The "Problems of Mobilization" and the Analysis of Armed Groups

By Vinci, Anthony | Parameters, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The "Problems of Mobilization" and the Analysis of Armed Groups


Vinci, Anthony, Parameters


"If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat."

--Sun Tzu (1)

The first step in knowing your enemy is deciding what to call him. When dealing with non-state, armed groups, there is a set list of categories which are used for classification. These categories include insurgent, guerilla, warlord, terrorist, and militia. From this initial classification we tend to apply a set of assumptions about the groups for our analysis and response. For instance, if we believe we are fighting a guerilla insurgency, we ask where the popular support is coming from; or if it is a terrorist group, we apply counter-terror tactics.

The danger in this approach is that poor classification and analysis may lead to an improper response. At best, this may be ineffective; at worst, it can be catastrophic. For instance, the Ugandan government began by treating the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) as a guerilla insurgency, and this led to standard strategies such as creating protected hamlets in order to distance the group from local support. However, the LRA had never had much local support, nor did it really need it. Thus, the protected hamlet strategy has not reduced the LRA's ability to continue the conflict and has served only to further alienate the affected population from the Ugandan government. If the LRA was better classified and analyzed, the Ugandan army's response might have been more effective.

The fundamental problem is that armed groups cannot always be clearly defined. This issue has arisen with the multiplication and diversification of armed groups since the end of the Cold War. Insurgents beholden to the Soviets have been forced to find new and creative ways to support and arm themselves. Once-forgotten motivations, such as religion and ethnicity, have come to play a greater role in post-Cold War conflicts. Protracted wars in the developing world have led armed groups to adapt and evolve over time. Globalization has opened up many new doorways for armed groups to arm and fund themselves. These factors have radically changed the nature of armed groups and allowed them to adapt and evolve into completely new forms. While it once might have been relatively straightforward to distinguish an insurgency from a terrorist group, or even a domestic terrorist from an international one, now it is not so simple.

The fact is, our current tool box of classification and analysis is not necessarily ready to deal with the diverse and rapidly evolving types of armed groups, and this is cause for concern. Of course, there always will be lessons to learn from past instances of insurgencies or terrorism. But in order to be agile and responsive enough to deal with armed groups such as those operating in Iraq--which we cannot conclusively classify as insurgents or terrorists--we need to reconsider the entire approach to analysis and response.

This article attempts to lay the foundation for a more agile, rationalized system of analysis for all types of armed groups which can take into account the evolving and adapting nature of contemporary armed groups. In particular, it will supply a tool kit for analyzing different armed groups with two intentions: to provide a better system of comparison between armed groups, and a more effective perspective for recommending tactical and strategic responses. Rather than adding another taxonomic system to the already extensive literature, this article seeks to change the perspective used to analyze armed groups.

In order to accomplish this task, the article will seek to find the lowest common denominator by which to compare all armed groups. It asks the question, What are the issues which all armed groups must address regardless of their history, motivations, or goals? Put another way, What are the problems which any armed group must face in order to mobilize its forces? By analyzing the ways that different armed groups solve these problems, we can find out a lot about even hard-to-classify armed groups and address our own tactical and strategic responses to these groups in a more nuanced fashion. …

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