The Future Threat Is Insurgency

By 1stLt Kevin E Stephensen

The future operating environment is uncertain. However, even as there are patterns in chaos, there are certainties in uncertain operating environments. One certainty is that insurgencies are now inevitable in any enduring conflict. If the Marine Corps bets its existence on the one certainty in the uncertain future, then it is not gambling but rather investing in its own future.

This article argues first that insurgencies are inevitable. Second, it argues that bottom-up counterinsurgency (COIN) is how to conduct maneuver warfare in the COIN environment. Third is that the Marine Corps must implement a new retention and recruiting plan that will elevate the Corps to a level to be able to thrive in the COIN environment. Fourth is how this force can operate as the “silver bullet” solution to insurgency by generating bottom-up COIN.

The Inevitability of Insurgency

In terms of maneuver warfare, there are several reasons that the modern world is a “cohesive system that creates a situation in which an insurgency can function.” The first, being the only global super power, any conflict the United States engages in will be asymmetrical. Insurgency has proven to be the only platform to compete in a protracted conflict against a more powerful military. That is exactly what happened in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam. Thus, it can be concluded that since no country can compete conventionally with the United States, any protracted war the United States engages in will become an insurgency: “Insurgency is defined as an organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power, or other political authority while increasing insurgent control.”1 Simply put, it is a campaign for public support using any means necessary.

It is almost impossible to deter an insurgency in the modern digital world for several crucial reasons. First, insurgencies can easily receive financial, political, and military support from the globally networked world. An example of this is the global jihad movement, where different Islamic extremist groups across the world receive support from international sympathizers.2 Second, insurgencies are inexpensive to conduct and expensive to counter. Third, insurgencies have always sought to manipulate media coverage to increase their own legitimacy while eroding support for the counterinsurgent. Examples of this are the lack of positive press coverage during Vietnam and how Al-Jazeera covered Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) during the first few years. Fourth, insurgencies are easier to establish in developing democracies than in a dictatorship.3 This is because a dictatorship can outlaw any movement of which it does not approve. An example of this is Falun Gong in China and the Muslim Brotherhood being outlawed under Mubarak’s Egypt. A developing democracy is incredibly susceptible to insurgency because free speech is tolerated, which allows the insurgency to campaign as a legitimate party. An example of this is the early Iraqi elections and the Muslim Brotherhood’s quick rise to power after the revolution in Egypt.

Bottom-up COIN Aligns with Maneuver Warfare Doctrine

“If the aim of maneuver warfare is to shatter the cohesion of the enemy system, the immediate object toward that end is to create a situation in which the enemy cannot function.”4 Both David Galula and Mao Tse-Tung believe that two competing insurgencies cannot co-exist for a long period of time because the stronger insurgency will absorb the weaker insurgency. Thus, Galula and Mao come to the conclusion that using an insurgency to combat another insurgency should not be used as a strategy.5 6 What Galula and Mao failed to recognize is that creating the stronger insurgency is then all that is needed to absorb the weaker enemy insurgency and that is exactly why it should be done.

If the objective of maneuver warfare is to “create a situation in which an enemy insurgency cannot function,” then introducing a stronger competing insurgency to the situation will defeat the weaker movement. This is exactly what happened in the Sunni Awakening in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. In that case, Sunni militias essentially became a coalition-sponsored insurgency against al-Zarqawi’s (al-Qaeda in Iraq) insurgency. Al-Qaeda’s insurgents began to turn themselves in, became absorbed by this insurgency, or were killed.7 The militias took over the role of security that the al-Qaeda insurgency was pretending to do.8 Being the same demographic that was supporting the insurgency, the militias gained support quickly and easily from the population because they were from the population. During this process, the flow of intelligence reversed and fed the militias and coalition forces instead of al-Qaeda. Essentially, the militias served as the decentralized security force that was able to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions which created a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy could not cope.9 The Marine Corps must function as a catalyst that sets the locals into motion who then generate an indigenous insurgency that defeats the enemy’s insurgency. The most important and difficult part is generating a competing insurgency from the same demographic that is providing support for the enemy insurgency. If the insurgency was generated in a competing demographic, it would be in danger of fueling old feuds, or in extreme cases, be perceived as genocide. In Iraq, the competing insurgency needed to be predominantly Sunni. In Afghanistan, a successful opposing insurgency would have required a majority Pashtun support. If done in Malay during 1946–1957 when the Chinese were supporting a communist insurgency, a successful competing insurgency would have also required support from the Chinese populace.

The most difficult part about generating a competing insurgency is that it requires tremendous cultural understanding to identify the complex cultural systems, networks, nuances, and history of that society. This is crucial as creating a competing insurgency within the same demographic requires it to outmaneuver the original insurgency on its home turf. This would require a deep cultural understanding, which is defined as the highest level of cultural knowledge. Cultural understanding is an appreciation for why people do what they do and knowing how to use that information to create support. T.E. Lawrence was able to be so influential at focusing Arab support during World War I precisely because he had developed this level of cultural knowledge. There are lower levels of cultural knowledge that are not as powerful. Cultural awareness is the second highest level of cultural knowledge and is limited to what a culture does. Cultural sensitivity is the lowest level. It is only learning how not to offend someone from another culture, and, therefore, is of limited use in influencing members of that culture toward political or military objectives.

The current Marine Corps teaches only to this low level of cultural sensitivity training, which is, by its defensive “offend not” nature, counter to the Marine Corps doctrine of taking the initiative to fight the enemy proactively. Cultural sensitivity is reactive and does not have the decisive offensive capability to influence the outcomes of insurgencies. The Marine Corps teaches to the lowest common denominator. This is why we have cultural sensitivity classes instead of cultural understanding classes prior to deployment.

To develop the highest level of cultural understanding requires mastery of the language. The difficulty with this is that it requires a large amount of time that an average Marine will not have as well as money that the Marine Corps will never have. So in true Marine Corps fashion, the solution must be improvised.

Retention and Recruiting

“Counterinsurgency is not just a thinking man’s warfare—it is the graduate level of war.”10

The current promotion system allows Marines to compete on a merit-based system for promotion to the next grade. This is excellent and shouldn’t be any other way. The problem is that the current system gives Marines two choices, either up in rank or out of the Corps. This system eventually forces out each Marine, who is then replaced by a Marine who is not necessarily any better, thus never raising the lowest common denominator. Considering the cost of training the new Marine to replace the current one, this becomes an expensive system that only maintains the status quo without improving the quality of the Corps, particularly in developing cultural expertise that can be leveraged to fight insurgencies.

The Royal Marines and the special operations community have a different model that can be scaled to work for the Marine Corps even though the Marine Corps is significantly larger. In the British Royal Marines, it is possible to stay the same rank and grade throughout one’s career. Royal Marines still have to compete to stay in the Service (they have fitness reports and are required to meet the standards of their grade and rank), but they are not fired for being in the Service for too long. They choose to stay in at a lower rank because they want to be an operator in the field instead of being pushed up in rank and—consequently—behind a desk. Rather than the prestige of increased rank and responsibility, they could have the prestige of being the subject matter experts in their respective field.

The Marine Corps will benefit from this model in several orders of effect for this policy change. First, the individuals who maintain the same rank and grade will become the experts of their rank’s billets and job skills. The second order of effect is that they elevate their peers by sharing their experiences; in Gen Alfred M. Gray’s plan of each unit having a pool of knowledge from which to draw, that pool now becomes an ocean of knowledge in each unit. The third order of effect is it creates a smaller demand for new recruits. The fourth order of effect, the most important, is that the Corps can be incredibly selective with recruits. With a lower demand, the supply of new Marines can be handpicked. The fifth order of effect is that each new Marine will be better than the Marine he or she replaces.

This allows the Corps to be selective enough to recruit only citizens who have a good cultural understanding and who know foreign languages. This would allow the Corps to leverage a national resource of individuals who already possess cultural understanding to better influence insurgencies and win wars. The Marine Corps could be even more selective in other dimensions including citizens with significant physical fitness and leadership backgrounds. This selection process will exponentially increase the Corps’ most valuable assets: the prestige of being a Marine and the reputation of the Marine Corps. This added prestige then puts joining the Corps on a similar level of competitiveness as joining the FBI, CIA, or NSA. On a longer time line with this increased prestige, the next generation of Marines would study languages and cultures in preparation to join the Corps. Eventually, language and cultural proficiency could also be promotion criteria. After all, we fight wars with members of other countries.

The proposed retention plan has several additional benefits. First is that this will drastically raise the quality of the Corps, yet doesn’t cost the Marine Corps a single penny. Second is that it creates a force that would be able to more readily adapt to future international situations without sacrificing any current capabilities. Most importantly, it creates a graduate-level force that can thrive in the “graduate level of warfare.”

Recruiting individuals of the highest caliber and retaining our experienced operators sets up the composition of our force for enduring success at the critical level of the COIN fight. “The critical actions are those that occur at the village, district, and provincial levels.”11 These are the levels at which the most junior members of the Marine Corps operate. If the Corps truly believes in maneuver warfare, knowing that these levels are where the critical actions occur, this is where the bid for success would have to be put. This is where the best, most trained, and experienced Marines need to be. The current system doesn’t do this. The proposed system does.

Recruiting citizens who have cultural and language skills should be the highest priority. These skills improve the force’s situational understanding, improve communication with the native military, improve the quality of interactions with the population, and give Marines the ability to recognize cultural centers of gravity that can be leveraged.12 Studying and understanding the local political structure and inner workings of the people is as important in COIN as map study is in conventional war.13 Understanding these cultural centers of gravity allows the COIN force to identify and then occupy the key COIN terrain. Since COIN warfare is a competition for the support of the people, cultural centers of gravity are the only centers of gravity that will lead to victory. This means that language and cultural skills are essential to conducting maneuver warfare in the complexity of the COIN environment.

The “Silver Bullet”

During the early years of OIF and OEF, there was debate about what a possible solution or “silver bullet” for the insurgency problem. This proposed model for reshaping the Marine Corps will make the Corps the silver bullet for insurgency. This will address the different complex problems of the future operating environment. Even more importantly, this force will thrive in the COIN environment.

Every conflict must be handled expertly, especially in the beginning. There would be no need for a surge or high number of U.S. forces. Instead something similar to the “dribble-in method” as outlined in the Small Wars Manual could be used to allow a minimum footprint and maximum legitimacy of the local government.14 This method is incredibly less expensive than using a massive amount of U.S. forces. The model and size of the combined action platoons of Vietnam would be as large a U.S. presence in an area that is needed. With an entire Marine Corps that is hand-selected, there would be minimal risks operating in squad-sized elements that are integrated with a local platoon. The majority of Marines would be experienced operators trained to advise and assist.

The modern world has a sensitive social/political climate with mass digital access that can create an internationally sponsored insurgency with less than a headline. In the words of T.E. Lawrence, “the most important weapon in a commander’s arsenal is the printing press.” The Corps could expertly use this “most important weapon” and the modern printing press is the global digital network. With this hand-selected Corps, there would be no risk of friendly fire with this most important weapon. Marines urinating on dead bodies and posting it on YouTube, the killing of villagers in Afghanistan, burning of Korans, and the infamous events at Abu Ghraib prison would be things of the past.* “The COIN manual teaches this lower law of leaders must consider not only the first-order, desired effects of a munition or action but also possible second- and third-order effects including undesired ones.”15

This is similar to the lower law of cultural sensitivity—teaching how not to offend. Operating on the lower principles will only help to protract a war but is not enough to win one. Guerrillas, however, operate on the higher law, which is to only do something for the second- and third-order effects. In an insurgency, a guerrilla’s actions are primarily aimed at generating support of the population and to gain media coverage. Marines operating on the higher law of cultural understanding can seize the key cultural terrain through their expertise.

If the Marine Corps is redesigned to be a COIN force, it will serve three ends. The first is that the Corps won’t be threatened with being dissolved because it will no longer be mistaken as just another land force. The second is that the Corps will essentially become the only force in the world truly fit to fight in the inevitable COIN conflicts. The third is that this high-caliber Corps will be more adaptable and able to solve unpredictable problems. This change also allows the Corps to be more in line with its maneuver warfare doctrine.

This article shows why insurgencies are inevitable in conflicts in the future. It shows how bottom-up COIN aligns with maneuver warfare doctrine. It shows how a new retention and recruiting plan would elevate the Marine Corps to be able to thrive in the COIN environment. Lastly, it shows how this new force could operate as the “silver bullet” to insurgency.


*Three of these incidents did not involve Marines.

1. U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 (Washington, DC: 1971), Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate, 2006, 1-1.

2. David Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 165–227.

3. David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1968), 27–29.

4. U.S. Marine Corps, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting, MCDP 1 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997), 74.

5. Galula, 73–74.

6. Mao Tse-Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1961), 33–34.

7. Duncan Hunter, Victory in Iraq: How America Won (Columbus, MS: Genesis Press, 2010), 252–253

8. Ibid.

9. MCDP 1, 73.

10. MCWP 3-33.5, 1-1.

11. Daniel Ellsberg, Pentagon Papers, Washington, DC, 1971, 576.

12. Kilcullen, 222–224.

13. Galula, 100–101.

14. U.S. Marine Corps, The Small Wars Manual (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1940), 5–8.

15. MCWP 3-33.5, 7-7.