Small Wars Journal

Understanding Insurgency: The Condition behind the Conflict

Sat, 10/01/2011 - 8:39am

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Ask 25 experts for their perspective on counterinsurgency and one will hear answers that group into 3-4 broad categories.  Ask those same experts about what causes insurgency, and one hears terms like “complexity,” “wicked problem,” or “they are all unique.”  This overwhelming uncertainty regarding the problem itself translates directly into a corresponding uncertainty in crafting the right balance of activities to apply in any given situation. If one cannot define the problem, how does one know which effects are attributable to what action; or what order or priority of actions should shape the operational design?  What value is there in developing expertise in the complex mosaic of history, culture and governance that uniquely shapes every society where such conflicts emerge if one does not understand the base context of the problem one seeks to solve?  Of all the challenges attributable to counterinsurgency campaigns, attaining any degree of consensus among the interested parties as to the nature of the problem is perhaps the most difficult of all.

Understanding insurgency is particularly critical for Special Operations Forces (SOF), as Insurgency is the common hub connecting the spokes of the three Core SOF Operations of COIN, UW and FID.  As doctrinal operations, each of these are within our ability to shape, constrain and define however best suits our purpose. Insurgency itself however, is not a doctrinal operation. More accurately, insurgency is the natural result of powerful human dynamics that shape the relationships between those who govern, and those who are governed.  Notably, many of the strategic challenges dominating the news and foreign policy discussions today are shaped by, or interact with, a wide range of suppressed and active insurgencies around the world.  Governments challenged by insurgency tend to define insurgency in convenient terms. The problem with that approach is that such definitions too often become an obstacle to effective COIN.  Offered here is that it is far more important to understand insurgency than it is to define it.  One must then capture that understanding in a manner that facilitates the development of effective foreign and domestic policies and operational designs.  This effort to capture the essence of insurgency explores the following concepts:

1.      The inherent simplicity and immutable nature of insurgency,

2.      Insurgency as illegal politics rather than warfare,

3.      The primary role of government in both “radicalizing” and “deradicalizing” a populace,

4.      Thinking of Insurgency as a condition, as well as a form of conflict,

5.      The linkage of insurgency to fundamental aspects of human nature,

6.      How Western bias derived from centuries of colonialism and containment hinder effective COIN,

7.      How governmental bias in general hinder effective COIN, and lastly,

8.      What all of this means in the current and emerging environment.

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About the Author(s)

Robert Jones is a retired Army Special Forces Colonel, serving the past ten years as senior strategist at USSOCOM. His focus is understanding the nature of the strategic environment, the evolving character of conflict, and the implications for our Special Operations Forces. He is a core member of the Joint Staff’s Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) network, and a regular lecturer at the Joint Special Operations University and the Air War College. A Cold War and Gulf War vet, he stepped away for a bit to gain experiences as both an emergency manager and a deputy district attorney prior to returning to the Special Operations community post 9/11 to serve from Zamboanga to Kandahar, and places in between.


Most of the currently marginal states are irrelevant to international trade. Nobody cares about opening economic connections in Afghanistan. There's nothing there we want and there's no potential market for our products. Until 9/11 we were content to do what we do in most marginal states: contain, deter, ignore.

Where your hypothesis falls down, IMO, is that there's really no evidence of a concerted effort - or any effort at all - to "open up" or modernize marginal states. Nobody pays them any attention at all, unless they become a security problem. In some cases (Somalia) nobody wants to deal with them even when they are a security problem.

The only people we see consistently trying to push economic linkage on marginal states are the Chinese (Myanmar, Sudan, any number of other African states).


"The condition that exists within populace" (to wit: a deeply engrained conservatism re: one's political, economic and social arrangements and a near-zero tolerance of foreign interference in such matters).

This will dramatically clash in the 21st Century with:

"The condition that exists with the United States," which is: a deadly serious determination to eliminate any and all obstacles, obstructions and/or barriers that would tend to hinder the full and complete expansion of and provision for security for a much more extensive and much more robust international trading system.

Herein, not only will the United States/international community not allow "conditions within the populace" to stand in their way, but neither will they allow a "condition that exists in international law," to wit: "sovereignty." This reasoning (to wit: NOTHING shall stand in our way) helping to explain such "post-Westphalen" discussions and initiatives as those associated with Responsibility-to-Protect, etc.

Bill C.

Tue, 10/04/2011 - 11:39am

Gentlemen: I believe it works something like this:

a. U.S. policy is focused on supporting and expanding international trade.

b. Throughout the world today, there are certain state, societal and other barriers that stand in the way of this initiative. (For example: the concept of "sovereignty;" thus, "R2P," which is designed to breach the sovereignty problem when such is required.)

c. The U.S. intends to overcome these barriers using various means; one of which is to (1) use our instruments of power to (2) help local governments "build partner capacity" (strong central governments) which can be used to effectively (a) transition their states and societies in the direction that we desire and (b) deal with those who would resist this necessary transition.

d. Specifically, our purpose is to (1) "open up" these states and societies and to make them more "accessable" to foreign ideas, foreign goods and services, and foreign populations and to (2) build new infrastructure within these locales to facilitate and support this expansion of international trade.

e. Herein, individuals and groups (both inside and outside these countries) -- who are repulsed by this proposed exposure and these fundamental state and societal changes -- and who will tend to lose power, wealth and influence in these new arrangements; such individuals and groups will resist.

f. Thus, resistance (to wit: insurgency) directed against our agents of change (the local governments) and against the U.S. and its allies (via international terrorism) is to be expected.

g. This explains why we have moved to adapt our military (towards counterinsurgency) and our homeland defenses (toward counterterrorism) so as to deal this these problems -- which are, I would suggest -- directly related to and significantly explained by the initiative I have outlined above.

It is within this context, I believe, that we must view such concepts as "the conditions within the populace" (such as: a deeply engrained conservatism and near-zero tolerance for foreign interference) and understand how and why such "conditions" as these will give rise to both "insurgency" and "terrorism" in the current century.

The conflict(s) will be between those who will embrace such changes as we require -- and those who will not.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 10/04/2011 - 6:30am

In reply to by Dayuhan

Dayuhan is correct in that I think "prosperity and security" are foils that governments hide behind as they look for ways to avoid responsibility for their primary role in causation.

As he himself points out, in Afghanistan, where there is massive historic poverty and where every family lives in a walled fortress with an AK-47 due to the security; there was little insurgency prior to our going in and disrupting the balance of power between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban.

It is not poverty or lack of security in of themself; it is how the populace FEELs about why these things exist. Even in America our politicans appear far more concerned about who the people blame for the current economic hardships than they are about actually solving the same.

The irony is that it is far easier for a government to address HOW it governs than it is to either solve huge problems like poverty and crime; or than it is to violently put down those who are forced through lack of effective legal recourse to resort to violent or illegal challenges to the government.

Lyndon Johnson got this in how he approached the American Civil Rights movement. That is rare. He threw his personal political career under the bus to do the right thing. He focused on changing how America legally and actually treated the agrieved segment of the popualce. THAT is great COIN; yet most "experts" would argue that it was not even an insurgnecy because he acted to prevent vast violence rather than letting it happen and then seeking to "counter" it.

Oh, and we installed our own "offrmaps." You really can't do this for someone else, but I believe we have a duty to provide influence to get important allies that are pushing their populaces into insurgency (Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Israel to name but three) to recognize the fundamental role of the nature of their governance in causation and to engage in true conversations with the agrieved segments of the populace to better understand where offramps of small change of law or large inceases in Justice can be found; where perceptions of inequity can be reasonably addressed; where legal voice can be offered that may put the current regime on the street looking for a job; but better that than in a cell or a grave or on the run where their peers are starting to end up...


Tue, 10/04/2011 - 12:29am

Bill C:

I'm not sure it's productive to take Afghanistan as an example in a generic study of insurgency, because it's a quite unique case in many ways. Typically insurgency emerges out of conflict between government and populace or parts thereof, or out of conflict among different parts of a populace. Foreign intervention occurs only when insurgency has reached a point where allies of the government believe their interests are threatened.

Afghanistan is quite different, in that foreign intervention initiated the conflict, and that the "government" is largely (and reasonably) seen as a little more than a tool of a foreign invader.

The idea that Afghan insurgency is a response to forced modernization or forced social change is interesting, if largely speculative, but I don't think you can reasonably deduce that this is a generic driver of insurgency. In recent history insurgency has been more often a response to government's obstruction of social change and modernization - typically to sustain an entrenched elite - than a response to excessive or coerced change. I see little evidence to support any idea that there is a broad-based policy to force modernization on anyone, or the idea that rejection of modernization is a primary driver of insurgency around the world today.

As usual, I think that RCJ's assessment of the causes of insurgency is largely, though not universally accurate. Also as usual, I think the American in him rejects the extent to which a government's ability to provide prosperity and security are, in much of the world, a key component of the perception of legitimacy. Also as usual, I think his efforts to link AQ and the Islamist terror infrastructure into this insurgency dynamic skate onto some very thin ice and rest on some unsupported and possibly unsupportable assumptions. Most of all and again as always, I think he overrates the ability of the US or any other foreign party to prevent insurgency by installing "off ramps" or otherwise meddling to reconstruct government/populace dynamics in foreign countries...

... but I suppose I should write another reply about that!

Bill C.

Mon, 10/03/2011 - 11:15am

If we were to use the United States, for example, rather than Afghanistan, as our case-in-point, might this help us to better understand, per your ideas, insurgency a little better?

Within the United States, also, there is a "condition of the populace" -- which is common to many/most states and societies -- which is: a deeply engrained conservatism and near-zero tolerance of foreign interference.

This condition, which is commonly exhibited by significant segments of many/most populations, can generally be counted on to frustrate, thwart and otherwise stand in the way of efforts made -- by any and all parties (foreign and/or domestic) -- to radically and dramatically change the fundamental nature of a state and society's long-standing political, economic and/or social arrangements.

Thus, attempts -- by inside or outside parties -- to "modernize" the United States (for example: to radically and dramatically change our state and society such these would come to fall under the full and complete juristiction of the so-called international community), this would not go over well with our conservative elements.

Herein, you suggest -- so that we might get a more complete picture of the problem -- that we emulate the people and look beyond the surface and ask:

a. Who is behind these efforts to "modernize" the United States and what is their motivation?

b. What standing (legitimacy) do these individiuals and groups have in the eyes of the American people?

c. How do the American people feel about this group of foreign and/or native "modernizers" re: their presence in our country, as well as their activities therein?

Is this a somewhat helpful analogy?

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 10/03/2011 - 4:49am

In reply to by Bill C.


I think you focus on the wrong thing when you fixate on efforts to "modernize." The more interesting and important questions are those that get at WHO is driving this modernization, what standing (legitimacy) do they have in the eyes of "the populace" (many segments exist in most populaces, and one must account for minority groups that are not well represented by the current government as well), and how do the populace feel about this group of modernizers and their presence, as well as their activities.

In our most pressing current example of Afghanistan, it is not the perceptions of the activities of Western intruders alone that drive the resistance, it is their very PRESENCE. The more presence we have, the more resistance there will be. Obviously the nature of that presence is important as well. I don't see how those outside the Northern Alliance who have been displaced from power (whole tribes who are still in Afghanistan, not just those power brokers who fled to Pakistan) could ever come to bestow a writ of "legitimacy" upon GIRoA given the nature of both their rise to power and the sustainment of the same through Western military force. Our approach there is very colonial in nature: Get rid of the government that opposes the interests of the external power; establish a government that the external power believes will represent their interests; and then protect that regime against internal and external threats to preserve those interests. I believe that model was obsolete well over 100 years ago, and growing more so every day. The Cost of such control simply exceeds the benefits. That was true in the age of telegraph and steam, and far more so today.

I believe that now foreign powers seeking to promote their interests in foreign lands have to shift from control-based approaches to influence-based approaches. We have yet to learn how to relinquish control, and that keeps us pinned to such thorny problems. People simply won't stand for it, regardless of one's intent or actions. There are always losers when one disrupts the balance of power, and they will resist (and even the winners will quickly tire of your presence).


Tell me if I have this somewhat right:

An example of a common "condition within a populace" which can lead to an insurgency: Certain highly influencial segments of a population who exhibit a high degree of conservatism re: their state and society's political, economic and social arrangements. These highly influencial segments of the population have never been convinced that the benefits that might be derived from dramatically and radically changing their state and society (for example: "modernizing it") are anywhere near worth the cost that must be paid to achieve said benefits.

Just a couple of thoughts:

Insurgency: A movement to overthrow the present government so as to obtain power and control.

Motivation may be:

a. To "right wrongs" (for example: to preclude or prevent the standing government from acting as an agent of a foreign regime; whose purpose is to use the standing government as a means to and method of imposing a system of alien governing and societal norms on the population) or

b. To simply obtain the selfish benefits (for example: wealth) that can be derived from gaining and holding power and control.

While I’m still not sold on every point made in this article, this is still one of the most thought provoking articles I have read on insurgency. Bob Jones may well be the John Boyd equivalent for strategic thinking on insurgency, and like Boyd he’ll face a stiff wall of entrenched thinking that his ideas will have a hard time penetrating.

I agree with the Bob’s implication that complexity can both blind us to the basic truths and paralyze us from taking appropriate action. That doesn't mean complexity doesn't exist, it does, and it always has, but generally a few streams of simpe truth run through the undefined mass of complexity. Identifying and acting on those truths is more important than grand designs that outline environmental complexity.

I think Bruce Lee in the Tao of Jeet Kune Do captured this idea very well when he wrote, “Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I've understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity; the ability to express the utmost with the minimum. It is the halfway cultivation that leads to ornamentation.”

He also wrote, “In JKD, one does not accumulate but eliminate. It is not daily increase but daily decrease. The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity.”

You can imagine the difficulty of trying to fight while simultaneously “thinking” about the complex biomechanics behind each move, and in similar ways sabotage our thinking by clouded it with unnecessary complexity. Grand schemes to ranging from effects based operations to design were developed to incorporate and understand the impact of complexity, but we should seriously question if these schemes actually helped or did more harm by diverting staff and leader focus away from the few streams of truth that we need to direct our efforts against? We can't develop a coherent strategy without the ability to think clearly about the problem.

Bob wrote, “Offered here is that it is far more important to understand insurgency than it is to define it. One must then capture that understanding in a manner that facilitates the development of effective foreign and domestic policies and operational designs.”

It is amazing how much time staff members will trip over mouse turds like defining insurgency, when the real issue is clearly understanding the nature of insurgency, and more specifically the nature of the insurgency that is of concern. Of course if you can make it fit a doctrinal definition, then you have the COIN for Dummies FM that can be applied without little thought, but that is exactly what we need to get away from.

Bob also addresses the influence of other actors within and external to the State, and how they will leverage the insurgency to the extent possible to achieve their goals, but he still thinks that the underlying cause of the insurgency is always due to poor governance. I don't think it is that black and white, and I do think external actors can generate discontent with a government by creating the perceptions of bad governance, thus mobilizing the people to act. Additionally, as Bill C. pointed out some insurgents are acting out of greed, or they're simply power hungary and for multiple reasons they can generate enough of a following to challenge the State. Despite this, the good governance argument still has merit.

Another point Bob made, “Ideology does not create conditions of insurgency, but it definitely colors how those conditions are perceived.”

This argument has merit in my view, and I'll play with it to see if works with the problems sets I'm wrestling with, but I still think ideology does more than color how those conditions are perceived. Ideology provides a vision that the insurgents are fighting for, without that vision they may not act (why fight if you can't envision a better tomorrow?). It also doesn't address of actors like the late Anwar Awlaki to motivate others to act out violently in distant lands based on his ideology. Awlaki identified the enemy through his ideology, it often didn't have anything to due with poor governace.

From a SOF perspective (and to some extent the GPF) I think there is a so what to this strategic interpretation of insurgency, and it isn't building niche capabilities so much as it developing the doctrine and means to execute two forms of what we call special operations. I would propose scoping the definition of special operations to direct action centric activities focused on finding and neutralizing specific targets. This isn't advanced infantry, but rather highly specialized forces that are composed of intelligent, highly athletic, and driven warriors that are enabled by technology, intelligence and guided (not constrained) by a unique (from GPF) doctrine. Special operations is a capability that can support the full spectrum of conflict.

The other category would be special warfare, which is largely focused on the population either directly or indirectly (working through the local government). This method can also support the full spectrum of conflict, and is especially suited to be the main effort in FID, COIN, UW and stability operations. It still involves combat operations, but normally combined operations with local forces, but it is largely a form of political warfare that equally depends on elements of soft power to effectively compete for the populace.

We're already doing this, with select forces conducting high end CT and other direction missions and Special Forces augmented with civil affairs and military informaton support elements working in the villages. The same thing was done in Vietnam, with SOG running high end strike and recon missions, while other SF teams and Marines conducted village stability operations (CIDG and other programs) and leveraged the Montagnards to conduct combat operations against the communists.

But what is missing is the strategic level understanding and organization to adequately support both forms of operations. USSOCOM was formed largely due the failed Iranian mission and problems in Grenada, and USSOCOM did a superb job of addressing those weaknesses, but in some ways neglected the Special Warfare aspect. I'm not talking about from a funding aspect, but from a priority aspect. We're constantly getting more and more capable to execute high end CT and direct action missions based on USSOCOM's focus on that mission set, but I don't think we're much more capable (and maybe less) of conducting Special Warfare than we were in Vietnam. There is more to it than just funding, it requires FO/GO level attention to get the right leaders in these organizations and compell them to produce results. Hold them to the same standards the CT/DA units are held to, and you'll see tangible progress.

Peter J. Munson

Sat, 10/01/2011 - 11:00am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Check. I posted the comment because I think your argument and his are working around the same ballpark, in my mind anyway. I'd agree with your last paragraph, BUT I see state development in the Tilly/Lane lens of state-making as organized crime, so I think that someone only interested in building their own power, wealth, and influence in a given territory is starting down the road of competitive state-making.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 10/01/2011 - 10:52am

In reply to by Peter J. Munson


Certainly there is no "right" answer, but some are better than others. My one liner on that topic is at the bottom of the second page:

"An illegal political challenge to government, rising from a base of support within some significant and distinct segment, or segments, of the populace; and employing any mix of violent and non-violent tactics."

My main goal in this effort is not so much to declare authoritatively what insurgency is, but rather to put a thoughtful alternative perspective on the table that allows the overall discussion to mature. To shift thinking to more fully explore the role of government in causing insurgency and to better understand how our own Western history clouds our perspective when we intervene in or create insurgencies of others.

I would offer, however, that many, perhaps most, who emerge to exploit the conditions of insurgency among some populace have little interest in building anything other than their own power, wealth and influence. This is why understanding and addressing the conditions are so important, as they make a populace ripe for exploitation.



Peter J. Munson

Sat, 10/01/2011 - 10:34am

The best one sentence I've seen on insurgency is from Stathis Kalyvas: “Insurgency can best be understood as a process of competitive state building."