Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: A Contest for Political Legitimacy
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: A Contest for Political Legitimacy


Vietnam is important enough to U.S. diplomatic and military history to warrant a second post. Boiled down to its essence, insurgency and counterinsurgency is a contest for political legitimacy — a bareknuckles struggle for the acquiescence, the affections, and ultimately the allegiance of the populace. Popular approval cements the winner's rule.

Scholar Timothy Lomperis posits a three-layered model of legitimacy. A regime earns "interest"-level legitimacy by hoisting an umbrella under which people can fulfill their everyday needs. This is a transaction. The government supplies the basics — security, infrastructure, what have you — and the people assent to its rule. If the government stops holding up its end of the bargain, the people may stop holding up theirs. They may withdraw their support. And if the insurgent offers a better alternative, many will take the deal. Interest-based legitimacy is necessary but far from sufficient to perpetuate a regime for the long run.

The next level up is "opportunity." The regime that commands opportunity-based legitimacy makes stakeholders out of passive supporters. It makes land available to a broad swathe of the populace, opens civil-service jobs to all qualified comers, you name it. The regime entrenches itself through giving a critical mass of the people a stake in its success. If it falls, the fortunes of the people collapse with it.

Atop Lomperis's hierarchy perches "belief"-level legitimacy. The people affirm that such a regime rules by right, not just by delivering the goods. Belief-level legitimacy manifests itself in tokens such as the divine right of kings, the Mandate of Heaven, or the American Declaration of Independence. Convictions reinforce interest and opportunity, helping sustain the regime for the long haul. But legitimacy takes upkeep. The danger for rulers who enjoy belief-level legitimacy is apathy toward workaday functions — hey, if you rule by divine sanction, why bother with the peasants? — combined with some event that shatters the belief. Such a regime can lose its popular standing almost instantly.

Here's the point behind this excursion into political theory. In a sense the insurgent and the incumbent government follow different tracks to victory. Think about it. Admiral J. C. Wylie classifies campaigns as sequential or cumulative. As the term implies, sequential campaigns unfold in stepwise fashion. Each tactical engagement leads to the next. Oftentimes you can plot such a campaign on the map using lines and arrows. In a cumulative campaign — not just insurgent but submarine or aerial combat — tactical engagements are unrelated to one another. Individual events look like pinpricks on the map. Rather than pound away at him in linear fashion, the aggregate effects wear out the loser over time.

In people's wars the counterinsurgent typically starts out sequential and moves toward the cumulative approach. Insurgent forces will often offer conventional battle at the outset in hopes of scoring a quick, decisive victory. If so, they generally lose. That's what happened to Aguinaldo's Philippine army following the Spanish-American War, and to the Vietnamese communists at Ia Drang in 1965. Sequential victory goes to the counterinsurgent, who deploys overpowering material advantages. At that point the regime must turn to cumulative tasks like clearing and holding territory and rebuilding a legitimate society and state. The basics — the functions on Lomperis's interest level — come first. Security, sanitation, and public health take priority.

The insurgent does just the opposite. After losing on the battlefield (or if he refuses battle) he has to start cumulative — waging guerrilla warfare while recruiting manpower, building a regular army, and erecting a shadow regime — and proceed toward the sequential. If successful, the insurgents prevail by unleashing a conventional counteroffensive. That's Maoist theory to a T. The patterns differ sharply, imposing different demands on each belligerent. Having fought cumulatively for a long time, regime forces may well succumb when the campaign reverts to its sequential character.

Ultimately, of course, whoever wins has to do the cumulative thing to consolidate its rule. Wylie confines his writing to wartime military strategy, but his sequential/cumulative paradigm applies equally to peacetime functions of government. Routine law enforcement, fire safety, and all the chores unextricable from constructing and maintaining a working state and society are cumulative in nature. They're also open-ended. Common crime and fire hazards never end. Sustaining legitimacy is different from, arguably trickier than, and demands more patience than overturning an incumbent regime.

This helps explain why many successful revolutionaries make execrable founders and statesmen. After promising the world to win the sympathies of the people, the victor must deliver. Few do. George Washingtons — soldier-statesmen whose gifts span wartime and peacetime pursuits — are rare in history. Few would portray insurgent chieftains like Ho Chi Minh (and his successors) or Mao Zedong as praiseworthy state-builders. Lomperis and Wylie open a window into conflicts that rage where politics intersects with warfare, linear with nonlinear endeavors. Check 'em out.

Please read our comments policy.
Note that all comments are moderated and your comment may not appear immediately.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief