Small Wars Journal

Legitimacy as Political Capital in Insurgency

Fri, 09/28/2018 - 12:05am

Legitimacy as Political Capital in Insurgency


Nicolas Johnston




At its very core, insurgent warfare is a conflict between competing claims to legitimate governance over a people or territory. The enduring viability of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine thus lies in understanding the factors that contribute to the legitimacy of a regime, and how they are mobilised to engender public resilience and popular support for insurgents’ actions. Current approaches, however, often conflate a society’s ideological commitment to a government with its utilitarian attraction to that government’s policy and, in their quest to address the violent symptoms of insurgency, frequently fail to address its underlying causes.


This paper explores the nature of political legitimacy in a small war environment. It begins by distinguishing between utilitarian notions of ‘popular support’ and the more deep-seated ideological commitment associated with legitimacy. It then draws on traditional Clausewitzian theory and current COIN literature to propose ‘political capital’ as a framework through which to understand the function and utility of legitimacy in an insurgency environment. It explores the mechanism of such a model in an ongoing insurgent warfare environment and concludes by outlining some implications for current insurgency and COIN theory.


Legitimacy or Popular Support?


Betts describes insurgent conflict as ‘tripartite’ – polar political alignments fighting to gain the support of the ‘attentistes’ or ‘those in the middle’ (Betts, 2002, 460). Popular support (in the form of manpower, weapons, shelter and so on) extracted from the attentistes is essential for an insurgent group to develop and expand to the point where they might engage a governing authority in conventional conflict and claim power, or even sustain a war of attrition against it (Schanzer, 2017, 39; Kiras, 2007, 189-190; Fitzsimmons, 2008, 342). An often-overlooked truism is that a government relies on the same types of popular support to combat an insurgency. The relationship between, or indeed perceived equivalence of, popular support and perceptions of legitimacy is, however, rarely scrutinised.


Field Manual 3-24 posits that ‘a [society’s] values and cultural norms will determine who that society perceives as a legitimate authority’ (Department of the Army FM 3-24, 2014, 46). While there is reasonable disagreement over the plasticity of those values and cultural norms and the degree to which they can be manipulated (Woodard, 2017), Western COIN doctrine adopts a firmly ‘instrumentalist view’ (Nachbar, 2012, 32). It suggests that civilians, as rational actors, will afford legitimacy to the actor that offers them “the best ‘package’ of governance” (Gawthorpe, 2017, 848). However, while populations may exercise pragmatism, and support an insurgent (or counterinsurgent) group in pursuit of immediate safety, shelter or personal advancement, Gawthorpe argues that such an organic, culturally-bounded and locally-oriented process as legitimisation cannot be understood as an open-market concept (Gawthorpe, 2017, 848-849). In other words, the more legitimate an actor is in the eyes of attentistes, the more resilient they are against defection to an opposing political objective. The obverse would also seem true: the less legitimate an actor, the less resilient its extant support and the greater the resistance it is likely to experience.


We must, therefore, distinguish between the more fleeting ‘popular support’ and the intrinsic recognition of a party or group’s claim to legitimate governance (‘legitimacy’) (Nachbar, 2012, 32). The former can be understood along the lines of a utilitarian acquiescence to prevailing political winds. It will almost certainly disappear as soon as security mechanisms fail or food and money are not forthcoming, or another actor offers a more generous policy (Gawthorpe, 2017, 848). Legitimacy, in contrast, ‘fills the gap between the population’s agreement with the regime’s policies and their agreement with the regime’s right to demand loyalty’ (Nachbar, 2012, 33), thus ‘determin[ing] the degree to which the population will voluntarily or passively comply with the decisions and rules issued by a governing authority’ (FM 3-24 quoted in Gawthorpe, 2017, 842). In other words, legitimacy might be understood as the ‘buffer zone’ between a society’s (dis)agreement with a particular government or group’s demand for popular support and their commitment to fulfilling it.


Legitimacy in Context


Friedman incorporates concepts of legitimacy into his application of Clausewitz’ thought to insurgency thinking (Friedman, 2014, 83-85). He posits that the ‘centre of gravity’ of insurgency is situated between, and governed by, three nodes drawn from the ‘wondrous trinity’ (Friedman, 2014, 83). For the purposes of this paper, these three nodes can be abridged to security, policy and legitimacy. An actor can draw on each of these channels to various degrees to extract popular support in an insurgency and, ideally, would strike a ‘balance’ between them to extract the most sustainable support. In terms of security, an actor group might appeal to a population’s immediate requirements for safety and physical well-being, for example, by offering protection against the overreaches of repressive government authority. Policy relates to the political stance of an actor and the incentives it offers a given population to support it against its enemy. Legitimacy, as discussed above, relates to an actor’s resonance with cultural values and identities.


A good example of the practical application of this framework is understanding the failure of Che Guevara’s insurgency in Bolivia (Kiras, 2007, 192). Guevara’s fledgling insurgency relied entirely on the appeal of radical Communist policy to gain the support of the Bolivian peasant classes. The foreign-led movement had, in the eyes of both the Bolivian people and the local Communist revolutionaries, minimal ‘right to demand loyalty’ and its limited manpower meant it was unable to effectively offer security to the population. In the terminology of Friedman’s framework, Guevara’s insurgency could only draw from the policy node to extract support, an inherently vulnerable position which the Bolivian Government was quickly able to counter by sponsoring broad land reforms. Isolated from popular support, the insurgency was militarily defeated shortly thereafter. Had the insurgency been perceived as a local actor with local traction, and therefore been able to draw from the more resilient ‘legitimacy’ node, it might possibly have achieved a different outcome.


Time and ‘Political Capital’


Societies, cultures and people change, however, so legitimacy must be assessed as a dynamic value. Indeed, understanding legitimacy must also entail an assessment of potential changes to local social, cultural and religious sensitivities over time, particularly in the environment of chance and accident that characterises war (Strachan, 2013, 46). The static nature of the understandings proposed by FM 3-24, Gawthorpe, Nachbar and even Friedman is a shortcoming. They do not account for the gradual accrual of costs and changes in deep-seated sentiments that, over time, will influence a population’s commitment to a particular actor and, accordingly, the resilience of the support they offer (Department of the Army FM 3-24, 2014, 1-15; Gawthorpe, 2017, 841; Friedman, 2014, 83-85; Nachbar, 2012, 31).  A more nuanced framework that acknowledges these changes over time is required.


It is postulated that an actor’s perceived ‘right to demand loyalty’ – the transactional value of legitimacy in extracting public support – is a dynamic quantity functioning as a form of ‘political capital’ (see Nachbar, 2012, 33). That is, if an actor consistently appeals to the legitimacy node to justify measures with which a population would otherwise not be compliant (for example, terrorist attacks or violent repression), the support available from that node will gradually become ‘spent’. In other words, there is a limit to how much an actor can expect a population’s passive compliance before a form of ‘war weariness’ sets in (Gawthorpe, 2017, 842). As an actor continues to spend its ‘political capital’, it must increasingly draw from the other two nodes to maintain support, such as through policy incentives or threats against a population’s security. This applies to both governments and insurgent groups.


A further consideration is that an actor’s perceived legitimacy (and therewith, available political capital) will increase or decrease depending on the tides of conflict. For example, a successful actor will be seen as a stronger ruler in the eyes of a society, so it will be able to attract more support than an actor that is perceived as weak or failing. Lopez, however, notes that the core members (as opposed to ‘supporters’) of heavily outnumbered groups will often have a greater ‘will to fight’ when faced with imminent threat (Lopez, 2016, 129). This would be particularly relevant to smaller insurgencies.




Considering legitimacy as a transactional phenomenon offers a number of insights across the study of insurgency and terrorism. Firstly, legitimacy is ‘organic’ within a society and cannot be artificially created or imported. An external or foreign power without the resilient support engendered by legitimacy will almost certainly fail, as was the case with Che Guevara (Kiras, 2007, 192). An actor’s capability of extracting popular support does not mean that the population believes it has a legitimate claim to governance, nor will the fact that a population has afforded that actor support in the short-term increase its ideological commitment to that actor in the long term (Woodward, 2017). Indeed, a foreign power has a priori less alignment with the local people, and attempts to coerce support will, in the long term, almost certainly cause more culturally aligned local groups to coalesce against it, as Scheipers noted of French Algeria (Scheipers, 2014, 883). Furthermore, those elements of the population outside the political or security appeal of a foreign actor will invariably align with groups opposing it (for example, the Taliban in Afghanistan).


Secondly, understanding legitimacy as ‘political capital’ offers an interesting insight into the logic of terrorist provocation. It would suggest that terrorism is immeasurably valuable for any insurgency that is vastly outmatched, because it forces a government to spend its political capital through repressive reaction, inspires fear in a population (a link to the security node can be identified here) and draws attentions to a group’s political grievances (see Kiras, 2007, 187). In other words, terrorism asymmetrically targets an opponent’s legitimacy and can undermine that government’s support in the long term. Additionally, while a small insurgent group perceives imminent threat, it will receive greater relative loyalty from its core supporters and is therefore likely to accrue fewer costs to its political capital (Lopez, 2016, 129). It may also attract new supporters who become alienated from the government through repression (Kalyvas, 2004, 104). In this regard, agreeing with Strachan, time naturally favours an insurgency (while it is the smaller power) (Strachan, 2013, 55).


Thirdly, although a coercive security apparatus may exist in harmony with a legitimate regime, its widespread use to ensure cooperation and popular support is generally indicative of an actor that has lost political capital and has no other means to generate public support. Although commentators frequently point to African dictatorships as the archetypal example of this concept, the reality is that the most accurate examples are likely to be COIN-supported regimes in the West’s colonial history.  Once such a security apparatus stops functioning effectively, it is unlikely that the majority of society will conceive of its operator as legitimate, although this does not mean an insurgent it is competing with will have automatically gained legitimacy in its stead. Legitimacy is a unique attribute not subject to a zero-sum equation: when it is lost by one actor, it is not necessarily transferred to a victorious other. Indeed, even if the COIN actor operating such apparatus were to decisively defeat the insurgency, popular support would be in no way guaranteed thereafter, and the vacuum of legitimacy could easily contribute to the emergence of multiple additional insurgent groups.


Finally, this analysis assumes that an insurgent group will have aspirations to one day form, or be part of, a legitimate government. It therefore does not apply to an insurgency that has no intention of claiming governance but is rather focused solely on destabilising or undermining another actor. These insurgents are almost certain to be operating entirely under foreign auspices as ‘proxy insurgencies’, so local legitimacy and even local support are irrelevant to their sustainability, and may in fact be impediments to their disruptive activities. Their aim is to most effectively undermine the legitimacy of the local government for their foreign benefactor’s political ends, rather than to develop any form of political capital.




Despite its essential role in insurgency, legitimacy remains vastly understudied. This article presents an early step towards understanding the functional nature of legitimacy in an insurgency environment. It draws on Clausewitz’ ‘wondrous trinity’ to present a framework in which legitimacy, security and politics are three nodes upon which actors can draw to extract popular support in an insurgency context. By exploring this framework over time, it presents legitimacy as a transactional value – ‘political capital’ – which actors can ‘spend’ to ‘buy’ support for measures with which a population would otherwise not comply. This framework has a number of implications for current COIN thinking and would be a useful model on which further studies might build.


Works Cited


Betts, Richard K. "The soft underbelly of American primacy: Tactical advantages of terror." Political Science Quarterly 117:1 (2002): 19-36.

Department of the Army. “FM 3-24 MCWP 3-33.5 Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies.” Headquarters, Department of the Army, May 2014, 1–229. Accessed from

Fitzsimmons, Michael. “Hard Hearts and Open Minds? Governance, Identity and the Intellectual Foundations of Counterinsurgency Strategy.” Journal of Strategic Studies, 31:3 (2008), 337-365.

Friedman, Brett.  “Creeping Death: Clausewitz and Comprehensive Counterinsurgency.” Military Review, (Jan-Feb 2014), 82-89. Accessed from

Gawthorpe, Andrew J.  “All Counterinsurgency is Local: Counterinsurgency and Rebel Legitimacy.” Small Wars & Insurgencies, 8:4-5, (2017): 839-852.

Kalyvas, Stathis N. "The paradox of terrorism in civil war." The Journal of Ethics 8:1 (2004): 97-138.

Kiras, James D. "Irregular warfare: Terrorism and insurgency." Understanding Modern Warfare 224 (2007): 186-207.

Lopez, Anthony C. "The evolution of war: theory and controversy." International Theory 8.1 (2016): 97-139.

Nachbar, Thomas B.  “Counterinsurgency, Legitimacy, and the Rule of Law.” Parameters (Spring 2012): 27-38. Accessed from

Schanzer, D. (2017). ‘Terrorism as Tactic’. in Englund, S., & Stohl, M. (eds). (2017). Constructions of Terrorism. Santa Barbara, CA, University of California Press.

Scheipers, Sibylle. "Counterinsurgency or irregular warfare? Historiography and the study of ‘small wars’." Small Wars & Insurgencies 25.5-6 (2014): 879-899.

Strachan, Hew. “The direction of war: contemporary strategy in historical perspective.” Cambridge University Press, (2013).

Woodward, Susan. "Ideology of Failed States." United Nations Secretariat. United Nations, New York. 31 Oct. 2017. Book presentation.


About the Author(s)

Nicolas Johnston is currently a postgraduate student at the Australian Defence Force Academy (UNSW Canberra). He received his BA in Political Science and International Comparative Studies from Duke University.