Listen to Owen Bennett-Jones discuss the future of opinion polls with Mark Pack

David H. Ucko

Apr 20, 2022

The Insurgent's Dilemma

A Struggle to Prevail

Oxford University Press, USA 2022

Despite attracting headlines and hype, insurgents rarely win. Even when they claim territory and threaten governmental writ, they typically face a military backlash too powerful to withstand. States struggle with addressing the political roots of such movements, and their military efforts mostly just ‘mow the grass’; yet, for the insurgent, the grass is nonetheless mowed–and the armed project must start over.

“In reviewing the overall insurgent experience in recent years, there are exceedingly few instances where they have toppled an established government and seized sustained power. Indeed, rather than being overthrown one after the other, most states survive the onslaught of insurgency, often by relying on their superior resources and military capabilities. Though the counterinsurgency manuals preach mobilisation and hearts and minds, it is typically through suppression that states contain their adversary, causing their movement to either fizzle our or to become a peripheral concern. Outright victory may elude both sides, but the stalemate nonetheless favours the state, which in the absence of a decisive outcome remains the constituted authority.”

This is the insurgent’s dilemma: the difficulty of asserting oneself, of violently challenging authority, and of establishing sustainable power.

In the face of this dilemma, some insurgents are learning new ways to ply their trade. With subversion, spin and disinformation claiming centre stage, insurgency is being reinvented, to exploit the vulnerabilities of our times and gain new strategic salience for tomorrow. As the most promising approaches are refined and repurposed, what we think of as counterinsurgency will also need to change.

In The Insurgent's Dilemma: A Struggle to Prevail (Oxford UP, 2022), Dr. David Ucko explores three particularly adaptive strategies and their implications for response. These emerging strategies target the state where it is weak and sap its power, sometimes without it noticing. There are options for response, but fresh thinking is urgently needed–about society, legitimacy and political violence itself.

This interview was conducted by Dr. Miranda Melcher whose doctoral work focused on post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with qualitative analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

Listen to more episodes on:

Your Host

Miranda Melcher

Miranda Melcher (Ph.D., Defense Studies, Kings College, London) studies post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with deep analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

Learn More

Also Hosted By Miranda Melcher