How do Counterinsurgencies End?

I really appreciate Henry asking me to guest post on the Monkey Cage (it’s also a welcome distraction from fixing my dissertation’s bibliography). My research and fieldwork have focused on insurgent organizations in South Asia, especially Kashmir and Sri Lanka, and Northern Ireland. I’m going to write about insurgency and counterinsurgency. Afghanistan is now at the center stage of American foreign policy, along with a set of challenging questions about the nature of civil war.
This post is about the $64,000 question: do we know how counterinsurgencies are won? There is a conventional wisdom that “population-centric” counterinsurgency (COIN) holds the ultimate key to victory against militant movements. This is sometimes also called hearts-and-minds or population security COIN. The basic argument is that if counterinsurgents provide governance, security, public goods, and opportunities for legitimate representation, the civilian population will shift its loyalty to the side of the state and marginalize the insurgents. This is appealing, since it is a kinder, gentler form of war that focuses on development and institution-building, and sounds reasonable enough (see Max Boot here on its virtues in Afghanistan).
The problem is that there isn’t great empirical support for this argument and there are several persuasive reasons to be skeptical of it.
Put simply, COIN is characterized by multiple pathways to the same, or very similar, outcomes (in less simple social-science-speak, this is called “equifinality”). As I noted back in November, in South Asia there have been several routes to stabilization, including coercion, formal deals, and tacit live-and-let-live bargains. First, there is evidence, contrary to the conventional wisdom, that victimizing civilians may in fact help counterinsurgents (see Lyall, Downes, and Johnston). Kalyvas argues that civilian collaboration with counterinsurgents is driven more by territorial control than by political sympathy or government services. Counterinsurgency is still fundamentally war, and coercion, extraction, and ethnic dominance are often integral to the exercise. It’s possible, and indeed very common, for counterinsurgents to be both “population-centric” and ruthlessly coercive (population displacement and control, torture, abductions, blackmail, assassinations, etc). This unpleasant truth should seriously temper enthusiasm for COIN: the game is frequently not worth the candle.
But raw coercion, population-centric or not, is certainly not the only way to end wars. Deals with, and the co-optation of, insurgent groups can bear fruit, whether in Northern Ireland, El Salvador, South Africa, or Mizoram. As I’ll discuss more in a future post, there are a number of ways to re-bind political order during and in the wake of conflict, from simple log-rolling to power-sharing to third-party intervention to peacekeeping to careful institutionalization. It simply may not be necessary to win hearts and minds through public goods and governance if the state can instead cut an adequate deal with the insurgents’ political and military leadership.
In yet other contexts (Nagaland, Karachi, Iraq, and parts of the Burmese periphery, for instance) we see the emergence of “ugly stability,” political environments that lie somewhere between war and peace but below the level of active rebellion. This outcome can be totally acceptable to counterinsurgents, at a much lower cost than engaging in full-spectrum COIN to impose the metropole’s brand of order on the periphery (see Baruah on this “durable disorder” in India). Building a capable, legitimate central state that provides governance and security is very clearly not the only solution, particularly when the target population isn’t wildly interested in what the counterinsurgent is selling. The claim that there are no “middle ways” in COIN is unambiguously contradicted by the historical record: there are actually a number of ways to get from here to there.
This is borne out by academic studies. For example, Lyall and Wilson III’s cross-national study of COIN outcomes finds several variables that influence the results of wars (with COIN defeat associated with foreign occupation, counterinsurgent mechanization, external support for insurgents, and, sometimes, the regime type of the counterinsurgent). These are very distinct mechanisms, rather than any single underlying logic. Similarly, Wickham-Crowley focuses on the complex interaction of insurgent social ties, regime characteristics, and guerrilla military strength. Colin Jackson, now at the Naval War College, shows that even when militaries learn to efficiently operate the technocratic apparatus of population security, they are nevertheless often unable to forge sustainable political order.
The pathways to stabilization have been hugely diverse, from formal negotiating to vicious repression. This complexity means that anyone advancing a straightforward general policy for COIN success should be met with skepticism (beware pundits bearing platitudes!). Some of the most influential policy writing on COIN has focused on aspects of a few cases (Malaya and Vietnam) while largely ignoring less popular conflicts that may actually be far more relevant to Afghanistan and Iraq. Policy prescriptions built on supposedly-classical precepts, derived in turn from unrepresentative or inapt cases, need to be treated with caution.
The bad news is that there isn’t a reliable blueprint to stabilization. But the good news is that there is room for innovation and flexibility; multiple pathways allow for diverse policy approaches. I’m no expert on Afghanistan, but given these findings it’s not obvious that only some form of hearts-and-minds/state-building campaign can deliver results acceptable to the US and its allies (COIN advocate Andrew Exum offers a slightly chastened take on its applicability). For instance, Austin Long has provided an outline of an alternative light-footprint strategy, Thier et al point to a variety of possible strategies, and Coll, Barfield, and Giustozzi have noted that the Soviet/Russian strategy of propping up Najibullah after the Soviet withdrawal actually worked surprisingly well as long as patronage resources kept flowing. The range of strategies that can provide something like stability to Afghanistan may in fact be quite broad, instead of being restricted to a particular model of counterinsurgency that is hazily, at best, grounded in the empirical record.
In my next post, I’ll get more micro-level and discuss what factors political scientists and sociologists think cause people to become insurgents and insurgent supporters.