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How often do insurgents win? How much time does successful COIN require?

29 May 2008

Lies, damned lies and counterinsurgency“, Robert W. Chamberlain (Captain, US Army), Armed Forces Journal (May 2008) — “Not all insurgencies have been protracted affairs”

Captain Chamberlain’s article in Armed Forces Journal is another cut at replacing the “do insurgencies usually win or lose” debate with something more useful.  He sorts insurgencies by placing them in a larger context:  colonial wars and superporwer proxy wars are “big fires.”  Local insurgents fighting local governments are “little fires.”

This is evidence that a consensus is developing that the insurgent’s opponents are the key factor.  In general, a government so weak that it relies on foreign military forces is likely to lose (I doubt anything more precise can be said, given the number of other relevant factors).  Not only does this bring some order to debate about the odds, but it is a more operationally useful formula for us — often the “foreign military forces”.

This formula also illuminates two oft-cited examples of successful COIN:  Northern Ireland and Malaysia.  Both are grey cases, with a blurred foreign-local distinction.  Esp. the last, which the Brits often declare “their” victory by slighting the role of the local — soon to be sovereign — government. 

This formula was controversial when first discussed in 2006.  I described it in January 2007.  Chet Richards discusses it at length in his new book, If we can keep it.  Now it has become mainstream thinking.  This is another example of our ability to quickly evolve, as described in “America’s Greatest Weapon“, Major General Charles J. Dunlap, Jr. (USAF) and Lt Colonel John Nagl (USA), posted at the Small Wars Journal  (23 May 2008).

Hat tip to Zenpundit for finding this!

Please share your comments by posting below.  Brief!  Stay on topic!  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. areDuncan Kinder permalink
    29 May 2008 1:40 pm

    In general, a government so weak that it relies on foreign military forces is likely to lose

    How do we distinguish this from the insurgency being so strong that foreign assistance becomes necessary?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: There are, of course, no easy answers. That they need our troops to fight is probably the red line. The government typically has far greater resources in manpower and material. Why will their own people not fight for the government? This suggests that the problem is a lack of legitimacy for the government, which importing foreign troops might make even worse.

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  2. 29 May 2008 9:49 pm

    The Sierra Leone example where the Liberian civil war infected the extremely weak state of Sierra Leone is an example that tells a different story.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: You raise an important point. These are tendencies, not Laws of Physics. While in every era there are patterns, war is a human process — hence there are always exceptions.

    We make policy on the basis based on the patterns, aware of but not hoping for the exceptions.

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  3. Sven Ortmann permalink
    30 May 2008 7:52 am

    A tendency should not satisfy the interest in theoretical insights. A proper science would dissect the different factors and create models, along the lines of sociology/political science.

    I don’t understand why (at least in public domain) even the most academic/theory-interested persons who analyze COIN don’t dare to dive that deep into the complexity (no offense intended). Everyone agrees that the problem is complex, but most often this does not prevent analysts from looking for the complex mechanism. Military analysts and theoreticians seem to be content to describe the color of the box and which sounds it emitted in the past.

    I don’t advocate a quantitative model like macro-economic models with thousands of variables, but a set of theories (proper theories, which could be falsified) that describe details of the complex system.

    Otherwise – why care about it? Insurgencies are not really a threat if we don’t fight them voluntarily.
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    Fabuis Maximus replies: Agreed. This is another example of a critical failing in America today, that we prefer to base critical public policies on inspired guessing instead of research. Where the cost of the needed research is trivial compared to the cost of policy implementation, and less than nothing compared to the cost of bad policies. To quote just one, from “4GW: A solution of the first kind – Robots!

    “Research about modern history, funding wide-ranging studies of different methods to fight and win modern wars … these things cost little but still remain unfunded.

    “For evidence of this, search our libraries and think-tank archives for a multi-disciplinary study of insurgencies. Nothing. Correlating the relevant characteristics on standardized scales, calculating the relative significance of the key factors. It would take a perhaps a dozen man-years of effort. The results would settle several long-running debates about the nature of insurgencies. Instead what we have today are fragmentary pictures done by individuals, each ideosyncratic and difficult to correlate or compare.

    “With research like this in hand, the next edition of the COIN manual, FM 3-24, could be founded on more than expert guesses. However shocking, many studies show that experts do not guess much better than layman, even about their own speciality. It is knowledge, based on meticuous research, that gives experts their expertise.”

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