Insurgency can take the form of recruitment through ostensibly legitimate institutions like schools and mosques; threats to demoralize a country's population and government; propaganda to de-legitimize an established political system or regime; acquisition of resources through smuggling, narcotics dealing, and other crimes; raising money using front organizations; and, of course, sabotage and violence. Most of these activities are small-scale and clandestine, not the kind of warfare that large organizations, particularly government organizations, are equipped by background and training to counter.
Such are ways an insurgency avoids a direct full-scale confrontation with a larger and better equipped force, which the insurgency couldn't hope to win, and restricts the terms of engagement to situations where it has advantages such as surprise, lack of visibility, and fanaticism — even suicidal fanaticism — among its followers. Hence the expression "asymmetric warfare."
There's been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere and elsewhere about whether our armed forces are hogs on ice when trying to defeat insurgents. The negative argument runs something like this: our military establishment is terrific at straight-ahead campaigns of the World War II type, against identifiable state enemies. We can turn them to powder before they've had their morning coffee. But when the rules change drastically, and we face opponents playing to their strengths rather than ours, we're as vulnerable as armies behind castle walls were when faced with newly invented artillery, or World War I infantry armed with rifles and bayonets leaping out of the trenches to be shredded by machine guns.
Insurgents, this reasoning goes, use our massive strength — designed to be used on a large scale with all the implied time required to get it in place and the relative inflexibility of top-down, bureaucratic organizations — against us. Exhibit A for the prosecution: Iraq, after the waltz in.
I'm too optimistic to believe that, partly because the few active-duty (or recently so) U.S. military people I've run into in recent years weren't anything like the stereotype of the unquestioning, unimaginative drone. One of them showed me a couple of studies — unclassified, of course — that impressed me with one department of the services' ability to question its own routines and inertia. Besides — our fighting men and women are Americans, and Americans generally put a high value on improvising and pragmatism. They're still learning, but they can learn just as well, if not better, than insurgents hobbled by a certain religio-political system that has all the answers and discourages individual thinking.
Jonathan Winer at Counterterrorism Blog has posted an excerpt from an Army document that suggests our side is carefully considering what needs to be done to answer insurgencies. It says, "Because insurgents attempt to prevent the military battlespace from becoming decisive and concentrate in the political and psychological, operational design must be different than for conventional combat." And the authors go on to suggest what that design needs to include:
• Fracturing the insurgent movement through military, psychological, and political means, to include direct strikes, dividing one part against another, offering amnesties, draining the pool of alienated, disillusioned, angry young males by providing alternatives, and so forth. Relationships within insurgent movements are not necessarily harmonious. Cabals within the insurgency often vie for leadership or dominance. Identifying these rifts and exploiting them may prove to be a coup for the counterinsurgency strategy;We can only hope that everyone, military or civilian, charged with defending us against the very real advantages that decentralized, non-uniformed insurgent forces count on is thinking equally creatively about fighting a kind of conflict that is mostly new to us.
• Delegitimizing the insurgent movement in the eyes of the local population and any international constituency it might have;
• Demoralizing the insurgent movement by creating and sustaining the perception that long-term trends are adverse and by making the lives of insurgents unpleasant and dangerous through military pressure and psychological operations;
• Delinking the insurgent movement from its internal and external support by understanding and destroying the political, logistics, and financial connections; and,
• Deresourcing the insurgent movement both by curtailing funding streams and causing it to waste existing resources.
For those who are interested in following the action on these strange, ill-defined, geographically diffuse front lines, Counterterrorism Blog is a fine source, with contributors who seem to know what they're talking about. Some of the blog postings are hard to understand without a certain amount of specialized knowledge, and some are disturbing, but as a whole they dig far deeper than 98 percent of what you learn from reporters and pundits in the mainstream media about the so-called "War on Terror."