An Expert on Civil War Predicts We Have Insurgency in Our Future

Wikipedia quotes this definition of ”insurgency”:

A violent, armed rebellion against authority waged by small, lightly armed bands who practice guerrilla warfare from primarily rural base areas. The key descriptive feature of insurgency is its asymmetric nature: small irregular forces face a large, well-equipped, regular military force state adversary.

This is part of an interview from March in The Washington Post:

Barbara F. Walter is a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego and the author of How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them….

We we actually know a lot about civil wars — how they start, how long they last, why they’re so hard to resolve, how you end them. And we know a lot because since 1946, there have been over 200 major armed conflicts. And for the last 30 years, people have been collecting a lot of data, analyzing the data, looking at patterns. I’ve been one of those people.

We went from thinking, even as late as the 1980s, that every one of these was unique. …Then methods and computers got better, and people like me came and could collect data and analyze it. And what we saw is that there are lots of patterns at the macro level.

In 1994, the [CIA] put together this Political Instability Task Force. They were interested in trying to predict what countries around the world were going to become unstable, potentially fall apart, experience political violence and civil war.

Originally, {our] model included over 30 different factors, like poverty, income inequality, how diverse religiously or ethnically a country was. But only two factors came out again and again as highly predictive. And it wasn’t what people were expecting, even on the task force. We were surprised.

The first was this variable called anocracy. There’s this nonprofit based in Virginia called the Center for Systemic Peace. And every year it measures all sorts of things [to decide] how autocratic or how democratic a country is…. Negative 10 is the most authoritarian, so think about North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain. Positive 10 are the most democratic, [like]  Denmark, Switzerland, Canada. The U.S. was a positive 10 for many, many years…. The U.S. was briefly downgraded to a 5 and is now an 8.

And what scholars found was that this anocracy variable was really predictive of a risk for civil war. That full democracies almost never have civil wars. Full autocracies rarely have civil wars. All of the instability and violence is happening in this middle zone. And there’s all sorts of theories why this middle zone is unstable, but one of the big ones is that these governments tend to be weaker. They’re transitioning — some of the authoritarian features are loosening up — so it’s easier to organize a challenge. Or, these are democracies that are backsliding, and there’s a sense that these governments are not that legitimate… Anyway, that turned out to be highly predictive.

The second factor was whether populations in these partial democracies began to organize politically, not around ideology — not based on whether you’re a communist or not, or you’re a liberal or a conservative — but where the parties themselves were based almost exclusively around identity: ethnic, religious or racial identity. The quintessential example of this is what happened in the former Yugoslavia.

What was the moment you thought: Wait a minute, I see these patterns in my country right now?

My dad is from Germany. He was born in 1932 and lived through the war there… And starting in early 2016, my dad was so agitated. All he wanted to do was talk about T____ and what he was seeing happening. He was really nervous. He was just, like, “Please tell me T___’s not going to win…. I saw this once before. And I’m seeing it again, and the Republicans, they’re just falling in lockstep behind him.”

I remember saying: “Dad, what’s really different about America today from Germany in the 1930s is that our democracy is really strong. Our institutions are strong. So, even if you had a T____ come into power, the institutions would hold strong.” Of course, then T____ won. My dad would draw all these parallels. The brownshirts and the attacks on the media and the attacks on education and on books. And he’s just, like, “I’m seeing it all again here”. And that’s really what shook me out of my complacency…  And I was like, am I being naive to think that we’re different?

That’s when I started to follow the data. And then, watching what happened to the Republican Party really was the bigger surprise — that, wow, they’re doubling down on this almost white supremacist strategy…. And then I was like, Oh my gosh. The only way this is a winning strategy is if you begin to weaken the institutions; this is the pattern we see in other countries…. These two factors [the status of the government and how people are organizing] are emerging here, and people don’t know.

… When people think about civil war, they think about the first civil war [and think] that’s what a second one would look like. And, of course, that’s not the case at all. People [need to] conceptualize what a 21st-century civil war against a really powerful government might look like.

After January 6th of last year, … I wasn’t surprised, right? People who study this, we’ve been seeing these groups have been around now for over 10 years. They’ve been growing. I know that they’re training. They’ve been in the shadows, but we know about them. I wasn’t surprised.

The biggest emotion was just relief, oh my gosh, this is a gift. Because it’s bringing it out into the public eye in the most obvious way. And the result has to be that we can’t deny or ignore that we have a problem. Because it’s right there before us. And what has been surprising, actually, is how hard the Republican Party has worked to continue to deny it and to create this smokescreen — and in many respects, how effective that’s been, at least among their supporters.

Even the most public act of insurrection, probably a treasonous act that 10, 20 years ago would have just cut to the heart of every American, there are still real attempts to deny it. But it was a gift because it brought this cancer that those of us who have been studying it, have been watching it growing, it brought it out into the open.

Does it make you at all nervous when you think about the percentage of people who were at, say, January 6th who have some military or law enforcement connection?

Yes. The CIA also has a manual on insurgency…. It was written to help the U.S. government identify very, very early stages of insurgency… What are signs that we should be looking out for?

The manual talks about three stages. The first stage is pre-insurgency. That’s when you start to have groups beginning to mobilize around a particular grievance. It’s oftentimes just a handful of individuals who are just deeply unhappy about something. They begin to articulate those grievances [and] to try to grow their membership.

The second stage is called the incipient conflict stage. And that’s when these groups begin to build a military arm. Usually a militia. And they start to obtain weapons and get training. They’ll start to recruit from the ex-military or military and law enforcement….

When the CIA put together this manual, it’s about what they’ve observed … in other countries. It’s just shocking, the parallels. In the second stage, you start to have a few isolated attacks….The danger in this stage is that governments and citizens aren’t aware that this is happening. So when an attack occurs, it’s usually just dismissed as an isolated incident, and people are not connecting the dots.

And because they’re not connecting the dots, the movement is allowed to grow until you have open insurgency, when you start to have a series of consistent attacks, and it becomes impossible to ignore.

… Here in the United States, because we had a series of long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’ve had more than 20 years of returning soldiers… This creates a ready-made subset of the population that you can recruit from.

What do you say to people who charge that this is all overblown?

… Groups — we’ll call them violence entrepreneurs, the violent extremists who want to tear everything down and want to institute their own radical vision of society — they benefit from the element of surprise, right? They want people to be confused when violence starts happening…. Which is why people who lived through the start of the violence in Sarajevo or Baghdad or Kyiv, they all say that they were surprised. And they were surprised in part because they didn’t know what the warning signs were.

But also because people had a vested interest in distracting them or denying it so that when an attack happened, or when you had paramilitary troops sleeping in the hills outside of Sarajevo, they would make up stories. You know, “We’re just doing training missions”…

I wish it were the case that by not talking about it we could prevent anything from happening. But the reality is, if we don’t talk about it, [violent extremists] are going to continue to organize, and they’re going to continue to train. There are definitely lots of groups on the far right who want war. They are preparing for war. And not talking about it does not make us safer.

What we’re heading toward is an insurgency, which is a form of a civil war. That is the 21st-century version of a civil war, especially in countries with powerful governments and powerful militaries, which is what the United States is. And it makes sense. An insurgency tends to be much more decentralized, often fought by multiple groups…. Sometimes they coordinate their behavior. They use unconventional tactics. They target infrastructure. They target civilians. They use domestic terror and guerrilla warfare. Hit-and-run raids and bombs.

We’ve already seen this in other countries with powerful militaries, right? The IRA took on the British government. Hamas has taken on the Israeli government. These are two of the most powerful militaries in the world….

Here it’s called leaderless resistance. That method of how to defeat a powerful government like the United States is outlined in what people are calling the bible of the far right: “The Turner Diaries,” which is this fictitious account of a civil war against the U.S. government. It lays out how you do this. And one of the things it says is, do not engage the U.S. military. You know, avoid it at all costs. Go directly to targets around the country that are difficult to defend and disperse yourselves so it’s hard for the government to identify you and infiltrate you and eliminate you entirely.

Are these the things that will be or just that may be?

I can’t say when it’s going to happen. I think it’s really important for people to understand that countries that have these two factors, who get put on this watch list, have a little bit less than a 4 percent annual risk of civil war. That seems really small, but it’s not. It means that, every year that those two factors continue, the risk increases.

The analogy is smoking. If I started smoking today, my risk of dying of lung cancer or some smoking-related disease is very small. If I continue to smoke for the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years, my risk eventually of dying of something related to smoking is going to be very high if I don’t change my behavior.

I think that’s one of the actually optimistic things: We know the warning signs. And we know that if we strengthen our democracy, and if the Republican Party decides it’s no longer going to be an ethnic faction that’s trying to exclude everybody else, then our risk of civil war will disappear. We know that. And we have time to do it. But you have to know those warning signs in order to feel an impetus to change them.