The Insurgent’s Dilemma

A Struggle to Prevail

February 2022 9781787385658 328pp


Despite attracting great hype and headlines, insurgents rarely win. Even when they successfully claim territory and usurp governmental prerogatives, they typically face a military backlash too powerful to withstand. States struggle with addressing the political roots of such insurgencies, and their military efforts mostly just ‘mow the grass’, yet for the insurgent the grass is nonetheless mowed–and the armed struggle must start over again.

This is the insurgent’s dilemma: the difficulty of asserting oneself as a start-up, of violently challenging authority, and of establishing oneself sustainably as the new source of power, without suffering devastation along the way. In the face of this challenge, some insurgents are learning new ways to ply their trade. As a result, while all states lament the poor track record of recent counterinsurgency campaigns, even greater trouble may still lie ahead. Insurgency is being reinvented–tailored to the vulnerabilities of our times, and with new strategic salience for tomorrow. As successful approaches are copied, refined and repurposed, what we think of as counterinsurgency will also need to change. The Insurgent’s Dilemma explores three emerging insurgent strategies that will force a new response, along with fresh thinking about political violence in the twenty-first century.


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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