Small Wars Journal

A Four Dimensional Model of Insurgency and the Centrality of ‘Perception and Polarization’ to Strategic Success

Fri, 08/23/2013 - 3:12pm

A Four Dimensional Model of Insurgency and the Centrality of ‘Perception and Polarization’ to Strategic Success

Haroro J. Ingram

Author’s Note

This article is a working paper designed to present the early findings of my research to the field, particularly the model of insurgency which is still in its early developmental stages. I look forward to receiving any feedback from the Small Wars Journal readership (

Editor’s Note

An earlier draft of this paper was first presented at the 2012 Australian Political Science Association annual conference (September 2012).


This paper presents a four dimensional model of insurgency/counterinsurgency that identifies military, structural, functional and ‘perception and polarization’ as the major pillars of an insurgent movement or counterinsurgency strategy. While the four pillars are distinct, the more interdependently they operate the greater the likelihood of holistic strategic success. This article argues that at the heart of ‘small wars’, partnering a quest for authority via mastery of the military, structural and functional dimensions, is a battle to shape the perceptions of a population in crisis by manipulating three critical factors – uncertainty, the breakdown of tradition and the Other – in order to polarize support towards themselves (e.g. the insurgency) and away from the other actor (e.g. the counterinsurgency). This paper contends that strategic success will go to the actor who can most effectively harness and channel military, functional and structural initiatives to successfully addresses the ‘perception and polarization equation’ by (i) attributing feelings of uncertainty and the perceived breakdown of tradition to the Other actor, while (ii) increasing certainty and helping to reinforce traditional socio-cultural dynamics in the target population. This article concludes by drawing this study’s major contentions into a brief analysis of the conflict in Afghanistan.

This paper presents a four dimensional model of insurgency/counterinsurgency that identifies military, structural, functional and ‘perception and polarization’ as the major pillars of an insurgent movement or counterinsurgency strategy. While the four pillars are distinct, the more interdependently they operate the greater the likelihood of holistic strategic success. This article argues that at the heart of ‘small wars’, partnering a quest for authority via mastery of the military, structural and functional dimensions, is a battle to shape the perceptions of a population in crisis by manipulating three critical factors – uncertainty, the breakdown of tradition and the Other – in order to polarize support towards themselves (e.g. the insurgency) and away from the other actor (e.g. the counterinsurgency). This paper contends that strategic success will go to the actor who can most effectively harness and channel military, functional and structural initiatives to successfully addresses the ‘perception and polarization equation’ by (i) attributing feelings of uncertainty and the perceived breakdown of tradition to the Other actor, while (ii) increasing certainty and helping to reinforce traditional socio-cultural dynamics in the target population. This article concludes by drawing this study’s major contentions into a brief analysis of the conflict in Afghanistan.


For countries such as the United States and Australia, the central politico-military concern in the coming decades will be how to balance a global power shift to the East, with all this implies for the recalibration of ‘conventional’ military capabilities to the Asia-Pacific region, and the reality that engaging in insurgencies will remain a perpetual concern for ensuring both regional and global stability. The globe’s dark corners of instability will inevitably witness insurgencies wherever the authority of the state is perceived to be either weak or illegitimate. These ‘small wars’ will, as they have throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries, act as cancers of instability that can threaten entire regions and, as actors leverage intra- and inter-regional alliances, even influence the global political landscape as ‘power blocs’ jostle for influence. Recent history has demonstrated how states strategically provide support to insurgent actors, both overtly and clandestinely, to influence the intra- and inter-regional political landscape. On the dawn of the ‘Asia-Pacific Century’, counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine and practice must continue to evolve and build upon the lessons of the recent and distant past. This paper seeks to contribute to this process via two objectives.

Firstly, this study presents a four dimensional (4D) model of insurgency arguing that each dimension – military, structural, functional and ‘perception and polarization’ – represents the central pillars of both an insurgent movement and the four strategic pillars of a successful COIN strategy. The first half of this paper explores the key features and implications of the 4D model arguing that, in contrast to the first three dimensions, the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension remains comparatively underdeveloped in COIN doctrine and practice. In contrast, insurgent movements have regularly demonstrated a nuanced appreciation of not just the importance but the centrality of the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension to strategic success.

The paper’s second major objective is to explore the nuances of the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension. It argues that a major focus of counterinsurgency initiatives must be to guide the perceptions of populations in crisis in order to drive their polarization towards support for the counterinsurgent/central authority and away from the insurgency. The model of polarization in this paper provides a paradigm through which it is possible to examine not only how populations in crisis interpret events and issues around them, but dictate how their allegiances are directed. The paper concludes with a brief assessment of the Afghan conflict framed by this study’s key findings.

A Four Dimensional (4D) Model of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency

Before presenting the 4D model of insurgency, it is important to broadly define the term ‘insurgency’ (for more, see Kilcullen 2009; US Army/Marine Corps Field Manual 3-24; Kilcullen 2010; Taber 2002). Rather than get stuck too deeply in a frivolous semantic argument, this paper contends that an ‘insurgency’ is a multidimensional campaign, typically embarked upon by non-state actors that strategically use violence often against state actors, that is designed to influence, if not completely change, the mechanisms and structures of power that exert influence over a ‘contested population’.[i] This multidimensional campaign is characterized by four key strategic pillars: functional, structural, military, and ‘perception and polarization’ dimensions. It follows that ‘insurgents’ either engage in or actively support the use of irregular/asymmetrical military operations and strategies against their opponents as part of a broader multidimensional strategy. However, a transition to conventional military operations and strategies is almost inevitable as military equilibrium is gradually reached between the insurgent and counterinsurgent forces. An ‘insurgent’ may engage in or provide support to activities in one (e.g. military), some (e.g. functional) or all four dimensions of an insurgency.

Figure 1 diagrammatically illustrates the model of insurgency by placing the functional, military, structural and ‘perception and polarization’ dimensions on a spectrum. This representation is designed to simultaneously show both the distinctions and interdependencies of the four strategic pillars. It is noteworthy that the four dimensions are reflective of both the mechanisms and symbols of state power and this underscores the central purpose of any insurgent movement: the execution of power and influence over a contested population whether at the state, provincial or village level. Conversely, it follows that these four dimensions represent the major strategic pillars of an effective COIN doctrine and strategy.

Figure 1: A Four Dimensional Model of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency

The four dimensions are defined as follows:

Structural: This refers to the ‘infrastructure’ of the state or insurgent authority. This dimension recognizes that any established central or aspirant ‘governing’ mechanism will devise and implement frameworks that order legitimate socio-cultural, political, coercive, economic and developmental action. These structures can include, for instance, a constitution, legal/judicial system, financial markets and law enforcement agencies. Structures are the infrastructure responsible for functions.

Functional: This dimension concerns the processes by which an established or aspirant authority maintains order in a target population. These are the ‘mechanisms’ that guide and drive processes of legitimate socio-cultural, political, coercive, economic and developmental action. The functional dimension may include, for example, the collection of taxes, mediation of civil disputes and the use of coercion to maintain order in a target population.

Military: The use or threat of violence to coerce actors – either opposing agents or the contested population – towards or away from engagement in or commitment to an established (e.g. state) or aspirant (e.g. insurgent) authority. A state’s use of force is typically an expression of legitimacy while a non-state actor’s (e.g an insurgent’s) use of force is typically designed to erode the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence (see Weber 1968).

Perception & Polarization: This refers to the ability of an actor to effectively shape how a population interprets and understands events and issues (perception) in order to drive the allegiance of the population towards themselves and away from the other actor (polarization). Acute perception of crisis psychologically primes individuals and groups for changing their cognitive perceptions; the more acute the crisis, the greater the potential for those changes to cognitive perceptions to be significant. Contested populations in insurgencies are in a state of crisis and this renders them especially susceptible to their perceptions of events and issues being shaped by the actors who effectively leverage three critical factors: uncertainty,[ii] the breakdown of tradition and the Other. These are the defining drivers of ‘perceptions of crisis’ and the actor who can effectively manipulate the way a population perceives these three factors will shape how that population interprets military, structural or functional initiatives. The perceptions of the population will largely be shaped by the actor who can achieve the following: (i) attribute uncertainty and the perceived breakdown of tradition to the Other (e.g. insurgent) actor, while (ii) increasing certainty[iii] and helping to reinforce traditional structures in the target population through their own (e.g. counterinsurgent) actions. In other words, attribute perceptions of crisis to the other actor while simultaneously tying the solution to oneself. Leveraging identity fault lines plays a central role in facilitating the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension because it is these complex identity paradigms that provide the ‘lens’ through which individual and collective cognitive perceptions in a society are shaped.

The 4D Model: Significant Observations and Their Implications

Prior to exploring the nuances of the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension, it is useful to identify several important observations which are pertinent to understanding this model and its conceptual and practical implications.

The distinction between structural and functional dimensions matters

The distinction between structural and functional dimensions is important in this model. Structures are the forums responsible for functions. In stable societies or states, both dimensions are typically interdependent (i.e. strong structures are functional). During insurgencies this is often not the case. A state authority may have many (if not all) of the structures of authority in place; however, these structures may not be functional. Conversely, insurgents may be perceived to be functionally strong by the contested population despite potentially having weak or even absent structures (see Kalyvas 2006; Kilcullen 2010). For example, state law enforcement structures may be present but perceived by the populace to be dysfunctional while the insurgent’s law enforcement capacity may be strong functionally without formal structures existing.

Functional or structural dominance in isolation is fleeting

While structures can be established but dysfunctional or, alternatively, functions are strong without formal structures, such conditions are inevitably unsustainable. For instance, present but dysfunctional structures will almost inevitably be superseded by informal functions without the presence of formal structures. Equally, strong functions will, in time, become formalized via overarching structures. This reality points to an inherent advantage to an insurgent movement confronted by a largely occupational counterinsurgent force whose resources and time is inevitably limited.

A failing counterinsurgency is not just being out-administered or out-governed, it is almost inevitably losing the ‘perception war’

Fall (1998), Kilcullen (2009), Kalyvas (2006) and Migdal (1988) assert that a COIN force that is losing an insurgency is being out-administered or out-governed by the insurgent movement. However, functional dominance is only half the story. Functional dominance is also likely to reflect a counterinsurgent force that has been unable to effectively shape the perceptions of the contested population, probably reflecting a misunderstanding of identity nuances in the populace, and thus an inability to drive polarization away from the insurgent force. The second half of this article explores these dynamics in greater detail.

Symbolism matters, especially in the application or threat of violence

The symbolic power of all four dimensions can be leveraged to shape perceptions and polarize the contested population. However, symbolism is particularly pertinent in the application of military force. The use of violence, as much as a mechanism of coercion, is highly symbolic as a demonstration of legitimacy and a derogation of the opponent’s claims to legitimacy. Military operations inevitably increase perceptions of crisis in a population and may rapidly polarize a population towards one side or the other. How a military action is perceived by a population will largely be reliant upon whether the counterinsurgent or insurgent has the ascendancy in the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension. It follows that the greater the impact upon the civilian population, especially in casualties, the more difficult this process naturally becomes for the actor who does not have ascendancy in the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension.

Changes in military strategy reflect deeper transitions in an insurgency

Insurgent actors will typically use irregular asymmetrical military operations in the early stages of a campaign. An increasing use of conventional military strategies by an insurgent force almost inevitably reflects a growing equilibrium between insurgent and counterinsurgent forces. Conversely, an increasing application of asymmetrical operational strategy is most likely to reflect one or both of the following dynamics: the growing ascendency of the counterinsurgent militarily and/or an insurgent strategy designed to maximize the efficiency of resource application driven by a diminution of resources, preparation for a combat ‘surge’, or a ‘settling in’ to facilitate a long term strategy.

State-centricity will always hamstring COIN initiatives, especially when applied in tribe-oriented societies

The state-centricity of the counterinsurgent, both conceptually and practically, may unwittingly blind and hamstring the counterinsurgent to the significance of highly localized grass-roots factors that are critical in the efficacy of structural, functional, military and ‘perception and polarization’ strategies. One of the more pertinent examples is the tendency for COIN practitioners to favor structural and military dominant COIN strategies. Such approaches presume that an insurgency is best defeated by the application of military force as a mechanism to provide a sense of security for the population, create ‘space’ for structures to be established and ‘time’ for those structures to become functional. The underlying assumption is that these structures will eventually provide symbols around which a shared collective identity emerges.[iv] The harsh reality is that the mere presence of structures is never enough to achieve functionality or the allegiance of the population around those structures as symbols of a new collective identity. Such an approach is even less likely to work in tribe-based societies for whom the state is often seen as an alien and disruptive apparatus. Often the tribe’s experience of the state is negative because the state, when it exerts itself, is seen to impose on functioning tribal structures and catalyse the fragmentation of traditional social hierarchies. This inevitably is seen to, at one level, drive broad societal breakdown while, at another level, drive a perceived loss of identity. It is little wonder that many tribal societies often view the state as an intermittently malevolent, but perpetually inept, force. Effectively overcoming this reality will require a recognition of the interdependent relationships between the structural, functional, military and ‘perception and polarization’ dimensions and channeling these into coherent COIN strategy, doctrine and practice.

The ‘perception and polarization’ dimension must act as the paradigm through which planning for the other three dimensions is analysed and assessed

The ‘small war’ actor, whether insurgent or counterinsurgent, who effectively leverages the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension can potentially transform any event or action – including their own failures or even their opponent’s successes – to further polarize the population towards support for themselves. For example, ‘information operations’[v] are typically used by COIN practitioners to shape the way a contested population perceives structural, functional or military initiatives. In contrast, insurgent actors tend to use structural, functional and military initiatives to meet the objectives of their ‘information operations’. Given the centrality of ‘winning’ the support of contested populations during an insurgency, this paper argues that the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension needs to play a central role in strategic and operational planning at all levels.

Understanding the ‘Perception and Polarization’ Dimension: The Centrality of ‘Identity’ and ‘Crisis’

To examine the dynamics of the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension, it is useful to begin with definitions of several key terms. ‘Perception’ refers to the way individuals and groups view, interpret and understand events and issues. It follows that perception guides cognitive, emotional and volitional processes and thus shapes how individuals and groups respond to events, issues, the in-group and out-groups. The relationship between perception and contextual factors works the other way also. That is, contextual factors – such as events, issues and actor’s actions –inevitably help to shape the way an individual or group perceives the world. Identity also plays a critical role in individual and collective perceptions because it forms the cognitive paradigms through which perception occurs and is guided. In other words, identity paradigms are the ‘glasses’ through which the world is understood and actions legitimized. The second key term, ‘polarization’, refers to the process by which individuals and groups increasingly adhere to the ‘perception narrative’ of an actor/s over the ‘perception narrative’ of other actor/s. This may lead to individuals or groups within a contested population consenting or submitting to the authority of an actor over other actors. Both ‘identity’ and a milieu defined by perceived crisis are central features of understanding polarization.

‘Identity’ is defined here as that package of values, rooted in an historical narrative, strategically constructed in response to a socio-historically specific reality. An identity first and foremost represents values and characteristics that are pertinent to (i) who has adopted the identity, (ii) who is applying the identity and, of course, (iii) the historical context within which it exists (for more see Ingram 2011). It follows that the identity may represent very different values to different people dependent on these and other factors. Ultimately, identity is forged by two processes: identity formation and identity production. ‘Identity formation’ refers to the strategic construction of the in-group identity by the in-group while ‘identity production’ refers to the strategic construction of the out-group/Other identity by the in-group (see Figure 2). In societies characterized by complex familial, tribal, ethnic, religious, provincial, linguistic and national identities, with influences both within and between identities constantly shaping individual and group perceptions and behaviors, the context of war merely makes these processes even more complex and vital to survival.

Figure 2: Identity Formation and Production

Figure 2 illustrates the processes of identity formation and production. Both processes are critical in the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension as actors seek to strategically harness and shape these dynamics in the contested population. Three factors – the Other, uncertainty and the breakdown of tradition – are critical to the identity formation and production processes. Typically, these drivers operate in tandem and interdependently magnify their influence upon the perceptions of the individual and collective through a process of ‘cyclical cognitive reinforcement’ (Figure 3). For example, the prominence of the Other as a driver of identity construction is typically accentuated when (i) the presence of the Other is recent (e.g. a newly established central government apparatus), (ii) a disparity between the socio-cultural influence of the in-group and the Other is significant (e.g. one tribe having greater influence than another tribe), and (iii) there is an increased overt presence of the Other (e.g. an occupying military force). While the identity formation and production processes can be both positively and/or negatively driven, small wars are contexts that inevitably create the most extreme and acute perceptions of crisis in a population. If an actor can effectively shape a contested population’s perceptions of even one aspect of this complex dynamic (e.g. how the Other is perceived), this can then be leveraged to create cognitive openings through which the processes of ‘cyclical cognitive reinforcement’ can be strategically harnessed to shape perceptions and polarize support.

Figure 3: Cyclical Cognitive Reinforcement: The Drivers of Identity, Perception of Crisis, and the In- and Out-Group Identity Paradigms

During small wars, perceptions of crisis are inevitably acute for contested populations.  Uncertainty, far from an abstract existential issue, is experienced in not just the changes to day to day life but the perpetual struggle to survive in a conflict zone. The breakdown of tradition is explicitly showcased with the death of every village elder, the destruction of socio-culturally significant symbols from farmland to places of communal meeting, or the encroachment of government structures that are seen to undermine functioning tribal structures. The awareness of one’s Other is perhaps the factor which causes the most angst for contested populations. An occupying force almost inevitably represents the latest, if the most despised, Other actor in a long list of Others whose threat ranges from mere nuisance (e.g. an aspiring familial rival in a patri-lineal tribal structure) to mortal threat (e.g. insurgent actor). It is little wonder that, in a context of such acute perception of crisis, contested populations are highly susceptible to ‘perception narratives’ that clearly and effectively tie the Other to uncertainty and the breakdown of tradition. As increased feelings of uncertainty fuel the perceived breakdown of tradition and accentuate awareness of the Other, perceptions of crisis increase and inevitably drive and accelerate the identity formation and production processes (see Figure 3). The tendency for the drivers of identity to operate in tandem, especially during periods of perceived crisis, further fuels this process of ‘cyclical cognitive reinforcement’ (see Figure 3). To master the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension, the COIN actor must recognize these powerful forces and harness them by leveraging the identity fault-lines of the target population. Crisis motivates a search for certainty (defined as simplicity, stability, understanding and predictability) typically expressed in a narrative that draws heavily upon their most pertinent and central identity paradigm.

No individual is defined by a single identity. The reality is that an individual expresses a range of different identities often dependent on context (e.g. a group inevitably is an expression of a shared identity). For instance, within the context of the tribe, individuals will place centrality on their tribal identity. In other words, the ‘tribal identity’ reaches primacy (see Figure 4).  Of course, outside of this context, that same individual may place primacy upon another identity over others. In the context of the family, it may be the ‘father’ or ‘mother’ identity; regarding financial issues, it may be the ‘occupation’ identity. Nevertheless, in societies in which ethno-tribal allegiances are central, the tribal identity which has reached primacy will often act as a mechanism for guiding the behavior of day to day life, especially regarding socio-cultural behavioral norms, economic practices and legal processes. Furthermore, at least in this example, the tribal identity is likely to guide behavior and actions in other contexts (see Figure 4). After all, the identity that has reached primacy often acts as a mediatory identity within other identity contexts (e.g. religion, occupation or nation). Figure 4 thus graphically represents the cognitive paradigm through which the individual and group perceives the world. By recognizing the identity that has reached primacy, as well as other significant identities, it is then possible to leverage these identity nuances to shape the target population’s perceptions and drive polarization.

Figure 4: Primacy of the Tribal Identity

Perceptions of events, actions and behaviors change as the cognitive interpretation of the individual is shaped and reshaped in accordance with shifts in the identity paradigm (for more, see Ingram 2011). For perception narratives to be effective they must shape perceptions of structural, functional and military activities by leveraging identity nuances in the population. Clearly, the worst case scenario for the COIN practitioner is the ‘insurgent’ identity reaching primacy in the contested population. However, it is important to consider that the primacy of an identity is not permanent and can potentially change as (i) the values associated with the identity change and (ii) the socio-historical context changes. The overarching conclusion remains the same for success in the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension: (i) attribute uncertainty and the perceived breakdown of tradition to the Other actor while (ii) increasing certainty and helping to reinforce traditional structures in the target population through one’s own actions.

During small wars, actors are constantly trying to either drive the primacy of identity in contested populations towards their own identity or leverage pre-existing identity nuances to drive commitment and allegiance to their authority. As a target population polarizes towards actor ‘a’ over ‘b’, communicating a ‘perception narrative’ that resonates with the population will become increasingly easier for the former and increasingly difficult for the latter. This tendency is best understood by reference to the process of cyclical cognitive reinforcement described earlier. As individuals and groups increasingly adhere to a ‘perception narrative’, a ‘cognitive domino effect’ occurs whereby the perceptions of the population begin to reinforce the ‘perception narrative’ espoused by that hypothetical actor ‘a’. The population’s sense of uncertainty and perceived breakdown of tradition will naturally begin to be attached to the Other actor as support shifts to the actor who the population believes is increasing certainty and helping to reinforce traditional structures. Of course, this is only possible if the ‘perception narrative’ and other stratagem in the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension both reflects and reinforces structural, functional and military realities as experienced by the populace. After all, even the most successful ‘perception and polarization’ initiatives are destined to fail if they are not effectively linked to structural, functional and military realities on the ground.

The Insurgent’s Inherent Advantage

Insurgent actors often enjoy significant advantages over their counterinsurgent opponents, especially in the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension. This model offers important insights into how insurgent movements can then potentially leverage these inherent advantages in the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension to maximize the efficacy of structural, functional and military activities. The following observations are especially pertinent:

An occupying COIN force as the major Other is an easy ‘sell’

The indigenous insurgent force will always find it comparatively easier to convince a population that the COIN occupying force is the major ‘Other’. It follows that it will therefore be far easier for the insurgent to tie the occupying COIN operatives to uncertainty and the perceived breakdown of tradition. The process of cyclical cognitive reinforcement will help to drive and solidify these perceptions. Even if the insurgent force is despised by the local population and their identity considered alien to the local identity, by comparison the population will often perceive the indigenous insurgent force and their supporters as a lesser Other than an occupying COIN force.

An indigenous insurgent force will have a nuanced understanding of the local population

An indigenous insurgency will be acutely aware of the identity fault-lines, their historical origins, local socio-cultural norms and societal structures, which places them at a significant advantage compared to the occupying COIN force (for more, see Kilcullen 2010; McNeil 2009). This nuanced knowledge of the indigenous population not only facilitates a leveraging of the identity paradigms that characterize the society but the social networks in the populace that can facilitate the spread, and if necessary the coercive enforcement, of their ‘perception narrative’. Conversely, the insurgent is also able to more effectively and efficiently communicate their narrative and do so at a more personal level by leveraging both their detailed local knowledge and social networks.

An insurgent force that represents the overturned government will often symbolize a period of comparative stability and certainty in contrast to the conditions created by an insurgency

An insurgent force that was the pre-insurgency authority will often symbolize a period of comparative stability and certainty compared to the acute perceptions of crisis that inevitably characterize small wars. This is the case even if the now overturned government was repressive and dysfunctional. Such an insurgent force would typically seek to play upon this comparative stability to undermine the COIN structurally, functionally, militarily and in the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension. While the central authority and COIN force must demonstrate good governance and stability, the insurgent merely needs to create an environment in which governance is impossible. To use Taber’s phrase, the insurgent’s raison d'être is, “…to create the climate of collapse” (Taber 2002: 21-22).

Military realities are likely to advantage the insurgent force’s ‘perception narrative’ until traction in the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension is achieved

The harsh realities of warfare are more likely to advantage the insurgent movement’s ‘perception narrative’. This is largely due to the significant advantage the insurgent force is likely to have in the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension for reasons including those identified above. COIN military operations, even if they do not result in civilian casualties directly, will inevitably compound perceptions of crisis permeating the society and will be rapidly leveraged by the insurgent force to shape the populace’s perceptions and polarize their support. Appropriately demonstrating military strength is essential to increasing certainty in the contested population, attributing uncertainty to the other actor, and creating both ‘space’ and ‘time’ for structural initiatives to become functional. However, the interconnectedness of all these elements needs to be framed within the context of the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension to gauge the potential efficacy (or otherwise) of using military force.[vi]

Afghanistan: In Search of Clarity

The fluid milieu inside Afghanistan’s borders – epitomized by a complex human landscape of perpetually shifting identity fault-lines – is exacerbated by the tendency for its regional and global neighbors to use its lands as a theatre to pursue their own interests. After all, Afghanistan lies at a tri-regional gateway rendering it of critical strategic importance for both regional and global players. Populated by a mosaic of tribes who regularly respond with equal ferocity to the presence of a neighboring tribe as to a foreign occupying force, it is little wonder that the history of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is one of slow grinding defeat at the hands of a heterogeneous insurgency destined to fragment post-conflict to again clash with one another. At the heart of an elusive solution to the ‘Afghanistan Puzzle’ is a lingering lack of clarity about the ‘Afghanistan Problem’ itself. After over a decade of conflict, the search for clarity continues.

Despite recent shifts in COIN strategy significantly shaping the current situation in Afghanistan, many problems can be traced to the flawed politico-military principles that defined the first half decade of this conflict. The broader politico-military context of the ‘War on Terror’ inevitably shaped the military and developmental strategy of these early years. Coalition military operations rapidly overthrew the Taliban government after which strategic focus broadly shifted to establishing a national Afghan government built on democratic principles. Developmental projects were designed to not only extend support for and the influence of the Afghan government but undermine Taliban support, the latter further augmented by continued military operations. A ‘patchwork’ of COIN initiatives reflecting the division of Afghanistan between Coalition partners, misguided developmental projects, interference by regional players, a central government increasingly perceived to be weak, and the opening of a ‘second front’ in Iraq were key contributing factors to these fragile foundations (also see McNeil 2009; Hagerott, Umberg and Jackson 2010; Rashid 2011; Karzai 2011).

One of the most prominent ‘cracks’ in the early foundations of the Afghan conflict was the premise that Coalition forces would be welcomed by the Afghan population for overthrowing the despotic Taliban regime (for more, see Marston 2008). As in Iraq, early military successes (i.e. the overthrow of the ruling authority) may have exacerbated this strategic misreading and helped cast an assumption of inevitable success over proceeding politico-military initiatives. History and the 4D model suggest that a foreign occupier is almost inevitably viewed as an Other by the local population and typically only seen as a ‘savior’, and even then only fleetingly, if usurping another foreign occupying force. After over a decade of conflict, the national ‘patchwork’ remains, broader regional players continue to clash within Afghan borders via proxies, which further fuels insurgent violence, while a persistent Taliban central leverages a deteriorating milieu to pursue legitimate political influence.

COIN strategy in Afghanistan has been broadly characterized by a tendency to use military operations as a mechanism to create ‘space’ for structural and functional dominated population-centric initiatives. For example, as Coalition forces have sought to extend both their influence and that of the government, a ‘Clear, Hold, Build’ strategy has, at times, needed to be reversed to achieve operational objectives (i.e. ‘Build, Hold, Clear’). In other words, initially working with the local population to provide the foundation for engaging in targeted military operations against insurgents may often prove more effective than using military operations as the foundation to engage with the local population and implement development projects (also see Marston 2008; Connett and Cassidy 2011; McNeil 2009). While situational specific factors will dictate which approach is more likely to be effective, either approach must act as a mechanism through which to control the ‘perception and polarization equation’. These factors must play a similarly significant role in assessing the efficacy of the development and stabilization projects themselves.

Development projects, including those driven by non-government organizations, have sought to bring stability to the local population (and therefore support away from the insurgency) by improving living conditions (also see McNeil 2009; Marston 2008). The ‘patchwork’ of development projects across Afghanistan aside, these projects often tends to be based upon a largely ‘Western-inspired’ framework of developmental goals. It follows that these initiatives may not necessarily drive stability in local Afghan populations, especially in the short to medium term, but could actually increase perceptions of crisis if they are viewed or experienced as mechanisms of change that undermine tradition, facilitate the presence and growing influence of the Other and increase uncertainty. After all, a population’s sense of stability will inevitably be gauged by what they know as a ‘stable’ existence – typically a lifestyle characterized by traditional structures, functions and socio-cultural norms – that provides certainty over uncertainty and limited influence of perceived malevolent Other/s.

The establishment of political and economic institutions, especially those designed to extend the reach and influence of the national government, have often been central to COIN approaches in Afghanistan. For example, local economic schemes have sought to displace support for the insurgency while connecting local populations to the government. However, unless these schemes fit into a broader holistic COIN strategy, then ‘Taliban’ forces will either seek to establish competing economic structures and functions (e.g. narcotics) or fill the functional void in areas where COIN or government structures are dysfunctional (e.g. justice or law enforcement).

The Afghan insurgency is comprised of a heterogeneous mosaic of Talibans and leveraging these differences will be critical to breaking the insurgency. Far from a monolith, ‘Taliban’ is a term adopted by the ideologically aligned, the socio-politically disenfranchised, criminal elements and opportunists seeking to leverage the title for their own individual or collective objectives (see Kilcullen 2010; Karzai 2011; McNeil 2009). The opportunistic manipulation of the ‘Taliban’ title is, to varying degrees, a product of what Kilcullen calls the “accidental guerilla” phenomenon (see Kilcullen 2009: Chapter 1) and it often reflects a perception in the population that established authorities are functionally weak. Perhaps even more significantly, the ‘accidental guerrilla’ phenomenon is a key indicator of a failure to effectively compete in the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension. The ‘fault-lines’ running through the Taliban must be leveraged to drive disintegration on its periphery and force its central elements to exert greater influence over those elements that opportunistically use the ‘Taliban’ banner.

The Taliban’s political ascendency (i.e. political negotiations and establishment of political offices) and use of asymmetrical operations (i.e. single attacker methodologies) reflects both preparedness for post-withdrawal military operations and a cautious confidence regarding political influence nationally (also see Rashid 2011; McNeil 2009). Militarily, recent trends in insurgent activities in Afghanistan reflect the latter stages of a counterinsurgency campaign as practiced by a (predominantly) occupying force: a pre-withdrawal COIN surge is met by a period of growing asymmetry as insurgent forces prepare for a final ‘departing shot’ and/or a ‘domestification’ of the conflict (i.e. civil war). The complex mosaic of insurgents active in Afghanistan recognize that, in a relatively short period of time, conditions are likely to transition into a conflict resembling a civil war whereby major factions will increasingly use conventional military strategies while minor players apply asymmetrical methods to exert influence wherever possible. The Afghan government will need more than military strength to retain influence nationally in such a milieu.


This paper presented a four dimensional model of insurgency/counterinsurgency that identified military, structural, functional and ‘perception and polarization’ as the major pillars of an insurgent movement and/or counterinsurgency strategy. While the model is characterized by four distinct dimensions, in reality the four dimensions are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Indeed, achieving success in the functional, structural and military aspects is heavily reliant upon being aware of how those initiatives act as mechanisms for achieving ‘perception and polarization’ objectives. While this paper has focused on the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension, success in this dimension alone will also be insufficient for overall success unless those objectives are intimately tied to functional, structural and military initiatives. Ultimately, a counterinsurgency campaign that is able to address the military, functional and structural dimensions is likely to be destined for strategic failure if insurgent forces maintain dominance over the way a population perceives the world in which they live and thus are able to effectively polarize the population towards even tacit support.

Author’s Note: This article is a working paper designed to present the early findings of my research to the field, particularly the model of insurgency which is still in its early developmental stages. I look forward to receiving any feedback from the Small Wars Journal readership (


Connett, T. and B. Cassidy. (2011) ‘Village Stability Operations: More than Village Defense’. Special Warfare (July-September 2011 Special Edition). Available online at:

Fall, B. 1998. ‘The Theory and Practice of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency’. Naval War College Review [Winter 1998]. available online at:

Hagerott, M., T. Umberg and J. Jackson. 2010. ‘A Patchwork Strategy of Consensus: Establishing Rule of Law in Afghanistan’. Joint Force Quarterly (issue 59). Available online at:

Hermans, H & Dimaggio, G 2007, ‘Self, identity, and globalization in times of uncertainty: A dialogical analysis’, in American Psychological Association, vol.11, no.1, pp. 31-61, (March 2007).

Ingram, H. J. 2011. ‘The Radicalisation Process: An Interdisciplinary Approach’, Canberra: Australian Political Science Association. available online at:

Karzai, H. (2011) ‘Afghanistan: Ways Out of the Crisis’. Carnegie Moscow Center Speech (May 10, 2011). Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Available online at:

Kalyvas, S. 2006. The Logic of Violence in Civil War. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Kilcullen, D. 2009. The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting small wars in the midst of a big one. London: Hurst & Company.

Kilcullen, D. 2010. Counterinsurgency. Melbourne: Scribe Publications.

Marston, D. 2008. ‘Realizing the extent of our errors and forging the road ahead: Afghanistan 2001-2010’. Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare. Edited by D. Marston and C. Malkasian. Oxford: Osprey Publishing.

McNeil, T. 2009. ‘The Real Problem in Afghanistan’ (September 23 2009). Tufts Journal. Available online at:

Migdal, J. 1988. Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rashid, A. 2011. ‘Viewpoint: Will meetings solve the Afghan problem?’. BBC News Asia. Available online at:

Taber, R. 2002. War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare. Dulles: Potomac Books.

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Weber, M. 1968. Economy and Society. New York: Bedminster Press.

End Notes

[i] ‘Contested populations’ are any group or groups of people for whom two or more actors are attempting to shape the populace’s perceptions for the purpose of influencing their actions and, ultimately, to win their support and consent/submit to the authority of one actor over others.

[ii] Hermans and Dimaggio (2007) define uncertainty as consisting of four elements: complexity, ambiguity, deficit knowledge and unpredictability.

[iii] Certainty is defined here as simplicity, stability, understanding and predictability.

[iv] Perhaps Western COIN scholarship and practice is particularly susceptible to this approach (e.g. that a democratic constitution provides the structural component, with voting as one of its functional elements, which will result in a shared collective identity around its associated identity values.)

[v] Information Operations, also known as ‘Hearts and Minds’ campaigns, seek to establish and disseminate a narrative designed to not only influence the perceptions of contested populations and win their support but counter the narratives of oppositional actors.

[vi] Demonstrating military (coercive) strength for its own sake is the fastest road to defeat for any ‘small war’ actor despite possible short-term benefits. The application of overwhelming military force against an adversary is essential to successful COIN strategy. However, military operations are but one of four strategic pillars and, ideally, its application must be balanced based on its impact on the other three dimensions.


About the Author(s)

Haroro Ingram has worked on national security issues in various capacities and is currently a Visiting Fellow in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies (Department of Political & Social Change, Australian National University, Canberra). His book, The Charismatic Leadership Phenomenon in Radical and Militant Islamism (Ashgate Publishers), features in-depth case studies of Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam, Osama Bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki. It is due for release in late-2013. The author can be contacted directly at



Sat, 05/31/2014 - 7:26pm

In reply to by hji

My unsolicited advice would be to address the first issue up front by including a brief discussion of the example chosen, the reasons why it was chosen, and the potential confusion. That would do a lot to prevent misconception. I'd also consider using two examples, balancing the "post regime change COIN" discussion with an example of an domestic insurgency with little or no foreign intervention. My candidate would be the Sri Lanka/Tamil Tiger conflict, which is recent and almost entirely domestic, thus representing a good contrast.

I'm very familiar with the Huk rebellion, and I think it's often misrepresented in military discusions (civilian historians, notably Benedict Kerkvliet, do a bit better). There's a tendency to overrate the extent to which altered perceptions of government under Magsaysay (and by extension Lansdale) disabled the rebellion, and to underrate the extent to which the rebellion imploded due to internal causes. I'd also suggest that the Huk rebellion should not be considered a case in which insurgents were defeated, but one in which insurgency was temporarily suppressed, reappearing down the line as the NPA.

My point re perception and perception management was meant to underscore the reality that "info ops", "psyops", and other attempts to manage perception cannot substitute for real reform in governance. That's often been a problem for the US: many governments that we've supported against insurgency (including that of the Philippines) have no interest in substantive reform, and that often leads to repetitive efforts to manage perception by putting lipstick on a pig. It doesn't work, and any tendency in that direction needs to be bluntly confronted.

Thanks for your comments, Dayuhan.

I agree with your first point. The potential conceptual confusion in this paper is an unintended consequence of a largely 'editorial decision' I made at the time of writing almost a year ago. I wanted to provide a broad outline of the principles underlying my approach. However, not wanting to be too abstract (all generic theory) nor draw on (lesser known) case studies, I used contemporary and relatively well-known examples (Afghanistan and Iraq) to facilitate interpretations of the model. This involved, for instance, choosing examples where the 'identity disparity' between the insurgency and counterinsurgency was most stark (e.g. Western COIN v ethno-tribal insurgency) to highlight key points. I hope the benefits of this decision overall out-weighed the conceptual confusion it may have caused. I have endeavoured to provide greater conceptual clarity in more recent versions (I am yet to publish).

I also agree with your suggestion that applying the model to a ‘domestic insurgency v domestic incumbent authority’ case study would be a useful test of its conceptual/analytical veracity. Magsaysay and Valeriano’s post-World War II counterinsurgency campaign against the Huk insurgency (Central Luzon, Philippines) would be a particularly pertinent example. Those that are aware of this campaign will probably recognise its influence on the design of the ‘perception and polarisation’ model.

To your second point about perception: it is essential to recognise that perceptions do not emerge nor are shaped in a vacuum. Contested populations are far from ‘clean slates’ ready for moulding by the most skilled ‘manipulator of minds’. Perceptions are forged by both top-down (e.g. the practical realities of competing systems of control, IO messaging, etc;) and bottom-up forces (e.g. the populace’s pre-existing identities and perceptions of crisis, etc;). To paraphrase your words: the people may perceive the government sucks because it does, but effective insurgent ‘propaganda’ can greatly exacerbate that sense of crisis by providing not only a narrative for why and how it sucks but also point to a better alternative (e.g. the insurgency’s system of control). Obviously this dynamic can work to the COIN advantage too.

Small wars are won by outcompeting one’s opponents in those key strategic areas of common interest (e.g. winning support of the population). It is not necessary to be perfect just better than your opponent. I am increasingly convinced that this requires ‘out-competing’ adversaries in two simultaneous contests: for control and meaning. Just as Bernard Fall and Dave Kilcullen spoke of ‘competitive systems of control’, to this could be added ‘competitive systems of meaning.’ Synchronising competitive systems of control and meaning, i.e. synchronising narrative and action, harnesses those aforementioned top-down and bottom-up forces. While this conceptual framework is relatively ‘novel’, the core strategic and psychosocial dynamics it attempts to capture appear to play a crucial role in small wars successes while its abscence is evident in small wars failures.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 05/31/2014 - 12:53pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09


I think we are largely on the same page in regards to our understanding of this dynamic labeled broadly as "insurgency" (of note, 100 years ago in America it was common lexicon to call any political challenger an "insurgent").

As to radicalization, however, and this may just be a nuance of terms, but I believe the population you describe in the Ukraine was already radicalized by their own governance. Creating what I call "conditions of insurgency." Such conditions can lay latent for years or even generations for a wide range of reasons - fear of government retribution, or what we call "COIN" - being a primary one. But at some point there is invariably either some catalytic event (a merchant immolates himself in Tunis, for example) or some internal or external individual or organization takes action to leverage this latent insurgent energy to advance their own purposes. If internal, this is classic revolutionary insurgency. If external one has a UW actor in addition to internal revolutionary insurgency. These external UW actors often bring in foreign fighters (all with their own unique motivations for wanting participate).

This is a timeless dance, happening continuously over the centuries and around the planet. It only becomes problematic when one feels that it challenges their interests and compelled to control the outcome to one that favors them.

The US strategy during the Cold War was rooted in this type of control of political outcomes in an effort to prevent the spread of Soviet influence into areas that were currently under systems of Western influence. We suffer from a powerful inertia of that mindset. We need to accept more risk and be more willing to simply seek influence with whomever rises to power, and back off of our Cold War urge to control.

I think we'll find that others (friend and foe alike) will become much more comfortable with our approach to foreign policy and we will become once again the country we still see ourselves as, but frankly have not been for several decades. The America we visualize ourselves as would not much like the America we actually are. And that is an uncomfortable truth that we need to come to grips with. It stings so much when Putin and others like him call us out on this, mostly because they are largely right.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 05/31/2014 - 12:01pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert--these two sentences go to the core of the problem in the Ukraine with the ethnic Russian minority then there is a big BUT;

"Revolutionary insurgency is a very different thing altogether, and regardless o how violent is much more a form of illegal democracy than irregular warfare. To be revolutionary insurgency it must be population-based, internal, political in primary purpose, and illegal in approach. Give this same population effective, trusted, certain and legal means of political recourse and one has a democracy on their hands.

But the "experts" continue to preach a need to "control" the population as the cure for insurgency. This is exactly backwards. Insurgency is cured when populations perceive themselves to have control over governance within the context of their own cultural expectations."

The Maidan if one really looks at the underlying causes was as you indicate a government gone bad---massive corruption, cronyism, elections that were perceived to have been always "bought", unemployment with stagnating industrial development, low wages---and then something "occurred" in that population and that was the allure of the EU---why because yes the economic joining of the EU will cause pain but it was the "ideas" of the rule of law, good governance, minimizing corruption, the ability to travel with a visa, political dialogue without the threat of landing in jail or worse simply disappearing and the list can go on.

The south-east on the other hand due to it's own language perceptions while having the exact same economic and political issues/problems was "influenced" and "radicalized" by a hard core pounding of misinformation playing to the inherent fears of that population.

While this is extremely difficult from the governance side to overcome it can be if the underlying issues are indeed addressed and as you state addressed in a way that the revolutionary population accepts as making sense to them in answering their needs.

The real difficulty begins when an outside country using political warfare decides to take the population and "radicalize" them for their own political reasons in this case the recreating of the former "glory" of the former "Soviet Union" playing to what I call "ethnic nationalism".

But and here is another but ---it becomes truly even harder for the governance to re-establish itself if that population while "radicalized" has outside irregular fighters funneled into it in order to ensure the political warfare is both successful as well as establishing the "control" over the revolutionary population because the population might at some point get "buyers remorse" if they notice that the "outside" assistance is also not providing for their needs---which is why I believe the Chechen irregular fighters were recently funneled into the south-east Ukraine because the "revolutionary population" was starting to verbalize their "buyers remorse" publicly in front of video cameras.

You are right the inherent weakness in COIN has always been ---we might be able to engage with the "revolutionary population" but until their own governance actually responds and addresses the population's complaints and perceived injustices nothing will be resolved.

Actually this happened in Iraq with Malaki and it has and is now happening in AFG.

I would argue that we as a military and we as the senior civilian leadership do not fully understand the relationship between "radicalization" and UW/IW and for that reason there will never be a national level UW strategy and CUW strategy that equals the current strategic UW strategy of Russia which is being actually exercised.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 05/31/2014 - 8:30am

In reply to by Dayuhan


Populations do not fail governments, it is governments who fail populations.

As to regime change and occupation by a foreign force, that will invariably trigger a resistance response. This type of insurgency is simply an irregular continuation of very regular warfare. The govt and military are defeated, but the people remain in the fight. No amount of messaging is likely to cause the people to simply submit.

Revolutionary insurgency is a very different thing altogether, and regardless o how violent is much more a form of illegal democracy than irregular warfare. To be revolutionary insurgency it must be population-based, internal, political in primary purpose, and illegal in approach. Give this same population effective, trusted, certain and legal means of political recourse and one has a democracy on their hands.

But the "experts" continue to preach a need to "control" the population as the cure for insurgency. This is exactly backwards. Insurgency is cured when populations perceive themselves to have control over governance within the context of their own cultural expectations.

When an occupier stands up or adopts a government they believe will be best for them it creates a mix of motivations for insurgency - both war-based resistance AND democracy-based revolution. Both demand separate understanding and separate cures in a blended approach tailored by population.

To attempt to stay and exercise "control" over this is only feasible for as long as energy can be applied to suppress the symptoms (Huks by Magsaysay, Iraqis by Petreaus), but will revert to a natural state once that energy fades or is removed if the occupier remains or if legal forms of democracy (for that culture, really self-determination) are not established.

Those who preach control preach an infeasible doctrine based on an obsolete understanding of insurgency. No "COIN" theory can overcome that obstacle. if one creates an impossible problem, then one will naturally fail to solve it. (typed on my phone, so excuse any typos or autocorrects)


Fri, 05/30/2014 - 10:51pm

There's a fundamentally confusing issue here. The title and introductory paragraphs suggest strongly that this is meant to present a generally applicable model of insurgency and counterinsurgency. In the text, though, the references to "occupying COIN force". "tribal identity", and an "insurgent force that represents the overturned government" indicate that the focus is post-regime change COIN operations in predominantly tribal societies, a very limited and actually quite unusual insurgent/counterinsurgent dynamic. The article thus seems less focused on "insurgency" generically than on the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. An occupying COIN force, a recently overturned government, and tribal identities are by no means universal or even typical characteristics of an insurgent/counterinsurgent conflict, and there's little reason to treat them as assumptions, givens, or even typical conditions.

It would be interesting to see these premises applied to a more typical situation in which an indigenous government is challenged by an indigenous insurgency, with foreign forces either not involved or involved only in a limited advisory/FID role.

Regarding perception, while I agree that it is critical, I'm not sure that deliberate attempts to influence perception are actually the prevalent influences on perception. If the government is perceived as being controlled by corrupt and predatory elites and the national armed forces are perceived as being corrupt and brutal, that does not necessarily mean that insurgent propaganda has created these perceptions. Perceptions of governance are governed more by the actions of government than by anyone's propaganda. If people think their government sucks, it's probably not because insurgents are effectively managing perception. There's a good chance that the government does in fact suck, and that the perception is derived from the actual behaviour of government.

The model published in this article, which was based on a 2012 APSA conference paper, has developed considerably in the last year. I hope to submit a ‘version 2’ paper to the Small Wars Journal in the coming months. In the meantime, I will continue to post updates where I can (e.g.

Outlaw 09 - Again, I broadly agree with you. After operations in Afghanistan and Iraq it is crucial that the small wars field (theoreticians and practitioners) critically analyses the fundamentals of the prevailing COIN approach. This requires honestly identifying the assumptions underpinning ‘hearts and minds’ (functionalist) COIN as the starting point for methodically re-examining this approach; from its philosophical, policy and strategic foundations to its operational and tactical manifestations. The worst case scenario for this field is that those ‘fundamentals’ go unquestioned, successes in the field are held up as beacons of best practice while failures are flippantly dismissed as products of inept application. The first test of how this largely intellectual battle is playing out will be evidenced in the COIN doctrine released by Western militaries over the coming years.

Robert C. Jones – I certainly sympathise with your broad criticisms of the thinking (and practice) that currently dominates the field. I am happy to respond to a specific issue you have but, given your comments are a little on the broad and vague side in relation to this specific model, I would need to be presumptuous to do so. Feel free to post here or contact me directly.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 05/30/2014 - 10:07am

I've spent a great deal of time thinking about insurgency over the past several years (Insurgency in general and insurgency by the eaches of specific case across cultures, regions and time). I have come to a point where I am fairly well convinced that the primary problem with what we have come to call "COIN" and the various approaches to that mission applied by so many - is that we do so based upon a popular, but very flawed understanding of the dynamic of insurgency itself.

We (counterinsurgents) tend to hold ourselves largely harmless for the causation of insurgency, and tend to focus our COIN efforts on a mix of the insurgents (those who act out upon those conditions of insurgency); the objective, measurable aspects of governance ("effectiveness"); and those environmental factors beyond the control of government, and therefore very convenient foils to blame insurgency upon (ideology, economy, the weather, unemployment, etc.). The sanctuary that really kicks our butts is not the one the insurgent hides within, but rather the one that governance and politicians hide within. Military forces can raid the first, but cannot touch the second.

Human endeavors are driven by human nature; and characterized by human culture and the environmental factors in play. This is true of human endeavors such as war, love and politics. I believe this to be true of insurgency as well.

So, as I attempt to understand this particular model, I think it fits the majority opinion of what insurgency is, and that therefore it will lead to the same family of symptomatic, victim-mentality approaches favored by most modern COIN guides and experts. The results should be predictably poor as well.

So, I think this would be a pretty good guide for a colonial power working to minimize the costs and maximize the profits of some foreign possession in a bygone era. But really do not think it helps much with the missions powers like the US face today, nor would it play well in the current strategic environment where COIN cannot be waged in splendid isolation from a global audience. In fact, this approach really began to break down once Britain connected the globe with telegraph cables.

So I have doubts. I also believe we all need to think more (and more intellectually honestly) about what insurgency is before we put too much effort into rearranging the proverbial deck chairs into some new configuration for COIN on our trusty old Titanic understanding of Insurgency we cling to so dearly.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 05/30/2014 - 8:25am

In reply to by hji

hji--I would go on further to state that your comment below is in fact the cornerstone of the new Russian and Chinese UW strategies-Russia with their New Generation Warfare and the Chinese with their Three Stages of Warfare.

...."the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension remains comparatively underdeveloped in COIN doctrine and practice. In contrast, insurgent movements have regularly demonstrated a nuanced appreciation of not just the importance but the centrality of the ‘perception and polarization’ dimension to strategic success."

In fact I would argue this is the true cornerstone to any 21st century conflict and as such even the Russians practice it actively at all levels of international relations as their foreign policy and currently in particular in the Ukraine as part and parcel of political warfare.

Notice in the eight phases phases of the Russian strategic UW notice how phases one, two, and four use "perception and polarization" as the key element, and how it is then tied to political warfare (end state to be achieved).

First Phase: non-military asymmetric warfare (encompassing information, moral, psychological, ideological, diplomatic, and economic measures as part of a plan to establish a favorable political, economic, and military setup).
Second Phase: special operations to mislead political and military leaders by coordinated measures carried out by diplomatic channels, media, and top government and military agencies by leaking false data, orders, directives, and instructions.
Fourth Phase: destabilizing propaganda to increase discontent among the population, boosted by the arrival of Russian bands of militants, escalating subversion.

When the "population" is "radicalized" via mis/dis-information campaigns on a daily basis 24X7 via TV/radio, journalists, national level actors ie Putin then normally a population that yes in fact has socioeconomic issues with the national government ie low pay, outdated factories, poor infrastructure, high unemployment, mass corruption, little to no local security due to corruption/bribery, poor governance via "bought" elections hanging little to nothing, poor healthcare, fears concerning their ethnicity being protected ie their language/religion can in fact become so "radicalized" it becomes something we tend to not talk about in COIN-ie a "revolutionary population".

At this point there is little national governance can do to implement some form of dialogue---this goes now to the "perception and polarization"--now the insurgent "controls" the dialogue and in the new COIN FM there is nothing on how to regain this "conversation" (sometimes the use of force is just about the only way to regain the dialogue) ---all the former information operations of any of the western militaries has been focused on COIN reduced to little more than let's try to do a press release around a new school or training center or a new business is launched creating new jobs. Let's do an election, let's do a new poster campaign, let's pay for some job creation etc.

A game changing "depolarizing and perception changing campaign"--never will happen in the new COIN FM.

The "how to reduce" the effects of outright propaganda is something that is an lost art and not a science--and it requires an equally focused counter insurgent effort which is just as strong as the insurgent side- in fact it has to override the insurgent side. In some aspects it is virtually as important if not more so than the military component in COIN and UW/IW.

But in looking at the Ukraine where a "radicalized population" is in fact becoming "revolutionary" and siding with irregular forces--we see no such efforts by any western country nor the Ukraine.

The question now arises---how/why in COIN does the counter insurgent think
that the concepts of "perception and polarization" do not need to be addressed.

Second question would be --are the western countries ready to conduct on the same degree as say the Russians right now- a full blow propaganda war 24X7 365? If in fact it is the single true cornerstone for countering the current new Russian UW strategy and the new Chinese strategy or for that matter COIN.

Russia actually "sensed" a shift in the "radicalization" being caused by the criminal actions of their "local" armed insurgents which they were basically criminals and some locals and sent in paramilitary "irregulars" who understand the messaging and set about "controlling" the locals in order to get the "disillusioned population" (due to the criminal activities) back onboard and "radicalized" again.

Now that is a fine-tuned UW strategy when one can on the fly shift the unconventional environment at will maintaining control over the "dialogue".

I agree Outlaw 09.

Broadly speaking, it seems that developing and synchronising 'competitive systems of control' and 'competitive systems of meaning' are essential strategic pillars for any 'contest' for the support of contested populations.

Of course, influencing contested (largely civilian) populations is an important aspect of most forms of conflict. However, as you highlight, the comparative importance of these dynamics depends on the nature of the conflict (e.g. COIN v UW v CW etc;) and broader contextual factors (e.g. ethno-tribal v nationalist-separatist, etc;).

Outlaw 09

Thu, 05/29/2014 - 11:02am

In reply to by hji

hji--would you not agree that in fact the new Russian UW strategy using IW in support to a political war is/has been extremely effective at "radicalizing" the ethnic Russian populations in the Crimea and eastern/southern Ukraine and in fact your model is being currently practiced as part of the Russian eight phased new generation warfare strategy? While you focus on COIN does not the model actually reflect far more especially into the realm of UW/IW?

"In this article for ISN (Zurich), small wars are described as contests for control and meaning. In order to 'out-compete' their opponents, effective small wars actors establish 'competitive systems of control' and 'competitive systems of meaning' to win the support of contested populations."

The phases of new-generation war can be schematized as (Tchekinov & Bogdanov, 2013, pp. 15-22):
First Phase: non-military asymmetric warfare (encompassing information, moral, psychological, ideological, diplomatic, and economic measures as part of a plan to establish a favorable political, economic, and military setup).
Second Phase: special operations to mislead political and military leaders by coordinated measures carried out by diplomatic channels, media, and top government and military agencies by leaking false data, orders, directives, and instructions.
Third Phase: intimidation, deceiving, and bribing government and military officers, with the objective of making them abandon their service duties.
Fourth Phase: destabilizing propaganda to increase discontent among the population, boosted by the arrival of Russian bands of militants, escalating subversion.
Fifth Phase: establishment of no-fly zones over the country to be attacked, imposition of blockades, and extensive use of private military companies in close cooperation with armed opposition units

Research and development of the model introduced here continues. In this article for ISN (Zurich), small wars are described as contests for control and meaning. In order to 'out-compete' their opponents, effective small wars actors establish 'competitive systems of control' and 'competitive systems of meaning' to win the support of contested populations.

Three Lessons from the Modern Era of Small Wars:

G Martin and arphe, thank you both for your comments.

G Martin - I agree that it is important that the military does not get so focussed on learning from the last war that, when the next war comes, the military has been rigidly restructured and retrained to fight the previous war. Your response does state that lessons will need to be learned in the aftermath of military operations (“...attempt to see events in the past through as many lenses as possible...”, not a bad definition of ‘lessons learned’ processes actually) which reflects my original comment.

Your calls for militaries (and presumably any institution involved in conflict) to be flexible and adaptable is important. However, this tactical, operational and even strategic flexibility and adaptability will not emerge in a vacuum; it will be built on learning from what happened in the past (e.g. when tactics/operations weren’t effective and didn’t adapt appropriately, and finding out why) and using this as the reference point to ensure these institutions have the mechanisms in place to rapidly adapt and evolve effectively.

Finally, in theory we of course want the military to be flexible and adaptable, preferably instantaneously and perfectly. The reality is that militaries are typically large and complex organisations which are hierarchical, bureaucratically dense and tend to move pretty slowly (especially at the strategic and policy levels where practically all decisions about structure, capability, posture, training, etc; are made and these are often the long term decisions that most significantly impact organisational adaptability). Take capability as an example. Having the capabilities in the field that are going to be the most adaptable and flexible requires capability development and acquisition decisions/processes that are often very long. It can take many years from decision to factory to the field.

Effective adaptability and flexibility rarely emerges from acts of ad hoc innovation on the run. Organisational adaptability and flexibility, if it is to be effective and efficient, is built into the organisation by strong strategic decisions that imbue an institution with the mechanisms (whether in capability, capacity, training, etc;) to evolve rapidly both in the field (tactically and operationally) and HQs (strategically and in policy).

Arphe – I think that you are suggesting that I should apply the model to different historical case studies. If so, I agree. This model has a much broader applicability than just Afghanistan. While the model may prove to be more pertinent to understanding the dynamics of post-World War II (modern) ‘small wars’ rather than, say, older colonial wars, this can only really be tested via its application to case studies. This has been the focus of my research for the last six months and will remain into the foreseeable future.

Many thanks to those who have emailed with comments, criticisms and suggestions, I appreciate your feedback. I hope that I will have a follow up article ready for publication soon.

This is a needed contribution to current COIN literature, particularly the ‘perception and polarisation’ paradigm within which cognitive interpretations of both structural and function contribute to populations’ perceptions of legitimacy.

Furthermore, two of your observations, 1) the distinction between structural and functional dimensions matter and pressingly 2) that functional and structural dominance in isolation is fleeting, stress the importance in considering and tailoring appropriate COIN strategies, particularly from a more soft-approach angle (though not necessarily in isolation of the militaristic element). These informal structures could be incorporated to not only impact on the role of the ‘perception and polarisation’ dimension, but also contribute in enhancing perceptions of the state's legitimacy- particularly as you acknowledge that strong functions often become formalised.

Given your contributions to the emphasis on (and fluidity of) these, I question why then there is an underlying assumption based on post-2001 dynamics within your engagement with Afghanistan- particularly in relation to the structuration of identities playing a role in shaping perception and polarisation, subsequently impacting on the means in which the ‘indigenous insurgency’ is mobilised.

Rather than the consideration of the present COIN strategy marking the turning point in which these dynamics become more pronounced, I question whether, given your observations and initial theoretical structure, a consideration of 1979-1989, but likely more specifically an examination 1989-1996 and consequently how post-1996 dynamics affected these leading up to 2001, would make a stronger case in the utilisation of your model more viable. Though evidently post-2001 ventures have significantly affected the country on the micro level in shifting loyalties, further consolidating identities and subsequently impacting on perceptions of the nation-state’s legitimacy, the stage had been set before 2001 in relation to the ‘perception and polarisation’ dimension which impacts on cognitive outlook.

Subsequently, it may be beneficial shifting the nuance away from the underlying post-2001 assumptions on the micro level to a consideration of this more fluid continuum, as this will evidently impact on both structure and function in attempting to reconsolidate legitimacy, as (as you state), it is central to strategic success

G Martin

Wed, 08/28/2013 - 8:51pm

In reply to by hji

<em>"However, I think most would agree that to prepare for the next war we need to build on the lessons from the last one."</em>

One assumes that one can learn lessons from "the last one". I've yet to find that to be feasible for us. Instead each person seems to find a paradigm that they are convinced is true and then find examples and data to back up their paradigm. We want to make the world less complicated and find objective meaning. Maybe meaning - at least objective meaning that we can perceive - isn't possible. And thus learning is almost impossible- we will learn what we want and attribute things the way we want to make us feel good.

I constantly run into folks and organizations who seem to be building towards a playbook world in which every situation can be understood, explained, and forecasted- and courses of action already set in stone that allow decisive action.

I'd encourage us instead to take "lessons learned" with a HUGE grain of salt, attempt to see events in the past through as many lenses as possible, and work on being an adaptive force- able to learn as things unfold as opposed to learning about the past and following a pre-formatted script. This implies knowing oneself- knowing how one's institution affects thinking- and being able to "unlearn" a lot of what we take as conventional wisdom.

Thanks for taking the time to comment on this paper. I will try to address each of your comments, issues and questions as best I can.

Dayuhan makes an important point that we need to evolve COIN thinking and practice to ensure that we are not preparing to fight the last war. However, I think most would agree that to prepare for the next war we need to build on the lessons from the last one. The model in this paper is not designed specifically for application to indigenous insurgencies battling foreign COIN forces (or conversely foreign COIN forces battling indigenous insurgencies dependent on your perspective). The model should also be applicable to 'purely' indigenous insurgent / indigenous counterinsurgent campaigns. Nevertheless, the examples I used throughout the paper were exclusively the former (i.e. foreign COIN v indigenous insurgents). My rationale for choosing those examples was foreign COIN v indigenous insurgent cases provide the clearest examples of the kind of dynamics I was seeking to highlight. Nevertheless, to reiterate, I think that the broad dynamics explored in this paper are largely applicable to FID or 'purely' indigenous insurgent v indigenous counterinsurgent case studies. Given the examples I used were predominantly foreign COIN v indigenous insurgent, I can certainly understand how the model could be perceived as being only applicable to that case study type.

This segues nicely to TomA's suggestion to apply the model to the American Revolutionary War case study. I had not thought of that specific example however I think it is an excellent idea. Not only is the American Revolutionary War an interesting historical case study but I think such a selection would help to breakdown some of the cognitive biases that can sometimes sneak into this field of research. I would appreciate any advice or guidance on the best way to pursue this approach.

Finally, TheCurmudgeon identified several important issues. Please note that I have not re-written their comments here in verbatim (instead see below for the original posting):

1. I think this point broadly echoes Dayuhan's comment that the paper focuses myopically on foreign COIN v indigenous insurgent (or 'modernising' COIN v 'traditional' indigenous insurgent to use the poster's terminology). This view is understandable given my choice of examples throughout the paper. However, as I mentioned above, I chose these examples because they provided the clearest examples of the dynamics I was trying to highlight. When trying to highlight why/how identity nuances are/can be leveraged during small wars, it is far easier to use the example of a foreign COIN force v an indigenous insurgency than it is an indigenous COIN force v indigenous insurgents where the perceived 'identity differences' can often seem subtle to the outside observer.

Furthermore, I think it is important to clarify that the key issue in this paper is not the tension between COIN as a 'modernising force' against a 'traditional population' insurgency. Indeed, the paper does not contend that the fundamental tension is between modernity and tradition necessarily. Rather, the fundamental tension at the heart of a COIN/insurgent clash is between the package of structural, functional, military and 'perception & polarisation' initiatives of one established/aspirant authority versus another established/aspirant authority (and its implications for identity dynamics).

2. I agree. Coercion does not 'create' legitimacy. However, the application/threat of violence is symbolically powerful and, along with more 'tangible' objectives (i.e. killing), has powerful implications for perceptions of legitimacy. As the paper states: "The use of violence, as much as a mechanism of coercion, is highly symbolic as a demonstration of legitimacy and a derogation of the opponent's claims to legitimacy" (2013: 5). At some level the state's monopoly on legitimate violence is being challenged by the insurgent's application of violence. Nevertheless, what ultimately matters for both the insurgent and counterinsurgent is how coercion is leveraged to reinforce structural, functional and 'perception and polarisation' initiatives (including, as you say, 'adhering to the values of the population'). Violence in itself does not bring an actor legitimacy nor promises strategic success. Force, like any of the other pillars in this model, is only strategically effective within the context of the other pillars. Any pillar applied in isolation is futile to the long term success of an insurgency/counterinsurgency campaign. This is a good segue to the final point...

3. The paper's emphasis on centralising 'perception and polarisation' initiatives and using these as the 'first order' mechanism to shape strategies in the other pillars appears to have created the perception that I am contending "that a solid PR campaign is all you need to defeat an insurgency". I assure you that I am not and I will ensure that this is made absolutely clear in future drafts. Yes, I do contend that 'perception and polarisation' initiatives need to be central to an effective insurgency/counterinsurgency campaign. However, in isolation, a good 'hearts and minds' strategy is completely worthless unless it 'fits' with structural, functional and military initiatives.

I agree completely that simply implementing structures and functions will not result in a stable society; far from it (e.g. see 2013: 5). I also think that initiatives designed to change the population's identity, especially within the duration of a COIN campaign that may last merely months or years, will inevitably be crude and ultimately futile. Rather, the paper suggests that identity nuances should be understood and leveraged to facilitate a comprehensive COIN campaign that ties together the four strategic pillars. The less an aspirant authority seeks to abruptly change (i.e. be seen to 'destroy ') traditional identities (or any identity for that matter), the less of an existential threat they will be perceived to be by the population and the shallower the roots of resentment are likely to burrow.

This research is in its early stages and so I really appreciate the feedback.

I'm curious about the rationale behind postulating an "occupying COIN force", rather than an FID role. While I agree that insurgency in one form or another is likely to be a feature of the geopolitical landscape for some time to come, that does not mean that the United States needs to occupy countries and take over the COIN effort, and I see no reason to assume that the regime change/occupation phenomenon that drove Iraq and Afghanistan has to be repeated. Perhaps a bit of preparing to fight the last war?

Since this article is a work in progress, it would be interesting if the author could include an analysis of how this strategy may have fared if applied against the "insurgents" of the American Revolutionary War.


Fri, 08/23/2013 - 6:01pm

First, let me say that I was very interested in your piece and that I liked the way you tried to break down what was happening amongst the population during an insurgency. I also liked your use of in=group/out-group dynamics. I think that dimension is sometimes missed in conflicts.

That said, I will now commence with the criticism, trying to keep it positive.

1. You limit yourself to a singe type of insurgency, one where the government and its forces are trying to modernize a traditional population. That will not always be the case. If you believe the "Arab Spring" hype, these insurgencies started out as attempts to move the government "forward". Either redraft as a more general paper or acknowledge that you are referring to a specific set of conditions that are prevalent in the Pacific.

2. Coercion does not create legitimacy. The fact that you are exclusively acknowledged as the only entity that can use force in a territory does not make you the legitimate authority in the territory. Criminals control neighborhoods thought coercion but that does not make them the legitimate councilman in that precinct. Legitimacy has to do with adhering to the values of the population.

3.You imply that a solid PR campaign is all you need to defeat an insurgency. That is simply making the "hearts and minds" argument in a different way. Not that it does not have merit, but don't give it too much credit. Values are deeply rooted and not easily altered by a good story line. Social systems are not that mailable.

Now, criticism aside, I liked your discussion of the structure and function of government. Just remember that they do not outweigh values. You can't change a societies values by changing their structure or functions, otherwise Iraq would be a liberal democracy.

Your discussion of in-group/out-group identity is great. But again, you make it sound too easy to change that identity. You need to look deeper at how that identity is created and what it takes to change it (sometimes referred to as "brain washing").

In all I liked it and hope to see it again sometime.