Small Wars Journal

Lessons from Modern Insurgencies

Thu, 09/26/2013 - 6:51pm

Paths to Victory: Lessons from Modern Insurgencies by Christopher Paul, Colin P. Clarke, Beth Grill, and Molly Dunigan, Rand Corporation.

Abstract: When a country is threatened by an insurgency, what efforts give its government the best chance of prevailing? Contemporary discourse on this subject is voluminous and often contentious. Advice for the counterinsurgent is often based on little more than common sense, a general understanding of history, or a handful of detailed examples, instead of a solid, systematically collected body of historical evidence. A 2010 RAND study challenged this trend with rigorous analyses of all 30 insurgencies that started and ended between 1978 and 2008. This update to that original study expanded the data set, adding 41 new cases and comparing all 71 insurgencies begun and completed worldwide since World War II. With many more cases to compare, the study was able to more rigorously test the previous findings and address critical questions that the earlier study could not. For example, it could examine the approaches that led counterinsurgency forces to prevail when an external actor was involved in the conflict. It was also able to address questions about timing and duration, such as which factors affect the duration of insurgencies and the durability of the resulting peace, as well as how long historical counterinsurgency forces had to engage in effective practices before they won. A companion volume, Paths to Victory: Detailed Insurgency Case Studies, offers in-depth narrative overviews of each of the 41 additional cases; the original 30 cases are presented in Victory Has a Thousand Fathers: Detailed Counterinsurgency Case Studies.

Read on.


John T. Fishel

Fri, 10/04/2013 - 8:20am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Hi Bob--

As you know, scientific answers never validate theory (which is what doctrine and the models that inform it are). Rather, they invalidate alternative explanations leaving the current one standing until it, too, is demonstrated to be wrong. Thus, what our RAnd friends have done is tested a variant of current theory once again and left it standing.

Now, I do agree with you that focusing just on tactics and operations (and I would add regional strategy) is too narrow. In the end, most of these conflicts are won, lost, or drawn on the larger field of politics. If your goal is simply to get your people out of the fight after a decent interval, you will not accomplish the objectives you set out to achieve in the first place. I call that a loss. The illustration I give in my Small Wars class is French Algeria where the French army had literally destroyed the rebellion in the country but had left its leadership largely intact in Tunisia and Morocco. So, when De Gaulle decided to end the war, the Army was faced with a loss. The French general who was interviewed for our study did not want to admit that but had to when the interviewer asked him if it was still "Algerie Francaise."



Robert C. Jones

Thu, 10/03/2013 - 5:17pm

In reply to by John T. Fishel


Just because this team drew similar conclusions, it doesn't validate the doctrine - Particularly given the lack of anyone ever producing much enduring succes and actually resolving, rather than suppressing, insurgency under said doctrine.

The problem is defined too narrowly and too tactically; the COIN actors defined too narrowly. If you plow the same old dirt in the same old way it is little surprise that you get the same harvest.

John T. Fishel

Thu, 10/03/2013 - 10:12am

This Rand study claims to break new ground. It doesn't. That does not make the study worthless; in fact, its value is that it replicates what other studies have shown using a somewhat different methodology. It essentially confirms that US COIN doctrine is mostly correct. That is, in itself, useful information. At the price of a few electrons or the paper to print a hard copy, the study is worth the price to have in your library.

That said, I do have some methodological issues to raise. First, the authors misuse the term "factor" as used in statistical analysis. Factor refers to a particular metric scaling technique that is based on a linear regression model. The authors, however, use the term as a synonym for variable and, although they don't say it, for an independent variable. Second, they have created a number of indices that they use to combine variables which they call "factor stacks" and "concepts." While it is relatively easy to create an index, it is not as useful or accurate as a scale. There are many statistical scaling techniques available for both non-parametric data (the kind they used) and interval/metric data. For the former a Likert Scale is an example while Factor Analysis is an example of the latter. Finally, I have a problem with their assertion that statistical tests like Chi Square and its associated probability tables are not relevant to the analysis of their two by two contingency tables because they did not sample but instead have tested the entire population of cases. The problem with this assertion is that Chi Square is used to determine the likelihood that the particular distribution of the data in the contingency table could have occurred by chance alone. Their analysis simply does not address this rather important issue.

Madhu (not verified)

Mon, 09/30/2013 - 12:16pm

Punjab Insurgency:

1. Diaspora support overseas.
2. Internal governance issues (not just poor governance, but exploiting the issue for internal political and monetary gain).
3. Religion.
4. Language and other markers of group and ethnicity.
5. Connection to transnational and internal criminal groups.
6. Cross-border support.
7. Connection of insurgents to other transnational groups.
8. Insurgency occurring within background of certain international Cold War and post Cold War state-state relationships.
9. Connection to overseas governments (Saudi, US, UK) in terms of complicated state-to-state and diaspora relationships.

And so on. Instead of Algeria-in-Afghanistan, better models (and I see Baluchistan in the list) might have been those that parallel the actual situation in the general region.

Insurgent Archipelagos in the mind, physically, as related to strong and weak states, and within the larger "Davos" man or woman phenomenon where everyone knows where the money and support is coming from and the internal problems too, but we are fixed in responses.

But, at this point, is there anyone really interested in studying such issues in this way?

This all works for China and Russia and the contemporary Mid East and others too. It never was about state versus non-state, but the complicated web of connections.

PS: As outsiders, looking at insurgency through the lens of a kind of ersatz colonialism (is there any other kind?) has been a big mistake. As outsiders, the policing of monies, criminality, and being aware of the "Davos Man" phenomenon among top Western decision-makers is more important for "countering" than anything else. We have limited ability to change internal governance until those within wish to truly change. Everything for us is risk management, mitigation and avoiding pouring gasoline on the fire.

Madhu (not verified)

Mon, 09/30/2013 - 11:53am

The problem with such studies is that they give the impression of rigor and have a kind of scientific gloss, when, in reality, the collection and coding is subjective and arbitrary. As another commenter states, it is too simplified to approach any kind of reality.

Bill C.

Mon, 09/30/2013 - 11:02pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M:

A very interesting article.

So let me come at this differently:

a. We believe that our foreign policy should be designed and implemented to create conditions which are favorable to (1) the full and complete penetration of outlier states and societies by (2) the global economy/global capitalist forces.

b. To this end, we seek to favorably transform the lesser and remaining states and societies today -- much as we favorably transformed the great powers of Germany, Japan, Russia and China in the recent past.

c. Herein, we knew of no better way to achieve our goals, outlined above, except via the promotion of our own political, economic and social model. (Our model, after all, being very accommodating of the global economy and global capitalist forces.)

d. Now to Egypt, et al: If not our political, economic and social model for "opening up" and transforming these states and societies -- so that they might better benefit from and better provide for the global economy -- then what alternative model would someone like to suggest?

d. Herein, could we say that "Rule by the Egyptian Military" for example -- rather than democratic rule -- and over the short (and/or the long term) -- might better/best serve our needs?

e. Given the recent failure of democratic rule in Egypt -- as this relates to our objective noted at "a" above -- then might this (other than democratic rule) be something that we now have to take into serious consideration; not only for today's requirement and but also re: those of the future?

(Note: My outline here of where our foreign policy direction has been, where it now appears to be going, and why, would seem to have, from what I can tell at least, no Manichean or religious aspect or character to it.)

Bill M.

Sat, 09/28/2013 - 10:31pm

In reply to by Bill C.

I recommend you buy purchase the latest issue (or subscribe online which is much less expensive) of "The American Interest" SEP/OCT 13 and read the article, "Missionary Creep in Egypt."

He touches upon several deeply significant points about how our historical narrative and culture has shaped our foreign policy and why it is at odds with much of the world. It is one of the more thought provoking articles on the topic I have read, and I hope it will at least be considered by our policy makers before they continue marching forward with their "secular evangelism, armed" polices to transform the world, and gradually turn us into one of the more despised countries in the world.

The article contrasts how Egypt and the U.S. have evolved (obviously quite differently) and ends with a comment about how stupid it is for us to punish Egypt by withholding aid because they have a different history and different attitudes and political systems than us. He does a good job of highlighting some key differences and why democracy is not appropriate in some countries.

A couple of worthwhile quotes:

"Westerners, and Americans more specifically, think about these matters the way we do because our history and culture have disposed us to do so. Yet because our attitudes toward these subjects are essentially religious, however well masked this fact may be to us, we impute universal validity to them as a matter not of analysis but of faith."

"the believer inclines to assume that others will easily accept the same universal truth once their eyes are open to it."

Then he quotes from another article about how illogical our foreign policy is due to existing laws, many of them quite stupid no matter how well intended:

"this law leads to complete policy incoherence. We can now fund security assistance programs in Niger, where a 2010 coup eventually led to democratically elected government, but we can't fund programs in Mali, where a 2002 coup remains not-yet-transcended political fact. But of course the security situations in these two countries are closely linked; so the fact that we couldn't in Niger, but now we can, and we could in Mali but now we can't, creates a policy flow that undermines the attainment of our objectives."

This data may be of some important value but more so if it is viewed along the lines of our present-day needs, to wit:

The United States seems ready and willing to back:

a. Pro-reform populations against governments opposed the transformation of their states and societies along modern western political, economic and social lines.


b. Pro-reform governments against population groups opposed to such favorable transformations.

In certain cases (those noted in paragraph "a" above), the United States would seem happy to have such insurgencies (hopefully non-violent but violent if they are important, necessary and required) prevail.

The United States understands that to achieve its radical, rapid and fundamental "change" goals, re: other states and societies, such disruptions as insurgencies often cannot be avoided and may, in fact, be necessary and positive developments.

Thus, it is within the context offered (as relates to favorable state and societal transformation) that the information provided in this study would seem to have value.

Insurgencies, accordingly, to be understood as being "bad" or "good" only in terms of how they relate (respectively: promote and facilitate; hinder or deny) to the United States' political objective (noted above).

Bill M.

Sat, 09/28/2013 - 3:04pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


After skimming the document I agree with your initial assessment, but the document did address reforms so at least it hints at changes in the government versus a change of government, which would equate to an insurgent victory (unless it was coup). If the study is designed to be focused on COIN, then it appropriately needs to focus on retaining the current government (maybe change of they key personnel, but maintain the same governance system).

I like your point about reactive instead of proactive, and we don't effectively address that in our doctrine. I think we need a better lexicon for proactive (preventative) and reactive approaches to insurgencies and terrorism. Most of our so called proactive measures now focus on building a capable reactive force within our partner nations. We can call this indirect all we like, but in reality it is still very much a direct approach. The military's role should be limited, or at least confined to a supporting role in the proactive approach.

Personally I find most studies from RAND and other think tank studies on COIN overly simplistic and very misleading. They address correlations, not cause and effect. We can't understand cause and effect at the strategic level by studying what tactics were applied without understanding the overall context of a particular insurgency. On the other hand, it does identify what commons sense approaches and wrong headed approaches at the tactical level that a nation dealing with an insurgency should understand to avoid making major mistakes at the tactical (and to some extent at the strategic) level. While an insurgency normally can't be defeated at the tactical level, counter insurgents can certainly lose it at the tactical level if they choose the wrong tactics.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 09/27/2013 - 1:47pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Ok, I am very concerned by the criteria applied in this study as explained on pages 14 (what type of case studies included or excluded) and page 17 (what qualifed as a "win" in a simple chart).

Only violent insurgencies (over 1000 killed, with at least 100/year and 100/side were included. Ok, I know our doctrine says insurgency must be violent, but stepping back from doctrine, violence is a tactical choice that many insurgents decide not to make. Underlying problem the same, but tactics different. To only look at violent insurgency skews the data by narrowing the case studies to a single type of insurgency. (At its most fundamental level, I believe insurgency requires 4 factors: Internal, populace-based, illegal, and Political in primary purpose).

Winning is defined as an unrepentent government that makes no concessions ask for by the insurgent and a government that also remains in power once the insurgent is gone. That may well be a win for some government, some family, or some dictator - but it is highly unlikely to be a win for that nation or region under that system of governance or the people who live there.

So, I think this study is to focused on violent insurgency, and too focused on preserving some particular system of governance and that status quo of policies, laws, etc that brought that place to insurgency in the first place. Such "wins" inevitably bring a string of successive insurgencies over time until the government finally "loses" a little so that the people can win a little bit as well.

(I would be very interested to know who funded this study. First guess would be the KSA or some group beholding to the KSA. But I see it was OSD...)


Robert C. Jones

Fri, 09/27/2013 - 10:04am

I am printing a hard copy and will ensure my home computer has the digits for future reference. Not for the conclusions drawn so much, but for the information compiled.

I do so, however, with one cautionary red flag right for me. In a study of "Paths to Victory" - what is victory?? As General Zinni told my war college class years ago in a memorable presentation "If you don't know where you're going, any path will take you there." So the first thing I did in digging into this product is seek out how victory was defined by this team. I must confess, I have not been digging long, but so far I have not found it (a search for a word in the title on every page becomes tedious...)

But on page 2 and 3 the team spends considerable time in discussing their definition of COIN. Not the same as defining victory, but it offers some clues:

"Efforts undertaken by a government and its security forces (or the security forces of supporting partners or allies) to oppose an insurgency."

Personally I find this to be very reactive and symptomatic, that that it makes the common mistake of fusing the efforts of the actual nation being challenged with the efforts of those who come for a range or reasons to lend their support. To me is seems to presume that victory is the preservation of the current government and the defeat of the current challenger. The team goes on to clarify:

(COIN is)"...whatever one does when opposing an insurgency." and

(COIN refers)"...exclusively to operations against insurgents."

I guess one has to decide, are they out to resolve an insurgency or defeat the insurgent. Many of the cases employed in this work reflect that cycle that governments and their partners and allies so often fall into; generations of defeating wave after wave of groups who have emerged from populations where high conditions of insurgency exist with little enduring strategic effect. The particular population group or region or ideology or name or leader often varies, with the common ingredient being the government. Insurgent after insurgent challenger is defeated in turn, with the thorn of poor/provocative governance remaining in the paw of the population as a whole. "Victory" is declared. Then every 10-20 years over the cycle repeats. Counterinsurgent operations keep nations on this hamster wheel of violence and instability. Counterinsurgency looks at how nations have stepped off of the wheel, and sometimes that requires governance to change in whole, always in part, and sometimes it happens when the insurgent prevails.

So, my initial take is that this is probably a very good study on "Counterinsurgent" operations, but I suspect I will be disappointed in how well it actually addresses "Counterinsurgency." For me the insurgent is not the insurgency, he is primarily a symptom of the actual insurgency and must be dealt with in a supporting manner to what one does as their main effort in addressing why the current system of governance is generating this negative energy within the population the insurgent rises from.

Making a current group of fighters stop is an important and largely tactical mission. But as our founders noted specifically in our own Declaration of Independence, "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

Insurgency is a natural human response to certain types of governance. I still wait for the study that focuses on that. Until then, governments will continue to seek to sustain the status quo, and people will continue exercise their right and duty to "throw off such government."


Move Forward

Fri, 09/27/2013 - 9:13am

This is a comprehensive and impressive study. While I obviously did not have sufficient time to read it all last night, and individual cases cited are not that critical, the overall trend is solid with this recap of the table on page 25 of the RAND Study:

<strong>Degree of Support for 24 COIN Concepts</strong>

Concept----------Degree of Evidentiary Support

Development--------------Strong support
Pacification-------------Strong support
Legitimacy (government)---Strong support
Legitimacy (use of force)---Strong support
Reform----------------Strong support
Redress---------------<strong>Minimal support</strong>
Democracy-------------<strong>Minimal support</strong>
Unity of effort-------Strong support
Resettlement----------<strong>Minimal support</strong>
Cost-benefit----------Strong support
Border control--------Strong support
Initiative------------Strong support
“Crush them”----------<strong>Strong evidence against</strong>
Amnesty/rewards----------<strong>Minimal support</strong>
Strategic communication---Strong support
Field Manual 3-24 (COIN)---Strong support
Clear, hold, and build-----Strong support
“Beat cop”---------------Strong support
“Boots on the ground”---Strong support
“Put a local face on it”---<strong>Minimal support</strong>
Cultural awareness---<strong>Minimal support</strong>
Commitment and motivation---Strong support
Tangible support reduction---Strong support
Criticality of intelligence---Strong support
Flexibility and adaptability---Strong support

Two areas I might take exception to are areas where advances in technology possibly could have altered outcomes. They specifically cite that airpower <strong>did not</strong> have a degree of evidentiary support either way. However, to some degree any historical analysis is hindered in areas where technology advances could have potentially changed results. For instances, while lack of "commitment and motivation" may have ultimately doomed Vietnam on both the South's and U.S. side, advances in unmanned airpower potentially could have improved "border control" potentially improving that motivation. More success in controlling the Ho Chi Minh trail using Reapers/Predators with a lethal capability would have improved "criticality of intelligence."

In addition, better bombers, fighters, and helicopters could have altered "commitment and motivation" of both sides making the 1972 Easter Offensive even more successful for the allies and more discouraging for the North and its communist sponsors. That in turn may have changed the U.S. law that forbid us from using the same airpower to thwart the 1975 conventional attack into then South Vietnam.

The study also cited lack of evidentiary support for or against success in insurgencies motivated by communism or religion. However, the degree of religious extremism obviously has changed since around 1979. As we recall, even Iran and Afghanistan were more receptive to western concepts of modernization prior to 1979. That has changed in the years since then creating unique "commitment and motivation" factors helping the insurgents. After all, suicide attacks are pretty motivated.

Note also the strong support for "boots on the ground" and cited lack of support for a sole raiding SOF, airpower, "light footprint" approach when the insurgent side had strong support from an external element. In other words the strong support for communists insurgents and the NVA from China and the USSR forced a similarly heavy support for counterinsurgents.

The same analogy applies to some extent in Iraq, Afghanistan, and currently in Syria. Except in Syria the "government" has stronger and more overt substantive support from external governments of Russia and Iran...and obviously the counterinsurgents in Syria are, <strong>or were</strong>, pro-west. This, like Iraq, is another case where religious motivation varies amongst insurgents leading to in-fighting and uncertain outcomes. We don't know who will be in charge in Syria and how radical or grateful they will be toward external supporters at the ultimate end state.