The Duck of Minerva

The Logic of Violence in Counterinsurgency

13 October 2009

I have alluded to the work of Jason Lyall on the use of indiscriminate violence in counterinsurgency in the past. Briefly, Lyall’s paper (recently published in JCR) examines how the Russian army used targeted and non-targeted shelling in Chechnya through a pseudo-natural experiment. The paper is fascinating, however, I always had two major issues with it; first, Lyall claims randomization and thus indiscriminate violence through the “harass and interdiction” pattern of shelling used by Russians. With even my limited exposure to US Army protocol, it is difficult to claim that this pattern is truly random. More importantly, though, is Lyall’s always struck me as an extremely useful empirical analysis in search of a theory.

A recent working paper entitled, “The Political Economy of Counterinsurgency Violence,” seeks to fill this void by offering a simple formalization of counterinsurgency strategy. In fact, the author ask an extremely important question in the opening paragraph:

Why are counterinsurgents often so brutal toward civilians if classical counterinsurgency theory is correct in suggesting that successful counterinsurgents must win—not destroy—the hearts and minds of the population?

To understand this dynamic the author models counterinsurgency as a game with three players. First, a coalition bwtween a rebel group and their popular support within a community, and second the counterinsurgent. To achieve its goals, the counterinsurgent seeks to divide this coalition through a mixture of violence and concession, which tempts some side in the coalition to defect on its partner for short-term gains and forgo long-term goals. Formally, the game is played as a public goods game, where each player has some level of “profit” it extracts from the insurgency, which is offset by the cost of participation. Thus the counterinsurgent seeks to short-circuit the profit chain through the threat or execution of violence.

What falls out of this model is an very interesting observation about how insurgency are a function of the active micro-economies where they take place. As the author states:

The rebels’ profit from insurgency increases due to windfall and black market revenue, external aid, natural resources, taxation, remittances, looted property and labor, and the availability and attractiveness of the rebels’ sanctuaries. An increase in the rebels’ accountability to the population and a decrease rebel profit results from restrictive geography, vulnerability to the population’s disloyalty caused by the nature of the rebel group’s organization, and the presence and strength of quasi-judicial institutions with which to sanction rebels’ abusive behavior…Factors negatively and positively affecting the actors’ relative profit during insurgency ought to correlate with the government’s use of indiscriminate violence.

The model is clever, and the author’s keen attention to the work of key counterinsurgency scholars comes through in his incorporation of critical elements of insurgency in the model. What is interesting, however, is how the model does not do a good job of predicting the kind of indiscriminate violence observed by Lyall in his research. The author here uses case studies from Guatemala and Turkey to support his theory, but given the high profile of Lyall’s work it would have been much more satisfactory to get a model that explained those observations. Of course, it is not the job of a modeler to fit data, and it may simply be the case that Lyall’s natural experiment is flawed, and this model requires better data for testing; either way, the article is very engaging and I highly recommend it.

Photo: New Internationalist