Max Boot on Insurgencies

Max Boot in the WSJ tries to puncture some myths about guerrilla war.

Guerrilla warfare is not new. Guerrillas against “conventional” forces arose in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago … It is the norm of armed conflict.

As soon as conventional armies were invented, they had to face less-organized (i.e. guerrilla) foes. Since 1945, its relative importance grew higher because conventional wars declined in number.

Guerrilla warfare is the form of conflict universally favored by the weak, not an “Eastern” way of war. It is the tactic of last resort for those too weak to create regular armies. Likewise, terrorism is the tactic of last resort for those too weak to create guerrilla forces.

The “Eastern” idea may have been fashionable around the time of Mao and Giap but I doubt it is any longer.

Guerrilla warfare has been both underestimated and overestimated. Though guerrillas have often been able to fight for years and inflict great losses on their enemies, they have seldom achieved their objectives. Terrorists have been even less successful.

Clearly it is not an invincible weapon.

Insurgencies have been getting more successful since 1945, but they still lose most of the time. According to a database that I have compiled, out of 443 insurgencies since 1775, insurgents succeeded in 25.2% of the concluded wars while incumbents prevailed in 63.8%. The rest were draws.
Since 1945, the win rate for insurgents has indeed gone up, to 39.6%. But counter-insurgency campaigns still won 51.1% of post-1945 wars. And those figures overstate insurgents’ odds of success because many rebel groups that are still in the field, such as the Kachin separatists in Myanmar, have scant chance of success. If ongoing uprisings are judged as failures, the win rate for insurgents would go down to 23.2% in the post-1945 period, while the counter-insurgents’ winning percentage would rise to 66.1%.

An interesting result from his database. Insurgency is the weapon of the weak – so you would expect it to lose more often than to win.

The most important recent development in guerrilla warfare has been the rise of public opinion. What accounts for the fact that guerrillas have been getting more successful since 1945? Much of the explanation can be found in the growing power of public opinion, brought about by the spread of democracy, education, communications technology, mass media and international organizations—all of which have sapped the will of states to engage in protracted counter-insurgencies, especially outside their own territory, and heightened the ability of insurgents to survive even after suffering setbacks.

The effect is less a sapping of the will to win than an aversion towards using extreme violence.

Few counter-insurgency campaigns have ever succeeded by inflicting mass terror—at least in foreign lands. Pacifying restive populations usually involved carrots as well as sticks.

In the past it was usually a case of first use the stick severely then give out some carrots.

“Winning hearts and minds” is often successful as an anti-guerrilla strategy, but it isn’t as touchy-feely as commonly supposed.The fact that the U.S. and other liberal democratic states cannot be as brutal as dictatorial regimes—or, more precisely, choose not to be—doesn’t mean they cannot succeed in putting down insurgencies.

Perhaps the winning hearts and minds phrase needs to go.

Most insurgencies are long-lasting; attempts to win a quick victory backfire. The average insurgency since 1775 has lasted seven years. The figure is even longer for post-1945 insurgencies—nearly 10 years.

Since 1945 there have been quite a few more weak states and fewer empires.

Technology has been relatively unimportant in guerrilla war—but that may be changing. The role of destructive technology will grow in the future, however, if insurgents get their hands on chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

Not highly likely. It is hard to acquire such weapons. However surveillance technology (including drones) may come to have a bigger role, just as it does in policing.


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