On Urban Insurgency and State Security Force Ratios

In a recent article, Anthony King, the Chair of War Studies at Warwick University, stresses the importance of centring focus on the topic of Urban Insurgency.[1] This peaked my interest, initially, after reading King’s latest book – an excellent read – which adds to the literature reinforcing the claim that urban warfare has indeed become the norm modality of warfare in the contemporary era, i.e. as part of a broader phenomenon of the urbanisation of life and ‘the political’.[2] He states that over the course of this century thus far, the past two decades, urban insurgencies have become a major concern for both scholars and practitioners alike. It will be the purpose of this piece to explore King’s article, critically laying out and investigating both his central argument and the evidence he presents to arrive at his claims. What is the objective of King’s article however?

What King seeks to do is address a lacuna in the insurgency literature, “exploring the connection between the size of state forces and the prevalence of urban insurgency”. Essentially, King claims that the contraction of military forces in past decades has played a significant role in enabling the rise of urban insurgencies. This is so, King contends, as historically, in the twentieth century, when states possessed larger armies, they were able to dominate urban areas undergoing insurgency through sheer force of numbers alone. However, “as forces have downsized, states have struggled to control urban areas, allowing insurgents to operate inside cities with a freedom that was once denied them.” Subsequently, it is the purpose of his article to lay out and evidence this claim, that  “The contraction of state forces has amplified the effects of demography and asymmetry” in relation to urban warfare and insurgency.

In order to elucidate the connection between declining force size and the rise of urban insurgency, King’s article is roughly bifurcated into two sections. The first demonstrates that urban insurgencies were in fact very common in the twentieth century, despite some contemporary claims to the contrary that Urban Insurgency is a phenomenon that is born of this century. In the second part, the article turns to examine the twenty-first century, exploring force ratios in Iraq and Syria to show how the relative deficiency of state forces indeed facilitated insurgencies to hold urban terrain in both cases. This stark contrast to the previous era is then explored and analysed.

Force Size and Urban Insurgency

Significantly, King begins his work by exploring the very notion of how demography and an assessment of urban insurgency can indeed go hand in hand. He states: “Demography and asymmetry are plainly key factors in explaining urban warfare in the twenty-first century”. This is, without a doubt, a trait that many works on the topic explore, not least in the wider conflict literature broadly. For instance, in her now seminal ‘New and Old Wars’ and in her latest co-authored work on urban insurgency, Mary Kaldor explores the role that demography has plaid in relation to the drawn-out nature of conflicts – specifically in the case of the 1990s Balkan wars and those of the twenty-first century Iraq and Afghanistan theatres in the former.[3]

Despite this, King contends, “successful urban insurgencies were rare in the twentieth century” and “It is something of a conundrum that they were not more common or successful.” Interestingly, King frames his discourse on demography and urban insurgency asking why it was that although such insurgencies did indeed occur in the previous century, they were so unsuccessful? Especially given how ideologically driven or fundamentalist in nature a number of such insurgencies indeed were. What made the twentieth century different?

The first point that is highlighted is the distinction between the outcome of the process of urbanisation in the twenty-first century and that of the twentieth. Rightly so, “Many scholars have argued that the urban environment is optimal for concealment and protection”, more so now than ever in the past, given the vast scale of urban-sprawls that have occurred amidst other phenomena and processes of expansion, growth and development running parallel to this; globalisation for a somewhat obvious instance. Such a process of swelling and evolving urbanisation provides the site for urban insurgency to thrive, in a similar manner to the way that warm temperatures provide the optimal conditions for cultures to grow and thrive in micro-biology labs.

In order to discuss this, King cycles through a handful of illustrations. “For instance, the favelas in Brazil are almost impenetrable to the security forces, since each consists of a dense maze of streets. Wars in Syria and against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) show how insurgents have been able to build formidable urban strongholds against state forces. Nevertheless, it is not true that states always struggle to defeat insurgents in urban areas.”

It cannot be solely due to the proliferation of advanced weaponry, and the development of technology broadly, King argues. As although these factors are significant, broadly speaking, state forces tend to hold the advantage, as the gulf between state and insurgent capabilities is generally becoming wider - i.e., in terms of technological capabilities, the distinction between those of state forces and insurgents is becoming increasingly asymmetric. Subsequently, we can claim that: “Neither does the proliferation of advanced weaponry and information communications technology alone explain why insurgents have thrived in cities in the past two decades.”

“The question then”, in King’s frame, “is not so much why insurgents have more advanced weaponry now, but rather why urban insurgents today have been able to create no-go urban enclaves more easily than their counterparts in the twentieth century.” This is an important question to ask as, in the past, large state security forces were able to swamp urban areas, generating force densities in contested neighbourhoods that made it impossible for insurgencies to operate freely. Now however, state forces have the technological upper-hand, generally, but are not able to put down insurgencies in a number of cases. Thus, what has changed? It is here we see King reveal the central operation of his investigation: to explore “whether, in the past two decades, urban insurgency has become more common and serious substantially because state forces have contracted.”

Twentieth-Century Urban Insurgencies

In contradistinction to commentators such as David Kilcullen, who contend that urban insurgency has phenomenally manifested out of the past two decades alone, King wishes to show that “urban insurgency was a constant feature of the twentieth century”.[4] In order to do this, he undertakes a short horizon scan of urban insurgencies in the twentieth century, recalling those in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Algeria, Oman, Yemen, Vietnam and Northern Ireland.

Ultimately, what he finds is that there are a certain series of patterns and qualities that commonly unite twentieth-century insurgencies. King states that:

“In most campaigns, there was very significant urban fighting. Insurgents frequently operated in cities and towns, and some terrorist cells were highly successful. Nevertheless, in each case the rural insurgency predominated; the urban guerrilla was, at most, a supporting element of the uprising. The regime was strongest in towns and cities; the security forces dominated there. It was, therefore, hard for insurgents to gain a foothold in urban areas, or to mount successful operations from them.”

Subsequently, we can see that out of his horizon scan, identifying shared qualities of urban insurgencies in the Twentieth-Century, King emphasises that their lack of success in comparison to their rural  cousin concerns the ability for state security forces to dominate the urban territory. In this regard, it became a herculean task for the urban insurgent or insurgency group to gain a foothold in the urban space; requiring a conceivably successful contestation of such a space with state security forces. This leads King to ask why insurgents, on the whole, avoided urban spaces in the twentieth century.

Why Did Guerrillas Avoid Cities in the Twentieth-Century?

A figure that King visits to answer this question is the Spanish guerrilla fighter Abraham Guillén, who became intellectual mentor of Uruguay's revolutionary Movement of National Liberation – the Tupamaros. In his ‘Strategy of The Urban Guerrilla’, Guillén sketches out both the benefits and a philosophical grasp of urban insurgency, understanding the urban guerrilla as a primary revolutionary subject, whilst equally drawing on its difficulties.[5] King centres focus here, as: “For Guillén, the city offered a unique political advantage. As long as they did not tether themselves to a location, the guerrillas could remain anonymous, thereby evading detection and arrest.”

This is significant, King reveals, because from within the situations and frameworks of twentieth-century insurgencies and insurgency literature, urban guerrillas were able to recognise and overcome the weakness of traditional insurgencies, naturally more rural. Here, in the urban area, “They [Urban insurgents] were able to mobilize the citizenry without exposing themselves or the people to government repression.”

Leading on from this, King displays how Guillén fully accepted that a territorial strategy must fail, precisely as state forces were at their strongest in towns and cities. Here, in the urban area, “security forces would always have enough troops to counter such an offensive”. This is what King is arguing has changed, that the ratio of urban insurgent groupings to state security forces has adapted in favour of the urban insurgent, limiting numerous states’ capabilities to counter such insurgencies.

“For all his advocacy of the urban as not just the primary theatre of insurrection, but the only necessary one, Guillén ultimately admitted how difficult it was to mount and sustain a revolutionary campaign in the urban domain in the twentieth century. States’ security forces were so numerous that it was simply impossible for insurgents to operate effectively in this environment, so close to the seat of government, its police stations, barracks, courts and prisons.” Belfast during ‘The Troubles’ is the example that King provides of this.

After Bloody Friday, the British government commanded the armed forces to bring Londonderry and Belfast under control; this was the case especially in relation to Belfast’s so-called ‘no-go’ areas, which were to be eliminated. This was to be called ‘Operation Motorman’ and, regarding the self-constructed aims of the British government, was a success as it left the provisional IRA with no choice but to fundamentally adapt its approach to insurgency. Having lost the battle for the cities, following the British army’s diluvial presence, ‘Provisional IRA’ cells were left with no alternative but to fight their war of attrition and continue to challenge the British security services in the countryside alone.

“The Troubles show that in the twentieth century, while urban guerrillas often played an important role, they were always extremely vulnerable to counter-action by massive state forces, which were normally able to drive them out of cities.” This, King asserts, is what must be addressed if we are to grasp why urban insurgencies have become more successful in the twenty-first century than in the twentieth – as the ability for security services to ‘flood’ an urban area under an insurgency has become greatly limited with the reduced size of security forces broadly. This becomes the task of his next section, to lay out the empirical evidence for such a claim.

Force Size and the Twenty-First-Century Insurgency

“The insurgents of the post-war period emphasized the difficulty of mounting an urban insurgency; there were simply too many security forces. Counter-insurgents of the same era also fully acknowledged that force ratios played an important role in their operations.”

The end of conscription or national service has had an effect here, King argues. “Force ratios have been inverted in the twenty-first century. For western states, the main reason for this is obvious. From the early nineteenth century until the end of the twentieth, western states tended to rely on conscription to generate mass forces when they required them.” In the Russo-Ukrainian war currently, is Russian national service and conscription having an effect? Perhaps, we can see this in the case of Mariupol? Or are there other factors, both conceptual and behavioural, that distinguish this case from others?  

Interestingly, it is here that King unpacks one of the most significant claims to his hypothesis: “No matter how effective individual units have been in comparison with their twentieth-century, often conscripted predecessors in Kenya, Algeria and Malaya, western forces have operated at a major disadvantage; they have lacked the numbers required to pacify urban areas.” This he goes on to exemplify through discussions of the Iraq war, which demonstrated this issue clearly in the cases of Baghdad, Ramadi and, most famously, Fallujah, whereby the insurgency in the Iraq War saw not only some of the most intense combat but also some of the most unethical practices the war manifested. Equally, King examines the current Syrian Civil War in this regard, specifically in the cases of Aleppo, Homs, Idlib and Raqqa.

King goes on to explore his thesis through his use of ‘Table 1’, whereby he calculates the ratio of security forces to urban population during city-based counter-insurgency operations since 1950.

What we see here is King’s thesis laid bare in statistical format. Ultimately, Table 1 shows that as state security forces have contracted and, therefore, force densities have declined in comparison with the twentieth century, insurgents have been able to operate more freely in cities as urban population has generally increased. For example, the average urban population to security force ratios between 1945-1990 (the second half of the twentieth century) King averages at 49:1, i.e., for every 49 individuals of an urban population experiencing an insurgency, there was 1 state security counter-insurgent. In the twenty first century thus far, this average ratio is far, far higher - increasing from 49:1 to 149:1. Such a difference has largely had an effect on state counter-insurgency operations in urban areas.

Conclusion: Urban Counter-Insurgency in the Future

In his conclusion, King gives us five important takeaways from his article.

Firstly - “The rise of the urban insurgent can certainly be explained in part by the huge increases in the size of cities, so that their vastness quite overwhelms the security forces. Slums are ideal home bases for urban gangs; such areas are almost impenetrable for the security forces.”

Secondly – “There is also an additional, often ignored, factor that helps explain why the urban guerrilla has become such an important actor in contemporary conflict: the contraction of state forces. State forces are tiny in comparison to those of the twentieth century.”

“Within cities, no-go areas have emerged which are very difficult for the security forces to penetrate or clear. This has allowed insurgents to procure and use more sophisticated, heavier weaponry and to engage in more ambitious military operations. In consequence we see the appearance of the chronic inner-urban standoff which has been such a feature of twenty-first-century urban conflict.” Mariupol is perhaps an example of this, which seems to have ended in the mass-bombardment of the urban area and, significantly on an ontological level, the total erasure of the urban itself. This we saw in the case of Aleppo, where harrowing drone footage after battle displayed a ghost town, where by 2017 over 36,000 buildings were damaged beyond repair or destroyed and the war had generated an estimated 15 million tonnes of rubble in the city alone.[6] The state has greater firepower and propensity to destroy, so instead of entering the ‘no-go’ territory of insurgence, the state simply changes the ontological condition of the urban from a constellation of architecture and technologies for living - to that of a concrete corpse itself, unable to sustain life.

“The question for state forces, which are likely to have to deal with urban conflicts either at home or abroad in the next decade, is: how are they to offset the problem of their declining force sizes?”. This, without any doubt, will more than likely be answered with technology.  The asymmetric gulf of military hardware and capability between state-security forces and insurgents will be pried even further open in order to combat this. We can see this already in relation to drone warfare, which, despite being expensive – where some drones [Global Hawks] can cost up to and over $18,591 an hour – is not technology that lends itself to reverse engineering or make-shift replication by bottom-up insurgency or guerrilla movements.[7] This connects to King’s third important point.

Thirdly – “Nevertheless, in the past two decades, disruptive informational and remote technologies have become commonplace in urban conflict.” However, numbers are still likely to be crucial, irrespective of technological adaptation and capabilities by state security forces.

Fourthly: “In the past two decades, states have also employed a second technique to offset declining troop numbers: proxies.” For Russia this has become the norm, especially in Ukraine and Syria. Perhaps we see this more so today, at least in the European sphere, no more so than in the claim that Putin has recruited some 16,000 Syrians to fight with Russia in Ukraine for a return of $7,000.[8] Naturally, such claims may be the result of mis/disinformation, as is often the case in the contemporary era.[9] However, the rationale would be to enlist proxy servicemen to not only offset declining troop numbers, but to do so with servicemen who have experience in urban combat and insurgency, as should be expected in Ukraine as cities will become the site of Battle in both zones occupied and not; Mariupol being the prime example.

Finally, in conclusion, the overall thesis King etches into black and white is enunciated perfectly at the close of his piece. Here he states, clearly, that:

 “The urban insurgency has become an increasingly common phenomenon in the past two decades and is likely to remain an important feature of future warfare, not only because of the demographics or the asymmetric advantages of cities, but also because state forces themselves have declined so radically. Downsized state forces, probably augmented with disruptive technologies and supported by proxies, will contest urban areas with insurgents in the coming decades. Indeed, the contraction of military forces makes the urban insurgency ever more likely in the near future.”

[1] Anthony King. (2022). ‘Urban Insurgency in the Twenty-First Century: Smaller Militaries and Increased Conflict in Cities’. International Affairs, 98(2): 609-629. All unreferenced quotations are taken from this source.

[2] Anthony King. (2021). Urban Warfare in The Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Polity Books; Stephen Graham. (2010). Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. London: Verso. p.16. My mind is also drawn to: Mary Kaldor and Saskia Sassen. (2020). Cities at War: Global Insecurities and Urban Resistance. New York: Columbia University Press; Ari Jerrems. (2020). ‘Theorising International Urban Politics’. Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 49(1): 105-116; Neil Brenner. (2019). New Urban Spaces: Urban Theory and the Scale Question. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Sara Fregonese. (2019). War and the City: Urban Geopolitics in Lebanon. London: I.B. Tauris.

[3] Mary Kaldor. (2012). New and Old Wars. Third Edition. Cambridge: Polity Press [specifically Chapters 3 and 7]; Mary Kaldor and Saskia Sassen. (2020). Cities at War: Global Insecurities and Urban Resistance. New York: Columbia University Press.

[4] David Kilcullen. (2013). Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. London: Hurst. 

[5] David Hodges. (1973). The Philosophy of the Urban Guerrilla: The Revolutionary Writings of Abraham Guillén. New York: William Morrow. p. 234, 250.

[6] Iain Overton and Jennifer Dathan. (17th December 2019). ‘Syria in 2020: the Deadly Legacy of Explosive Violence and its Impact on Infrastructure and Health’. reliefweb.int.  https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/syria-2020-deadly-legacy-explosive-violence-and-its-impact#:~:text=A%202019%20study%20by%20REACH,level%20of%20harm%20as%20Homs (Accessed 9th July 2020).

[7] Sebastien Roblin. (20th April 2020). ‘The Air Force Wants to Cut Surveillance Drones—Here’s Why That May Be A Mistake’. forbes.com. https://www.forbes.com/sites/sebastienroblin/2020/04/20/the-air-force-wants-to-cut-surveillance-drones-a-think-tank-argues-thats-a-mistake/?sh=56f8de524e69 (Accessed 9th July 2022).

[8] BBC News. (30th March 2022). ‘Ukraine War: The Syrians Signing Up to Fight for Russia’. bbc.co.uk., https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-middle-east-60931180 (Accessed 9th July 2022).

[9] Pierre Boussel (23rd June 2022) ‘Syrian Mercenaries in Ukraine: Delusion or Reality?’. Carneigieendowment.org. https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/87382 (Accessed 9th July 2022).