By Matthew Corcoran, Writer & Multimedia Producer
Professor of Politics at NYU New York Michael Gilligan taught a class at NYU Abu Dhabi in January on the topic of insurgency. The course mixed reading and classroom learning with a trip to Nepal to interview people who fought on both sides of that country's Maoist insurgency, which ended in 2006.
What is insurgency? Is it the same thing as civil war? How is it different?
Experts use different definitions. I think of insurgency as a particular type of civil war with two essential characteristics: 1) an asymmetry of military power, with the state (counterinsurgents) possessing much more than the insurgents, and 2) the fundamental aim in an insurgency for both sides is to obtain mass-based popular support. The first feature gives insurgencies their essential military character. In conventional war the aim is to make contact with enemy military forces and destroy them. Since insurgents never have military superiority, except perhaps at the very end, their aim is to avoid any substantial contact with the enemy. Using extreme mobility and the element of surprise, they launch hit-and-run attacks against the enemy to wear them down while at the same time building mass-based support in the population. Second, while all war is "politics by other means," insurgency is different in that it is a political struggle for the support of the people. Once the insurgents gain popular support, they will be able to rely on the people to hide and supply them. If on the other hand the counterinsurgents gain popular support, they will be able to rely on the people to identify the insurgents, removing the insurgents’ crucial ability to hide among the population.
What are some examples of recent insurgencies?
There are almost 50 ongoing insurgencies. One prominent example is a set of insurgencies that make up what some pundits have called the "global Islamic insurgency." That is a misnomer because both sides of this insurgency, insurgent and counterinsurgent, are Islamic. This is a global struggle between insurgents who reject modernity and the remarkable economic, social and political progress over the last half century in places like Abu Dhabi. They wish to turn back the clock and reestablish medieval Islamic social and political institutions. The various groups associated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan are good examples. ISIS, which we have been hearing a lot about lately, shares these political goals, but it doesn’t operate like an insurgency. It doesn’t employ hit-and-run tactics, but instead takes and holds territory. It also eschews building true mass support and instead achieves control over the population through extreme terror. For these reasons, I am not sure I would categorize ISIS as an insurgency. Regardless, the counterinsurgents in these various cases are obviously the legal authorities in the countries plagued by these groups with help from many other countries around the world.
Why do insurgencies occur? How are they stopped, or resolved?
Insurgencies require a cause that is attractive to a sufficiently large group of people. Examples of such causes are economic deprivation, the desire by an ethnic minority for political autonomy or, as mentioned above, a fundamentalist rejection of modernity. A school of thought within political science argues that some such causes are present in almost every society and therefore what really determines whether or not an insurgency breaks out is the state’s capacity to deter them. Thus all the maladies of weak states: low per capita incomes, a small tax base, weak armed forces, and so on, are correlated with insurgencies. Mountainous and jungle-covered terrain makes counterinsurgency difficult and therefore insurgency more likely.
There is no general playbook by which insurgencies are stopped or resolved. Sometimes they end with the military victory of one of the sides. For example, about five years ago, Sri Lanka ruthlessly defeated the 30-year-old Tamil Tiger insurgency. Since the end of the Cold War, insurgencies often come to an end when, through the good offices of the United Nations or some neutral third power, the combatants reach a peace agreement in which the state, to varying degrees, accommodates the cause that motivated the insurgency. These peace agreements are more likely to last when outside peacekeeping forces are deployed to monitor the agreement. Often the international community offers assistance to address the state weakness that contributed to the insurgency in the first place. Given their extreme views, this latter sort of ending is not currently on the horizon for the conflicts with ISIS, the Taliban and Al Qaeda.