How Insurgencies End; Key Indicators, Tipping Points, and Strategy

For Release

April 22, 2010

From the lessons of the Vietnam War to the recent downfall of the Tamil Tigers in Southeast Asia, conflicts between insurgencies and governments tend to follow certain patterns as they arc toward their endings, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

The study provides a planning framework for both policymakers and strategists to help design counterinsurgency campaigns and mitigate the kind of false expectations that undermined the arc of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Counterinsurgency operations will continue to play a large role in today's military strategy, so it is critical to understand how and perhaps more importantly, why, insurgencies end," said Ben Connable, the study's lead author and an intelligence policy analyst with RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

Researchers analyzed 89 insurgency cases and concluded it is possible to shape insurgency endings with sufficient forethought, strategic flexibility and sustained willpower.

However, because numerous variables help define insurgencies – local culture, terrain, economy, type of government – the study notes there is no one-size-fits-all template for dealing with insurgencies.

The RAND study found:

  • Modern insurgencies last approximately 10 years and the government's chances of winning increase slightly over time.
  • Withdrawal of state sponsorship cripples an insurgency and typically leads to its defeat, while inconsistent or impartial support to either side generally presages defeat.
  • Pseudo-democracies do not often succeed against insurgencies and are rarely successful in fully democratizing.

Connable and co-author Martin Libicki also identify key indicators of tipping points – when events take a crucial turn toward the final outcome. The rates at which desertions, defections and infiltrations of an insurgency occur and the willingness of civilians to report on insurgency activity to the government can be significant.

Insurgencies with more than two clear parties involved have longer, more violent and more complex endings, said Connable. Contrary to conventional wisdom, governments tend to outlast insurgents, mainly because they are typically stronger, better organized and more professional than non-state forces.

Governments are better off without external support, but tend to lose when support is withdrawn in the midst of a campaign. Insurgents need external support to survive, and they need sanctuary, but stand a better chance of succeeding if that sanctuary is given voluntarily.

Insurgent cadres formed around a traditional, hierarchical structure are more often successful than fragmented networks, and insurgencies rarely succeed in middle-income and urbanized countries, but fare better in rural or a mix of rural and urban terrain, according to the study.

The study also found that terrorism often backfires and the use of indiscriminate terror is often a sign of overconfidence or weakness. However, weak insurgencies can win, particularly if the government also is weak, loses the war through sheer ineptitude or if the causes of the insurgency are strong enough to carry the fight to its ending. The RAND study found weak insurgencies won in 50 percent of the decided cases.

The study, "How Insurgencies End," can be found at

Research for the study was sponsored by the U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence Activity and conducted within the Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense Intelligence community.

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