As Insurgency Mutates, U.S. Response Must Evolve
By Steven Metz, on
Why, then, would anyone become an insurgent? Put simply, people do so out of desperation. Insurgents consider the status quo unjust and intolerable but feel they cannot change it through nonviolent means or conventional military actions. Thus they devolve to insurgency, hoping over time to wear down the government until it collapses or at least makes major concessions, whether to incorporate insurgent leaders into the national power structure or at least give them independence or autonomy. This means that however many drones state security services buy or how much they train for counterinsurgency—which for most is not much—insurgency will remain a destabilizing element in the future security environment.
Insurgency is, however, mutating. Today, there are two major forms, each needing a different response. One is the traditional type, a legacy of colonialism, when nations were created with little regard for ethnic, sectarian or religious homogeneity and the colonial overlord focused wealth and power in a selected local elite that the external power considered the most advanced and capable. Insurgencies of this type usually pit the core of a nation—the inheritors of colonial elites—against peripheralized people seeking to redress what they see as injustice, inequity or impiety. Traditional insurgents often use ideology to rationalize violence and inspire followers. In the 20th century, this was normally Marxism or nationalism; today, Salafi jihadism provides the ideological foundation for many insurgencies.
Traditional insurgents use terrorism and guerrilla warfare to gain control over remote or peripheral areas, hoping to convince the government to leave them alone or even to weaken the government to the point that the insurgents can seize control of the entire country. Traditional insurgency takes place in nations where political and economic power is concentrated in a core and the government exercises little or no control over peripheral regions. It is most dangerous when the insurgents find external support or sanctuary. Traditional insurgencies are underway today in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Thailand, Pakistan, Egypt, Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Caucasus and potentially many other sub-Saharan African and Central Asian nations. They might recur in Algeria, Libya, Sri Lanka, Peru, Guatemala, the Philippines and other nations with weak governments, restive peripheries and major internal schisms.
Three characteristics of traditional insurgency are particularly important. First, there is a tendency for governments to defeat such insurgencies militarily but to resist addressing the political and economic factors that gave rise to rebellion in the first place. This pushes the conflict into remission with the potential to explode again later. Second, traditional insurgencies often spread to neighboring nations, particularly when borders are porous and similar people live on both sides. Insurgency spread from Vietnam to Cambodia, from Liberia to Sierra Leone, from Afghanistan to Pakistan, from Syria to Iraq, and so forth. Third, traditional insurgencies now have a power-projection capability: Using terrorism, they can strike directly at the core of their nation and even at the government’s external sponsors. The United States did not have to worry about the Viet Cong bombing American cities, but it does have to worry about terrorism from Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.
The other major form of contemporary insurgency takes place in sprawling cities rather than remote areas, particularly in neighborhoods that are home to an angry underclass. Rather than attempting to administer territory, urban insurgents are satisfied simply to keep the government at bay, freeing them to undertake criminal activity or intervene in whatever sort of ad hoc administration emerges. Strategic thinkers like David Kilcullen and Robert Bunker believe that modern urban insurgency, which is more akin to gang activity and organized crime than traditional proto-state insurgencies, is becoming the most persistent and dangerous security threat in many parts of the world. It is raging in many cities and megacities. For instance, government security forces simply stay out of parts of Karachi, Nairobi, Lagos, Sao Paulo, Ciudad Juarez and many others. While urban criminal insurgencies are unlikely to take over a nation—in fact, they aren’t interested in doing so even if they could—they are wickedly difficult to eradicate. Like the urban criminal gangs they emulate, crushing one group simply opens operating space for a new one.
Historically, the United States focused on traditional style insurgencies. The response, which American strategists adopted from the British and French experience fighting anti-colonial insurgencies, was to defeat rebel armed formations, separate the insurgents from the population and address the underlying political and economic causes of the conflict. National security experts called this “population-centric counterinsurgency.” It worked when America’s partners were open to serious military, political and economic reform, and the insurgents did not have external sanctuary. It did not work when partner regimes rejected deep reform and insurgents had external support or sanctuary.
Now the traditional and urban forms of insurgency have come to co-exist. In coming years, radicals are likely to control regions or parts of cities, at least for periods of time. But Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated the complexity and cost of defeating insurgents outright. This means the United States will need to refine its counterinsurgency methods, concentrating more on containment than decisive victory. When traditional insurgents control remote areas, American technology and intelligence can help local security forces keep them there and prevent insurgent-controlled areas from being used to launch transnational terrorism. In urban areas, though, counterinsurgency will rely on face-to-face contact and a large-scale security force presence. Hopefully, this presence will always be local security forces, bolstered if necessary by U.S. assistance, advice, and intelligence. In either case, as insurgency evolves, so too must the U.S. response to it.
Steven Metz is a defense analyst and the author of "Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy." His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Wednesday.