The United States and other members of the international community have lost thousands of lives and expended significant resources confronting insurgent organizations across the world. Strikingly, however, there has been little systematic analysis of how some insurgents have developed the military capacity to challenge superior forces. This puzzle has played out in Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s success has continually confounded analysts; in Syria and Mali, where insurgents pose significant challenges to stability; and most recently in Iraq, where the Islamic State operated with military prowess. In response, this research project studies the development and military capacity of insurgent groups.
First, the project constructs a novel conception of military effectiveness fitting for the types of combat common in civil war, including the (in)ability to keep ceasefires, to control who is targeted by violence, or to employ increasingly complex guerrilla or conventional tactics. Next, it develops a theory arguing that it is not the structural conditions in which organizations operate—such as access to material resources or strong social networks—that determine effectiveness, but how well insurgents’ organizational composition allows them to leverage those conditions. It is what insurgents do with what they have that matters. Like in all militaries, insurgent organizations must deliberately generate esprit de corps and military skill through training, indoctrination, well-designed command and control systems, and the formation of a competent set of lower-level officers.
While social and material factors must be taken into account, some organizations become militarily effective without these endowments while some well-endowed organizations fail despite these advantages.
To test the theory and isolate the importance of organizational versus structural factors, the project adopts a two-stage approach. First, I use a set of statistical models to demonstrate that structural variables are poor predictors of insurgent organizational composition. Second, I conduct in-depth case studies of ten organizations in Vietnam (1940–1975) and fifteen organizations in Iraq (2003–present). These two countries represent promising areas of study because there is a high degree of variation in structural and organizational factors as well as in military effectiveness. To evaluate the detailed hypotheses generated by the theory, I collected precise information about the internal dynamics of insurgents through archival research, interviews with ex-combatants, and secondary sources. For example, during nearly five months at the National Archives II in HÓ Chí Minh City, Vietnam, I reviewed thousands of documents including internal memoranda from rebel organizations along with French interrogations and intelligence reporting.
By demonstrating the centrality of organizational processes to insurgent military effectiveness, the project underscores that insurgent forces are not sui generis, but fit within the broader spectrum of military organizations attempting to use violence in a calibrated manner. Thus, the project highlights the importance for policymakers of explicitly assessing organizational capacity rather than treating all insurgent or terrorist groups as like entities or overvaluing the effect of social networks and material resources. While some insurgent groups can only be defeated with involved and costly tactics—including major ground combat—the project also shows that many seemingly weaker groups are still able to reliably maintain ceasefires. As a result, rather than risk escalating violence by militarily destroying such groups, conflict mediators can work to craft peace agreements by identifying the actors that can be brought to the negotiating table. Similarly, while social and material factors must be taken into account, some organizations become militarily effective without these endowments while some well-endowed organizations fail despite these advantages.