.
R

oughly half way through America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, an utterly bewildering PowerPoint image began making the rounds. A complex web of connections, interconnections, nodes, and power structures aimed to illustrate or illuminate the complexities of the counterinsurgency campaign in that country. Allegedly, when General Stanley McChrystal was shown the slide, he remarked “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.” It was roundly ridiculed as reflecting the lack of clarity in Afghanistan, but in its own way illustrated a very real truth—counterinsurgency is hard, very hard. 

The Insurgent’s Dilemma: A Struggle to Prevail | David Ucko | Oxford University Press

There is a wide body of literature on insurgencies and how to counter these threats to state legitimacy. Unsurprisingly, the challenge is less the theory and far more the practice. Yet, as David Ucko writes in his new book “The Insurgent’s Dilemma,” a copy of which was provided for review, the bulk of that theory is predicated on an increasingly outdated mental model for what an insurgency is and, as a result, counterinsurgency theory is increasingly insufficient. 

Despite the difficulty inherent to combating insurgencies and the widely-held belief that states have lost to insurgents, the reality is that since the end of the Cold War states have done quite well in defeating threats to the Weberian notion of legitimacy—the monopoly of the use of force within a defined territory. Why? The conditions that facilitated successful Cold War insurgencies—a less urbanized global population, a more tolerant global environment, limited state authority, and the Cold War incentives to support insurgencies—have all ebbed to the point that states are back on the offensive. 

The success of the state and insurgent’s unchanging end goals—the subversion of the state and the flipping of the population to their cause—creates the titular insurgent’s dilemma: how to establish a presence, violently challenge the authority of the state, and achieve a measure of sustainable power, all without provoking the armed response of the state. 

Ucko suggests that the insurgent’s solution to this quandary is found in three models of insurgency that go beyond the traditional subversion and overthrow of the state—1) A localized insurgency that seeks to seize only a part of a country or territory, 2) An infiltrative insurgency that co-opts systems of governance by participating in the political process and maintaining a modicum of distance (however fictitious) with its armed wing, and 3) An ideational insurgency that is an informational movement, far more amorphous than any other, operating on the virtual plane in lieu of physical space. Each of the models he presents are well grounded in both history and contemporary conflict. 

Localized insurgencies are perhaps the ones which counterinsurgency practitioners would most easily recognize. Seeking to hive off a part of territory, the insurgents seek not the overthrow of the state, but the establishment of parallel legitimacy. By geographically limiting their aims the insurgents hope to avoid provoking the armed response of the state. Defeating these, he suggests, is very much in the traditional model of clear, hold, and build, but with more nuance. As he writes, these spaces are not wholly ungoverned,  blank sheets of paper upon which the ink of state governance can be written. Rather than treating these spaces as empty, he suggests that coopting existing political power structures and working to address the underlying grievances within the given space will lead to longer-term stability. 

Infiltrative insurgencies are particularly insidious as they subvert state institutions against the state itself—using the ballot box (primarily) in lieu of bullets. Bolivia’s Evo Morales and the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist are both successful examples of movements that ostensibly abandoned armed resistance, seeking instead to use the democratic process to attain power and achieve their end goal of state subversion. Here too, the model is not without historical precedent—it is, in effect, the very model that Adolf Hitler used to rise to power after the failed Beer Hall Putsch. Confronting these insurgencies, as Ucko shows, puts exceptional pressure on the state itself and assumptions about democratic cooptation. Does the state allow former belligerents a seat at the table and risk subversion from within? Or does it violate its own democratic norms to quash a potential threat?

Ideational insurgencies are, perhaps, the most nebulous of the three models—both conceptually and in practice. Lacking a physical space, these movements use virtual environments to build their base of support, mobilize actors, incite violence, and subvert the state. Ucko cites the far-right and white nationalists in the United States and the online component of ISIS as examples. The absence of a physical presence means combating these entities is far harder and their real-world violence is far less predictable. While Ucko presents this case well, he does dwell a bit too much on the mechanics of the far-right in the United States—space that could have been better used to solidify this nebulous concept. The line between an ideational insurgency and information war is not wholly clear. Indeed, he suggests that Russia sponsored such an insurgency in the United States in 2016, but arguably that was more of an information operation rather than an insurgency. To be sure, violence did occur, but how much of that was inspired by Russian action and how much was due to growing American political instability is unclear.  

As Ucko writes, insurgents have adapted to the success of the state and now states will need to adapt to these different methods of state subversion. The auguries are, however, not great. The success of the state is largely due to broader geopolitical developments and changes, not necessarily to increased proficiency in counterinsurgency. By and large states have merely resorted to increased violence to keep insurgent violence at a minimum.  Combatting infiltrative insurgencies and those of the ideational flavor will necessitate far more complex and nuanced responses—ones that demand far more integration and cross-government cooperation. It is not clear that states will have the institutional capacity to develop or execute an appropriate response. 

Ucko’s analysis could have played up the role of politics in insurgencies more—not the politics of insurgencies themselves, but the politics of state responses to insurgent actions. Violent actions by insurgent groups will almost always provoke an armed confrontation or response. Yet, while a violent or kinetic response is politically palatable, the necessary follow-up actions are often unsustainable—it is far harder to build (both politically and economically) on what has been cleared and held, a point Ucko rightly asserts. This is a truism in and of itself, but even more so when politics are added to operational realities. 

How can the United States successfully close the virtual space seized by the far-right and white nationalists without infringing on free speech—whether in appearance or in practice? Efforts to develop a disinformation board headed by Nina Jankowicz were roundly defeated by disinformation and hyperbole before it even had an email address. By contrast, the United States and the West more broadly was able combat ISIS’s ideational (as well as traditional) insurgency, but that was a foreign terrorist threat and also largely predicated on overwhelming force in Iraq and Syria. 

“The Insurgent’s Dilemma” brought me back to one of my favorite graduate school courses – counterinsurgency with Dr. John Mackinlay. In reading Ucko’s book, I found myself wanting to jump in and ask questions, to raise points or counterpoints to his examples and evidence. In that way it is a remarkably engaging read for those interested in or with exposure to the complex world of insurgencies. 

Ucko’s book is exceedingly well thought-out, and well-argued, and a great contribution to the study of insurgencies. Practitioners and policymakers would do well to read this book and engage with its analysis. While Washington may wish to put COIN back in a box, choosing instead to focus on strategic competition, the threat of insurgency is very much real and present—even if it takes on a different form.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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The Evolution and Future of Insurgencies

Photo by Julien Maculan via Unsplash.

June 25, 2022

The nature of insurgencies is rapidly evolving. In his review of David Ucko’s “The Insurgent’s Dilemma,” Joshua Huminski highlights three new insurgent tactics and what it means for counter-insurgency operations.

R

oughly half way through America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, an utterly bewildering PowerPoint image began making the rounds. A complex web of connections, interconnections, nodes, and power structures aimed to illustrate or illuminate the complexities of the counterinsurgency campaign in that country. Allegedly, when General Stanley McChrystal was shown the slide, he remarked “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.” It was roundly ridiculed as reflecting the lack of clarity in Afghanistan, but in its own way illustrated a very real truth—counterinsurgency is hard, very hard. 

The Insurgent’s Dilemma: A Struggle to Prevail | David Ucko | Oxford University Press

There is a wide body of literature on insurgencies and how to counter these threats to state legitimacy. Unsurprisingly, the challenge is less the theory and far more the practice. Yet, as David Ucko writes in his new book “The Insurgent’s Dilemma,” a copy of which was provided for review, the bulk of that theory is predicated on an increasingly outdated mental model for what an insurgency is and, as a result, counterinsurgency theory is increasingly insufficient. 

Despite the difficulty inherent to combating insurgencies and the widely-held belief that states have lost to insurgents, the reality is that since the end of the Cold War states have done quite well in defeating threats to the Weberian notion of legitimacy—the monopoly of the use of force within a defined territory. Why? The conditions that facilitated successful Cold War insurgencies—a less urbanized global population, a more tolerant global environment, limited state authority, and the Cold War incentives to support insurgencies—have all ebbed to the point that states are back on the offensive. 

The success of the state and insurgent’s unchanging end goals—the subversion of the state and the flipping of the population to their cause—creates the titular insurgent’s dilemma: how to establish a presence, violently challenge the authority of the state, and achieve a measure of sustainable power, all without provoking the armed response of the state. 

Ucko suggests that the insurgent’s solution to this quandary is found in three models of insurgency that go beyond the traditional subversion and overthrow of the state—1) A localized insurgency that seeks to seize only a part of a country or territory, 2) An infiltrative insurgency that co-opts systems of governance by participating in the political process and maintaining a modicum of distance (however fictitious) with its armed wing, and 3) An ideational insurgency that is an informational movement, far more amorphous than any other, operating on the virtual plane in lieu of physical space. Each of the models he presents are well grounded in both history and contemporary conflict. 

Localized insurgencies are perhaps the ones which counterinsurgency practitioners would most easily recognize. Seeking to hive off a part of territory, the insurgents seek not the overthrow of the state, but the establishment of parallel legitimacy. By geographically limiting their aims the insurgents hope to avoid provoking the armed response of the state. Defeating these, he suggests, is very much in the traditional model of clear, hold, and build, but with more nuance. As he writes, these spaces are not wholly ungoverned,  blank sheets of paper upon which the ink of state governance can be written. Rather than treating these spaces as empty, he suggests that coopting existing political power structures and working to address the underlying grievances within the given space will lead to longer-term stability. 

Infiltrative insurgencies are particularly insidious as they subvert state institutions against the state itself—using the ballot box (primarily) in lieu of bullets. Bolivia’s Evo Morales and the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist are both successful examples of movements that ostensibly abandoned armed resistance, seeking instead to use the democratic process to attain power and achieve their end goal of state subversion. Here too, the model is not without historical precedent—it is, in effect, the very model that Adolf Hitler used to rise to power after the failed Beer Hall Putsch. Confronting these insurgencies, as Ucko shows, puts exceptional pressure on the state itself and assumptions about democratic cooptation. Does the state allow former belligerents a seat at the table and risk subversion from within? Or does it violate its own democratic norms to quash a potential threat?

Ideational insurgencies are, perhaps, the most nebulous of the three models—both conceptually and in practice. Lacking a physical space, these movements use virtual environments to build their base of support, mobilize actors, incite violence, and subvert the state. Ucko cites the far-right and white nationalists in the United States and the online component of ISIS as examples. The absence of a physical presence means combating these entities is far harder and their real-world violence is far less predictable. While Ucko presents this case well, he does dwell a bit too much on the mechanics of the far-right in the United States—space that could have been better used to solidify this nebulous concept. The line between an ideational insurgency and information war is not wholly clear. Indeed, he suggests that Russia sponsored such an insurgency in the United States in 2016, but arguably that was more of an information operation rather than an insurgency. To be sure, violence did occur, but how much of that was inspired by Russian action and how much was due to growing American political instability is unclear.  

As Ucko writes, insurgents have adapted to the success of the state and now states will need to adapt to these different methods of state subversion. The auguries are, however, not great. The success of the state is largely due to broader geopolitical developments and changes, not necessarily to increased proficiency in counterinsurgency. By and large states have merely resorted to increased violence to keep insurgent violence at a minimum.  Combatting infiltrative insurgencies and those of the ideational flavor will necessitate far more complex and nuanced responses—ones that demand far more integration and cross-government cooperation. It is not clear that states will have the institutional capacity to develop or execute an appropriate response. 

Ucko’s analysis could have played up the role of politics in insurgencies more—not the politics of insurgencies themselves, but the politics of state responses to insurgent actions. Violent actions by insurgent groups will almost always provoke an armed confrontation or response. Yet, while a violent or kinetic response is politically palatable, the necessary follow-up actions are often unsustainable—it is far harder to build (both politically and economically) on what has been cleared and held, a point Ucko rightly asserts. This is a truism in and of itself, but even more so when politics are added to operational realities. 

How can the United States successfully close the virtual space seized by the far-right and white nationalists without infringing on free speech—whether in appearance or in practice? Efforts to develop a disinformation board headed by Nina Jankowicz were roundly defeated by disinformation and hyperbole before it even had an email address. By contrast, the United States and the West more broadly was able combat ISIS’s ideational (as well as traditional) insurgency, but that was a foreign terrorist threat and also largely predicated on overwhelming force in Iraq and Syria. 

“The Insurgent’s Dilemma” brought me back to one of my favorite graduate school courses – counterinsurgency with Dr. John Mackinlay. In reading Ucko’s book, I found myself wanting to jump in and ask questions, to raise points or counterpoints to his examples and evidence. In that way it is a remarkably engaging read for those interested in or with exposure to the complex world of insurgencies. 

Ucko’s book is exceedingly well thought-out, and well-argued, and a great contribution to the study of insurgencies. Practitioners and policymakers would do well to read this book and engage with its analysis. While Washington may wish to put COIN back in a box, choosing instead to focus on strategic competition, the threat of insurgency is very much real and present—even if it takes on a different form.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.