Small Wars Journal

Elkus and WILF are Wrong!

Thu, 12/22/2011 - 6:36am

To beat the Prine-evil approach to journalism like the dead horse that it is, Elkus and WILF are not only wrong in their assessment of what works in such situations, but dangerously so.  They argue for the suppression of the popular will of a populace in the name of preserving some form of government judged as unacceptable in its current form.  For Americans such approaches are counter to the very cornerstone of the foundation our country was built upon.   While people everywhere are certainly not Americans (a small fact leaders in Washington seem to forget at times), a reality of the emerging environment we all live within is that treating insurgency as war and employing ones military to simply suppress popular will in the name of maintaining governmental control is as obsolete as the many empires and regimes which followed this approach to their respective, historic demise.

It is worth commenting on each of the WILFian points offered by Elkus for examination.

“Victory is produced by combat, and the goal of operating forces should be to break the enemy’s will.” 

Victory in war is indeed produced by combat, and absolutely in war between nations the breaking of one’s opponent’s will is essential.  Not just the will of the combatant, but that of the entire nation.  But combat within a nation is a far different matter, and equally important, all combat is not war or even warfare.  Damn the lawyers for producing and then interpreting documents such as the War Powers Act. They sit there in their crisp starched shirts and read the black letter of the words other lawyers placed on the documents they hold in their manicured hands with a certainty that ignores fine nuances of various purposes for combat or nature of combatants.  The law is clear, and they proclaim simplistically that all combat is war.  This in turn enables those within the profession of arms to extrapolate that if all combat is war, and all war is war, then one must simply get busy about the business of breaking the enemy’s will.   Who among us, however, desires to live in a nation where the government has employed the military to break the will of the people to force our submission to a form of government deemed unacceptable?  Even if the group controlled in such manner today is a small, troublesome minority, it is only a matter of time until one finds their own segment of the populace in such an unfortunate minority role.  Payback in such situations is rarely gentle.

“The rule of law, governance, and other things seen as the goal of COIN are products of control, which requires destroying, deterring, and intimidating the enemy.”

Insurgency does not occur when the government loses control of the populace, but rather when the populace (or some distinct segment of the populace) comes to reasonable perceive that it is they who have lost control of the government.  Rule of law is absolutely a critical tool of every government in establishing and enforcing the order under which civilized society is able to function.  But it is justice under the rule of law which promotes stability among the people.  Modern COIN is rooted so deeply in ancient colonialism that one cannot easily distinguish where one ends and the other begins.  The true “enemy” in any insurgency is that family of governmental programs, policies and laws, which combined with the manner in which they have been applied and enforced, have served to push some segment of the populace to the point where they feel they have no option but to act out illegally “…to throw off such government and provide new guards for their future security.”

“The prize is not the population, but the control the government can gain when the enemy is destroyed.”

Indeed, the population is not some prize to be won or lost; rather the population is the very essence of the nation.  Government and insurgents alike share this common DNA and emerge from the populace to compete for the right (and reciprocal duties) to lead and serve the populace in a manner consistent with their expectations.   Similarly, it is not government forcing some artificial control over the population that creates the basis for stability, but rather government acting in a manner consistent with the expectations of the populace and ensuring that trusted, certain and legal means are clearly available to the entire population to control government that carries the day.

“An inability to do these things is indicative of a policy or strategy failure.”

No, it is the belief that such things must be done that is indicative of a policy or strategy of failure.  Tactics matter little when one’s strategy is upside down.  One can be as war-like as WILF, or as “populace-centric” as Kilcullen, or as “nation building” as CNAS, and expect equal degrees of failure from each.  The world is changing and it is time to set aside our doctrines of attempting to control populaces subjected to situations they find intolerable by any such ways and means.  Foreign powers must learn to respect the sovereignty of smaller nations, and governments of nations of every size must learn to listen to and serve their entire populace with equity and justice.

So yes, “war is war;” but insurgency is not war, and the sooner we accept that premise, the sooner we find the stability we seek; at home and abroad.

The opinions expressed in this paper are the author's alone




Are we "in the business of modernizing outlier states and societies -- and overcoming those that would actively resist our such efforts"? Since when, and according to whom?

Bill C.

Fri, 12/23/2011 - 11:26pm

We must come to understand, I believe, what the role of the host nation government, from our perspective, really is in these matters.

a. In the days of the Cold War, we considered that the role of the host nation government was to kill communists and to help contain/roll back communism.

b. Today, the role the host nation government, from our perspective, is to modernize the state and society and to effectively deal with -- and if necessary destroy -- those "hard cases" that would continue to resist our/their modernization efforts.

Herein, as one might surmise, "resolving the insurgency" (on terms that do not specifically meet our exact requirements noted at "a" and "b" above) was/is not our objective in these affairs.

Yesterday, we were in the business of killing, containing and rolling back communists/communism. And that is what the we "hired" -- and assisted -- the host nation goverments to do.

Today, we are in the business of modernizing outlier states and societies -- and overcoming those that would actively resist our such efforts. And, today, that (state and societal transformation/modernization) is what we "employ" -- and assist -- the host nation governments to do.

Question: Are we, really, in greater danger today -- as compared to the Cold War -- in pursuing our objectives in this manner?

Bill M.

Sat, 12/24/2011 - 2:02pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

You are reinforcing my attempted point, and that was that the security forces suppressed the insurgency, which then creates conditions for a whole of government effort to defeat (terrible term, but for now it will do) the insurgency, whichh seldom happens. I don't disagree with most of Bob's arguments, I actually think in many cases they're sound, BUT they do NOT apply to every situation. Furthermore, they're more useful for policy makers than for units tasked to conduct FID/COIN. I'm solely focusing on what I believe is a misuse of the military (with the exception of SOF)in Afghanistan. A military strategy is insufficient to achieve a desirable victory, but often a military victory (denying hope of an armed victory to the insurgents) is required to get to the longer term desirable political victory.

Overall I think the lesson is we need to be much more cautious before committing general purpose forces to this type of conflict, and if we do commit them, we need to give them militarily achievable objectives (not transform the flintstones into a modern democracy in the next three to four years). Having worked in the Philippines in the 80s, helping to train their military to fight the communists, it was clear to many of us from an ethical view that the communists were the good guys (since they weren't tied into the international communist movement in any signficant way, it was simply an identity to battle an oppressive government), yet it was in our national interests at "that time" to support the government, which supported the presence of our bases at the time, which was critical to the larger strategic picture. Maybe now Bob is right in that we can select partners we align with ideologically, but I suspect strategic reality will continue to get in the way of our best intentions. In that case, how do you defeat an insurgency that represents the interests of the people? While I prefer not to support an effort like this, if so ordered I would suggest suppression, since government reform isn't feasible.

Bill M,

I wouldn't class the Philippines as "a very aggressive and growing insurgency". I'd call it something else, something that actually illustrates RCJ's point: a recurring insurgency. We often read that the Huk rebellion was defeated, and we are occasionally enjoined to learn lessons from that "victory". Of course that "victory" was rather hollow, since the rebellion subsequently re-emerged in more sophisticated form as the NPA, which has in turn seen up and down cycles. The Muslim insurgency in the south was largely co-opted in the 1970s, only to re-emerge down the line.

Armed force can suppress insurgency and create a window for reform, but if that window isn't used, the insurgency is likely to reappear. The problem that poses for us as an intervening party is that often we justify intervention as a means to create space for a bad government to grow, improve, and reform, when in fact all we do is to protect a bad government from the consequences of its own mistakes and remove any incentive to reform. Why would anyone straighten out and address the causes of insurgency when they have big brother willing to lay blood and treasure on the line to protect it from the insurgency?

Before we commit ourselves to protecting a government we need to make an accurate and cynical assessment of that government's will and capacity to take over that role and address the causes of conflict. If they don't want to do it, we can't make them do it: they will just play us like a fish on a line, as has happened so many times before. The idea that we can induce reform and improved governance in governments that have neither the desire nor the incentive to change the status quo is completely bankrupt.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 12/23/2011 - 6:02pm

In reply to by Bill M.

I've never used the word "mass" in describing the role of the populace to my knowledge, so lets not take the discourse into an area of violent agreement. It was a handful in one region that baited the King of England into a series of hamfisted actions that ended up costing him America. Yes that handful had a larger base of support, but I would be surprised if there was ever a majority of Americans who wanted independence enough to fight the King for it. The fact that a majority wanted to go back to British rule shortly after the Revolution provides testament to that. Only the Constitution saved us from that growing sentiment.

The military is in a tough spot. Civil leaders break things, then they demand the miltary fix them for them. Look at Kent State. Two groups of draft dodgers sqaure off. One group with educational deferments, and the other a bunch of priveleged few who were able to wrangle Guard billets once their other deferments expired.

This is why it is so important that the military set aside its bias and come to a clear understanding of such conflicts. In particular, SOF and USSOCOM has a duty to be the credible voice of understanding on insurgency. That is a voice that has been too silent. Too busy hunting terrorists to bother ourselves with ensuring everyone else understood the nature of the conflict we are in. We need to fix that. Guys like you will be critical in making that fix.


Where in history is your mythical mass popular support? Even the recent uprising in Egypt wasn't supported by a majority anymore than the 99% movement, but of course one could be easily fooled into believing that by the media coverage. It was a group that formed an identity and was effectively mobilized and led, even 11% of the population supporting an insurgency (maybe mass popular support in your opinion) can overwhelm a government's ability to respond effectively. I suspect there were few true insurgencies (and the Civil Rights movement was not an insurgency) in the world that had mass support. Insurgencies throughout time have been suppressed/defeated through the application of force, which is generally (not always) a requirement to convince the insurgents that pursuing alternative means other than violence would be wiser. Applying violence effectively is the role of the security forces, of which we are a part. Violence alone will defeat an insurgency, but to defeat a very aggressive and growing insurgency (Iraq, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Greece, Algeria, Philippines, etc.) violence is a required element of an overall strategy. Currently we have fooled ourselves into thinking we can bypass the use of violence and defeat insurgents by simply throwing good will at the people, and that if somehow we can con the people into supporting us the insurgents will quit fighting. Both assumptions are wrong, first "we" will not be able to con the people, and the insurgents will keep fighting as long as they have a safe haven and the belief they can win through the application of violence. FM 3-24 is no more a strategy than applying wanton violence. You claim that now the people are sovereign, and we better wake up to it. I wish that was true, but the State is capable of suppressing the people, and there is little evidence to support the contrary. Mubarak didn't fall because of the crowds in Cairo, he fell because the Army refused to support him. The Army now refuses to support the protesters, who do you think will win? I wish the people were sovereign, and the trend seems to be heading in that direction, but we're not there yet. Agreed that all the military can do is suppress the insurgency, but that is a viable and achievable military objective in some cases. The objectives we have in Afghanistan now are neither. I don't want to debate the policy, we are probably in agreement on that to begin with, but I want to debate the proper use of the military "if" we're sent into a situation like Afghanistan and Iraq. I would hate to see thousands of Americans die again due to strategy (or lack there of) based on political correctness instead of history and science.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 12/23/2011 - 2:11pm

In reply to by Ken White

(Laughing) I figured Ken had been lurking out there, sagely shaking his head in wise bemusement...

Actually I would like to make a concession and offer an insight for comment.

First, the concession. I break insurgency into three broad categories.

Revolution, to change some aspect, policies or the very design and makeup of government through illegal political action by some segment of the populace subject to that governance.

Resistance, the continuation of conflict by a populace against some foreign power or their puppets carried on after the government and military are no longer willing or able to fight.

Separatist. Efforts by a geographically oriented segment of the populace to break some section of a country off to form a new country under new governance more acceptable to them.

Of these it is Revolution that is virtually never warfare and should be treated as a civil emergency by the government. Resistance, however, can indeed be a continuation of the inter-state war it grew from, and the country is not truly conquered until the populace will is broken and subdued. Separatist is like revolution to begin with, but once a break is made and a new government formed becomes a civil war and is much like interstate conflict. Such a conflict may transition to revolution or resistance depending on how events unfold.

But here is the keen insight: What is the measure of a "Win" or a "Defeat" in insurgency?? Most measure this through the perspectives of the combatant parties. The government wins or loses, the insurgent wins or loses. Yet often things remain just as bad or get worse regardless of which combatant party prevails, and the conflict typically begins again in short order.

Consider this. Victory is when there is net gain across the populace in regards to how they perceive their condition, governance and opportunity. This may happen when the insurgent prevails, or it may happen when the government prevails. Which party prevails is not indicative of if the conditions improve across the populace or not.

Consider the most studied and most misunderstood insurgency of Malaya. The British "won" but got sent out of town packing at the same time. The insurgents "lost" but their primary objectives were achieved. The real winner was the populace of Malaya. Greater equity existed across the ethnic groups, and both the domination of British colonial rule and Chinese influenced communist rule were "defeated."

Now consider the Philippines. Many government "wins" but nothing has changed to improve the net conditions across the populace. So in fact, there has never been a "win" in the Philippines, and so the insurgency continues.

In Iraq the jury is out. It all depends on how the new government acts to ensure that the entire populace profits from their new political situation.

Afghanistan? Well, we are still there so the resistance continues against the US; and the Northern Alliance continues to deny those associated with the Taliban any economic, social or political opportunity, so the Revolution between these two sides continues as well. We end the resistance by folding our tent and going home. Karzai ends the Revolution when he finally realizes that a Northern Alliance only government is not a viable option. It is only viable this long because we have enabled it to be. I don't know if the Taliban or Northern Alliance will prevail, but under the construct we have put in place it is highly likely the populace as a whole will be a loser in this latest round. That is avoidable, but only if we change our understanding of the conflict and the nature of our focus there.

Another cold thought: If it is morally justifiable to bomb cities in Germany in support of ground combat operations in North Africa; is it morally justifiable for insurgents to bomb cities in America in support of ground combat operations in Afghanistan?? Worth considering for the "war is war" crowd.



Ken White

Fri, 12/23/2011 - 12:29pm

Sigh. Angels. Pin...

Bob is right -- sometimes. Not always.

Wilf and Adam are right -- sometimes. Not always.

The determination of whether military force is desirable must be made <u>prior</u> to any commitment of such force. If the decision is made to commit an armed force then violence will ensue. If that occurs, it is generally better to do it forcefully, harshly even and get it over with -- attempts to go softly will generally result in more casualties for everyone, more costs and more problems.

The 'government' may in fact be the problem but the 'insurgents' may or may not be reacting to that.


Robert C. Jones

Fri, 12/23/2011 - 11:23am

In reply to by aelkus

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Yogi Berra

Adam takes the same fork as FM 3-24, and thereby finds himself in the same intellectual cul-de-sac of limited options. He chooses to only observe the aspect of insurgency that manifests as violence against the state. This not unlike studying ice bergs, but only taking into consideration that portion that rises above the waterline, with little regard to what supports it from below or where it came from in the first place.

FM 3-24: "1-1. Insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN) are complex subsets of warfare."

Adam Elkus: "First, organized armed rebellion is a form of warfare. War involves the large-scale use of armed force for political purposes. The fact that the combatants are indigenous does not change this essential fact. There is a reasonable argument to be made whether all forms of rebellion itself count as warfare. The French 1968 student revolts were not war, nor is Anonymous’ hacktivism “cyber war.” While I have analyzed Mexican drug cartels from a military perspective, there are reasoned objections."

I prefer to take a more holistic perspective. Insurgency comes from somewhere, it exists, and it goes somewhere. It has a lifecycle. Certainly in certain situations and in a certain stage of the lifecycle it absolutely looks a great deal like war and warfare. Military texts and histories naturally focus on this narrow aspect of insurgency, and equally naturally this provides a very narrow, limited perspective that may provide great insights as to how to defeat an insurgent, but very poor insight as to how to resolve the actual insurgency.

The simple reality of life is that the type or degree of violence is the least important component of determining what an appropriate response best designed to resolve the problems that gave rise to violence will be. As an example most should be able to relate to, consider the case of a man who is physically assaulted by a 19 year-old.

In the first case, the assailant is a stranger in a neighborhood far from his own. The man can return violence for violence; engage the police, press charges, etc, all with little concern for follow-on consequences.

In the second case, the assailant is a neighbor or co-worker. Certainly the same options are available, but the consequences are very different. Both will have to continue to live with the effects of the solution employed, and there is a much greater likelihood that some pattern of behavior of the man who was attacked in some way contributed to the actual assault.

In the third case, the assailant is the man's son. Again, violence is violence and all options from case one and two are certainly available, but the roots of causation and the duration and degree of follow-on consequences are far, far different.

This last example is the one most like insurgency; the first example is more like distant war, and the middle more like civil war or war with a neighboring country. But any father who wages war on a son who has felt compelled to act out in such an extreme way is no father I would hold much respect for. Defend himself? Certainly. But the force applied would have to be "reasonable" to the situation, and what is reasonable is very different in all three examples.

But none of this is of concern when one takes that first fork and determines that "war is war." Game on, causation be damned, consequences be damned. Just defeat the enemy.

Historically governments could be fairly cavalier about such things. In times of old sovereignty was vested in the King, not the people, so to wage war on the people was of little consequence. Or, when one's colonial possessions were challenged or when the puppet regime one had created or adopted for the purpose of managing those colonial possessions on one's behalf were challenged by the actual populace of said land, there were few consequences worth worrying about from simply crushing such rebellions.

The world however is changing, and for the better. Sovereignty belongs to the people, and is only delegated to some government to exercise on their behalf. Populaces oppressed on one side of the globe can communicate with each other and can travel easily to the homes of those who oppress them and express their discontent as directly and as violently as they choose.

Times are changing. It is time for those clinging to outdated concepts of insurgency and COIN to change as well.


Fri, 12/23/2011 - 6:30pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

In a deeply divided "nation" with a history of conflict among populace segments the government is almost always going to reflect the divisions in the society as a whole. Government derives from the populace and reflects its divisions and conflicts, it's not some independent entity separate from "the populace".

Of course a group that gains control of government in such a society will use power for its own purposes... they aren't going to be somehow transformed simply by becoming "the government", and expecting such a transformation - or thinking we can create such a transformation - is completely unrealistic.

I think what you're overlooking here is that in mych of the world the definition of "good governance" is "governance by us", and the definition of bad governance is "governance by them". It's certainly true that this makes insurgency likely, but it's also true that we can't change it, and should generally not try.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 12/23/2011 - 7:47am

In reply to by Dayuhan

As usual, we are largely in agreement. Once one of those parties gets into power and remains committed favoring its base of support over the other side one is on the road to classic insurgency. You have just described a dozen such insurgency conflicts. A government that plays to and favors its base over the populace as a whole is a government creating conditions of insurgency.

But you also go to the critical question for the military when the civil government turns to them as says "the people are in rebellion, go fix this." What indeed is the proper use of force. Some use of force is likely to be necessary, but it must always be as a supporting effort to what the civil government is doing on its part to understand and address the underlying problem which provoked the revolt. Keeping that civil government in charge of the overall operation is one great way to keep the military from inadvertantly converting it into a war and warfare context. What must be guarded against is the tendency of politicians to avoid responsiblity for their actions. The will blame the insurgent, they will blame ideology, they will blame the economy, they will blame outside instigators, etc. Key is for the miltiary to look government in the eye and say "you are in charge, and you caused this. We will help you get this back under control, but you must fix the mess you made on your end." Maintaining that leadership also helps avoid the typical "let us know when the war is over so that we can get back to business as usual" that tends to infect civilian leaders in such situations.

The people will need additional protection, certainly the small outposts of governance (school teachers, police, local officals, etc) are often the most vulnerable and therefore most targeted aspects of "the populace." (yes, the govenrment as well as the insurgent are all parts of "the populace"). Going after insurgent combatants is not necessarily wrong, it just is unlikely to produce positve results over time unless waged as a supporting effort to govenrmental reform, and narrowly tailored to minimize the negative aspects of sending ones military citizens out to kill ones insurgent citizens. Insurgency is messy, but it does not have to be as messy as our colonial and contatinment TTPs make it out to be.


Fri, 12/23/2011 - 7:13am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

If the Hatfields and McCoy's are throwing down, that isn't insurgency... unless, of course, one or the other gets themselves elected. Then all of a sudden it becomes insurgency, even if it's basically the same old fight. If Sunni, Shi'a and Kurd are fighting in Iraq, whoever has gotten their hands on the big chair at the moment is suddenly the counterinsurgent, and the others are insurgents... but it's still the same fight. It's not inherently government vs populace, it's different segments of the populace fighting each other, using the power of the state if they control it, using the tactics of the insurgent if they don't.

Assuming a binary "government vs populace" paradigm is not always going to help in the quest "to understand and appreciate the true purpose for action of a conflict".

I'd still maintain that once you decide that the use of armed force is necessary, Wilf's contentions are largely sensible: if you can't kill your way to control, why are you applying armed force in the first place? Isn't that what armed force is for?

I'd also maintain that we need to be a whole lot more careful about making that decision to use armed force, because there are a lot of situations where we can't kill our way to any place we want to be, and in those situations using armed force is likely to be counterproductive. Using armed force in pursuit of goals that are not suited to attainment by armed force is folly. Even the world's best hammer makes a really lousy screwdriver.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 12/23/2011 - 5:44am

In reply to by Dayuhan

Well, if the Hatfields and the McCoys are throwing down, that is not an insurgency. It is conflict, but it is not insurgency. Such a conflict is however, more like war than insurgency, and war-like approaches would be more apt to work in such a conflict than they would in Insurgency. If the Hatfields defeat the will of the McCoys they may well convince the McCoys to get over it and move on. Government intervention in such a conflict is a risky as intervention in an insurgency by a foreign power. One better not pick sides or there will be consequences. Far better to come in and as even-handedly as possible mitigate violence and help to resolve the root cause that both are fighting over. The law may well favor one party over the other, but often bad law or unequal enforcement of the law is at the root of the disturbance. Inappropriate enforcement of the rule of law in such a case by the state may well transform what began as a conflict between the populace into an actual insurgency as the party agrieved by the state shifts its focus in that direction.

Insurgency is an illegal political challenge to the government. Most definitions require that it also be violent, though I think it far more effective to recognize the entire life-cycle of such a conflict and to define a conflict by how it forms rather than by how it ulitmately manifests over time. To do the latter is to end up treating symptoms and chasing threats.

As an example, many focus on size (is it a large war, or a small war); others on the status of the combatants (are they regulars or irregulars); others on the degree of violence (from protest to holocost). All of that is intersting, but any manner of conflict might take on any of those various characteristics. They do not help classify the problem in a manner that suggests an appropriate form of solution. As Clausewitz advised, "the most important thing is to know what type of war one is in." I would update his caution, to "the most important thing is to know what type of CONFLICT one is in." As not all conflict is war, and to lump conflicts as such will immediately suggest the war-like approaches promoted by students and practioners of war, such as WILF.

Some may find this to be a bit of intellectual hair-splitting, but I disagree. When attempting to understand and appreciate the true purpose for action of a conflict (beyond the propaganda of the parties, and beyond the historic cliche's captured in doctrine and a hundred books written by those on the government side of some conflict) one finds the clues that help them understand what type of conflict they are in from the dymanics that occured long before the first shot was fired or flag burned. From that then naturally falls some broad category of solution set. Within any such set the tactical variations are endless, and any number of approaches are likely to succeed. But if one gets the classification wrong, no amount of tactical action is likely to buy one much more than a few months or years of tenuous suppression.


Thu, 12/22/2011 - 10:56pm

I think Wilf's point is entirely valid once it has been decided that a challenge to government authority warrants the use of armed force in response. I think RCJ's points need very careful consideration before that decision is made, especially when a foreign power is reaching a decision to use armed force in response to a threat to some other government.

Wilf's propositions have a tendency not to question policy: it's simply assumed that policy is viable and intelligent. That's not necessarily the case. If we adopt a policy of supporting a government that cannot govern or that is detested by most of those it seeks to govern, we've backed ourselves into a bit of a corner: you can't make a bad government better by killing people who oppose it. No strategy or tactics can succeed if the policy they are designed to implement is uncertain, unrealistic, and ephemeral.

RCJ's theory also has some weaknesses, notably in the tendency to treat insurgency entirely as a conflict between government and populace, rather than (as is often the case) a conflict between or among various segments of a populace.

Bill C.

Sat, 12/24/2011 - 8:53pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

I would suggest that our goal is not to achieve reconciliation -- and thus, not to resolve these insurgencies -- at least not in any 50/50 give-and-take manner that some seem to indicate is necessary. That is not what we are in these fights for.

Our goal in these affairs is to prevail. For example: To prevail in changing the political, economic and social structures of certain states and societies such that they, their neighbors, and their region might come to cause the modern world fewer problems and offer the modern world greater utility/usefulness instead.

Thus, discussions of any real accommodation of those with other, different and/or conflicting agenda (for example: the Pashtuns?) would seem to be moot.

In this regard, we understand -- and accept -- that there will be some increased degree of danger, conflict and instability, etc., associated with the pursuit of our contemporary objectives.

This understanding -- and acceptance -- helps to explain the "era of persistent conflict" that we so often hear about today.


Sat, 12/24/2011 - 5:57pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

While waiting for kids to wake on Christmas morning...

It's true that better and more inclusive government would solve or avert many insurgency problems, and might help many of the divided societies of the world to reconcile their divisions.

The danger in that is when we try to turn it into action. Being by nature a people who like to act, we might too easily get it into our heads that the answer to division and insurgency is to go out and fix governments. We can't do that. We can't make the Northern Alliance and the Pashtuns reconcile, we can't make the Israelis and the Palestinians reconcile. For all the hype over the "Basilan Model", the basic pattern of governance and the basic drivers of insurgency haven't changed at all.

The evolution of governance is a continuing process of organic growth, and at times it involves conflict. There may be times in that process when subtle intervention can minimize or even avert conflict, or help to restrict and contain it. Wading in and trying to "fix" things we decide are broken is generally going to be disastrous no matter what theory underlies the intervention.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 12/23/2011 - 6:11am

In reply to by Bill M.


Actually, history is on my side, not WILFs. The CONCLUSONS captured in history books support WILF, but those are books written by those on the side of the governmental "victor."

As an example, history tells me of several insurgencies that have been "defeated" in the Philippines; and yet that troubled land has been in a constant state of insurgency in one form or another since the Spanish first landed. To "whack a mole" one group here, one leader there, one ideology somewhere else, is merely to suppress each of those specific little outbreaks as they occur. The underlying problems lay unaddressed and unresolved. We see this in the modern history of Algeria, Palestine, and a dozen other places.

The only places where such military action has "produced" victory and true stability is where concurrent to such action the government actually made the modifications of governance necessary to address the concerns of the populace (the Brits in Malaya, the US in the Civil Rights movement), or where the insurgent wins outright and did not then go on to adopt the same bad behavior as his predecessor (the American experience with Britain).

So, where Bill is this history to which you speak? As LTG Fridovich once said about the Basilan Model when labeled as "theory" by naysayers, "This isn't theory, this is practice." So I toss this back to you. What you and WILF propose is equally theory, as it is the theory offered by the military, the government and historians as to what produced the results they deemed to be favorable. I look at those same case studies, those same histories and challenge the offical theory that government suppression of the populace is victory. That makes many uncomfortable, but it does not make them right.

Granted, sometimes suppression is enough. The Tamil Tigers are defeated, the insurgency suppressed. The issues of the Tamil populace are wholly unaddressed and continue to fester. Perhaps they will never attempt again to find the dignity, justice and legitimacy of government they reasonably desire. Perhaps they will simply submit and ultimately accept their fate. Certainly the Native Americans had to ultimately face that hard reality. Perhaps someday the Northern Alliance will equally crush the Pashtuns (though I caution anyone to not put any money on that); or the Israelis will ultimately crush the Palestinians (again, this is not a bet to double down on). Or perhaps those two governments will actually come to recognize that they must govern their entire popualces equally and find the stability that has elueded them both since their equally illegitimate (in the eyes of their insurgent popualces) inceptions.

So history indeed supports my theory, in fact, that is where my theory came from. I didn't invent anything, I just looked at the facts from a fresh perspective. In our emerging environment governments will find that increasingly old suppression techniques are less successful, and that they are harder to achieve, and less durable in length. Larger powers who intervene to change or shape the governance of others to suit their own interests over those of the affected populace will also find that increasingly this is more difficult, less durable, and more likely to result in acts of transnational terrorism.

Governments have a tougher role these days. They must actually govern to the entire populace, and not just play to their base of support at the expense of others.


I'm struggling to find one one tidbit in your response that supports your argument that Wilf's points are wrong. Wilf has the historical record on his side, and your theory at best may have a few examples that offer a modicum of supporting evidence to your claims. Not that it is wrong, but rather its application only applies in a small percentage of situations. Furthermore, even if your theory was generally correct that would not refute Wilf's arguments on the correct application of military force. Much differeent than a whole of gov approach.

Victory has been produced by combat throughout history, and that “fact” is not changing. Either the enemy is defeated, or just as likely forced to realize a political settlement. Whether or not the American people support this type of action is completely irrelevant to whether it works or not. We’re not the only nation in the world that supports other nations conduct COIN. I know you non-concur with Sri Lanka’s victory, because it refuted your theory, but the facts are still facts, even when they’re disagreeable.
You claim “Insurgency does not occur when the government loses control of the populace, but rather when the populace (or some distinct segment of the populace) comes to reasonable perceive that it is they who have lost control of the government”. In some cases this may be true, but again it isn’t relevant, for a government that desires to continue to exert control over an unruly population, force generally works. The absence of force will almost guarantee the government will fail. The world isn’t fair, and minority groups have been pushed to revolt, and in most cases they have been effectively crushed with violence. The rule of law only works if it is enforced by the state.

We can strive to win the population all we want, ultimately fear /coercion is a great motivator, and the side that applies it effectively has a distinct edge over the other. I’m not advocating coercing the population, but defeating those who do. Building roads, clinics and teaching women to sew will accomplish nothing (assuming the State wants to win) if the insurgents are allowed to coerce the population.
I am not sure whether I agree or disagree with Wilf’s statement that, “an inability to do these things is indicative of a policy or strategy failure.” Strategy is bigger than the M in DIME, and DIME is still only strategic means, not a strategy itself. However, when the U.S. military is employed to defeat an insurgency, which we are in Afghanistan (right or wrong doesn’t matter), then I agree our military strategy is deeply flawed. On the other hand an effective military strategy without a coherent overall strategy wouldn’t get much more accomplished. We as Americans are all about justice, equal rights, etc., but as you know the rest of the world doesn’t work that way.

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 12/22/2011 - 5:48pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Why would any rational government want to do this?

I ask, realizing that our current national policy is the (I believe) crazy idea that we are more secure when we make others more like us. This belief has driven all manner of messy affairs over the past several years. Far better that we stop trying to "fix" others by making them like us, and that we also stop enabling despots to stay in power beyond their expiration date. We've made some progress on that last one, but are clinging hard to the first. We should simply encourage governments to listen to and serve their entire popualce in a manner that meets their expectations (or simply mind our own business if we don't have some truly vital interest at stake). Not only is this cheap, easy and less offensive, it is also consistent with our founding principles as a nation.

Setting out to transform others is every bit as dangerous to the US as setting out to preserve some despot in power. We need to avoid both approaches with equal vigor. Excessive meddling leaves the bread crumbs that transnationalist terrorists follow to launch their attacks.

Bill C.

Thu, 12/22/2011 - 5:22pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

"... to solve an insurgency, one must focus on the internal dynamic that is not war."

But what if the goal of the foreign power IS NOT to solve the insurgency, per se, but, rather, to use the opportunity presented by the insurgency to fundamentally transform the state and society (its political, economic and social structure); such that this state and society might come to cause the foreign power fewer problems and offer the foreign power greater utility/usefulness instead?

Would the employment of the foreign intervening power's military forces for these purposes (state and societal transformation -- not counter-insurgency) constitute, not just "combat," but, indeed, state-on-state "war?"

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 12/22/2011 - 8:37am


Your point is not a quibble at all, but an important one. The examples you cite are all back to Nation on Nation, as once a powerful external party comes into the mix to exert its will and force its solutions onto another, it very much brings war to what was previously an internal insurgency, or through war and the creation of illegitimate government served to created internal insurgency as a natural by-product.

But to solve the insurgency, one must focus on that internal dymanic that is not war. Often the condition precedent to any form of enduring stability is to remove the "war" aspect associated with that foreign presence. If one must intervene, one can avoid triggering iterstate war by simply subjugating ones intervention completely to the sovereignty of the nation one is intervening to support. Napoleon subjugated his sovereignty to no one, and the US certainly acted in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan alike in a manner where our sovereignty and our will and our objectives trumped that of the respective host nations; and all of those governments suffered from a lack of local legitmacy due to that very fact.

As to combat and valor there is no requirement for either to occur within a legal construct of "war." Much combat in the history of our nation did not occur in a state of war, and that non-war status in no way detracts from the efforts or the valor of those so engaged.

In recent years we have used the word "war" to create an artificial importance to the nature of the combat we have committed our military to. We have used this term to extract large budgets from the Congress. Congress has used this word to justify outrageous deficiet spending. Presidents have used this word to justify the aggressive nature of their foreign policies. It is time to stop abusing this word to justify actions that are otherwise unjustifiable.

So, yes, war is war, but not all combat is war.



gian gentile

Thu, 12/22/2011 - 8:04am


Your argument makes sense, sort of, if one is talking about internal activities within a state dealing with insurgencies, rebellion, violent social movements--e.g., Magsaysay in the PI, as Mike Few has argued the American Civil Rights movement, or perhaps today the Columbian government and its internal activities against insurgents.

But then at the end of the post you said this:

"So yes, “war is war;” but insurgency is not war, and the sooner we accept that premise, the sooner we find the stability we seek; at home and abroad."

I am sorry but when a foreign occupying power commits major ground forces to suppressing a rebellion in a foreign land and that suppression is resisted violently by the insurgents, well that is in fact WAR.

Are you saying the Napoleon's peninsular War was not war? Or are you saying the American Vietnam War was not war? If they were not wars then what would you call them? Not to quibble with you Bob, but really if Vietnam was not war, then we should have never awarded CMHs, Silver Stars, thousands and thousands of purple hearts? I use these points to probe how far your argument can work.