Leadership-Centric Counterinsurgency

Over at Kings of War, Paula Broadwell has a review and discussion of Mark Moyar’s book on leadership in counterinsurgency, “A Question of Command.” According to Broadwell’s reading (I haven’t read the book itself), Moyar presents an alternative to the dominant population-centric approach to COIN, whereby the civilian population represents the center of gravity to be won over through improved security and better governance. Instead, Moyar argues, the determinant factor in counterinsurgency is the leadership elites on both sides, leading him to examine what qualities should then be selected for in COIN leadership.

The qualities he arrives at seem pretty boilerplate, and you’d expect to find them in any motivational leadership workshop. But what interests me in the argument is the leadership-centric alternative presented to population-centric COIN. The reason being that, despite the countless times we’ve read about the connection between social grievances — usually over poverty and poor governance — and insurgency, the fact is that we really don’t have a clear understanding of the actual causal relationship between them. There is not a society on earth that has eliminated poverty and corruption. Indeed, many have functioned quite stably with elevated levels of both. So clearly, leadership — and in particular, gifted leadership — serves some sort of catalytic function in any socio-political movement, of which armed insurgency is an extreme form.

At the same time, we already incorporate part of Moyar’s thesis in our present approach, as illustrated both by the targeting of insurgent leaders for assassination and the effort to peel off those open to political accomodation. But historically, eliminating individual leaders has never effectively eliminated the social grievances that drive an insurgency, and also runs the risk of bringing more effective individuals into positions of power within the insurgency. (That’s something we rarely seem to consider, as if all insurgencies were pure meritocracies where the best and brightest are necessarily in control.) Meanwhile, any political accomodation that does not adequately address the initial grievances risks either delegitimizing the insurgent leader making it, or else providing only a temporary, unstable political resolution to the conflict.

Clearly there’s a balance between the significance of leadership and popular grievances in insurgency. But once again, it appears to be a mysterious one that resists quantification or methodology. That’s a problem for a military approach that needs to operationalize its theories of social cohesion.

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