Keys to Successful Counterinsurgency Campaigns Explored

For Release

July 19, 2010

Good counterinsurgency practices tend to "run in packs" and whether a campaign includes more good practices than bad ones is a strong predictor of the outcomes of campaigns historically, according to a new study from the RAND Corporation.

The study quantitatively tests the performance of 20 distinct approaches to counterinsurgency operations against the 30 most-recent resolved insurgencies worldwide. These cases cover the period from 1978-2008 and include a variety of terrain, regional and cultural variations, and differences in the military capabilities of counterinsurgency forces and insurgent troops.

"Too much of the current debate on counterinsurgency relies on one or two arbitrarily selected cases or a general sense of history," said Christopher Paul, lead author of the study and a social scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "This study used 30 systematically selected and analyzed cases to reach some findings that support the conventional wisdom, and some that are more surprising."

For example, winning a counterinsurgency campaign doesn't hinge on a single factor. The armed forces that succeed in counterinsurgency operations typically implement a host of identified good counterinsurgency practices while avoiding ineffective ones. More surprising, however, is that this finding holds across all 30 cases studied.

Every counterinsurgency "win"—eight out of 30 cases—had a strongly positive balance of successfully implemented good versus detrimental factors and every counterinsurgency loss had a zero or negative balance of good versus detrimental factors. Researchers say this suggests that while every insurgency may be unique in its specific context and local conditions, the kinds of things that counterinsurgents should be trying to do are consistent across cases.

Of the 20 counterinsurgency approaches tested, 13 received strong empirical support, while three approaches—resettlement, escalating repression and various insurgent support strategies—have the weight of evidence against them. Some of the counterinsurgency approaches validated by this study include those advocated in Army Field Manual 3-24 (Counterinsurgency). Those strategies include what would now be called strategic communication and several classic approaches to counterinsurgency, including pacification and legitimacy.

While some repressive counterinsurgency forces have managed to prevail, the study found that repression is a bad counterinsurgency practice. Only two of eight winning counterinsurgency campaigns (those in Turkey and Croatia) used escalating repression and collective punishment during the decisive phase of the conflict. However, in those two cases the counterinsurgents simultaneously employed a much larger number of good counterinsurgency practices.

Repression was shown to win intermediate phases, but a substantial majority of phases in which the counterinsurgents seized the upper hand through repression preceded an ultimate defeat, including insurgencies in Somalia, Burundi, Tajikistan and Kosovo.

Popular support was found to be an important contributor to insurgency outcomes. However, tangible support—the ability of insurgents to replenish and obtain personnel, materiel financing, intelligence and sanctuary—was found to be even more important than popular support.

While popular support and tangible support often followed each other in the cases studied —if the insurgents had the support of the population, they were able to meet their tangible support needs; if they lacked popular support, they were not—when popular support and tangible support diverged, victory followed tangible support. Because of this, the study recommends counterinsurgents identify the specific tangible support needs and sources of insurgents and target them in addition to wooing the population in the area of conflict.

The study recommends that counterinsurgency operations should plan to pursue multiple, mutually supporting lines of operation, and build and maintain forces capable of engaging in multifaceted operations.

Several of the good counterinsurgency practices depend on the nature and behavior of the host nation government, so if a government or its structure or policies do not conform with good counterinsurgency practices, improvement should be a top priority. Also, the United States "should think twice before choosing to support governments that will not help themselves," Paul said.

While there is no hard and fast threshold for the minimum number of good counterinsurgency practices a force must use in order to win, counterinsurgents should keep a scorecard of good versus bad factors and practices. If the balance of good and bad factors is not positive, that suggests counterinsurgents should adjust strategies or make changes in their implementation or execution.

Other authors of the study are Colin P. Clarke and Beth Grill. The study, "Victory Has a Thousand Fathers: Sources of Success in Counterinsurgency," can be found at A companion volume, "Victory Has a Thousand Fathers: Detailed Counterinsurgency Case Studies," presents in-depth profiles of each of the insurgencies cited in the main study.

Research for the study was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Cost Analysis and Program Evaluation, Irregular Warfare Division and conducted within the International Security and Defense 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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