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Book Review: Insurgent’s Dilemma: A Struggle to Prevail

12 Mar 2024
Reviewed by Dr Shubha Kamala Prasad

An interesting insight into insurgencies is that they rarely succeed. David H. Ucko’s Insurgent’s Dilemma: A Struggle to Prevail shows us how the extant state survives, and how rarely they are overthrown through the conventional use of force in the 21st century.

Does a lack of military success mean that insurgencies are no longer of primary concern? Given the numerous insurgencies prevalent around the world, states are still grappling with substate contestations of state sovereignty. How then are insurgencies still clinging on despite their low levels of success? In turn, how should states react to these insurgencies? Ucko answers these questions by outlining strategies that insurgents adopt to survive and then offers plausible policies for states to handle such insurgencies. He supports his arguments with an admirable breadth of examples from around the world. The book makes an important contribution to understanding how challenges to sovereignty within states play out practically.

Ucko argues that insurgents are faced with a dilemma – to either do nothing and face defeat or take up arms against the state, and face the state’s use of force to suppress violence. Given this dilemma, they adopt certain strategies that enable them to survive without ambitiously taking over the state itself. The core of the book delineates three strategies that contemporary insurgencies have implemented to become more resilient in light of their inability to militarily overthrow the state. The three insurgency strategies include localisation, infiltration, and an ideational approach. Ucko explains each of these strategies and offers potential solutions for states to counter them.

Localised insurgency refers to groups’ goals to carve out their own sphere of influence within a state without overthrowing the state itself. In these cases, insurgent-controlled pockets of sovereign power emerge. Despite frequently offering governance structures in these spaces, the insurgents’ use of violence also tends to be high and not held to account. Ucko, therefore, argues that states need to reclaim these spaces to have coherence and legitimacy across all of their territories. The reclamation can involve the use of force if used judiciously and exclusively on perpetrators of violence, and in tandem with regaining the trust of the local population. In order to reclaim legitimacy, a pragmatic approach offered to states is “institutionalizing the informal political structures that can rule locally yet under the auspices of a central government.”

Infiltrative insurgency occurs when insurgent actors enter the political system of a state overtly, while covertly using violence to further their goals. Co-opting the state allows insurgents to appear legitimate to external actors. However, unlike regular political parties, infiltrative insurgents continue to use violence. Ucko argues that, unfortunately, identifying the violence, once the insurgents are a part of the system, is too late because it is much harder to defang such parties once they have gained political legitimacy. Instead, he promotes the (slightly controversial) right of states to proscribe the formation of certain political parties if strong evidence of a violent  history or non-democratic ideologies exist. The book argues for the protection of freedoms via the somewhat paradoxical preemption of banning anti-democratic groups to de-legitimise them.

Ideational insurgency looks to change norms in society in a de-territorialised manner wherein the internet is used to reach broader audiences for support and legitimacy for the insurgents’ goals. While discussing the role of ideology for lending credibility to insurgencies is not novel, the book dives into the implications of digital spaces as platforms for connecting people sympathetic to a common ideology regardless of their territorial location. The rise and spread of the internet has definitely changed transnational connectivity, which in turn has allowed extremist groups that espouse violence to spread their message to a wider audience. Ucko shows how social media platforms have enabled “in-group loyalty even in the absence of in-person contact.” Ucko’s argument seems to be a new version of Benedict Anderson’s conception of the nation as an “imagined community” of people who have never met but feel kinship. Parallels drawn between ISIS and far-right violent extremists show how the ideology itself is irrelevant – rather the ability of the internet to mobilise support across vast geographic spaces needs to be taken into account. Ucko asserts that states need to focus on proper media awareness and education in the future to counter such online influence.

Each of the three strategies, and their accompanying counter-measures, are explained using case studies from around the world, which include (but are not limited to) Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Communist Party in Nepal, and ISIS in West Asia. The detailed descriptions of the case studies do not detract from the book’s readability, though some might assume the reader to have background knowledge about the politics of the countries mentioned. Furthermore, the global examples depict the broad applicability of the central arguments made in the book about insurgencies.

There are three main takeaways from this book. First, we need to rethink our traditional approaches to understanding and countering insurgencies. No longer are insurgencies centred around the traditional military overthrow and capture of the state. More often than not, insurgents look to claim localised, subversive, and/or de-territorialised power. An equilibrium of shared sovereignty arrangements with the state is the result. However, this is not sustainable, especially since the insurgents’ use of violence is often outside the scope of accountability. Second, legitimacy is central to the contest between states and insurgents. People often view insurgents as legitimate representatives because the state has neglected peripheral territories or marginalised populations. States need to rethink their priorities to include those who have been marginalised. Third, states need to address the root causes of insurgencies. Ultimately, political and economic grievances motivate insurgencies. By treating the symptoms – violence – and not the actual cause, states are short-sighted in their ability to eradicate substate violence. Ucko does not preclude the use of violence as a tactic in the overall strategy to counter insurgencies. However, state violence must be clearly justified, and should complement a larger strategy of restoring state legitimacy in the eyes of the marginalised.

While the book is rooted in the basic premise of the Westphalian state as the central unit of the international system, it acknowledges the shortcomings of assuming an ideal type of a Weberian state, wherein the state has the monopoly on the use of force with absolute control over territory and population. Instead, it offers a more realistic portrayal of how states function with pockets of ruptured sovereignty. For better state governance, the author offers practical solutions wherein the state should engage with local customs and traditions to gain legitimacy. Instead of imposing external state institutional structures, a more useful approach could be adopting local structures and infusing them with democratic norms. Overall, The Insurgent’s Dilemma shows the significance of thinking through the policy implications of fractured sovereignty within states, and offers guidelines for more stable futures.

This is a review of David H. Ucko’s Insurgent’s Dilemma: A Struggle to Prevail (Hurst Publishers, 2022).  Hardback ISBN: 9781787385658.

Shubha Kamala Prasad is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Hertie School in Berlin, Germany. Her research examines domestic sources of foreign policy, spanning substate conflict to diaspora mobilisation. She was a Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellow at the European University Institute (2020-22) in Fiesole, Italy. 


This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.