Lessons from Insurgent Warfare
SWJ discussion with Seth G. Jones, Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, as well as an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His latest book is Waging Insurgent Warfare: Lessons from the Vietcong to the Islamic State, published by Oxford University Press, November 2016.
We tend to identify historical COIN principles that are applicable over time. But let’s ask the question from the perspective of the other side, the insurgent. What is old and new in concerning insurgent warfare? What are the continuities, the unchanged guiding principles of insurgency?
One issue that has been consistent across time is the range of strategies available to insurgents. In particular, insurgents have three main options. One was made famous by Mao: the use of guerilla warfare. Guerilla campaigns involve the use of ambushes, raids, and targeted assassinations. Their goal is not to defeat an opposing army or a government in battle, but to undermine the political will of the government. An essential pillar of guerrilla warfare is the political apparatus, which is important to mobilize the population. A second is a conventional strategy, which involves taking governments on in set-piece battles and defeating government forces on the battlefield. Third, some insurgent groups have used a punishment strategy, which involves targeting the civilian population. We do see insurgents at various points target non-combatants in specific villages or regions, often because they assess that these populations are supporting the government in various ways. Over time, insurgent groups have used some combination of guerilla warfare, conventional warfare, and punishment during a campaign. These are some of the tried and generally well-used strategy options available to insurgent groups.
What are the factors that increase the probability of an insurgency?
There are three sets of factors that contribute to the onset of insurgency. The first one is weak governance. Governments may have incompetent or ineffective security forces, or they may fail to provide basic services to their populations. In some cases, a country’s geography can make it difficult to govern. The country can be an archipelago, where the government may have trouble securing areas in multiple island chains. In other cases, state collapse can increase the probability of an insurgency. After the end of the Soviet Union, the probability of insurgency increased in former Soviet republics. It also increased after the death of Tito and the collapse of the Yugoslav government. More recently, we’ve seen a breakdown of governance with the Arab uprisings, which contributed to mass mobilization and weakening support for governments in Africa and the Middle East.
A second issue is greed, and this involves the economic opportunity for rebellion. These are cases in which there are resources available to would-be insurgents like diamonds, oil, or drugs. These sources help insurgents pay their supporters, buy weapons, fund intelligence assets, and conduct other tasks important for an insurgency. Insurgents can also get money from outside supporters.
The third is what I would call grievances. Not all grievances are equal. Grievances are generally used opportunistically by insurgent leaders, but there are a couple of categories that appear to increase the likelihood of insurgencies. One is low-per capita income. There is a relatively strong correlation between low per capita income and the start of an insurgency. We also see various types of ethnic and religious polarization, cases where there is one major ethnic group and a small but well-organized minority (the same thing on the religious side). With grievances, there is a higher probability in cases where there is low per capita income and ethnic and religious polarization.
All these factors - grievance by locals, greed and resource opportunities, and weak governance - appear to increase the likelihood of insurgencies. When one thinks of trying to stop insurgencies from moving from the proto- or pre-insurgency stage to an insurgency, then it’s important to consider strengthening government, decreasing the flow of resources available to insurgent groups, and dealing with key grievances. In 2014, for example, the Islamic State leveraged disenfranchised Sunni communities in their push into Anbar Province and Mosul.
You emphasize that ethnic/religious polarization as well as the weak governance are creating environments that are prone to insurgency. To me the implication for a country that displays both factors is the imperative to take into consideration both nation and state building strategies.
In cases where an insurgency is the result of weak or collapsed institutions, then part of the answer may be to help improve state institutions. Each country is different. But key questions can include: What factors caused the state to break down? Was it corruption? Was it delivering goods and services to local populations? Was it weak security institutions? Outside states may want to help strengthen institutions to make them better able to establish order and to deliver services in a way that is legitimate among the local population. The funding and assistance can be provided by outside states or international institutions.
Over the last decade, there have been wide swings in outside assistance. The cases of Iraq and Afghanistan are on one side of the spectrum: the U.S. provided massive assistance to local governments, even to the point of overwhelming what local institutions could effectively use. On the other hand, the United States provided limited assistance to Libya after the overthrow of the Gaddafi government. These cases sit on the extremes. The massive resources invested in Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t deal effectively with some of the core grievances, and the paucity of support in Libya contributed to a failed state. It’s hard to identify one model that will work for every state and I don’t think it’s possibly. But you can do too much or too little. There are cases over the past decade, like Colombia and Philippines, where the U.S. provided modest assistance to local states and the local governments effectively countered insurgents. In both the Colombia and Philippines cases, the United States also had competent allied governments.
Once, General Zinni told me that “anytime you have a sanctuary you have a problem. Look at Pakistan in the case of Afghanistan and Syria in the case of Iraq. To give sanctuary is a political decision. Because of this we have never been able to defeat insurgents.” What is, from the perspective of your historical sample, the relationship between the existence of a safe-haven and defeating an insurgency?
I looked at the relationship between sanctuary and insurgent outcomes, and I did not find a strong statistical correlation between the availability of a sanctuary and an insurgent success or failure. On the one hand, having a sanctuary doesn’t appear to significantly increase insurgent success or failure. Sanctuary may be one of several factors that help contribute to insurgent victory or defeat, but it does not appear to be one of the primary variables. Of course, sanctuaries can help insurgent groups. In several on-going cases, such as Afghanistan, the Taliban’s access to sanctuaries in Pakistan, where they have their command-and-control structure, is certainly helpful.
Is proxy insurgent warfare becoming more likely in a world where great power geopolitical competition and revisionism is the new normality?
The problem with conventional warfare between great powers that have nuclear weapons is escalation to nuclear war. Nuclear war has enormous consequences, including the destruction and killing of a large number of civilians. In cases of intense security competition between great powers, they have historically chosen to fight each other using proxies through insurgencies rather than in conventional battles. While the United States and Soviet Union did not fight each other directly on the battlefield during the Cold war, they did engage in proxy war in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Another interesting example is that of India and Pakistan. After both acquired nuclear weapons, the vast majority of security competition between the two has been supporting proxies in insurgencies in countries like Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. If we do see more great power competition in the future, I think we will also see a greater possibility for proxy war, which brings us to the situation of insurgencies.
Having in mind the current political climate in the West, the interventionism fatigue, but also the inward looking focus, the retrenchment mood, is this the end of interventionism?
I don’t think this is the end of intervention. Based on the past decade and half of counterinsurgency warfare, countries like the United States are unlikely to deploy large numbers of conventional forces to deal with insurgents and other non-state actors. The large numbers of US forces deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan after the overthrow of their respective regimes in 2001 and 2003 did not effectively end their wars or defeat insurgents. What we’ve seen more recently is the use of outside special operation forces, intelligence assets, and air power. In addition, based on domestic politics in countries like the United States, we’ve seen the end of large-scale conventional forces fighting in insurgencies for the foreseeable future. That means that large numbers of U.S. Army or Marine Corps soldiers are unlikely to be at the tip of the spear in conducting operations against insurgent groups. This doesn’t rule out limited numbers of conventional forces that provide fire support to local partners or to train, advise, assist, and accompany them. In short, I don’t think we are at the end of U.S. involvement in counterinsurgency campaigns, but I think we are at the end of a large-scale U.S. military role.