Redefining Insurgency

By North, Chris | Military Review, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

Redefining Insurgency


North, Chris, Military Review


"OH, NO! Not another suggestion on how to define insurgency! Now we'll have to change all our counterinsurgency doctrine as well!"

Yes and no. Yes, "insurgency" needs a better definition to fit circumstances today. We say the word, but it no longer applies in most areas. But, no, "counterinsurgency" and counterinsurgency doctrine may not require change--if we get the "insurgency" definition right.

The current Joint Publication (JP) 1-02 definition of insurgency as "an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict" is too narrow in scope to apply to current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, we continue to label those conflicts as insurgencies, even though the environments are more complex than what this simple definition involves.

The current JP definition worked well in the late 20th century, when anti-colonial and communist movements were competing with sitting governments for political power. Today, however, it is hard to identify such an organized movement, there are not only movements, but extremists, tribes, gangs, militias, warlords, and combinations of these. These groups are certainly not "an organized movement." They have different motivations and objectives. Some are networked with only loose objectives and mission-type orders to enhance their survival. Most are divided and factionalized by area, composition, or goals. Strike one against the current definition of insurgency. It is not relevant to the enemies we face today.

Many of these enemies do not currently seek the overthrow of a constituted government. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, weak government control is useful and perhaps essential for many of these "enemies of the state" to survive and operate. In some cases, the enemies are members of government political parties and alliances. In most cases, they have infiltrated government security forces. In other cases, these enemies do not seek to replace the constituted government. Merely destroying it or rendering it ineffective will serve their purpose.

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