In the beginning there exists a climate of political disaffiliation within a definite portion of the population. The climate of nascent political disaffiliation and disaffection provides the human broth from which one or more anti-status quo groups self-organize. Almost inevitable the status quo, the government, which controls public space, ignores the self-organizing groups, making no effort to use them to mediate between grievances and government.
Over time, often a very short time, these new groups will coalesce and become structured organizations. Now the government will, indeed, must take notice of them. It is at this point the status quo must make its most critical single choice.
It must decide whether to seek to maintain total authority or accept effective operational dominance. It must choose between repression and some variant of power-sharing, exclusion, or inclusion. The typical response has been to opt for total authority, repression, and exclusion.
At this point the dynamics of the relation between the emergent system (as chaos theory uses the term) of the anti-status quo groups and the government assures two factors exist. The first is that the government and its supporters, having better mechanisms of decision making and execution, will drive the progress along the road to armed conflict. The second is counterintuitive but factual--the anti-status quo groups being self-organizing and emergent have the flexibility necessary not only to counter the status quo's repressive efforts effectively but also to raise the ante.
The status quo government's repressive efforts will ultimately have the effect of consolidating the anti-status quo forces as well as radicalizing them. The proto-insurgents will move to ever more radical positions and extreme demands since advocates of these are generally better organised, more committed, and possess the simple, appealing plan for the future.
Under pressure and with the impetus of tightly organised, totally committed radicals, the anti-status quo group will become ever more structured. It will finally be structured sufficiently to have all the operational features of a quasi-government including the capacity to coerce the unwilling within the population under its influence if not control.
More often than not it will be an ill-considered government action which precipitates armed conflict, but if that does not happen it is only a matter of (short) time before the insurgent entity will. When this happens it is because the insurgent leadership fears a collapse of will within its supporters. Fighting, will, it is believed, restore and enhance political will on the part of the membership.
Insurgent entities, even those with a very highly structured command and control system remain, at root, self-organizing. It is this feature which makes decapitation oriented counter insurgent tactics less than universally effective. The insurgents maintain a fundamental flexibility that all governments (and their "foreign" supporters) lack.
The war once started is not a war which can be won simply by killing people and breaking things. Whether both sides realize it or not, the avenue to victory is the progressive reduction of one side or the other's political will to continue the effort. Much of the effort by both sides must be bent not only to undercutting (more accurately, enervating) the opponent's political will but also to mobilizing support from the uncommitted majority of the population.
The contestant with the greater flexibility and greater ability to assist or facilitate the self-organizing of new support groups will have the greater chance of success. The side which acts coercively so as to compromise its legitimacy in the estimate of the uncommitted majority has the greater chance of defeat.
In most insurgent conflicts the insurgents have the advantage in these areas. The self-organizing and emergent system properties of the insurgents generally allow them to better incorporate an expanding base of support. The status quo with its generally greater reliance on coercion lacks the flexibility and ability to mobilize new support within the uncommitted population. (Of course, there are exceptions as demonstrated by the Islamist insurgents in Iraq.)
The combination of self-organization and fear of the consequences of losing gives the insurgent entity remarkable staying power. Even when the violence seems to have been suppressed effectively (as in the Chechnya and environs a few years ago), the insurgents continue to exist, biding their time, developing their strength, and waiting a better tomorrow.
This means that hostilities termination does not and never has equated with conflict resolution. This results again from the inherent flexibility of the insurgent entity. The insurgent controls the degree to which actual shooting and dying exists. If it is in the longer term interests of the insurgent to go to ground, stop shooting, and focus on population incorporation, it will.
When (and if) the active hostilities, the attention grabbing "war" stops, the problem of genuine conflict resolution continues to exist. The ground truth is that both the anti-status quo people and the status quo aligned people will have to coexist. The degree to which this coexistence is either genuinely peaceful or merely a time out before the noise picks up again is up to the status quo.
The status quo once again faces the same choice it had before the shooting started: inclusion or exclusion. While outside supporters of the status quo may hope for the former, for repression, even obliteration, of the insurgents, the best choice for the status quo is inclusion, power-sharing, the keeping of effective operational dominance.
This option remains a bitter pill to swallow for any government and the elite which aligns with it. The choice is all the more difficult when a powerful external supporting power urges keeping on with the effort to eradicate the insurgents.
Bitter or not, outside pressure or not, the historical record shows that only when the status quo opts for the risky attempt to maintain effective operational dominance is there any actual end to the insurgency. Any other course of action means the insurgency will be back, bigger, badder and better than before.
An even more stark picture emerges from the examination of the several hundred insurgencies the world has seen in the past two hundred fifty years. That picture is of successful insurgencies of both varieties outnumbering failures by better than four to one. This reality is the one upon which American policy makers must take the firmest grip before briskly marching the troops off on yet one more interventionary operation.
It is not that counterinsurgency cannot be successful. It can. The US has some splendid experience in doing just that. (As we have splendid experience at being a successful defensive insurgent.)
Rather, counterinsurgency is the toughest kind of political-military row to hoe. And, that is because the advantages reside with the emergent system called the insurgency.