Latin Bibles. This helps preserve the power of elder clerics who can convey any interpretation. Consider the perceived gains claimed to await young men committing jihadist suicide. If you have little hope and no alternative message, it's easy to influence impressionable youth.

In constrast, we overuse and misapply the term "insurgency." An insurgency resulting from Islamic-extremist influence is unique yet we appear to group it in with other unrelated historical examples. Likewise problematic is equating poor governance as a primary cause of insurgency with too many trying to make one insurgency size fit all despite major differences in:
1) non-religious motivations,
2) "content" population size vs. numbers of insurgents,
4) country size and ethnic, tribal, and religious demographics in specific areas,
5) GDP and its sources related to criminality and corruption,
6) neighbors and sanctuary involved for and against the insurgency.

Obviously North Korea is poorly governed yet there is no insurgency. Clearly, Venezuela and Cuba are poorly governed yet no insurgency exists. Iran is poorly governed via theocracy yet no insurgency threatens its government. Iraq is more representative now than under Saddam Hussein yet an insurgency remains. The Philippines government now is better than when Aquino was in charge yet there is a minor insurgency. The Columbia government is no nightmare yet we pat ourselves on the back for claiming to fix a minor FARC problem. Never mind that Columbia has conscription and a 250,000 man security force plus a fairly thriving economy that might have something to do with its overall stability.

It also is unlikely that 8-18,000 FARC criminal insurgents threaten a government and nation with 45 million people. They may control parts of Columbia but FARC does not control the population and cannot defeat its effective military. We must differentiate between insurgencies that are minor irritants and those that actually threaten governments, our vital interests, and that foster world terrorism.

Also essential is to look beyond poor decisions made to invade and then leave intact failed nation-states like Iraq and Afghanistan that should have been divided before holding elections. Those strategic decision had nothing to do with the military, yet invariably the ground military is blamed when stability operations are ineffective in a failed state that is non-repairable through elections alone. That simply replaces one despised ruler (representing one group) with another.

However, there was no alternative to using external coalition ground forces in both recent examples because the Baathist/Sunni-dominated Iraqi Army could not remain intact in a nation with more Shiites and many Kurds. In Afghanistan, no central military existed so one had to be built from scratch. SF/SOF alone never could have done that in either nation while securing large sections of the country, its infrastructure, and people.

We also have a failure of imagination when it comes to the need to use war and ground forces to restore stability. Obviously if North Korea fell apart tomorrow or war erupted and we won, a massive subsequent stability problem would exist that could not be solved without external military ground forces. The same applies in Syria unless through some unlikely miracle the nation could be divided via diplomacy alone. Otherwise, some manner of external military force will be involved on the ground or the problems will remain or get worse.

Airpower would not ensure a non-extremist Syrian government or prevent their control of WMD. Bombing chemical WMD is not an option. Could an external coalition force including Turk and Saudi militaries take charge with the U.S. ground forces in a "safer" haven of a new Kurd territory of Syria, inside Turkey, and in Jordan supporting smaller U.S. forces securing WMD, and other allies by air and air assault. Likewise, the U.S. could stay behind in South Korea to ensure its security while South Koreans entered the former North Korea to maintain stability on one end with China and Russia controlling other areas further north.

How do we provide U.S. ground forces their own "safer" sanctuary? Perhaps that is the sole means of ensuring stability is restorable without giving the impression of occupation. We somehow made it work in the Balkans. It clearly worked after WWII in two theaters with two cultures. We have deterred war in Europe and Korea for decades without U.S. casualties or extreme cost of ground forces. Why do we believe that because insurgencies result when U.S. forces assist stability, peacekeeping, and deterrence in lands dominated by Islamic-extremists that they necessarily will result in other areas of the world?

We never will crush people and obliterate cities like Russia did in Chechnya. We won't attempt another early 1900s Philippines again. How do we stabilize the world and prevent problems of terror and nuclear proliferation (and inevitable use) without fixing problems on the ground to ensure politics by other means is achieved. "Air mail," "messages in a bottle," and small numbers of SF/SOF alone are short-term Band-Aids that cannot solve stability and transition problems on the ground where people actually live in multi-millions over broad territories often far from the sea.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 04/20/2013 - 5:20am

In reply to by Bill M.


No one is debating policy here, all I am doing is offering what I believe is a more accurate framework upon which policy decisions can be based. When the military perpetuates the idea that insurgency is war and that insurgency can be defeated through warfare (please, really, name a single example where an insurgency was actually resolved in this manner. And the crushing of a particular organization, or the deferring of active challenge for 10 or 20 years until some new group can rise from the conditions of insurgency still very much alive within the people does not count), we will continue to make bad policy choices.

The miltary needs to stop playing the victim. Our deeply flawed military perspective on insurgency is a powerful enabler of the very type of governance that creates these conditions in the first place.

Bill M.

Fri, 04/19/2013 - 11:30pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I don't mind debating policy, but at the end of the day the military must execute the task it is given, so the tactical and practical are very important to us. You know that, so it isn't preaching, but a request to stop dismissing the value of the tactical.

Our nation doesn't get involved in most insurgencies around the world, and in a few select situations we provide various levels of support to an insurgency (UW), and in other cases we support the host nation (FID) because our national leadership had directed this because they believe it is in our interest to do so. In worse case scenarios we become an occupying power and conduct COIN against the resistance, which in my opinion requires a much different approach than FID doctrine (doing versus enabling/assisting). We can argue the decision until we're blue in the face, but at the end of the day the military still needs to relook its doctrine to achieve its given missions. Your points are important and hopefully inform policy makers, but we still need to discuss the tactical and practical. That is the nature of being a professional military force under civilian leadership.

To your next point, I think there are a lot of reasons that insurgencies begin, one being the point you focus on about governance, but other reasons include greed (coup/insurgency approach to gain control of resources), ethnic hatred, etc.

I'm not sure I buy the argument that security forces cannot defeat an insurgency since history offers counterarguments to that position, but then again it depends upon your interpretation of defeat. However, one opposing argument is is that any government whose security forces are being defeated at the tactical/practical level by an insurgency has a strategic impact, because government reform alone will provide no incentive for the insurgency to stop if they realize they can achieve their ends through military action. If the insurgency realizes its cannot win militarily then perhaps government reforms can result in the end of the insurgency.


Sat, 04/20/2013 - 1:40am

In reply to by Bill C.

The insurgencies that concern us tend to be those involving "foreign entities", so those tend to be at or near the center of our discussions... but I think you'd find that "foreign entities" are in most cases not a major factor in insurgencies, beyond those involving resistance against foreign occupation. For the most part I'd say issues of local concern are much more likely motivators.

Bill C.

Sat, 04/20/2013 - 12:04am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

For COL Jones:

If the current system, that is the root cause of the insurgency, is one in which the host nation government works to service the requirements of foreign entities -- often at the expense of the very different wants, needs and desires of the local populations -- then in these cases also can security forces only do two things:

a. Protect the current system (this frequently requiring that the foreign entities send security forces, equipment and capabilities of their own to help these unpopular host nation governments) or

b. Create time for the local government to "cure" itself by (1) transitioning away from working for the foreign entities and by (2) beginning the process of working for its own populations?

If this latter approach were to be adopted by a local government/governor then, depending on the strategic importance of the subject country/region, would we not expect that the foreign entities would intervene to prevent such unfavorable transitions? This providing that these countries' security forces would then come to be used -- no longer against their own people (as in "a" or "b" above) -- but now against the forces and/or populations of the unwelcome foreign entities?

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 04/19/2013 - 10:31am

In reply to by Dayuhan

Bill, Dayuhan's example fits into the "practical and tactical" aspect of why men join an insurgent organization. Why join the insurgents rather than the police? As he says, people what to be a part of something that they believe can prevail, or simply something dedicated to the eradication of something they believe strongly must go. Every person has their own wide range of personal factors for making that decision.

But that does not even touch the larger question, the strategic and fundamental question of why is there insurgency in some place to begin with. The insurgent organization is not the insurgency. Such organizations are mere symptoms of much deeper conditions that come to exist in a society. I realize this is an inconvenient truth. Certainly it is inconvenient for those in power in such places, as it means there is something fundamentally flawed about how they govern. In the Philippines it is not the faults of any one government or leader, it is woven into the fabric of the form of society left behind by 300 years of Spanish colonialism, and then well stirred in more recent times by others, such as the Japanese and the Americans.

This is also an inconvenient truth for those in the security force business; because it means that security forces cannot "defeat" an insurgency. Security forces can only do two things: first, and most often, they protect the current system that is at the root of causation for the existence of the very insurgents they seek to defeat; second, and less common, security forces can create time and space for a system of governance to work to cure itself.

Understanding insurgents is tactical. Understanding insurgency is strategic. We love tactical, so we tend to over focus on that. Besides, it is convenient to do so.

What is "over played" IMO is the idea that insurgency is something that must be or can be "defeated." No, insurgency is simply a clear metric that governance is fundamentally broken or inappropriate as it affects the population group(s) the insurgents emerge from, are supported by, find sanctuary within, and represent.


Fri, 04/19/2013 - 12:26am

In reply to by Bill M.

It's less a theory than an example, and I certainly wouldn't want to apply it to all situations, though I think it's worth considering in examinations of individual motivation.

I do think governance plays a role in stimulating insurgency, though I also think the "hearts and minds" approaches often focus in the wrong places. Providing services or building infrastructure are nice things to do, but I don't think many people insurge because their government isn't providing services or infrastructure. People fight Government because they see government or its local representatives as a direct threat to them. Once that fight is ongoing individuals may join for any number of reasons; young men being what they are this may be as much about getting a gun and being part of a group of tough guys as it is about any specific grievance. Without some level of grievance, though, there isn't likely to be a fight for them to join.

I think where a lot of hearts and minds stuff goes astray is in the assumption that grievances based on abusive, exploitative, or otherwise threatening behaviour directed by those who govern at those they govern are going to be addressed by building roads or bridges and holding free medical clinics.

Bill M.

Thu, 04/18/2013 - 11:40pm

In reply to by Dayuhan


In this case I think your theory makes more sense than Bob's. I think the political/good governance theory is over played, and identity and psychological factors not fully appreciated. We have seen in numerous cases where government reform and so called legitimacy didn't quell an insurgency, nor has the so called hearts and minds approach. I think this article touches on some important concepts and hope the concepts are expanded upon to the point they can inform and hopefully transform our doctrinal approach when we decide to get involved in these situations.

One thing we need to look at more closely at, especially at the tactical level, are loyalty ties that bind these different identity groups. What exactly motivates people to turn in their friends or remain loyal to the end, whether we're talking about insurgents, mafias, street gangs, or U.S. service members. This is extremely hypothetical, but if we could discover the nature of the glue that binds them together and then could dissolve it that could significantly reduce a movement's ability to sustain itself. We sure as heck didn't do that effectively in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

The quote from Gen. McChrystal omits a very important factor: perception of probable outcome. Even if people prefer the Government to the insurgents, if they think the insurgents are likely to win they will not actively support the Government. Nobody wants to be caught on the losing side. The idea that the populace determines the outcome of an insurgency may be entrenched in our doctrine but it isn't always shared by individual members of the populace, who do not see themselves determining the outcome and are largely concerned with self-reservation. This is one area in which foreign support for a counterinsurgency effort may be a disadvantage in the perception wars. If people feel that the Government is dependent on foreign support and will collapse if it is withdrawn, they may be hesitant to join the program, because they know the foreign support is capricious and they don't want to get caught in the wreckage if it is withdrawn.

One thing I observed in Mindanao back in the day was that individual young men often joined armed groups, whether rebel, official Government, unofficial Government, or criminal for reasons totally unconnected to the goals or ideologies of the groups concerned. Being part of an armed group provided protection, a sense of belonging and membership, a degree of respect, a sense of power and significance. Which group was chosen to provide those benefits was mostly a function of where any given individual's relatives or close connections were affiliated.

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 04/18/2013 - 2:54pm

Why men join insurgent organizations and why insurgencies happen are, IMO, two VERY different questions. The first is "tactical and practical" and can draw from factors that strike chords with individuals across the spectrum of Dr. Maslow's hierarchy. The second is "strategic and fundamental," and in my research and experience draws far more heavily upon critical perceptions of how the systems of governance (foreign and domestic, formal and informal) affect/shape certain critical perceptions among the population group in question in ways based upon primarily the top of the hierarchy.

Naturally stable societies have systems of governance that "win hearts and minds" every day in how they go about their business in a manner that nurtures those critical perceptions. The idea that some foreign power can go into some society and somehow create these perceptions for a government that has not been able or interested in doing so of its own accord is hubris. To believe that one can go in and remove some government and replace it with one designed to favor the foreign power and also somehow create these perceptions is insanity.

We have in our history and doctrine good bit of both this type of hubris and insanity. Certainly FM 3-24 and our current campaign plans are rooted in it.