Insurgent Theory Across the World

To properly analyze how the last decades’ insurgencies mobilize and fight against a state, we should look to insurgent theorist, instead of looking for answers through counterinsurgency (COIN). Insurgent theorists, who also refer to themselves as guerrillas, have explained what tactics they use to mobilize support and fight against a hostile power. By examining these theories on their own, we can arrive at better solutions to counter insurgencies.

An insurgent war, or a guerrilla war, describes a tactic generally used by non-state actors to fight the state. Since the state is generally stronger, a guerrilla war is a tactic used by the weaker side (Mao 1937). Weakness could take many forms, such as numerical or technological inferiority to state military forces (Guevara 1969a). In addition to weakness, insurgencies tend to share four general features (Beckett 2001). They operate in terrain that is ill-suited to regular warfare, such as mountains, jungles, or cities. They have incredible knowledge of the locality in which they fight, which their opponent does not, owing to recruiting fighters from the local towns and cities. Insurgents have some level of support from the local population, which serves to legitimize state action to defeat the insurgents. Finally, they are also generally more mobile than state forces. This owes to the lack of heavy equipment among insurgent groups (technical inferiority) and area knowledge provided by local insurgents and supporters.

Insurgencies tend to follow a linear progression: strategic defensive, strategic stalemate, and strategic offensive (Mao 1938).  On the strategic defensive, the state occupies most of the territory, and the guerrilla must remain mobile. They make progressively larger attacks against the state to grow their legitimacy amongst a disaffected population and weaken the state’s forces, but largely concern themselves with keeping the insurgency alive and expanding. The state has the momentum and the greatest ability to defeat the insurgency in this stage (Guevara 1969b). In the strategic stalemate, the state has lost the initiative. State forces hold and protect hard points such as military bases or cities, while the insurgent rules an ever increasing amount of the countryside (Lawrence 1920). The insurgents begin to establish alternative state institutions to rival and replace those of the enemy state (Guevara 1969a). On the strategic offensive, the insurgency has pulled equal to the state in fighting capacity and is fighting largely as a regular force. This is when cities begin to fall to the insurgents and state militaries are forced to retreat and defend a dwindling amount of territory. This highly simplified progression can also regress if the guerrillas make mistakes, or the state is particularly strong.

Just as progress will be different across insurgencies, so will organization and tactics. The insurgent theorists admit that there are no hard laws and that each insurgency must adapt to its conditions (Guevara 1969a). However, with this brief sketch of what an insurgency is, we can delve into how the theorists suggest an insurgency mobilize.

Regarding popular mobilization for the insurgency, we can separate a population into three groups: insurgent supporters, neutrals, and state supporters. As with all wars, in a guerilla conflict there needs to be a grievance or opportunity to convince the civilians to join the insurgency or support it. With an insurgency, there are typically two types of grievances that mobilize support. First, a material grievance in the form of an economic or political crisis that exposes the weaknesses of the state and creates harmful conditions for the citizens (Lenin 1906a). Second, an ideological grievance, such as nationalism, can convince people to rise up against a foreign occupier (Lawrence 1990). The two can often work together to create a purposefully diverse coalition among insurgents. For instance in Cuba, the material grievance of unequal land distribution was combined with strong anti-American fervor. These material or ideological grievances do not need to be fully developed for an insurgency to begin, however (Guevara 1969a). Insurgents can take advantage of weak state institutions or external circumstances to create the necessary conditions for a sustained insurgency. This happened with the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans, as the Arab leaders saw an opportunity to ally themselves with the British against Istanbul. This stage of popular mobilization corresponds to the insurgency’s strategic defensive.

The goal of the initial mobilization is to create a safe space for the insurgency to grow. As the insurgency develops from the defensive to stalemate, though, popular mobilization must spread to ever wider groups of the population. Much of the civilian population must be convinced to support the insurgency, or at least not hinder it. By gaining such popular support, the insurgency will be able to use the mass population to hide, raise funds, and dilute state control (Mao 1938). To appeal to this wider audience, the insurgency needs to show that the state is weak and illegitimate and that the insurgents have the capacity to fight and win against the state’s forces, as well as create institutions to meet the needs of the population. Obviously, winning battles is the most important, as it showcases the insurgents’ abilities and the state’s weakness. On a subtler front, though, the insurgency also needs political propaganda that it can distribute widely across all three segments of the population (Mao 1938). To do so, the insurgency can establish institutions such as printing presses or universities to create both popular and intelligentsia propaganda. In Cuba, Castro and Guevara urged the insurgent camps to create pamphlets that could be widely distributed among the peasants, while in China, the Communist insurgents established universities throughout the occupied land to encourage philosophical discourse that ultimately supported the insurgency. In addition, an insurgency can also take advantage of existing networks (Lawrence 1997). During the Arab Revolt, secret societies such as the Akhua and the Ahad in Syria and Iraq did much of the same work done later by presses in Cuba and universities in China.

As the insurgency moves from stalemate to strategic offensive, it needs to reach the last segment of the population: the state’s supporters. This will naturally be the most difficult group to sway; they have stayed with the state even as it began to lose to the insurgents. Since the insurgency already has a powerful base and has convinced a large part of the population to accept its rule, the last segment will largely consist of elites whose continued success depends on the state’s continuation. Perhaps most important for the insurgency to sway are the military officers and regular soldiers (Lenin 1906b). By coopting this group, the insurgency can bring into its ranks trained specialists, hardened troops, and proven leaders (Lawrence 1920). At the least, it can convince these people to defect from the regime. This is mainly done through force of arms. The insurgency needs to show that defending the state is only prolonging its inevitable defeat, or that the state has taken unjustifiably violent actions to defeat the insurgency. In reality, it is unlikely that even if many do desert that they will join the insurgency. The real value here is denying these useful soldiers to the state and further cementing the insurgency’s hold over the first two segments by showing that even the state’s supporters no longer wish to fight. . . .


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