The Insurgent’s Dilemma: A Struggle to Prevail

  • Published

The Insurgent’s Dilemma: A Struggle to Prevail by David H. Ucko. Oxford University Press, 2022, 328 pp. 

David H. Ucko explores new trends in insurgent strategy by looking at how insurgency is transforming in a symbiotic relationship with state vulnerabilities. He describes the insurgent’s dilemma as the challenge in violently fighting state authority and establishing power while also avoiding a devasting state response during the process.

The book opens with Ucko reframing analysis about insurgency by focusing on its political features rather than military aspects. He highlights how the successful insurgencies during the Cold War focused on specific state vulnerabilities, but this changed as the international community and states have transformed. Ucko also describes how foreign states were key to insurgency victories, but insurgencies have succeeded with only a few definitive victories between 2000 and 2015 (26). This relative lack of success, he argues, prompted changes in the insurgent’s strategies and, in doing so, necessitates changes for states to counterinsurgencies.

The first half of the book examines three types of insurgencies, which demonstrate a shift from more traditional insurgent strategies. Ucko begins by analyzing localized insurgency in which a group does not attempt to change the regime but engages in subversion locally and avoids significant armed retaliation from the state. Exploring urban and rural cases in Brazil, Iraq, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Turkey, he describes the vulnerabilities this type of insurgency poses to the state with its internationalization and threat to government legitimacy by localizing the battle to the neglected areas of the countries.

Building from this, Ucko details infiltrative insurgency by explaining it involves a group that co-opts state structures through the exploitation of political and social divisions while covertly using violence as it engages in legitimate politics from within to dismantle a democratic system. He analyzes historical case studies with the Nazi Party in interwar Germany and more contemporary cases involving Bolivia, Colombia, Greece, Iraq, Nepal, Northern Ireland, and Pakistan, demonstrating how this approach allowed armed movements to legitimize their aims and twist democracy even if the movement fails (111).

Then, Ucko analyzes ideational insurgency that he describes as online influence and recruitment narratives that seek to build power amid sporadic violence. Drawing on case studies of information operations from the Islamic State and online activity from far-right violent extremists, he describes their efforts to mobilize against the state through the formation of a digital counterstate and moving fringe ideas into the mainstream (141).

The second half of the book proposes state responses to these three types of insurgencies and highlights the need to focus state efforts beyond military responses. Ucko offers several state courses of action against localized insurgency drawing from lessons learned in Afghanistan, Colombia, El Salvador, Haiti, Iraq, and Sri Lanka to demonstrate how the state must enter neglected areas and establish legitimacy. He highlights the need to, not only control, clear and hold territory in rural areas but establish conditions for institutionalizing informal structures. Moreover, he notes that urban areas require special consideration about the types of force necessary and allowing state connections with the population so urban insurgents’ political functions can be replaced by the state (183).

Next, Ucko looks at state responses to infiltrative insurgency and the importance of the responses, such as ostracizing, integrating, and proscribing groups, as well as deciphering between competition and existential threats (188). Using case studies from Colombia and Northern Ireland, he describes ethical and strategic aspects of the responses, such as the dangers of inclusion, to encourage moderation and discusses the problems of simply banning the parties from political participation.

Lastly, Ucko reviews state responses to ideational insurgency with attention to censoring, policing, and regulating internet activity by noting the tradeoffs and challenges of each approach. Largely focused on the United States, he also looks at countermessaging and the need for states to adjust as well as the importance of media literacy against disinformation and propaganda. He notes the significant difficulty the state faces in responding to ideational insurgency and the role of the private sector, such as social media companies’ deplatforming and removing violent internet content.

This book successfully describes the ways insurgency has transformed and provides ideas for state responses to some transformations. Ucko details how insurgents had more victories before the end of the Cold War, which prompted strategy shifts to fight the state’s advantages and attack vulnerabilities. During the Cold War, states relied on military might to fight insurgencies, but suppressing opponents with firepower is not enough in a contemporary globalized and digitized world. Hence, the book not only explains ways in which states need to rethink insurgencies but how they must establish analytic frameworks about these trends for effective responses.

The Insurgent’s Dilemma does have some shortcomings. Notably, several of the case studies examined were superficial, reciting some basic contours about actors and events when providing comparative analysis to movements in other countries or time periods. Moreover, the book expands the definition of insurgency by including online narratives, social media posts, and computer hacking as a form of insurgency. This significantly changes the scope of insurgency beyond conventional definitions and potentially blurs lines between dissent and violence, especially for countries where political opposition, including demands for democracy, are branded as terrorism. Nonetheless, readers interested in the future of insurgency, disinformation, and contemporary challenges to democratic nation-states will find this a valuable study.

Ryan Shaffer

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."