02 Feb 2011 @ 4:18 AM 

Insurgency Primer: Q&A


There were some questions and comments left in comments on the last post, and they deserved response. I’d like to answer these questions and add some observations to the comments.

This would be appropriate to ask….is what’s happening in Egypt and what happened in Tunisia, insurgency?

I haven’t been tracking on Tunisia long enough to know if there was an insurgency there or not prior to the outbreak of popular demonstrations. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has renounced violence and so they are not an insurgent group, although they have some of the hallmarks of being a nascent insurgency. One of these hallmarks is being outside of the normal political process; but Muslim Brotherhood candidates instead run as independents and hold seats in the Egyptian legislature, which makes them part of the political process.

Insurgency is where politics meets violence, but not all political violence is insurgency. For instance, Timothy McVeigh thought he was an insurgent, but he had no significant base of support and very little organized militant support. Instead of sparking a more widespread insurgency or, his dream response, a popular uprising, he was captured, charged, tried, convicted and executed as a criminal.

An organization like the Muslim Brotherhood could have developed into an insurgency quite easily, though. One of the reasons is because they have been banned by the Egyptian government on several occasions. This would push them towards not being able to participate legally in the political process. However, the members simply ran for Parliament as independents. The group still had political input and took part in the legitimate political process.

What appears to be happening in Tunisia and Egypt is every insurgent’s dream… sparking a spontaneous popular uprising. However, I see no evidence that either of these was sparked by insurgents. Opposition groups may have had a hand in their origins or propagation, but that is the difference between insurgency and popular uprising.

If the Egyptian uprising is quelled, especially by government violence against the people, without resolving the causes and conditions that sparked the unrest in the first place, an insurgency may (likely will) develop. If the government finds a way to address the grievances of the people and they return to their homes in a sign of acceding to the rule of the government, then change has been brought and the government survives. If the government does not succeed in assuaging the anger of the people, it may face either a popular revolt too powerful to quell or a launch into insurgency. This is a very delicate situation and could head in any of these directions based on the response of the government and particularly its choices regarding violence against the people.

Are insurgencies popular-led, or are they person-led?

Insurgency is that place on the political scale where one or more groups either fails to engage or is unable to engage in the “normal” political process and they become willing to kill in order to get their way. The willingness to kill is what separates it from just another opposition group.

Insurgencies must have leadership. The three things that exist to create an insurgency are grievances, leadership to direct that dissatisfaction into action, and a (real or perceived) weakness in governance. The weakness in government can be physical or ethical/ideological. Physical weakness is the inability to provide governance. Ethical/ideological weakness is the inability or unwillingness to govern in such a way that is acceptable to the people. This does not mean all of the people. It means that there must be a large enough portion of the people who are dissatisfied to support an insurgency. As we see in Afghanistan, that percentage can be quite small.

Most of the popular grievances will likely be based on ethical weakness, such as corruption or incompetence. However, the leadership of the various insurgencies are only taking advantage of these weaknesses in order to further their cause against the government, which is ideological. The higher up the insurgent strata we go, the more we will find ideological differences. Most people aren’t willing to kill over a bit of corruption in their local government. It can be brought to that point by leadership with either the promise of a new system that solves all of their problems (if those problems are severe enough) or a competing system that has the ability to dominate their lives on a relatively consistent basis. I believe that we see the latter in goodly areas of Afghanistan.

There are enough popular grievances against the existing government that some local residents are willing to throw in with the ideologically-based leadership. In Afghanistan, we find an ideological core that finds itself capable of competing for governance in many areas. This ability is often for lack of sufficient GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) presence to actually govern. In the lack of opposition or competition, the presence of that government may have been sufficient, but there is by definition competition to govern in these areas; they have designated “shadow governors” and administrations to varying degrees. Therefore, the weak government presence practically invites successful competition. Often the first organ of competitive government in Afghanistan can be found in the form of courts.

The leadership can be based upon one main leader and a lot of subordinate leaders, or it can be based on a disparate group of leaders who begin to cooperate. Local leadership is usually necessary, as otherwise the violence has no focus and becomes disconnected from the political goals. The thing that separates an insurgency from simple criminality is that the violence is performed in pursuit of a political goal, so that linkage has to be there. In any real insurgency, there will be leadership. That leadership will often be more ideologically driven than the part-time members or casual fighters.

Being ideologically driven, they will be students of insurgency, and so they will often study relevant materials (open-source warfare, anyone?). One of the things that Moa did extraordinarily well was to teach how to incorporate the real grievances of the people into the ideologically-based narrative of the insurgent. The number of “true believers” will be much smaller than the whole, but the rest of the whole needs to be mobilized. If you are an ideological insurgent leader, once you have mobilized more people, then you can work on their ideological “education.” They are already on your side at that point. But they are not overwhelmingly drawn to your cause initially by ideology; you mobilized them due to their personal issues and concerns.

One of the strengths of insurgents is to identify these issues and concerns, real or imagined, and play upon those themes. They make it part of their narrative and work to convince the people of either the rightness of their cause or the inevitability of their victory.

Is an insurgency necessarily armed or can it be an action against, without again necessarily looking at a foreign power/ occupier or incumbent presidency (who by extension are supported by foreign powers)?

Insurgencies often do not start as armed movements. In Afghanistan, we have a previously armed group who were never dissolved. They melted away in the last days of the victory of the Northern Alliance, who were being assisted by American air power and combat forces, but they were never either annihilated or reintegrated in any way with the new government structure. Many did simply return to their homes or they never left them. Some, more recognizable to, for instance, American commanders had to flee. There a few FOBs built on land that is/was owned by absent Taliban leaders. One that I have visited several times, FOB Khogyani, was literally built around a Taliban commander’s house.

In any case, there was an armed cadre left over from the old regime. Some were “hiding in plain sight” and still intimidating their neighbors. Others fled to Pakistan, from whence some have returned and some find it more useful to remain safe. But they pre-existed the current government. After a period of latency, they reasserted themselves. The insurgency, like the counterinsurgency, has evolved.

But, by definition, insurgency opposes a government or other “ruling force,” like an occupation (which our forces in Afghanistan are not). The Afghan insurgencies oppose GIRoA and seek to overthrow it in favor of their own form(s) of governance. As opposed to an opposition group (which may grow into an insurgency), an insurgency has crossed the line into violence. Must they be armed? At a minimum, they must be armed with a fist. Upgrades are often necessary to compete with the government asserting its monopoly on violence, however. Our modern insurgents have graduated from fist to RPG, AK, PKM and IED.

Last, is popular-people-power the new future of war and how are governments prepared to settle these conflicts, if they are?

This is a little more of a higher-level question, but it goes to Stability, so let’s take a shot at it a little.

The short answer is yes; at least for the foreseeable future… but it isn’t really a new problem. It’s a problem as old as governments themselves, but with the added capabilities that globalization has provided to sub-national or trans-national organizations.

People will take a lot of crap in order to maintain the status quo, but they can only be pushed so far or kept down so long. When there is enough popular disapproval, or pain, they will potentially explode at the slightest spark; like what we have in Egypt right now. Popular-people-power is how we believe, as Americans, that government should be established. What we seem to forget sometimes is our commitment to “self-determination of peoples.” In other words, if popular-people-power rises up and takes down a government, and the majority of them want to install a king rather than elect a president, as long as the people consent to be governed in that fashion, isn’t it in our best interests for that government to actually govern?

In any case, popular-people-power has been the ascendant power for centuries. Stable governments are cautious of it and actively address the concerns of the people. At a minimum, they don’t make them miserable. Instability can occur where there are either ideological or ethical issues with the government. In areas where there are both, all hell can break loose. A sitting government can actively address the concerns of the people and potentially remain seated, but by the time there are revolts such as the one in Egypt, it may be too late. The key figure in that government may have become personally reprehensible to the people. Such situations are rarely successfully salvaged.

So, the “new future of war?” No, we see this throughout history, such as our own history, or say, the French Revolution. However, if we look at the future of war in the near term, do we see large peer-competitors looming in the immediate future who seem bent on taking actions such that we would have to oppose them with armed might? I submit that the only potential competitor of such a nature would be China, and there is no real evidence at this point that they will embark on a scheme of world domination by force of arms.

North Korea is another potential flash point for conventional war, but South Korea is much more capable than most give credit for, and I don’t believe that North Korea could successfully attack South Korea. I feel that this is unlikely to occur, though constant saber-rattling is to be expected.

We are currently faced by an ideological outbreak that is fueled in part by political, social and economic factors that drive people to look for answers. This is not an isolated instance of this. For some throughout history, the answer has been religion. For others, the answer was more secular; like Communism. Regardless, there are a bunch of people who are looking for answers as to why their situations suck; and what can be done about it. For this particular outbreak, the seekers are Muslim and for many, the answer found is in religion. For the hardcore ideologues, their interpretation of the religious basis for their solution includes a couple of ideas that make them remarkably poor world citizens… and a danger to the citizens of nations whom they deem to be a part of their problem; like us.

They are driven by an ideology that includes, as have some interpretations of Christianity that have been accepted down through the ages, the concept that God has commissioned them to conquer the world for Him. It is their duty. Does every Muslim subscribe to this theory? No, clearly not. But the ones who do are transnational ideologues who are not constrained by national identity. In fact, the weaker their host, the more they like it. Good examples of excellent host entities would be the Afghan government under the Taliban, the largely ungoverned spaces in western and northwestern Pakistan, Yemen and various African nations. Ungoverned or under-governed spaces are good havens for global insurgents.

You asked about the nature of warfare, but it’s not just a warfare challenge. It could also be considered a foreign policy challenge. We are learning in Afghanistan that these challenges are not always best dealt with militarily. Fully two thirds of the effort in Afghanistan is actually civilian in nature. Stability is not simply reliant upon security or the ability to project force effectively. It also depends upon governance and economic capacity.

Stability is a good thing for other nations, particularly well-developed nations, because we get blamed for the perception of “being in control.” That makes us a target, because we are seen as part of a system that keeps the governments in place that many consider to be oppressive, such as that in Egypt.

It appears that the future of conflict in the next couple of decades will be driven by non nation-state entities who have the ability to project violence on what was formerly a nation-state scale. But that doesn’t mean that it is just a military problem. As we are learning in Afghanistan, there are other tools of foreign policy that can be leveraged to avoid conflict altogether. Of course, cutting all funding for USAID, as proposed recently in Congress, is not going to make it any easier to deal with these issues through capacity building and raises the likelihood that the problems will progress to a scale where military intervention becomes more attractive.

The question is whether we choose to deal with potential safe havens for extremists via a shift in foreign policy oriented towards capacity building or whether we will depend on our intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security and eventually punitive or regime-changing military action. Our recent experiences with regime change demonstrates how difficult, expensive and dangerous that can be.

I still cannot understand, even after seeing it firsthand in OIF, the ability of a small number of violent insurgents to cow whole villages into silence. It’s not like weapons are scarce in either Iraq of AFG, so why does it take so much for the people to fight back?

A good parallel to the situation in places like Afghanistan or Iraq is what happens in a neighborhood here in the United States when the neighborhood is beset by drug-related gang violence. As a matter of fact, police departments are studying COIN doctrine because there are so many parallels. The dynamics of insurgency are remarkably similar to the dynamics of organized criminality. The parallels even go to the point that strong drug-funded gangs sometimes actually compete for governance, becoming “the law” in discrete areas where even the police are intimidated, never mind the local population. Relatively small groups of armed individuals can cow entire communities with the threat of violence. Sometimes they can overwhelm local law enforcement with their capabilities.

The real difference between criminal drug gangs and true insurgents is that the gangs lack a truly political goal. This demonstrates the political nature of insurgency. But the dynamics are similar, and so we can see how a group of people can be cowed into submission by a much smaller group that is ready and willing to use violence as a tool.

Now add to that the conditioning that Afghan civilians have undergone in the past several decades. Survival strategies include avoidance of commitment. The average Afghan isn’t so different from the average American in a lot of ways, including a desire to just make it through the current troubles and emerge on the other side… whatever that may look like… still alive and with their family more or less intact. When the end result of taking a stand can include death, it may seem reckless to take that stand. Keeping those people on the fence is part of the insurgent strategy.

But none of that will work until you can clean out most of the corruption. Even clean cops won’t help if the lawyers and judges are dirty.

Great point, and very true. This is precisely the issue that causes the most heartbreak for GIRoA in many areas of Afghanistan. The Judicial system is a wreck, and you are right; clean cops who keep running into this wall of (in)justice get frustrated and often wind up taking part in this “race for corruption.” Every person who enters the system becomes a potential miniature gold mine. Those who can’t pay are eaten.

That is precisely one of the conditions that not only keeps the insurgency alive by convincing people, one family at a time, that the current government does not serve them. It is also that weak link that insurgents target to provide shadow government services, in this case courts. Courts that the people will willingly use because they are swift, enforceable and (relatively) incorrupt. Absolutely Maoist in strategy and behavior, the Afghan insurgency is finding that in this area they can easily out-govern the government.

Now ask me how that can be overcome.

Tags Tags: , , , , ,
Categories: Afghanistan, COIN, doctrine, Stability Operations
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 01 Feb 2011 @ 05 02 PM


Responses to this post » (One Total)

  1. Tom Reynolds says:

    I like the structure you are discussing these issues within. I often feel that what folks often miss about representative, pluralistic governments is conflict (potential warfare) is channeled and framed within an institutional framework, for us, we would define those as executive, legislative, and judicial. When one of those is out of balance, it doesn’t work. The challenge that most folks don’t appreciate sometimes or forget out of frustation is how difficult it is to achieve the balance required for the system to function so it can’t be exploited. Your past two discussions I think remind us of how tough it is to establish that balance, particularly in an enviroment like Afghanistan where naturally developed political, social, and economic relationships and development have been totally disrupted by 30+ years of war, external interference through proxy wars, etc. Good work, thank you.

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