I want to propose a simple model of the dynamics of insurgencies. In traditional warfare, two or more states will directly fight one another to achieve victory. Insurgencies defy this framework, not because insurgents avoid fighting, but because the victory objectives are substantially different.

In an insurgency, two or more forces compete for control over a common resource and objective – the civilian population. The insurgents organize to change the status quo. They have to win the support of the civilians by any means in order to gain victory.

Insurgent and government forces need a civilian “ecology” to gather resources, material, and intelligence to win.

This is not an original model for insurgency, by any means. By the same logic, businesses compete for control over consumers. Animals in an ecology compete for control over a common resource, like a specific type of food. The dynamics of this type of competitive relationship is very different from one of direct conflict.

The way to win an insurgency to control the civilian population. Making kenetic contact with the enemy force is not an important factor. You use violence only to disrupt the enemy’s attempts to win control over civilians or during meeting engagements. Search and destroy tactics are mostly ineffective in a COIN or insurgency strategy. Direct clashes are merely supplemental to victory.

This is old knowledge. The old Marine Corps Small Wars Manual famously said that the combat stage is only prepares the field. The real struggle is to control the population. This is an unusual statement for any military organization. This gets dumbed down into “winning hearts and minds” but that’s not what control is about.

What does this competitive model look like? This insurgency model is the
Competitive Lotka Volterra equations used to model population dynamics in ecology. It needs little modification to fit a different system. This is similar to the Predator and Prey equations.

It starts with the logistic population model. This includes the starting population and growth rate of one force (ie: how many civilians it converts into insurgents). It also models carrying capacity – food, sanctuary, weapons, money, and other resources an insurgency needs to survive and function. A low carrying capacity places an upper limit on the size of an insurgent force.

The differential equations describe how as one force takes control over resources, it denies those resources to the other force. This is an idealization that strips away the non-essentials.

Insurgents need certain resources to survive (this is a sample list):
-Sanctuary – ungoverned bases of operations
-Communications and transportation routes
-Friendly civilian populations
-Black markets to access weapons and military material
-Source of income

Insurgents need support of local tribes for instance. They also need cash flow, either from criminals or foreign donations (by states or political parties). And so on.

This is part of classical insurgent systems modeling. This describes the material and economic input and output of an insurgency, but not the moral effects.

The insurgents, the counterinsurgents, and the civilians are organic networks of agents. Modeling this as a complex adaptive system better describes the process and it explains the lack of predictiveness of older system models.

Moral effects include the range of psychological, cultural, political aspects. This includes civilian grievances and the ability of insurgents to connect with civilians (linguistically and culturally). All individuals adapt to the changing environment and conflict in a moral as well as material way. Civilians resent capricious violence and cooperate with those who enforce law and order. This results in the coercion-intelligence dilemma amongst similar moral effects. Moral changes result in significant material benefits or losses in the system.

The state of war is also a temporary non-equilibrium period in a country. The armed forces have a limited time frame to achieve their objectives before they lose support of the contested civilians. Insurgencies self-organize during troubled periods and attempt to change the status quo – if they are unable to do so, they dissipate. Counterinsurgents can convince the civilians to withdraw support for the insurgency and accelerate the dissipation process.

The “new” forms of insurgency – networks rather than hierarchies – are not new in a sense. These are modified methods of achieving the same ends. A CAS model of insurgency will show gradual adaptions.

There is one potentially new form of insurgent – let’s call him the nihilist. He does not care about winning over the population or installing a new government. He just wants to destroy the old regime and replace it with anarchy. There are some criminal elements who desire to do so, as well as traditional anarchists and the like.

But this nihilist insurgent loses control over the population. The population denies him sanctuary and provides intelligence to the counterinsurgent. The civilians may even form their own militias to defend themselves against criminal or nihilist forces. The model continues to describe what happens.

In Utility of Force, Gen. Rupert Smith discusses the evolution of warfare describing how the industrialized state-to-state style of war has passed and the new way is the “War Amongst the People” (or 4GW).

Here’s a relevant quote by Gen. Rupert Smith (via OpFor)

In this formulation of the antithesis, revolutionary war, force is being used to form the people’s intentions as to their governance: throughout all lines of operations the revolutionary is working to increase the acceptance of the people to be governed by the revolution. The strategic and theater-level objectives are all to do with forming or changing the will of the people, not that of the opponent, and it is only at the tactical level, and at a time of the revolutionary’s choosing that force is applied directly to acheive its destructive potential. These ideas gathered weight and were put into effect in both Russia and China. It was Lenin who drew on Clausewitz’s thinking on weak against strong opponents, with his discussion of a “people’s war,” which should rely on popular support, and his argument that no single event could decide the outcome of such a war. In engineering the Russian Revolution there is no doubt Lenin applied this thinking a very successful way. Indeed, the ideas Lenin derived from his own experience have had a major impact on modern guerilla strategies.

The goal of the insurgent and counterinsurgent then is to “capture” the cooperation of civilians, or at the very least deny them to the enemy. The strategic element does not involve directly confronting the enemy.

OpFor describes the failure of AQI’s strategy as such:

In Iraq, Al-Qa’ida has sought to change the will of the enemy, not the people, a failure which is most evident in Anbar. They choose spectacular and violent attacks on Iraqis, aimed at affecting the will of the American people, instead harnessing the power of Islam to revolutionize the Iraqi countryside. And it is a failure that is working in our favor.

The moral effects are the most uncertain aspect in any insurgent model. The behavior of armed forces and civilians is very unpredictable. Sea changes can occur virtually overnight as was the case in Anbar.

How do you win this moral struggle? The COIN Gravity Well.