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Rethinking Insurgency

Rethinking Insurgency - Cover

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz.

June 2007

76 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The U.S. military and national security community lost interest in insurgency after the end of the Cold War when other defense issues such as multinational peacekeeping and transformation seemed more pressing. With the onset of the Global War on Terror in 2001 and the ensuing involvement of the U.S. military in counterinsurgency support in Iraq and Afghanistan, insurgency experienced renewed concern in both the defense and intelligence communities. The author argues that while exceptionally important, this relearning process focused on Cold War era nationalistic insurgencies rather than the complex conflicts which characterized the post-Cold War security environment. To be successful at counterinsurgency, he contends, the U.S. military and defense community must rethink insurgency, which has profound implications for American strategy and military doctrine.


The September 11, 2001, attacks and Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM revived the idea that insurgency is a significant threat to the United States. In response, the American military and defense communities began to rethink insurgency. Much of this valuable work, though, viewed contemporary insurgency as more closely related to Cold War era insurgencies than to the complex conflicts which characterized the post-Cold War period. This suggests that the most basic way that the military and defense communities think about insurgency must be rethought.

Contemporary insurgency has a different strategic context, structure, and dynamics than its forebears. Insurgencies tend to be nested in complex conflicts which involve what can be called third forces (armed groups which affect the outcome, such as militias) and fourth forces (unarmed groups which affect the outcome, such as international media), as well as the insurgents and the regime. Because of globalization, the decline of overt state sponsorship of insurgency, the continuing importance of informal outside sponsorship, and the nesting of insurgency within complex conflicts associated with state weakness or failure, the dynamics of contemporary insurgency are more like a violent and competitive market than war in the traditional sense where clear and discrete combatants seek strategic victory.

This suggests a very different way of thinking about (and undertaking) counterinsurgency. At the strategic level, the risk to the United States is not that insurgents will “win” in the traditional sense, take over their country, and shift it from a partner to an enemy. It is that complex internal conflicts, especially ones involving insurgency, will generate other adverse effects: the destabilization of regions, resource flows, and markets; the blossoming of transnational crime; humanitarian disasters; transnational terrorism; and so forth. Given this, the U.S. goal should not automatically be the defeat of the insurgents by the regime (which may be impossible and which the regime may not even want), but the most rapid conflict resolution possible. In other words, a quick and sustainable resolution which integrates insurgents into the national power structure is less damaging to U.S. national interests than a protracted conflict which leads to the complete destruction of the insurgents. Protracted conflict, not insurgent victory, is the threat.

If, in fact, insurgency is not simply a variant of war, if the real threat is the deleterious effects of sustained conflict, and if it is part of systemic failure and pathology in which key elites and organizations develop a vested interest in sustaining the conflict, the objective of counterinsurgency support should not be simply strengthening the government so that it can impose its will more effectively on the insurgents, but systemic reengineering. This, in turn, implies that the most effective posture for outsiders is not to be an ally of the government and thus a sustainer of the flawed socio-political-economic system, but to be neutral mediators and peacekeepers (even when the outsiders have much more ideological affinity for the regime than for the insurgents). If this is true, the United States should only undertake counterinsurgency support in the most pressing instances and as part of an equitable, legitimate, and broad-based multinational coalition.

American strategy for counterinsurgency should recognize three distinct insurgency settings each demanding a different response:

• A functioning government with at least some degree of legitimacy is suffering from an erosion of effectiveness but can be “redeemed” through assistance provided according to the Foreign Internal Defense doctrine.
• There is no functioning and legitimate government, but a broad international and regional consensus supports the creation of a neo-trusteeship. In such instances, the United States should provide military, economic, and political support as part of a multinational consensus operating under the authority of the United Nations.
• There is no functioning and legitimate government and no international or regional consensus for the formation of a neo-trusteeship. In these cases, the United States should pursue containment of the conflict by support to regional states and, in conjunction with partners, help create humanitarian “safe zones” within the conflictive state.

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