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2"Unified Vision 01
7 February 2006
Winning in the Streets:
A Concept for
in the 21st Century
R. Scott Moore
POC: R. Scott Moore
Center for Adaptive Strategies & Threats
Hicks & Associates, Inc.
4301 N. Fairfax Dr., Suite 210
Arlington, VA 22203
(703) 516- 3296
[email protected]
The publication of this paper does not indicate endorsement by the
Department of Defense, nor should the contents be construed as
reflecting the official position of the US Government.
This work was conducted by Hicks & Associates, Inc., Center for Adaptive Strategies & Threats,
under contract through General Dynamics Corporation to the Joint Urban Operations Office,
Joint Forces Command, Suffolk, Virginia. The publication of this working paper does not
indicate endorsement by Joint Forces Command, the Department of Defense, or General
Dynamics Corporation, nor should the contents be construed as reflecting the official position of
the US Government.
The author of this concept is R. Scott Moore. Others who participated in this project were Gary
Anderson and Janine Davidson. While these individuals contributed to the development of this
concept, the author assumes sole responsibility for the content and for any errors of omission or
50, U.S.C., APP. 2401, ET SEQ.).
Executive Summary
Insurgency Defined
The Nature of Insurgency
Causes of Insurgency
Insurgency Strategy
Counterinsurgency Defined
Counterinsurgency Strategy
Essential Tasks
Use of Force
An Integrated Strategy
Implications for Urban Operations
Appendix A: Failed Counterinsurgencies
Appendix B: Successful Counterinsurgencies
Appendix C: Major Ongoing Insurgencies
Executive Summary
The purpose of this paper is to develop a strategic and operational concept for counterinsurgency
operations with emphasis on how that concept may affect urban operations. The intent of this
concept is two-fold. First, to take a fresh look at the insurgency and counterinsurgency of the
past and present in order to identify those enduring traits that will likely continue to influence
how these conflicts will be conducted in the future. Second, the concept examines the resulting
frameworks and for their applicability to urban operations. In doing so the concept places urban
operations within the context of a wider understanding of the nature and characteristics of
counterinsurgency and, hopefully, offers a basis for developing future capabilities.
Specifically, this concept seeks to achieve the following:
Describe the nature and causes of insurgency and the characteristics of successful
insurgency strategies.
Identify the key challenges that have emerged as insurgencies increasingly move into
urban areas.
Define the key elements of successful counterinsurgency strategies.
Identify the essential tasks and enablers for effective counterinsurgency strategies and
campaigns, with attention to those of particular concern for urban operations.
Insurgency is redefined as a protracted violent conflict in which one or more groups seek to
overthrow or fundamentally change the political or social order in a state or region through the
use of sustained violence, subversion, social disruption, and political action. As such is it
comprised of three essential dimensions: behaviors, structures, and beliefs, each of which
interacts to form both the causes and context of insurgency. Insurgents feed on the instability that
accompanies these dimensions in regions prone to violence through a strategy that exploits deepseated issues, undermines enemy will, employs unconstrained violence, and, critically important,
control urban areas.
Insurgencies in recent years have moved into and seek to control urban areas. Insurgent
movements increasingly rely on squalid conditions, corruption, crime, and social and political
change represented by life in many of the cities of the developing for support, both moral and
logistical. Heavily populated areas provide many of the resources for insurgencies once thought
only to exist in remote areas or from external resources. Finally, political and economic control
resides in key populated areas; to achieve success, insurgent movements must at least deny these
areas to the existing government.
To counter these trends, counterinsurgency must be seen as an integrated set of political,
economic, social, and security measures intended to end and prevent the recurrence of armed
violence, create and maintain stable political, economic, and social structures, and resolve the
underlying causes of an insurgency in order to establish and sustain the conditions necessary for
lasting stability. Most significant about this definition is its emphasis on resolving the underlying
causes of the insurgency and redefining traditional ideas of victory; building lasting stability
must be the strategic aim.
Like insurgency, counterinsurgency must also be conducted in three dimensions. Additionally,
the key counterinsurgency battlefield will reside in urban areas, for that is where the existing
government and its supporters must build the critical structures and transform the beliefs of the
A successful counterinsurgency strategy accomplishes six essential tasks: establish and maintain
stability, provide humanitarian relief, promote effective governance, sustain development,
support reconciliation, and foster social change. While necessary to ensure lasting stability, they
are not necessarily sufficient. To be effectively carried out, they must be enabled by clearly
defined political and military objectives, civil-military unity of effort, integrated and accurate
intelligence, and legitimacy. The essential tasks and the critical enablers carry with them a set of
military tasks and capabilities.
US military forces must be able to effectively and seamlessly tie all these elements together three
dimensionally if they are to be successful. As insurgencies are fought in urban environments,
they must be adapted to the challenges posed by this terrain, often using new civil and military
capabilities not traditionally part of a warfigher’s arsenal. More important, US forces must be
ready to conduct extended campaigns, controlling heavily populated areas with dispersed and
decentralized forces, all the while resolving the underlying issues that lay at the heart of the
insurgency. The ability to assume new responsibilities and to do so in urban and metropolitan
areas where force may be only one, and perhaps not the primary weapon, at their disposal, will
demand new and capabilities for the future.
Recent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq forcibly highlighted the need to reexamine the nature
of the irregular conflicts, and especially insurgencies, facing the United States in the coming
years and to identify the key elements of a strategy to address these emerging threats. The
complex nature of the Global War on Terrorism and the associated ethnic, religious,
transnational, and urban threats seriously challenge current military capabilities based on
conventional warfare. The lack of an integrated and multi-dimensional approach to these new
threats has, in recent years, too often led to confusion and disjointed responses. In the absence of
an overarching strategic and operational concept, military and civilian planners default to their
own experiences and ideas. While much tactical and operational effort may be well-grounded
and locally effective, it remains particular to specific situations and conditions. A critical need
exists for an overarching concept that draws from current and past operations, extrapolates them
into the future, and provides a common framework from which to think about, plan, and conduct
counterinsurgency operations today and in the future. As insurgencies increasingly move from
the countryside to urban areas, frame their causes in absolutist terms, and employ weapons and
methods whose reach extend far beyond the conflict zones, the need exists to reassess past
lessons and to apply them to future threats.
The strategic challenges posed by current and future insurgencies can no longer be confined to
particular regions or countries, nor do they reflect competing political ideologies. Instead, they
must be viewed as violent symptoms of much deeper structural, behavioral, and identity issues
that pose serious risks to international security if not adequately addressed. Religious
extremism, ethnic intolerance, and socio-economic imbalances have given birth to fanatical
movements demanding radical change. In what may be a fundamental strategic shift, insurgents
are increasingly operating within the protective walls of urban areas, able to blend into their
surroundings and draw sustenance and support from populations who have become disaffected
and isolated. In doing so, the insurgents have also significantly reduced the effectiveness of the
highly lethal weapons, and the intelligence systems that support them, at the core of US military
capabilities. Insurgencies, and the terrorism that accompanies them, pose complex challenges
threatening political and social stability and defying military attempts to suppress or defeat them.
Counterinsurgency is not so much a war to be won as a conflict to be resolved. Victory and
defeat, at least as defined in classical military terms, rarely apply. Rather, the objective must be
solving the causes of the conflict. Reform, development, cooption, inclusion, negotiation,
reconciliation and transformed ideas offer pathways to successful counterinsurgency every bit as
important, and perhaps even more so, than armed combat. Instead of, in Clausewitzian terms,
forcing an enemy to your will, counterinsurgency hinges on convincing those who may turn to
insurgency that their needs can better be met peacefully while ensuring the problems that gave
birth to violence have been addressed. In essence, counterinsurgency is about making enemies
irrelevant, not extinct.
The focus of this counterinsurgency concept thus diverges from the traditional warfighting
emphasis on defeating armed insurgents that so often dominates current doctrine. Rather than
viewing counterinsurgency as a phased campaign moving from combat to security and
stabilization operations to civilian reconstruction and nation-building, with the inevitable
challenges of compartmented strategic planning and execution, this concept proposes an
integrated approach that meshes military and civil actions based on overlapping Essential Tasks.
Not limited to physical defeat of insurgents, these tasks link military, political, economic, and
social requirements into a cohesive whole. In doing so, the concept does not downplay military
operations aimed at fighting and killing armed insurgents; combat and security operations remain
essential components of any counterinsurgency strategy. Nonetheless, it is based on the
realization that military force, especially in highly populated areas, can be a dual-edged sword;
while tactically effective, the unintended effects on political, social and economic structures, as
well as on human attitudes and perceptions can lead to operational and strategic defeat. This
concept, therefore, offers a wider and more comprehensive approach for addressing not only the
symptoms, but the underlying causes of the bloody conflicts that will confront much of the world
for the foreseeable future.
Equally important, the concept also examines the impact of the increasing urbanization of the
world’s conflict zones, a trend that will likely continue well into the future. Whereas many
insurgencies of the past relied on remote base areas and access to external support in order to
organize, survive, and fight, modern insurgents and terrorists increasingly rely on the protection
of urban areas and populations to garner strength and overthrow their enemies. Moving in and
out of the cities, conducting urban terrorism against civil populations and leaders, and hiding
within discrete ethnic and religious communities and groups, they combine tribalism, violence,
subversion, and intimidation with the protection offered by the warrens of urban terrain that has
replaced the remote mountains and jungles that once sheltered them. In essence, they ‘hide in
plain site’ by inhabiting and intimidating squalid slums and identity groups, operating and
gaining sustenance from within the masses of people who live in the cities and populated areas.
For security forces, the challenges of rooting them out present new and immediate demands for
which US forces are only partially prepared.
The conclusions and principles presented herein derive from detailed analysis of nearly sixty
counterinsurgency campaigns, successful and unsuccessful, conducted during the past century, as
well as the lessons learned by American and Coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.
Additionally, the writings and doctrines of individuals and institutions who meticulously
recorded their experiences have been mined. Searching for generalizations and patterns revealed
by not just to one or two specific cases, but by a broad sample of counterinsurgency campaigns,
the concept identifies those strategies and practices that have proven most effective, then tests
them against the historical record. While every conflict has its own unique causes and conditions
requiring tailored solutions, they also exhibit fundamental characteristics that remain constant
and which should guide how particular solutions to specific problems may be best crafted. If
there are no immutable laws or empirical formulas for counterinsurgency success, there exist
certain basic principles and traits that have marked and will continue to mark successful
campaigns. As with all types of warfare, history provides insights and guidance that cannot be
ignored merely because present-day and future insurgencies may differ in their details from those
of the past.
Although starting from an historical baseline, this concept also includes careful examination of
the strategic changes clearly occurring today and which will continue to affect the future.
Transnational conflict and weapons proliferation, religious and ethnic extremism, and
mushrooming urbanization have changed the landscape on which insurgencies are being fought.
The media and modern telecommunications greatly expand conflict zones; what might have been
viewed as local problems just few years ago now assume regional and even international
significance. Seemingly unrelated insurgent and terrorist groups coalesce, even if only in the
virtual world, to provide support, exchange ideas and methods, and spread their violence. If
insurgents once fought under charismatic leaders from remote bases using captured, externally
supplied, or manufactured weapons to free their countries, they now fight as loosely organized
networks with the latest technologies gained from the open market, operate from urban hideouts,
and strike at regional and international stability. Suicide terrorism crosses borders and oceans
with relative ease while the threat of weapons of mass destruction provides small groups with
powers once preserved for nations. Genocide has become a weapon of war as insurgent goals
have become more absolute and unyielding. No longer can an insurgency in a distant country be
ignored as inconsequential. To do so risks global peace.
To ensure continuity and lessen the intellectual turmoil that grips current concept development,
this paper has incorporated current and emerging concepts being developed by US Joint Forces
Command, the military services, and other US government agencies, as well as those of allies,
especially the British, Canadians, and Australians. It includes new, but generally accepted,
terminology and integrates concepts being developed and staffed within DoD and the US
government. There seemed no need to try to rename or reinvent sound ideas developed
elsewhere and already generally accepted as valid. Additionally, the concept makes no attempt to
re-examine recent advances in urban operations tactics, techniques, and technologies. These
tactical solutions remain valid within the wider concept this paper discusses.
In order to test the concept in light of recent experiences and to gain additional insights from
individuals, both military and civilian, with recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well
from subject matter experts, the study was subjected to intense review from military concept
developers, subject matter experts, and members of all military services, both in private sessions
and during discussions held during the Expeditionary Warrior 06 series of conferences, cultural
intelligence seminars, and the exercise itself; during the latter, it was briefed to the Small Wars
panel, a group of senior military and civilian experts, both active duty and retired, from the
United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, whose insights and comments have been
This concept seeks to build a framework for thinking about and, more important, conducting
counterinsurgency in the 21st Century. In doing so, it defines the fundamental nature, traits, and
strategy of insurgency, the effects urbanization has had on insurgency, and the principles and
characteristics of successful (and unsuccessful) counterinsurgency campaigns. The concept then
identifies the essential tasks that must be followed in order to successfully resolve insurgencies
and those fundamental tasks necessary to achieve successful outcomes. Although broad in scope,
it is based on the conviction that insurgencies exhibit certain fundamental traits regardless of
specific situations or conditions. It challenges the premise that urban insurgencies fundamentally
differ from others; in truth, insurgencies have become inextricably associated with urban areas to
such an extent that to try to develop a strategic or operational concept that separates the two
would skew reality. Much of this concept, therefore, makes the fundamental assumption that
insurgencies will increasingly occur in populated areas, towns, and cities and that all
counterinsurgencies of the future will require US forces to operate in urban areas. Nonetheless, it
also discusses, where necessary, the tactical and operational implications of the urbanization of
insurgency. The development of operational doctrine, tactics, and technologies needed to
increase our capabilities for conducting counterinsurgency operations in urban areas continues to
make significant progress and will be essential components of any future counterinsurgency
Insurgency Defined
The term insurgency conjures often widely disparate interpretations, suffering at the hands of
both experts and pundits. While the definition may be intuitively evident to those directly
involved in these conflicts, commonly accepted meanings remain elusive, with predictable
conceptual confusion. Insurgency continues to be used interchangeably, and imprecisely, with
irregular warfare, unconventional warfare, revolutionary warfare, guerrilla warfare and even
terrorism. Insurgents, similarly, have been called guerrillas, terrorists, revolutionaries,
extremists, and irregulars. In a way, the interchangeability of terms is understandable, given the
diverse nature and adaptability of those who wage insurgency. These internecine conflicts
involve local or regional insurgents who increasingly operate from inside cities and populated
areas, employ guerrilla and terrorist tactics, espouse revolutionary and radical causes, pose
asymmetric threats to modern conventional forces, and have a transnational reach that adds new
dimensions to the understanding of insurgency. Additionally, the use of the term insurgency
creates legal confusion, as it infers a level of legitimacy that can pose political problems to ruling
governments and counterinsurgent forces. All this adds up to level of conceptual confusion that
often clouds how insurgencies are understood and combated.
The Department of Defense defines insurgency as “an organized movement aimed at the
overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict.”1
While succinct, this characterization has changed little over the past several decades, orients on
military and security actions, and fails to reflect the wider scope and complexity of insurgencies
today, especially their protracted nature and their political, economic, and social dimensions.
With its emphasis on subversion and armed conflict, the current definition confines insurgency to
the realm of military and security operations. For these reasons, the following expanded
definition is offered, one that more accurately portrays the nature and scope of insurgency in the
21st Century:
An insurgency is a protracted violent conflict in which one or more groups
seek to overthrow or fundamentally change the political or social order in a
state or region through the use of sustained violence, subversion, social
disruption, and political action.
Insurgency seeks radical change to the existing political or social order through the use of
sustained violence and political disruption. It is a long-term form of warfare in which military
Joint Publication 1-02, DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms dated 12 Apr 2001 (amended to 25
August 2005)
actions are carried out by guerrilla cells and terrorists, often targeting civilians and infrastructure.
But guerrilla attacks and terrorism comprise only one element, and sometimes not the primary
one, of an insurgency. More important than the violence of insurgency are its political,
economic, and social components. These are at the heart of the conflict, both its causes and its
effects. Instead of defeating armies, insurgents slowly chip away at the authority and legitimacy
of the ruling government and, in many cases, the intervening power. Thus subversion, social
disruption, and political action often become more important than violence, however spectacular
or horrendous. The expanded definition of insurgency reflects the multi-faceted character of
insurgency and firmly places insurgency within the political and social realm in which it resides.
While, as Clausewitz asserts, war is a continuation of politics by other means, insurgency takes
that idea to a new level; it does not distinguish between the two: for insurgents, war and politics
are inseparable.
The Nature of Insurgency
As the definition states, insurgencies are highly complex, violent, protracted conflicts that seek
fundamental political and social change. Because the goal is to overturn real or perceived
maladies endemic to particular conditions and situations by employing a wide range of violent,
political, social, and economic means to achieve that goal, insurgencies seem to defy simple
categorization. Each insurgency reflects unique conditions, characteristics, and dynamics that set
it apart and make simple solutions based on doctrinal formulas difficult if not impossible.
Nonetheless, most share certain common traits. Insurgencies are largely internal conflicts waged
by indigenous movements for political, economic, or social control of a particular state or region.
While other states may support insurgents, the impetuous for change lies not with invasion from
without, but uprising from within. As populations in failing states migrate to urban areas, the
state’s inability to adequately address the squalor of slums and the impact of modernization
exacerbate historical and current grievances. Insurgent movements that once originated in remote
rural areas now breed in cities, relying on complex man-made terrain and the mass populations
inside to sustain them. Able to draw from loosely connected networks, often located outside the
conflict zones, for expertise, clandestine funding, and ideological support they have thus grown
far less reliant on external states for material assistance. Additionally, insurgent movements
motivated by radical ethno-nationalist and religious beliefs, and sure of the righteousness of their
causes, increasingly turn to subversion, violence, and terrorism to intimidate highly vulnerable,
urban populations and gain a level of “support” more akin to that normally associated with local
criminal gangs than populist movements. As the 21st Century progresses, tightly controlled
insurgencies based on rural unrest are giving way to loosely organized networks of extremists
hiding in ethnic and religious enclaves of densely packed cities.
Like those of the past, today’s insurgencies must employ asymmetric methods to achieve their
goals. The existing regime or intervening power possesses the military, political, economic, and
social resources normally held by a state, even a weak one. The insurgency must form and grow,
systematically weakening the state’s grip on power. In contrast to interstate warfare, with its
clear separations (even if not always observed in practice) between military forces and civilian
populations, insurgency makes few such distinctions. Insurgents survive by not being seen and
by fighting in subversive and shadowy groups that only show themselves momentarily, and then
blend back into the surrounding physical and human terrain. However, if once insurgents took
refuge in remote areas and relied on external support, they now hide virtually in plain sight in
populated and urban areas. Remaining in the urban shadows, operating in dispersed and
compartmented cells, drawing sustenance and protection through the support, acquiescence, or
intimidation of the populace, and carefully, but visibly, directing violence at civil and military
targets, they gain strength and wear down their enemies. As urban areas continue to sprawl and
become breeding grounds of discontent, insurgencies increasingly seek to control this key
terrain, or at least prevent government and security forces from doing so. Insurgencies need not
gain decisive battlefield advantage in these areas, they need only do so locally and often
temporarily and keep from being tactically overwhelmed. The longer they remain a threat, the
greater their chance for success.
At their most basic level, and whatever their particular traits or causes, insurgencies reflect a
complex, three-dimensional web of actions, structures and beliefs.2 Within these dimensions,
and, more importantly, their interactions, can be found the causes and the cures for insurgency.
Each dimension shapes, and is shaped by the other. They cannot be separated and addressed
individually; to do so could, as has, led to disastrous results. Each must be understood both as
part of a larger whole and in its relation to the unique conditions and circumstances of the
conflict. In short, these dimensions offer a framework for analyzing and comprehending
insurgencies and crafting effective counter-strategies, not a formula to be blindly applied.
Actions. Actions consist of those events, behaviors, and acts that characterize and form the
visual tapestry of insurgencies. They encompass those individual and group behaviors, large and
small, of all those caught in an insurgency, be they insurgents, military and security forces, aid
workers, local or national leaders, or the populace. The most obvious actions center on is the
violence of insurgency, which can run from individual acts of intimidation to terrorist bombings
to full-scale attacks. But that is only one element of many. Actions may consist of the retaliatory
or repressive acts taken by a government, perhaps incited by the insurgents, that stokes further
violence or the behaviors of police or political leaders that, over time, convince populations to
support the insurgency. They may include the precipitous event that sparks a sudden outbreak of
violence, such as firing into crowds during a rally. For insurgents, they include subversion,
political infiltration, and economic sabotage on the part of insurgents. Because they can be
planned and executed, and, more importantly, seen and often measured, actions tend to
overshadow the other dimensions of insurgencies. In the end, however, actions, by themselves,
represent the daily, largely tactical, aspects of insurgencies. Their strategic impact lies within the
structures and beliefs comprising the much deeper roots of the conflict.
Structures. Structures are the conditions that frame an insurgency. Such terms as stability,
instability, infrastructure, economic development, humanitarian aid, and security describe
structural elements of insurgencies. Insurgents attempt to tear down existing structures, exploit
those that are repressive, discriminatory, or corrupt, and build new ones in their stead. In Iraq in
late 2005, the key structural issues centered on developing an indigenous and effective security
capability and the framing and adopting a viable constitution; these structures became critical
This discussion is drawn from recent concepts of conflict and conflict resolution, notably those found in C.R.
Mitchell, The Structure of International Conflict, New York: St. Martin’s Press (1998) and Hugh Miall, et. al.,
Contemporary Conflict Resolution, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers (1999).
centerpieces of the conflict, and ones which the insurgents seemed determined to disrupt and
eventually destroy. Much of the Western approach to insurgency focuses on the Wilsonian
principles of economic development and democratic institutions, two structural imperatives
deemed necessary to preventing or ending insurgencies. Insurgents counter with attempts to
build alternative (usually radical) structures and to create an environment of instability that
prevents structural reform from taking hold. Islamic Extremists, for example, offer their own
structural solution: a caliphate that restores past glories, establishes Koranic rule, and ends
repressive political regimes in the Islamic world, all of which are structural options. Today,
urbanization and its associated poverty, unemployment, and social inequities provide the
structural backdrop to insurgencies in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. All
these structures, be they political, economic, social, or security, form the essential physical and
conditional battlefields over which insurgencies are fought, as well as the outcomes once they
Beliefs. Beliefs comprise those attitudes, perceptions, prejudices, ideologies, worldviews,
cultures, and social and individual identities that fuel insurgencies. These are the psychological
and sociological imperatives that drive and are driven by actions and structures. Beliefs
encompass more than just the conscious decision or willingness to side with one faction or the
other, to support an insurgency or the government. Sometimes coined “hearts and minds”, this
expression does not adequately portray this dimension of insurgency; it largely misses the
complex nature of beliefs and tends to reduce them to a sort of inanimate, and controllable,
constant. Instead, beliefs represent the preconceptions and mental filters that determine how
individuals and groups perceive the actions and structures that surround them. The concept of
beliefs must be understood within a deeper context that goes beyond conscious, and momentary,
reactions to particular events or information and gets to the unconscious, often visceral,
responses drawn not just from momentary reactions, but centuries of cultural interpretation. The
success of such news agencies as Al Jazeera in shaping opinions of US actions has far less to do
with how the messages are crafted than with the receivers of the messages. Beliefs reside the
very heart of an insurgency.
Insurgencies reflect the complex interaction between actions, structures, and beliefs. Each
conflict combines them in different ways; which dimension is paramount depends on the
situation and conditions of the particular conflict, and may even change over time. But none can
be divorced from the others; each must be assessed and understood both individually and, more
important, as part of larger whole in terms of both how they affect and how they are affected by
the others. In each insurgency, the complex and unique interaction between actions, structures,
and beliefs determines the path of the insurgency and dictates the outcome. To understand the
nature of insurgency demands that one think three-dimensionally.
The interactions between actions, structures, and beliefs are being transformed by urbanization.
In the past several decades, populations in emerging and developing regions have shifted from
rural areas where farming held sway, to increasingly squalid cities. Modernization, globalization,
mass telecommunications, man-made and natural disasters, and new technologies are rapidly
changing, some might argue assaulting, traditional societies. If this increased urbanization has
provided central governments more power, it has also created conditions that greatly endanger
them. Corruption, inadequate social services, overcrowding, threats to traditional religious and
ethnic beliefs, economic stagnation, and crime have combined to fragment societies. It should be
little surprise that insurgencies and separatist movements in the past fifteen years have largely
originated in urban areas and that the outcomes of these conflicts often have been decided in the
cities, not the countryside. The ability of urbanization to greatly magnify and accelerate the
interactions between actions, structures, and beliefs has come to characterize insurgency.
Causes of Insurgency
Debates over the causes of insurgencies often focus on a few identifiable (and, by implication,
repairable) issues, usually related to modernization, globalization, poverty, or political
ineptitude. In the United States, in particular, lack of democracy and poor economic development
are seen as key risk factors for insurgency. Thomas Barnett talks of the destabilizing effects of
states and regions unable to tap into globalization and its economic and political benefits.3
Others, such as Samuel Huntington4, cite the violent disruptiveness of competing cultures,
embodied in religious and ethno-nationalism and exemplified by Islamist radicalism and al
Qaeda. Still others focus on repression, terrorism, crime and corruption, and discrimination,
actions that incite popular unrest and feed insurgency. Although all these explanations provide
useful insights into the causes, they fall short of explaining the underlying dynamics that cause
insurgencies to erupt.
Insurgencies originate within often cloudy sets of conditions in which actions, structures and
beliefs swirl and eventually explode into sustained violence. It is the interaction of many causes
that produces insurgency, not the presence of just one or a few, however compelling they may
appear. Structurally, insurgencies most often occur in poorly developed or inequitable political,
social, or economic conditions. They may be exacerbated by oppressive or corrupt regimes,
ethnic factionalism, lack of natural resources or disparities in their distribution, social
stratification, or military occupation. The disruptions caused by modernization or globalization
often highlight indigenous political and economic weaknesses. Urbanization, with its associated
political and social inequities, has grown to be a critical factor in fostering unrest. Cities generate
violent criminal and extremist enclaves that fester amid poverty, deprivation, discrimination, and
overpopulation. Structural disparities become magnified and distorted by competing worldviews, historical myths, long-held social prejudices, and radicalism, especially those espousing
ethnic or religious intolerance and cultural exclusivity as solutions to problems they blame,
sometimes justifiably, on others. These, in turn, are fueled and ignited by the actions serving as
catalysts for insurgency and violence, the most prevalent in recent years being state violence and
repression against a particular segment of the population, economic exclusion either by existing
governments or by one political or ethnic group against another, acts of corruption and crime that
no longer can be tolerated, or even single acts, such as arrests, political assassinations or
overreactions to protests. Sometimes, insurgencies erupt spontaneously following a particular
event or series of events, as occurred in Iraq in the summer of 2003. Others may be
choreographed by charismatic leaders who offer insurgency as an alternative to the current
intolerable situation, as was the case of Mao and Castro, and is now with Osama Bin Laden. By
Thomas P. M. Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the 21 st Century, New York: G. P. Putnam’s
Sons (2004)
Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York: Touchstone Books
themselves, however, even charismatic individuals are not sufficient causes of insurgency, and
attempts by counterinsurgent forces to focus on these individuals can be both misguided and
often counterproductive. Instead, insurgency reflects a complex interaction of actions, structures,
and beliefs that, combined, form a witch’s brew of violence. This is not to say that one or a few
factors, conditions, or individuals may not be more important than others. Each insurgency
reflects particular deep-seated and often intractable maladies that fester and eventually can no
longer be tolerated. Which dominates within them depends on the unique characteristics and
conditions and the interactions between actions, structures, and beliefs. But these conditions and
causes must be stirred, and that requires a far more complex interaction. In the end, it is the
mixing of a host of factors- long term and immediate- that ultimately leads to the outbreak of an
Underlying, deep-seated issues, impelled to violence by the complex interaction of actions,
structures, beliefs, feed on instability. Unstable states or regions, unwilling or unable to address
their endemic problems, form an essential precondition for insurgency. Failed or failing states,
often struggling to recover from bloody civil or interstate wars, cultivate the political, economic,
and social volatility in which deep-seated maladies fester and then erupt into violence. Within
cities and populated areas, instability feeds on poverty, crime, ethnically exclusive enclaves, and
corruption. Unfortunately, instability too often is viewed solely as a structural problem related to
economic development, democratic institutions, or social equality, perhaps because such
conceptualizations lend themselves to concrete solutions. And while structural problems may
indeed be critical pathways to insurgency they reside within a larger, three-dimensional
maelstrom of dynamic factors that collectively define an unstable state or region. In the end,
unstable structures may well be necessary causes of insurgencies, but they are not sufficient in
themselves. How that instability manifests itself in actions and beliefs determines whether or not
an insurgency will erupt and the nature of the conflict once underway.
Historically, the most intractable and bloody insurgencies have been rooted in extremist and
exclusionary beliefs about identity, especially ethno-nationalism, cultural exclusiveness, religion,
or a combination of the three. Individual and group identity, and oft-associated radically held
worldviews, attitudes, and historical myths (particularly if they involve past tragedies), rarely
leave room for compromise. In those states or regions where instability reins amid state
corruption or failure and includes maltreatment or inequities directed at particular ethnic or other
identity groups (or, equally important, are perceived to do so), insurgencies, once begun, become
bloody, no-holds barred, inflexible conflicts characterized by apparently indiscriminate violence
directed at not just security forces, but entire segments of the population. The excesses of the
Algerian terrorists in the 1950s, the Tamil suicide attackers in the 1990s, and the Sunni
extremists in Iraq today serve as testimony to the character of such insurgencies. Equally tragic,
they often lead to counterinsurgency tactics that can be just as ruthless and intolerant.
Urbanization has exacerbated these extremist trends. As traditional societies confront the
inevitable changes of modernization, they become ever more radicalized as they search for
solutions to the squalid conditions, corruption, crime, and social and political change represented
by life in many of the cities of the developing world. Poverty combines with inadequate services,
lack of education, exclusion, crime, and often corrupt government to create situations in which
single acts or individuals can incite violence. Additionally, heavily populated areas provide many
of the resources for insurgencies once thought only to exist in remote areas or from external
resources. Large numbers of disaffected youth, many jobless and lacking opportunities, provide
ready recruiting grounds for insurgent movements. Small arms proliferation, especially in postconflict regions, offers steady supplies of weapons. Segregated and often insulated religious and
ethnic groups who inhabit cities offer protection, support, and hidden mobility. The Intifada in
Palestine and the ability of insurgents to move and operate with relative impunity in Iraq’s cities
provide two examples. In Iraq, urban areas such as Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah and Basra are
centers of insurgency and unrest, built on the already existing political and social instability and
spurred by radical religious leaders and endemic xenophobia. When looking at causes of future
unrest and violence, increasingly the focus must be on the conditions that exist in the world’s
growing urban areas. While in the past, insurgencies grew among rural peasants, they now
mature among the world’s displaced and vulnerable urban populations.
Figure (1) offers a visual framework for assessing the nature and causes of insurgency. It should
not be viewed as a static representation, in which a menu of actions, structures, and beliefs offers
a template for analyzing a particular insurgency. Instead, it should be seen as a dynamic
illustration of the complex combinations of the many factors and conditions that can lead to and
sustain insurgency. The elements listed under each dimension serve only as examples; they may
be modified and added to depending on the particular situations and conditions encountered. Key
to understanding this framework is the interaction of actions, structures, and beliefs. IT is the
three-dimensional dynamics of these interactions that shape the causes and nature of
insurgencies, and, as will be seen, the strategies for countering them.
Causes of Insurgency
Competing Beliefs
Identities and Culture
Opinions and Perceptions
Historical Narratives
Complex interaction of
structures, beliefs, and
actions that leads to
violence, especially
during political,
economic, and social
Unstable State or Region
Unacceptable Structures
Catalytic Actions
Ineffective Authority
Military Occupation
Natural Resources
Social Stratification
State Violence
Figure (1)
Insurgency Strategy
Nearly 25% of insurgencies in the past century overthrew the existing political or social order;
another 16%, while not gaining all their objectives, forced settlements that addressed at least
some of the underlying issues.5 Strategic approaches adapted to unique conditions; nonetheless
certain fundamental patterns emerged that have framed how insurgencies have been, and will
likely continue to be conducted. Early in the century, Russian Bolsheviks under Lenin postulated
a strategy based on careful cultivation of an elite cadre of revolutionaries and subversion of the
existing political and social power structure as precursors to successful insurgency. Built around
urban workers, the strategy sought a sort of coup de main in which the ruling elite would be
quickly overthrown, but only after exhaustive political preparations undermined it. Notably,
Lenin did not envision a lengthy war of attrition. Mao Tse-tung, while also laying the essential
political and social groundwork, advocated a strategy of protracted rural guerrilla warfare, using
a three-phased approach, that moved from organization of political cadres and small guerilla
bands to what he called “mobile warfare”, which called for widespread guerrilla warfare to
confound and wear away the enemy to, once the enemy had been sufficiently weakened by
political, social, and military attrition, decisive conventional warfare. A highly flexible strategy
that emphasized prolonged political and social action to gain popular support and undermine the
current regime, with military operations largely in a supporting role, Mao has too often been
misconstrued, with his phases templated by counterinsurgency analysts in search of formulas for
victory. Ho Chi Minh modified Mao’s approach to meet the circumstances in Vietnam,
combining insurgent and conventional operations into a political-military strategy anchored on
the support of the rural population and integrated military units able to move between guerrilla
and conventional warfare. Like Mao, he anchored his strategy on careful cultivation of a popular
base of support, but was more willing to employ local terrorism to induce it. Castro and his
lieutenant, Che Guevara, eschewed the need for political and social mobilization before
conducting military operations. Instead, their foci strategy emphasized violence as a precursor to
popular support, inciting an uprising once the weaknesses of the government became apparent.
The foci strategy, like that of Mao and Ho, emphasized establishment of remote bases in regions
inaccessible to conventional military forces. Carlos Marighella, the Brazilian revolutionary,
adapted Castro’s ideas to the cities, believing that urban terrorism would prompt harsh
retaliations from security forces, thus alienating the populations and leading to a general
uprising. In the Middle East, a similar strategic approach emerged, first in Algeria in the 1950s
and later in Palestine, but one that sought to influence world opinion in hopes of gaining
international support and thus force the occupying forces to withdraw. The loosely networked
terrorist insurgencies that have emerged in recent years molded new technologies to this
approach, especially in terms of communications and terrorist capabilities, to gain international
attention (and often support), influence and mobilize populations, and strike at enemies both
inside and outside the co0nflict zones. Today’s insurgencies are more akin to the foci approach in
their use of violence, while adopting (sometimes consciously) the urban terrorism advocated by
Carlos to gain world attention and mobilize populations.
Each of these strategic approaches reflected the particular demands and requirements of the
conditions in which the insurgents found themselves. Insurgent strategies varied with the specific
Based on statistical and case study analysis of 58 insurgencies in the 20 th Century.
conditions and situations in which they occurred. Additionally, insurgents continually adapted to
changing circumstances and the enemies they confronted. Nevertheless, over the course of the
20th Century, certain common traits and strategic pathways emerged that continue to be at the
heart of insurgency strategies today and likely will continue to in the future.
Most fundamental, insurgencies prey on and exploit deep-seated issues and the complex
interplay between them. As earlier stated, insurgencies are symptoms, not drivers, of much
deeper illnesses. Neither the violence of the insurgency, however horrific, nor the rhetoric of the
insurgents, often incomprehensible, should mask the reality of the causes that underpin them,
even if many insurgent groups appear to be less interested in redressing grievances than making
the most of them. Insurgents fight for reasons that are often valid and which resonate in the
conflict zones, and sometimes well beyond them. Admitting this fundamental truth provides no
more legitimacy to an insurgent movement than poverty does to violent criminals. However the
insurgents may be viewed, and whatever their methods, the underlying causes will eventually
have to be addressed if the insurgency is to be resolved. Insurgencies exploit these causes to gain
recognition and popular support, to discredit their opponents, and to lend credence to their
activities; and many are genuine reflections of existing problems demanding resolution. Ignoring
them only reinforces the insurgency’s appeal.
Exploiting these causes, insurgencies strive to undermine the existing political, economic, or
social order. Their objective is to loosen the grip of the ruling authorities and their security and
military forces, as well as those of any intervening or occupying power, by creating uncertainty,
demonstrating how ineffective the current political, social, and economic order is, and subverting
any efforts the counterinsurgent forces may make to address underlying causes. Guerrilla attacks,
sabotage, civil disorder, and intimidation of the civil population create instability and
uncertainty, while local cadres, and terrorist and guerrilla cells, create a parallel, shadow political
and economic structure to fill the void. All the while, rumors, propaganda, and competing
ideologies prey on pre-existing attitudes, prejudices, cultural biases, and fear to create a climate
of distrust, uncertainty, and fear that supports the insurgency. Some theories of insurgency
equate this use of beliefs to gaining and maintaining popular support. Such an explanation is far
too simplistic, however, and largely based on Western misunderstanding of the Maoist concept
of insurgency. Much more than popular support, insurgency seeks to establish a moral
ascendancy that, either through persuasion or coercion, ensures that, at a minimum, the
population does not turn against the insurgents and if not willingly, at least through intimidation,
remains passive or provides grudging support. In most conflicts, the majority of the population
attempts to remain clear of the conflict; such detachment works in the favor of the insurgency.
For that reason, insurgencies, especially in recent years, tend to resort to unconstrained violence,
at least when measured in terms of international norms of armed conflict. This should not be
confused with random or indiscriminate violence, for insurgent attacks are both purposeful and
select in their intent, even if often horrific and apparently unconcerned with civilian deaths. But
insurgent violence rarely conforms to the constraints levied on conventional military forces and
police, who, by law, both international and domestic, must abide by basic humanitarian
standards. Insurgent violence often will target the population in an attempt to intimidate,
undermine morale, or discredit the ruling government. It may also specifically strike at particular
individuals and groups, a strategy seen increasingly in ethno-nationalist and religious conflicts.
In addition, it may be directed at economic or political structures to prevent them from being
rebuilt or developed. As insurgencies increasingly are conducted in urban areas, the potential for
spectacular violence also increases. In the past three decades, insurgency violence has targeted
populated areas, terrorizing and cowing the citizenry and largely neutralizing the highly
destructive, but too often indiscriminate, weaponry of modern armies. Global terrorism added a
new, transnational dimension, the shock effects reverberating not only in the immediate vicinity
of the attack, but across a much wider audience. Terrorism’s reliance on ever more stunning and
bloody attacks in order to gain media attention attests to its primary aim. Insurgent violence,
whatever its tactical objective and however apparently random, nearly always seeks to influence
attitudes, perceptions, and will, locally, regionally, and globally. It is unconstrained in a legal,
and often accepted moral sense, but hardly imprecise.
Insurgents seek to overcome the numerical, technological, and organizational advantages
normally held by military and security counterinsurgency forces by isolating small detachments
and striking quickly. Ambushes, improvised explosive devices, kidnappings, apparently random
bombings, and selective shootings, for example, prove extremely difficult to combat and can be
morally and physically debilitating to the victims. When directed at military or security forces,
such tactics incite security forces to overreact, wear away morale, provide weapons and
equipment that may be left behind or captured, and keep the counterinsurgency effort offbalance. Rarely will insurgents attempt decisive tactical victory in open battle; to do so invites
disaster. Quite often casualties inflicted on counterinsurgent forces may actually be relatively
low, if continuous. Despite the constant attrition, military casualties rarely compare to those
sustained in conventional battles, let alone campaigns or wars. In fact, insurgencies today, having
moved into populated areas, are changing the equations of dead and wounded. Military forces
suffer far less than civilian populations. The rates of American casualties in Iraq, for example,
remains at less than one half that suffered during the conventional combat leading to the fall off
Baghdad.6 In contrast, civilian casualties have grown exponentially as terrorist attacks in urban
areas take a horrific toll. The point is not to minimize the danger to or the sacrifices of American
troops, but to emphasize that the effects of insurgent attacks are cumulative, and intended to
wear away popular will and polarize the Iraqis rather than decisively defeat security forces in
battle. Where once Mao cautioned about such tactics, insurgents now embrace them. The
intentional targeting of civilians in populated areas intimidates populations and leaders, creates
instability, and strikes at government control. While the carnage they inflict may be
unconstrained in its tactical effects and in terms of international norms, it nonetheless reflects a
carefully crafted campaign of purposeful violence aimed at the actions, structures, and beliefs of
the enemy forces and regime and the wider population, as well as the regional and international
audience that modern telecommunications have made participants in the insurgency.
Insurgent strategies are protracted ones. Few if any, insurgencies possess the capabilities
necessary for quick, decisive victory. Instead, their only hope rests in continuing the insurgency
for a long as possible, wearing away at their enemies. To this strategic imperative must be added
the sobering reality that insurgencies often reflect such deep-seated issues, especially, as earlier
discussed, those associated with ethno-nationalism and identities, that they prove to be highly
Based on statistics compiled by Anthony Cordesman, “US and Coalition Casualties and Costs of War in Iraq,”
Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 21, 2005.
resistant to defeat or resolution. Insurgents may be suppressed, but unless they are eradicated or
their demands met, they rarely voluntarily give up the fight. If insurgencies based on ethnonationalist or religious causes tend to be the most intense and intractable, they also tend to be the
most successful, perhaps because they involve issues that cannot be compromised. In particular,
these have also often been insurgencies seeking to overthrow the rule of a colonial or occupying
power or attempting to secede from the rule of a different ethnic or religious group. More than
one insurgency has flared, been suppressed by security forces, and then reemerged a few years
later to carry on the struggle.
Finally, and a relatively new development, control of urban areas has become a key element of
insurgent strategies. Unlike the insurgencies of the post-World War II era, in which remote
sanctuaries provided safety to insurgents (with the notable, and perhaps prescriptive, examples of
such conflicts as in Brazil and Algiers), urban areas have become insurgent centers of gravity.
Not only do they provide sustenance and enable terrorists and guerrillas to plan operations in
relative safety, they are the breeding grounds for many of the underlying causes of unrest and
thus form the essential political, social, and economic battlespace that must be controlled. This
does not mean insurgents must physically or continually occupy a city or town; they merely have
to make doing so untenable for government and security forces. Through apparently random
attacks on heavily populated areas (such as markets or religious sites), police stations, and
infrastructure, insurgents create and sustain instability. Additionally, they need only intimidate
urban neighborhoods through threats and occasional assassinations to ensure needed support and
anonymity. In Iraq, insurgents play a sort of cat and mouse game with security forces, moving in
and out of urban areas at will, creating instability and intimidating populations and police while
striking at key government facilities. Cities like Ramadi, Baghdad, and Karbala have become
urban cancers that continue to fester and seem to defy efforts to cure them.
Insurgency Strategy
merging of actions,
structures, and
beliefs that wears
away the will of an
Revolutionary Ideology
Fear and Uncertainty
Culture and Identity
Attitudes and Perceptions
Opinion and Rumor
Exploit Deep-Seated Issues
Undermine the Enemy
Employ Unconstrained Violence
Conduct Protracted Conflict
Control Urban Areas Actions
Guerrilla Attacks
Civil Disorder
Local Cadres
Shadow Government
Terrorist Cells
‘Military’ Units
External Support
Figure (2)
In successful insurgencies, these components are superimposed on the underlying causes and
dimensions of insurgency, forming a complex strategy that addresses the particular
circumstances and conditions of the conflict. Strategic approaches may thus differ, and have in
the past, as witnessed by the differences between Mao’s and Castro’s methods, for example, yet
retain a common framework. Figure (2), expands the earlier graphic to illustrate the essential
elements of an insurgency strategy. In the end, it is the ability of insurgents to seamlessly
combine the three by exploiting deep-seated issues, undermining their enemies, employing
unconstrained but purposeful violence, protracting the conflict until their enemies are no longer
psychologically, of not physically, capable of continuing, and, perhaps most profound in terms of
changing realities, control heavily populated areas that results in insurgent victory.
Counterinsurgency Defined
The characteristics, nature, causes, and dynamics of counterinsurgency largely mirror-image
those of insurgency. As with insurgency, the term counterinsurgency suffers from imprecision
and confusion. It has, in the past several years, been used interchangeably with stability
operations, foreign internal defense, couterguerrilla operations, and, most recently, countering
irregular threats. In addition, it has been included as a subcomponent of small wars,
unconventional warfare, asymmetric warfare, low-intensity conflict, and military operations
other than warfare. While intuitively, most who conduct any or all of these types of operations
know counterinsurgency when they experience it, each of these terms denotes a distinctly, if
sometimes interrelated, type of conflict or military strategy that, while perhaps a component,
does not define counterinsurgency as a whole. For example, small wars encompass a wide range
of military operations that may include counterinsurgency, but also interventions, peacekeeping
operations, crisis actions, and irregular warfare. On the other hand, counterinsurgency may
encompass or, conversely, be a component of, depending on the strategic situation, efforts to
combat terrorism, suppress guerrillas, restore security and stability, assist with foreign internal
defense, and reconstruct post-conflict societies. It is easy to see where confusion may begin.
Because of these interrelationships, a clear definition of the term counterinsurgency becomes
The current Department of Defense definition of counterinsurgency reads as follows: “Those
military, paramilitary, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to
defeat insurgency.”7 While more expansive than the doctrinal definition of insurgency in its
acknowledgement of political and economic components (see page 3), its emphasis on defeating
an enemy betrays a military bias. Additionally, it does little to aid in understanding the nature of
counterinsurgency or its expected end state. Given the nature, characteristics, and strategy of
insurgency, any definition of counterinsurgency must acknowledge the complexity of the conflict
in which it is engaged. For these reasons, the following definition of counterinsurgency is
Joint Publication 1-02, DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms dated 12 Apr 2001 (amended to 25
August 2005)
Counterinsurgency is an integrated set of political, economic, social, and
security measures intended to end and prevent the recurrence of armed
violence, create and maintain stable political, economic, and social
structures, and resolve the underlying causes of an insurgency in order to
establish and sustain the conditions necessary for lasting stability.
The expanded definition both acknowledges the causes and dynamics of insurgency and the
three-dimensional complexity of dealing with them and places military and security operations
firmly within the wider context of the conflict. Perhaps most important, not only does it define
what counterinsurgency is, it also establishes how successful counterinsurgencies must end. In
that sense, it is a prescriptive definition, and necessarily so; understanding counterinsurgency
must begin with comprehending not only its components, but its ultimate objective.
Counterinsurgency Strategy
Of the counterinsurgencies conducted during the past century, nearly 40% succeeded in either
suppressing the insurgents to a point that proved manageable for local security forces or ending
the insurgency altogether. In general, two strategic approaches have been taken. The first, a
predominantly military one, focuses on the military defeat of the insurgents. While occasionally
successful in ending violence, this approach requires both overwhelming force and a willingness
to apply extreme measures against not only the insurgents, but the population as a whole. Most
result in repressive and authoritarian regimes; many installed by military coup. While the
insurgents are crushed or, more likely, reduced to criminal levels, the conditions that spawned
them remain largely unaddressed. Counterinsurgency becomes an exercise in military force and
security. Examples of this type of approach include Argentina in the late 1970s and Guatemala
during the same period. While in both cases the insurgents were all but eliminated, the political
and social repercussions continue to resound. Often, as was the case in Ireland in 1916 and more
recently, in Palestine today, military solutions, even if effective in the short term, inflame the
insurgency once it recovers.
The second strategic approach, and the one that proves most successful at achieving long-term
stability, seeks to resolve the conflict in all its dimensions. In this approach, counterinsurgency is
not about defeat of an armed enemy; rather, its primary objective centers on establishing lasting
stability in a state or region. Lasting stability, however, does not just mean that the actions of the
insurgents have been suppressed or defeated; that is only part of the challenge. It includes longterm solutions to both the symptoms, and, more important, the causes of the insurgency. It
requires violence and subversion be brought to a level manageable by local security and police
forces; political, economic, and social structures be robust and mature enough to address the
problems that gave rise to the insurgency; and beliefs be transformed from the hatred, mistrust,
and prejudices that fueled the conflict. In short, the root causes underpinning the insurgency must
be addressed and solved. Victory resides not simply in the defeat of insurgent forces; it must be
understood as a much broader outcome that reinstates and then maintains stability, precluding the
insurgency from reemerging not because its fighters have been killed or suppressed, but because
the conditions for an insurgency no longer exist. If an insurgency is caused by actions, structures,
and beliefs that feed on instability, then counterinsurgency must combat those causes in all their
Achieving success in counterinsurgency may be one of the ultimate paradoxes; successful
counterinsurgency often means meeting the demands of the insurgents, or, more accurately, the
causes they espouse, without giving in to their methods. This should not be taken to mean that
insurgents must be appeased or tolerated, nor should their methods be legitimized. But the
actions of insurgents should never overshadow the underlying structures and beliefs that nurture
them. While the first may need to be defeated, the latter must be resolved if counterinsurgency is
to succeed. Addressing those causes must not be seen as capitulation; rather, it should be viewed
as a realistic and effective strategic approach to ending the insurgency without legitimizing the
insurgents’ methods. Examples of this approach include the British in Malaya in the 1950s and
the US-supported counterinsurgency in El Salvador in the 1980s. In both cases, the insurgents
were marginalized, and ultimately co-opted, by a strategy that addressed the political, social, and
economic causes of the insurgency.
Successful counterinsurgency strategies tend to last, on average, more than nine years. During
that period significant military and security efforts are required to keep the insurgent threat at
bay while the underlying causes can be addressed. Even when an insurgency has been largely
resolved, continuous and sustained effort may be needed to ensure it does not reemerge and that
political, economic, and social conditions and attitudes sustain stability. Like a chronic disease,
insurgencies and the conditions that caused them may never be fully eradicated, and thus the
need for continuous vigilance.
Notably, successful counterinsurgencies rarely involved negotiated settlements. However, this
should not be taken to mean that insurgents must be forcefully eliminated or that attempts to
negotiate with insurgent groups are fruitless. On the contrary, while formal agreements between
the state and an insurgent movement may be rare, quite often, political accommodations result in
insurgent groups either being co-opted or, more likely, ending armed conflict and becoming part
of the legitimate political process. Thus, amnesty programs, formation of new political parties
that include the insurgents, or at least the groups they represent, and inclusion of former
insurgent leaders in local and national political processes are as much a part of
counterinsurgency strategies as are military operations.
As insurgencies move into urban areas, control of populated and urban areas becomes
imperative. But unlike for insurgents, for counterinsurgency forces- both civil and militarycontrol must be continuous and all-encompassing. It also must be visible, requiring continuous
presence of security and police forces to ensure safety and prevent intimidation. Control also
demands provision of all essential services and utilities as well as freedom of movement, the
latter a dual-edged requirements that can also allow insurgents mobility. Finally, control also
must be psychological; the populations must not only see it, they must also accept it. They must
perceive that their needs and requirements are being met; that the causes of the insurgency no
longer apply to their neighborhoods, towns, and cities. This can be extremely difficult in divided
societies or when the security situation demands temporarily repressive measures, but without
that acceptance (which, as will be discussed in a later paragraph, does not necessarily mean
popular support), but for a counterinsurgency, without control of the populated areas, success
will be difficult if not impossible.
Successful Counterinsurgency
Transformed Beliefs
Popular Acceptance
Secure Identities
Changed Attitudes
Lasting Stability
Rebuilt Structures
Sustained Action
Stable Authority
Rule of Law
Social Services
Professional Security Forces
Restored Infrastructure
Economic Growth
Open Media
Security Operations
Law Enforcement
Intelligence Operations
Economic Development
Political Processes
Education and Training
Capacity Building
Figure (3)
Figure (3) illustrates the objectives and outcomes of a successful counterinsurgency strategy.
Note that, like insurgency, it is three-dimensional and interactive. Actions must be sustained and
not only seek out and destroy insurgent militants, but also address, on a daily basis, the basic
needs of the population and the underlying causes of the insurgency. Social, political, and
economic structures must be rebuilt while the beliefs that gave rise to the insurgency must be
transformed so that distrust and hatred no longer dominate. The ultimate objective of
counterinsurgency strategy is lasting stability, but not one that is imposed and maintained by
force or repression. Stability must provide the structures necessary to peacefully address issues
that may continue to arise; those structures must be understood, institutionalized, and fully
accepted by the population, who now feel they benefit from them. The following paragraphs
outline the Essential Tasks and critical enablers of a successful counterinsurgency strategy that,
over time, can achieve that stability.
Essential Tasks
An effective counterinsurgency strategy consists of several Essential Tasks, each of which
defines a set of necessary conditions and associated tasks for achieving them and that, when
integrated, provide a pathway for resolving the insurgency.8 Essential Tasks determine
objectives, integrate tasks and actions, and enable decision-makers to assess progress and change
direction if necessary. Rather than being conducted sequentially, they are mutually supporting
and integrated; they can not be neatly phased or performed exclusively by particular types of
units or organizations. None exist in isolation; the effects of the actions taken in each should be
This discussion and the Essential Tasks to follow are derived from empirical research into past counterinsurgency
campaigns. Notably, they also reflect and parallel the Essential Task Matrix set forth in US Joint Forces Command
J7 Pamphlet, US Government Draft Planning Framework for Reconstruction, Stabilization, and Conflict
Transformation published in December 2005.
mutually supporting. For example, combat operations not only restore security, they promote
stability, support governance, and not be conducted in such a manner as to hinder reconciliation
between factions. An operational component is rarely purely military or civil; it is an integrated
combination of both. The idea that responsibilities for certain Essential Tasks or associated tasks
can be neatly separated between military forces and civilian agencies do not reflect the practices
of the past nor will likely be those of the future. Counterinsurgency, like insurgency, is too
complex an undertaking for such demarcations.
The following Essential Tasks are most often associated with successful counterinsurgencies and
offer an essential framework for planning and executing counterinsurgency strategies. The tasks
listed under each are those that comprise the essential elements that must be carried out and have
historically been carried out, either wholly or partially, by military forces involved in
counterinsurgencies. The tasks lists should not be considered exhaustive; additionally, each task
consists of numerous subtasks that are not listed here and which must be assumed based on the
particular circumstances of an insurgency. Additionally, they represent those tasks that have
most often been carried out, It should also be noted that, while these Essential Tasks apply, in
general, to any insurgency environment or set of conditions, they must be adapted to the specific
situations in which they will be applied. Failure to do so will result in seriously, and perhaps
fatally, flawed counterinsurgency strategies.
Establish and Maintain Security. This Essential Task consists of three interrelated
subcomponents: restoring security; disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration; and
maintaining stability. In most counterinsurgency strategies, restoring security initially assumes
primary importance, particularly in those cases where insurgent attacks or the effects of violence
pose human security risks or threaten the existence of the government. Restoring security,
however, encompasses more than just defeating or eliminating guerrillas and terrorists or the
forcible imposition of order. It encompasses all actions taken to defeat insurgents, end factional
violence, suppress civil unrest, and eliminate criminal activity. In addition, it includes measures
taken to provide for the immediate physical welfare of the population and its essential
institutions and infrastructure, to include providing humanitarian relief and restoration,
protection, and provision of essential political, legal, economic, and social services. Measures
associated with restoring security will be conducted in urban environments, requiring improved
capabilities and training as well as special considerations and competencies for both the use of
force and for enforcing the law.
Restoring security in urban areas can be extremely difficult, and tends to be a manpower
intensive process that places as great an emphasis on basic small-unit skills as on technologies. It
also places a premium on training, situational and cultural awareness, precision engagement, and
restraint in the use of force. Insurgents must be separated from and rooted out of populated areas,
a difficult and dangerous process. Lavish use of firepower, while perhaps tactically effective if
insurgents can be positively identified and located, can easily lead to humanitarian and political
consequences that pose strategic dilemmas. Once cleared of insurgents, urban areas must be
continuously patrolled in order to keep insurgents out; these operations require the most of small
unit leaders operating in dispersed elements and consistently able to make decisions of
operational and strategic impact. This places a premium on rapidly disseminated intelligence,
reliable communications in urban environments, and decentralized command and control. Small
units, isolated by buildings and narrow streets and surrounded by apathetic or even hostile
populations, can be highly vulnerable and must have the tools, at the lowest levels, to deal with
unforeseen situations. The bloody actions of Marines in Ramadi in April 2004 attest to the
difficulties of maintaining security in urban areas. Many of the current tactical and operational
initiatives being developed by the services and Joint Forces Command are addressing these
challenges and need little further amplification here. In fact, counterinsurgency and urban
operations have come to be nearly inseparable. In addition to tactical and operational prowess,
however, restoring security also demands the capability to simultaneously re-establish and
maintain basic humanitarian services and to shield the population, as much as possible, from the
effects of the insurgency. Civil-military operations, to include temporary governance if
necessary, as well as supporting relief efforts will be critical components of urban security
operations. Restoring security is as much a humanitarian imperative as it is a combat one. To
accomplish this strategic task requires the following general operational tasks be accomplished.
Conduct combat, security, peace enforcement, and civil disturbance operations.
Conduct distributed urban combat and security operations.
Combat terrorism.
Provide physical security to individuals and groups.
Secure and protect key political, military, economic, and cultural sites and infrastructure.
Secure and protect populated areas.
Suppress crime and conduct law enforcement operations.
Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration are an integral component of establishing and
maintaining security and consist of a range of actions and tasks intended to collect and dispose of
the weapons and ammunition that inevitably litters conflict zones and disarm (the process of
collecting and disposing of weapons), demobilize, and reintegrate former insurgents and
combatants, as well as security operations intended to prevent the reintroduction and
proliferation of small arms. Disarmament and demobilization of armed factions, former
insurgents and soldiers, and controlling the ownership and use of weapons by general population
is an essential step in ensuring that the ruling government maintains a monopoly of the use and
means of force. Disarmament does not necessarily equate to collection and disposal of all
weapons in an area or country; rather, it establishes control over the possession and movement of
small arms and light weapons, as well as ammunition and explosives. Disarmament requires
clear sets of regulations and laws for owning weapons, as well as means of enforcing those laws.
Weapons smuggling can become a lucrative business during insurgencies and must be
suppressed, thus borders and key ports of entry must be secured. Equally important, captured and
former insurgents or armed forces must not only be disarmed, they must be detained, processed,
and eventually demobilized and reintegrated into society. Reintegration is an essential step in
ensuring they assume productive roles in building economic and political structures and, more
important, transforming beliefs. This is especially important in post-conflict situations in which
the presence of weapons and former military personnel can destabilize conditions. In addition, in
most conflict zones, unexploded ordnance poses a significant threat to both security forces and
the poilsulation; these must be found and neutralized. Finally, a key component of disarmament
includes rearmament of police, security forces, or local militias in a manner that provides for
local security and doers not assist in arming or rearming insurgents. Operational tasks associated
with disarmament and demobilization include the following.
Locate, identify, and eliminate arms and ammunition stockpiles.
Seize illegal weapons and arms caches.
Prevent the importation or smuggling of weapons into the conflict zone.
Conduct voluntary disarmament and weapons registration programs to collect, secure,
control, and eliminate small arms and light weapons and other associated military
Disarm and demobilize individuals and groups.
Develop and enforce arms control measures.
Conduct ordnance disposal and demining operations.
Identify, detain, and process insurgents, former soldiers, and fighters.
Reintegrate former soldiers and fighters and released insurgents.
Rearm and reequip police and security forces and local militias.
Operations associated with maintaining stability seek to create and maintain an environment in
which governance, political and economic development, and rebuilding may occur without threat
of political turmoil, violence, crime, or social conflict. Stability not only requires that insurgents
be neutralized, it also encompasses establishment of local governance and security capacities,
prevention of crime, resettlement or return of populations to former combat zones, freedom of
movement for commerce and travel, protecting human rights, and establishing civil authority.
Because the key battlegrounds of insurgency are increasingly urban, the ability of
counterinsurgency strategy to establish physical control over densely populated areas and then
address the infrastructure, crime, governance, and health issues that plague them in conflict
zones will be crucial. While insurgents create instability simply by moving in and out of urban
areas, conducting attacks on key facilities, or intimidating indigenous police forces and
populations, those engaged in counterinsurgency do not have that flexibility. To effectively
maintain stability, counterinsurgent forces must control urban areas by providing continuous
security, sustaining political and legal capacities, restoring social and sustain civil service, and
addressing social problems in the urban areas. The population must see and believe that the
security forces and civil authorities are both legitimate and permanent. Maintaining stability is a
continuous process that strives to ensure daily lives are no longer threatened by insurgent
violence and warfare and assume relative normalcy. Most important, successfully maintaining
stability in urban areas requires an integrated effort of military and security forces, government
agencies, local authorities, the many private and non-governmental agencies and organizations
that so often operate in conflict zones, and, most important, the local populace. It is a continuous
and long-term set of tasks that can often be frustrating and dangerous. Maintaining stability
includes the following subtasks.
Conduct peacekeeping, security, and law enforcement operations.
Conduct urban security operations.
Provide public safety.
Establish effective local political and legal capacities.
Train and support indigenous security and police forces.
Neutralize criminal gangs and armed groups that continue to create instability.
Rebuild, maintain, and sustain essential services.
Transport and secure food, water, medicines, and other essential commodities.
Secure borders and key entry/transshipment points.
Ensure freedom of movement and transportation of commercial goods.
Protect civil and human rights.
Provide human security, to include establishing and operating refugee camps.
Conduct humanitarian assistance operations.
Support government, NGO, and IGO humanitarian relief efforts.
Provide Humanitarian Relief and Essential Services. This is the process by which both
military and civil authorities, as well as local institutions, international organizations, and NGOs
provide immediate relief and rebuild damaged and destroyed critical infrastructure while
fostering and supporting local and national capacities to maintain necessary commercial,
transportation, utility, communications, and social service networks and capabilities. If properly
carried out, this task should also enhance the effectiveness of security forces by minimizing
vulnerability of the civil population and reducing the negative, and often destructive, effects of
military operations. Reconstruction should be the first step in establishing long term stability,
economic development, and transitioning to local and national governance. Like other Essential
Tasks, providing for social well-being begins in the populated areas or with services and
infrastructures that affect them, and must include not only repairing or building physical
structures, but securing them as well. In urban areas, even small amounts of damage can
substantially affect large populations; losses of electricity, water, sewage, or other essential
services can disrupt the lives of thousands or millions of people. Critical to effective
reconstruction is the need to carefully coordinate programs with the needs of local and regional
authorities; effectively carried out, reconstruction should be largely a “self-help” process.
Subtasks associated with conducting this task include the following.
Provide humanitarian relief; operate refugee camps.
Provide emergency services and operations.
Establish and rebuild local medical capabilities.
Support NGO/IGO humanitarian efforts.
Ensure freedom of movement; enable local commerce.
Protect human and civil rights.
Perform civic action and reconstruction projects.
Repair, rebuild, and maintain critical infrastructure, to include bridges, roads, airfields,
railroads, dams, utilities, communications, social services, sanitation, and medical
Construct housing; rebuild political, cultural and religious centers.
Foster local and regional rebuilding.
Foster and support local reconstruction projects.
Provide emergency services and operations.
Establish and rebuild local medical capabilities.
Provide expertise, training, support, and staffing for key capabilities, especially medical,
engineering, utilities, transportation, and logistics.
Rebuild or reestablish political, social, cultural, and religious capacities and centers.
Open and provide security along commercial and transportation routes.
Promote Effective Governance. Beginning locally and extending to the national level,
counterinsurgency operations must nurture the development and sustainment of effective
political and legal institutions capable of providing governance within the rule of law, meeting
the basic social needs of the populace, and providing both internal and external security to the
country. The key is ensuring governance provides a binding “social contract” in which the
political leadership and bureaucracy sees as its primary task enhancing the welfare of the
populace while the citizenry perceive the government- at all levels - as effectively representing
their interests and thus worthy of their support and allegiance. In today’s insurgencies,
establishing effective governance must begin in the key towns and cities, and spread from there;
for the congested populated areas have become key nodes for both insurgency and
counterinsurgency strategies. This precarious balance is supported by the following tasks
conducted by civil and military counterinsurgency forces, as well as international, regional, and
non-governmental organizations.
Provide temporary governance in the absence of political institutions.
Develop local and national political capacities capable of effective governance.
Support representative government at the local and national levels.
Conduct, supervise, and safeguard elections.
Establish legal and judicial structures and institutions.
Effect and enforce the rule of law.
Arbitrate and mediate local disputes and agreements.
Support or conduct war crimes tribunals.
Provide legal and political expertise, training, and education.
Sustain Economic Development. A long-term and continuous line of operation, sustaining
development draws from and builds on other efforts, especially those associated with
maintaining stability, conducting reconstruction, and establishing effective governance. It
primary objective is to create and support structures, practices, and attitudes that facilitate
economic growth and long-term prosperity. While military and security forces certainly play a
key part in protecting economic growth and ensuring conditions ripe for its development, the
bulk of the associate tasks fall to civil leadership and agencies, and quire often to individuals and
corporations. Nonetheless, in those cases in which violence continues or towns, cities, or regions
suffer from the political, economic, or social vacuum that often resides in the wake of insurgency
and warfare, military and security forces may be required to conduct tasks directly associated
with development. The may include the following tasks.
Secure and protect economic and commercial activities, to include local commerce and
trade as well as commercial lines of communication.
Operate government or commercial economic activities or infrastructures, to include
finance systems.
Prevent or suppress illegal smuggling or criminal activities that compete with economic
Support or enforce tax and revenue collection.
Provide logistics, transportation, or other capabilities necessary for the effective
movement and marketing of goods and services.
Encourage and support property ownership.
Restore and protect urban commerce centers and manufacturing.
Protect harvests and agricultural development.
Support Reconciliation. In order for the conditions that underpin insurgency to be resolved, the
psychological and social wounds that inevitably accompany internecine warfare must be
addressed. The goal of reconciliation is to reunite populations and countries that have suffered
the divisive effects of insurgency. Hatreds, distrust, and lingering animosities between the
populace and security forces and insurgent groups, between ethno-nationalist or religious
factions must be peacefully addressed. Revenge following conflict almost invariably incites new
violence. Those who have suffered atrocities will seek to have individuals punished, even as
amnesty programs go into effect. Displaced persons will be returned to the areas in which they
once lived. Minority or separatist groups who may have supported the insurgency will need to be
assimilated as the counterinsurgency effort succeeds. Reconciliation is a long-term and
continuous process that includes, for military forces, the following tasks.
Capture and detain terrorists and war criminals.
Conduct investigations, truth commission, war crimes trials, and military tribunals.
Arbitrate and mediate local disputes.
Resettle and support displaced persons and populations.
Enforce reparations and restitution.
Build local capacities for conflict and dispute resolution.
Support IGOs, NGOs, and government agencies dedicated to reconciliation.
Foster Social Change. In the end, reconciliation is also about political and social change. As
earlier discussed, rarely do insurgencies erupt in stable and effectively governed societies or
countries; while insurgent methods and goals may not be legitimate, the causes from which they
emerged usually have at least some kernel of validity. For that reason, counterinsurgencies that
seek to maintain the status quo have little chance of success; pre-existing social conditions and
structures, as well as attitudes, will need to be changed. This does not necessarily translate into
democratic, Western ideals of political liberalism, which are often anathema or
incomprehensible, at least when not translated into the cultural context in which they may be
applied. Unfortunately, social change can, and likely will be, disruptive, especially to traditional
societies, if carried out haphazardly or arrogantly. Change must occur within the cultural norms
of the society and thus cannot be imposed. Nonetheless, implementing social change is a key part
of counterinsurgency as it ensures that the other Essential Tasks are founded on a solid and
sustainable base. Tasks that may involve military forces include the following.
Encourage long-term grassroots political and social reform.
Enforce civil and human rights and the rule of law.
Prevent re-emergence of factions and extremism.
Avoid the use of repression or other totalitarian measures.
Provide for general education of the populace.
Ensure all Essential Tasks are integrated and support change, without creating additional
disruption or instability.
These Essential Tasks, as is evident from their overlapping components, cannot be addressed
separately or as phases in a sequential campaign or strategy. While some may need to begin
before others (restoring security, for example, is normally a prerequisite for effective
governance) they overlap and remain continuous; in many insurgencies, their relative importance
and the sequence in which they are being carried out may differ between provinces and even
towns or cities. Nor can they be deemed solely military or civilian responsibilities in either their
planning or execution; there are no neat lines of demarcation. The Essential Tasks are not
checklists that guarantee success; they offer a framework for a long-term (on average, in excess
of nine years) strategy that must be conducted three-dimensionally, with each task being
mutually supporting and carried out so that each actions supports and is supported by structures
and beliefs. Applied within the conditions and particular situations of each conflict, they offer a
proven guide to resolving the insurgency. Finally, it should be noted that certain aspects of
counterinsurgency that have become mantras of recently developed US military concepts and
documents are not included.9 These include combat operations, information operations, training
security forces, civil security, and civil action. While these are important, they are, in reality,
subtasks that are part of the Essential Tasks and the enablers (discussed in next section).
Counterinsurgency Strategy
merging of actions,
structures and beliefs
to resolve root causes.
Popular Opinion
Identity and Culture
Perceptions and Attitudes
Historical Narratives
Perceptions and Trust
Establish and Maintain Security
Provide Humanitarian Relief
Establish Governance
Sustain Development
Support Reconciliation
Foster Social Change
Military/Security Operations
Stable Government
Social Services
Rule of Law
Security and Police Forces
Economic Development
Civil and Human Rights
Law Enforcement
Intelligence Operations
Humanitarian Relief
Local Governance
Capacity Building
Information Operations
Figure (4)
In particular see, see the recently published draft concepts contained in Marine Corps Operating Concepts for
Changed Security Environment (especially Chapter 6, “Countering Irregular Threats: A New Approach to
Counterinsurgency”) and the Army’s draft FM 3-07.22, Counterinsurgency Operations.
Figure (4) offers a visualization of an effective counterinsurgency strategy showing how the
Essential Tasks interact within the three-dimensional dynamics of actions, structures and beliefs.
Within the actions, structures, and beliefs can be found many of the tasks to be accomplished;
each task, in turn, is a component of one or more of the Essential Tasks. The diagram represents
a dynamic process, not a static checklist that builds the necessary synergy and initiative to not
only overcome the insurgents and their strategy (see figure (2)), but to resolve the underlying
causes of the conflict and ensure they do not reignite violence.
While the Essential Tasks, integrated and continuous, are necessary if a counterinsurgency
strategy is to succeed, they are not necessarily sufficient. Certain factors must be present to
enable counterinsurgency forces (civil and military) to effectively execute the strategy. These
enablers cut across all the Essential Tasks. Historically, they have proven to be the critical
factors in framing success; their absence has largely meant failure. They must be integrated into
each essential task when developing counterinsurgency plans.
Clear Objectives. Counterinsurgency demands a clearly defined, unambiguous, and executed set
of political and military objectives. The pathway to resolution should be identified at both
strategic and operational levels. The strategic objectives must remain constant and not be swayed
by the inevitable tactical and operational changes that will occur. Historically, of those
counterinsurgency strategies that failed, all but one lacked clear objectives or suffered from
strategic and operational confusion; of these that succeeded, nearly 90% benefited from clear
goals that were fully understood by those planning and executing the strategy. It is not enough
that the objectives be stated by political leaders; they must be communicated to all levels and all
units, organizations, and agencies involved in the counterinsurgency. Well-written statements
that fail to filter to the operational and tactical levels are of little value. Finally, objectives must
closely coordinated between US and host nation leaders, both civil and military, at all levels to
ensure they are agreed and compatible. Military forces should be [prepared to carry out the
following tasks.
Establish clear and unambiguous strategic and operational objectives.
Communicate objectives to all levels (strategic, operational, and tactical) and across
Ensure US and government strategic, operational, and tactical objectives are compatible
and mutually supporting.
Ensure Coalition and host-nation agrees with and supports objectives at all levels.
Civil-Military Unity of Purpose. Civil authorities, military commanders, and, equally
important, the many non-governmental agencies and organizations (humanitarian, contractor,
etc.), whether indigenous, US, or neutral organizations, must coordinate to achieve the objectives
of the counterinsurgency effort. While ideally, one civil or military commander may be optimal,
the civil-military complexities of counterinsurgency require that, at a minimum, careful
coordination must be the norm. Unity of purpose must extend to all levels of the
counterinsurgency. It is achieved through the use of civil-military coordination centers and
processes, integration of civil and military organizations, such as the recently developed
Provisional Reconstruction Teams deployed in Afghanistan, and common planning processes
and procedures. Particularly problematic will be the many civilian and non-governmental
workers who have come to inhabit conflict zones; while the vast majority is well-intentioned and
many are highly competent, they tend to work outside of governmental or other controls.
Nonetheless, unity of purpose is not the responsibility of any single organization or agency, it is
the duty of all engaged in counterinsurgency, who must work towards a common set of
objectives. This enabler consists of the following tasks.
Conduct interagency planning.
Coordinate and integrate civil and military operations (to include those of NGO/IGO) at
strategic, operational, and tactical levels.
Develop and maintain a common civil-military operational picture.
Establish joint, interagency (to include NGO/IGO), and coalition communications
capable of operating in modern large cities.
Ensure national, provincial, and local coordination with other agency, NGO/IGO, and
civil authorities.
Integrated Intelligence. Few would argue that accurate and timely intelligence is crucial to
successful counterinsurgency. However, intelligence is far more than a process for determining
locations or movements of insurgent, finding individuals, or developing targeting data. It extends
beyond the realm of military concerns to encompass a wide range of information and intelligence
related to political, social, economic, and security issues. Indigenous attitudes, perceptions and
mores, social hierarchies, and community needs may be more important than the location of a
particular insurgent or group. In urban areas, intelligence must be able to understand and
continually assess the attitudes of the many groups living together, determine their physical
needs, and, if necessary, provide precision tracking and targeting of individuals and small
groups. Insurgents make little distinction between the many elements, neither should those
conducting counterinsurgencies. For that reason, counterinsurgency intelligence must orient in
more than one direction; in addition to assessing the enemy, it must also assess civilian, often be
highly decentralized, yet able to be shared both up and down the chain, but also laterally and
across organizational boundaries. And, like all aspects of counterinsurgency, intelligence must be
fully integrated, not only between military and government forces, but also with civilian agencies
and, if at all possible, with indigenous leaders and the non-governmental actors throughout the
conflict zone. Integrated intelligence demands the following.
Provide military, economic, political, cultural, and social intelligence at all levels.
Conduct urban intelligence operations.
Integrate police, security force, and military intelligence collection, processing, analysis,
and dissemination.
Coordinate and share information and intelligence with other agency, civil, and
NGO/IGO authorities.
Fuse intelligence at all levels; provide immediate access to small units and police.
Legitimacy. Legitimacy must be achieved both internally and externally; that is, the
counterinsurgency must be seen as legitimate by the populace that must international community
(and, by extension, the domestic population of an intervening state). It is a critical component of
transforming beliefs and thus cuts across all Essential Tasks and as well as three dimensions of
insurgency and counterinsurgency. Often equated with “winning hearts and minds” and
information operations, legitimacy is a far more complex entity.
Internally, legitimacy often is equated to popular support, although that term may be too
simplistic. Popular legitimacy involves a more complex dynamic than the sort of popularity
contest implied by phrases like “winning the hearts and minds”. Information campaigns and local
civil affairs projects, often the mainstay of operational and tactical operations designed to win
over populations, must be inextricably linked to the essential counterinsurgency objective of
transforming beliefs. Legitimacy within the conflict zone occurs when populations, and their
leaders, understand that the counterinsurgency effort benefits them more than any alternatives. It
is thus as much a result of actions and structures and cuts across all Essential Tasks. Popular
support can not become a distinct entity used as weapon or to justify action that otherwise may
not be legitimate. No matter how well-crafted, information operations and strategic
communications cannot overcome poor strategic logic.
Externally, legitimacy centers on domestic (in the case of supporting or intervening states),
regional, and international acceptance that the counterinsurgency effort is justifiable, worth the
costs, and conducted in accordance with accepted norms and laws. Internationally and in the
United States, these norms largely derive from traditional concepts of Just War. To this end, the
counterinsurgency must be conducted in accordance with insurgents. Failure to do so by
counterinsurgent forces can pose significant strategic risks. Modern communications, the
political necessity for counterinsurgencies to be conducted by coalition forces, and the constant,
but sometimes forgotten, reality that US forces will operate in foreign lands, has raised
international legitimacy to level that often demands close scrutiny of even small unit actions.
While frustrating to those engaged in daily operations, this reality has become an essential
component of any effective counterinsurgency strategy.
Transform the attitudes and beliefs of the population.
Understand the impact of counterinsurgency actions and structural changes on local
beliefs and perceptions, especially in heavily populated areas.
Conduct operations in accordance with international laws and norms.
Execute operations with maximum transparency to local, government, US, and
international observers.
Conduct strategic communications and operational and tactical information operations.
In the end, internal and external legitimacy is far less a function of public information or
psychological operations, as helpful as they may be in fostering it, than a reflection of the
cumulative effects of a well-conceived and integrated strategy that the majority of the
populations, both inside and outside the conflict zone, see as effective and conducted within the
bounds of international, domestic, and local norms, and directed at resolving the problems that
led to the insurgency.
Use of Force
Many concepts and doctrines of counterinsurgency proclaim that an essential element of any
counterinsurgency strategy must be the minimal use of force. While generally true in a strategic
sense, the level and type of force used is a more complex issue and largely situation dependent.
Random and indiscriminate use of force, or the use of improper and unnecessarily destructive
means, can be counterproductive, especially when the damage inflicted excessively affects the
civil population. This is particularly critical when conducting military operations in urban areas,
where even the slightest mistakes can be catastrophic in terms of lives lost and, in the long run,
strategic harm. At times, however, as when insurgent forces have been positively located and can
be brought to bay, or when they control key areas, especially provincial capitals or critical
facilities, overwhelming force at the tactical and operational levels may be appropriate. The
willingness to use force sometimes sends a psychological message that can be decisive in
shaping beliefs. When determining the level and types of force to be used by military and
security forces, its use should be discriminate and strike at only those insurgent targets or
elements at which it is aimed. Nonetheless, at the point of application it may be overwhelming
(indeed, some might argue should be). The type, level, and timing of any use of force must be
viewed three dimensionally. Not only should military actions be directed at insurgents, but their
impact on political, economic, and social structures and, more important, how they shapes the
beliefs of insurgents, the population, and those scrutinizing the insurgency from afar must also be
carefully considered. The strategic effects of the use of force often far outweigh their tactical
utility. This does not mean that overwhelming force should be eschewed- at times and within
certain cultural or social constructs, it may be the best recourse. Restraint can be, and has been in
the past, as strategically damaging as heavy-handedness. Indeed, timid use of force, as was the
case in Fallujah in April 2004 when lack of action by US forces led to perceptions of their defeat
among insurgents and the local populace, can be counterproductive if not well-thought out. An
effective counterinsurgency strategy does not avoid combat or the use of force, but combat
cannot become the primary tool, nor can it be wielded indiscriminatingly or without anticipating
its long-term effects on all aspects of the counterinsurgency effort.
An Integrated Strategy
Insurgencies are highly complex, violent, protracted conflicts that seek fundamental political and
social change. Because their goal is to overturn real or perceived maladies endemic to particular
conditions and situations by employing a wide range of violent, political, social, and economic
means, insurgencies seem to defy simple categorization. Nonetheless, insurgencies possesses
unique conditions, characteristics, and dynamics that sets it apart and makes simple solutions
based on doctrinal formulas difficult if not impossible, they also share certain common traits.
Insurgency strategies generally pursue five operational objectives, each intertwined with the
other, that exploit underlying causes, undermine their enemy’s will, employ unconstrained (but
purposeful) violence, and wage protracted multi-dimensional warfare. Notably, they also
increasingly are moving into urban areas, and thus posing unique operational and tactical
challenges to US forces.
Successful counterinsurgency requires a strategy in which the Essential Tasks- from restoring
security to effecting reconciliation- are carefully choreographed with each other and enabled by
clear objectives, unity of purpose, sound intelligence, and internal and external legitimacy. The
strategy must be planned and executed as a fully integrated combination of continuing actions,
rebuilt structures, and transformed beliefs that eventually lead to lasting stability.
Counterinsurgency is neither for the faint of heart nor for those who neatly compartment roles
and responsibilities. IT is far more than a military campaign aimed at eradicating guerrillas and
terrorists. Historically, military forces engaged in counterinsurgency have carried out tasks
across all Essential Tasks, many of them not traditionally associated with the use of force. More
recently, civil agencies and other workers have found themselves performing tasks that have
changed the definitions of combatants and place them directly in the path of combat and
violence. While the preferred option may be to neatly compartment military and civil
responsibilities, such an approach has rarely been effective. Successful counterinsurgency results
from a long-term, continuous, and integrated civil-military strategy that builds lasting social,
political, and economic stability in a state or region while resolving the underlying causes that
that led to insurgency.
An Integrated Counterinsurgency Stra tegy
Unity of
Provide Humanitarian
Promote Governance
Sustain Development
Support Reconciliation
Foster Social Change
Essential Tasks
Establish and Maintain
X Enf orced Stabilit y
X Lasting St abilit y
Figure (5)
Figure (5) provides a graphic of an integrated counterinsurgency strategy that combines essential
tasks and enablers. It should not be viewed as a phased approach or a checklist for developing
static plans. Rather, it illustrates the necessary meshing between Essential Tasks and enablers.
Additionally, it shows what must be accomplished in order to achieve lasting stability. Those
strategies that approached counterinsurgency as a solely military problem and focused on finding
and eliminating insurgents while imposing security succeeded in suppressing violence only so
long as military force could be brought to bear- they rarely addressed the underlying causes. As
evidenced by such counterinsurgency strategies as those conducted in Argentina and Guatemala
in the 1970s, the resulting enforced stability often proved as dangerous as the insurgency itself.
Those counterinsurgency strategies that incorporated each of the enablers into the Essential
Tasks, such as those in El Salvador in the 1980s and Malaya in the 1950s, have succeeded in
achieving lasting stability. The strategies meshed civil and military Essential Tasks, executed
them with a singular purpose, developed a wide-ranging intelligence capability and, perhaps
most important, sustained their legitimacy while executing a three-dimensional plan that
understood the effects of actions on structures and beliefs.
Implications for Urban Operations
This counterinsurgency concept has attempted to provide a broad framework for understanding
insurgency and crafting an effective counterinsurgency strategy, with emphasis on the
implications for urban operations. As a guide to thinking about the problems of insurgency and
counterinsurgency, it does not delve into tactical, technical, or strictly military operational issues.
Placing urban operations within these broader topics should not be taken as implying that such
operations are somehow a subset of a wider counterinsurgency strategy. Rather, the two cannot
be separated; any discussion of counterinsurgency must include urban operations. The principles
and concepts presented in this paper apply to all counterinsurgencies, esp0ecially those
conducted in urban areas. This is, therefore, not a concept for urban counterinsurgency, as it is a
concept for thinking about the new realities of insurgency as a whole and how to resolve them, a
concept that must inevitably take into account the urban battlespace on which future conflicts
will likely be fought.
The physical centers of gravity of future counterinsurgency campaigns are migrating to the cities
and populations centers of conflict zones, and will continue to do so in the future. As with all
insurgencies, past and present, the critical battlegrounds have always been associated with
populations. If once Mao saw this essential terrain as being located among peasants in the
countryside, the demographics of the twenty-first century are clearly moving it to the world’s
urban areas. Within the urban zones breed the conditions and radicalism that spawn violence and
challenge the ability of emerging or failing states to provide any meaningful solutions.
Additionally, urban terrain offers the revolutionary movements that inevitably grow out of these
swirling structures and beliefs to grow, operate, and hide, protected by the complex terrain and
its inhabitants. Control of the urban terrain is thus key to sustaining insurgencies, countering
them, and, ultimately, resolving them.
Within each of the Essential Tasks discussed in the preceding pages, the subtasks listed must be
performed in urban areas. US forces must be as adept in their execution in the close confines of
the city as they are in the open countryside. Additionally, they must be fully integrated. Thus,
military forces may find themselves simultaneously conducting combat and security operations,
restoring essential services, protecting populations, providing local governance, disarming both
combatants and local citizens, rebuilding infrastructure, and reconciling ancient grievances in
communities that have lived within a few feet but often would not interact with their neighbors.
All these tasks will be performed in an environment in which the terrain consists of maze-like
streets and avenues and stout building, each of which could be a fortress unto itself and which
often will negate the high-technology equipment with which US military forces are increasing
equipped. Units may be dissipated by the urban terrain, as occurred in Ramadi in April 2004, out
of contact with other units who may be only a block or two away, but might as well be miles.
Daunting enough in situations in which firepower and combat are the norm, urban operations are
greatly complicated by the three-dimensional nature of counterinsurgency. As was discovered in
Somalia and reiterated in Iraq, attempting to fight insurgents who dwell in cities is both bloody
work and often, when measured in destruction and the attitudes of populace, self-defeating.
Indeed, the challenges of counterinsurgency in urban terrain are not new. Marines fought
insurgents in the streets of Haiti in 1915 and Hue in 1968. The French confronted terrorists in
Algiers in the 1950s; the British faced much the same in Oman two decades later. As the US
military looks to the future, it can expect to fight its insurgencies largely in the cities, and thus
must learn from the past.
This reality demands military forces capable not only of engaging the enemy, but doing so within
the confines of urban areas in such a manner as to be precise, while preventing the kinds of
damage and killing that inevitably alienates beliefs. It is no longer enough to train and equip
forces to fight and defeat enemies in cities; they must be able to do so with minimal force and
with an eye to the long-term effects of doing so, while at the same time, conducting a wide range
of operations intended to marginalize and then defeat the insurgency by making it irrelevant..
Destroying a town to save is no longer and option, if it ever was. Indeed, the counterinsurgency
ideal would be to root out and neutralize enemy insurgents while causing no damage, improving
the economic and political infrastructure within the cities, and gaining the trust and respect of the
thousands of inhabitants of the battlespace. In addition, US forces must be ready to provide
humanitarian relief, establish essential services, and assume at least temporary governmental
control in large urban areas, and to retain control, both physical and moral, of those areas for
months if not years in conjunction with civil authorities. Future capabilities must be created that
allow highly decentralized, often small units to locate and engage enemy forces and perform a
wide range of both military and civil functions while retaining a continuous presence. Success in
counterinsurgency and its urban character must be based on a set of capabilities that do far more
than enable forces to fight in the streets. In the end, victory or defeat will depend on who is
capable of winning in the streets across all dimensions of insurgency.
Appendix A:
Failed Counterinsurgencies
Mozambique 1964-1975
Appendix B:
Successful Counterinsurgencies
El Salvador
* Denotes those counterinsurgency strategies that were primarily based on military
defeat of the insurgents and resulted in enforced stability. All either established or
retained colonial or repressive regimes.
Appendix C:
Major Ongoing Insurgencies
Sri Lanka
Intifada (Israel)
* Recent agreements between the Aceh insurgents and the Indonesian Government
indicate that this insurgency may be close to resolution.