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Consideration of the Purpose, Motives and Consequences of the Uprising

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A paper submitted to the Faculty of the Naval War College in partial satisfaction of the requirements of the Department of Strategy and Policy based on the following assigned topic:

Using real world or hypothetical examples, discuss the goal(s) and possible motives of an insurgency. With these factors in mind, what are the roles of ideology and narrative towards enabling an insurgent to achieve those goals? In your discussion consider why an understanding of the cultural/social/political environment is essential to success in counterinsurgency. Additionally, offer your thoughts on some of the key factors and issues that the operational-level commander must consider when planning for counter insurgency missions.

The contents of this paper represent my own personal views and are not necessarily endorsed by the Naval War College or the Department of the Navy.

Military history is filled with examples of insurgency and counterinsurgency, both successful and unsuccessful. At its core, insurgency is political-military struggle aimed at forcing change by gaining access to, or control of, governmental functions, resources, or territory. It is critical to note that successfully combating an insurgency cannot be accomplished through traditional military means alone, nor can it be won solely through external intervention. There must be a balance of military, political, and civilian actions that allow for the achievement of a successful end state. This paper aims to identify critical factors that create an appropriate environment for an insurgency, the motives behind them, and ultimately how to implement a successful counterinsurgency operation. Through the use of real-world examples, and an analysis of support materials, the goal of better understanding these core concepts of an insurgency will provide the foundation of an analytical framework. This framework will allow an individual, or group of individuals, to solve key problems, further develop a successful plan for counterinsurgency, provide the operational commander sound options, and further U.S. objectives, both military and political.

The basis for an insurgency can be political, economic, religious, ethnic, or a combination of these factors. One insurgency is rarely identical to another, and the ideal end state can change over time, or even lack a clearly defined end state, making a singular approach to counterinsurgency unreliable. This is not to say that the methods employed cannot overlap, but rather that the personnel involved much take a holistic approach to each engagement. Recent examples of insurgency have shown a marked increase in the complexity and incorporated strategies of the participants. Additionally, the principle support functions have shifted from state sponsorship, as seen in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, or the IRA/UK conflict, to transnational sponsorship, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Categorization, as well as the organization of recent insurgencies has increased in complexity. This highlights the critical importance of understanding the factors, ideological circumstances, and organizational characteristics impacting a specific insurgency and developing a plan that seeks to disrupt the insurgency, while stabilizing the socio-economic and governmental environments beset by it. This is no simple task and requires a coordinated and dedicated approach by all parties involved, with engagements lasting years, not months. ISIS, for example, began as an insurgency in Iraq, rapidly expanding throughout the Middle East, taking control of entire cities. This religious ideological insurgency has received support from Asia, North and South America, and Europe while simultaneously being embattled with military forces from those same places. What is unique about the ISIS insurgency, is that as it expanded, it morphed into a non-state actor, governing local populations and creating a supply network to tie together territories across international borders. As it lost those territories, it devolved back into an insurgency and still terrorizes populations worldwide. ISIS provides a key example of how difficult victory is when engaging in this type of irregular warfare. Traditional approaches cannot be expected to succeed when combating irrational beliefs, so nontraditional methods must be explored.

The understanding of human factors and human nature is vital to the successful understanding of the evolution of an insurgency. Additionally, the nature of social and cultural narratives employed by the insurgents to garner support and create an identity require an acute understanding, especially at the operational and tactical levels. The narratives developed by the insurgency not only inform those within the operation, but also inform the external entities of their goals and objectives. It is through the use of these narratives that insurgent groups are able to manipulate a population over time. Today, with ready access to the internet, media, and the interconnectedness of even the most undeveloped nations, understanding and countering these narratives early is vital to success. Vietnam provides an example of how these narratives can play out when they are misinterpreted, or ignored and how overlooking the humanistic factors, often sitting in plain sight of those governmental officials in control of a population, can ultimately lead to the overthrow of a government by a much less equipped force. Here one can witness the true value of a revolutionary insurgency, in the political context vice religious. In the years following the expulsion of the French in North Vietnam by the Communist insurgents, South Vietnam witnessed a similar pattern of events; the clustered deaths of village chiefs similar to what the North had experienced. Whereas the ISIS insurgency was identified early, the subversive nature of the Communist insurgency in Vietnam kept it hidden until they already controlled a vast majority of an entire country. The ideological views of the insurgents inspire their members and serve as the principle motivator for continued resistance. In the examples provided above, the military “war” could be effectively considered a victory in most conventional terms. However, in the case of ISIS, Iraq is still battling cells of belligerents, Syria is largely destroyed, and a population is decimated. In Vietnam, the country was overthrown by a communist uprising that gained traction due to a government that had alienated a large portion of the population and inequality was so prevalent that the communist ideals filled the void. The involvement of US forces and financial support was never going to be the answer without a comprehensive host nation strategy to reverse the cultural issues that created the unstable environment which existed. Finally, the US decision to expel villagers from their homes in an attempt to isolate the communist insurgents was ill conceived and lacked the understanding of human factors and psychology that have been discussed.

The role of ideologies in an insurgency can and should be analyzed at each level of warfare to provide context to the tactical operator, operational commander, and strategic planners. U.S. forces are rather adept at irregular warfare and counterinsurgency operations following the GWOT and the current engagements in Syria. The DoD has placed an emphasis on cultural training and SOF units are experts in the field. However, the operational and strategic levels of counterinsurgency planning is more complex, as these levels must link those tactical actions to the overarching national military strategy. Additionally, the leaders operating at the operational and strategic levels must stay the course and endeavor to remain committed to cause until the goal is reached. As mentioned previously, geopolitical and ideological differences are not resolved quickly and often require coalition and multinational support. Moving past the goal of implementing a government modeled by western culture and focusing on developing a two-way beneficial relationship with the HN is where the focus of current and future operations must be. Specific to the strategic level, leadership must identify what percentage of our operational forces are committed to counterinsurgency operations. It is at this level, that forces structure and policy is determined, which has a trickle-down effect to the operational and tactical levels and how they will carry out their plans.

The operational level commander faces the challenge of taking executive leadership’s strategic goals of a campaign and developing a linkage to tactical actions resulting in the advancement of U.S. objectives throughout the counterinsurgency operation. This individual is also responsible for the allocation of the provided resources required to combat the insurgency in the most effective and efficient way. Understanding the factors which led to the unrest and executing a holistic appraisal of the current situation are starting points for the operational commander. Additionally, continuously monitoring the dynamic environment and introducing alterations to the operational plan when emerging impacts to the local population are identified is required until the operation is concluded. Building a staff with an in-depth understanding on the situation e.g., cultural, economic, religious is imperative. These staff members will help shape the counter narrative that will be used throughout the campaign in an attempt to weaken the strategic messaging of the insurgency. Previously, the importance of understanding the insurgent’s narrative was discussed, equally important to the operational commander is ensuring that the actions at the operational and tactical level are in alignment with the developed narrative. The commander is responsible for dictating the methods incorporated by the tactical operator and is also required to enforce a policy for the ROE that is to be adhered to. A failure to monitor the actions of individual forces can lead to a swift erosion of trust, elongated setbacks, or even the failure of the operation. The commander must also monitor the tactical procedures executed to measure success and failure, allowing for alternative methods development, if required. An effective assessment tool will substantially improve the communication up and down the chain of command especially given the irregular nature of combating insurgency. It is expected that the operational commander, and his/her staff, lead the coordination efforts his HN leaders and continuously support throughout the operation. Trust between the HN and the US begins with a trust between the operational commander and their HN counterpart, this cannot be overlooked and is critical to the success of the operation.

It is critical to understand that each insurgency is unique and must be approached as such. Examples have shown that understanding and solving one insurgency does not lead to a successful combating of another insurgency. Rather, individuals must study a plethora of examples to identify common themes, analyze problem sets, and approach them using a methodological approach to create a framework that can be applied over time. As long as imbalances exist culturally, economically, socially, politically, or religiously ideological differences can be expected to devolve into insurgency. As military professionals, it is imperative that education on counterinsurgency operations be continued to ensure that past failures are not committed in future operations. A well-rounded understanding of insurgency operations will allow a larger portion of servicemembers to provide valuable insight into staff operations and development of valuable narratives contributing to operational success. Understanding the value of human factors and human psychology also adds value when assessing an insurgency and determining the HN environment and developing a response that fits. Lastly, the operational commander has a dynamic role in counterinsurgency operations, providing the connection between military strategy and tactical execution. The commander provides the foundation of trust between the HN and the U.S. and must relentlessly manage this trust up and down the chain of command. U.S. involvement in counterinsurgency operations have become a majority of the operations since 9/11, the continued development of the operational methods is essential to the advancement of U.S. interests worldwide.

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