Alec Worsnop: Knowing the enemy

What makes an insurgency effective and deadly? It is a question the U.S. has been posing with increasing urgency since 9/11, and it is a central research preoccupation of Alec Worsnop, a Ph.D. candidate in political science.

A decade ago, says Worsnop, insurgent factions such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban were viewed by most Americans “all the same way: a terrorist group is a terrorist group.”  But after many years of costly U.S. military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is dawning recognition that the U.S. must better understand and differentiate among them – whether interacting with these groups on the battlefield or at a negotiating table.  Worsnop is part of a new wave of researchers examining the organizational dynamics of these groups to determine what makes successful insurgencies tick.

As Al Qaeda and the Taliban regroup following the exit of Western forces from the region, and as conflicts erupt elsewhere in the Mideast and Africa, Worsnop’s exploration of the cohesiveness and bureaucratic structure of insurgent organizations is proving timely.  The current understanding of insurgencies, he believes, may not provide the kind of nuanced picture that is vitally important in dealing with them through policy or military means.

For instance, Worsnop says that prevailing theories of insurgencies “focus primarily on community solidarity.” But his research is revealing that communal ties alone do not guarantee the strategic and military success of insurgent groups. The most effective organizations behave “as armed actors who most closely approximate militaries, not social groups, or collections of terrorists,” he says. They feature formal military attributes such as training, command and control, and supply chains. “Insurgent groups, like other armed groups, use force in a calibrated way to achieve military and political ends, and it is not easy to do well,” says Worsnop.

Worsnop has been fascinated by the dynamics of conflict since he was an undergraduate at Colby College and studying the behavior of the Lebanese-based militant group, Hezbollah, which “wanted to play the same game that states did, but nobody dealt with them that way.”  Following college, he landed a three-year assignment working on business development for a USAID contractor, which included planning programs to help communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan strengthen economic performance, improve governance, and build infrastructure. This experience brought home for him the necessity of understanding and interacting with powerful non-government factions. “My biggest takeaway was the continuous undervaluing of the combat and political capacity of the Taliban and other insurgent groups.”

Worsnop’s dissertation title, “Organization and Community: Determinants of Insurgent Military Structure and Effectiveness” captures his inclusive research approach.  This work examines the military and social structures of insurgent organizations such as the Viet Cong and Viet Minh during Viet Nam’s decades of conflict, and compares and contrasts them to insurgent groups such as the Badr Organization and Jaysh al-Mahdi in Iraq from 2003 to 2007.

“There’s a lot to be learned by looking at conflicts holistically, integrating the history and context of the actors with a social scientific appreciation of the organizational, political, and structural factors central in shaping how conflicts play out,” says Worsnop. Delving into archives in Viet Nam and the U.S., which include tactical planning documents and transcripts of U.S. interviews with captured troops, Worsnop has discovered ample evidence of insurgent groups’ early commitment to military structure. “There’s a sentence in Ho Chi Minh’s original doctrine of guerrilla warfare that says the only way to fight well is to build a strong and robust organization,” notes Worsnop. 

Through Worsnop’s dissertation research, with its historic case studies, he is developing a methodology for understanding the behavior and strategy of present-day insurgents, who are playing an increasingly dominant and dangerous role on the world stage. It is work that could well prove relevant to national security decision makers.

In a recent paper, “The Worst Case Scenario?: Assessing the Impact of a Complete ISAF Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Worsnop argues not only that the Taliban will grow in military cohesiveness and dominance after the departure of western forces, but that “there is greater risk of the Taliban taking control of a significant part of the country than people are willing to acknowledge.” 

After securing his graduate degree in a few years, Worsnop is “leaning towards working in academia,” but hoping to also “get involved in the policy world,” he says. “I do hope my work is useful in understanding what the foe we’re fighting looks like, and in addressing him in the best possible way.”

Worsnop credits a dissertation committee with wide-ranging expertise for helping shape his approach, including chair Roger Petersen for his knowledge of community structures during conflict; Barry Posen for military strategy and organization, and counterinsurgency; Fotini Christia on conflict dynamics in Afghanistan and the Middle East; and Lily Tsai on communal networks and informal institutions.  

By: Leda Zimmerman

Learn more about Alec Worsnop.