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Research Questions

  1. Which counterinsurgency (COIN) practices or combinations of practices offer the most promise for a government win against an insurgency?
  2. Once good COIN practices are in place, how long must a COIN force sustain them before the conflict is resolved?
  3. What factors can help reduce the duration of an insurgency? What factors tend to extend insurgencies?
  4. What factors contribute to a more durable postconflict peace?
  5. Do good COIN practices differ for external COIN forces (that is, COIN forces from another country)? If so, which COIN practices are most effective for these external forces?

In-depth case studies of 41 insurgencies since World War II provide evidence to answer a perennial question in strategic discussions of counterinsurgency: When a country is threatened by an insurgency, what efforts give its government the best chance of prevailing? Each case study breaks the conflict into phases and examines the factors and practices that led to the outcome (insurgent win, counterinsurgent win, or a mixed outcome favoring one side or the other). Detailed analyses of the cases, supplemented by data on 30 previously conducted insurgency case studies (and thus covering all 71 historical insurgencies worldwide since World War II), can be found in the companion volume, Paths to Victory: Lessons from Modern Insurgencies. The original set of 30 case studies is available in the 2010 RAND report Victory Has a Thousand Fathers: Detailed Counterinsurgency Case Studies. Collectively, the 71 cases span a vast geographic range (South America, Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Far East) and include examples of governments that attempted to fight the tide of history — that is, to quell an anticolonial rebellion or uprisings against apartheid.

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.

COIN Takes Time, but a Pack of Good Practices Can Bring a Faster Win

  • A handful of practices and factors reduce the duration of an insurgency, contribute substantially to a COIN win, and increase the durability of the peace that follows.
  • After the balance of good and bad COIN practices tips in favor of the government, it takes an average of six years for the government to secure its victory.
  • Poor beginnings do not necessarily lead to poor ends. A COIN force can lose battles and still win the war, as long as it makes needed reforms and begins engaging in more good practices than bad.


To Defeat Insurgencies

  • Focus first on overmatching the insurgents, defeating their conventional military aspirations, and forcing them to fight as guerrillas.
  • Identify insurgents' sources of tangible support and seek to reduce them.
  • Recognize that essential tangible support might flow from the population or an external source, such as another country, a diaspora, or a nonstate actor.
  • Be prepared to engage in good counterinsurgency (COIN) practices for six or more years after achieving the upper hand in a conflict.
  • Avoid the "iron fist" path to COIN. Effective COIN forces historically balance kinetic action and action to reduce insurgents' motives for supporting or continuing an insurgency.
  • Plan and pursue multiple mutually supporting lines of operation.

To Help Others Defeat Insurgencies

  • When building and training a country's security forces, balance quality and quantity, but favor quality.
  • Help host-nation governments reform, improve their commitment and motivation, and increase their legitimacy. Committed external COIN forces do not make up for uncommitted partner governments.
  • Offer incentives or make support contingent on this commitment to avoid host-nation dependency or perverse incentives to allow an insurgency to continue.

To Align Doctrine and Theory with Historical Reality

  • Move away from strategic discussions that distinguish between population-centric and insurgent-centric COIN concepts. Effective COIN forces balance action against insurgents with action to reduce their tangible support.
  • Strategic discussions should seek a balance between kinetic action and concepts that focus on reducing motives to support or participate in an insurgency.
  • Revise COIN doctrine to reinforce the core principles and reflect key insights from historical cases of successful COIN efforts.
  • Recognize that there are many more lessons to be learned, and consider how the foundational data from 71 historical cases could be used as a starting point to answer other perennial COIN-related questions.

The research described in this report was prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The research was conducted within the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by OSD, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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