Daniel W. Drezner

Should all counterinsurgencies be local?

In light of the Moscow subway bombings, follow-up acts of insurgency, and vows from the Russian president to use "harsher" tactics, is there anything political science has to say about the situation?  Why yes, as it turns out.  Jason Lyall, a post-doctoral research associate at Yale, has an article in the latest issue of the American ...

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In light of the Moscow subway bombings, follow-up acts of insurgency, and vows from the Russian president to use "harsher" tactics, is there anything political science has to say about the situation? 

Why yes, as it turns out.  Jason Lyall, a post-doctoral research associate at Yale, has an article in the latest issue of the American Political Science Review on the effectiveness of Russia’s counterinsurgency tactics conducted in Chechnya during the first half of last decade.  Lyall has some interesting findings:

In this article, I exploit variation in the ethnicity of soldiers conducting so-called sweep operations (zachistka, plural zachistki) during part of the Second Chechen War (2000-5) to test whether insurgent responses are conditional on soldier identity. More specifically, the large-scale defection of Chechen rebels to the Russian side enables us to compare changes in patterns of insurgent violence after Russian-only, pro-Russian Chechen only, and joint operations. While ethnicity cannot be directly manipulated, these sweeps are matched in a bid to isolate ethnicity’s causal effects by controlling for observable pre sweep differences. I find substantial evidence to support the claim that insurgent violence is in fact conditional on the ethnicity of the sweeping soldiers.

Three findings stand out. First, there is nearly a 40% average decrease in the number of insurgent attacks following Chechen only sweeps compared with similar Russian-only operations. Second, Chechen insurgents display markedly different timing in their attacks conditional on identity of sweepers, with Russian sweeps being met by much swifter retaliation. Finally, the frequency and timing of insurgent attacks after joint Russian-Chechen operations resembles those observed after Russian-only, not pro-Russian Chechen-only, operations, suggesting that coethnics’ informational advantages are not readily transferred across ethnic divisions.

So how does this information inform the recent bombings?  Lyall proffers the following in an e-mail:

In war, as in political life, today’s solution is often tomorrow’s problem. The twin Moscow Metro bombings offer a graphic example of this principle at work. While commentators have been quick to cite these attacks as evidence of the bankruptcy of the Kremlin’s counterinsurgency campaign in Chechnya, the reality is perhaps the exact opposite.
 
Perversely, it is the very success of Kremlin-backed efforts by local actors — most notably, Ramzan Kadyrov, the 33-year-old now ruling Chechnya — in weakening the power, appeal, and geographic scope of the insurgency, that has prompted a radical about-face in tactics by its embattled leader, Doku Umarov.

This downturn in rebel fortunes is directly attributable to twin efforts by the Kremlin and Kadyrov to induce Chechen rebels to switch sides and join militia formations (collectively known as the Kadyrovtsi) designed to hunt their former colleagues and their supporters.
 
Driven by a mixture of disillusionment, greed, and intimidation, some 20,000 men have defected to the Russian side, leaving the insurgency a hollow shell of its former self.
 
Indeed, given the advantages of coethnicity, these militia groups have proven extremely, and lethally, effective at identifying and killing insurgents, while also cutting a wide swatch of fear and intimidation among the general public through forced disappearances, targeted home burnings, and extrajudicial killings. Yet the stability purchased by these militia in Chechnya is fragile, for three reasons.
 
First, suicide terrorism has reemerged as a effective, and perhaps the only, means for the insurgency’s nominal leader, Umarov, to influence Russian audiences and within the internecine struggle for control among the fragmented leadership.
 
Second, while the brutality of these militia has sharply degraded the insurgency’s effectiveness, it has also created widespread grievances among victimized populations within Chechnya, ensuring a trickle of new recruits that disappear into the forests each summer.
 
Finally, remaining insurgents have been forced to seek freedom of action in the neighboring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan, mixing in with homegrown groups to diffuse the conflict  throughout the Northern Caucasus.

The choice facing the Kremlin and Kadyrov is a stark one. A comprehensive settlement to the now decade-long war would mean substantial political and economic reforms across the region, threatening the rule of the Kremlin’s hand-picked strongmen without the guarantee of achieving any measure of stability, let alone peace. Yet a further tightening of the screws in Chechnya may preserve stability for a time but carries the risk of continually fueling a low-grade intra-Chechen civil war while pushing the war beyond Chechnya’s boundaries. In the latter case, the attacks of 29 March may only be a harbinger of things to come. 

Lyall’s research certainly provides an interesting window into Russian counterinsurgency tactics, and the ways in which the response to the Moscow bombings might be counter-productive in the long-run. 

There’s something else that’s interesting , however.  The American Political Science Review and Cambridge University Press had the good sense to send out a press release highlighting Lyall’s research, and get follow-up quotes from Lyall on the salience to current events.  There’s been a lot of complaints about "quant-wonk" political science recently.  Analysis like Lyall’s is worth highlighting because it demonstrates both the utility and applicability of good quantitative work.  Kudos to the APSR and Cambridge University Press for highlighting salient political science for policy analysis. 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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