Small Wars Journal

The Quest for Legitimacy

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According to The U.S. Army Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual an insurgency is “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government.” FM 3-24 continues with, “political power is the central issue in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies: each side aims to get the people to accept its governance or authority as legitimate.” Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) advocates propose fighting insurgents with small cadres of highly-trained infantry, avoiding the large footprint of earlier generations of war created by command and control echelons above the company. Even if the 4GW proponents are correct on the tactical level, their proposed methods will not be successful in defeating an insurgency strategically as 4GW does not offer a legitimate alternative to the insurgents at the strategic or national level.

William S. Lind, the architect of the 4GW concept, argues for units to become “true light infantry.”  He writes, “virtually all Fourth Generation forces are free of the First Generation culture of order; they focus outward, they prize initiative and, because they are highly decentralized, they rely on self-discipline.” Discipline is a key issue here; a company commander only has the authority to punish soldiers up to the (U. S. Army) rank of Sergeant (E-5). This is to protect not only the soldiers, but to give the commander the ability to maintain order and discipline commensurate with his position and abilities. A company is usually composed of only three to four officers, and they have little ability to conduct an investigation without disrupting combat operations. Conflicts of interest and difficulty finding an impartial investigator with such a small pool of officers in such a close environment are other challenges. That is why a company commander only has the ability to investigate minor offenses and only for the lowest-ranking soldiers. Clear, codified, equitable discipline is one of the features that separate a military from a street gang or an insurgent movement.

Lind wants to remove echelons of control “to flatten” the command structure: “However, on a Fourth Generation battlefield tactical control above the company level is seldom needed…Light infantry should be able to "live off the land" for prolonged periods and in almost any part of the world.”

Unless Lind is advocating looting, a violation of the UCMJ, Article 103, these small teams would end up spending most of their time trying to hunt or forage for food. Lind  does provide a solution: “It [4GW forces] should be trained and equipped to use cash to draw on the local infrastructure for most of its needs.”  Lind expects a company to handle most of its logistical needs with a minimum of support from a higher echelon, in other words, Lind is advocating an autonomous company.

H. John Poole, another disciple of 4GW, goes even further. Poole advocates using fire teams (a 3-4 man team) to perform deep interdiction to deny an enemy maneuver room, destroy minor camps, supply areas, and staying in place for up to three months at a time. In this scenario, how is it possible that the team effects the capture of prisoners? Would the team have to allow surrendering personnel to escape? How would enemy causalities be treated? Would the team leave enemy wounded, and how would that be portrayed to the media and world-wide? Whatever flaws there may be with 4GW, the biggest one is with legitimacy.

A Western democratic government is considered legitimate if its rule is primarily derived from the consent of the populace. An illegitimate government would be one that ruled by coercion. Legitimate governments are inherently stable. They engender the popular support required to manage internal problems, change, and conflict. A lack of legitimacy in a constituted government results in a lack of popular support, and an end to the government’s actions.

Conrad Crane proposes six possible indicators of legitimacy:

- The ability to provide security for the populace.

- Selection of leaders at a frequency and in a manner considered just and fair by a substantial majority of the populace.

- A high level of popular participation in or support for political processes.

- A culturally acceptable level of corruption.

- A culturally acceptable level and rate of political, economic, and social development.

- A high level of regime acceptance by major social institutions.

While this is a good guide from a western view of what constitutes a “legitimate” government, not every group in the world would agree, and legitimacy is in the eyes of the beholder. What was legitimate in earlier times may now be unacceptable, what is legitimate in one area of the world is not in another.

Insurgencies that are trying to develop legitimacy have integrated themselves locally into the social and political fabric of societies worldwide. They establish a “shadow government,” first addressing the needs of the local populace. Insurgents establish themselves as organizations capable of addressing the everyday problems of the local population. Insurgent groups have set up schools, medical clinics, sports clubs, and programs for free meals. Hamas and Hezbollah have also become powerful political parties within their respective governments. The key difference is that to be seen as legitimate, the insurgent only needs to appear legitimate in the area they are operating in and in accordance with the mores of the local populace. Atrocities committed by insurgents, even if they were reported could be easily ignored.  International opinion matters little to an insurgent organization that is local, and is not subject to, or concerned with, international laws.

The national government, on the other hand, has to appear legitimate at the international level, the national level, and at the local level. At each level there may be different beliefs as to what does or does not constitute “legitimate” governance. The counter insurgent has an even more difficult time, as they must be seen as “legitimate” in their home country, the host country, internationally, and at the local level. There is a difference in what actions and processes are seen as legitimate by these successive levels and the counter insurgent must not only be cognizant of these expectations and restrictions, but abide by them as well.

The 4GW method of COIN does not properly account for legitimacy. Following the 4GW method, insurgent groups will be able to use the need for legitimacy by the counter insurgents to disrupt operations. If a charge is made that the 4GW forces have committed an atrocity, there will be a lot of interest in that story by outside groups. The media will want information, and human rights groups will bring political pressure for a full and complete investigation to be conducted, something a company commander will not have the resources to do. If the alleged atrocity is not investigated properly, regardless of the veracity, legitimacy for the operation and popular support at all levels will be at risk. The insurgents will be able to use the incident as a rallying cry against the counter insurgent forces. The lack of a full and complete investigation will give credence to their claims, and there will be allegations of “cover ups” and “obfuscation,” by those sympathetic to the insurgent cause. Outside neutral groups, like NGOs and the media, will not be able to quickly and easily refute these allegations, further reinforcing the insurgent’s claims. These claims harm the legitimacy of the counter insurgent operations and degrade popular support. Without popular support the U.S. Army would be forced to leave, allowing the insurgents to reoccupy the area. Tactically the insurgents may have been beaten at every turn, but strategically they have won. Given the proposed structure of 4GW forces, small 3-4 man teams, out of direct contact with higher headquarters for extended periods of time, with a minimum of command oversight- how would an investigation occur? How would media requests be handled, or investigations by human rights NGOs? How would the team or the company even be able to demonstrate that they were not responsible for the alleged crime? Do 4GW adherents believe that the US Army would be given the benefit of the doubt by the international press?

The current mass of command and control, while cumbersome and at times inefficient, exists to protect the soldier and to allow him to conduct his mission with minimal disruption. To try and strip that away to a “lean fighting force” is to invite tactical success, but strategic failure. With the loss of a robust command structure and the protection it brings from outside agencies, it will be easy for the insurgents to portray soldiers as cold-blooded killers, rampaging throughout the land with no oversight and no regard for international law, the UCMJ, or legitimacy. Without the appearance of legitimacy popular support will erode, without popular support counter- insurgent forces will be forced to cede the battlefield to the insurgents.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, or any other governmental agency.

Categories: Lind - legitimacy - counterlawfare - COIN - 4GW

About the Author(s)

Major Lincoln S. Farish is a Civil Affairs Officer currently deployed in Afghanistan.



Fri, 02/24/2012 - 8:59pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


I wish you'd elaborate on this:

<i>If GIRoA endures, they will earn legitimacy. If they fall, they will be replaced by a government with legitimacy that both the victor and the vanquished recognize.</i>

If the current GIRoA falls, why would the successor be recognized as legitimate by the vanquished party? The Taleban weren't recognized as legitimate by the Northern Alliance lat time around.

Of course a government put in power by a foreign invader is not going to be seen as legitimate, but that doesn't mean a government not put in power by a foreign invader will necessarily be seen as legitimate. The most likely scenario is that when we leave there will be a fight, the winner will be seen as legitimate by themselves and their supporters and as illegitimate by the losers and their supporters. That's what happens in places where "legitimacy" is defined as "we win" and "good governance" is defined as "we rule". There's obviously not going to be a consensus on legitimacy and good governance under those conditions.


Fri, 02/24/2012 - 8:28pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Who ever aid the Afghan government is pursuing modernization and change? I don't see any evidence to suggest that. Looks more like they're pursuing power and money.

Bill C.

Sat, 02/25/2012 - 11:23pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I think I will have to disagree.

a. How a government comes to power -- and who/what sustains this government -- this, I believe, has less to do with whether a government is considered legitimate in the eyes of various segments of the population.

b. Rather what seems to have more to do with whether a government is considered legitimate is whether the government -- re: what is it is trying to do -- is perceived as strongly and effectively representing the interests and beliefs of various segments of the population.

My contention above doing a better job of explaining, for example, how the Northern Alliance/pro-modernization segments of the Afghan population might be more inclined to consider the Karzai government as legitimate, and the Taliban/anti-modernization segments of the Afghan population might be more inclined to consider this same Karzai government as patently illegitimate, even though the manner in which the Karzai government came to power -- and is sustained -- is the same (via foreign intervention) in both instances?

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 02/24/2012 - 7:40pm

In reply to by Bill C.


I seriously doubt it's about what the government is trying to do, it's about how they came to be the government in the first place and what sustains them in power.

Bill C.

Fri, 02/24/2012 - 5:39pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

A hypothetical question and answer example which, I hope, will help make my point:

Q: Do "the people" (in this case, the insurgent segment of the population) recognize the right of this government to govern them?

A: No.

Q: Why is this?

A: Because, in this instance, the insurgent segment of the population is opposed to this government's state and societal "change" agenda; which is, to radically transform (to modernize) the nation along western lines.

Q: In the past, have various segments of various populations been moved to resist/revolt/secede when presented with such unwanted modernization/state and societal "change" requirements; this, whether such requirements stem from foreign involvement or not?

A. Yes, this is a/the classic problem -- and a/the classic risk taken -- when governments attempt to modernize/fundamentally transform their states and societies. To elaborate and as an example: If present, the fact of foreign involvement can certainly be used by insurgents to help damage or destroy the local government's ability to achieve the desired transformation/modernization of the subject state and society. But this (foreign involvement) is not the central issue, in these modernization cases, re: "Do 'the people' (in this instance, the insurgent segment of the population) recognize the right of this government to govern them?" Rather in these cases of attempted modernization of the state and society the central issue is (1) whether the insurgent segment of the population vehemently opposes the government's modernization agenda generally and (2) whether it (the insurgent segment of the population) will act (continue to act) accordingly.

Stan Wiechnik

Fri, 02/24/2012 - 2:24pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

On a separate note, you make a comment on how the world today would view an occupying Army's attempt to garner its legitimacy from another source as "probably [] viewed as a ridiculous charade almost anywhere else, or in modern Japan." That is an interesting statement in itself because it demonstrates a change that has occurred as a result of the democratization of the rest of the world. Legitimacy is not the providence of a single Emperor or religious leader, it is granted to the government by the people. My Dalai Lama example is one of those cases where the population sees its leader as both a person and a divine entity granted authority by God. Not a common commodity in today's political environment.

This change in the source of legitimacy from a single political leader (based on ethnicity, religion, or tradition) to the citizenry in general makes lending legitimacy to any form of occupying force exponentially more difficult and requires a tailored psyops campaign if you want to be successful.

Stan Wiechnik

Fri, 02/24/2012 - 12:29pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I agree that Post-War Japan may be a unique situation but I think there are places on the planet where it could be replicated. An example might be Nepal if the Dalai Lama advocated our invasion. But these situations are fewer and farther between in the modern world ... and Afghanistan is not one of them.

You are also right that coercive power is not a true substitute for legitimacy. Any ideology not widely accepted by the population is also worthless. Marxism did not work before and liberalism is not working now. The trick is to determine what constitutes legitimacy to the population. As you point out there was not a universally accepted source of legitimacy prior to our involvement and we did not create one (not that we ever really could). Unfortunately, reality is that the Afghans are going to have to work this one out for themselves.

What we might want to concentrate on now is how we facilitate the changes that have to happen for the Afghans to find their own solution with the minimum of death, destruction, and potential for backlash to the ISAF participants.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 02/24/2012 - 11:18am

In reply to by Stan Wiechnik


Fair comment.

MacArthur understood that the Emperor was universally recognized as the legeitimate government of Japan; so instead of attempting to replace what the people recoginzed has having the right to govern them with some new, foreign program, he instead packaged the occupation government as being under that recognized legitimacy. That makes my point. It worked in 1945 Japan, but would probably be viewed as a rediculous charade almost anywhere else, or in modern Japan.

How does government attain legitimacy in Afghanistan? Not through emplacement and protection by foreign powers. Not through Western-style elections either. The fact is that the Taliban were a "legitimate" government; though clearly not accepted by the entire populace. The Northern Alliance, reliant on US military power to rise to the top, had no such legitmacy from the start, and it has been downhill ever since.

Most people recognize power. But just because one has the most power does not make one the most legitimate. And foreign power cannot create the type of legitimacy necessary for stability. Only the power of broad popular recognition can bestow that flavor of legitimacy.

Stan Wiechnik

Fri, 02/24/2012 - 11:01am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I don't think the occupying army is as ab initio de-legitimizing as you think. I will use the example of Post-War Japan. MacArthur used the existing legitimacy of the Emperor to maintain order while the government transitioned from military occupation to civilian control. The occupying Army gained its legitimacy from an existing widely accepted pre-occupation source.

I think the difference between Japan and Afghanistan is that there never was a widely accepted legitimate government in Afghanistan before we arrived. Nor do I believer there will be a widely accepted legitimate government after we depart. I don't believe the cultural, social, and economic situation there favors one.

Dennis M.

Fri, 02/24/2012 - 10:48am

In reply to by Bill C.

I would suggest that there are a couple of problems with using the American Civil War as an analogy in a discussion of insurgencies in the context of legitimacy. The American Civil War was a civil war. It was a conflict between a group of sovereign states who split off from what they viewed as a confederation of sovereign states. In reality, it was state on state conflict -- two groups of states fighting each other where each state was a sovereign unto itself. The only complicating factor is that all of the states involved came under a separate federal system with its own independent sovereignty. It just so happened that the northern states allied themselves with that federal authority.

This is distinguishable from an insurgency where a group of people who do NOT have any political power or voice acting against a government that they view as illegitimate.

Your construct of insurgencies as "conservatives" versus "radical" (by "radical" I take that you mean change agents) may arguably apply to the Civil War, but does not necessarily apply to insurgencies. In fact, in many cases the radical agents of change are the insurgents who become tired of an entrenched political system which is unresponsive to their needs, or which persecutes them outright.

So I would suggest that your argument that insurgencies are about "whether one segment of the populace can require a different segment of the populace to radically change their way of life and way of governance against their will" is very simplistic.

The only rule that one can state about insurgencies generally is that they are about one segment of the population being dissatisfied with the way their society is governed. That dissatisfaction can stem from an infinite number of reasons -- feelings of disenfranchisement, feelings of persecution or oppression, government corruption, poor provision of government services, etc. The group may be a distinct political group, racial group, religious group, class, etc. Their goals can be anything, too -- from overthrow of the current regime to "liberation" of a geographical region.

My point is that it is not always the case that an insurgent group is fighting change forced upon them by a government. In many cases, insurgents are fighting for change. As to foreign support/intervention in an insurgency, given the inherently internal nature of an insurgency, such support or intervention further isolates the government from the populace by turning to outside actors to help with problems that have arisen from inside the society. That certainly is not going to help a government address the problems raised by the dissatisfied segment of the populace.

Hence COL Jones's comment.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 02/24/2012 - 10:20am

In reply to by Bill C.


Some may find this an irrelevant nuance, but I believe such nuances are the crux of effective understanding of such issues. I do not believe it is wise to catecorize the conditions at the start of the American Civil War as "insurgency" (the phase after the surrender fits, but not the entire conflict). I also believe that perceptions of the "legitimacy" of the government of the United States were not seriously in question either leading up to the war.

What was at issue was a major point of irreconcilable disagreement over the issue of slavery between Northern and Southern States. Under the Constitution of the US it was widely accepted from ratification that any state could legally opt out of the Union if at some point they believed it in their best interest to do so. During Presient Andrew Jackson's administration he made what I believe was essentially a Presidential order that from that point forward state could no longer legally exercise that option. Southern states disagreed with the finding and voted to withdraw from the Union. Realistically, this was an issue for the Supreme Court to resolve, but practically, by the time of succession the only argument that would carry decisive weight was "the final argument of Kings," so we waged war to settle a point of constitutional interpretation. That was not insurgency.

Many souterners surely did not accept the defeat of the Confederacy as making them Americans once again, and those who acted out to challenge Union efforts to reestablish a united form of governance across the South were then waging a form of insurgency.

Bill C.

Fri, 02/24/2012 - 9:10am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

"What matters is the perceptions of the insurgent segment of the populace. Do the(se) people recognize the right of this government to govern them?"

For sake of discussion, let us define the "insurgent segment of the populace" as the conservatives; those who -- as with the South in the American Civil War -- are fighting to retain the status quo.

Likewise, in this example, let us define the "government" as the radicals, to wit: those who -- as with the North in the American Civil War -- are fighting to impose a new, more-"modern" way of life and way of governance on their fellow citizens in the South.

From this American Civil War example, can we come to understand that the central issue in these matters is not foreign interference per se but, indeed, whether one segment of the populace can require a different segment of the populace to radically change their way of life and way of governance against their will?

(Herein, I accept that -- in instances where the conservatives CAN point to foreign initiative/foreign support for the radical's cause -- this can do great harm to the radical's position. However, foreign support/foreign interference would not seem to be the central issue in these matters of governing legitimacy; rather, forced state and societal change would seem to firmly hold that ground.)

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 02/24/2012 - 6:19am

We are hamstrung intllectually by our Western perspectives on insurgency and by our definitions and perspectives on concepts such as "legitimacy."

The author says: "A lack of legitimacy in a constituted government results in a lack of popular support, and an end to the government’s actions."

That fits well within our doctrine and most Western writing on counterinsurgency; but completely misses the the point on the form of legitimacy most important for the type of stability that robs insurgent movements of their popular support. It is not the ammount of "officialness" or "legality" of government (or of the intervention supporting said government) that matters. What matters is the perceptions of the insurgent segment of the populace. "Do the people recognize the right of this government to govern them." It is that simple of a concept; yet virtually impossible to attain anytime a foreign power is involved, or some new, foregin porcess for selecting leadership is introduced.

Do Afghan populaces not aligned with the old Northern Alliance recognize the right of the Northern Alliance-based GIRoA, elevated into office by American military power and sustained in office by ISAF, as having the right to govern them? As "legitimate"? Doubtful. They only way for GIRoA to get to legitimacy is for ISAF to pack up and leave. If GIRoA endures, they will earn legitimacy. If they fall, they will be replaced by a government with legitimacy that both the victor and the vanquished recognize. Unless of course some other meddling foreigner is behind ensuring the new party wins. Places like Afghanistan seem to attract such foreign meddlers, and thus struggle to get to "legitimacy."

We think we create or protect legitimacy by our interventions. In fact we prevent and destroy it.


Thu, 02/23/2012 - 6:06pm

In reply to by Polarbear1605

Possibly the gap between tactical and strategic success exists because our tactical goals are achievable with the methods we have at our disposal, and our strategic goals are not. Finding, fixing, and finishing Taliban units is not going to make Karzai able to govern, or make him any less visibly a corrupt, inept puppet of a foreign invader.

We can't "work on the government legitimacy part of the equation" during any phase of our operations, because legitimacy cannot be conferred by us. The government has to earn it. Our involvement actually decreases legitimacy by reinforcing the (reasonable) perception that the government is an extension of our presence.


Thu, 02/23/2012 - 3:43pm

I agree with Ken, “Legitimacy” is not the issue. IMO any debate about “legitimacy” is nothing more than a cover story for bad strategy and bad strategic leadership, but that is just me. I think the term has gone from doctrine to the dogma (that is from a teaching to an opinion). Legitimacy now appears in our joint (and service) pubs as a principle of war. An argument can be make that it appeared in those doctrinal pubs as a “politically correct” reaction due to Abu Grebe. Legitimacy is the exercise of authority…if you can exercise authority you got legitimacy and that includes both political and military legitimacy. How we exercise authority in COIN and/or 4GW at the small unit level is we find, kill or capture the enemy. The purpose of those actions is to get the enemy too busy to intimidate the farmers and herders and increase enemy legitimacy. We are supposed to do that in the clear and hold phase of counter insurgency operations. If we have done that successfully in Afghanistan, then why have Afghan casualties due to Taliban activity gone up 30% per year since 2007? During the build phase we should work on the government legitimacy part of the equation. Legitimacy nor is command and control structure the issue. What is at issue is that the US seems to lack the strategic leadership to turn tactical success into strategic success and it makes no difference if it is done under the COIN or 4GW banner.

The difficulty with these attempts to evolve the counterinsurgency doctrine is that there really has not been enough analysis of whether counterinsurgency in its present form of nation building makes much of a difference to protecting our national and foreign interests. (that may be a poor assumption on my behalf).

The other issue I have is the assumption that western forms of legitimacy are the only ones we accept on behalf of other people living in their own land. Many people in the villages of Afghanistan may not support the Shadow Government in their Province or district but they do not necessarily the local corrupt GiROA representative as any more legitimate.

The fascination with media reporting shows that unfortunately the counterinsurgency doctrine may be as much about reporting percetions as much as reality. Not to mention that fact that the scenario put forward in that para of the article ends by the US leaving. Since when did a serious, legimate US military operation jump to the tune of NGOs and human rights groups?

What is not put forward as part of an evolved 4GW / COIN approach is whether we actually need to be there at all. For exampel, did we need to attempt to rebuild a nation emerging from the 9th Century to achieve our objective of defeating Islamic fundamentalist-inspired terrorism attacking the homeland? Destroy terrorist training camps and hunt al-Qaeda, yes; to build a nation to achieve the same ends - not sure.



I still can't get a handle on this assumption that "insurgency" is something that by definition must be "countered". Instead of looking for better ways to counter insurgents, maybe we need to look for ways to avoid harnessing ourselves to the kind of governments that tend to face insurgencies... like hopelessly inept ones, abusive ones, or ones that we installed.

If installing governments in other countries produces intractable insurgencies and investment in weak, dependent governments (which it very predictably does), we don't need better ways to counter insurgency, we need to stop installing governments.

Ken White

Tue, 02/21/2012 - 4:03pm

I'll piggyback on the comments of Slapout9 and all without reference to Lind but rather, simply, to history.

- The US should do everything in its power to avoid entering such conflicts.

- The exploitation of media will be one of the key tactics in any insurgency.

- No one wins in these sorts of conflicts. The best that can be achieved is a moderately acceptable outcome and that only after the insurgents have strung it out as as they can. We will ALWAYS trie before they do and we Will leave. This is an abysmally stupid way to protect the interests of the US...

'Legitimacy' is not the issue. Introduction of combat forces should only occur to engage in or preclude combat. Once combat is initiated, legitimacy is a side and media issue only. If war is not wanted, then don't send war fighting forces. That seems to be a pretty simple construct that the US government has not absorbed.

OTOH, if warfare is contemplated, then one has an obligation to do one's very best. Distributed and lethal combat forces are better than mass for this sort of warfare.

Major Farish wrote:<blockquote>"...To try and strip that away to a “lean fighting force” is to invite tactical success, but strategic failure."</blockquote>I think he's wrong. Tactical success is needed in event the strategic failure of engaging in such campaigns occurs. Make no mistake, to engage in them is indeed a result of strategic failure. We can do better.


Tue, 02/21/2012 - 1:43pm

A few of points.

1-the first and perhaps biggest recommendationn by Lind was that the US should NOT fight them in the first place.

2-Lind has been very clear about how the exploitationon of media will be one of the key tactics in 4GW.

3-His tactics are just suggestions of possible ways to fight a 4GW enemy because as he points out nobody(meaning an intervening 3rd party power) has ever won one...they left and went home.

4-IN the original article he(Lind) also points out that a robotic reponse(Drones!!) may be a primary option for the west.

Just some thoughts based upon my reading of the 4GW works.