Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On the persistence of the belief that authoritarian states are better at COIN

Sometimes it seems like this little conflict studies subculture of ours exists merely to chew over the same intellectual cud repeatedly. How often do I read a paper or a blog post positing some new driver of violence, some controlling factor in conflict, some recipe for pacification and think "geez, where was I just reading about that?"

Patrick Porter, formerly of Kings of War and now writing at the excellent new-ish blog The Offshore Balancer, is not the sort I'd generally accuse of this failing. For one, the new blog tends to focus on broader strategic issues rather than the COINy day-to-day. But yesterday Patrick took up a question that's been batted around quite a bit lately (and quite sensibly, I might add, in response to the love-n-hugs Surge narrative that's taken hold in some corners); quoting Starbuck (lot of that going around) at Wings Over Iraq, Patrick asks "does the brute force method ever work in counterinsurgency? [And if so] Under what conditions?" While stipulating that brutal campaigns have on certain occasions been effective in the past, the rest of the post explores the whys and wherefores and posits that this is true in spite of brutality, rather than because of it.

He then tacks in a different direction, proposing a number of environmental conditions that may be conducive to the success of an insurgency, one of which is this:
when they fight against liberal democracies: this is a more tentative argument here, but liberalism probably makes it harder [for the counterinsurgent] to gain domestic acceptance when most ‘small wars’ are mightily unpleasant and prolonged affairs with almost inevitable abuses, and when elected leaders care an awful lot about being re-elected.
Now this isn't exactly a novel suggestion. Those who make this case usually do so for a few basic reasons. The argument pretty much goes like this (don't get confused by the blockquote -- I'm just setting it off so it's easier to read, I'm not quoting anyone):
Democratic leaders are held accountable by voters, and are thus less likely to engage in unpopular wars or pursue them for an extended period of time. Casualty-averse publics will throw out a government that gets a lot of people killed, and the free media helps bring those casualties to light. Not only that, but press freedom means it's harder for a liberal government to hide the human rights abuses and other brutal tactics that could prove helpful in prosecuting a counter-guerilla campaign. In short, liberal regimes 1) have their hands tied, and 2) give up easier.
All of those things make a fair bit of sense, perhaps with the exception of the bit about the counterinsurgent's brutality being harder to hide or tolerate in a democracy. After all, if we don't think that brutality is particularly useful, anyway, then why would efforts to restrain such behavior really have such a negative effect on the campaign.

But as I'm reading this, I'm thinking "haven't I seen this debunked in a couple of places lately?" And after going through my email and doing a little Googling, it turns out I have.

First we've got Jason Lyall's recent work on this subject, which is probably the freshest and most influential: "Do Democracies Make Inferior Counterinsurgents? [pdf]: Reassessing Democracy's Impact on War Outcomes and Duration," from the Winter 2010 edition of International Organization. Here's the abstract:
A core proposition from decades of research on internal wars asserts that democracies, with their casualty-averse publics, accountable leaders, and free media, are uniquely prone to losing counterinsurgency (COIN) wars. Yet one should question this finding, for two reasons: First, existing studies overwhelmingly adopt no-variance research designs that only examine democracies, leaving them unable to assess their performance relative to autocracies. Second, these studies do not control for confounding factors that bias causal estimates. Democracies, for example, typically fight wars of choice as external occupiers, while most autocracies face homegrown insurgencies, a function in part of divergent levels of state capacity possessed by democratic and autocratic combatants. This study corrects for both problems using a new dataset of insurgencies (1800–2005) and matching to test whether democracies experience significantly higher rates of defeat and shorter wars. No relationship between democracy and war outcomes or duration is found once regime type is varied and inferential threats are addressed.
(For a less academic summary and explanation of the work, see this very good interview with Lyall from the Rosner's Domain blog on the Jerusalem Post's website.)

I read this paper back when it came out, and found it interesting for the challenge it posed to the conventional wisdom. Lyall also echoed some of the points I'd seen in a paper by Michael Engelhardt in the Summer 1992 issue of Conflict Quarterly entitled "Democracies, Dictatorships and Counterinsurgency [pdf]: Does Regime Type Really Matter?" Turns out Engelhardt found basically the same thing: no, it doesn't. Here's what the journal's "In This Issue" section has to say in summary:
The notion that democracies are "soft" and cannot sustain many casualties in revolutionary wars without a collapse of political will gained the status of an unchallengeable truism in the wake of the Vietnam war. It even resurfaced during the Persian Gulf crisis and war of 1990-91, when Iraq threatened to defeat the coalition forces "in a sea of blood." Saddam Hussein apparently believed that his regime could survive significant battlefield losses and that coalition governments could not. Michael Engelhardt examines this assumption and concludes that, at least in respect of insurgent conflicts, regime type does not matter; both dictatorships and democracies can be defeated. Furthermore, he asserts that the inclination of democracies to liquidate costly commitments can be seen as a strength, an affirmation of their democratic character, rather than a weakness.
Again we see basically the same argument about softness, casualty aversion, responsiveness to popular doubts, etc. Are autocracies really unencumbered by these sorts of concerns? Or building on that, how about what may even be a more important question: even if autocrats have a free hand in the prosecution of COIN wars, might that reality not have unconstructive knock-on effects down the line?

That's the question taken up by Yuri Zhukov (yikes!) in the September 2007 Small Wars and Insurgencies. His paper "Examining the Authoritarian Model of Counter-insurgency: The Soviet Campaign Against the Ukrainian Insurgent Army" is unfortunately behind a paywall, but here's the abstract:
In an effort to better understand the benefits and limitations of an authoritarian approach to counter-insurgency, this article examines the relationship between regime type and military effectiveness in the often neglected case of Soviet counter-insurgency operations in Western Ukraine. This study finds that the advantages authoritarian governments enjoy in designing, planning and implementing counter-insurgency campaigns - related to a lack of restraints and constraints - can all too easily become reversed through the excesses they permit.
This piece speaks more directly to the question of brutality than of regime type, I think, though it definitely links the two together: can we really perceive authoritarianism as an advantage at the same time as we dismiss the effectiveness of brutality, as Patrick Porter does? (To be fair to Patrick, he did caveat the original statement about increased odds of insurgent success against democracies by writing "this is a more tentative argument...") When taken together, these three papers would suggest that -- in spite of what looks like a common-sense justification for exactly that -- we can't.

9 comments:

  1. Oh, none of that matters. Didn't you know that in 2008 Kilcullen's horseshittery inspired the unified theory of counterinsurgency?

    Why, it's all so simple.

    http://www.ndu.edu/CTNSP/docUploaded//DH%2062.pdf

    SNLII

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  2. So just to make that I am reading all of this right - the real determinant of success is not authoritarian vs. democratic COIN but domestic vs. expeditionary COIN?


    If this is so, I am curious if there has been any studies look specifically at both divides. That is to say, Authoritarian success rates in expeditionary COIN campaigns vs. Democratic success rates in the same category. Or a comparison of the COIN as practices by democratic regimes on their own soil as compared to authoritarian regimes also working on their own soil to defeat an insurgency. Do you know if any such study been published?

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  3. I think the idea that democracies are naturally weaker is false. Democracies rely on their citizens and if the citizens are willing to support casualties (etc.) then by golly, the democracy can keep on losing men.

    Arguably though curent Western democracies are quite crap. There was a woman on Radio4 recently complaining that the prisoners at Bagram Airbase were *gasp* kept in cages. That sort of extreme concern is much more common now than it was. After all, this lady in the UK in 2010 thinks cages are unacceptable but her forebears in the 50's were quite happy with the brutal treatment meted out against the Mau Mau. As popular opinion changes so too does the democracies ability to fight certain types of COIN.

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  4. T. Greer -- If this is so, I am curious if there has been any studies look specifically at both divides. That is to say, Authoritarian success rates in expeditionary COIN campaigns vs. Democratic success rates in the same category. Or a comparison of the COIN as practices by democratic regimes on their own soil as compared to authoritarian regimes also working on their own soil to defeat an insurgency. Do you know if any such study been published?

    I actually have no idea. Despite my pretensions, I'm not an expert on the scholarship. This is where I'm going to hope for MK or ADTS to chime in.

    Guy -- That sort of extreme concern is much more common now than it was. After all, this lady in the UK in 2010 thinks cages are unacceptable but her forebears in the 50's were quite happy with the brutal treatment meted out against the Mau Mau. As popular opinion changes so too does the democracies ability to fight certain types of COIN.

    But that's sort of what we're talking about here: it doesn't seem to have changed things so significantly as we might imagine.

    How much was the public even aware of how the Mau Mau were treated in the 50s, or the Filipinos at the turn of the century? (Really, we could probably ask the same question about the Iraqis of three years ago.) Has the proliferation of free media made knowledge of this kind of thing more common? Probably, but to what extent?

    Then we have to consider that even if our policy consisted of lining up everyone who looked like a bad guy and shooting them, something like 30-50% of the U.S. public would probably still approve. What does that say about the constraints on democratic regimes? We have a significant number of people in this country who have no problem with unlawful combatant status, extraordinary rendition, indefinite incarceration, torture... is it such a huge leap to imagine that those same people would tolerate summary executions, or "the Roman model," or whatever else?

    I sort of digress here, so I hope this doesn't take us too far off track.

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  5. T. Greer (and Gulliver):

    First, I appreciate the compliment, Gulliver.

    Alas, I don't really know of any such studies. But one thought that comes to mind is that the *identity* of both the regime and the *internal* or *external* nature of the conflict might be socially constructed, malleable, and changing over time. Presumably insurgencies whose goal(s) is(are) to break away consider themselves to be fighting on territory that is external to the regime itself. Perhaps the shortest way to put it is some derivation of the cliche that one's man terrorist is another man's freedom fighter - the derivation would be one man's (or woman's) secessionist internal war (waged by a dictatorial or democrat regime), I suppose. As for whether the regime is democratic or not, that too is a bit tricky, although perhaps less so than the prior - or forthcoming - comments. There are databases and sources (POLITY IV and Freedom House, both of which I think Lyall uses in his articles) by which to gauge how democratic (or not) a regime may be. Away from that top-level theorizing or coding, though, one has to ask who in a particular place (and time?) considers what the regime's characteristics. Next, I'd consider the work of Stacie Goddard. Essentially, she's trying to work from James Fearon's "Rationalist Explanations for War" (I think). But if I skimmed her properly, she notes that claims to land occur through a process of legitimation (which is, I imagine, socially constructed). All this is, I suppose, a fancy way of stating the nature of a war might depend, simply, on whom one asks.

    Indonesia is an example that comes to mind. Do the Acehnese who participated in the GAM conflict view themselves as having fought an internal or secessionist conflict, and against a dictatorship (say, after Suharto' fall), or do they perceive themselves as claiming land to which they are entitled (and thus an external conflict) waged by a non-democratic regime? In other words, what matters in determining the nature of an insurgency, might be what one thinks or believes. And again, time matters in explanation, especially perhaps in a constructivist world in which identity is perceived as always changing (both quickly or slowly) or at least *capable* of changing, too: would there have been an opening for peace post-tsunami, and if so, what is the causal mechanism (conceptualizing "the other" differently)?

    The Soviet Union in Afghanistan would be a good example to study, I would imagine, along the dimensions posited for democracies (even if it would be a no-variance research project :)).

    Sorry I can't think of any papers that address the question directly.

    ADTS

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  6. Whoops - for the sake of clarity in exposition, "and thus an external conflict" should be, "as viewed by Acehnese insurgents."

    ADTS

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  7. Wow - I committed a ton of typos, and a few might actually alter the meaning of what I wrote. While I don't intend to go back and "fix" what I failed to write properly, I recognize that whatever feedback (if any) I receive from my comment may reflect shoddy typing and, of course, also, perhaps shoddy thinking on my part.

    ADTS

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  8. Hey, what can I say, the mainstream media has been going downhill lately ;)

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  9. Hey Gulliver,

    I plead guilty to kicking around a subject that's old and already had some treatment. It still seems important enough to rethink, though.
    My point, as one reader above noted, is that brutality sometimes seems effective and sometimes not, and I leave open the possibility that the level of violence may be a distraction from other factors that determine success/failure - expeditionary versus 'over here'; the pre-existing political context, etc.

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