America faces a wide array of insurgencies across the globe, from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to the Taliban in Afghanistan, each one different in its aims, structures and strategies. So why do the United States and its allies take pretty much the same approach to all?
A “surge” briefly stabilized Iraq, but the same strategy failed in Afghanistan. Internationally backed negotiations succeeded in Bosnia, but have so far failed in Syria. Israel’s targeting of Hamas leaders has not degraded the group, even as the deaths of factional leaders have sowed confusion within the Pakistani Taliban.
This track record is spotty because the insurgents themselves vary tremendously, particularly in the social networks among their leaders, and between those leaders and the local communities in which they operate. All insurgents are not created equal, and so strategies need to be matched to the specific strengths and weaknesses of a group.
That said, it is possible to categorize insurgent groups as one of three primary types. The first, what we might call “integrated groups,” like the Afghan Taliban, rely on robust social networks to link leaders to one another and to local communities. They are resilient and cohesive: Despite various local feuds and internal disagreements, the Afghan Taliban have never collapsed into internecine warfare.
That cohesion helps to explain why the huge, decade-long American investment in counterinsurgency in Afghanistan has largely failed. Integrated groups can survive many of the standard prescriptions of counterinsurgency doctrine, leading to long, bloody conflicts. Only intense, often brutal, warfare, like Sri Lanka’s campaign against the Tamil Tigers, is likely to destroy or contain them.
Because organizations like the Afghan Taliban are unlikely to collapse quickly, governments need to consider deal-making as an alternative to protracted warfare, even if the groups pursue undesirable goals. They are cohesive enough to bargain with the government or international community, allowing them to implement agreements without splintering.
Insurgent organizations in another category, “vanguard groups,” have a tight leadership core but weak pre-existing links to local communities. They often emerge when urban, elite or foreign fighters try to mobilize parts of society with which they have few ties. Their cohesion lets them move fast and effectively, as the Bolsheviks did in Russia in 1917, or as Al Qaeda in Iraq did in the first years after the American invasion.
But unless they quickly embed themselves in local communities, vanguards are vulnerable to dissent and disobedience from below. That’s why Al Qaeda in Iraq was so susceptible to the Sunni Awakening in 2007. Similarly, the Islamic State has been able to rapidly expand as a vanguard, but its major weakness remains the possibility of counterrevolt by wary local allies.
Vanguard groups are also vulnerable to a wider range of government strategies than integrated groups. If their leadership is quickly eliminated or politically co-opted, the organization crumbles. The key to counterinsurgency against them, then, is to quickly target leaders while preventing these groups from rebuilding.
Vanguards present difficult dilemmas for peace processes, however: Even if leaders agree to a deal, they may not be able to persuade their local units to go along. Negotiating partners therefore need to actively bolster the leadership of such groups in order to prevent dissension and encourage unity — in other words, peace may require that a government support the leaders of a group it has long been fighting.
Groups in a third type, “parochial insurgents,” have a fragmented leadership splintered across powerful factions, despite existing under a shared organizational banner. They often emerge from loose alliances among distinct local networks. Their local ties make them militarily formidable, but leadership divisions leave them prone to internal splits.
The Pakistani Taliban is a classic parochial insurgent group that has been plagued by infighting, side-switching and an inability to build and maintain coherent strategies, even as it has been able to impose heavy costs on Pakistan’s government and society. These internal rivalries have triggered brutal violence against civilians to try to show a faction’s power, as in the group’s recent attack on a school in Peshawar. (Parochial groups shouldn’t be confused with truly fragmented organizations, like some of the non-ISIS groups fighting in Syria; such groups are fatally undermined by the complete absence of central leadership and are easily marginalized.)
Dealing with parochial groups presents a distinct challenge. Targeting the overall leadership — whether through violence or negotiations — is not very productive, since central control is weak. Killing top leaders may affect only their own faction, not the broader organization. Counterinsurgents are instead forced into long and messy campaigns focused on imposing state control at the local level.
Peace is also hard to negotiate and implement with parochial groups. Because of the weakness of central leaderships, local factions must be approached individually, an often protracted and byzantine process. Rather than grand bargains or overarching settlements, peace with parochial groups is built through live-and-let-live deals, cease-fires and local accommodations.
This diversity among insurgent groups means that some strategies that work in one place might be counterproductive in another. There is no such thing as counterinsurgency doctrine; rather, doctrines and strategies have to be tailor-made to unique situations, based on a careful study of the groups and the political, social and economic contexts in which they operate. Only then can America and its allies hope to stabilize conflict-weary regions of the world.
Paul Staniland is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse.