Meddling in Domestic Affairs: Insurgencies as Political Tool


Nowadays, it seems to be that we are witnessing a time in which it becomes difficult to separate purely domestic insurgencies from international conflicts. The Hezbollah in Lebanon, rebels in Lughansk and Donetsk in Ukraine, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, the Contras in Nicaragua, the UNLA in Uganda, the FARC in Colombia and the former RCD in D.R. Congo all have one aspect in common: all substate groups were the main players in civil wars and all received (direct or indirect) support from external powers who have had vested interests in the progress or the mere existence of these insurgency groups. Such recent cases exemplify a trend which might become more predominant in the decades to come. While it is not an entirely new phenomenon that so-called third states rhetorically support, financially sponsor or even militarily collaborate with other countries’ insurgency groups, certain developments in the past centuries show that this form of conflict engagement may become the prevalent epitome of international conflict conduct in the future.

Looking back, history shows us how international conflicts between states were mainly handled. Up until the Second World War international conflicts had been primarily fought between the main belligerents themselves. Rome fought the Carthaginians and Parthians, Alexander the Great advanced until the Hindu Kush and squashed all tribes in between, the Mongols sought territorial control from Pacific to the Eastern border of Poland and the Persian Gulf, Napoleon marched until Moscow and Hitler attempted and failed to repeat this trajectory. However, the tide of international wars has waned for several reasons since then. Borders are now more respected as demarcation lines between states, norms of non-violence became more prominent, the costs for interstate war increased due to widely accessible technological developments like WMD arsenals and international organizations created opportunity structures for states to negotiate and compromise without the classical prisoner’s dilemma. Choose for yourself what the main factor for this development is. Nevertheless, what has not changed are the underlying causes of conflicts themselves.

Assuming that warfare between states, so called interstate wars, will remain at a very low frequency level due to the reasons stated above, states can still pursue their goals with coercive means, much in accordance to Clausewitz who remarked that “War is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means”. Although Clausewitz is predominately associated with interstate war, he did not rule out that a state can gain an advantage over the other when the target state has to spend different kinds of resources to fight its own internal threats. Such insurgencies are costly in financial terms, they bind the attention of local and national politicians as well as armed forces, and they can even lead to worst-case scenarios in which incumbent governments are ousted from power or parts of a country secede. These kinds of internal struggles severely weaken the target state and allow third states to gain a crucial edge over their opponents. Notably, there are various factors that support this shift to a more subtle way of warfare.

In fact, due to several developments in the international system over the past hundred years (and recent decades), an environment conducive for the shift from interstate war to state-sponsered insurgencies has been created:

  • Territorial expansion of state borders are harshly sanctioned by members of the international community. Instead of having a grip over foreign territory, states pursue to control other states by supporting substate groups that defy the ruling elites or even attempt to install friendly governments. This was a common theme of both superpowers during the Cold War, however it gains momentum again with examples of the Syrian civil war or the struggle for power in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the elected government in Kabul
  • The globalized financial system has allowed for an easier financial support of insurgent groups. Transactions became facilitated and certain currencies, like the US Dollar, can be used everywhere. Although third states shun to be identified with insurgency-sponsoring, they nevertheless can harness clandestine actions to provide rebels with badly needed cash, as the United States did soon after 9/11 by supporting the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Furthermore, third states can create an environment in which diaspora groups or organizations which are opposed to an incumbent government in their respective home country can remit money to different rebel groups opposing the ruling elites.
  • Propaganda has today global outreach but comes at high organizational costs for the target state to keep full control over all available media outlets, the internet, radio stations, and more. Aggressive campaigning can incite subnational groups in the target state by pronouncing (imaginary) grievances and calling for violent counteraction.
  • Target states are limited in their outreach to combat those states which sponsor insurgencies in their countries. Non-intervention works for both sides. While a third state eschews direct military engagement with the target state, the same usually applies vice versa. As long as the target state cannot comprehensively prove that the insurgency which it is fighting is sponsored by another state, it is difficult to justify a military intervention against the third state. Insurgency sponsoring is never a clear-cut shaped activity and third states will always deny their involvement, except when the proofs are so blatant that any other strategy than denying has to be considered.
  • Third states can harbor important figures or members of insurgent organizations on their soil in order to make it harder for the home state to conduct counterinsurgency measures. Easier travelling due to technological developments and communication between “outside” and “inside” rebels facilitate such cross-border activity.

In general, there are important reasons to believe that state-sponsored insurgencies will become more frequent in the future. This has important political consequences for current institutions which are constructed to mitigate interstate war, but lack the instruments to combat state-sponsored insurgencies. For instance, NATO is perfectly organized to fight external aggressors, but how to properly deal with insurgencies in member state countries remains an unresolved issue. Understanding and taking this type of warfare into account might create a crucial edge over an opponent in a more multi-polar world

Short summary:

  • State-sponsored insurgencies might become the dominant type of warfare in the future
  • Several developments in communication, travelling, financial transactions,  and the importance of state borders support this hypothesis

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