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The Future of Insurgency

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz. | December 1993

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Insurgency will persist even after the end of the cold war. But as insurgent strategists recognize the bankruptcy of old techniques, especially protracted, rural "people's war," they will innovate. It is vital for those interested in preventing or controlling insurgency to think creatively, speculate on the new forms that will emerge, and craft new frames of reference to serve as the foundation for strategy and doctrine.

The key to post-cold war insurgency is its psychological component. The greatest shortcoming of Third World states (including most of the former Soviet bloc) is their inability to meet the psychological needs of their populations, especially a sense of meaning during the stressful periods of rapid change associated with development. This shortcoming will generate frustration and discontent which can be used by insurgent strategists.

Two forms of insurgency are likely to dominate the post-cold war world. Spiritual insurgency is the descendant of the cold war-era revolutionary insurgency. It will be driven by the problems of modernization, the search for meaning, and the pursuit of justice. The other form will be commercial insurgency. This will be driven less by the desire for justice than wealth. Its psychological foundation is a warped translation of Western popular culture which equates wealth, personal meaning, and power.

The dominance of one of these two forms will vary from region to region. Latin America is likely to suffer more from continued and expanded commercial insurgency than from spiritual. Sub-Saharan Africa will be particularly prone to insurgency. Initially the spiritual form will be pervasive, with the potential for commercial insurgency to develop later. The likelihood of spiritual insurgency is also high in the Middle East (including Arab North Africa). The Asia/Pacific region and the former Soviet bloc will probably experience both spiritual and commercial insurgency.


Writing in 1970, Richard H. Sanger suggested that the modern era has experienced seven great waves of revolts from the English Revolution of 1648-88 to the cyclone of violence that swept the Third World after World War II.1 Today, this assessment is still accurate, but incomplete. We now stand on the cusp of the eighth wave of modern revolt.

There will be many forms of low-level, protracted violence as the post-cold war global security system coalesces. Of these, insurgency--the use of low-level, protracted violence to overthrow a political system or force some sort of fundamental change in the political and economic status quo--will certainly persist. After all, it has been one of the most pervasive types of conflict throughout history and today is epidemic.2 For many countries of the world, simmering internal war is a permanent condition.3 As long as there are people frustrated to the point of violence but too weak to challenge a regime in conventional military ways, insurgency will persist. It will, however, evolve from its cold war form.

A number of factors will drive or force the evolution of insurgency. Internationally, the most obvious is the demise of the Soviet Union and its proxies. This dried up the assistance, training, inspiration, and ideological unity which, during the cold war, sustained insurgencies. 4Insurgents will still search for outside assistance in the post-cold war world, but the source and motives of outside supporters will be more complex than during the cold war. Ironically, the revitalization of the United Nations may serve to make insurgency more attractive to frustrated power seekers. At the height of the cold war, insurgency tended to be a win or lose proposition. But with U.N. activism in settling internal conflict, insurgents may see the possibility of making gains short of outright victory through a U.N. mediated peace.

Within Third World states, escalating urbanization, population growth, ecological decay, and the explosion of communication technology will change the nature of insurgency. The growing economic cost of insurgency is also an important factor. With the decline of outside patrons to supply insurgents, they are forced to purchase arms and other supplies. To do this they develop other funding sources whether cocaine trafficking for Peru's Sendero Luminoso or the diamond trade for Angola's UNITA.5 Perhaps the most important change--and one easily overlooked--is the improving counterinsurgency capabilities of many Third World regimes. After nearly four decades of successful revolutionary insurgencies, counterinsurgent strategists appear to have caught up and even surpassed their antagonists.

Sensing that insurgency will evolve is easy. Charting the direction of this change is more complex. Traditionally the evolution of insurgency is like that of a species. Through success, one variant became dominant and was emulated. By the 1960s, this was rural, protracted, "people's war." Then, as emulators of that variant failed, insurgency variegated waiting for a new dominant form to emerge. That is where we are today. None of the old models, whether Maoist people's war, Cuban-style focquismo, or urban insurrection in the Russian, Nicaraguan, or Iranian fashion, are dominant. Edward Luttwak noted that since strategy pits two thinking antagonists in conflict, success has a finite lifespan.6 The chance of failure increases as the other antagonist begins to understand and counter successful techniques, approaches, and stratagems. Today, the methods that generated revolutionary success from Algeria to Angola are obsolete. But insurgent strategists are both intelligent and creative. They will innovate. The question is: How?


The preeminent task of those who would use insurgency as a roadway to power is mobilization of support. It takes a powerful incentive for people to place themselves in serious danger, whether as active participants in an insurgency or passive supporters. In the modern world, this incentive is often discontent and frustration born of a failed search for personal meaning. When large numbers of people define personal meaning through psychic fulfillment, the outcome may be spiritual insurgency. When people define personal meaning materially, the outcome may be commercial insurgency.

The end of the cold war changed the normative structure of international politics. The United Nations and the values it represents are experiencing a renaissance. This has eroded the international support network for insurgency, and thus made it less likely to actually overthrow a regime. In addition, most Third World regimes appear stronger than in previous decades and their security forces more effective. The democratic revolution in the Third World deflated a number of insurgencies and, so long as it lasts, helps forestall the emergence of new ones. But trends indicate that Third World regimes will face escalating challenges. As they fail to meet these challenges, insurgencies will appear. The most likely result is a spate of stalemates as regimes are unable to prevent the rise of insurgencies or to fully defeat them once they appear, but insurgents are unable to seize power without external support or the internal collapse of the regime.

All this could change if insurgent movements are able to find external sponsors and to cooperate as they did during the cold war. This will be difficult given the nativistic nature of many forthcoming insurgencies, but not impossible. International politics occasionally spawns unusual, even bizarre alliances. It is possible, then, that insurgency may again become part of interstate conflict, a form of indirect aggression made attractive by the inability of states to use conventional military power. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction may be the trend that leads to this. In a nuclearized world, indirect aggression--including the creation and sponsorship of insurgencies--would be infinitely safer for aggressive states than more conventional uses of military force.

Frustration and discontent will persist and even increase in the Third World. So will the physical equipment and skills needed to make insurgencies. What the counterinsurgent strategists of the world must now do is recognize that much of their understanding of insurgency is dated and rapidly approaching obsolescence. After all, insurgency itself will continue to change. It is not difficult to imagine additional forms emerging further in the future. For example, what can be called "neo-inclusionist" movements could arise in opposition to exclusionist governments based on ethnic, tribal, or religious identities. The evolution of insurgency thus demands great mental flexibility on the part of those who oppose it. New forms require new mental constructs. To date, these have not appeared.


1. Richard H. Sanger, Insurgent Era: New Patterns of Political, Economic, and Social Revolution, revised edition, Washington: Potomac Books, 1970, pp. 2-4.

2. Bard E. O'Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare, Washington: Brassey's, 1990, p. 1.

3. Michael Radu, "Introduction," in The New Insurgencies: Anticommunist Guerrillas in the Third World, ed. Michael Radu, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1990, p. 2.

4. For analysis of Soviet and, later, Russian retrenchment in the Third World, see Melvin A. Goodman, ed., The End of Superpower Conflict in the Third World, Boulder, CO: Westview, 1992.

5. José Gonzales, "Guerrillas and Coca in the Upper Huallaga Valley," in The Shining Path of Peru, ed. David Scott Palmer, New York: St. Martin's, 1992, pp. 105-125; Bill Keller, "After Big Gains, Angolan Rebel Offensive Is Halted," The New York Times, September 24, 1993, p. A3. It is true, however, that the purchase of arms whether from legitimate arms dealers or the black market is a very precarious source of supply for an insurgent movement compared to state sponsorship. See Aaron Karp, "Arming Ethnic Conflict," Arms Control Today, Vol. 23, No. 7, September 1993, pp. 11-12.

6. Edward N. Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1987.