Adam L. Silverman PhD
Joint Publication 3-05 defines insurgency as an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict. This conceptualization is, as a matter of course, used in Field Manual 3-24, which lays out the US Army and US Marine Corps Counterinsurgency doctrine. In all of the discussion of whether President Obama is taking too much time versus too little time in his reassessment of Afghan strategy, of whether GEN McChrystal’s request for additional troops makes sense, whether it even makes sense to be pursuing a COIN strategy in Afghanistan, there seems to be very little discussion regarding the doctrinal definition of an insurgency, how that lines up with the actual nature of the political violence in Afghanistan, and the effect on the policy debate and planning. Successfully engaging in counterinsurgency is very difficult. For instance, US military personnel have been assisting with the Filipino efforts against the Moros off and on for 104 years!
Last week I was very fortunate to be part of a panel at the American Society of Criminology’s 2009 Annual Meeting with two other really knowledgeable presenters. The first is a Pakistani law enforcement official working on a PhD in the US and the second is a professor in North Carolina of Bangladeshi origin. Both presented papers dealing with the changing nature of political violence in Central Asia and the sub-Continent. Each of these subject matter experts clearly indicated that the Pashto violence in Pakistan has changed from what was clearly terrorism to what is clearly insurgency; previously it had been of limited scope in an attempt to promote very specific causes and its targets where not confined to governmental or military targets. Moreover, there was no attempt to overthrow the government of Pakistan by the instigators or perpetrators of these terrorist activities. They indicated that this has changed, however, as the targets have clearly become governmental and military and the goal is capturing the state. In discussing the political violence of the Kashmiri militants, especially that directed against the Indian government, they made it clear that these are not part of an insurgency – all the Kashmiris want to achieve is a change in Indian behavior towards and in Kashmir, not the destruction of the Indian state and its replacement with something else.
What was interesting in our discussion was that when the politically violent acts that we discussed are viewed through the lens of US military doctrine you have to define them as insurgency. The conceptualization from JP 3-05 which is used in FM 3-24 is so broad that it can quite conceivably encompass almost any form of political violence other than interstate war. It clearly includes, from highest to lowest on the political violence spectrum, revolution and rebellion, civil war, insurgency, and terrorism. Yet for most scholars of political violence these are all discreet entities, though it is probable that in the higher forms, such as a revolution or a civil war, you will often find examples of an insurgency or terrorism campaign. This dynamic does not, however, work the other way around – terrorist campaigns do not contain revolutions, though they often seek to inspire them.
Another important issue that arises from the JP 3-05 conceptualization of insurgency is the term constituted government. This is problematic for several reasons and both have to do with legitimacy. If a constituted government is not perceived as legitimate does it make a difference? Based on this definition it does not. This, however, begs the question about tyrannical and despotic governments regardless of whether they are of the right, left, or religious persuasion. The ethical traditions regarding acceptable use of political violence also include sub-categories for revolution. While many have heard of just war theory, there is also a set of ethical norms for guiding when a revolution is acceptable. In all cases revolutions are ethically acceptable against tyrannical and despotic governments. As a result an attempt to overthrow a tyrannical government would be defined as an insurgency based on US military doctrine, which puts it at odds with the ethical traditions governing the use of political violence. Finally, given the understanding that a population has a right to resist occupation by foreign entities further muddies the waters making it unclear if one is dealing with and insurgency or a legitimate anti-occupation force when the counterinsurgents are the agents of another state.
What is even more important is that because the conceptualization from JP 3-05 does not really deal with this question of popular legitimacy, a counterinsurgency victory would be exceedingly difficult to achieve. The reason for this is that part of the end state for a successful counterinsurgency is the tethering or otherwise reestablishment of the links between the societal elements and the government. If the government is not perceived as legitimate then it will never be possible to tether the population back to it except through the use of force and coercion. Moreover, perceptions of illegitimacy regarding a government are often the basis for types of political violence such as insurgencies. Therefore attempting to reconcile a society to a government that does not have popular support is actually likely to produce the exact opposite of what a COIN approach seeks to achieve: more rather than less political violence.
These issues surrounding the conceptualization and definition of the term insurgency are not merely an interesting academic or semantic exercise, rather they get to the heart of what should be a significant part of the policy debate over America’s way forward in Afghanistan, as well as the US’s foreign policy positions. Given the reality that the US faces in Afghanistan; the historic lack of functional centralized government, exceedingly high number of societal elements, many of which are geographically isolated or semi-isolated, the illegitimacy of the current Afghan government, and the fact that groups we are fighting are not all insurgents makes successfully reaching the COIN end state of tethering Afghan society back to the Afghan state very, very difficult. The debate on the use of COIN really needs to be focused in on this difficult set of Afghan circumstances and whether they allow any chance for a positive counterinsurgency outcome. The discussion should not be can US forces actually do COIN, can they do COIN more effectively with another 40,000 personnel, will it take ten years or twenty years, will it be prohibitively expensive, and who, exactly, are we fighting. We have some idea of the answers to all of these questions: US forces can pursue a COIN strategy, they will likely be more effective with more personnel, it will take an extended period of time, it will be prohibitively expensive, and only some of the Afghans we are fighting are insurgents, but the majority seem to be a combination of narco-traffickers, warlords, and in some cases local societal elements organized against the foreign invader. As such the central question should be: is a positive and successful counterinsurgency end state achievable in Afghanistan? Giving the US military the assignment if it is not achievable, no matter how hard they work, how much money is spent, and how long it takes means that we are merely engaging in counterinsurgency for counterinsurgency’s sake, not with an achievable positive outcome in sight. This is unfair to the US military and the Afghans we are ostensibly trying to help.
 Adam L. Silverman, PhD was the Field Social Scientist and Team Leader for Human Terrain Team Iraq 6 (HTT IZ6) assigned to the 2BCT/1AD from OCT 2007 to OCT 2008. Upon his redeployment to the US he served as the US Army Human Terrain System Strategic Advisor through June 2009. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the 2BCT/1AD, the US Army Human Terrain System, or the US Army.