Insurgencies usually lose

According to a paper on the Small Wars site:

Six Reasons Insurgencies Lose: A Contrarian View, by Donald A. Stoker.

Insurgencies generally lose, not win. The Dupuy Institute, using a database for an ongoing research project that includes 63 post-World War II insurgencies, found that the insurgents only win 41% of the time.

I would have thought that they lose more often than that because they often lose against a government that either accommodates them or eliminates them.  Remember, this is the war of the weak against the strong, so the fact that they win better than two times out of five should be sobering.

Another point to consider is that one must choose one’s time frame carefully:  A number of the insurgencies Stoker mentions, while initially suppressed, were ultimately successful.  This is protracted war and one has to take the long view (TX Hammes explains this phenomenon as well as I’ve seen it done in The Sling and the Stone).

Still, even with all that, a 59% chance of success is nothing that would give me any confidence in COIN (I entitled one of my books Certain to Win for a reason).

There is, however, a more fundamental problem with this paper.  What Stoker and by extension the Dupuy Institute don’t do is break out rebellions–inside a country against the ruling government–and “wars of national liberation” against an outside occupier.  Absent this distinction, the analysis is at best misleading.

Clearly we are in the latter category in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  To lump our experience in with the Greeks or British and Malays renders the conclusion meaningless.  And one could argue that some of his failed insurgencies, such as the Boer War and the Filipino Insurrection, were ultimately successful.

Still … 41%, including all the “domestic” insurgencies, where the odds are much lower than that.  If you were leading the country, would you have committed our troops and several trillion dollars of our treasure (which would come in handy right now) for what is at best coin toss odds?

As a side note — using the number “41%” as a probability is dubious practice, of course, because the population of insurgencies is hardly homogeneous.  However, the fact that a lot of insurgencies succeed, and those against occupiers succeed pretty often, should have factored into our national decision-making.

Comments are welcome; please observe our comment policy.

Be Sociable, Share!

Filed in Uncategorized | 4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Insurgencies usually lose”

  1. Duncan C Kinderon 04 Jul 2009 at 4:56 pm 1

    What I find most remarkable about this paper is that, while it defines some terms, it fails to define “victory” or “defeat.”

    And Iraq is a dramatic case in point. Arguably, according to some criteria, the surge has “worked” and at least Al Qaeda has been “defeated.”

    But the cost to the United States has been enormous. A few more such “victories” and we shall be undone. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda still survives to fight another day.

    Arguably, as a result of the Iraq war, Al Qaeda – despite is reverses – is closer to achieving its overall objectives than the United States – despite the “success” of its surge – is to achieving its.

    So who has “won”?

    [CR: Brilliant — nothing I can add. I see you’re a student of the Red King.

    As a general Pyrrhus’ greatest political weaknesses were the failure to maintain focus and the failure to maintain a strong treasury at home (many of his soldiers were costly mercenaries).

    His name is famous for the phrase “Pyrrhic victory” which refers to an exchange at the Battle of Asculum. In response to congratulations for winning a costly victory over the Romans, he is reported to have said: “One more such victory will undo me!” (In Greek: Ἂν ἔτι μίαν μάχην νικήσωμεν, ἀπολώλαμεν.)

    ]

  2. senor tomason 05 Jul 2009 at 3:45 am 2

    “the fact that a lot of insurgencies succeed, and those against occupiers succeed pretty often, should have factored into our national decision-making.”

    Also, Saddam Hussein was a counter-balance against the Iranians and a counter-balance against Islamic fundamentalists – including Al Qaeda. For this reason alone overthrowing Saddam Hussein weakened United States national security – not strenghthened it. I have said this before and I say it again – overthrowing Saddam Hussein is one of the stupidest things the United States of America has done in its 200-plus-year history.

  3. Maxon 05 Jul 2009 at 8:12 am 3

    DK

    “according to some criteria, the surge has “worked” and at least Al Qaeda has been “defeated.””

    Agreed that is the popularised line.

    Let’s explore further and for clarity.

    Chet mentions the term “Pyrrhic victory”

    Winning battles, yet losing yet another war, despite overwhelming
    advatage, at least on paper, as previously demonstrated in SE Asia.

    Yet many delude themselves otherwize, but that dosn’t make it so.

    Try this ‘criteria’ though;

    The American standard of living, the economy, since 9-11, or even 2000. Including mobility, and civil rights.
    How do you feel ? More confident ?

    “So who has “won”?”

    Indeed, and who’s losing !

    The plan from the get go, was not to confront and try to bring down
    the remaining wold super power in one fell swoop, but to prompt
    hyperbolic over reaction, based on fear, and bleed it white.

    MaX

    [CR: From what little we know, Osama bin Laden encouraged people to go to Iraq in order to kill Americans. This they did. I’ve seen no evidence, other than in the fetid imaginations of the neocon press, that al-Qa’ida ever intended to take over Iraq or occupy any part of it for any significant length of time. Osama is not stupid and underestimating him is not likely to be a productive strategy. He knew full well that the country is roughly 60% Shi’ite Arab, who are not susceptible to his brand of austere Sunni Islam, 20% Kurd from whom he might get a few converts but whose existing political structure was going to be difficult for his largely Arab organization to displace, and 20% Sunni Arab. Although these were his likely targets, many of them were (and still are) relatively secular or even Ba’athists.

    So as a rough guess, he could recruit from maybe 10% of the population. As it turned out, he probably didn’t get very many of them because many if not most of the people who fought under the label of “al-Qa’ida” were non-Iraqis (al-Zarqawi was Jordanian, for example). The ones that survived got valuable training, invaluable operational experience, and a strong network. Where did they go? I don’t know, but I’m sure that someday we’re going to find out.]

  4. Maxon 09 Jul 2009 at 2:01 am 4

    “There is, however, a more fundamental problem with this paper. What Stoker and by extension the Dupuy Institute don’t do is break out rebellions–inside a country against the ruling government–and “wars of national liberation” against an outside occupier. ”

    The article in question uderscores my personel impression
    I find a large measure of US military theory, and commentary
    to be increasingly detached from reality.

    This is arguably a manifistation of a variance of mental illness.
    M

    As evidenced by;

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090709/ap_on_re_as/as_afghanistan
    By RAHIM FAIEZ Rahim Faiez – 21 mins ago

    KABUL – A massive blast triggered Thursday in an overturned timber truck in central Afghanistan killed 25 people, destroyed shops and propelled pieces of the vehicle more than a mile (about 2 kilometers) away, officials said.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090709/ap_on_re_mi_ea/ml_iraq

    By SAAD ABDUL-KADIR, Associated Press Writer Saad Abdul-kadir, Associated Press Writer – 27 mins ago

    BAGHDAD – A suicide bomber on Thursday killed at least 34 people and injured 70 near a judge’s house in northern Iraq, and a bomb attack in Baghdad killed six people, authorities said.