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Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the 21st Century: Reconceputalizing Threat and Response

Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the 21st Century: Reconceputalizing Threat and Response - Cover

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz, LTC Raymond A. Millen.

November 2004

51 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Modern insurgency warfare presents fresh challenges for the United States, which must re-conceptualize its approach to fighting such conflicts. Because the dominant characteristics of insurgency--protractedness and ambiguity--effectively stymie the American military's approach to war, the United States needs to reorient its strategic thinking. The key to success is not for the U.S. military to become better at counterinsurgency, but for the U.S. military (and other elements of the government) to be skilled at helping local security and intelligence forces become effective at it. Adapting tactics and strategies to the realities on the ground is the not only pragmatic, but also crucial to success.


Insurgency has existed throughout history but ebbed and flowed in strategic significance. Today the world has entered another period when insurgency is common and strategically significant. This is likely to continue for at least a decade, perhaps longer. As the United States confronts this threat, extrapolating old ideas, strategies, doctrine, and operational concepts is a recipe for ineffectiveness. Reconceptualization is needed.

The strategic salience of insurgency for the United States is higher than it has been since the height of the Cold War. But insurgency remains challenging for the United States because two of its dominant characteristics--protractedness and ambiguity-- mitigate the effectiveness of the American military. Furthermore, the broader U.S. national security organization is not optimized for counterinsurgency support. Ultimately, a nation is only as good at counterinsurgency support as its weakest link, not its strongest.

Existing American strategy and doctrine focus on national insurgencies rather than liberation ones. As a result, the strategy stresses selective engagement; formation of a support coalition if possible; keeping the American presence to a minimum level to attain strategic objectives; augmenting the regime’s military, intelligence, political, informational, and economic capabilities; and, encouraging and shaping reform by the regime designed to address shortcomings and the root causes of the insurgency. The key to success is not for the U.S. military to become better at counterinsurgency, but for the U.S. military (and other elements of the government) to be skilled at helping local security and intelligence forces become effective at it.

A strategy for countering a liberation insurgency must be different in some important ways. Specifically, it should include the rapid stabilization of the state or area using the appropriately sized force (but larger is usually better); a shift to minimum U.S. military presence as rapidly as possible; rapid creation of effective local security and intelligence forces; shifting the perception of the insurgency from a liberation one to a national one; encouraging sustained reform by the partner regime; and cauterization--the strengthening of states surrounding the state facing an insurgency.

Sustained capability enhancement is crucial, even when the United States is not actively engaged in counterinsurgency. This includes leader development, wargaming, concept development, research and analysis, professional education, and focused training. Capability enhancement should include increasing the ability and willingness of regional states and other regional security organizations to provide counterinsurgency support, improved homeland security, and methods for early warning of insurgency, preventative actions, and the creation of early-stage support packages.

The United States must make clear whether its approach to counterinsurgency is a strategy of victory or a strategy of containment, tailoring the response and method to the threat. A strategy of victory which seeks a definitive end makes sense when facing a national insurgency in which the partner government has some basis of legitimacy and popular support. In liberation insurgencies, though, a strategy of victory is a very long shot, hence a strategy of containment is the more logical one.

Because insurgents attempt to prevent the military battlespace from becoming decisive and concentrate in the political and psychological, operational design must be different than for conventional combat. Specifically, the U.S. military and other government agencies should develop an effects-based approach designed to fracture, delegitimize, delink, demoralize, and deresource insurgents. To make this work requires an independent strategic assessment organization composed of experienced government officials, military officers, policemen, intelligence officers, strategists, and regional experts to assess a counterinsurgency operation and allow senior leaders to make adjustments.

When involved in backing an existing government, the U.S. force package would be designed primarily for training, advice, and support. It should be interagency from the inception. In most cases, the only combat forces would be those needed for force and facility protection, more rarely for strike missions in particularly challenging environments. Modularity should increasingly allow the Army to tailor, deploy, and sustain such packages.

Sustaining the commitment is an important part of force packaging. Successful counterinsurgency takes many years, often a decade or more. Consideration must be given to rotation procedures for deployed forces. To some extent, contractors can relieve this pressure, particularly since many of the training, advice, and support functions in counterinsurgency do not have to be performed by uniformed military. But as Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, the use of contractors brings a range of other problems associated with training, control, discipline, and protection.

Given the likelihood of continued involvement in counterinsurgency support, the Army will need to consider increasing the number of units that have particular utility in this environment, such as Intelligence and Engineers. Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations, both of which also have high utility in counterinsurgency support, need refocusing and restructuring. As a minimum, a larger proportion of these units should be in the active component. And, both need greater autonomy to be effective in a counterinsurgency environment rather than being assigned to the commander of a maneuver unit. In general, though, the Army should not develop specialized units to “fight” counterinsurgency.

Leader development and training for counterinsurgency must emphasize ethical considerations and force discipline, cultural sensitivity, and the ability to communicate across cultural boundaries. Most importantly, leader development must focus on inculcating the Army with the ability to innovate and adapt. Organizationally, the U.S. military should develop matrix and networked organizations. Professional education and training must be increasingly interagency and multinational.

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