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Rage Against the Machines: Explaining Outcomes in Counterinsurgency Wars

  • Jason Lyall (a1) and Isaiah Wilson (a2)

During the nineteenth century, states routinely defeated insurgent foes. Over the twentieth century, however, this pattern reversed itself, with states increasingly less likely to defeat insurgents or avoid meeting at least some of their demands. What accounts for this pattern of outcomes in counterinsurgency (COIN) wars? We argue that increasing mechanization within state militaries after World War I is primarily responsible for this shift. Unlike their nineteenth-century predecessors, modern militaries possess force structures that inhibit information collection among local populations. This not only complicates the process of sifting insurgents from noncombatants but increases the difficulty of selectively applying rewards and punishment among the fence-sitting population. Modern militaries may therefore inadvertently fuel, rather than deter, insurgencies. We test this argument with a new data set of 286 insurgencies (1800–2005) and a paired comparison of two U.S. Army divisions in Iraq (2003–2004). We find that higher levels of mechanization, along with external support for insurgents and the counterinsurgent's status as an occupier, are associated with an increased probability of state defeat. By contrast, we find only partial support for conventional power- and regime-based explanations, and no support for the view that rough terrain favors insurgent success.

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