The South Asia Channel

There’s no checklist for counterinsurgency

The debate over Afghanistan strategy since Obama’s troop increase last year may not have produced any solutions yet, but it has produced plenty of think tank reports purporting to have them. One of the most recent is a new RAND Corporation study that makes bold claims about victory in counterinsurgency. The authors of the study ...


The debate over Afghanistan strategy since Obama’s troop increase last year may not have produced any solutions yet, but it has produced plenty of think tank reports purporting to have them. One of the most recent is a new RAND Corporation study that makes bold claims about victory in counterinsurgency. The authors of the study argue that debates over COIN are usually “based on common sense, a general sense of history, or but one or two detailed historical cases.” Policymakers and military officers are desperate for solid research that can help them evaluate the menu of strategic options, but the best they can expect is advice based on analogies or selective readings of history. To remedy this situation, the authors set out to perform a thorough analysis based on “extensive data collection, rigorous analysis, and empirical testing.”

It’s a laudable enough goal — but for all their claims to superior rigor, the authors fail to live up to it. They make a series of basic methodological mistakes that throw doubt on their conclusions. Most importantly, they confuse cause and effect.

The authors identify fifteen “good” practices and twelve “bad” ones and conclude that success will occur as long as COIN forces implement more good practices than bad. In other words, there is a universally applicable checklist for victory. The authors are unequivocal about the meaning of their analysis of 30 past conflicts: “These data show that, regardless of distinctiveness in the narrative and without exception, COIN forces that realize preponderantly more good than bad practices win, and those that do not lose.”

Unfortunately, several of the good practices they identify are tautologies. In victories, for example, “The majority of the population in the area of conflict supported or favored the COIN force,” and “The government/state was competent.” Such statements are true; they’re also meaningless. A more useful discussion of best practices would focus on how one creates a situation in which the majority of the population supports the government, and how the government could effectively rule.

The authors acknowledge some of these problems. Remarkably, they concede that they cannot “disentangle the causal order” between practices and outcomes, meaning that they cannot tell which practices led to victory and which ones were simply evidence of success. Nonetheless, they defend their results by claiming that they “do not make strong causal arguments, in part because so many good COIN practices occur together that we cannot arbitrate between their many possible causal contributions.”

This bit of methodological legerdemain lets them off the hook for actually demonstrating the influence of the factors they believe are important, while simultaneously implying that implementing their laundry list of good practices will in fact lead to victory. In any case, the caveat is not consistent with their unequivocal conclusions throughout the report. Frankly, it is hard to take their disclaimer seriously given the subtitle of the study: “Sources of Success in Counterinsurgency.”

The authors also defend their approach by arguing that it is difficult if not impossible to measure the causal impact of any given practice because “effective COIN practices tend to run in packs.” In other words, teasing out the influence of particular factors is tricky because outcomes are overdetermined. This claim is highly dubious, however, because many of the factors that supposedly correlate with success are in fact redundant and overlapping.

In addition to these methodological problems, the authors make puzzling choices about case selection. Again aspiring to rigor, they justify their decisions on several grounds. They cast the net widely for contemporary insurgencies by including no fewer than thirty recently concluded cases. As a result, the sample is “perfectly representative of the recent history of insurgency,” controlling for geographic and cultural variation, as well as important variation in the military capabilities of COIN and insurgent forces.

Closer inspection, however, raises significant concerns of bias. The authors chose their sample based on the conflicts’ start date, only including those that began after 1978. This means that the study misses some of the most important recent cases which have actually taken much longer to resolve: Northern Ireland, Basque separatism in Spain, the Philippines (MILF), Angola (UNITA), and Sri Lanka are all left out. Because these wars lasted much longer than many of the cases in the sample, they’re arguably more relevant than some of the cases that do make the cut, such as a one-year conflict in Congo.

A second problem is that the cases focus on places that are, in terms of both U.S. national security and international stability, relatively unimportant. There isn’t a single case from Western Europe, the Middle East, or South Asia (excluding Afghanistan). Indian COIN efforts in Punjab and Kashmir (largely concluded in terms of organized terrorist violence and militant activity), or Pakistan’s operations in Sindh and Baluchistan merit analysis. What about success in Northern Ireland and Spain? Can any study really ignore the Middle East and still claim to be relevant for policymakers today?

The authors claim a “perfect correlation” between good practices and COIN success, but important case studies that cut against this conclusion are conspicuously absent. No example more clearly demonstrates the flaws in case selection than Sri Lanka, which succeeded through the ruthless suppression of human rights. This omission is particularly inexcusable because the government successfully applied repression in the last phase of the conflict, which contradicts the study’s contention that such tactics only temporarily subdue insurgencies.

The authors note that in rare cases, countries can use repression in the decisive phase as long as they also undertake a series of good practices that dampen the negative effects of coercive violence. But it might also be the case that repression in early phases helps separate insurgents from civilians, thereby enabling different approaches later in the war. Or it might be that good practices in the middle phases make it easier to annihilate insurgent forces at the end through a combination of repression and mass force, which is one way of looking at the Sri Lankan success. In short, it is may be how one uses repression that is a “good” or “bad” practice, rather than repression always representing a “bad” practice.

The RAND study concludes with a series of recommendations for counterinsurgent forces. Not surprisingly, some of these echo the current emphasis on population-centric COIN, warning against repression and other approaches that are likely to alienate civilians. Others are surprisingly banal, as in the exhortation to “keep a scorecard” of good and bad practices and “make changes” if the balance tilts the wrong way.

The most problematic recommendation, however, is that counterinsurgent forces should simultaneously implement as many good practices as they can. This argument ignores the fact that the operational problems of COIN are inexorably wrapped up with the strategic problems of state-building, which is a protracted and bloody process. State-building usually includes a period of ruthless competition for power, and some “bad practices” are usually necessary to end it. Efforts to stop the process in midstream in the name of COIN doctrine may prove tragic if they end up prolonging the conflict without settling the underlying political issues.

For these reasons, policymakers should be skeptical about RAND’s findings. The utility of this study is, sadly, only marginal for the Afghanistan debate.

Joshua Rovner and Tim Hoyt are assistant professor and professor, respectively, of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, or any other entity of the U.S. government.

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