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Rethinking Insurgency

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz. | June 2007

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The September 11, 2001, attacks and Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM revived the idea that insurgency is a significant threat to the United States. In response, the American military and defense communities began to rethink insurgency. Much of this valuable work, though, viewed contemporary insurgency as more closely related to Cold War era insurgencies than to the complex conflicts which characterized the post-Cold War period. This suggests that the most basic way that the military and defense communities think about insurgency must be rethought.

Contemporary insurgency has a different strategic context, structure, and dynamics than its forebears. Insurgencies tend to be nested in complex conflicts which involve what can be called third forces (armed groups which affect the outcome, such as militias) and fourth forces (unarmed groups which affect the outcome, such as international media), as well as the insurgents and the regime. Because of globalization, the decline of overt state sponsorship of insurgency, the continuing importance of informal outside sponsorship, and the nesting of insurgency within complex conflicts associated with state weakness or failure, the dynamics of contemporary insurgency are more like a violent and competitive market than war in the traditional sense where clear and discrete combatants seek strategic victory.

This suggests a very different way of thinking about (and undertaking) counter insurgency. At the strategic level, the risk to the United States is not that insurgents will ?win? in the traditional sense, take over their country, and shift it from a partner to an enemy. It is that complex internal conflicts, especially ones involving insurgency, will generate other adverse effects: the destabilization of regions, resource flows, and markets; the blossoming of transnational crime; humanitarian disasters; transnational terrorism; and so forth. Given this, the U.S. goal should not automatically be the defeat of the insurgents by the regime (which may be impossible and which the regime may not even want), but the most rapid conflict resolution possible. In other words, a quick and sustainable resolution which integrates insurgents into the national power structure is less damaging to U.S. national interests than a protracted conflict which leads to the complete destruction of the insurgents. Protracted conflict, not insurgent victory, is the threat.

If, in fact, insurgency is not simply a variant of war, if the real threat is the deleterious effects of sustained conflict, and if it is part of systemic failure and pathology in which key elites and organizations develop a vested interest in sustaining the conflict, the objective of counterinsurgency support should not be simply strengthening the government so that it can impose its will more effectively on the insurgents, but systemic reengineering. This, in turn, implies that the most effective posture for outsiders is not to be an ally of the government and thus a sustainer of the flawed socio-political-economic system, but to be neutral mediators and peacekeepers (even when the outsiders have much more ideological affinity for the regime than for the insurgents). If this is true, the United States should only undertake counterinsurgency support in the most pressing instances and as part of an equitable, legitimate, and broad-based multinational coalition.

American strategy for counterinsurgency should recognize three distinct insurgency settings each demanding a different response:

  • A functioning government with at least some degree of legitimacy is suffering from an erosion of effectiveness but can be ?redeemed? through assistance provided according to the Foreign Internal Defense doctrine.
  • There is no functioning and legitimate government, but a broad international and regional consensus supports the creation of a neo-trustee- ship. In such instances, the United States should provide military, economic, and political support as part of a multinational consensus operating under the authority of the United Nations.
  • There is no functioning and legitimate government and no international or regional consensus for the formation of a neo-trusteeship. In these cases, the United States should pursue containment of the conflict by support to regional states and, in conjunction with partners, help create humanitarian ?safe zones? within the conflictive state.


Military thinkers often say that the essence of war does not change.1 War is and always will be the use of violence for political purposes. It is always characterized by what Clausewitz described as ?fog? (factors which complicate decisionmaking and force strategists to rely on assumptions), ?friction? (the tendency of everything to operate less efficiently than in peacetime), and the ?trinity? of rationality, passion, and chance. But, military theorists note, war?s nature or character does change. Linear formations gave way to loose ones, columns and rows to swarming by battalions and brigades; human and animal power were replaced by mechanization; handwritten and personal communications by email; limited, seasonal operations gave way to global power projection.

Insurgency also combines continuity and change, an enduring essence and a shifting nature. Its essence is protracted, asymmetric violence; political, legal, and ethical ambiguity; and the use of complex terrain, psychological warfare, and political mobilization. It arises when a group decides that the gap between their political expectations and the opportunities afforded them is unacceptable and can only be remedied by force. Insurgents avoid battlespaces where they are at a disadvantage?often the conventional military sphere?and focus on those where they can attain parity, particularly the psychological and the political.2 They seek to postpone decisive action, avoid defeat, sustain themselves, expand their support, and alter the power balance in their favor. And because insurgency involves a layered psychological complexity, multiple audiences, and a range of participants with different methods and objectives, it is imbued with what Edward Luttwak called a ?paradoxical logic??what initially appears best may not be, and every positive action has negative implications as well.3

But while insurgency?s essence persists, its nature changes. That we know. The precise direction, extent, and implications of the evolution, though, are not yet clear. We cannot yet tell which changes will have only limited significance and which will prove profound, which changes are case-specific and which universal. But we need to. From the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s until 2001, the U.S. military and defense community paid scant attention to insurgency and counterinsurgency. It faded from the curricula of professional military education. There was little interest in developing new doctrine, operational concepts, or organizations. The general sense seemed to be that American involvement in counterinsurgency was a Cold War phenomenon, irrelevant with the demise of the Soviet Union and the mellowing of China. But the September 11, 2001, attacks and Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM changed that. Once again, insurgency was seen as a significant threat and counterinsurgency a strategic imperative. In response, the American military and defense community began to rethink insurgency. Or, more accurately, it revived the old idea with a few added twists.

During the 1970s, American national security strategy was shaped by what became known as the ?Vietnam syndrome.? The disastrous outcome of the war in Southeast Asia made Americans reluctant to intervene in Third World conflicts. Americans, it seemed, were ill-suited for participation in morally ambiguous, complex, and protracted armed struggles, particularly outside the nation?s traditional geographic area of concern. Better to eschew them than to become embroiled in ?another Vietnam.? Ironically, even though the United States eventually overcame this variant of the Vietnam syndrome, a new one emerged. When insurgency and counterinsurgency again became important elements of the global security system and American strategy after 2001, many American policymakers, political leaders, and defense strategists used Vietnam as a model. The Viet Cong were treated as the archetypical insurgency. Insurgents who did not use the Maoist strategy stood little chance of success (defined as seizing the state and becoming the new regime) . 4 The tendency was to seek new ideas from old conflicts, preparing, as so often happens, to fight the last war. But contemporary insurgencies are, in many ways, more like the complex internal conflicts of the 1990s than the insurgencies of the mid-20th century. This suggests that the military and the defense analytical community must rethink the insurgency problem once again.


1. For instance, Colin S. Gray, Another Bloody Century: Future War, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005, pp. 30-34.

2. On the activities of insurgents during the initial coalescence of their movement (particularly the role of violence), see Gordon H. McCormick and Frank Giordano, ?Things Come Together: Symbolic Violence and Guerrilla Mobilisation,? Third World Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2, 2007, pp. 295-320; and Daniel Byman, Understanding Proto-Insurgencies, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2007.

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

4. For instance, see Gary Anderson, ?The Baathists? Blundering Guerrilla War,? Washington Post, June 26, 2003, p. A29.