The Congressional Research Service’s November 2022 report to Congress on the implications of great power competition for US defense policy emphasizes greater focus on strengthening US high-end conventional capabilities to counter Russia and China. The final section of the report briefly notes the need to meet the challenge of hybrid warfare, which includes, among other issues, addressing Russia’s use of proxy forces in several countries. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have come to an end, it is tempting to put counterinsurgency on the backburner. Yet with China and Russia’s history of supporting insurgents or governments embroiled in civil wars, the United States may well once again find itself in a position where it has to confront proxy forces. Counterinsurgency, therefore, remains a vital aspect of great power competition.
Over the course of a year, a team of researchers at START (the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism) embarked on a comprehensive review of existing research on government responses to insurgency threats from 2002-2022. The extraction and careful read of over 400 pieces of scholarly and policy literature reveal key insights about the overall state of knowledge on counterinsurgency, as well as limitations that point to ideas for future exploration of this line of research. The first of two pieces, this article highlights what scholars and practitioners have tried to explain, the approaches that they have used in the study of counterinsurgency (COIN), the geographic coverage of existing research, and the studies’ analysis of the deployment of different levers of state power in counterinsurgency. The second piece will review the literature’s findings on the most successful strategies and the lessons they offer for this era of great power competition.
The Meaning of Effectiveness: What Does the Research Focus On?
The effectiveness of COIN practices is not an easily agreed-upon concept, especially when such practices are subject to analysis in the absence of a peace agreement and when the fighting is ongoing. There is the question of which actors and interests are relevant, the timing of strategy implementation, and the level of analysis—local, regional, and/or national—that should be considered when capturing effectiveness. Overall, most studies focus on aggregate COIN outcomes such as government victory (success), loss, or draw, followed by analysis of changes in levels of security, including the level of insurgency activity, the ratio of insurgents killed by COIN forces, or violence targeting civilians. The focus on security demonstrates that when studies explore the effectiveness of government approaches, effectiveness is seen predominantly as the establishment of physical safety.
While there is an interest in understanding the extent to which different strategies can improve the population’s social, political, and economic wellbeing, their perceptions of the government, and how various measures enhance state-building, these remain understudied relative to aggregate-level COIN and security-related outcomes. In fact, less than ten percent of all the pieces we examined explore the impact of specific COIN strategies on the success and failure of winning over the population’s support for the government while only 1.3 percent explore the success and failure of institutional reforms at the state level. Despite strong emphasis in Western COIN practices on improving the population’s socio-economic conditions and strengthening the state’s institutional capacity, understanding the outcome of these practices in areas other than security gains or broader COIN outcomes such as victory or defeat has not generated as much attention as might be expected. RAND’s 2006 report noted a concern regarding limited emphasis on non-military metrics, and our most current review of the literature does not show much growth in this area even though social developments, such as an increase in the presence of children playing on the streets, could capture the effectiveness of strategies more accurately than the dominant focus on the number of dead insurgents. This is not to say that the discussions regarding these so-called “atmospherics” have not taken place within the Army and intelligence community, rather that published pieces have made limited progress in assessing the strategies’ impact on such population-centric measures of COIN effectiveness.
Finally, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan following the departure of US forces shows the value of examining the sustainability of COIN practices. Regardless of the type of COIN outcome the studies explore, these are mostly approached from a short-term perspective, with less than five percent of the studies we examined concentrating specifically on the strategies’ gains and/or shortcomings over an extended period. While there is value in unpacking the strategies’ short-term effectiveness, this limited focus on sustainability risks elevating the value of some practices because of immediate gains without proper understanding and acknowledgment of their limitations for achieving more long-term goals.
The Need for Data-Driven Analysis
Given the level of publicity generated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is natural to assume that the scope of knowledge on counterinsurgency is vast. While this is true to some extent, little more than 20 percent of all pieces explore the success of specific strategies across multiple countries in multiple regions. What we know about best practices is overwhelmingly based on single case, qualitative analysis—Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Malaysia—which raises doubts about the extent to which such practices can be adopted in other contexts with an expectation of a similar outcome.
This does not mean that data-driven analysis is completely missing from existing research. The availability of data sources from the US government—such as the Department of Defense’s Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) data on development aid, the military’s Significant Activities databases (SIGACTS) on violent incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iraq Body Count’s data on violent civilian deaths—has enabled scholars to examine, for example, the impact of different types of development aid on violence reduction or the effect of coalition condolence payments to victims or families of victims on violence reduction across multiple regions and districts. Yet existing knowledge and the resulting recommendations about the specific strategies’ impact need to be approached with careful consideration given that most of the findings are based on insights from a single country analysis.
Accessing data in a conflict zone is inherently challenging and likely responsible for the limited availability of scientific analysis across time and space. One way to approach this conundrum is for scholars to form collaborative relationships with NGOs that operate in dangerous environments to establish contacts on the ground, who, in turn, could identify local actors that could assist with interview and survey data collection. Relying on historical, secondary data also offers some benefits in providing greater understanding of strategies’ effectiveness on a global scale. For example, in their 2016 study, Christopher Paul and coauthors collected and examined data on 59 insurgencies (from 1944 to 2010), COIN outcomes (COIN win and COIN loss), and governments’ strategies (population-centric vs. enemy-centric) to conclude that most successful operations find a balance between these two. This study does not provide additional data to address variation in strategies’ effect depending on various characteristics of the countries and conflicts. Nevertheless, it illustrates the relevance of historical data extraction for the purpose of improving the findings’ general applicability.
The 2014 RAND report noted that policy literature on counterinsurgency has focused predominantly on the experiences of Western nations. Our analysis of both policy pieces and empirical studies shows that this trend has not abated since the publication of RAND’s report. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam have been the most frequently studied insurgencies, while focus on Africa and South America is narrow despite the prevalence of insurgencies in these contexts. When studies explore non-Western practices, they mainly concentrate on Russia, Nigeria, India, and Colombia.
Moving beyond Western counterinsurgency experience is critical for effective responses to near-peer competitors whose presence in Africa has grown significantly in recent years. With state weakness remaining a challenge on the continent, the risk of intrastate conflicts is high. When such conflicts do break out, they create an opening for governments to seek greater assistance from US competitors in the form of Chinese loans and military training or reliance on Russian mercenaries and defense agreements. US assistance to such governments to manage insurgency threats will require a more nuanced understanding not only of non-Western military, political, and social approaches but also knowledge about the variation of strategies’ effectiveness depending on country and conflict characteristics. This knowledge can position the United States to develop more collaborative partnerships with at-risk governments through greater understanding of and responsiveness to local constraints and opportunities.
Sources of Power: Where Lies the Interest and What’s Left Behind
The focus on conventional military approaches, such as strengthening deterrent capabilities, remains the core interest of policymakers in the era of near-peer competition. However, Russia’s extensive use of influence operations and China’s emphasis on non-military tactics highlight the need to explore the latter’s effectiveness in achieving specific military, political, economic, and social objectives. The COIN literature shows that when it comes to addressing insurgent threats, most of the research continues to explore the role of military power, but interest in non-military strategies is growing.
The use of soft power is the second most researched strategy behind the military one, with 40 percent of all the pieces we analyzed addressing development assistance and governance. Studies in this area examine, for example, the impact of different types of development funds, the significance of US soldiers’ work on infrastructure projects, institutional inclusiveness, and institutional constraints on COIN outcomes. The key recommendation following the analysis of the existing literature is to move in the direction of neglected tools of state power. This includes evaluation of different ways in which law enforcement impacts specific COIN outcomes, the use of diplomacy, and reliance on formal and informal financial tools to achieve desired objectives.
Lastly, it is worth noting that near-peer competitors are not only diversifying their strategies but also using them concurrently. As these practices become more common it is likely that great power involvement in future COIN operations may require greater understanding of how different combinations of strategies and the timing of strategy implementation at different stages of insurgency impact COIN outcomes. Some studies already consider the result of multiple strategies. For example, research on the impact of compensation funds has relied on statistical analysis to examine the funds’ effectiveness in reducing insurgent violence in Iraq while taking into consideration US troop presence and the operations of provincial reconstruction teams in distribution regions.
Overall, research on counterinsurgency either comes with methodological and data limitations or is generally limited to a small number of strategies with a single-country focus. Future studies would benefit from incorporating analysis of multiple strategies across time and space to identify patterns that emerge from joint implementation rather than studying the effectiveness of each strategy in isolation. Such focus would also acknowledge the importance of non-military approaches in irregular warfare. As US competitors are increasingly diversifying their non-military tool box to gain an advantage, exploring the utility of soft power will continue to matter. The second piece in this series will identify the effectiveness of specific military and non-military approaches based on insights from the past 20 years of research.
Dr. Elizabeth Radziszewski is an associate research scientist at START, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, University of Maryland, where she leads the Irregular Warfare and Conflict Assessment Group. She is the author of Private Militaries and the Security Industry in Civil Wars: Competition and Market Accountability (Oxford University Press, 2020) and Social Networks and Public Support for the European Union (Routledge, 2013).
This article is based on research conducted for the Global Responses to Asymmetric Threats: Phase 1 of Irregular Warfare Net Assessment Data Structure project, which is part of the Asymmetric Threat Analysis Center (ATAC), a joint program between START and University of Maryland’s Applied Research Lab for Intelligence and Security (ARLIS). ATAC is funded by the Department of Defense.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Photo credit: Sgt. Ken Scar.