Cover: Countering Others' Insurgencies

Countering Others' Insurgencies

Understanding U.S. Small-Footprint Interventions in Local Context

Published Feb 25, 2014

by Stephen Watts, Jason H. Campbell, Patrick B. Johnston, Sameer Lalwani, Sarah H. Bana


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Research Questions

  1. Why do counterinsurgents adopt particular counterinsurgency strategies and practices?
  2. What are the likely consequences of these strategies, in terms of conflict outcomes and civilian casualties?
  3. When the United States finds a partner government's counterinsurgency strategy and practices problematic, what can it do to influence its partner's actions to improve the chances of a favorable outcome?
  4. What are the conditions under which small-footprint interventions are likely to succeed in bringing an end to insurgencies that both the United States and its partners seek to combat?

This study examines the counterinsurgency strategies and practices adopted by threatened regimes and the conditions under which U.S. "small-footprint" partnerships are likely to help these governments succeed. The report's findings are derived from a mixed-method research design incorporating both quantitative and qualitative analysis. Simple statistical analyses are applied to a dataset of counterinsurgencies that have terminated since the end of the Cold War (72 in all), and more in-depth analyses are provided of two recent cases of U.S. partnerships with counterinsurgent regimes, in the Philippines and Pakistan. The quantitative analysis finds that the cases of small-footprint U.S. operations that are commonly touted as "success stories" all occurred in countries approximating a best-case scenario. Such a verdict is not meant to deny the importance of U.S. assistance; rather, it is meant to highlight that similar U.S. policies with less promising partner nations should not be expected to produce anywhere near the same levels of success. The majority of insurgencies have taken place in worst-case conditions, and in these environments, counterinsurgent regimes are typically unsuccessful in their efforts to end rebellion, and they often employ violence indiscriminately. The case studies of the Philippines and Pakistan largely reinforce the findings of the quantitative analysis. They also highlight the challenges the United States faces in attempting to influence partner regimes to fight counterinsurgencies in the manner that the United States would prefer. The study concludes with policy recommendations for managing troubled partnerships.

Key Findings

Counterinsurgency is perhaps the most context-dependent activity in which militaries engage — U.S. "small-footprint" interventions have typically succeeded in highly favorable conditions, where few of the insurgencies occur.

  • "Success stories" in small-footprint U.S. interventions on behalf of partner governments have occurred in countries with relatively inclusive politics and reasonable levels of state capacity.
  • Most insurgencies target governments that are weak in inclusion and in capacity. Such regimes gravitate toward counterinsurgency practices relying on blunt, abusive military force.
  • The United States should seldom expect a productive counterinsurgency partnership with a regime whose character must be transformed to achieve a favorable outcome.

Nevertheless, the United States can support difficult partner regimes in exploiting settlement opportunities, improving security force accountability, and buttressing more inclusive successor governments.

  • Given the duration of most contemporary insurgencies and the length of time it typically takes to build state capacity or institutionalize mechanisms of political inclusion, most U.S. partnerships in such contexts will be long-term.
  • The United States can help partner regimes credibly commit to political compromises with reconcilable elements of the armed opposition through a variety of instruments, potentially including large-scale commitments of foreign aid and, in some contexts, international peace operations.
  • Security forces that do not include members of the same ethnic or religious affiliation as the population in which they are operating are at particularly high risk of abusive behavior.


  • U.S. efforts to reform partner nations should focus on finding areas of agreement, potentially helping to convene the networks of actors in the partner nation that can implement changes, and then providing the necessary resources and technical expertise.
  • The United States should stress quality over quantity in developing partners' security forces.
  • Wherever possible, partner-nation units receiving such assistance should be closely paired with U.S. forces to ensure that the United States has visibility into how its assistance is being used.
  • The United States should make the principle of civilian oversight and other accountability mechanisms central to its security-sector assistance.
  • Because security forces that do not include members of the same ethnic or religious affiliation as the population in which they are operating are at particularly high risk of abusive behavior, the United States should work with partner regimes to improve the representativeness of their security services.
  • Security-sector reform efforts should be a central element of U.S. "phase-zero," or peacetime, engagement strategy, not a peripheral concern or an issue to which significant resources are devoted only after a crisis erupts.

The research described in this report was sponsored by the Smith Richardson Foundation and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division.

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