Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2021-087
20 Oct. 2021
Review by Lee W. Eysturlid, Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy
Waging Insurgent Warfare: Lessons from the Vietcong to the Islamic State
By Seth G. Jones
New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. Pp. xiii, 269. ISBN 978–1–4411–4250–4.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, 21st Century, Vietnam War, Islamic State, etc. Print Version

Why do we focus with such energy on the practice of counterinsurgency when there is a seeming dearth of analysis on insurgency itself? In Waging Insurgent Warfare, Seth G. Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND, looks to fill the gap. Though he might have chosen a more accurate subtitle such as A Framework for Understanding the Basics of Modern Insurgent Warfare, he has produced an excellent primer on the how, when, and why of insurgencies based on data-driven research into 181 conflicts in the period 1946–2015. The insurgencies of the Vietcong and the Islamic State simply act as chronological bookends.


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The book comprises nine chapters and two lengthy appendices. Chapter 1, "Introduction," identifies four overarching questions: (1) What factors lead to the start of an insurgency? (2) What are the key "components" of an insurgency? (3) What are the factors in "ending" an insurgency? (4) What are the means to conduct a counterinsurgency? To clarify these issues, Jones offers his own definition of an insurgency as "a political and military campaign by a non-state group (or groups) to overthrow a regime or secede from a country" (7).

It is made clear that an insurgency is, first and foremost, a political movement motivated by "political objectives." Jones carefully distinguishes insurgency from terrorism, which he sees as a possible tactic of an insurgent. He also identifies "key areas of insurgency." Specifically, strategy, tactics, organizational structure, information operations, and outside support. This framework of five organizing themes helpfully gives readers a comprehensive set of reference points for all the various conflicts mentioned.

Chapter 2 concerns the origins of an insurgency, identifying three general precipitating factors: the intensity of local grievances, weak governance, and greed. In the end, Jones argues, polarizing grievances are the key factor, whether economic, ethnic, religious, or some combination of these.

Chapters 3–4 review the critical importance of the choice of insurgent strategies and tactics for success or failure. Contrary to the belief that victory is primarily a "hearts-and-minds" matter, military success is usually the decisive factor. Jones identifies three main strategies: guerrilla warfare, conventional warfare, and punishment. These are not necessarily discrete choices, but actions that may be taken at different times. Jones defines the third strategy, "punishment," as the deliberate targeting of civilians and infrastructure; he argues that its overuse engenders hatred of the insurgent by the local populace. Tactics include, in various combinations, ambushes, raids, subversion, assassinations, mutilations, and kidnappings. The choice among these varies between and within given insurgencies.

Chapter 5, on organizational structures, examines the format an insurgency chooses for its political and military governance. Whether centralized or decentralized, the goal of governance is to address the principal-agent issue or how leadership may best motivate and control the movement's foot soldiers. Chapter 6, "Information Campaigns and Propaganda," speaks to the insurgent's effort to spread information, or disinformation, either to assist in its own cause or to undermine that of the government. Although Jones's examples run from the late 1940s to 2017, the stress is on the era of the internet and social media.

Chapter 7 clarifies the vagaries and value of outside support in terms of lethal and non-lethal necessities. The author makes it clear, however, that external support entails serious complications:

There are also several costs for the insurgent groups. First, accepting aid from foreign patrons often comes with strings attached, since the principal may want some degree of control or influence over the insurgent group's goals or strategy. States and non-state actors are unlikely to offer resources for free. Relying on external patrons may help augment resources, but it generally means the loss of some autonomy. (157)

Chapter 8 deals with the seemingly obvious but often overlooked subject of how insurgencies "end." Here Jones compilies of a laundry list of items, as covered throughout the book, that the insurgent leaders must consider in actually concluding conflicts. He points out that insurgencies, whether "draws" or "successes," outnumber "losses" two-thirds of the time.

Chapter 9 concerns the matter of running an effective counterinsurgency, vis-à-vis the five organizing themes identified in the introduction. Finally, two appendices ("Cast Study List" and "Statistical Results for Ending Conspiracies") identify data sources used to validate the book's numerous assertions.

Specialist readers will not find much in Waging Insurgent Warfare that is particulalry revealing. However, Seth Jones has performed a valuable service in writing an outstanding, accessible primer that will engage and instruct students seeking a clear and concise comparative introduction to insurgent warfare since World War II.

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