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This article makes the case that knowing how insurgencies last so long can help to understand why they last so long. Moreover, it argues that only by answering the ‘how’ question that we can develop better means of defeating the insurgent temporal attrition strategy. Insurgencies can seem immortal because they develop adaptive, self-perpetuating solutions to the ‘problems of mobilization’, which are a set of actions that every armed group must be able to perform in order to mobilize for war. When insurgencies have developed such adaptive solutions they can be very difficult to defeat because the group may adapt to any immediate destruction of one of its functions. The means to defeat insurgencies lies in considering the second order consequences of how one action may lead the group to adapt. Then the strategy demands choosing those actions that will leave the group weaker in the long run.
It can seem like insurgencies are immortal. Although insurgent groups tend to be weak in the traditional military sense, even at times fragile, they seem to be able to bounce back from even the most disastrous of events. The issue is particularly poignant right now with the US contemplating what will happen in Iraq, offensives against the Taliban and Al Qaeda seemingly on the ropes after the death of Osama bin Laden.
Why do insurgencies last so long? Conventional wars can be immensely more destructive but they seem to end quickly. World War I lasted only a few years and World War II not much longer. Vietnam dragged on for a decade and it appears that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will last even longer. What is so different about unconventional militaries that makes them last so long? The hope is that by understanding why insurgent groups survive so long, means can be developed for shortening insurgent conflicts.
One traditional answer to this question is that insurgents gain an advantage against counterinsurgent forces in lengthening wars. As many insurgency theorists have noted, insurgents can trade space for time. They calculate that they can outlast conventional forces and that as soon as the conventional forces give up, the insurgency will win. As the Taliban famously boast “NATO has all the watches but we have all the time.” It’s true, such a ‘temporal attrition strategy’ is a good way to defeat a conventional enemy and outlasting him is just as good as defeating him outright.
But, this temporal attrition strategic rationale does not answer the question completely. For, why do insurgents go on fighting when it is clear that they will never win? The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), for instance, has continued to fight on long after it became clear that they would never defeat the Uganda government. Indeed, the group no longer even resides in Uganda but rather exists as a sort of nomadic raiding party, traveling throughout Central Africa.
Even when insurgents do continue to believe that they can win through outlasting the counterinsurgent forces, this answer has limits to its explanatory power. It tells us little about how the insurgencies come to determine and carry out their temporal attrition strategy. Nor does this give us much guidance on how to defeat the group, other than to say that one should attempt to outlast the insurgency. But, outlasting an insurgency is a mixed victory at best, for in outlasting the insurgents, the counterinsurgent forces will likely weaken themselves relative to other (potentially more powerful) foreign enemies, they risk alienating their own people (thus possibly laying the seeds for future insurgencies) and, at the least, there is a huge amount of human suffering on all sides that occurs as a result of such a strategy.
This article makes the case that the question of why insurgencies last so long can only be answered by knowing how they last so long, and that it is only by answering the how question that we can develop better means of defeating the insurgent temporal attrition strategy. Specifically, this article makes the case that insurgencies must overcome certain obstacles, what I refer to as ‘problems of mobilization’ in order to become insurgencies in the first place and to survive past the initial onslaught that they can expect from their enemies. In doing this, insurgencies create an organizational structure and pattern of behaviors which is at its base innately self-perpetuating and survival focused. Thus, by the time we reach the point at which we are calling an armed group of men an ‘insurgency’ the group has come to the point where its innate purpose, whether they consciously are aware of it or not, is to survive, just as the innate purpose of a nation-state is to survive. From here, a subset of insurgencies develop not only a capability to self-perpetuate but also to adapt to changes in the environment, thus allowing them to continue surviving even as the counterinsurgents find new means to threaten them. This article will go on to argue the most effective means of defeating insurgencies and shortening the length of conflicts is to surgically dissect the insurgency and disrupt the specific means by which the insurgents maintain their self-perpetuation. Specifically, this dissection must be done strategically, so that it does not afford the insurgency an opportunity to evolve into an even more dangerous organization.
Mobilizing to Fight
Armed groups - whether insurgencies, terrorist groups or warlord organizations - develop organizational structures and patterns of relationships that allow them to fight. Whatever the reason it is that an initial small group of men decides to fight, whether to reverse some political or religious wrong, to make some money or to simply empower themselves, is no matter. In the end, this group must solve some problems of mobilization if it is to do anything. For, at its basis, the men must recruit and motivate other men to fight, they must obtain the implements of war, not just weapons but also cloths, food, money and so on, and they must have some means of directing this force to fight.
The problems of motivation mean that a would-be armed group must find men to fight, convince them to join and then convince or compel them to continue fighting, even in the face of personal danger. This is no easy thing, as you must overcome all sorts of obstacles to not only social movements in general, such as the Free Rider Problem, but also psychological obstacles, such as that human survival instincts make it difficult to convince men to risk their lives.
The problems of logistics are more practical, yet no less easy to solve. Obtaining funds for an organization demands some sort of accumulation capacity and the luck of being around something that can be accumulated. Moreover, the problems are compounded by the fact that in most places on earth the means of making war, especially heavy weapons, are illegal and/or difficult to obtain.
The problems of command, control and communication (e.g. C3) are complex and difficult for any organization to master. Some form of organizational structure must be created, which is more or less centralized. A means of convincing or commanding men to act must be found, to include having the capacity to develop new tactics and strategies to carry out and then to teach and train men to use those tactics and strategies. Finally, some form of communication between leaders and followers must be established. Often times, this involves overcoming many technical barriers, ranging from the need to communicate across long distances where electricity may be scarce, to encrypting or otherwise keeping information secure.
There are many different possible solutions to these problems of mobilization. Each solution will depend on the particularities of the situation that the would-be armed group is in. For instance, if ethnic rivalries exist in a society, then ethnic bonds may be a possible way of motivating men, as occurred in the Balkans for example. Whereas if there are no ethnic divisions, as occurred for example in Somali, than another means of motivating people must be found, which in Somalia meant turning to clan. Similarly, if it is easy to find alluvial diamonds, then that may be a perfectly good way to fund an insurgency, as occurred in Sierra Leone and Angola. But if no readily available natural resources exist, then another means must be found to buy weapons, such as through aligning with a neighboring state’s government, such as in South Sudan with Ethiopia. Finally, a centralized command structure may work where insurgencies build themselves on the structure of a former military, such as the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), but in other cases a more dispersed C3 structure may need to be built in order to defend against enemies, as cellular terrorist groups employ.
Getting an armed group, whatever its background purpose or future, to survive means solving these problems. But, once you have put together your men, found them weapons and established a means to command them in battle, you can go about fighting your war. But, making up an organization is far different than that organization surviving. For, not only must armed groups organize themselves, they must do so in the face of adversaries who actively try to destroy them.
Continuing survival means finding solutions that can last, adapt and evolve. Not only do you have to overcome the essential difficulties of creating an organization, you must create such an organizational structure and pattern of relationships that it will be able to survive, and in theory overcome, competitors who would try to destroy it. Overcoming the free rider problem, for instance, is difficult enough, as any non-profit organization will tell you. Yet, overcoming the free rider problem when someone is actively attempting to kill your would-be members is even harder.
The state has ‘immune system capabilities’ allowing it to keep armed groups from solving the problems of mobilization, from anti-arms dealing laws to police forces to its own nationalistic motivations acting upon individuals. Armed groups must compete with other organizations for people, goods and so on. The state will have means of appeasing ethnic, nationalistic or other tendencies that cause men to fight. Businessmen will compete to obtain goods that an armed group might also try to get their hands on and so on. Not to mention that forming armed groups is almost universally illegal and so given even the slightest whiff of one being formed, most states will use internal security services and the police to immediately arrest and detain any would be insurgent leaders. For these reasons, armed groups are fairly rare.
Nonetheless, armed groups do sometimes form. Even more rare are armed groups that last long enough to establish insurgencies, because to do so means employing very complex and adaptable solutions. This means existing in a niche that allows the armed group to survive, and that demands that society, the economy and the environment be ready. There must be a workforce, so to speak, which is ready to be recruited, there must be available weapons and money and equipment, and there must be an environment where the armed group won’t immediately be defeated by what will always be a much more powerful state. Typically this means the failure of the state, hence why we see armed groups in failed states. But, when these pieces do come together, armed groups have the advantage, because once an armed group has developed the ability to self-perpetuate itself, it is very difficult to stop it.
Armed groups that do overcome all of these obstacles to mobilizing and then surviving have necessarily instituted robust organizational structures and patterns of relationships which allow them to survive in the face of the dangers and adversities of the world, whether those are due to human nature, organizational management difficulties or the attacks of an adversary. The solutions that they institute to the problems of mobilization must be self-perpetuating. Given that there will always be attrition, new men will need to be recruited. As soon as shots are fired, fighters must continue to be motivated to remain in the fight. As soon as ammunition runs low, a means to find and transport more ammunition must be found. When the fighting force comes up against the enemy, tactics must be carried out. As soon as one leader is captured or killed, a new one, who has been trained, must replace him.
Most importantly in the long run as the counterinsurgent forces adapt, new insurgent tactics and strategies must be developed, communicated and deployed. This adaptability is central to the immortality of insurgencies. Many armed groups may form but as soon as the counterinsurgent forces find weaknesses in those groups, they will exploit them. If an armed group is not able to adapt, then they will perish. If, however, the armed group has the internal resources to sense changes in the counterinsurgent strategy, develop a counterstrategy and then deploy it, then they have a chance. This means having an intelligence structure in place that can sense changes in the environment, such as through human intelligence networks; then a leadership structure in place that can take in that information and decide on a new strategy; and finally a communication ability to effectively change the organization. More generally, if the organizational structure is too rigid, it may not adapt in time or if the organizational structure is too decentralized, it may not be able to effectively make change.
This process of adaptation becomes self-reinforcing. The insurgent organization will create doctrine and mindsets that promote survival and adaptation. These doctrines and mindsets will then be taught to new recruits and so on and so on. The approach to adaptation may be as simple as trial and error or more sophisticated insurgencies may implement complex strategies of adaptation and actively study previous insurgencies in order to learn how to combat new threats.
Plenty of armed groups fail at early stages, but the ones that do succeed are those that have created robust organizations that can adapt to changes in the environment. It is a similar process to survival of the fittest in the natural world. Indeed, armed groups may be seen as being like viruses, or like any living thing, in that manner. The biological metaphor is apt.
For example, many insurgencies formed in Uganda after the defeat of Tito Okello’s forces by the National Resistance Movement (NRM). These groups formed out of a fear that the NRM might commit genocide upon the Acholi people as retribution for Okello’s action (Okello was an ethnic Acholi). The different guerilla groups had very different organizations, for instance the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) was very much based on ritualistic and religious motivations, while the Ugandan People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) was a much more traditional guerilla army. All of these groups were targeted by the NRM. Yet, it was only the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) which ended up surviving until the present day because the LRA evolved the right organizational structure, tactics and strategies to continue fighting. The LRA combined many of HSM’s motivational aspects along with the UPDA’s traditional guerilla fighting capabilities. When the NRM did find weaknesses in the LRA, such as by taking away its recruiting capability through a protected hamlet strategy or taking on its camps with the use of helicopter gunships, the LRA adapted, such as by turning to enforced conscription and the use of a highly dispersed and nomadic fighting forces. The LRA thus not only developed a means to survive but also a capability to adapt.
Why They Go On
Once an armed group develops an ongoing means to survive, the reasons behind why they began to fight cease to matter as much. Like states, armed groups have no reason to not continue to survive. The organizational structures and the individual mindsets and doctrines that they have created – whether on purpose or not – are ones which promote continued survival. To survive is the default. To stop surviving is something that only occurs by exception.
In other words, some armed groups last so long because they can. The solutions to the problems of mobilization have demanded that the armed groups organize in such a way as that they will continue to perpetuate themselves. For example, the motivation system that has allowed the group to continue to motivate individuals to fight will continue to exist regardless of changes in the environment, indeed, even if the objective reason for the motivation in the first place has ended. In particular, the internal organizational structures allowing a group to adapt demand an emphasis on survival, for why else would they adapt? This emphasis on survival persists and continues to demand adaptation and survival. The process is self-reinforcing.
Thus, for example, even after the Mujahedeen defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the same motivation system, including an admixture of Islamic beliefs and an anti-Western sentiment continued to compel men and organizations to fight. The solution to the problem of motivation for these armed groups stayed in place and allowed them to continue surviving. Some groups continued to evolve even further. In particular, the Taliban grew out of this post-Soviet chaos and has continued to fight until the present day.
As a general rule, armed groups will continue to do what they do – fight - unless there is a good reason for them to stop. For example, they are wholly and completely defeated (a fairly rare event) or they take power from the government (a slightly less rare event such as TPLF in Ethiopia) and so in effect become a much larger and more powerful survival machine.
A Stake to the Heart
Taking this view leads to some thoughts on what to do about insurgencies and, in particular, how to stop them. It is possible to disrupt certain nodes in the organization which would make it impossible for them to continue to survive. These include the bases for the organization: the ability to recruit and motivate personnel, the ability to find enough equipment to survive and the ability to lead and direct the organization. It is at this stage that traditional counterinsurgency theory begins.
Once one accepts that there is an insurgency (or terrorist threat or warlord or other armed group for that matter), one can come up with means to target and destroy that threat. Conventional approaches to warfare adopt the approach of defeating armed groups outright, that is to say, in the field using force on force. Plenty of counterinsurgency wars have been fought this way, as for example, the Vietnam War was fought for a long time, where US forces used search and destroy missions to find, fix and finish Viet Cong forces.
Just as often as this approach is taken, it fails, and new approaches must be taken. Other approaches to counterinsurgency attempt to indirectly destroy insurgencies through attacking their support structures. This includes such strategies as ‘hearts and minds’ in which the potential recruits to insurgencies are induced to the counterinsurgent side. It also includes financial approaches, such as cutting off the flow of money and weapons to the groups. Or, it includes attempts at disrupting the command, control and communication of the insurgents, such as through disinformation campaigns, interrogating members of cells in order to find leadership, or spying on forms of communications, from radios to the internet. These indirect approaches do in the end get at wearing down and destroying the insurgents’ solutions to problems of mobilization.
However, it must be kept in mind that armed groups, just like any human organization, can adapt. So, just because you’ve stopped them from perpetuating themselves using one process does not mean that you’ve stopped them altogether. They may come to find another means to survive. For example, if you’ve stopped an armed group from motivating people to fight through nationalistic fervor, they may find some other means to motivate people, such as through bribing them with the spoils of war.
Indeed, the adaptation of insurgencies to changing conditions has led to much of the intractability of many insurgent conflicts. For example, throughout the Cold War, several insurgencies were started, often based on political and economic backing by the US or the USSR. This made solving the problems of mobilization a little easier, as groups had the ready motivation of divergent ideological viewpoints and they could obtain weapons and training from one side or the other. When the Cold War ended, much of this backing ended, yet the groups continued to survive in some cases. They adapted. For example, when the US stopped backing National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), the group turned to diamond sales as a means of supporting its activities.
Defeating insurgencies may therefore not be so easy as simply driving a stake through their heart or ‘lopping off the head’ and watching the body fall. The groups may adapt to changing conditions, even to conditions that may be seen as completely removing the purpose for their fight in total, as for example UNITA lost much of its purpose. Yet, they go on because of the reasons noted – their organizational structure is such that that is essentially what they do, what they are, and their adaptive strategies reinforce a need to survive and adapt. They are survival machines and unless something is able to destroy that survival instinct, they will continue to adapt and survive. For insurgencies, survival means continuing to make war.
The danger of failing to kill the insurgency all at once is that by letting it adapt, you may allow it to mutate into a form that is much worse than that which you initially fought. For, attacking an insurgency in one way may lead it to adapt in unpredictable manners. For example, in taking away its political backing, it became much more difficult to negotiate with UNITA, because it was now independent of politics for survival since it could rely completely on economic means to support itself. The political economy of war literature has examined this issue in depth as it has occurred in Liberia, Sierra Leone and numerous other states. In fact in many cases, the adaptive version of insurgencies may become more dangerous than the original version.
The LRA offers a good example. The Ugandan government defeated the LRA in the traditional way reserved for combating insurgencies. They removed the LRA’s support amongst the Acholi community through gaining support by not committing a genocide on the Acholis (as was feared), carrying out an extreme version of the protected hamlet strategy, and hunting down the group and forcing it to take flight to Sudan and elsewhere.
Yet, in so completely divorcing the group from its base, they created a monster. The LRA mutated into a completely new form of insurgency, one which used extreme violence and brainwashing to recruit and motivate its personnel and one which was completely and utterly nomadic in existence. In the end, the LRA has become a virus that can exist in any community, whether Ugandan, Sudanese, Congolese or so on. In theory, it could spread forever now that it is divorced from any regional basis.
A similar process appears to be occurring with Al Qaeda. Before the attacks of 9/11, the group had some semblance of a centralized system and did attempt to localize itself to some extent, particularly through the use of training camps in Afghanistan, and alternatively to there, Sudan. After 9/11, the US attacked and hunted the group so completely that having any real centralized command and control structure became impossible, as nodes could be destroyed so quickly after being discovered. The idea of any territorial basis was even more threatened, as a combination of more than a few Al Qaeda fighters in any location would very quickly lead to attacks.
For some time, it appeared that this strategy might work. However, it didn’t in the end. Al Qaeda adapted to this counterterrorist (read counterinsurgency) strategy. It dispersed itself into an even more networked structure, with multiple nodes throughout the world and no centralized training facilities. Indeed, the group went so far in decentralizing itself that it created a whole new form of insurgency, a global one based not so much on a centralized leadership, as a centralized approach to terrorism and a communal belief system and shared set of tactics, strategies, motivational themes, financing systems and so on. In other words, the group adapted its solutions to problems of command, control and communication and to problems of recruitment and motivation. This has made the group not only more difficult to defeat, it has made the idea of defeat difficult to even imagine. Even ‘cutting off the head’ of the organization, in the killing of bin Laden, does not seem to have done much to deter the organization.
Now we are left with an organization that may be truly close to immortality. It is difficult to even consider how to kill once and for all an organization that is undead, in that it has no single system to defeat. Yet, even here, the problems of mobilization point to a solution. The group must still recruit and motivate individuals. There are set means of doing this, which can be combated. Logistics must still take place, as these fighters must attempt to obtain weapons and other means of fighting. Some form of communication and control must occur, even if it is only general sensitization as to what is important to attack.
Killing the Undead
Not only must counterinsurgents cut off a survival node (or solution to the problem of mobilization) they must also consider the group’s ‘adjacent possible’ and cut off those solutions. That is to say, it demands more than just understanding the current state of an armed group but also understanding the logic of how the group works and the environment of possibilities under which it lives, thereby understanding the possible solutions that are open to it to solving its organizational needs. These possible solutions are the ‘adjacent possible’, or those solutions which may be had based on the current state of the organization and its environment.
For example, an insurgency in an area where there are no diamonds present may not use diamond mining as a means to support itself but an insurgency in a culture dominated by clans may turn to clan loyalty as a means to motivate individuals. Similarly, an insurgency which has not developed an effective communication system may not likely turn to developing a highly dispersed structure, while an insurgency which has mastered long distance communication may become more dispersed.
This makes truly defeating armed groups incredibly difficult, helping to explain why they last so long. Defeat means not only going after the immediate tactical win but also considering all the other possibilities for adaptation and attacking those possibilities simultaneously. But this strategic view does leave hope. In order to defeat insurgencies, we must in the end be smarter and more adaptable then they are.
Whatever counters to the solutions to the problems of mobilization which are developed, the counterinsurgent must keep in mind not only the present solution but also the possible ways that the group may continue to mutate, evolve and adapt and come up with counters to those next solutions as well. The scary thing to keep in mind is that Al Qaeda may continue to evolve the means by which it survives and it may evolve into something even more dangerous than it already is. This is exactly what occurred when the LRA was detached from the Acholi political community and became a merciless nomadic threat to all people in Central Africa.
Luckily, there are only so many adjacent possible solutions to the problems of mobilization. The key is to consider them all and attack them all simultaneously or to attack those which will leave the organization weaker and less threatening in the long run.
Lessons for Strategy
This then leads to an even deeper consideration of strategy. When defining how to defeat an insurgency it becomes important to not just contemplate the immediate defeat of the organization but also to consider how a particular action may change the nature of the organization. Strategists must look two or moves ahead of the game. They must ask themselves, how will my attack on this insurgent group’s finances change how the insurgent group finances itself in the future? What is the adjacent possible? Will taking away a singular financing system cause the group to be motivated by economic gain and thereby lead to more preying upon the local populace? In what way will killing or capturing some of the insurgency’s leaders cause the group to change its command system? Will those changes lead to a dispersal of command and fragmenting of the group’s hierarchy, thereby making a singularly defining peace process next to impossible in the future?
These second order questions of counterinsurgency are rarely asked but they are in the end more important than the immediate tactical questions of how to harm an insurgency. The most effective strategies will be those which lead to the armed group being weakened in the long run. This may mean tactical sacrifices, for example, as a particular leader of an insurgency is purposefully left alive, in exchange for strategic gains, for example so that in the long run the group has a more moderate approach. The goal of this strategic approach is to minimize the insurgencies temporal attrition strategy. Instead of thinking of a quick win, which is unlikely in any case, counterinsurgents should aim for the medium term win, making hard strategic choices early on in order for those choices to pay off with a weakened insurgency in the medium term. If we are to defeat insurgencies in manageable timelines, we must begin to ask these second order strategic questions.
 See: Vinci, Anthony Armed Groups and the Balance of Power: The International Relations of Terrorists, Warlords and Insurgents, Routledge, 2008 and “The ‘Problems of Mobilization’ and the Analysis of Armed Groups,” Parameters: US Army War College Quarterly – 36/1, Spring 2006
 See for instance, Doom, R. and K. Vlassenroot. "Kony's message: a new koine? The Lord's Resistance Army in Northern Uganda," African Affairs 98 (390) 1999 and Vinci, Anthony ‘The Strategic Use of Fear by the Lord’s Resistance Army’, Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2005
 See Ahmed Rashid. 2000. "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia," New Haven:Yale University Press and
 For example, as in Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, Headquarters, Dept. of the Army, 2006
 Just as counterinsurgents learn to adapt, as detailed by authors such as John Nagl, so to do insurgents. (Nagl, John, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, Univ. of Chicago, 2005).
 See for instance, David Keen, ‘The Economic Function of Violence in Civil Wars’ (Oxford, Eng.: Oxford Univ. Press for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1998); and Mats Berdal and David Malone, eds., Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars (London: Lynne Rienner, 2000).
 See: Existential Motivations in the Lord’s Resistance Army’s Continuing Conflict, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism – 30/4, Spring 2007
 See for instance the organizational structure of Al Qaeda pre-9/11, as detailed by for example Wright, Lawrence, Looming Tower, Vintage 2007 versus current readings of how the organization functions, such as conceived in the idea of Al Qaeda 2.0 (see for example, Bergan, Peter, The Longest War, Free Press, 2011)
 The ‘adjacent possible’ is an evolutionary theory concept developed by Stuart Kauffman.