Looking at insurgencies, and data selection

Via Zenpundit, I came across a good article in Armed Forces Journal by Capt. Robert Chamberlain that looks at the faulty idea that insurgencies/counterinsurgencies always take a long time:
It is simply untrue that counterinsurgencies are inherently long-term struggles.
When I started studying the Tuareg insurgencies in Mali and Niger, I was surprised to learn that there had been an insurgency in 1963-1964 in Mali. I had never heard of it, because it hadn't killed very many people. One Tuareg clan - the Kel Adagh, based near Kidal, Mali - rebelled against the Malian government and were brutally crushed in short order. As I wrote in my thesis:
The Malian Army crushed the Kel Adagh rebellion by using widespread violence against civilians, torture, declaring the countryside outside of a few towns a vast free-fire zone, poisoning wells necessary for any activity outside towns, killing Tuareg herds of cattle and camels to force them into the cities, executing the religious and political leaders of both rebel and neutral clans, and threatening napalm bombing from fighter-bombers.
In Chamberlain's metaphor, this was a "kitchen fire" rather than a five-alarm blaze, and because it did not reach 1000 battle deaths, the 1963 rebellion does not appear in the main intra-state war database, Correlates of War (COW).

When academics study insurgencies en masse, they create databases full of very bloody, long insurgencies that kill lots of people but ignore the many many more small, short-lived insurgencies. Consequently our understanding of insurgency as a mode of conflict is skewed towards large bloody messes. I'd hazard a guess that this problem doesn't have the same degree of impact in studying conventional wars, because conventional wars are easier to find in the historical record, and usually the combatants are states that wield significant combat power, meaning there aren't as many kitchen fires that don't turn into five-alarm blazes.

The problem of data selection is cemented in the Correlates of War database. This database is a one-stop shop for researchers on war, but it only counts conflicts that result in more than one thousand battle deaths. Some sort of filter like that is necessary or else the data set would be too large to be useful. The problem comes when researchers like Paul Collier take the COW data, look at intra-state conflict and extrapolate their findings to all intra-state conflict ever, instead of just intra-state conflict with more than 1000 battle deaths.

Using COW data, Collier and Hoeffler reached the conclusion that rebellions happen when there exist opportunities for rebellion (rather than grievances for rebellion). Had they thought about the limitations of their data, they would have realized that their argument only showed that rebellions survive to create conflicts large enough to appear on COW's radar when the opportunity exists for large rebellions - and that rebellions driven by grievances might occur in hostile environments for rebellion but would be wiped out quickly, like the 1963 rebellion by the Kel Adagh.

Dan Byman, the head of my old program, said something related in a talk a couple months ago. He noted that a lot of people argue that terrorism doesn't kill large numbers of people. Byman argued that's only true because when terrorism does start to kill lots of people, we don't call it terrorism any more. Exhibit A, the firebombings of Germany and Tokyo. Exhibit B, the 1990s civil war in Algeria. Exhibit C, the situation in Iraq.

This whole problem is similar to Taleb's idea of "silent evidence" - in order to understand big house fires, you have to look at the big fires themselves, as well as small fires that don't become big fires. Only then can you really understand what factors are important in turning small fires into big ones (click the link to see that even Harvard professors do not understand this concept).

The point of Chamberlain's article was that the mantra that 'counterinsurgency campaigns take a long time' has been used as an excuse for the failure to provide a coherent strategy for a favorable outcome in Iraq and Afghanistan:
According to conventional wisdom, we will be in Iraq and Afghanistan for at least 10 years because they are insurgencies, and that’s how long insurgencies take...
This is an abdication of the responsibilities of strategic leadership. The American public is owed more of an explanation than, “Well, these things take a while.” It is owed a comprehensive strategic vision...
Fabius Maximus continues this point by arguing that when an insurgency has carried on long enough and is damaging enough for a country to beg for large-scale American military involvement, that country is probably doomed to lose anyway. A more effective counterinsurgency strategy for the United States would focus on the small "kitchen fires", and try to keep those kitchen fires from becoming big fires, rather than reacting late to put out big fires.


NIGER1.COM said...

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Adrian said...

I saw it - Penelope Cruz was great in that. By which of course I mean that I loved her acting.

Mike said...

Speaking of Penelope Cruz, you heard that her and Scarlet Johansen have a sex scene in Woody Allen's new movie, right?

Best. Movie. Ever.

On the topic of the post, another anecdote that your fire analogy made me think of was a couple of engineers sitting down during Vietnam analyzing aircraft losses to figure out where they needed to increase armor, redundant systems, etc. The younger engineer observed that they were seeing a lot of damage on peripheral control surfaces, non-critical systems, and things of that nature and that maybe they should increase armor there. The older engineer said that those were the planes that made it back, and that they should look at increasing armor where there was no damage data recorded.

I would agree in your concluding statement, that the most effective strategy is one of support to enable local forces to take care of their own problems. In fact, that is one area (probably the only area) in which the USAF is doing something right in regard to COIN. Check out the 6th Special Operations Squadron. They're the Foreign Internal Development (FID) force for the USAF. Their mission is to go in and train up local air forces. Of course, they've been chronically underfunded and underequipped, but at least they exist.

Adrian said...

6th SOS do any work in West Africa? There was an interesting series of events in Mali a few months ago. I was unable to get in touch with a defense attache (USAF) for a couple months, I was told he was "on travel." Then Mali puts together a helicopter strike with two previously-non-operational Hinds, and the next week he is in his office on the phone with me. It was strange to me that there was a USAF DA in a country without a functioning airplane in their air force, thus why I am conspiracy-minded.

Mike said...

"It was strange to me that there was a USAF DA in a country without a functioning airplane in their air force"...yet. Which is probably why there was an air attache to the country.

Here's a story about the 6th SOS deploying into Niger in 2005. They do work all over the world with developing air forces, but West Africa has been an area of focus for them lately, from what I've been able to gather. (Which isn't much, there not being much open source data about the details of their ops, understandably so.) So it wouldn't surprise me if they had been to Mali as well, although that sort of short term turnaround from non-functional aircraft to executing airstrikes isn't exactly their typical mode of operation. They're more of a long term, slow build over a period of months or even years type of outfit.

My dream job in the Air Force would be to get hooked up working with them 5-10 years down the road after I commission.

M├╝nzenberg said...

Holy crap this is a good post.

Adrian said...


Anonymous said...

While true that not all efforts to create an insurgency go off as successfully as the ones we regularly hear of, I think the writer may be a bit too harsh in assessing time spent fighting one. Insurgencies by definition avoid open conflict with regular military forces. Instead they deliberately attempt to avoid the military and to wear the enemy down over a long period of time. I think it would be better to argue that in Mali the government simply had the advantage of lesser enemy leaders and none of the restrictions inherent in liberal democracy.

Adrian said...

Of course, the lack of a liberal democracy (Tuareg shut out of the political process) was part of the reason the rebellion started in the first place...