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Factors Influencing the Success of Insurgencies Essay

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Updated: Jan 16th, 2022


The concept of insurgency refers to the protracted political-military struggle targeted at displacing the party that is occupying power (the government) and entirely or partially controlling the territory by means of using military force or political organizations that are considered illegal. The main characteristics of such insurgency groups is that their aim is to gain control over a particular territory or population, including the resources available to them. This quality of insurgent groups differentiates them from terrorist attacks. In this paper, a focused will be placed on discussing the factors characterizing the success of insurgency and providing examples from historical case studies in order to understand the process in greater detail.


Insurgency represents a violent political opposition for gaining control over populations and resources1. he legitimacy of the government is undermined within insurgency in order to facilitate their own standing within the population. Members of insurgent groups usually seek to undermine the ability of governments to provide their populations with public services and security, including education, utilities, and justice2. A group looking to overturn the influence of the government will attempt to do so by means of providing alternative and additional services to people. Another objective of insurgent groups is obtaining either active or passive (or both) support from the population. In many instances, not all support from the population is gained from people who sympathize insurgent groups; instead, intimidation and fear can help to achieve a degree of loyalty. Another important objective that insurgent groups pursue is to provoke the government into committing unlawful acts and abuses in order to drive neutral civilians toward supporting the insurgents and solidify loyalty to the latter3. Finally, it is also important for insurgents to ensure that the international support for the government is decreased and that relevant political players recognize the intentions and the legitimacy of insurgency and the goals that it is pursuing.

Thus, an insurgency is mainly a political competition to gain legitimate power. However, the violent aspect of this competition is often alarming to observers and therefore is harmful to the reputation of insurgents. Warfare occurring in the context of insurgency is characterized by the lack or the absence of front lines, sequenced battles or campaigns, the development of protracted strategies that may last even decades, untraditional military tactics, such as guerilla warfare, ethnic cleansing, and sometimes terrorism4. The difference between combatants and civilians is blurred in the environment of insurgency, which may lead to a disproportionate number of causalities among civilians that suffered from the opposition between the government and insurgents.

In order to understand the nature of insurgencies and the reasons for their development on the basis of historical cases, it is essential to categorize between them and focus on the organizational structure. On the one hand, politically organized insurgencies are developed on the basis of complicated political systems before or while they start undertaking military operations against the ruling government. The military aspect of politically organized rebellions is linked to the political structure that guides the processes within such groups.

On the other hand, militarily organized insurgencies underline the importance of military action necessary to overrun the ruling government with the help of the military mobilization of the population. Insurgent groups, within such a context, expect to reach military success and the subsequent weakening of the government beginning from small and weak political structures that later transform into traditionally organized military groups. In comparison with militarily-organized and politically-organized insurgencies, the traditional way of developing such groups draws upon the pre-existing tribal, ethnic, and religious affiliations. The established social hierarchies that existed previously often substitute the political and military structures designed within insurgencies.

Case Studies from History

Two examples of insurgencies taking place in world history refer to the events occurring in the Philippines between 1898 and 1954. The first insurgency was initiated by the followers of Emilio Aguinaldo against the United States and the country’s Indigenous allies. The opposition between the US government and the followers of Aguinaldo lasted between 1899 and 19025. The second insurgency was led by Communist groups against the republic of the Philippines and was supported in the US government. The insurgency action started in 1946 and ended in 1954, mostly because of practical purposes.

Despite the early arrival of the Spanish to the Philippines and the establishment of the settlements, the new settlers did little to promote the economic development and self-government. This led to the slow but consistent emergence of resentment and opposition to the rule of Spaniards, who also wanted to impose Christianity onto the territory’s settlers. In the late 19th century, Filipinos founded the Katipunan, a secret society that was aiming at the independence from the Spanish. Emilio Aguinaldo became the leader of the Katipunan first in the Luzon and later in the entire archipelago.

In the summer of 1896, the Katipunan launched their first attempts of insurgency through major rebellion that lasted for over a year. Aguinaldo and other leaders of the insurgency groups went to exile in Hong Kong in order to protect themselves from the potential following from Spanish authorities. Having been brought back to the Philippines, Aguinaldo proclaimed himself a dictator of a Provisional Philippine Republic and by the end of June 1989 was controlling most of Luzon outside the capital city. He believed that Washington would support the legitimacy of the insurgency, and indeed, American troops were standing by while the Katipunan followers subdued several small Spanish posts. However, they did not allow Aguinaldo and his followers to enter Manila in their full strength and organization. This was due to President McKinley’s lack of understanding on how to address Manilla in terms of US policies. In 1899, approximately 15,000 US troops controlled Manilla under the command of General Elwell S. Otis while the 30,000 armed Filipinos surrounded the capital and were predominantly loyal to Aguinaldo. Military action began on February 4th despite the fact that the US government offered the islanders proper administration. This led to the further opposition within the Katipunan – some of them wanted to support the US policies while others wanted to reach full independence, and American intelligence took advantage of this. Thus, one of the main characteristics of successful insurgency is ensuring that there is no to limited conflict within a group that is opposing the government.

Thus, the guerilla war followed the defeat of Aguinaldo as the strategy was necessary to stay relevant while also causing issues to the US commanders. In the very beginning, guerilla war took place in Luzon and under the very eyes of American forces, while the scope of the conflict ranging from one region to another. As a counter-insurgency method, Americans pursued intelligence gathering, and its effective implementation became the key to the victory of Americans. This shows that the second vital aspect of ensuring the success of insurgency, despite its scope and context, refers to the ability to protect information and preventing betrayal. Despite the fact that Filipino prisoners were granted freedom for identifying their comrades, the lack of unity within the Katipunan led to their defeat.

The context for the second instance of insurgency in world history refers to the events taking place in Iraq between 2003 and 2007. The first efforts of insurgency began in the summer of 2003 following the victory of the coalition of the standing forces of Saddam Hussein in March and April6. The vast majority of insurgents included Sunni Arabs that lived predominantly in Baghdad and western and northern Iraq. The key objectives of the group were to oppose the power of the United States government that was seen as an occupier as well as to regain some degree of political dominance and economic benefits that Sunni Arabs had lost after Hussein’s demise. Exiled Shi’a leaders of the newly-created Iraqi government played a defining role in the insurgency along with the extreme element, the Abu Musab al Zarqawi organization that was affiliated with the Al-Qaeda network.

The United States and its military were initially unprepared to confront the insurgency from Iraq natives. They expected to fight a conventional war and armored their military battalions with traditional battling vehicles, heavy machinery, and weapons. Such a heavy and noticeable organization of troops made it harder to patrol the territories and interact with the population. Most of the anti-insurgency efforts were conventional and heavy-handed, which posed a danger to civilians. The military intentionally detained innocent people to blackmail their insurgent relatives and leveled households to ensure that people deter from supporting the insurgents. These actions alienated the Sunni population7. Nevertheless, there were examples of successful counter-methods. For example, the operations of the 101st Airborne Division under the control of Major General David Petraeus were focused on collection actionable intelligence to use in subsequent raids against insurgent groups. Most importantly, Major General interacted with the Sunni population to draw them into the political process. It also came as a benefit to implementing high-value targeting to create a list of most-wanted insurgents in their areas of operations.

Despite the efforts of the US Army and its allies, by the beginning of 2004, the insurgent actions were gaining strength, with poor decision-making causing the further exasperation of the conflict. As the Bush administration ordered to implement an offensive to clear Fallujah, the military did not consider the effects of attacking a civilian city. The offensive led to the widespread outrage of the Sunni people who viewed the process as an attack on their entire society and met the US marines with the resistance of around 2,000 insurgents. They coordinated rocket-propelled grenades, machine-gun fire, and mortars. The propaganda from insurgents in the Arab media exploited the subsequent casualties in Fallujah to inflame the population’s opposition to the coalition. Therefore, one of the critical methods of ensuring the success of insurgent actions is winning over the support of the local population that would begin opposing the ruling power that insurgents are trying to oppose.

Discussion and Conclusions

Based on the examples in case studies, there are three key factors that would contribute to the success in the insurgency. As evidenced by the defeat of Aguinaldo and his followers, there should not be any opposition within the insurgent group. Some of the insurgents showed an interest in the proposals of the US government to develop a regulatory system that would sustain the development of the region. The US intelligence took advantage of the inside conflict within the Katipunan and managed to end the guerillas. Another important takeaway from the explored case studies is that successful insurgency efforts were based on the collection of intelligence information that would be used for subsequent strategic decision-making. The efforts of the US governments in both examples were targeted at searching for the information that could help the military implement successful opposition efforts aimed and suppressing the influence of the insurgency. Finally, the support of local communities is essential for insurgents because it can serve as a valuable tool for propaganda. As the Arab media used the offensives of cities as a method for showing the negative side of US presence in the territory, it became harder for the troops to gain the support of the locals.

Overall, analyzing the concept of insurgency in the context of global affairs is complex as there is a range of variables involved in processes that insurgents implement. The examples of insurgence occurring in Iraq and the Philippines showed that the key purpose organized groups is gaining a desired degree of leverage to oppose a ruling party. However, little success was achieved in insurgence efforts as the influence and capabilities of those in power usually prevailed.


  1. Beckett, Ian. Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies: Guerillas and their Opponents since 1750. London: Routledge, 2001.
  2. DCDC. Army Field Manual. Countering Insurgency. London: MOD, 2010.
  3. Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. A History of Counterinsurgency. Santo Monica, CA: Praeger, 2015.
  4. HSDL. Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency. HSDL.
  5. Macdonald, Michael. Overreach: Delusions of Regime Change in Iraq. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
  6. Marston, Daniel, and Carter Malkasian. COIN in Modern Warfare. Oxford: Osprey, 2008.


  1. Gregory Fremont-Barnes, A History of Counterinsurgency (Santo Monica, CA: Praeger, 2015), 20.
  2. HSDL, Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency, HSDL.
  3. Daniel Marston, and Carter Malkasian, COIN in Modern Warfare (Oxford: Osprey, 2008), 34.
  4. Ian Beckett, Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies: Guerillas and their Opponents since 1750 (London: Routledge, 2001): 34.
  5. DCDC, Army Field Manual, Countering Insurgency (MOD, 2010): 37.
  6. DCDC, Amy Field Manual, 39.
  7. Michael Macdonald, Overreach: Delusions of Regime Change in Iraq (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014): 78.
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