Insurgency: The Unsolved Mystery
AUTHOR Major Eric N. Nyberg, USMC
SUBJECT AREA - General
TITLE: INSURGENCY: THE UNSOLVED MYSTERY
The purpose this paper is to present some of the basic
characteristics of an insurgency.
Both civilian and military leaders have predicted that the most
likely form of future conflict will fall on the lower end of the
conflict spectrum. During the last decade much has been written
about fighting low-intensity conflicts, but there is still alot of
ground to cover. One of the most complex forms of warfare is
countering an insurgency and a great deal of education and training
is required to be successful in this type of an operation.
Insurgent movements owe a great deal to the circumstances in which
they are conceived. As new causes of unrest arise, with fresh
aspirations for change, so will insurgent methods be developed and
tailored to meet the needs of the moment. An insurgency does not,
therefore, follow any set pattern, nor does it lend itself to
precise definition. There are, however, certain basic elements and
certain common characteristics which recur. It is not within the
scope of this paper to discuss all of these common elements, nor to
develop any of the elements in detail.
After covering a basic definition and description of an
insurgency, it is necessary to consider the problems that exist in
developing nations and how these problems contribute to the nature
of the insurgency. It is equally important to understand the
leaders of the insurgency and how their backgrounds, personalities,
and ideologies shape the character of the movement. The leaders
establish the strategic, operational, and tactical objectives that
further mold the insurgency and guide it toward the desired end
state. Insurgencies develop organizational and operational patterns
from the interaction of all of the factors previously mentioned.
Though no insurgency will follow one pattern exclusively, they serve
as a starting point for a comparative analysis. Finally, successful
insurgencies progress through common stages of development.
INSURGENCY: THE UNSOLVED MYSTERY
Thesis Statement: Military leaders must begin their education for
operating against the insurgency threat by gaining a basic
understanding of the nature of an insurgency.
I. Definition and description of an insurgency
II. The emerging nation
III. Insurgent leadership
A. Single and group leadership
B. The study of individual leaders
IV. Insurgent ideology
V. Objectives of the insurgency
A. Strategic objectives
B. Operational objecitves
C. Tactical objectives
VI. Organizational and operational patterns
A. Subversive model
B. Critical-cell model
C. Mass-oriented model
D. Traditional model
VII. Stages of an insurgency
A. Passive stage
B. Active stage
C. Counteroffensive stage
INSURGENCY: THE UNSOLVED MYSTERY
Marines have a rich heritage in low-intensity conflicts. During
the late 19th and early 20th centuries Marines conducted a variety of
operations that fall within the low end of the conflict spectrum. A
record of the lessons learned during these operations was published in
1940 in the Small Wars Manual which has been reprinted and retains
uselfulness in the conduct of modern "small wars." The next
significant encounter with low-intensity confict came with the Vietnam
War. Our failure in Vietnam inspired a deep-seated public resistence
to protracted U.S. military involvement abroad and also contributed to
the discrediting of the doctrines and a dismantling of the forces that
had participated in the counterinsurgency effort in Indochina. In the
latter part of the 1970s the focus of planning and training shifted
back to mid- to high-intensity conflict.
By the mid 198Os strategists were recognizing that serious
threats to U.S. interests were developing in the form of regional
insurgencies. In 1987, the President issued National Security Defense
Directive 88, U.S. Capabilities to Engage in Low-Intensity Conflict
and Conduct Special Operations, which outlined policy and stategy for
low-intensity conflict. Four categories of military response were
identified: (3: 31)
- Insurgency and Counterinsurgency
- Peacekeeping Operations
- Peacetime Contingency Operations
- Combating Terrorism
During the last five years the Marine Corps has increased its focus on
our role in this type of conflict. In the October 1987 issue of the
Marine Corps Gazette, General A.M. Gray stated: (6: 18)
I believe there will be a war in the next decade. Probably
some Third Word scenario. The time to think about it is now.
We need to be able to conduct low-intensity warfare. We need
to be able to conduct revolutionary warfare and defeat it.
Sure, we have to be prepared for NATO contingencies, but we
must not lose sight of the kind of conflict that's most apt to
confront us. We must be effective at the low end of the
warfare spectrum, in the protracted conflicts that so often
occur in the Third World.
The Marine Corps has signed up to fight in the low-intensity
conflict arena, but as Major Hammes points out in his article;
"Insurgency: The Forgotten Threats," the Marine Corps is not prepared to
conduct counterinsurgency operations. He concludes: (8: 44)
The challenge facing Navy and Marine Corps officers is to
understand this threat and how to combat it. From this
understanding, we must develop doctrine, command
relationships, and plans for how to rapidly reorganize, train,
and deploy our current forces for the most complex form of
conflict known to man.
Major Hammes presents us with an impressive collection of challenges
which begins with an understanding the threat. Military leaders must
begin their education for operating against the insurgency threat by
gaining a basic understanding of the nature of an insurgency.
The official Department of Defense definition of insurgency is
stated in JCS Pub 1 as, "An organized movement aimed at the overthrow
of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed
conflict." This definition is expanded by the description of an
insurgency provided in FM 100-20, Military Operations in Low Intensity
Conflict: (4: 2-0)
An insurgency is an organized, armed political struggle whose
goal may be the seizure of power through revolutionary
takeover and replacement of the existing government. In some
cases, however, an insurgency's goals may be more limited.
For example, the insurgency may intend to break away from
government control and establish an autonomous state within
traditional ethnic or religious territorial bounds. The
insurgency may also only intend to extract limted political
concessions unattainable through less violent means.
The contest between the insurgency and the ruling government is
one of legitimacy. Each player strives to demonstrate that it is
better capable of meeting the needs and expectations of the people.
The effort of the contestants is to capture the loyalty of the
uncommitted majority through some combination of intimidation,
promises of reform, and appeal to grievances. This struggle may take
place within any political or economic system as long as there exists
sufficient conditions that contribute to the disatisfaction of one or
more segments governed by that system. Insurgency is a product of
unsatisfactory conditions, social change, and a belief in the
prospects for improvement. Characteristically, the aspirations of the
people or a segment of the society are not being met by the government
or ruling elite and there is an organized effort to further discredit
and dispossess the existing leadership. (5: 3) Most insurgencies are
associated with developing countries because they are characterized by
many of the unsatisfactory conditions upon which the insurgents base
To begin to understand the nature of an insurgency, we must
understand the environment in which that insurgency is born. Most
insurgencies develop in the furtile ground of emerging nations. As
the world passed through the Industrial Revolution and is now in the
midst of the Technological Revolution, many nations are struggling
toward becoming economically and socially advanced nations with
efficient, popularly supported governments. To accomplish these
goals, these nations must overcome handicaps which are characteristic
of an underdeveloped society. These handicaps include: a static
economy, limited technology, immobile social structure, and rule by
custom and traditional process. (5: 1) The early stages toward
development are expensive and do not always result in benefits which
are tangible to the people. The speed with which the modern media
spreads information and ideas has created rising expectations, causing
people to be impatient for immediate, visble evidence of progress.
The process of modernization brings societal and psychological turmoil
which creates exploitable conditions for those who seek power or the
redress of social grievances.
The insurgent leadership uses the unsatisfactory conditions that
cause discontentment among the people as the rallying point of the
insurgency. The leadership provides the vision, direction, guidance,
coordination, and organizational coherence that focuses political and
military actions. In order to be successful, the leaders must gain
popular support by establishing the credibility of their movement.
They must break the ties of the people with the government, replacing
the government's legitimacy with that of their own. (4: 2-2)
Some insurgent organizations depend on a single leader with a
charismatic personality to provide cohesion, motivation, and a
rallying point for the movement. Single leadership organizations can
produce decisions and initiate new action rapidly, but are vulnerable
to disruption by removing this key leader. Other insurgencies
de-emphasize individual personalities, basing their success on a group
of leaders. Collective leadership is more resilient to change due to
the distribution of the responsibility for making decisions; however,
they are more vulnerable to penetration.
Regardless of the number of individuals leading the insurgency,
knowledge of their education, background, family, social connections,
and experiences will provide insight into how they think, what they
want, and how they will fulfill their goals. Insurgent leaders study
the masters of their trade. They read the works of Sun Tzu, Mao,
Lenin, Giap, Guevarra, and other revolutionary leaders. Often a
preference is shown toward a particular revolutionary leader and his
strategy. To properly analyze the nature of an insurgency we must
understand the functions of the leadership, identify how the
leadership is organized, and know the personalities, aspirations,
politics, and ideologies of those leaders.
The next aspect of an insurgency that requires our awareness is the
ideology that guides the insurgents in offering their society a goal.
The insurgency must have a program or a body of ideas that explains
what is wrong with the present political and social system, and how
the new insurgent government will remedy these deficiencies. (4: 2-2)
Revolutionary ideolgy following World War II centered around
nationalism (anticolonialism). Communist inspired insurgencies label
their ideology as `Wars of National Liberation' or revolts against
The insurgent leadership selects an ideology that has great
appeal to important sectors of society in order to win their support.
Ideological conflicts within the movement create a vulnerability that
can be exploited by the government; therefore, the insurgency's future
plans must be vague enough for broad appeal and specific enough to
address important issues. Additionaly, insurgents will likely project
some ambiguity to accommodate differences in aims among the various
groups within the society. It is difficult to sort through the
ideological machinations of an insurgent movement; however, we must
attempt to distinguish the true ideals that fuel the movement from
propaganda. By analyzing ideology we can gain a better understanding
of the insurgency's objectives.
The insurgency can be considered as a nation at war. The
leadership establishes strategic objectives that give focus to both
political and military action. The strategic objective is the
insurgent's desired end state. This end state goes beyond the
overthrow of the existing government and addresses how the new
insurgent government will use its power to accomplish specific social,
economic, and political reforms. The polictical aim or end state of
any insurgency forms the structural basis for all else that occurs
during its course.
The fact that insurgencies have strategic objectives, highlights
the aspect of total war against the existing government with its focus
of effort directed at the political-social institutions. Political
mobilization, psychological warfare, propaganda, and terrorism are
major weapons of revolutionary conflicts. Armed conflict is important
but it is primarily an adjunct to the major struggle. Political
mobilizers and cadres are more important, in the long run, than
Operational objectives are those intermediate goals pursued as
part of the overall process of destroying government legitmacy and
progressively establishing the desired end state. Some common
operational objectives include: (4: 2-3)
- Isolation of the government from diplomatic and material
support, and increased international support for the insurgency.
- Destruction of the self-confidence of the government's leaders
and armed forces, causing them to abdicate or withdraw.
- Destruction of the government's credibility and authority.
(Political and military actions are designed to throw the government
off balance, cause panic in the population, and dislocate the
- Establishment of civil services and administration in areas
under insurgent control.
- Capture of the support (or neutrality) of critical segments of
Within the framework of the operational objectives, the
insurgents establish tactical objectives or the immediate aims of
insurgent action. Achieving these immediate aims leads to
accomplishment of operational goals. Tactical objectives can be
psychological in nature, such as the distribution of propaganda
leaflets. Tactical objectives of a physical nature may include
capture or destruction of a key facility.
The objectives established by the insurgency influence the
development of certain organizational and operational patterns. These
patterns or forms of insurgency have been described in many ways.
However described, we need to appreciate that each insurgency is
unique and will not follow one model exclusively. FM 100-20 proposes
four general patterns: (4: 2-5)
Subversive insurgents seek to penetrate the political structure
of the government to control it and use it for their own purposes.
They selectively use violence to coerce voters, intimidate officials,
and disrupt and discredit the government. The political arm of the
insurgent organization, while maneuvering for control of the existing
political structure, directs the military arm to conduct carefully
planned and coordinated violence. (14: Chapt 9,10) Employment of
violence is designed to show the system to be incompetent and to
provoke the government to an excessively violent response which
further undermines its legitimacy. A subversive insurgency is suited
to a more permissive political environment which allows the insurgents
to use both legal and illegal methods to accomplish their goals. The
Nazi rise to power in the 1930s is an example of this model. When
conditions dictate, this type of insurgency can quickly shift to the
In the critical cell model, the insurgents also seek to
infiltrate the government's institutions, but their object is to
destroy the system from within. The use of violence remains covert
until the government is so weakened that the insurgency's superior
organization seizes power, supported by the armed force. One
variation of this pattern is when the insurgent leadership permits the
popular revolution to destroy the existing government, then emerges to
direct the formation of a new government. The Sandanistas' takeover
of the Nicaraguan revolution provides a excellent example of this type
of critical-cell model. Another variation is seen in the Cuban
revolution and is referred to as the foco (or Cuban model) insurgency.
This model involves a single, armed cell which emerges in the midst
of degenerating government legitimacy and becomes the nucleus around
which mass popular support rallies. The insurgents use this support
to establish control and erect new institutions.
Unlike the two previous models, mass-oriented insurgents
emphasize the creation of a political and armed legitimacy outside the
existing system. These insurgents patiently construct a base of
passive and active political supporters, while simultaneously building
a large armed element of guerrilla and regular forces. They plan a
protracted campaign of increasing violence to destroy the government
and its institutions from the outside. They have a well-developed
ideology and carefully determine their objectives. They are highly
organized and effectively use propaganda and guerrilla action to
mobilize forces for a direct political and military challenge to the
government. The communist revolution in China, the Vietcong
insurgency, and the Shining Path insurgency in Peru are examples of
the mass-oriented model. Once established, this type of insurgency is
extremely difficult to defeat because of its great depth of
The final model is the traditional insurgency. It differs from
the other types of insurgencies because it normally grows from very
specific grievances and initially has limited goals. The traditional
insurgency involves tribal, racial, religious or linguistic groups who
perceive that the government has denied their rights and interests and
work to establish or restore them. They seldomly seek to overthrow
the government or control the whole society; however, they frequently
attempt to withdraw from government control through autonomy or
semiautonomy. The Mujahideen in Afghanistan, the Tamil separatists in
Sri Lanka, and the Kurdish revolt in Iraq illustrate the traditional
pattern of insurgency.
Another means of analyzing the nature of an insurgency is by
recognizing that they develop through common phases. Though FM 100-20
does not identify specific phases, it states: (4: 2-4)
Successful insurgencies pass through common phases of
development. Not all insurgences experience every phase, and
progression through all phases is certainly not a requirement for
success. The same insurgent movement may be in another phase of
development in other regions of a country or theater. Successful
insurgencies can also revert to an earler phase when under pressure,
resuming development when favorable conditions return.
Insurgencies are not sudden events. They occur over an extended
period of time. Their beginnings usually go unnoticed, progressing
and growing to the enventual overthrow of a government. FMFM 8-2
organizes the insurgency into three stages: (5: 11-14) The Passive
Stage, the Active Stage, and the Counteroffensive Stage. These stages
are similar in nature to Mao Tse-Tung's strategy which develops
through three phases: (7: 20-22) Latent and Incipient Insurgency,
Guerrilla Warfare, and War of Movement.
The first stage (or phase) of the insurgency is the initial
period of the conflict and is the most difficult and protracted.
During this phase the insurgents establish an infrastructure, actively
recruit, focus on gaining popular support, and demonstate that they
can provide a better alternative to the existing government.
Preservation is emphasized to ensure the completion of the necessary
political and military preparations for the succeeding stages. Many
of the activities of the first stage are continued in the subsequent
The second stage is initiated to extend political control and
increase military action in armed resistance against government
forces. The organization continues to expand. Emphasis is shifted to
establishing insurgent-controlled areas and providing an alternate
government structure. The insurgents use guerrilla warfare to tie
down and frustrate government security forces while building their own
military force. Through additional acts of terrorism, inciting civil
disobedience, inciting labor strikes, and promoting general disorder
among the people, the insurgents cause the government to lose
confidence in its ability to control the situation.
The final stage of the insurgency occurs when the insurgents
believe they have gained sufficient military strength and popular
support to meet and defeat the government forces tn decisive combat.
The characteristics of this combat are more conventional in nature;
however, guerrilla action continues in order to assist in the eventual
defeat of the government's military forces.
In the recent war against Iraq, our military forces achieved a
remarkable victory. We enjoyed a technological advantage. We
dominated our enemy both tactically and operationally. We fought an
enemy who quickly lost his will to fight. The insurgency/
counterinsurgency battlefield will be different. Our technology can
be effectively neutralized. Our enemy will likely have the tactical
and operational advantage. More importantly, the insurgent is willing
to fight a protracted struggle, patiently using time to his advantage.
Military leaders must appreciate the compexities of this type of
conflict to determine effective courses of action. This appreciation
must start with a basic understanding of the nature of an insurgency.
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