Conceptualizations of Insurgency and its Effects on the Counterinsurgency Policy Process

Adam L. Silverman PhD[1]

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.

[1] 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.

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20 Responses to Conceptualizations of Insurgency and its Effects on the Counterinsurgency Policy Process

  1. jonst says:

    I hate this phrase, but have to resort to it here: is the bottom line that we find ourselves fighting primarly against the Pashtun? Or at least the great bulk of them, excluding Karzi’s Pashtun supporters. And that the Taliban and AQ forces are simply allied with the Pashtun? Cause I have to tell you, I think we are. And as such, I think our efforts are as doomed as the efforts of US Federal Govt to ‘rehabilitate, and ‘re orientate’ ‘the South’ during Reconstruction.
    To coin an old speech, ‘come home America, come home’. There is much work to be done here. And much trouble brewing in the US, though you might not know it from the MSM. Let unemployment keep going up, and Goldman Sachs personal getting Swine Flu vaccine before women and children get it. People are getting angry. Slowly, but steadily. I don’t think this is factored into the National Security Debate. I think they take the American people for granted, no matter how angry the people may get. That could be a mistake.

  2. My personal take on AF-PAK is ethnic violence and perhaps civil war! But could be wrong and probably am. US withdrawal except to AF-PAK border areas would clarify the situation.
    Question PL? How is the Pakistani military doing in its op in Tribal Areas that jumped off so publically about a month ago?

  3. JJackson says:

    Thank you. Now that made sense.
    US FP does not like grey. Traditionally they seem happier with the Good Guys/Bad Guys system. This is much easier to sell to the public and we can all get behind our military as long as we know who the enemy is. If you start explaining we are fighting one group of people who have a bit of a point to help some other people who also have a bit of a point the US executive might not get the domestic mandate it wants to go global walk-about. Now Iraqis, Afghanis, Iranians, Pakistanis and others may not necessarily view that as a bad thing.

  4. Andy says:

    Mr. Silverman,
    It would be interesting to hear your take on JP 3-24, which was released a few weeks ago. Here’s the first paragraph on insurgency:

    Insurgency is the organized use of subversion and violence by a
    group or movement that seeks to overthrow or force change of a governing authority.
    Insurgency can also refer to the group itself. An insurgent is a member of that group.
    When compared to their adversaries, insurgents generally have strong will but limited
    means. Although some insurgents have no interest in working within any political
    system, it is this relative disparity of means that normally drives groups to use insurgency
    to alleviate core grievances. Additionally, this relative disparity of means also drives the
    insurgents to use subversion, guerrilla warfare, and terrorism, in the face of capable
    counterinsurgent forces. Insurgency requires few resources to initiate, yet it ties up
    significant resources to counter as the insurgents seek to exhaust the government in an
    effort to be effective in the long term. Insurgency allows a group time to potentially gain
    public support, expand, and secure external moral and material support; it seeks to erode
    the opposition’s will, influence, and power. In its early phases, insurgency may only be
    loosely organized with competing interests amongst its subgroups. For example,
    subgroups may differ on their views of foreign support to the host nation (HN).
    Additionally, some subgroups may focus more on fighting other groups in the region than
    they focus on the overall insurgent efforts. Typical insurgencies only become a military
    concern when normal political process and law enforcement methods are insufficient.
    Insurgencies are complex, dynamic, and adaptive; they can rapidly shift, split, combine,
    or reorganize.

  5. N. M. Salamon says:

    the bottom line is that the USA is not wealthy enough, nor does she has sufficient troops to take on 42 million Pashun, and minority other tribes, all of whom want to be left alone. Each time the USA bombs, her soldiers invade women’s houses they are asking for more blood feud, which means they are manufacturing their own enemies!
    As was revealed the USA contractors are supplying funds to the insurgent to assure that shipments are not attacked!
    Finally one should recall that most Afgans are Sunni, and thus Saudis will suppport the insurgency They have the money Uncle Sam lacks].
    Sane solution for the USA take your losses and run, to wit quit making wars on Moslems, they do not want you and they have the money and patience to outwait you.
    I am aware that the broken political process [Congress, Military industrial complecx and neocon/AIPAC cohort] will not allow the USA to act rationally in her own best interest.

  6. Farmer Don says:

    Ambassador Karl Eikenberry says don’t send more troops.
    Maybe I’m I wrong, but aren’t ambassadors usually very quiet? Their job is to smooth things over, promote the interests of their home country with out making waves. Communication is hush-hush, they are the public frount for a lot of intelligence activity. Their concerns are directed to the government in secret and kept secret.
    This is very public. Does this mean that he is the point person for a changing policy in Afghanistan, or does it mean that Cabinet secrecy and solidarity is breaking down in the Obama administration?

  7. b says:

    Adem Silverman writes:
    “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,…”
    “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 Coin FM talks a lot of legitimacy. The problem is that the COINistas at CNAS ignore that part of their manual and try a counterinsurgency which supports an illegitimate government. Alternatively they want to apply COIN to make a clearly illegitimate government legitimate. That will require brute force though.
    FM 3-24:
    “1-3. 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.
    “1-14. … Victory is achieved when the populace consents to the government’s
    legitimacy and stops actively and passively supporting the insurgency.”
    “1-113. The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by
    a legitimate government”

  8. Charles I says:

    Jonst, any conspiracy theorist worthy of the appellation can tell you “much trouble brewing in the US, though you might not know it from the MSM. . . unemployment keep going up. . . People . . . getting angry.” IS the National Security” Plan ” . There is no real debate.
    Q: How do we buffalo ’em enough to sustain perpetual war and perpetual elite profit while gutting the Constitution and paying out the treasury?
    A: Get ’em mad at somebody, say “Sic’em!” and then go on about your business unmolested by public, let alone MSM scrutiny.
    Is seems apparent to me that whoever is being fought in Afghanistan, inserting more troops is what they desire. Further, I think once you get them in there, they will be drawn to the border regions to meet their dusty fate while in no way contributing to our security or comfort.
    These wars are like settlements. Eventually they reach a tipping point where they can’t be so easily politically undone. If Israel keeps colonizing, eventually it will be defeated with no homeland to retreat to. If we keep fighting wars of choice, we may be drawn into Pashtunistan with very little apparent choice.

  9. Cato says:

    Yes, I accept that 104 years is a bit long. However, won’t the Moros be on the ropes once we surge? And once they are properly schooled in governance, rule of law, macroeconomics, banking and bank regulation, primary, secondary, and tertiary education, appropriate incentives and oversight for infrastructure, foreign direct investment, tax policy, clean water, sanitation, and the benefits of a written constitution?
    You gotta give it time. I’m sure that CNAS has a plan on the shelf for the Southern Philippines, Yemen, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, et al.

  10. F5F5F5 says:

    Excellent post. The fourth and fifth paragraphs are worth reading several times. Legitimacy is a crucial notion.
    Afghanistan is a case of too little too late. Taking back control over the whole country is all but impossible now.
    However it’s not like the Taliban have won either. They hold the South and the East, but the North and the cities are mainly hostile to the taliban.
    The allies right now can only seek a median solution. Maybe we shouldn’t try to take back the South and the East, but hold our ground and transform as best as we can the North and the cities. And also train an Afghan military force hoping that it will be willing to fight for a government it has respect for.
    Otherwise we’ll just end up staying around until nobody will want to fight for this government which will fall like Saigon’s after the US troops pulled out.

  11. Patrick Lang says:

    That’s not what happened. Thr North Vietnamese were stymied and had no idea of what to do, not wanting to advance into the coastal plain until the US Congress made it clear that they would not be bombed.
    John Kerry is completely wrong as he always was as a frivolous navy kid. pl

  12. Cato says:

    And to Jon Ste (also a W&M alum?):
    As the Goldman Sachs executive is lowered into a lifeboat from the Titanic, isn’t it understandable that he thrashes his gold-tipped walking stick to keep the women and children at bay? Otherwise, who would manage the flotilla? One must think ahead.
    Cf: Andrew Sorkin’s new book, in which the dry-heaving (yes I despise him) Paulson’s last-minute, “emergency” plan had actually been circulated to Bernanke some six months earlier. Not that Congress was let in on that particular conversation. That would occur in due time, when Paulson (net worth $700 million) deemed it to be propitious, i.e., Goldman’s stock about to tank. That would justify the “emergency.” They uttered the words “financial Armageddon” and all in Congress scurried to be the first to sign the bailout.
    Is the AfPak surge now a reality? (A call to rally round the poor, benighted Afghan citizen?) Certainly it must be based on deep practical knowledge of the conditions in Afghanistan and the likely scenarios to unfold there. The Unocal pipeline, for example–formerly planned to run through Helmand–was predicted to be a success, at least by the experts who conducted the feasibility study (Enron).
    We simply are not in a position to question these things.
    Perhaps we should just party with the Irish in steerage.
    By the way, that part about America waking up? Throwing the bums out? Sorry to report that a) you are exactly right, but that b) the Paulsons of the world took all opposition candidates out to dinner last week and picked up the tab (hookers, booze, blow, and a nice creme brulee). Chance of real reform running at 0%.
    They have captured the Congress.
    Viewed another way, and to quote chapter and verse: “The time has come for the United States to formulate and prosecute an integrated, comprehensive, and long-term geostrategy for all of Eurasia. This need arises out of the interaction between two fundamental realities: America is now the only global superpower, and Eurasia is the globe’s central arena. Hence, what happens to the distribution of power on the Eurasian continent will be of decisive importance to America’s global primacy and to America’s historical legacy.” (Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard, 1997).
    You can no more imagine Pres. Obama refusing to send troops (on the grounds of intolerable corruption by Karzai et al.) than you can imagine our assassinating radical clerics who incite others to violence. We’re too civilized for that. And we pay the price for it, too.

  13. APB says:

    Is it possible that a little community organizing is the right strategy?
    Cheaper, too.

  14. VietnamVet says:

    To younger generations, the arguments about Vietnam must be totally arcane. Yet, it keeps coming back to haunt us; i.e. Newsweek’s article The Surprising Lessons of Vietnam
    There are two forces driving the current two occupations: the monies being handed over to war contractors and the fear of the President Obama of being labeled a Loser. LBJ, Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter were all labeled Losers due to Vietnam and its aftermath.
    In 1965 LBJ escalated the War because of one simple reason; the South Vietnamese were unable to defend American airbases in the South. More American troops were required to keep them from being overrun by the Viet Cong. Any American airbase in Afghanistan that is solely defended by Afghans will soon be overrun.
    The Newsweek article argues that LBJ should have gone big in 1965 and invaded Laos. But that would have taken a million troops and mobilization, killing his domestic programs. LBJ and President Obama can’t go big. Americans are not willing to be mobilized to fight the big war for some god forsaken colonies on the other side of the world. The Presidents have to fight their colonial wars on the cheap.
    The 1972 NVA offensive was blunted by American Airpower. But tactical airpower only works with bases in country and air combat controllers. US airbases in a insurgency will always need US troops guarding them. This is why Congress pulled the plug in 1974. The airbases continued the war and sooner or later would have been overrun. Our offspring would still be fighting in Vietnam if we had troops stationed there.
    It is basic human nature of fight a foreign occupation

  15. Patrick Lang says:

    It was more the threat posed by large NVA formations, then entering SVN that caused Johnson to bring in similar large US formations. pl

  16. Jackie says:

    I’m with you on the community organizer in regards to Afghanistan.
    I read the NYTimes article this morning and thought, that sounds and works about right. Let’s hope it happens more.

  17. walrus says:

    There appears to me to be one characteristic of the Taliban and related groups in Afghanistan and the tribal areas that is a vulnerability: They like money, and do not appear to be averse to receiving it from infidels in return for exhibiting certain behaviours, a fine tradition learned perhaps from the British.
    I must therefore ask Col. Lang if perhaps we can buy a form of permanent peace in the region at a considerably cheaper rate then we are now paying?

  18. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    Meanwhile in Mexico:
    “…Across the Rio Grande, in the burgeoning Texan city of McAllen, a businessman with family roots in the area for 150 years said that not only had the Zetas sealed off the bridges around Reynosa, but international bridges into the United States as well….”

  19. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    And while decadent, delusional, and incompetent US policy elite obsesses about the White Man’s Burden thing — Afghanistan, tactics and strategy; Pakistan — the emerging multipolar international situation advances. The US wastes billions/trillions on fool’s errands in the South Asia quagmire and our rivals-enemies-competitors roll along with knowing smiles.
    As to the Euros, for example,
    “THIS week’s expected nomination of a Belgian or Baltic politician as the first president of the European Union is fuelling excitement in Brussels at the emergence of a force to rival the United States and other world powers….America may still be the land of plenty, but as a result of the global financial crisis Europe usurped its place as the world’s wealthiest region earlier this year, according to a survey of assets. Not only that, but in defiance of predictions of its downfall Europe’s population is expected to reach half a billion next year and its GDP is just behind that of the United States and China combined….”
    Everyone wants to be “just like us” now don’t they. And we can teach them in the Hindu Kush, now can’t we…?

  20. optimax says:

    I don’t even want to be like us. That’s hard to say but I don’t see any hope without a reform party. The mafia takes over a company, sucks all resources and assets out of it and grows rich, leaving the company bankrupt. They’ve just gone nationwide.

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