The Insurgent’s Dilemma

A Struggle to Prevail

March 2022 9781787385658 328pp
Available as an eBook
EU Customers


Despite attracting headlines and hype, insurgents rarely win. Even when they claim territory and threaten governmental writ, they typically face a military backlash too powerful to withstand. States struggle with addressing the political roots of such movements, and their military efforts mostly just ‘mow the grass’; yet, for the insurgent, the grass is nonetheless mowed–and the armed project must start over. This is the insurgent’s dilemma: the difficulty of asserting oneself, of violently challenging authority, and of establishing sustainable power.

In the face of this dilemma, some insurgents are learning new ways to ply their trade. With subversion, spin and disinformation claiming centre stage, insurgency is being reinvented, to exploit the vulnerabilities of our times and gain new strategic salience for tomorrow. As the most promising approaches are refined and repurposed, what we think of as counterinsurgency will also need to change.

The Insurgent’s Dilemma explores three particularly adaptive strategies and their implications for response. These emerging strategies target the state where it is weak and sap its power, sometimes without it noticing. There are options for response, but fresh thinking is urgently needed–about society, legitimacy and political violence itself.


‘[A] thoughtful history … with an impressive range of examples.’ — Foreign Affairs

‘This work is relevant for diverse readers, encompassing students of international security and a broader academic audience interested in  security-related themes, particularly political violence. Policymakers and military practitioners, too, can find valuable insights within its pages.’ — The RUSI Journal

‘A captivating book that is a must-read for national security professionals, professional military education (PME) professors, and those interested in the future of insurgency.’ — Inter Populum

‘Contributes to the understanding of contemporary terrorism and would form an essential component of any curriculum for understanding both insurgency and counterinsurgency.’ — Parameters

‘An important contribution to understanding how challenges to sovereignty within states play out practically.’ — Australian Outlook

‘Readers interested in the future of insurgency, disinformation, and contemporary challenges to democratic nation-states will find this a valuable study.’ — Air University Press

‘[The book] sets the stage for further academic, policymaker and military debates. This work is relevant for diverse readers.’ — International Peacekeeping 

‘One of the most important books on insurgency and political violence to appear in decades. Ucko’s analysis, based on historical vignettes, is clear and compelling. This book will help readers understand how to think about insurgent and terrorist organizations as the first step toward developing strategies in response to them.’ — H.R. McMaster, former US National Security Advisor and author of Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World.

‘Iraq and Afghanistan may be past, but the threat of insurgency remains and will be weaponized by adversarial states. Ucko provides a strategic blueprint for how to defeat the twenty-first-century insurgent, challenging orthodox assumptions. Groundbreaking.’ — ​Sean McFate, Adjunct Associate Professor, Center for Security Studies, Georgetown University, and author of The New Rules of War

‘Insurgents are very agile in adapting to changing circumstances; in his masterful analysis, Ucko outlines the most likely adaptations we can expect in insurgent strategy and for which we need to prepare urgently. An absolute must-read!’ — Isabelle Duyvesteyn, Professor of International Studies and Global History, Leiden University

‘This is required reading for both scholars of insurgency and counterinsurgency strategists. After decades of stasis, the analytical literature on insurgency is experiencing a renaissance, driven by major shifts in the security environment and innovation by insurgent actors. Erudite, persuasive, and an important contribution.’ — Steve Metz,  Professor of National Security and Strategy, US Army War College

‘This book puts insurgency into a much wider strategic context, offering an analysis that ought to make readers think carefully about what leads to success in twenty-first-century irregular warfare.’ — Matthew Ford, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, University of Sussex; founding editor of the British Journal for Military History; and author of Weapon of Choice and Radical War

‘An important new entry into the ongoing debate in military and strategic studies over the last twenty or more years. This is a useful exercise in rethinking the nature of insurgencies and counter-insurgency, especially with its discussion of state theory.’ — Paul B. Rich, consultant for TRENDS Research & Advisory, and author of Cinema and Unconventional Warfare in the Twentieth Century

‘A brilliant effort. David Ucko has produced a compelling account of emerging trends in insurgency, as guerrillas adapt to changing social and political norms and technologies in an increasingly urban and connected world. For anyone interested in the future of insurgency, and in the evolving strategic approaches that insurgents are pioneering, this book is a must-read.’ — David Kilcullen, co-author of The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan.



David H. Ucko is Professor and Department Chair at the College of International Security Affairs (CISA), National Defense University, Washington DC. He is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University and a senior visiting research fellow in the Department of War Studies, King's College London. He tweets as @DavidUcko.    

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