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My Asynchronous COIN Debate with Dr. Bernard Finel

Friday, January 7th, 2011

Actually, we are probably not that far apart, really.

Originally, in a past year, Dr. Finel wrote this.

I am not wholly convinced as a matter of ontology that there exists a coherent phenomena that can be termed “insurgency.” My sense, instead, is that there are various sub-state armed threats that exists to states, several of which we usually lump in together under the rubric of insurgency, but which have very different causes and consequences, and hence require different strategic approaches.  I am not just referring, by the way, to the various motivations for “insurgency” – i.e. religious vs. leftist vs. ethnic – but also that there are at least some groups that have strategic orientations quite at odds from the image of an organized group with ambitions to replace the existing government.

My curiousity piqued, I responded here:

Why are submaximum strategic goals (i.e. something < regime change) an indicator of “non-insurgency” ? I think this standard would eliminate most of the popular uprisings in recorded history – for every Taiping Rebellion or Emelian Pugachev, there’s a dozen smaller, hopeless, desperate, peasant revolts.

Why the implicit use of the Maoist model as the defining characteristic of “insurgency”? That is, to the extent Bernard considers insurgency to exist

Dr. Finel replied yesterday with this ( I will intersperse my comments to make it easier on the readers):

I guess I should have been clearer.  I have no interest in debates over semantics. My interest is in ensuring that terms we use actually have a useful and coherent meaning and analytical utility.  You want to call the “Maoist model” a “war of national liberation” rather than insurgency, go ahead.  You want to call narcoviolence, “insurgency,” fine go ahead.  But don’t call a Maoist model and narcoviolence by the same name because if you, you confuse the issue.  I really don’t care what terms is applied to the various phenemena under consideration, but I do care that before we lump things together we make sure the analytic containers are, in fact, meaningful.

I am all for analytical clarity. Narco-cartels in Mexico were originally engaged in purely economically motivated violence, mostly against each other and corrupt officials in their pay. That is in my view, criminal activity. When the narcos changed their goal to encompass establishing TAZs that supplant the political authority of the Mexican state and engaged in systematic campaigns of assassination, intimidation and infiltration of local, state and Federal Mexican goverment entities they evolved from organized criminals into an insurgency.

Is there a calculated political challenge to state power by non-state actors manifested in organized violence? If so, that to my mind is an insurgency, regardless of whether they seek to topple the state or carve out some sort of niche where they can dominate.

Why is this relevant? Because, as a practical matter there are actually insurgencies that grow out of legitimacy gaps and that are best fought – perhaps – by population-centric counter-insurgency measures designed to provide good governance. But not all forms of sub-state violence are that sort of insurgency, and as a result, not all forms of sub-state violence require (or are even usefully addressed) by the sort of clear-hold-build model of integrated military operations and development initiatives.

We are facing a world with a great deal of sub-state disorder. The mistake is assuming that all of this reflects a unified dynamic (e.g. insurgency) that can be addressed with a single response (e.g. population-centric counter-insurgency).

Tend to agree with Bernard here, but with a more generous inclination to Pop-centric COIN. It isn’t a silver bullet but it has some uses. Frankly, if a regime lacks all moral scruples, democidal assault against probable supporters of insurgents (i.e.  death squads, reigns of terror) is often successful in short order. Not always. Rwanda’s genocide of the Tutsi contributed to the overthrow of the radical Hutu government by Tutsi rebels but it worked in Guatemala in the 1970’s, in French Indochina and El Salvador in the 1930’s.

Or there is a middle ground. El Salvador in the 1980’s fought a brutal war against the Communist FMLN with a focus on kinetics and extrajudicial murder but the government abandoned an oligarchical military junta for a representative democracy, addressing concerns about legitimacy. Colombia in the 1990’s combined unleashing vicious loyalist paramilitaries with an aggressive effort to establish competent governance, in order to push back against the marxist rebels of  FARC and the ELN. At a minimum, if counterinsurgents want better intelligence, they need to win the trust of locals, at least some of them, most of the time.

This is not just a theoretical critique. The situation in Iraq was not an “insurgency” in the classic meaning of the term.  Indeed, much of what we considered insurgency was actually little more than a terror campaign aimed at maximizing political leverage.  Other parts involved contestation for power between various Shi’a factions.  And a third, was a simple, and straight-forward sectarian conflict over a relatively small slice of contested territory. None of those conflicts required a comprehensive COIN/Development strategy to manage.

The classic insurgency, the “Maoist model”, should probably have ceased being regarded as definitive twenty years ago. Decentralized, quasi-anarchic “open source insurgency” as conceptualized by John Robb, are more probable in multicultural, weak states with artificial borders drawn by long dead colonialists.

Just to be clear. I am not, as a matter of analytical commitments, always a “splitter.” It is not my desire to disaggregate these domestic conflicts simply for the sake of disaggregating them. Personally, coming out of a mainstream political science orientation, I actually prefer to be a “lumper.” Lumping is how you get the most powerful and parsimonious theories.  But in this case, we’re lumping too many dissimilar concepts together into the basket of insurgency and it is hurting both the academic study of the phenemenon as well as leading to inappropriate policy recommendations.

Insurgency, like terrorism, is both a tactic and a categorical classification. Some movements will combine insurgency with terrorism, peaceful political activities and economic development. Or with criminal enterprises. But does the violence in sum have a political objective? Is it directed against the state?

These are the key questions.

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