A look at the history of victories over insurgents. How often do foreign armies win?

Summary:   A RAND study examines the victories of foreign armies over insurgents.  It holds powerful lessons for us, and deserves more attention.


This is the third of series about the history of counterinsurgency.  Other chapters:

  1. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., which discussed 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies (Columbia, Iraq, the Malaysian Emergency, the Philippines-American War, Northern Ireland, the Dhofar Rebellion in Oman, and the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya).
  2. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, which reviews the present and past analysis of  counter-insurgency.  This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.

Foreign armies have fought many insurgencies since WWII.  How many have they won?  This important question was answered in a typically excellent report by RAND:  “War by Other Means – Building Complete and Balanced Capabilities for Counterinsurgency“, David Gompert and John Gordon et al  (2008).   In Appendix A Martin C. Libicki examined  “Eighty-Nine Insurgencies: Outcomes and Endings”.  This post shows his results.


  1. How many insurgencies have there been since WWII?
  2. How many had intervention by foreigners?  Who won?
  3. The insurgencies defeated with direct intervention of foreigners
  4. Why are these conclusions so little known?
  5. For More Information

(1)  How many insurgencies have there been since WWII?

Libicki started with the list of civil wars fought between 1945 and 1999 from “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War“, James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin (Profs of Political Science. Stanford U), American Political Science Review, February 2003 — Excerpt:

Between 1945 and 1999, about 3.33 million battle deaths occurred in the 25 interstate wars that killed at least 1000 and had at least 100 dead on each side. These wars involved just 25 states that suffered casualties of at least 1000, and had a median duration of not quite 3 months. By contrast, in the same period there were roughly 122 civil wars that killed at least 1000. A conservative estimate of the total dead as a direct result of these conflicts is 16.2 million, five times the interstate toll. These civil wars occurred in 73 states – more than a third of the United Nations system – and had a median duration of roughly 6 years.

… Building on similar efforts by other civil war researchers,3 we constructed a list of violent civil conflicts that we presently believe to meet the following primary criteria:

  1. They involved fighting between agents of (or claimants to) a state and organized, non-state groups who sought either to take control of a government, take power in a region, or use violence to change government policies.
  2. The conflict killed or has killed at least 1000 over its course, with a yearly average of at least 100.
  3. At least 100 were killed on both sides (including civilians attacked by rebels). The last condition is intended to rule out massacres where there is no organized or effective opposition.

These criteria are similar to those stated by the Correlates of War (COW) project, Doyle and Sambanis (2001), and several others. We developed our own list (working from these and other sources) mainly because we wanted data for the whole 1945-99 period and because of doubts about particular inclusions and exclusions in each list.5 In one respect our data differ significantly from most others: we see no reason in principle to exclude anticolonial wars, such as the French versus the FLN in Algeria.

Libicki updated the list to 2008, subtracted 51 conflicts that were not insurgencies (i.e, coups and spontaneous insurrections).  That left 89 insurgencies, which he examined from many perspectives.  Here we look at just one.

(2)  How many had intervention by foreigners?  Who won?

Outside intervention characterized 29 insurgencies: 21 times directly (i.e., with ground troops or bombing; the intervening countries are listed in Table A.23) and 8 times indirectly (i.e., with money, or advisors). The results, shown in Table A.24, are somewhat counterintuitive. A beleaguered government that gets direct assistance from an outside intervener has no better win-loss record than one that gets no significant assistance. Instead, outside intervention is correlated with a higher likelihood of a mixed settlement (specifically Tajikistan, Lebanon,8 El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Bosnia, Cambodia 1978, and Congo 1998). Governments that had significant outside indirect intervention, however, did worse than average.

(3)  The insurgencies defeated with direct intervention of foreigners

The following lists the insurgencies defeated with the assistance of direct intervention of foreign military forces.

  • Angola (UNITA, 1975-2002) — Cuban military in a USSR vs NATO proxy war.  Wikipedia.
  • Sierra Leone (Operation Palliser, 7 May – 15 June 2000) — UK intervention.  Wikipedia.
  • Congo/Ktanga (1960-65) — United Nations intervention.  Wikipedia.
  • Lebanon (Operation Blue Bat, 15 July 18 October 1958) — USA, 14 thousand US troops fought a proxy war with Syria in southern Lebanon.  Wikipedia.

A few obvious conclusions:

  • None of these involved anything remotely like current COIN doctrine.
  • None of these are similar to the Af-Pak War.
  • None of these provide any basis for confidence in our COIN operations in the Af-Pak war.

Note that Libicki, like the FM articles, classifies Malaya, Kenya, and Northern Ireland as wins by the government — not foreign interventions (see chapter one for an explanation).

(4)  Why are these conclusions so little known?

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
— Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked (1935)

So far these studies have received little attention from our geopolitical experts.  Justly so, as recognition of this lesson from history would remove a major justification for our military’s vast budget.  Defending against a decrepid Russia or a hypothetical expansion by China does not justify a trillion dollar budget.  Nor does fighting Islamic terrorism, if we’re not doing so by expeditionary warfare.

(5) For More Information

Other posts about the history of insurgency and counterinsurgency

  1. Why do we lose 4th generation wars?“, 4 January 2007 — About the two kinds of insurgencies
  2. How often do insurgents win? How much time does successful COIN require?, 28 May 2008
  3. The CIA’s forecast about the Iranian Revolution – and the revolution prediction tool, 6 January 2010
  4. The key to success in Afghanistan: independence, 11 April 2010

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