Episode 60 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast explores both the recent history and the future character of insurgency. Our guests begin by arguing that insurgency will play an important role in great power competition, although states’ objectives will change from the transformational nation-building goals of the post-9/11 era to more hard-nosed security and political objectives. They then argue that despite perceived recent failures in counterinsurgency in cases such as the US intervention in Afghanistan, insurgencies rarely win—this has led insurgent groups to adopt new theories of victory. Lastly, our guests discuss policy implications, especially how to balance military and civilian means to counter insurgency.
Ambassador James Jeffrey has served as the United States ambassador to Iraq, Turkey, and Albania, as the deputy national security advisor to President George W. Bush, and as the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIL. Before his distinguished diplomatic career, Ambassador Jeffrey was a US Army infantry officer with service in Germany and Vietnam.
Dr. David Ucko is professor of international security studies and chair of the War and Conflict Studies Department at the College of International Security Affairs within the National Defense University. His research areas include political violence, irregular warfare, and counterinsurgency, and he is the author of the book The Insurgent’s Dilemma: A Struggle to Prevail, which underpins today’s conversation.
Kyle Atwell and Jeff Phaneuf are the hosts for Episode 60. Please reach out to Kyle and Jeff with any questions about this episode or the Irregular Warfare Podcast.
The Irregular Warfare Podcast is a production of the Irregular Warfare Initiative (IWI). We are a team of volunteers dedicated to bridging the gap between scholars and practitioners in the field of irregular warfare. IWI generates written and audio content, coordinates events for the IW community, and hosts critical thinkers in the field of irregular warfare as IWI fellows. You can follow and engage with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or LinkedIn.
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Image credit: Jonathan Alpeyrie
If one adopts a New/Reverse Cold War thesis — one in which, this time, it is the U.S./the West that is seeking "expansion" (in our case, of market-democracy) and one in which, this time, it is the U.S./the West's opponents who — as per this such "expansionist" threat — seek to do "containment" and "roll back,"
Then, I suggest, we will have a proper foundation to view and discuss such things as "insurgents," "insurgencies," "counterinsurgents" and "counterinsurgencies."
Let me attempt to make this argument in another way:
In the Old Cold War of yesterday — and re: the Soviets/the communists' "expansion" (of communism) efforts back then — the Soviets/the communists faced (a) both great power and small opponents, (b) both state and non-state actor opponents and (c) both at home and abroad opponents — ALL OF WHOM did not want to be "transformed" more along communist political, economic, social and/or value lines.
(These "conservative" opponent folks preferred the status quo — or preferred a status quo ante — this latter, if too much unwanted [communist] political, economic, social and/or value "change" was thought to have already taken place.)
In the New/Reverse Cold War of today — and now re: the U.S "expansion" (of market-democracy) efforts currently — the U.S./the West faces (a) both great power and small opponents, (b) both state and non-state actor opponents and (c) both here at home and there abroad opponents — ALL OF WHOM do not want to be "transformed" more along market-democracy political, economic, social and/or value lines. (These "conservative" opponent folks prefer the status quo — or prefer a status quo ante — this latter, if too much unwanted [market-democracy] political, economic, social and/or value "change" is thought to have already taken place.)
Thus in the New/Reverse Cold War of today — and much as in the Old Cold War of yesterday — such things as "insurgencies" (etc., etc., etc.) these must be viewed more from the "conservative resistance to unwanted change"/"conservative resistance to revolutionary change" perspective offered by Dr. Robert Egnell below:
"Robert Egnell: Analysts like to talk about 'indirect approaches' or 'limited interventions', but the question is 'approaches to what?' What are we trying to achieve? What is our understanding of the end-state? In a recent article published in Joint Forces Quarterly, I sought to challenge the contemporary understanding of counterinsurgency by arguing that the term itself may lead us to faulty assumptions about nature of the problem, what it is we are trying to do, and how best to achieve it. When we label something a counterinsurgency campaign, it introduces certain assumptions from the past and from the contemporary era about the nature of the conflict. One problem is that counterinsurgency is by its nature conservative, or status-quo oriented – it is about preserving existing political systems, law and order. And that is not what we have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, we have been the revolutionary actors, the ones instigating revolutionary societal changes. Can we still call it counterinsurgency, when we are pushing for so much change?
Dhofar, El Savador and the Philippines are all campaigns driven by fundamentally conservative concerns. When we are looking to Syria right now, it is not just about maintaining order or even the regime, but about larger political change. In Afghanistan and Iraq too, we represented revolutionary change. So, perhaps we should read Mao and Che Guevara instead of Thompson in order to find the appropriate lessons of how to achieve large-scale societal change through limited means? That is what we are after, in the end. And in this coming era, where we are pivoting away from large-scale interventions and state-building projects, but not from our fairly grand political ambitions, it may be worth exploring how insurgents do more with little; how they approach irregular warfare, and reach their objectives indirectly."
(See the Small Wars Journal article "Learning From Today’s Crisis of Counterinsurgency" — an interview by Octavian Manea of Dr. David H. Ucko and Dr. Robert Egnell.)
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
Insurgencies therefore — whether we are talking about those that are occurring here in the U.S./the West currently or there/elsewhere in places like Afghanistan of late — these must be viewed from the perspective of — in the New/Reverse Cold War of today —
a. The conservative elements of the states and societies of the world,
b. Rebelling against unwanted "revolutionary" (market-democracy in this case) political, economic, social and/or value "change;" this,
c. Much as these self-same conservative elements rebelled against unwanted "revolutionary" (communist in that case) political, economic, social and/or value "change" — in the Old Cold War of yesterday.
As Robert Egnell notes above, what the U.S./the West would seem to have been doing of late, this cannot be called "counterinsurgency."
"One problem is that counterinsurgency is by its nature conservative, or status-quo oriented – it is about preserving existing political systems, law and order. And that is not what we have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, we have been the revolutionary actors, the ones instigating revolutionary societal changes. Can we still call it counterinsurgency, when we are pushing for so much change?"
Thus, from the perspective offered by Robert Egnell above (a perspective that David Kilcullen, in his "Counterinsurgency Redux," agrees with):
a. The "revolutionary change"-focused U.S./the West — WE are the insurgents. And
b. Our "maintain the status quo"-focused opponents — THEY are the counterinsurgents.
From that such perspective — and in consideration of the U.S./the West's recent history — might we agree with the beginning of the title of our podcast above; wherein, it states that "the insurgents (those who seek to overthrow the status quo and achieve "revolutionary change" ends) "rarely win?"
Insurgency should become a major part of US NATO strategy to counter the ambitions of other Empires.
The US is highly unlikely to deploy on a mass expeditionary war like Iraq or Afghanistan again.
Future major powers are at least on paper on course to have a competitive balance against the US military in the next 20 years.
Although no one can tell the future, a distopian scenario sees US economic dominance faltering and it's global power becoming closer to regional. It's innovation stolen via espionage and it's reliance on Raw materials fielded out to rival empires.
War will become more urban and engagements at the current technology levels will be costly even unaffordable should one example Afghanistan although that is a unique territory with a unique history.
Training allies that are threatened by invasion from its main rivals should be considered. How can pro-civillians become force multipliers? How can soldiers fight and win against a larger traditional military carrying out an incursion against it.
The urban combat group should probably consider creating a guerilla warfare group that can consider the best use of commercial technology, best use of infiltration and reconnaissance as well as traditional bite and run tactics against better equipped foes.