Ask 25 experts for their perspective on counterinsurgency and one will hear answers that group into 3-4 broad categories. Ask those same experts about what causes insurgency, and one hears terms like “complexity,” “wicked problem,” or “they are all unique.” This overwhelming uncertainty regarding the problem itself translates directly into a corresponding uncertainty in crafting the right balance of activities to apply in any given situation. If one cannot define the problem, how does one know which effects are attributable to what action; or what order or priority of actions should shape the operational design? What value is there in developing expertise in the complex mosaic of history, culture and governance that uniquely shapes every society where such conflicts emerge if one does not understand the base context of the problem one seeks to solve? Of all the challenges attributable to counterinsurgency campaigns, attaining any degree of consensus among the interested parties as to the nature of the problem is perhaps the most difficult of all.
Understanding insurgency is particularly critical for Special Operations Forces (SOF), as Insurgency is the common hub connecting the spokes of the three Core SOF Operations of COIN, UW and FID. As doctrinal operations, each of these are within our ability to shape, constrain and define however best suits our purpose. Insurgency itself however, is not a doctrinal operation. More accurately, insurgency is the natural result of powerful human dynamics that shape the relationships between those who govern, and those who are governed. Notably, many of the strategic challenges dominating the news and foreign policy discussions today are shaped by, or interact with, a wide range of suppressed and active insurgencies around the world. Governments challenged by insurgency tend to define insurgency in convenient terms. The problem with that approach is that such definitions too often become an obstacle to effective COIN. Offered here is that it is far more important to understand insurgency than it is to define it. One must then capture that understanding in a manner that facilitates the development of effective foreign and domestic policies and operational designs. This effort to capture the essence of insurgency explores the following concepts:
1. The inherent simplicity and immutable nature of insurgency,
2. Insurgency as illegal politics rather than warfare,
3. The primary role of government in both “radicalizing” and “deradicalizing” a populace,
4. Thinking of Insurgency as a condition, as well as a form of conflict,
5. The linkage of insurgency to fundamental aspects of human nature,
6. How Western bias derived from centuries of colonialism and containment hinder effective COIN,
7. How governmental bias in general hinder effective COIN, and lastly,
8. What all of this means in the current and emerging environment.