Small Wars Journal

Immortal Insurgencies

Sun, 09/18/2011 - 8:10am


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.[1] 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.

Survival Machines

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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5] 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.

Dangerous Mutants

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.[6] 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.[7]

A similar process appears to be occurring with Al Qaeda.[8] 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.[9]

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.

[1] 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

[2] 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

[3] See Ahmed Rashid. 2000. "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia," New Haven:Yale University Press and

[4] For example, as in Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, Headquarters, Dept. of the Army, 2006

[5] 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).

[6] 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).

[7] See: Existential Motivations in the Lord’s Resistance Army’s Continuing Conflict, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism – 30/4, Spring 2007

[8] 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)

[9] The ‘adjacent possible’ is an evolutionary theory concept developed by Stuart Kauffman.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Anthony Vinci received his PhD in International Relations from The London School of Economics. He is the author of ‘Armed Groups and the Balance of Power: The International Relations of Terrorists, Warlords and Insurgents’ as well as articles in journals including Parameters: US Army War College Quarterly, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and Journal of Strategic Studies. Dr. Vinci studied emerging threats and US responses to those threats on the ground throughout Africa and the Middle East. Currently he consults on national security issues and is the Director of the Civilian Veterans Association.



I certainly agree that countering insurgency isn't always in our interest... at times we've actually found it convenient to foster insurgency, under the "unconventional warfare" label. For that reason, among others, I'd suggest that we might want to stop studying "counterinsurgency" and start simply studying insurgency, from a neutral perspective. Approaching insurgency without the implicit assumption that it is something to be countered is likely to yield insights that will be helpful whether we decide to oppose, support, or act as a neutral broker. I do not think that our infatuation with counterinsurgency or the corollary assumption that insurgency is to be opposed by default have served us well.

It's easy to talk about the national interest, less easy to determine what it is at any given point, especially in the long term. Too often such decisions are contaminated by ideology and reflex. During the Cold War wee often let ourselves be persuaded that the only way we could oppose Communism was to support inept, corrupt, abusive and unsustainable dictatorships: we though that was in our interest, but we ended up helping the Communists and hurting ourselves in many cases. We're doing abit better at that now - the claims of various dictators that their opponents are agents of Al Qaeda are too absurd to gain much traction - but assessments of interest need to be carefully and critically assessed, especially when they point toward supporting and sustaining the unsupportable and unsustainable.

<i>Some segments of the population end up agreeing with the insurgents and some don't.</i>

Insurgents are by definition a segment of a populace... if they aren't they aren't insurgents, they're invaders. Certainly any given insurgency may not represent a majority, but if a government has antagonized a large enough portion of its populace to support a credible insurgency so drastically that this portion has taken up arms against them, the government certainly deserves a very close look... at least as close as we'd give the insurgents.

It's important to distinguish between the motivations of insurgent leaders and followers. Leaders typically want power. Followers often - not always, but often - are motivated by specific grievances, and addressing those grievances can split leaders from followers and leave leaders stranded without manpower or a mass base. In cases where insurgency is grievance driven, propaganda (what we call "information operations") or hearts-and-minds development projects are of little use unless the specific grievances are addressed. This is often very difficult for an outside intervening power to do, a good reason to avoid intervention in grievance driven insurgency.

If our assessment of national interest demands that we defend a government against active and justified assault by its own people, we need to recheck that assessment very carefully, several times. We deceive ourselves rather well - we're generally better at deceiving ourselves than we are at deceiving others - and it hurts us.

I do not think that counterinsurgency theory can be productively applied to the management of transnational terrorism, roving gangs of bandits, narco-cartels, etc. (I'm not completely convinced that counterinsurgency theory as it stands is being productively applied to insurgency, but that's another question.) Apples and oranges, at the least. Certainly one may change into another, but at any given point we need to deal with what exists, and its specific and unique motivations, goals, and methods.


Tue, 09/20/2011 - 10:54am

Fair enough question on national security, I would add to it the addition that insurgencies should be countered - 'when it is in our interest'. I definitely do not see any value in countering insurgencies on behalf of other governments but sometimes our interests and theirs align.

When it comes to what is an insurgency and what is not, I admit to being a bit purposefully sloppy with the definition. I think that defining an armed group as one thing or another, whether insurgency or terrorist group or warlord organization, tends to be counterproductive. The reason being that these groups evolve over time and what may seem like a traditional insurgency one day can easily turn into what we might call a terrorist group the next. The term insurgency tends to be the broadest one and counterinsurgent theory is most robust so I end up calling it that.

The idea that an insurgency or any armed group for that matter should be seen as a response to bad government is no longer a helpful view either, in my opinion. Some segments of the population end up agreeing with the insurgents and some don't. Some insurgents fight for political reasons, some are just in it for the money and so on. While the government may be evil and deserving of ouster, this is often the case, yet insurgencies are rare. More to the point though, from US counterinsurgent perspective (or any offshore counterinsurgent efforts as opposed to a host government's efforts) it is a game of realist politics anyway, in which we align with whichever group is more to our interest (hopefully but not always this will also be in alignment with our moral stance as well).

By taking a step back and seeing the insurgent in terms of being a contained entity, similar in some ways to a state, which will evolve and change over time, we become freed to think about using whatever tools are best for the job. When a state has to make decisions about how to deal with another state, there are a whole slew of possible responses. This includes economic, political, military and so on, depending on needs. The same can be said of armed groups, yes there are often political reasons behind their actions but while dealing with those political issues will help weaken the group, there are several other areas that must be addressed at the same time.

This view also gets us past the sticky problem of what even counts as a government. The last time Afghanistan had any semblance of a government, it was run by the Taliban so from that view their actions are actually more like the Free French in WWII, fighting against occupiers. Sometimes it is in national security interest to align with the government and sometimes not.

Bill M.

Thu, 09/22/2011 - 1:14am

In reply to by Dayuhan

I'm not suggesting we fix their government in most cases and maybe none, but I'm hesitant to be absolute. I am recommended we identify the big problems and help fix it, and if it isn't fixable for the reasons you suggested then get out of the way and let the people fix it (hell, I know it sounds far fetched, but in "some" cases we may consider changing sides, conduct UW to co-opt the former foes and then help them form a new government that actually addresses the needs of the people). U.S. pressure helped El Salvador reform their government, and I'm sure if I think about or review historical examples there are other cases where we did the same. What we're doing in Afghanistan is apparently reinforcing a bad government and the two issues driving the insurgency are the government and our forces there, so if we're going to try to solve it militarily I suspect our current head hunting approach just won't get us there, instead we'll have to pick up the offensive OPTEMPO and kill a lot more insurgents to convince them that their efforts to oust us and their government is a wasted effort. We're not committed to winning that way, and we're not committed or able to reform the government.


Wed, 09/21/2011 - 8:37am

In reply to by Bill M.

"Fixing the larger issues" is the Robert C. Jones solution: fix the government or induce it to fix itself... all of the issues you cite are essentially governance issues and develop when governance is poor or absent. Fixing other governments is generally difficult or impossible to do: they are the way they are because the way they are suits those who govern, who are generally doing quite well out of it.

If achieving our goals in Afghanistan, the Philippines, or Latin America requires us to fix their governments, or take over governance functions ourselves, we badly need to reassess our goals.

Bill M.

Wed, 09/21/2011 - 12:53am

In reply to by Dayuhan


You wrote, "I'm not convinced that the search for commonalities is really advantageous, especially if it leads us to lump all sorts of marginally related phenomena together. Conflicts are unique and needed to be treated and understood individually"

I want to take a moment to address this comment and make an argument for the counterview. We have a long history of approaching these irregular warfare sets by perceiving them as systems, subsystem, components, and nodes, and then attempt to surgically remove the threat element from the environment, or in other words attempt to remove it from context. This approach has repeatedly failed us. In the Philippines our efforts are focused on transnational VEOs, but the VEOs are part of a much larger context including insurgency, corruption, organized crime, etc. I haven't been south of Panama, but it appears we attempted to isolate the narcocriminals from the insurgency and other social problems, and again have achieved only marginal success. In Afghanistan it my opinion you can't successfully defeat the insurgency without addressing the VEOs and organized criminal organizations. They all converge and blend in ways that are mutually supporting (whether it is intentional our not).

It is my opinion that Ike was right when he said if the problem is too difficult to solve then make it bigger. Admittedly I need to learn the context in which he made this statement, but I'm going to hijack it and claim he means change something bigger than the problem itself, you change the context in a way that directly impacts the problem.

There are commonalities between all the various threat elements in Afghanistan that we (and to some degree do) focus which is better governance, better security, regional support (border security), etc. These approaches (only if effectively executed) impact all the problem sets by changing the larger environment. If successful fixing the larger issues will have a much greater impact than attempting to artificially view and target a group outside of its context.


Tue, 09/20/2011 - 1:17am

In reply to by Bill M.

I'm not convinced that the search for commonalities is really advantageous, especially if it leads us to lump all sorts of marginally related phenomena together. Conflicts are unique and needed to be treated and understood individually... and before we ask how we can suppress any given group, we need to ask whether we really need to. I'm not saying that we will never ever need to counter an insurgency, I'm just not comfortable with the reflex assumption that insurgency by default is something to be countered.

I wouldn't say that all insurgency everywhere has popular support or is a response to bad government. I do think that in the vast majority of cases it's not possible to muster enough support for an insurgency to really threaten a government unless the government is very seriously deficient. If that's the case, merely suppressing the insurgency without doing anything about the deficiencies of government is going to be like playing the world's most expensive game of whack-a-mole. It is very, very difficult to fix other governments, which seems to me an excellent reason to stay out of the government/insurgent dynamic wherever it is humanly possible.

Bill M.

Tue, 09/20/2011 - 12:55am

In reply to by Dayuhan

There are obviously situations where we shouldn't get involved in a country's internal issues, and I think it is probably accurate to say we stay out of most of the insurgencies around the world, it is definitely a fact our military doesn't get involved "directly."

As you pointed out the situations in both Iraq and Afghanistan are abberations, not quite FID, not quite COIN, sort of like an occupation, but not quite, so why do we insist on basing all our counterinsurgency doctrine on these two recent experiences? Heck if I know, but regardless it is a hybrid problem and although insurgency doesn't equal criminal organizations, and ethic warfare isn't necessarily insurgency (anymore than the KKK targeting blacks was an insurgency), transnational terrorist organizations have different agendas, and state sponsers work with numerous actors to influence the situation to their strategic advantage. You're right that if we included all these issues under insurgency, then insurgency would no longer have a coherent definition, but the other reality is all these security challenges exist, so it is far more than just a counterinsurgency effort. In a situation you need to find to nexuses or commonalities in our approach to each where we can, but remain cognizant of where we can't.

I'm an advocate for letting people determine their own future and what type of government they'll have. That is an American value, why wouldn't we embrace that idea? However, where I think you go astray is when you assume that every insurgency is a response to bad government and furthermore has popular support. Not every insurgency is equivalent to what is happening the Middle East with the Arab Spring, many insurgencies are formed by a small cadre with an ideology that the majority reject, but if the government responds incompetently that group will be able to mobilize increasing numbers through propaganda and intimidation. If 11% of the population supports an insurgency it is a grave national emergency, and 15% or more support it is unlikely that the government can win without international support (or employing extremely harsh tactics to suppress the insurgency). Those numbers are far from a majority, and sometimes the reality is some insurgencies do not have the best interests of the people in mind.

<i>I'm worried about countering the groups. In the end, that is what national security policy is meant to do.</i>

I'd like an explanation of that, because on the surface it seems completely irrational to me. Our national security policy is meant to ensure and advance our national security. Why should that require us to defend foreign governments against their own people, especially if those governments have brought their own fate upon them by abusing and exploiting their own people?

I see no reason whatsoever why opposition to insurgency or support for the status quo should be our default position. If anything, it seems to me that our default position should be to stay out of it, unless there's some really overpowering national interest involved and unless our involvement has a clear, practical, and achievable objective. Deploying our resources and people to sustain unsupportable governments or try to make people like governments that we wouldn't endure for a millesecond is not, I submit, going to improve our security.

A group that's fighting for a global caliphate is not an insurgency, unless we stretch the definition of insurgency beyond any useful limit.

The insurgencies we currently face in Afghanistan and Iraq do not fit into our traditional COIN/FID paradigm at all. In these cases we are not supporting pre-existing governments threatened by a rebellious populace. We intervened to remove governments that didn't suit us, and replaced them with governments that did suit us, but that do not suit a lot of the people that live in these places. Not that it helps us in cases where we've already stepped in the nasty stuff, but for the future the best way to resolve these situations is not to get into them in the first place: regime change is bad business.

On a strategic level, the key decision for management of insurgency is the choosing of allies, and thus enemies. In any given case, we have to ask if the government we're supporting is really viable and truly deserves support. If it doesn't, we should really not be there in the first place: there is little to support the idea that we can turn bad governments into good ones or create viable governments where none exist.

On a purely tactical perspective, my advice to a unit dealing with a specific locale would be to find out why the people are fighting them or supporting those who fight them... not "the insurgency" in the abstract, or the insurgent leaders, but the local people who are actually fighting and supporting those who fight. Those reasons are likely to be local, and they are likely to involve a perception, often accurate, that the government is a threat to them.

Take away those reasons, and you take away the ability of the insurgent leadership to motivate the local populace. If you can't take away those reasons without fighting the government you're supposed to be supporting, then you shouldn't be there in the first place. Not that the guys in the field have a choice about it, but if our leaders are stupid enough to put people into the field in support of governments who actively antagonize their own population, all our folks in the field can reasonably be asked to do is keep their people safe, try to maintain some level of calm on their patch, and hope their leaders will wake up.

I think that the approach rises above the tactical and operational level by addressing two strategic points: decisions must be made in the context of what will or may happen and actions may take any form depending on decisions about what will create the best overall outcome. (Full disclosure, I'm the author of the article)

In terms of predicting, I readily admit that it is not possible to predict exactly how an insurgency will adapt but it is definitely possible to predict what possibilities for adaptation there are, or at least those methods which aren't possible due to environmental constraints. In other words, this is strategic but not tactical prediction.

In terms of how to counteract insurgencies, conventional (or unconventional) kinetic solutions are only one possible tool. Hearts and minds approaches or counter threat finance tools or any other methods are just as acceptable weapons for countering the solutions to the problems of mobilization. If a kinetic approach to decimating insurgent ranks (forcing the need to recruit more fighters) leads to a net increase in total number of fighters by attracting new recruits (say by the collateral damage polarizing civilian opinion) than that is the wrong approach. In that case, something other than the kinetic solution is the best way to counter insurgent mobilization solutions.

Agreed, the reasons why people choose to fight are critical but only within the context of deciding how to counter recruitment and motivation factors. I'm just trying to get past the idea that arguments about whether an insurgency is fighting because it wants to create a worldwide caliphate or that it is just redressing the wrongs of a single government necessarily tell us anything about how to counter the group. It helps to know that their doctrine is based on grand scale caliphate forming, for example, but only in that it tells us how they are recruiting fighters or obtaining donations.

Definitely, and unabashedly, I'm worried about countering the groups. In the end, that is what national security policy is meant to do. Having said that, in some cases it would definitely be within our security interests to leave an insurgency alone and maybe let it win. The job of the strategist is to think about what would happen if he acted in this manner or that. If any predictions prove to lead to a worse state of affairs, then it is probably best to leave the situation alone. In some ways, I think that this is what has happened in Iraq. The insurgency was at the point where it was better for the US to leave than to continue fighting (as the downside of continued fighting was that it would lead to continued collateral damage and thereby to continued political polarization and recruitment).

I would suggest that if our COIN approach was defined by a Boyd-esque willingness to predict and adapt at the tactical, operational and strategic level (to the point of changing even fundamental views about what it is to 'win') then other nations would be wise to adopt our approach.

The author wrote:

"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."

So yes he did address terrorism, warlords, and implied cartels were all relevant to this theory. AQ conducts UW and special operations (terrorism) in support of insurgencies, so obviously AQ is relevant. The NPA's scenario is actually one of the least relevant scenarios/models in recent years due to its isolation from other global networks. It is a great model to for justifying our outmoded doctrine, but the problem in the Philippines is as you and Bob have clearly stated numerous times is the government and associated culture of corruption.

While I disagreed with much the author had to say, there are situations when once an armed group has formed and started fighting the cause becomes largely irrelevant. The conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia come to mind.

I think many of us agree with Bob and you that we should let many insurgents around the world win (by not interfering), but the author is addressing the reality that many of us had to live with (and many still do), which is if you're given the mission then it is time to figure out how to do it instead of arguing policy (at the grunt level), but even from a tactical/operational level I think the author misses the boat on how to defeat an insurgency and "other" armed groups. These methods have been tried and all too often have failed. If you're going to resolve it militarily (or suppress it to a problem that can be easily managed) it will require a substantial amount of violence, a level that falls well outside the accepted norms of the West. It still amazes me how critical we are of Sri Lanka's methods, some even claiming they won the wrong way, while we cling to a doctrine that doesn't work. Why would any nation under serious threat want to adapt our COIN doctrine? We're selling an ideological based snake oil military theory that doesn't work. Our best approach is to provide assistance in helping the government transform, or serving as impartial negotiators to help reach a settlement. We need to get out of the business of trying to transform societies with our bayonets. Yet when we're told to do so we need to have clue on how to do so.

That's disturbing, on any number of fronts. I suspect that Robert C. Jones will have a thing or two to say, and that for a change I'll agree with him.

A few points...

Why must we reflexively perceive insurgency as something that must be "countered", or defeated, instead of seeing it as part of the process by which governments evolve... and in many cases as a perfectly legitimate effort to remove governments that are awful, utterly resistant to change, and/or sustained by a foreign occupier?

Why is AQ invoked here, when AQ is not an insurgency?

There seems to be no mention at all here of the role that government plays in creating and sustaining insurgency. Insurgencies typically exist because a government or foreign occupier has antagonized all or part of its people so drastically that people take up arms against it. This involves risk and hardship, and people don't do it casually or without reason. Insurgencies survive because governments refuse to change. Governments that don't accept evolution face revolution.

"Hearts and minds" approaches typically fail because they do not involve meaningful changes in governance: throwing a few development projects at people is not going to win hearts and change minds in a populace that has been systematically abused and neglected. Military force can suppress insurgency and open a window for change, but if the government doesn't change, the insurgency will generally reappear.

This statement:

<i>Once an armed group develops an ongoing means to survive, the reasons behind why they began to fight cease to matter as much.</i>

is to me almost shockingly wrong. The reasons why people begin to fight are absolutely critical. Addressing those reasons may not convert the insurgent leadership, which is often too invested in the fight to step away, but it can remove the motivation of the followers that provide the mass base and manpower, leaving the leadership bereft of the means to survive.

I live in a place that was, from the late 70s to the mid 90s, a hotbed of insurgency, a subset of one of the world's longest-running insurgencies. The local tribes were up in arms against a series of government-backed hydroelectric, mining, and logging projects that would have effectively destroyed them. They fought on the side of the communist New People's Army: they weren't communists, they just knew who was fighting their enemy. When the government abandoned the projects and withdrew abusive military forces, the insurgency wound down to a point where it now barely exists. The NPA leaders still want to fight, but their local support has evaporated because government is no longer antagonizing and threatening the populace.

If you want to resolve a long-running insurgency, separate the leaders from the followers by resolving the issues that make the followers willing to fight. Of course the US is often unable to do that in another country, and where that's the case we might want to think twice or more about joining the fight.

Not all armed groups are insurgencies. A band of brigands or a narcotics cartel is a different thing and must be managed differently.

The author’s approach is tactical and operational, but misses the mark on strategy. We have been viewing terrorist networks and insurgency organizations as systems of systems and attacking various nodes with little to no long term strategic effect. This very approach of independent actions to attack identified nodes (financial, leaders, supplies, etc.) is largely a swarming tactic executed in an uncoordinated manner that fails to bring the organization/network being targeted to a culmination point.
I disagree that we don’t “try” to anticipate how the organization will adapt, but the reality is this isn’t predictable in most cases, even the insurgents don’t know how they will adapt until put into that situation. This almost smells like a return back to effects based operations where we assume that these systems are predictable and we can execute pin point attacks to achieve our ends.
Also surprising was his reference to insurgent strategy to outlast conventional forces which dismisses the fact that counterinsurgency operations do not always require the use conventional forces, and if conventional forces are required then the insurgents have obviously already solved the problem of mobilization. As Bob’s World has informed us numerous times, government policy changes are a much better means at disrupting an insurgent’s ability to mobilize than the most aggressive military action. In fact aggressive military action usually facilitates insurgent mobilization.
Where Bob and I frequently diverge in views is that it is my opinion that Afghanistan and Iraq are not simply insurgencies, but rather a hybrid conflict that includes multiple forms of irregular warfare including insurgency, ethnic warfare, civil war, unconventional war sponsored by Iran, Pakistan, non-state actors, and others and so forth, and of course the corrosive effect of organized criminal organizations exploiting the instability.
While not having an answer, I suspect developing an effective strategy will involve what GEN Ike found useful which was to make the problem bigger to explore strategic solutions. If it is just an insurgency, then look at the insurgency as whole versus a set of systems and view it in its entire context local to global to see what conditions at the strategic level need to change to bring the conflict to an end.
Using the systems approach to facilitate targeting is still useful at the tactical and operational level, but it shouldn’t be confused with strategy. If we hope to bring the enemy to a culmination point using military action then we’ll have to be a lot more aggressive and even then there is no guarantee it will succeed.
In Afghanistan I think we need to let the Afghan people decide their own political future. Our national interests are some degree of stability in Pakistan and disrupting AQ attacks against our interests until the idea of Islamist extremism peters out over time, probably decades. In Iraq it is more complicated due to what we suspect is increasing Iranian influence which will further destabilize this region of the world.

Dave Maxwell

Sun, 09/18/2011 - 11:16am

Certainly an interesting perspective.  I agree that we do need to understand the "how" as the author argues but that is just one part that we must understand. We also have to understand the "why" as well.  And not just "why" do they last so long but why did they start as well as "what" are they trying to achieve?  But this paper reminds of the time worn adages that the counterinsurgent has the watch but the insurgent has the time and the counterinsurgent has to win but the insurgent just has to not lose.  But again I fully agree that we must understand how insurgencies adapt and from that perspective this is a useful paper contributing to the analysis of one aspect of insurgency, but it is not the end all in counterinsurgency (because as we all know there is no silver bullet in COIN).