Insurgency as Netwar

RAND terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman has a superb piece in the current Atlantic Monthly.

Although determining the size of the insurgency is critical to combating it, recent history has shown that to a certain degree the exact numbers are immaterial. For more than twenty years a hard core of just twenty or thirty members of the Baader-Meinhof gang terrorized West Germany—a stable country with much more sophisticated and reliable police, security, and intelligence services than Iraq is likely to have for some time. Similarly, some fifty to seventy-five Red Brigadists imposed a reign of terror on Italy; the worst period, in the late 1970s, is still referred to as the “years of lead.” And for thirty years a dedicated cadre of 200 to 400 IRA gunmen and bombers frustrated the effort to maintain law and order in Northern Ireland.

These examples are clearly not parallel to the situation in Iraq, but they do illustrate an important principle: there will always be a fundamental asymmetry in the dynamic between insurgency and counterinsurgency. Guerrillas and terrorists do not have to defeat their opponents militarily; they just have to avoid losing. In this respect the more conspicuous the security forces are and the more pervasive their operations become, the stronger the insurgency appears to be. Insurgents try to disrupt daily life and commerce with their attacks; they hope that security-force countermeasures will alienate the population and create a public impression of the authorities as oppressors rather than protectors. This, in a nutshell, is what is happening in Iraq.


General Abizaid has described the current conflict in Iraq as a “classical guerrilla-type campaign.” In important ways, however, it is not. The Iraqi insurgency, unlike most others, has no center of gravity. Secular Baathists and other FREs are cooperating with domestic and foreign religious extremists. As a senior official with the Coalition Provisional Authority wrote to me in February, two months before this phenomenon crystallized in the fight for Fallujah, “Here the Baathist-Islamic divide does not exist in a practical sense. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, as they were so diametrically opposed to each other during the [Saddam Hussein] regime—but it is happening.” The Iraqi insurgency today appears to have no clear leader (or leadership), no ambition to seize and actually hold territory (except ephemerally, as in the recent cases of Fallujah and Najaf), no unifying ideology, and, most important, no identifiable organization. Rather, what we find in Iraq is the closest manifestation yet of “netwar,” a concept defined in 1992 by the RAND analysts John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt as unconventional warfare involving flat, segmented networks instead of the pyramidal hierarchies and command-and-control systems (no matter how primitive) that have governed traditional insurgent organizations. The insurgency in Iraq is taking place in an ambiguous and constantly shifting environment, with constellations of cells and individuals gravitating toward one another—“to carry out armed attacks, exchange intelligence, trade weapons, and engage in joint training—and then dispersing, sometimes never to operate together again. It is a battlefield situation that a conventional military often cannot cope with, and we must learn to adapt. We must build effective indigenous intelligence capabilities so that we can identify the signs of an incipient insurgency; establish, train, and forge close cooperative relations with a functioning and capable police force; improve the safety, security, and living conditions of the local population, thereby gaining their confidence; and take advantage of the training capabilities, language skills, and cultural awareness and sensitivities of American special-operations forces, whose mission specifically includes the training of foreign militaries. In the end, however, no matter how sophisticated a response we develop, and no matter how new the insurgents’ strategies are, a simple lesson that has been learned and forgotten again and again still applies: Don’t let insurgencies get started in the first place.

Easier said than done.

FILED UNDER: Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.