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Resolving Insurgencies

Resolving Insurgencies - Cover

Authored by Dr. Thomas R. Mockaitis.

June 2011

107 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Understanding how insurgencies may be brought to a successful conclusion is vital to military strategists and policymakers. This study examines how past insurgencies have ended and how current ones may be resolved. Four ways in which insurgencies have ended are identified. Clear-cut victories for either the government or the insurgents occurred during the era of decolonization, but they seldom happen today. Recent insurgencies have often degenerated into criminal organizations that become committed to making money rather than fighting a revolution, or they evolve into terrorist groups capable of nothing more than sporadic violence. In a few cases, the threatened government has resolved the conflict by co-opting the insurgents. After achieving a strategic stalemate and persuading the belligerents that they have nothing to gain from continued fighting, these governments have drawn the insurgents into the legitimate political process through reform and concessions. The author concludes that such a co-option strategy offers the best hope of U.S. success in Afghanistan and in future counterinsurgency campaigns.


The study of counterinsurgency (COIN) has focused disproportionately on its operational and tactical aspects at the expense of larger strategic considerations. Foremost among these neglected considerations is the vexing problem of how insurgencies actually end. Most studies presume that insurgencies, like conventional wars, conclude with a clear-cut victory by one side or the other. Preoccupation with the anti-colonial insurgencies following World War II has reinforced this thinking. However, consideration of a broader selection of conflicts reveals that most did not end in such a clear, decisive manner.

This monograph examines 12 insurgencies clustered in four groups based upon how they ended: conflicts in which the insurgents won; conflicts in which the government won; insurgencies that degenerated into mere terrorism or criminality; and insurgencies resolved by co-opting the insurgents into legitimate politics through a negotiated settlement and reintegrating them into normal social life. The author argues that Group 4 insurgencies provide the best examples from which to derive lessons relevant to the United States acting in support of a state threatened with insurgency. From these lessons, a political strategy of co-option can be developed—a strategy combing diplomatic, informational, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement assets in a unified effort. However, such a strategy can only work when there is sufficient political will to sustain the protracted effort necessary for it to succeed.

The monograph concludes with consideration of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Based on conclusions derived from the 12 case studies, it argues that the United States has devised the correct strategy for resolving the Iraq War, and that sufficient political will exists to see the conflict through to a successful conclusion. The prognosis for Afghanistan is far less optimistic. The United States adopted the correct strategy for that war only in 2009, long after the conflict had become a chronic insurgency in which the Taliban fund their operations through the opium trade and exercise shadow governance over much of the country. The conflict has also spread to Pakistan, which has proven to be a most reluctant ally. Under these circumstances, the chances of a clear-cut victory are remote. Even achieving a compromise peace through co-option will be difficult. The United States must consider that it might have to withdraw without a satisfactory resolution to the insurgency. In that case, it will need to engage whoever governs Afghanistan to hold them accountable for terrorism launched from Afghan territory.

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