Countering Evolved Insurgent Networks

Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, USMC, Retired

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The first step in meeting the challenge facing us in Iraq today or in similar war zones tomorrow is to understand that insurgency and counterinsurgency are very different tasks. The use of Special Forces against insurgents in Vietnam to “out-guerrilla the guerrillas” provided exactly the wrong solution to the problem. It assumed that the insurgent and the counterinsurgent can use the same approach to achieve their quite different goals.

To define insurgency, I use Bard O’Neill from Insurgency and Terrorism. He states: “Insurgency may be defined as a struggle between a nonruling group and the ruling authorities in which the nonruling group consciously uses political resources (e.g., organizational expertise, propaganda, and demonstrations) and violence to destroy, reformulate, or sustain the basis of one or more aspects of politics.”1

Counterinsurgency, as defined by Ian Beckett, “is far from being a purely military problem . . . co-ordination of both the civil and military effort must occur at all levels and embrace the provision of intelligence . . . .”2

On the surface, these definitions suggest that insurgency and counterinsurgency are similar because each requires political and military action. However, when one thinks it through, the challenge is very different for the government. The government must accomplish something. It must govern effectively. In contrast, the insurgent only has to propose an idea for a better future while ensuring the government cannot govern effectively.

In Iraq, the resistance does not even project a better future. It simply has the nihilistic goal of ensuring the government cannot function. This negative goal is much easier to achieve than governing. For instance, it is easier and more direct to use military power than to apply political, economic, and social techniques. The insurgent can use violence to delegitimize a government (because that government cannot fulfill the basic social contract to protect the people). However, simple application of violence by the government cannot restore that legitimacy. David Galula, in his classic Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, expresses the difference between insurgency and counterinsurgency very clearly: “Revolutionary warfare . . . represents an exceptional case not only because as we suspect, it has its special rules, different from those of the conventional war, but also because most of the rules applicable to one side do not work for the other. In a fight between a fly and a lion, the fly cannot deliver a knockout blow and the lion cannot fly. It is the same war for both camps in terms of space and time, yet there are two distinct warfares [sic]—the revolutionary’s, and shall we say, the counterrevolutionary’s.”3

Enduring Traits of Insurgency

Mao Tse-Tung wrote his famous On Guerilla War [Yu Chi Chan] in 1937. Despite the passage of time, many of his basic observations about insurgency remain valid. First and foremost, insurgency is a political, not a military, struggle. It is not amenable to a purely military solution without resorting to a level of brutality unacceptable to the Western world. Even the particularly brutal violence Russia has inflicted upon Chechnya—killing almost 25 percent of the total population and destroying its cities—has not resulted in victory.

Insurgency may be defined as a struggle between a nonruling group and the ruling authorities in which the nonruling group consciously uses political resources…and violence to destroy, reformulate, or sustain the basis of one or more aspects of politics.

—Bard O’Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism

The second factor has to do with the political will of the counterinsurgent’s own population. If that population turns sour when faced with the long time-frame and mounting costs of counterinsurgency, the insurgent will win. This has been particularly true whenever the United States has become involved in counterinsurgency operations. Insurgents have learned over the last 30 years that they do not have to defeat the United States militarily to drive us out of an insurgency; they only have to destroy our political will. Today’s insurgents in both Afghanistan and Iraq understand this and have made the political will of the U.S. population a primary target of their efforts.

A third unchanging aspect of insurgency involves duration. Insurgencies are measured in decades, not months or years. The Chinese Communists fought for 27 years. The Vietnamese fought the U.S. for more than a decade. The Palestinians have been resisting Israel since at least 1968. Even when the counterinsurgent has won, it has taken a long time. The Malaya Emergency and the El Salvadoran insurgency each lasted 12 years.

Finally, despite America’s love of high technology, technology does not provide a major advantage in counterinsurgency. In fact, in the past the side with the simplest technology often won. What has been decisive in most counterinsurgencies were the human attributes of leadership, cultural understanding, and political judgment.

In short, the key factors of insurgency that have not changed are its political nature, its protracted timelines, and its intensely human (versus technological) nature.

Emerging Traits of Insurgency

While these hallmarks of insurgency have remained constant, the nature of insurgency has evolved in other areas. Like all forms of war, insurgency changes in consonance with the political, economic, social, and technical conditions of the society it springs from. Insurgencies are no longer the special province of single-party organizations like Mao’s and Ho Chi Minh’s. Today, insurgent organizations are comprised of loose coalitions of the willing, human networks that range from local to global. This reflects the social organizations of the societies they come from and the reality that today’s most successful organizations are networks rather than hierarchies.

In addition to being composed of coalitions, insurgencies also operate across the spectrum from local to transnational organizations. Because these networks span the globe, external actors such as the Arabs who fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Afghans who fought in Bosnia, and the European Muslims who are showing up in Iraq, are now a regular part of insurgencies.

In a coalition insurgency, the goals of the different elements may vary, too. In Afghanistan today, some of the insurgents simply wish to rule their own valleys; others seek to rule a nation. Al-Qaeda is fighting for a transnational caliphate. In Iraq, many of the Sunni insurgents seek a secular government dominated by Sunnis. Other Sunnis—the Salafists—want a strict Islamic society ruled by Sharia. Among the Shi’a, Muqtada Al-Sadr operated as an insurgent, then shifted to the political arena (while maintaining a powerful militia and a geographic base in the slums of Sadr City). Although temporarily out of the insurgent business, his forces remain a factor in any armed conflict. Other Shi’a militias are also prepared to enter the military equation if their current political efforts do not achieve their goals. Finally, criminal elements in both Afghanistan and Iraq participate in the unrest primarily for profit.

At times, even their hatred of the outsider is not strong enough to keep these various coalition groups from fighting among themselves. Such factionalism was a continuing problem for anti-Soviet insurgents in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, and savvy Soviet commanders exploited it at times. We see major signs of the same symptom in Iraq today.

This complex mixture of players and motives is now the pattern for insurgencies. If insurgents succeed in driving the Coalition out of Afghanistan and Iraq, their own highly diverse coalitions of the willing will not be able to form a government; their mutually incompatible beliefs will lead to continued fighting until one faction dominates. This is what happened in Afghanistan when the insurgents drove the Soviets out. Similar disunity appeared in Chechnya after the Russians withdrew in 1996, and infighting only ceased when the Russians returned to install their own government. Early signs of a similar power struggle are present in the newly evacuated Gaza Strip.

The fact that recent insurgencies have been coalitions is a critical component in understanding them. For too long, American leaders stated that the insurgency in Iraq could not be genuine because it had no unifying cause or leader; therefore, it could not be a threat. The insurgents in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Palestine have never had a unified leadership or belief other than that the outside power had to go. Yet these insurgents have driven out the Soviet Union and continue to contest the United States, Russia, and Israel. The lack of unity in current insurgencies only makes them more difficult to defeat. It is a characteristic that we have to accept and understand.

Showing the adaptability characteristic of successful organizations, many insurgencies are now transdimensional as well as transnational. As Western efforts have reduced the number of insurgent safe havens, insurgents have aggressively moved into cyberspace. There, the high capacity of broadband has greatly increased the Internet’s utility for insurgents. Expanding from simple communications and propaganda, insurgents and their terrorist counterparts have moved to online recruitment, vetting of recruits, theological indoctrination, training, and logistical arrangements. Insurgents never have to meet an individual recruit until they feel comfortable; then they can use the Internet as a meeting site that they control. The wide availability of password-protected chat rooms allows insurgents to hold daily meetings with very little chance of discovery. Not only do Western intelligence agencies have to find the insurgents’ chat room among the millions out there and crack the password, but they also must do so with a person who can speak the insurgents’ language and who is convincing enough to keep the other chat participants from simply logging off. And, of course, insurgents can also move out of the larger chat room into private chat, which makes the infiltration problem even harder.

Another major change in insurgencies is that they are becoming self-supporting. Modern insurgents do conventional fundraising, but they also run charity organizations, businesses, and criminal enterprises. In the past, most insurgencies depended on one or two major sponsors, which the United States could subject to diplomatic or economic pressure. Now, the insurgents’ more varied money-raising schemes, combined with the ability to move funds outside official banking channels, make it increasingly difficult to attack insurgent finances.

Enduring Characteristics of Counterinsurgency

Just as insurgencies have enduring characteristics, so do counterinsurgencies. The fundamental weapon in counterinsurgency remains good governance. While the insurgent must simply continue to exist and conduct occasional attacks, the government must learn to govern effectively. The fact that there is an insurgency indicates the government has failed to govern. In short, the counterinsurgent is starting out in a deep hole.

The first governing step the counterinsurgent must take is to establish security for the people. Without effective, continuous security it does not matter if the people are sympathetic to the government—they must cooperate with the insurgent or be killed. Providing security is not enough, however. The government must also give the people hope for a better future—for their children if not for themselves. Furthermore, this better future must accord with what the people want, not what the counterinsurgent wants. The strategic hamlets campaign in Vietnam and the ideological emphasis on freedom in Iraq are examples of futures the counterinsurgent thought were best, but that didn’t resonate with the population. In Vietnam, the peasants were intensely tied to their land; in Islamic culture, justice has a higher value than freedom.


The view of the future must address the “poverty of dignity” that Thomas L. Friedman has so clearly identified as a driving motivator for terrorists.4 The people must have hope not just for a better life as they see it, but also for the feeling of dignity that comes from having some say in their own futures.

There has been a great deal of discussion recently about whether the war in Iraq has progressed from terrorism to an insurgency and then to a civil war. While this is very important from the insurgent’s point of view, it does not determine the first steps a counterinsurgent must take to win. As always, the first step is to provide security for the people. If the people stop supporting the government out of fear of insurgents, terrorists, or other violent groups, the government can only begin winning back its credibility by providing effective security. How that security is provided can vary depending on the threat, but the basic requirement is nonnegotiable. Thus, the fundamental concepts of counterinsurgency remain constant: provide security for the people and genuine hope for the future.

Emerging Characteristics of Counterinsurgency

The counterinsurgent must also come to grips with the emerging characteristics of insurgency. To deal with the networked, transnational character of insurgents, the counterinsurgent must develop a truly international approach to the security issues he faces. In addition, he must counter not just a single ideology, but all the ideologies of the various groups involved in the insurgency. This is daunting because attacking the ideology of one group might reinforce that of another. Successful ideological combat also requires the counterinsurgent to have deep cultural and historical knowledge of the people in the conflict. Success in this kind of fight will be difficult to achieve, but it can be attained if the government attacks the insurgents’ coalition by exacerbating individual group differences.

Finally, the government must find a way to handle the numerous external actors who will come to join the insurgency. The true believers among them can only be killed or captured; the rest must be turned from insurgents to citizens. If possible, the counterinsurgent should keep foreign fighters from returning to their homes to spread the conflict there. Obviously, this will require a great deal of international cooperation. However, the nations involved should be anxious to cooperate to prevent these violent, potentially rebellious fighters from returning home.

Counterinsurgency…is far from being a purely military problem…co-ordination of both the civil and military effort must occur at all levels and embrace the provision of intelligence…

——Ian Beckett

Visualizing the Insurgency

With the mixture of enduring and emerging characteristics in insurgencies, the question arises as to how best to analyze the modern form. A clear understanding of the insurgency is obviously essential to the counterinsurgent. Unfortunately, recent history shows that conventional powers initially tend to misunderstand insurgencies much more often than they understand them. In Malaya, it took almost 3 years before the British developed a consistent approach to the communist insurrection there. As John Nagl has noted, “Only about 1950 was the political nature of the war really grasped.”5 In Vietnam, it took until 1968 before General Creighton Abrams and Ambassador Robert Komer provided an effective plan to deal with the Viet Cong in the south. In Iraq, it took us almost 2 years to decide that we were dealing with an insurgency, and we are still arguing about its composition and goals.


To fight an insurgency effectively, we must first understand it. Given the complexity inherent in modern insurgency, the best visualization tool is a network map. The counterinsurgent must map the human networks involved on both sides because—

  • A map of the human connections reflects how insurgencies really operate. A network map will reveal the scale and depth of interactions between different people and nodes and show the actual impact of our actions against those connections.
  • A network map plotted over time can show how changes in the environment affect nodes and links in the network. Again, such knowledge is essential for understanding how our actions are hitting the insurgency.
  • Models of human networks account for charisma, human will, and insights in ways a simple organizational chart cannot.
  • Networks actively seek to grow. By studying network maps, we can see where growth occurs and what it implies for the insurgent and the government. By studying which areas of the insurgent network are growing fastest, we can identify the most effective members of the insurgency and their most effective tactics, and act accordingly.
  • Networks interact with other networks in complex ways that cannot be portrayed on an organizational chart.
  • Network maps show connections from a local to a global scale and reveal when insurgents use modern technology to make the “long-distance” relationships more important and closer than local ones.
  • Networks portray the transdimensional and transnational nature of insurgencies in ways no other model can. Networks can also reveal insurgent connections to the host-nation government, the civilian community, and any other players present in the struggle.
  • Finally, if we begin to understand the underlying networks of insurgencies, we can analyze them using an emerging set of tools. In Linked: The Science of Networks, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi points to these new tools: “A string of recent breathtaking discoveries has forced us to acknowledge that amazingly simple and far reaching laws govern the structure and evolution of all the complex networks that surround us.”6

We should also use network modeling when we consider our own organizations. Unlike the hierarchical layout we habitually use when portraying ourselves, a network schematic will allow us to see much more clearly how our personnel policies affect our own operations. When we chart an organization hierarchically, it appears that our personnel rotation policies have minimal effect on our organizations. One individual leaves, and another qualified individual immediately fills that line on the organization chart; there is no visual indication of the impact on our organization. If, however, we plotted our own organizations as networks, we could see the massive damage our personnel rotation policies cause. When a person arrives in country and takes a job, for some time he probably knows only the person he is working for and a few people in his office. In a network, he will show up as a small node with few connections. As time passes, he makes new connections and finds old friends in other jobs throughout the theater. On a network map, we will see him growing from a tiny node to a major hub. Over the course of time, we will see his connections to other military organizations, to U.S. and allied government agencies, host-nation agencies, nongovernment organizations (NGOs), and so forth. Just as clearly, when he rotates we will see that large hub instantaneously replaced by a small node with few connections. We will be even more alarmed to see the massive impact the simultaneous departure of numerous hubs has on the functionality of our network.

To assist us in building our network maps, we can use any of a number of sophisticated anti-gang software programs that allow us to track individuals and visualize their contacts. Essentially sophisticated versions of the old personalities-organizations-incidents databases, these programs allow us to tie together the intelligence reports we get to build a visual picture of the connections revealed. For instance, we pick up a suspect near a bombing site, check him against the database, and find that although he has not been arrested before, he is closely related to a man we know to be involved in a political party. We can then look at other members of the family and party to see if there are other connections to the incident, to the person we arrested, or to the organization possibly involved.

Good software will allow for instant visualization of these relationships in a color-coded network we can project on a wall, print out, or transmit to other analysts. Good software almost instantly accomplishes the hundreds of hours of scut work that used to be required to tie isolated, apparently unrelated reports together. It allows us to look for third- and even fourth-level connections in a network and, thus, to build a much more useful network map. In particular, we will be able to see the gaps where we know there ought to be connections.

…most networks grow from pre-existing social networks.

Ten years ago, software of this analytical quality was available and being used to track gang activity in the United States. I am uncertain of the status of current DOD human intelligence software, but I doubt it reaches down to the critical company and platoon levels of the counterinsurgency fight. We have to take aggressive action to get better software and make it work. If cities can give this kind of information to policemen on the streets, we owe it to our companies and platoons.

By mapping the human connections in insurgent networks and then applying cultural knowledge and network theory to the networks, we can understand them more clearly. We can also apply the common-sense observation that most networks grow from pre-existing social networks. In fact, such an approach has already been used. Marc Sageman has done a detailed study of Al-Qaeda and its affiliated organizations, mapped the operational connections, and then compared them to pre-existing social connections.7 His work points the way to much more effective analysis of insurgent and terrorist organizations.

Sageman’s studies have revealed the key nodes and links in each of Al-Qaeda’s parts and how changes in the operating environment over time have affected those parts. Sageman has also identified both the real and virtual links between individuals and Al-Qaeda’s constituent organizations. Most important, however, the studies give us a starting point from which to examine any network: the preexisting social connections of a society. Rather than starting from scratch, we can analyze the limited intelligence we do obtain within the social and cultural context of the insurgency. In short, Sageman’s approach allows us to paint a picture of the enemy network that we can analyze.

Security not Defensive

For the counterinsurgent, the central element in any strategy must be the people. The counterinsurgent has to provide effective government in order to win the loyalty of the people. This is easy to say, but helping another country establish good governance is one of the most challenging tasks possible. The conflict in Iraq highlights how difficult it is to help establish a government in a fractious society. Beyond the discussion of whether or not there is a civil war in Iraq, we can’t even agree on whether a strategy that focuses on the people is inherently offensive or defensive. Obviously, if our approach is perceived to be a defensive one, most strategists will be reluctant to adopt it, simply because defense rarely wins wars.

In fact, in counterinsurgencies, providing security for the people is an inherently offensive action. No one questions that during conventional wars, attacks that seize enemy territory to deny the enemy resources, a tax base, and a recruiting base are considered offensive actions. But for some reason, when we conduct population control operations in counterinsurgency, they are considered defensive even though these operations have the same effect: They deny the insurgent the things he needs to operate.

A population control operation is the most offensive action one can take in a counterinsurgency. Just like in conventional war, once you have seized a portion of the enemy’s territory, you cannot then evacuate it and give it back to him. If you do so, you simply restore all the resources to his control while eroding the morale of the government, the people, and your own forces.

In a counterinsurgency, big-unit sweeps and raids are inherently defensive operations. We are reacting to an enemy initiative that has given him control of a portion of the country. We move through, perhaps capture or kill some insurgents, and then move back to our defensive positions. In essence, we are ceding the key terrain—the population and its resources—to the insurgent. We might have inflicted a temporary tactical setback on our enemy, but at a much greater cost to our operational and strategic goals. The fact that we sweep and do not hold exposes the government’s weakness to the people. It also exposes them to violence and does little to improve their long-term security or prospects for a better life.

Clearly, population control operations are the truly offensive operations in a counterinsurgency. Just as clearly, host-government and U.S. forces will rarely have sufficient troops to conduct such operations nationwide at the start of the counterinsurgent effort. Thus, we need to prioritize areas that will receive the resources to provide full-time, permanent security; population control, and reconstruction. The clear, hold, and build strategy is the correct one. However, it must recognize the limitations of government forces and, for a period, cede control of some elements of the population to the insurgent to provide real protection for the rest of the population. This is essentially the “white, grey, and black” approach used by the British in Malaya.8 As Sir Robert Thompson has noted, “Because a government’s resources, notably in trained manpower, are limited, the [counterinsurgent] plan must also lay down priorities both in the measures to be taken and in the areas to be dealt with first. If the insurgency is countrywide, it is impossible to tackle it offensively in every area. It must be accepted that in certain areas only a holding operation can be conducted.”9

…the first and often most difficult step in counterinsurgency is to integrate friendly-force command and execution.

Further, by focusing our forces to create real security in some areas rather than the illusion of security across the country, we can commence rebuilding. The resulting combination of security and prosperity will contrast sharply with conditions in insurgent-controlled areas. When we have sufficient forces to move into those areas, the people might be more receptive to the government’s presence.

Command and Control

There is an old saying in military planning: Get the command and control relationships right, and everything else will take care of itself. It is a common-sense acknowledgement that people provide solutions only if they are well-led in a functional organization. Thus the first and often most difficult step in counterinsurgency is to integrate friendly-force command and execution. Note that I say “integrate” and not “unify.” Given the transnational, transdimensional nature of today’s insurgencies, it will be impossible to develop true unity of command for all the organizations needed to fight an insurgency. Instead, we must strive for unity of effort by integrating the efforts of all concerned.

While the U.S. military does not like committees, a committee structure might be most effective for command in a counterinsurgency. There should be an executive committee for every major political subdivision, from city to province to national levels. Each committee must include all key personnel involved in the counterinsurgency effort—political leaders (prime minister, governors, and so on), police, intelligence officers, economic developers (to include NGOs), public services ministers, and the military. The political leaders must be in charge and have full authority to hire, fire, and evaluate other members of the committee. Committee members must not be controlled or evaluated by their parent agencies at the next higher level; otherwise, the committee will fail to achieve unity of effort. This step will require a massive cultural change to the normal stovepipes that handle all personnel and promotion issues for the government. One of the biggest hindrances to change is that many think the current hierarchical organization is effective. They think of themselves as “cylinders of excellence” rather than the balky, inefficient, and ineffective stovepipes they really are.

…one of the biggest challenges …is developing leaders to head the in-country and regional teams…

Above the national-level committee, which can be established fairly quickly under our current organization, we need a regional command arrangement. Given the transnational nature of modern insurgency, a single country team simply cannot deal with all the regional and international issues required in effective counterinsurgency. Thus we will have to develop a genuine regional team. The current DOD and Department of State organizations do not lend themselves well to such a structure and will require extensive realignment. This realignment must be accomplished.

Once the national and regional committees are established, Washington must give mission-type orders, allocate sufficient resources, and then let in-country and regional personnel run the campaign. Obviously, one of the biggest challenges in this arrangement is developing leaders to head the in-country and regional teams, particularly deployable U.S. civil leaders and host-nation leaders. An even bigger challenge will be convincing U.S. national-level bureaucracies to stay out of day-to-day operations.

Once established, the committees can use the network map of the insurgency and its environment to develop a plan for victory. The network map provides important information about the nature of the interaction between the key hubs and smaller nodes of the insurgency. While the hubs and nodes are the most visible aspects of any network, it is the nature of the activity between them that is important. We must understand that well to understand how the network actually functions. This is difficult to do, and what makes it even more challenging is that one cannot understand the network except in its cultural context. Therefore, we must find and employ people with near-native language fluency and cultural knowledge to build and interpret our map.

Speed versus Accuracy

For counterinsurgencies, Colonel John Boyd’s observation-orientation-decision-action (OODA) loop remains valid, but its focus changes.10 In conventional war, and especially in the aerial combat that led Boyd to develop his concept, speed was crucial to completing the OODA loop—it got you inside your opponent’s OODA loop. We have to use a different approach in counterinsurgency. Stressing speed above all else in the decision cycle simply does not make sense in a war that can last a decade or more.

In counterinsurgency, we still want to move speedily, but the focus must be more on accuracy (developed in the observation-orientation segment of the loop). The government must understand what it is seeing before it decides what to do. To date, network-centric concepts have focused on shortening the sensor-to-shooter step (Boyd’s decision-action segment). Now, we must focus on improving the quality of the observe-orient segment. Even more important, the OODA loop expands to track not just our enemy’s reaction, but how the entire environment is reacting—the people, the host-nation government, our allies, our forces, even our own population.

Attacking the Network

Because effective offensive operations in a counterinsurgency are based on protecting the people, direct action against insurgent fighters is secondary; nevertheless, such action remains a necessary part of the overall campaign plan. Once we understand the insurgent network or major segments of it, we can attack elements of it. We should only attack, however, if our attacks support our efforts to provide security for the people. If there is a strong likelihood of collateral damage, we should not attack because collateral damage, by definition, lessens the people’s security. In addition, the fundamental rules for attacking a network are different from those used when attacking a more conventional enemy. First, in counterinsurgency it is better to exploit a known node than attack it. Second, if you have to attack, the best attack is a soft one designed to introduce distrust into the network. Third, if you must make a hard attack, conduct simultaneous attacks on related links, or else the attack will have little effect. Finally, after the attack, increase surveillance to see how the insurgency tries to communicate around or repair the damage. As they are reaching out to establish new contacts, the new nodes will be most visible.

Information Campaign

An integral part of counterinsurgency is an effective information campaign. It must have multiple targets (the host-country population, U.S. population, international community, insurgents and their supporters); it must be integrated into all aspects of the overall campaign; and it can only be effective if it is based on the truth—spin will eventually be discovered, and the government will be hard-pressed to recover its credibility.

Furthermore, our actions speak so loudly that they drown out our words. When we claim we stand for justice, but then hold no senior personnel responsible for torture, we invalidate our message and alienate our audience. Fortunately, positive actions work, too. The tsunami and earthquake relief efforts in 2004 and 2005 had a huge effect on our target audiences. Consequently, our information campaign must be based on getting information about our good actions out. Conversely, our actions must live up to our rhetoric.

To study a highly effective information campaign, I recommend looking at the one conducted by the Palestinians during Intifada I. A detailed examination of how and why it was so successful can be found in Intifada, by Schiff and Ya’ari.11


Today’s counterinsurgency warfare involves a competition between human networks—ours and theirs. To understand their networks, we must understand the networks’ preexisting links and the cultural and historical context of the society. We also have to understand not just the insurgent’s network, but those of the host-nation government, its people, our coalition partners, NGOs, and, of course, our own.

Counterinsurgency is completely different from insurgency. Rather than focusing on fighting, strategy must focus on establishing good governance by strengthening key friendly nodes while weakening the enemy’s. In Iraq, we must get the mass of the population on our side. Good governance is founded on providing effective security for the people and giving them hope for their future; it is not based on killing insurgents and terrorists. To provide that security, we must be able to visualize the fight between and within the human networks involved. Only then can we develop and execute a plan to defeat the insurgents.

  1. Bard E. O’Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare (Washington, DC: Brassey’s Inc, 1990), 13.
  2. Ian F. W. Beckett, ed., Armed Force and Modern Counter-Insurgency: Armies and Guerrilla Warfare 1900-1945 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), 8.
  3. David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1966), xi.
  4. Thomas L. Friedman, “A Poverty of Dignity and a Wealth of Rage,” New York Times, 15 July 2005,, accessed 7 July 2006.
  5. John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 71.
  6. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Linked: The New Science of Networks (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2002). See also Lewis Sorley, A Better War (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 2003).
  7. Mark Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).
  8. Used by the British in Malaya, the white-grey-black scheme is a corollary of the clear-hold-build strategy now in use in Iraq. White areas were those declared completely cleared of insurgents and ready for reconstruction and democratic initiatives. Grey areas were in dispute, with counterinsurgents and insurgents vying actively for the upper hand. Black areas were insurgent-controlled and mostly left alone pending the reallocation of government resources from other areas. See Sir Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Vietnam and Malaya (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), Chapter 10.
  9. Thompson, 55.
  10. COL John Boyd articulated the OODA loop concept in a lengthy slide presentation. For a discussion of the OODA loop and other Boyd theories, see “Boyd and Military Strategy,”, accessed 10 July 2006.
  11. Zeev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari, Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising-Israel’s Third Front (New York: Simon and Schuster, March 1990).


Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, USMC, Retired, is a well-known writer and commentator on military affairs. He has a B.S. from the United States Naval Academy and is a graduate of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and the Canadian National Defense College. Currently, he is reading for a D.Phil in modern history at Oxford University. While on active duty, COL Hammes commanded Marine operational forces from platoon to battalion level both in CONUS and forward deployed. He is the author of The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century(Zenith Press, 2004), a much-discussed book on how to combat modern insurgency.


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July-August 2006