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Paths to Victory. Lessons from Modern Insurgencies

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When a country is threatened by an insurgency, what efforts give its government the best chance of prevailing? Contemporary discourse on this subject is voluminous and often contentious. Advice for the counterinsurgent is often based on little more than common sense, a general understanding of history, or a handful of detailed examples, instead of a solid, systematically collected body of historical evidence.

A 2010 RAND study challenged this trend with rigorous analyses of all 30 insurgencies that started and ended between 1978 and 2008. This update to that original study expanded the data set, adding 41 new cases and comparing all 71 insurgencies begun and completed worldwide since World War II. With many more cases to compare, the study was able to more rigorously test the previous findings and address critical questions that the earlier study could not.

For example, it could examine the approaches that led counterinsurgency forces to prevail when an external actor was involved in the conflict. It was also able to address questions about timing and duration, such as which factors affect the duration of insurgencies and the durability of the resulting peace, as well as how long historical counterinsurgency forces had to engage in effective practices before they won. A companion volume, Paths to Victory: Detailed Insurgency Case Studies, offers in-depth narrative overviews of each of the 41 additional cases; the original 30 cases are presented in Victory Has a Thousand Fathers: Detailed Counterinsurgency Case Studies.

Key Findings

A Successful Counterinsurgency (COIN) Force Always Engages in More Good Practices Than Bad

  • The study tested 24 COIN practices. Of them, 17 received strong support from the historical evidence.
  • The “iron fist” COIN path, focused primarily on eliminating the insurgent threat, is historically less successful. A motive-based path (one that focuses on eliminating the incentives to support or participate in an insurgency) has been much more successful.
  • Effective COIN practices run in packs, with several practices common in all wins: reduction of insurgent tangible support; commitment and motivation by the host-nation government, COIN force, and external actors supporting the COIN effort; and flexibility and adaptability on the part of the COIN force.
  • The COIN concept “crush them”proved to be more strongly correlated with a government loss than with a win.
  • COIN force quality is more important than quantity, especially where paramilitaries and irregular forces are concerned. Too many troops of low quality can do more harm than good.
  • Governments supported by external actors win the same way others do, but much depends on the motivation of the government to defeat the insurgency.

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