Strategy and insurgency: an evolution in thinking?

America's internecine counter-insurgency debate is now making some progress, though not on a single predefined path.

Adam Elkus John P. Sullivan
16 August 2010

Counterinsurgency and its discontents dominate discussion of American defense policy. Hot topics of discussion include assessing the meaning of what is popularly known as the Iraq “surge”; COIN’s role in Afghanistan strategy, as well as the historical validity of current Anglo-American COIN doctrine.  

However, thinking about insurgency as a whole is moving away from viewing threats to states through “Maoist” models of competition towards a wider appreciation of decentralized networks and criminal insurgency. Meanwhile, American strategy is set to reject the idea of COIN as an instrument of third-party state-building. No matter the ultimate outcome of Afghanistan and Iraq, this intellectual ferment will have wide-ranging consequences for military theory and practice. 

The Janus face of the COIN

First, it is important to note the circumstances in which the COIN debate in America takes place. The contemporary concept of “counterinsurgency” evolved in the 1950s out of an assorted mixture of best practices in “small wars” of varying stripes. The current American conception of COIN has been heavily influenced by Cold War conflicts or “wars of national liberation,” as well as the more recent political project of state-building that underscores US strategy since the 2002 National Security Strategy. 

As state-building is increasingly questioned, COIN is likely to return to its roots in small-scale foreign internal defense (FID) missions, the more narrow concept of “countering irregulars,” gathering intelligence for strikes, and “flying” police squads like the kind employed by British irregular warfare pioneer Orde Wingate in the 1930s. Since counterinsurgency is largely a military activity carried out by military forces, the principal emphasis in past COIN operations has been countering irregular forces with military force.  Even in the operations of police in a COIN role in countering criminal insurgency the ultimate goal is, as Clausewitz noted, forcing the adversary to accept the state’s political will. Confusion about COIN occurs because of the political role of COIN in American strategy, not necessarily the history of COIN doctrine itself. 

As Mark Safranski noted (See Mark Safranski, “The Post COIN-Era is Here,”), political and fiscal forces will not support a continued focus on rebuilding broken states. However, COIN doctrine isn’t just returning to an older doctrinal template of countering irregulars. COIN thinking is also embracing a broader view of insurgency that takes into account both new views on old concepts and innovations in contemporary insurgencies. 

Army War College professor Steven Metz’s 2007 monograph Rethinking Insurgency is a seminal—if under-referenced—work in the emerging understanding of insurgency. Metz helped move the field away from its 50s-60s roots in countering broadly “Maoist” Vietcong-style movements, incorporating a wider template of data on conflicts over the last thirty years, Metz particularly focused his research on the emerging blurring of crime and war. His eye was not on the Algeria of the 1950s but more fractured and chaotic places like Mexico, Somalia, and Afghanistan. The complex blurring of greed, grievance, and criminal insurgency promises greater challenge for aspiring counterinsurgents on tactical, operational, and strategic levels.  In this discussion, Metz postulated “commercial insurgencies” as an economic variant to the traditional ideological wars of national liberation (See Steven Metz, Rethinking Insurgency). Commercial insurgencies exist primarily to give warlord-like bosses segments of political power and income and can sustain themselves for potentially decades. 

One case study in this blurring of crime and war are the “criminal insurgencies” at work in Mexico and Latin America at large. Though they target the state, gangs and cartels are not after revolution. In these evolving ”criminal insurgencies” criminal organizations are acting in a neo-feudal manner challenging the legitimacy of the state and creating autonomous zones outside of state control. We have written on these insurgencies in the past in the context of Mexico, although we are far from the only ones to observe these criminal insurgents in action (See John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Red Teaming Criminal Insurgency” and John P. Sullivan, “Criminal Insurgency in the Americas,”). As Metz notes, these conflicts are extremely messy and often beyond the ability of outsiders to manage even through very indirect assistance. 

Mexico’s conflict provides an excellent window of observation into dynamics of parallel states and criminal insurgencies. Mexico’s president Felipe Calderón has recently said the gangsters are seeking to replace the state and impose their own law in zones of impunity throughout Mexico.  In doing so, the cartels’ drug war has killed over 28,000 people in about four years. relying on a barbarization of conflict that includes beheadings, attacks on police and journalists, and corruption of elected officials and the police.  Increasingly, the cartels have expanded their reach into the state to include the provision of social goods and cast themselves in the mantle of “social bandits” to secure support and legitimacy from the communities and businesses—including Petróleos Mexicanos/PEMEX—from which they extort “street taxes.” The role of police in these conflicts requires an expanded form of policing able to operate in a COIN-like fashion to exert state control over these alternative hierarchies.   Conditions similar to those in Mexico are found elsewhere in Latin America—notably in Guatemala—as well as west Africa.  Transnational gangs are altering sovereignty by forging zones of “dual sovereignty” sustained by transnational illicit economic circuits.  The result is a reciprocal criminalization of politics and politicization of crime.  As such, states are faced with potential challenges from what Robert J. Bunker calls criminal soldiers (See Robert J. Bunker, Ed., Criminal-States and Criminal-Soldiers). 

Other works on modern insurgency, such as David Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerilla, John Mackinlay’s The Insurgent Archipelago, and even more strictly counter-terrorist research such as Marc Sageman’s Leaderless Jihad, have looked at newer, more decentralized, and networked organizations. These books either employ network theory, systems theory, or advanced tools of sociology, and build on insights in works of academic and popular military theory such as John Robb’s Brave New War and notably John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt’s seminal RAND compilation Networks and Netwars (See, for example, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Eds., Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy). There are many more academic works and journal articles, but these books and theorists are the most popularly known and influential contemporary works. 

The common aspect of these theories is their insight into the fundamentally distributed nature of modern insurgency and terrorism. Sageman’s Leaderless Jihad, in particular, looks at an alternative future to be considered along more organization-centric terrorism theories in which an alienated “bunch of guys” radicalized in small groups rather than al-Qaeda pose the dominant threat to domestic order. Mackinlay and Kilcullen also think about broader transnational networks in a rigorous fashion. Arquilla, Ronfeldt, and Robb, take what might be called an operational look at irregular warfare doctrine and practice, examining networks and self-organization’s impact on organizational performance. Robb in particular looks at the possible usage of insurgent tactics against moral and industrial weak points in a strategy of attrition, comparing these to the military doctrines he studied in the Air Force. 

Of course, many of the developments chronicled in new theories of insurgency are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Social bandits have been around since antiquity, and nineteenth century anarchist groups practiced a primitive form of networking. “Analog era” police networks were formed to successfully combat them. Additionally, much research that is supposedly new is also the result of simply having better analytical tools to examine old problems. Still, the new theory on insurgency and terrorism is not only a boon for academics; it is also helpful for practitioners and policy makers. 

Both academics and practitioners are looking beyond the usual case studies and templates to recognize that there is no one “silver bullet” for countering irregulars. Different nations, depending on their circumstances, have utilized differing methodologies with varying degrees of successes.  States will employ differing methodologies based on their interests, ideologies, and constraints. New works, such as Mark Moyar’s A Question of Command, cast a wide historical net and avoid the automatic assumption that David Galula’s brand of COIN was the proper course of action. In this light, the experiences of nations beyond the United States, Britain, and France—or a look at hitherto unexamined angles in Anglo-French irregular warfare—deserve attention.

A more open-minded view of COIN is essential, as partnering with foreign nations with differing conceptions of COIN in small-scale Foreign (or Domestic) Internal Defense missions will require the United States and others to adjust even if we disagree with those methodologies. It will also require development of capacities to address networked, global insurgencies fueled by transnational non-state armed actors ranging from extremist movements (such as al-Qaeda) to transnational criminal enterprises (criminal soldiers such as drug cartels, as exemplified by Los Zetas, or gangs as exemplified by Mara Salvatrucha). Mental and operational flexibility is thus crucial for management of the full range of threats. 


The way we understand insurgency and the way we fight it is changing, and these changes will influence how a more focused (or stripped-down) mission of countering irregulars occurs in a potential “post-COIN” future. The “new” COIN will be also found in unexpected places—the Naval Postgraduate School recently helped the police of Salinas, California conceptually assess their gang problem.  This cross-fertilization of expertise is likely to be replicated as limited commonalities between gang activities and insurgencies are recognized both abroad and at home. Of course, such military-civil interaction in domestic space requires careful execution to preserve liberties as well as sustain the legitimacy of local police and government structures.  Indeed the interaction of police and military forces in Latin America’s “states of exception” arising from drug wars and criminal insurgencies highlight the need for police-military interaction in concert with new security structures. 

The narrow focus of the COIN debate in America will eventually end, but as long as irregulars defy state authority, police and military forces will employ a variety of means—some new, others stretching back thousands of years in origin—to combat them. 

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