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Adapting to Win

Through case studies of violent insurgent groups pitted against foreign state powers, including in-depth examinations of the war in Afghanistan and the 2003 Iraq war, Adapting to Win examines the circumstances and tactics that allow some insurgencies to succeed in wars against foreign governments while others fail.

Adapting to Win
How Insurgents Fight and Defeat Foreign States in War

Noriyuki Katagiri

2014 | 312 pages | Cloth $75.00
Political Science
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. How Do Insurgents Fight and Defeat Foreign States in War?
Chapter 2. Origins and Proliferation of Sequencing
Chapter 3. How the Sequencing Theory Works
Chapter 4. The Conventional Model: The Dahomean War (1890-1894)
Chapter 5. The Primitive Model: Malayan Emergency (1948-1960)
Chapter 6. The Degenerative Model: The Iraq War (2003-2011)
Chapter 7. The Premature Model: The Anglo-Somali War (1900-1920)
Chapter 8. The Maoist Model: The Guinean War of Independence (1963-1974)
Chapter 9. The Progressive Model: The Indochina War (1946-1954)


Appendix A. List of Extrasystemic Wars (1816-2010)
Appendix B. Description of 148 Wars and Sequences


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Chapter 1
How Do Insurgents Fight and Defeat Foreign States in War?

How do insurgent forces fight and defeat foreign states in war? What can powerful states do to prevent policy disaster when they confront nonstate rebels in foreign lands? Recent conflicts in Iraq, Libya, and Syria—and Western experiences with them—have all underscored the importance of understanding how nonstate insurgent and guerrilla forces have dealt with enormous disadvantages in power to achieve their ends and what foreign governments and their powerful militaries can do to attain their own purposes.

These are not just policy questions. Until recently, few in academia believed in the power of rebel insurgents challenging powerful states in violent conflict. In 1967, Kenneth Waltz wrote that the "revolutionary guerrilla wins civil wars, not international ones" and that "the potency of irregular warfare (had) been grossly exaggerated." At that time insurgency as a whole was such a small force in global politics that, even if some communist forces swept through parts of the Third World by guerrilla tactics, that would not pose a serious threat to American power. After all, guerrilla movements had little systemic effect on the bipolar stability between the United States and Soviet Union, at least until the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.

Waltz's statement rings true to this day, except that it made a lot more sense for conflict through the early twentieth century. Since the mid-twentieth century, however, violent insurgent groups have done significantly better; they have made what were supposed to be "small wars" lengthy endeavors, raised the cost of war drastically, and won many of them quite impressively. Most recently, insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Iraq have managed to force the United States, arguably the champion of the post-Cold War international system, to suffer embarrassing if temporary setbacks. Forty years after Waltz made his argument, the Washington Post quoted Jason Lyall and Isaiah Wilson, close observers of this kind of war, as saying "although great powers are vastly more powerful today than in the 19th century . . . they have become far less likely to win asymmetrical wars. More surprising . . . the odds of a powerful nation winning an asymmetrical war decrease as that nation becomes more powerful." In other words, things have changed dramatically in favor of insurgent underdogs in the international system. What explains this change? What does it mean to the future of great power politics?

In recent years, international relations scholars have made considerable progress in the understanding of many types of conflict: interstate, civil, and asymmetric. In a major study of asymmetric war, T. V. Paul explains how underdogs decide to go to war based on the perceived achievability of their political and military goals. More specifically, he argues that weak actors' choice for asymmetric war rests with their perceptions about the availability of external and internal support, short-term offensive capabilities, and their advantage in making the first strike. Other scholars have followed, making arguments about weak resolve, strategic interaction, vulnerability of democracies to small wars, and mechanization of armed forces as major causes of upsets in asymmetric war. These contributions, however, do not directly address a type of war that this book is concerned with: extrasystemic war. Drawn from the Correlates of War project, the terms "extrasystemic war" and "extrastate war" may sound confusing to some. What kind of war, one might ask, can be "extra" to the traditional state or international system? It is the specific nature of the dyad between states and nonstate actors that makes extrasystemic war a distinct form of conflict. David Singer and Melvin Small define extrasystemic wars as those wars between a state member of the international system and a nonmember entity (nonstate actor) with a minimum of one thousand combat-related deaths per year. In other words, it is a war between states and insurgent groups that commit "a violent, often protracted, struggle . . . to obtain political objectives such as independence, greater autonomy, or subversion of the existing political authority" that operate in a foreign territory. While not all nonstate actors are insurgencies, I treat them synonymously in this book because most if not all insurgencies are belligerent nonstate entities seeking independence as the primary political ends and because the best analysis of violent insurgencies pitted against foreign governments comes from a collection of data on extrasystemic war.

Extrasystemic war shares some commonalities with interstate and civil wars, but as seen most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq, it poses a unique set of challenges that many have failed to appreciate. It is generally long in duration, involves conventional, guerrilla, and "hybrid" battles, and is highly political. Fairly common during the European imperialism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, extrasystemic war continues to be a key security topic for many governments in the West. This is because most wars in the Third World involve Western governments with violent insurgencies, often pitted against local governments that are supported by powerful states intervening from outside. Furthermore, extrasystemic war is becoming more lethal, with the proliferation of small weapons among violent rebels and arms trade among insurgents, particularly for those who live in highly contested areas. In fact, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq are where we have seen extrasystemic wars recently, and these top the list of nations where minority groups are most exposed to dangers of genocide, mass killings, and violent repression. Moreover, the United States left Iraq in 2011 and is scheduled to leave Afghanistan in 2014. Because violence continues to pervade these two states, foreign military intervention here is likely to stay on the table for major powers in the near future.

The central puzzle of this book is this: How do insurgent groups fight and defeat foreign states in war? What allows some nonstate insurgent groups to beat powerful states and others lose? The literature provides some insights into war between unequal powers, but none specifically for this type of conflict. In Evolving to Win, I answer these questions by exploring 148 cases of extrasystemic war and generating a set of distinctive patterns of how insurgent groups fight this kind of war. My answer is that successful insurgents tend to fight state adversaries in a sequence of actions that allows them to achieve their ends, whereas most unsuccessful groups end up adopting a sequence that does not. In other words, victory requires insurgents to evolve and do so in "right" sequences. I call this explanation the "sequencing theory," which posits that insurgent groups are likely to win extrasystemic war when their interactions with the states allow them to evolve into a powerful modern army capable of defending an emerging statehood. Growing powerful through iteration when confronting strong enemies is a challenging matter for any insurgent group. Because insurgents are generally weaker, most actually fail to evolve. However, quite a few have nevertheless succeeded through a set of sequencing patterns, and this book demonstrates how that happens.

In answering the main puzzle, Evolving to Win makes two contributions to the study of international security. First, it presents an alternative research project to the mainstream body of security studies that has until recently been fixated on great power interstate conflict and civil wars. Given the centrality of nation-states in the international system and given the growing relevance of internal war since the end of the Cold War, this fixation is natural. But it comes at the expense of analysis on extrasystemic war. To be certain, extrasystemic war does not make many headlines or affect the military balance of major countries. Held mostly in less attended areas of the globe, it is also closely associated with imperial and colonial conflict of the past. We must remember, however, that resources that states devote to small wars shape their balance of power with other states and affect the international system. The recent surge in the world's attention to violent insurgencies, in various parts of the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, means that we must dispel the notion that it is peripheral to the interests of major powers. Indeed, as Lawrence Keeley argues, so-called primitive warfare has been "extremely frequent" in the history of mankind. Insurgents are highly aggressive: according to his analysis of fifty societies, 66 percent were at war every year and over 70 percent went to war at least once in every five years. More broadly, because rebellions have a long history, extrasystemic war has been a recurring state of affairs since the birth of nation-states. Therefore, John Mueller is right that while great power war may be becoming obsolescent, civil war persists and so does "policing war," defined as militarized efforts by developed countries to bring order to civil conflicts in other parts of the world, which has a great deal of commonality with extrasystemic war. More recently, extrasystemic war has been acknowledged for its relevance to other important strategic issues. Michael Horowitz, for example, shows that nonstate actors have actively evolved through organizational change, learning, and the building of linkages among themselves, as a way of adopting and carrying out new strategic innovations like suicide terrorism.

The other contribution of this book is to enrich the policy-making community through the study of what lessons powerful states can learn to fight foreign insurgencies. The sequencing framework will inform statesmen and government officials about how to win through phases. I show what it takes for states to prevent policy disaster when they engage in asymmetric war. Therefore, although Evolving to Win largely takes on the perspective of the insurgent groups confronting states, it generates ideas for states in terms of how to execute extrasystemic war. Naturally, the book also considers implications about the kinds of government policy that are likely to prove effective and ineffective. For this reason, in the concluding chapter I examine the implications of America's conduct of the war in Afghanistan. Although it is too early to call a winner there, I argue that extremist insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban have largely failed in their attempt to generate effective sequences, while the United States/International Security Assistance Forces have arguably made some progress in making Afghanistan increasingly capable of self-governance and keeping the Afghan-Pakistani relations reasonably stable. Outside Afghanistan, however, insurgent groups have learned to fight through phases to inflict severe damage on those who intervene in their territory. From Somalia and Algeria to Pakistan, these groups have learned to become more persistent, adaptive, and innovative. This reality, along with tough economic problems at home and long-term security challenges from rising powers like China, means that the United States must find a way to fight small wars effectively. Evolving to Win proposes a sequential analysis as a new theoretical framework to generate key insights for U.S. security policy in the twenty-first century.

Conceptual Clarifications

Extrasystemic war is different from other types of war, such as interstate and civil. It differs from interstate war in that the latter is fought between nation-states while the former war involves states and insurgents. On the other hand, civil war is between government and nonstate groups in the same country. Civil war and extrasystemic war are interrelated, however, because they become inseparable when a foreign government intervenes in a civil war on either side. As Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, Idean Salehyan, and Kenneth Schultz argue, states experiencing a civil war are substantially likely to become involved in militarized disputes with other states, making war look extrasystemic. International disputes that coincide with civil wars are tied to the issues surrounding the civil war. Civil wars are likely to be internationalized when states seek to affect the outcome of the war through strategies of intervention and externalization. In contrast, extrasystemic war has much to do with small wars and "hybrid" war. Small war is a "campaign other than those where both sides consist of regular troops," such as "operations of regular armies against . . . irregular forces," while hybrid war is a combination of traditional war with terrorism and insurgency. Like small wars and hybrid wars, extrasystemic war involves the use of insurgency and guerrilla and terrorist tactics against states. Moreover, it is fair to say that extrasystemic war is a form of asymmetric war in which there are differences in the power of two sides. Of course, no war is fought between purely equal powers, so every war is asymmetric by definition. But because states generally have more resources at their disposal, reflected in the form of advanced military hardware and troops properly uniformed and professionally trained troops to fight capital-intensive wars, extrasystemic war distinctively favors them. One of the consequences of this gap is the power projection capability of nation-states, which often allows them to intervene in rebel territories and put insurgents on the defensive. This is why all extrasystemic wars have taken place on insurgents' territory.

Extrasystemic war takes both conventional and unconventional forms of violence. Conventional extrasystemic war begins with both sides using standing armies in open terrain. The armies typically share the characteristics of massed lines, heavy fortifications, dependence on hardware, and physical force directed against combatants. In other words, force is used "directly" against the opponent. The concept of conventional war derives broadly from a Western tradition that values weapons procurement, military education, and doctrinal development, based on what Rupert Smith calls the "paradigm of interstate industrial war: concepts founded on conflict between states, the maneuver of forces en masse, and the total support of the state's manpower and industrial base." This tradition has more recently been passed on to U.S. forces and enshrined in the so-called American way of war. Fred Weyand and Harry Summers argue that "we believe in using 'things'—artillery, bombs, massive firepower—in order to conserve our soldiers' lives. The enemy, on the other hand, made up for his lack of 'things' by expending men instead of machines, and he suffered enormous casualties." Conventional forces generally include ground, naval, air, and marine components, but here they mean ground forces most of the time because insurgent groups tend not to have enough resources to field naval and air forces and because the army plays a decisive role in crushing the enemy's capacity to resist in decisive engagement. States typically prefer to fight conventional war because they train their forces to win it. The shift of American strategic focus from conventional force planning and nuclear exchange of the Cold War to less traditional missions like counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Seen from the long span of military history, most nation-states have consistently displayed a preference for conventional power. What is surprising, however, is that many insurgents have used conventional war. In fact, a number of extrasystemic wars in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were conventional.

The other form of extrasystemic war is unconventional, which is essentially guerrilla war. Samuel Huntington defined guerrilla war as "a form of warfare by which the strategically weaker side assumes the tactical offensive in selected forms, times, and places." Guerrilla war has three forms of activity, according to Lawrence Keeley. The most common form is raids and ambushes in which a small number of men sneak into enemy territory to kill people, followed by large-scale battles and massacres and surprise attacks. But generally, guerrilla strategy focuses on maneuver, speed, and stealth over formation and firepower. Rather than concentrating force, guerrillas disperse it to spread the enemy thin and target where the enemy is most vulnerable. Guerrilla strategy involves the use of soldiers as well as civilian populations, which provide supplies, information, sanctuary, training ground, manpower, and human buffers—all assets that can be used to neutralize the negative balance of power. Of course, telling civilians from guerrillas in war is not easy, since all wars contain elements of both, which challenges the dichotomy between conventional and guerrilla wars, but for the sake of analytical parsimony I consider them to be alternatives.

What does it mean to win these wars? Scholars disagree over what defines victory and defeat, especially in insurgency environments. As William Martel argues, the term "victory" is used quite casually to express a generally successful outcome of a military contest. The literature does not have a language to describe victory in precise terms, so he examines victory in terms of achieving a set of political, military, territorial, and economic objectives on the tactical, operational, strategic, and grand strategic levels. Dominic Johnson and Dominic Tierney define victory based on the achievement of political ends and material gains and losses made in the course of war, which are adjusted by the importance and difficulty of the missions. To measure progress in war, they use two methods: a "scorekeeping method" that focuses on actual material gains and losses and "match-fixing," in which evaluations become skewed by mind-sets, symbolic events, and media and elite spin. Furthermore, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's famous dictum that "the enemy wins if he does not lose" reflects the inherent advantage given to the insurgents in our judgment about victory in asymmetric contexts. These considerations sound reasonable, but the problem is that they do not provide useful metrics to measure war outcomes in extrasystemic war. However, all extrasystemic wars turned out to have clear winners, so it is enough to argue here that insurgent groups win extrasystemic war when they attain their utmost ends set at the beginning of the war while state sides fail to do so. Insurgents lose, in contrast, when they fail to achieve the objectives while states succeed. Of course, it is often the case that actors seek to achieve more than one objective in a single war and these objectives change before the war ends, which makes it difficult for us to assess mission accomplishment. But in most cases, territorial and political integrity is the main cause of extrasystemic war and actors regard sovereignty as the most important determinant of victory.

The Puzzle

Through the early twentieth century, governments defeated foreign insurgents lopsidedly in most encounters. A majority of these wars were acts of colonial conquest in which imperial Western powers traveled across the world and used brute force to subdue local subjects on a massive scale. At different times, Britain, France, Portugal, and other European countries waged wars of empire building almost nonstop in their scrambles for colonial possession. Once they settled the lands, they did everything they could to suppress revolts and exploit resources. The control was so systematic that whenever discontented elements rebelled against the settlers, they found themselves to be almost always on the losing side. Scholars stress the logic of power in explaining this pattern of insurgent defeat; insurgent groups lose because they are poor and powerless. Indeed, the international distribution of power favors nation-states at the expense of insurgents. Scholars have noted the general tendency for these disorganized forces to be weak on the battlefield. Mueller holds that a group of criminal thugs confronting a competent army is doomed to fail because they simply do not have the training, leadership, logistic support, weaponry, and morale. To others, nonstate violence is not relevant anymore. According to Janice Thomson, nonstate violence, once highly marketized around the world, was even "delegitimized" and "eliminated" in early modern Europe when the sovereignty of nation-states became an established institution of the time. Nonstate violence in its various forms, ranging from insurgency to terrorism, has long failed to serve the ultimate interest of those who execute it. More recently, Max Abrahms found that since 2001, terrorist groups have rarely achieved their political objectives; they accomplished their policy objectives only 7 percent of the time. Today, as great powers continue to build arms, train for new types of conflict, and become more powerful, this record of state victory appears embedded, in both theory and empirical evidence. Between 1816 and 1945, the victory rate for insurgents was only 15 percent, as they won only 20 of 130 wars.

Figure 1 indicates that since 1945, this trend has changed. For the past seventy years we have seen more insurgent groups overcome military inferiority to defeat external powers. Winning eleven of eighteen wars through 2010, the insurgents' victory rate has jumped from 15 percent to 61 percent. From Algeria and Indonesia to Guinea-Bissau, dedicated members of nationalist groups in colonial entities have engineered a dramatic shift in the strategic landscape by unseating leading colonial powers and taking charge of their newfound statehood. In a span of just a few years, European powers lost possessions in Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. This trend was hardly limited to European experience; before the Soviet Union retreated from Afghanistan in 1989, the United States suffered through the Vietnam War, an experience that made the American public less willing to engage with tribal violence of the Third World and subsequently shaped the structure of the U.S. military for the remainder of the Cold War. America's victory in the Cold War did not mean that it could win small wars everywhere, as military missions in Somalia in 1993, the events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq each proved extremely difficult and costly. Instead, these wars have opened a crack in U.S. forces and weakened the economy, reinforcing the general perception that even powerful countries like the United States find it hard to defeat a foreign insurgency.

This should not be surprising, because the growing success of weak actors in international politics has been recorded in recent research. Arreguin-Toft shows that in the past two centuries, materially weak actors have won only a third of all wars, yet since 1945 they have won more than half of them. The reason they used to lose these wars was because they would fight the same way as the other side did—whether using a conventional or guerrilla strategy. This has changed dramatically because weak actors have adopted military strategies opposite to those of powerful actors. Lyall and Wilson find that before the First World War, strong nations used to beat irregular opponents at the rate of 80 percent, but the rate has declined to 40 percent since World War II. Non-great powers had similar experiences, defeating insurgents in 80 percent of pre-World War I cases but only 33 percent of post-1918 wars. This is mainly due to the increasing mechanization of government forces, which in turn weakened their ability to collect intelligence among local populations, differentiate combatants from noncombatants, and selectively apply rewards and punishments to the locals.

The rising probability of insurgent victory coincided with the extension of war duration, which suggests that the longer the war becomes, the more likely insurgent groups are to win. This may be because weak actors are so determined that they are willing to endure the pain of war longer than strong actors. It may also be because the cost of a long war may be relatively lower for underdogs who have little to lose from defeat. Or it could be that people on the weaker side gain hope as war becomes longer while those on the stronger side tend to lose that hope. As David Galula argues, "The longer the insurgent movement lasts, the better will be its chances to survive its infantile diseases and to take root." The relationship between war duration and outcome is important because in most extrasystemic wars, the state side is democratic and does not like long wars. In the short run, democracies may be more likely to win than their opponents because they choose the wars they fight and because they can mobilize domestic resources more effectively, but in the long run they are subject to electoral punishment for the conduct of overseas missions. As a result, democracies are more vulnerable to pressure to withdraw from unpopular wars. As Scott Bennett and Allan Stam show, democracies begin to lose wartime advantage in capability and resolve roughly eighteen months into the war and at that point become far more likely to quit and more willing to settle for draws or losses. So when democratic states win an extrasystemic war, it is generally a short war.

Figure 2 confirms this relationship. The average duration of extrasystemic war is 2.7 years, but in the postwar period when insurgent groups are most likely winners, it increases to 7 years. The wars became longest in the 1960s and 1970s when decolonization movements were the most intense. Other things being equal, the longer the war, the more likely insurgent groups are to succeed. The problem, however, is that war duration alone does not tell us anything about what happens in war. Consequently, the relationship is not causal, and the duration is not a cause of insurgent victory but only an indicator of their success. Yet duration is important because longer wars allow insurgent groups to evolve in a complex manner. The question, then, is what takes place in each of the wars that leaves some insurgent groups so much stronger that at the end of the war they find themselves to be victorious.

My answer is centered on sequencing theory. The theory operates under the assumption that extrasystemic war can unfold in multiple sequences. The very multiplicity of these trajectories assumed in the theory captures the multilinearity of extrasystemic war and explains the variation in the probability of insurgent victory. Each sequence consists of up to three "phases," conventional war, guerrilla war, and state building, which represent a set of critical military, political, and economic factors shaping the strategic environment of extrasystemic conflict. The theory posits that insurgent forces may be able to boost their chance of victory when they evolve. They evolve by fighting their superior opponents in ways that transform them into a conventional army. They evolve as they use the gains they have made in an earlier phase relative to their foes and deploy them to their advantage as they fight on. Most of the time, they do not have enough capability to defeat their enemy in a single phase, so they are likely losers in most violent encounters. Through evolution, however, they can grow to be capable of moving on to a next phase where they are more likely to achieve their ends. In other words, the key variable for insurgent victory is whether the insurgents grow into an independent state with organized armed forces. Put simply, the main hypothesis of sequencing theory is that the more insurgents evolve, the more likely they are to win extrasystemic war.

The fact that there are several ways in which a "phase" combines with another phase means that there are as many sequences to consider. In this book I show six such sequences, or models, all of which evolve in dissimilar trajectories and result in different frequencies of occurrence. They are the (1) conventional, (2) primitive, (3) degenerative, (4) premature, (5) Maoist, and (6) progressive models. The conventional model describes a war in which states and insurgents fight by using organized forces. The primitive model depicts the execution of guerrilla war between the two sides from the beginning to the end. The degenerative model is a two-phase model, which begins with a conventional war (as in the conventional model) but turns into guerrilla war (primitive model) in the middle of the conflict. The premature model reflects a midwar transformation of guerrilla conflict (primitive model) into conventional war. The Maoist model shows that insurgents evolve from a small political party through the experience of fighting in guerrilla war, before the party becomes a conventional armed force. Finally, the progressive model describes a process of insurgent evolution from the period of guerrilla war through the years of state building into the establishment of modern armed forces. Because they are materially weak, few insurgent groups have managed to generate an ideal sequence, which explains why most groups have lost extrasystemic wars. The data show, however, that in the past several decades these insurgent forces have reversed the trend by evolving through the transformation of small guerrilla forces into a modern political and military system. They have built this system with support from local populations and have fought well on their home turf.

Sequencing theory presents but one of the several ways in which insurgent forces fight and defeat foreign states in war. I do not argue that the theory is the only way to explain extrasystemic war because existing explanations of asymmetric war may at times account for why some insurgents succeed and others fail in extrasystemic war. Sequencing theory, however, generates a useful analytical framework about how the order of sequences in conflict between states and nonstate insurgents can generate forces that empower the latter into victory. Furthermore, the theory posits that an insurgency's evolution or failure to evolve has a strong impact on its ability to achieve its goals. In other words, through evolution insurgents increase their chances to accomplish the utmost political ends. Yet sequencing theory is hardly focused only on insurgency. It argues that the evolution comes only with the state side co-opting the insurgent. Not every insurgency failing to appropriately evolve into a conventional force wins these wars because they fail to achieve the fundamental purpose of war. Thus, the causal logic of sequencing theory rests not with a tautological argument that insurgents' victory occurs when they evolve, but with whether the evolution they engineer goes through a successful sequence.

The Literature

Sequencing theory is a new theoretical framework of international security that fills a void in the existing theories of asymmetric war and counterinsurgency. The field of international security has generated a number of ideas about these issues, but sequencing theory presents an alternative means of analysis on irregular conflict and extrasystemic war. Hilde Ralvo, Nils Gleditsch, and Han Dorussen explore the relationship between democracy and colonial, imperial, and postcolonial wars, which concerns us here because many of these wars are extrasystemic at the same time, but they focus on the propensity of democratic countries to fight these wars rather than dealing with war termination. Dan Reiter and Curtis Meek examine how factors like regime type, steel production, and national borders shape military strategies of states, but they do not investigate insurgencies. Todd Sechser and Elizabeth Saunders examine conditions under which states seek to mechanize their militaries, but they do not discuss how nonstate actors do so. To be sure, the literature on asymmetric war offers a set of ideas about how weak actors defeat strong ones, although it assumes no analytical boundary between interstate, civil, and extrasystemic types. Some of the major works in the literature address the cause of underdog victory in terms of (1) balance of resolve, (2) strategic interaction, (3) democratic weakness, (4) external support, (5) mechanization of armed forces, and (6) political objectives.

First, Andrew Mack writes that weak actors are likely to win when they are more resolved to withstand the cost of war than are powerful actors. The idea is that asymmetric war is a contest of will that favors the less powerful because they make greater efforts. Material power is considered indecisive because weak actors face the danger of annihilation and thus are determined to outlast the states that do not. This imbalance of resolve leads to a gap in the degree of vulnerability to domestic opposition. While weak actors maintain a high level of determination, stronger ones often see their resolve decline before they are forced out of war by their constituents. In extrasystemic war, this means that insurgents win when their resolve is greater than that of nation-states. The theory does a good job of explaining a number of wars of decolonization where insurgent sides were presumably more determined to fight on to grab independence. The theory also works with sequencing theory in that it describes the fundamental asymmetry in power and resolve that drives some insurgents to seek military power and popular support as key ingredients in extrasystemic war.

Second, Arreguin-Toft posits that particular configurations of strategic interaction affect the likelihood of insurgent success. The idea is that weak actors are likely to win when they adopt a different military strategy than that of stronger actors. Specifically, they are likely to win when they adopt guerrilla strategy and the stronger actors adopt conventional strategy because they can out-will the stronger side. They are also likely to win when they adopt a conventional strategy and stronger actors adopt what he calls barbarism: targeting civilian supporters of the enemy. In contrast, they are likely to lose if both sides adopt similar military strategies because the stronger actors can simply outpower the weaker ones. In short, strategic matching empowers the weak, whether states or nonstates, while strategic mismatch is likely to lead to the victory by the powerful. A key difference between this theory and sequencing theory is that while the former stresses the matching of different strategies as the determinant of war outcomes, the latter emphasizes the role of evolution as a key variable for insurgent victory against states. As I show in the case studies, the theory of strategic interactions does not account for the fact that actors change strategies in the middle of war, as many states and nonstate actors do in extrasystemic wars. The theory of strategic interaction is salient here, however, because many extrasystemic wars involve the use of both conventional and guerrilla strategies. As the wars have become more complex in recent decades, Arreguin-Toft's explanation does a good job of showing how different strategies between the two sides leave different implications for war outcomes.

Third, Gil Merom argues that weaker actors are likely to win when their opponents are democratic and susceptible to pressure from antiwar forces at home. Their chance of victory increases when middle-class constituents, who reject the high costs of lengthy war because the costs fall directly on them and because they oppose war on moral grounds, become strong antiwar forces to block the democratic government from raising the level of violence necessary to win. Soon enough, they begin to threaten to punish the government electorally. Merom's argument centers on an important dynamic surrounding the process of how democratic governments become weak through the mismanagement of war on the domestic front. The theory speaks to a host of insurgencies in Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Latin America where many Western democracies have underperformed because they succumbed to powerful pressure to withdraw from those wars. From a broader perspective, Merom's work advances an important research project on why democracies may fight poorly, especially in small wars and in comparison with nondemocracies. Research has shown that some democracies are prone to lose wars because they are more susceptible to electoral punishment than are nondemocracies. Voters and the mass media are sensitive to spectacular attacks that can shift voting patterns and constrain the ability of democratic leaders to wage war. By looking specifically into democracies in small wars, Merom's work adds pessimism to the sense of vulnerability felt by many democracies constrained by the domestic effects of antiwar norms and institutions.

Fourth, Jeffrey Record argues that external aid is the key to underdog victory. Reviewing eleven insurgent wars from 1775 to 2007, he argues that external assistance correlates more consistently with insurgent success than any other explanation. Acknowledging some roles played by the resolve to fight, strategy, and regime type, he argues not that external aid is sufficient for insurgent victory but that it plays a crucial role in war outcomes between the strong and weak. Similarly, Paul Staniland argues that resources and the structure of the preexisting social networks of insurgent groups are crucial parts of their mobilization and operation. Material support may be especially significant if it comes from states that can offer firepower, funding, training, and intelligence far beyond the ability of these actors. Some states have incentives to support terrorist groups primarily for strategic reasons, such as to influence neighbors, topple regimes, counter U.S. hegemony, or advance ideologies. But state sponsorship is not always helpful to terrorist groups when they risk being the next target. Sponsors that provide safe haven can have incentives to provide information about the groups to the opponent in order to avoid getting into trouble with it. After all, as I show in the empirical chapters, the support-based theory functions as part of sequencing theory because they both show how resources enable insurgents to fight both guerrilla and conventional wars.

Fifth, Lyall and Wilson argue that states are likely to fail in COIN missions when they are obsessed with military mechanization. High levels of mechanization, along with external support for insurgents and government occupation of foreign territories, are associated with an increased probability of state defeat because they undermine the state's ability to collect intelligence from local populations and tell combatants from noncombatants, which increase the difficulty of selectively applying rewards and punishments to the populations. In other words, the modernization of armed forces, seen here in terms of the replacement of manpower with motorized vehicles, such as tanks, trucks, and aircraft, impairs the way state actors fight wars. The theory can work in tandem with sequencing theory when the latter offers a chronological lens to deal with how extrasystemic wars have changed over time. Indeed, sequencing theory works where Lyall and Wilson's theory does not in terms of explaining why prior to the early twentieth century, military modernization did not always lead to state defeat. Rather than assuming that only in the post-twentieth-century period did major powers mechanize their forces, the sequencing perspective factors in the force structure of both sides as a key variable on the outcome of extrasystemic conditions. Mechanization not only has been a major part of extrasystemic war but also has always benefited states more than insurgents. Because the technological gap has remained largely constant for the examined period, if Lyall and Wilson are correct, states should have lost wars roughly at the same rate as today.

Last, Patricia Sullivan argues that the key to understanding victory lies in the nature of the political objectives states pursue through the use of military force. The effects of the factors above, such as strategic interaction and democratic weakness, are dependent on the nature of the states' political objectives. The way the states' political objectives align with the quality of their military strategy and resources determines war outcomes. Underdogs are likely to win when their political objectives are more closely aligned with military objectives and the balance of military capabilities between belligerents. In contrast, they are less likely to win when the objective relies on compliance from the target.

These works have made important contributions to the expansion of our knowledge about asymmetric war. What these theories lack is an evolutionary perspective that insurgent growth has a strong bearing on insurgents' chances to achieve their purpose. In other words, none of the existing works takes into account the role of wartime evolution that often shapes the outcome of extrasystemic war. In this context, sequencing theory offers a theoretical challenge to the existing thoughts about asymmetric war by presenting a sequence as a means of analysis. By highlighting the way wars evolve through phases, this book shows how insurgents can increase the probability of victory in the exchange of violence.


I take three steps to explain how insurgent forces fight and defeat foreign states in war. First, I examine 148 cases of extrasystemic war in the period between 1816 and 2010 and classify each of them into one of the six models. As a baseline I use existing datasets on extrasystemic war because, while they do not directly deal with insurgencies per se, they provide a list of nonstate actors fighting states in the closest way possible to extrasystemic wars. However, they contain a number of inaccuracies about outcomes, duration, and categorization, so whenever necessary I have recoded and updated the datasets. The result is Appendix A, which lists all 148 wars and presents information on duration, winners, and models used. Second, I supplement the raw data with a set of descriptions of each war, drawn from primary and secondary sources in historical literature and compiled in Appendix B. The descriptive analysis is followed, third, by comparative historical case analysis designed to provide an extra layer of robustness and substantiate the six models of sequencing theory. I investigate the six models, respectively, in the (1) Dahomean War, (2) Malayan Emergency, (3) Iraq War, (4) Anglo-Somali War, (5) Portuguese-Guinean War, and (6) Indochina War.

The rationale for choosing these 6 out of the 148 cases is as follows. Each is best suited to provide empirical support for the six models. The cases also clarify conditions for success and failure of insurgencies in extrasystemic war. Furthermore, they highlight the stark difference between the colonial and imperial era and the decolonization period. Specifically, the case studies contrast the key tendency of insurgent forces before the 1940s to fight mainly using the conventional model and lose extrasystemic wars against those insurgencies in the decolonization era that fought in more complex sequences to win many wars. In other words, the six cases help achieve my aim to maximize the temporal and geographic distribution of the survey while reflecting the number of models of sequencing theory. In data collection, I carried out archival research, examining sources including memoranda, meeting notes, transcripts of conversations, war and diplomatic communiqués, as well as memoirs and secondary historical literature. Taking these three steps has proven to be an effective way of exploring questions central to this book. How exactly do insurgent forces fight foreign states when they do? If and when they defeat their opponents, what strategy have they used? When they lost the war, what did they do wrong? And ultimately, what causes the variation in the sequences that insurgent forces end up adopting in extrasystemic war?

There are three caveats in regard to the data collection and analysis. First, the existing dataset does not fully capture differences between cases. For example, while some insurgencies turn out to be relatively short-term rebellions in South Asia, others are modern extensions of ancient African kingdoms defending what little autonomy they have left, such as the Dahomey, Ashantis, and Mahdists, and these do not appear to be insurgencies. Furthermore, there is more than one type of rebellion and insurgency; in postcolonial Africa alone, William Reno argues a variety of rebel groups can be categorized into anticolonial, majority rule, reform, warlord, and parochial types. In this book I do not use Reno's typologies, but they reinforce my point that these differences make cross-case comparisons difficult. What I do to deal with this issue is to first eliminate cases that do not conform to the category of extrasystemic war and then ascertain that all the other cases share common features of extrasystemic wars, with insurgent groups being illegitimate members of the international system at the time of war and nation-states being such members. In other words, to carry out comparative case studies effectively, I treat these cases in a uniform manner under the category of extrasystemic war and by exploring the central questions consistently across the empirical chapters. This method allows us to draw theoretically informed and substantially meaningful implications for the recent and ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The second issue concerns the conditions under which wars take place. In some cases insurgent groups opt not to go to war when conditions for it exist. Given the enormous challenge of extrasystemic war, there are incentives for them not to fight in general. Nonviolent resistance may in fact be preferred over violence because it presents fewer obstacles to moral and physical involvement, information and education, and participator commitment. High levels of participation in nonviolent protests also enhance group resilience, tactical innovation, and opportunities for civic disruption and reduce incentives for the regime to fight. This issue raises the question of what constitutes necessary and sufficient conditions for war, which needs to be solved in order to avoid generating a no-variance research design. I solve this question by counting conditions for war when it takes place and by considering why some insurgents choose not to fight at all when conditions for war exist and why other insurgent groups do fight when conditions do exist. At the same time, because my data do not speak for all cases under which war should have taken place but did not, I do not make claims about whether they are sufficient conditions for war. But I assume that they demonstrate a set of conditions that enable us to create a series of distinct patterns of war. Doing so allows me to make a contextually restricted yet substantial contention about conditions for war.

The last issue is with counting "models" of sequencing theory. A single war may account for more than one model while the model overlaps with another. For instance, a war that I code as a conventional war model may actually count as a degenerative model if insurgent groups might have tried to go degenerative but failed in the conventional war before they could reach a second phase. Similarly, a war may account for both primitive and Maoist models if the insurgent group fights like guerrillas first and then fails to move on to a next phase. The overlapping issue may potentially complicate my counting rule for the models. I solve this problem first by ensuring that each case is completely different from the others and second by counting models in which we see hard evidence that insurgent groups made an effort to reach the next phase. Therefore, if evidence proves that the groups tried but failed to reach a phase, then the case counts toward a more complicated model, while if the groups did not try to attain another phase, then it counts as a single-phase model.

Plan of the Book

This book has ten chapters. In the second chapter, I trace the intellectual origins of sequencing theory in the application of evolutionary biology to political science, coupled with analysis of the works of Lenin and Mao, who made use of phases and sequences in revolutionary situations. I also examine how early ideas of sequence in war became consolidated and spread into limited parts of the postwar globe, which enabled a few insurgent leaders of Third World independence movements to achieve decolonization. The idea of fighting through sequences, however, has hardly been uniform; the sequencing method has generated variation in the way that these groups evolved. In fact, the very multiplicity of sequences explains the variation in war outcomes, with each "model" having different frequency levels and war outcomes. I also discuss factors that shape the probability of insurgent victory and show that although insurgent victory is associated with duration, geography, and norms of self-rule, none fully explains the outcome. Instead, insurgent victory rests most closely with the proliferation of the idea and practice of sequencing among successful groups. Thus, my discussion of the spread of the sequencing method centers on the ability and willingness of insurgent groups to "learn lessons" in the middle of war and afterward. In the third chapter, I explain exactly how sequencing theory works. I show three major components of the theory and how they combine to make sequences and subsequently categorize extrasystemic war into six sequencing models. The first four models (conventional, primitive, degenerative, and premature models) are popular among many insurgents but are likely to fail, while the last two (Maoist and progressive) models are successful but rare.

The fourth to ninth chapters examine the six models of sequencing theory. In each chapter, I test the three most relevant theories of asymmetric war against sequencing theory. In the fourth chapter, I explore the Dahomean War of 1890 to 1894 to show that insurgent groups generally fail when they use the conventional model. The central proposition of this chapter is that, as seen in the abortive Dahomean effort to challenge the French army, war against a stronger foreign power is impossible to win if insurgents fight like an army. This case study clearly shows that the Fon fielded a conventional army that was two times larger than that of the French, and this manpower advantage allowed them to survive a couple of years, but they failed to go beyond the conventional phase and win the war. In the fifth chapter, I examine the Malayan Emergency of 1948 to 1960 during which members of the Malayan Communist Party confronted British forces in a war for independence, only to be defeated. The main cause of this outcome was not the level of resolve or power or strategic choices but the fact that the insurgent group failed to build strong support bases and move out of guerrilla insurgency. This case shows that a guerrilla war campaign can be lengthy, but contrary to the conventional wisdom, a long guerrilla campaign does not instantly make states the loser. In fact, this case study underscores the dilemma of insurgent groups stuck in an attritional guerrilla war and unable to do anything to move beyond that phase.

In the sixth chapter, I explore the Iraq War of 2003 to 2011. Iraq illustrates precisely why the two-phase degenerative model does not work well for insurgents. In the first phase, Saddam's ground forces and Ba'ath Party fought the U.S.-led coalition forces in the desert of Iraq in conventional warfare before their incomplete destruction drove the war into a new phase. The second phase was guerrilla combat in which the coalition forces initially suffered from their failure to adapt to the changing environment. Yet U.S. forces reorganized around the population-centric COIN operations that marginalized the insurgents starting in 2007. While these factors played an important contextual role in the war, I show that it was the shift from conventional to guerrilla war that proved critical for the insurgents' performance. The coalition left Iraq in a shambles but in a state of affairs that allowed their departure—however temporary that may be. Of course, there are reasons to be concerned that the war may turn for the worse, as the current Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, may not be able to hold various sectarian interests together. The insurgents have also claimed victory on their own terms as they "succeeded" in achieving their mission in terms of expelling the coalition forces (although the departure was carried out on the coalition's timetable). But because the insurgents split along internal and tribal lines, and because either they or Ba'athists no longer control much popular support or the government, and because they have yet to field an army capable of seriously challenging the Iraqi government, prospects for their resurrection to the degree that it might seriously impair the coalition's political capital in the future have dramatically shrunk.

In the seventh chapter, I discuss the Anglo-Somali War of 1900 to 1920 to explore why the premature model does not work. The Somalis fought through the transition of guerrilla war into conventional war without making visible efforts to build a state. The so-called Dervish initially fought well to survive four British expeditions by adopting an elusive guerrilla strategy. But the situation turned sour in the second phase when they found themselves exposed in open desert to British firepower and airpower. Without building institutions that would have consolidated support bases and increased their military capability, the Dervish fell quickly once Britain became serious in Somalia. This case study is useful in showing that, again, what appears to be a very long (twenty years) guerrilla military campaign overseas can actually be understood as a simple two-phase conflict in which the state side emerged victorious in the end.

The eighth and ninth chapters provide a set of contrasting portraits in which insurgents adopted models that worked. In the eighth chapter, the Portuguese Guinean War of 1963 to 1974 provides evidence for the Maoist model since the war lasted long enough for us to examine the case in three phases, and because the Guinean side was least expected to generate the outcome it did. I discuss how a guerrilla force called the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) managed to overcome its military disadvantage to defeat colonial Portuguese forces over three phases. The first phase was a period characterized by Guinean success in building institutions, especially the party itself, which allowed it to push the war into a guerrilla war phase, where the PAIGC gained strong popular support. The PAIGC's success in "winning hearts and minds" brought the war to the final phase of conventional war where its modernized army forced Lisbon to withdraw from the territory. I argue that while each of these phases—state building, guerrilla war, and conventional war—had an important influence on the war, it was the very evolution of insurgency across the three phases that shaped the outcome.

In the ninth chapter, I study the progressive model using the Indochina War, during which Vietminh forces fought French troops between 1946 and 1954. I deal with this war as a case study of the progressive model because it provides ample evidence that the Vietminh experience was a clear departure from the Maoist model and because, as above, the war lasted long enough for us to see the effect of changes across three phases. The Vietminh won the war because they took three steps in the right order; they began as a guerrilla movement, did everything they could to gain popular support, and built the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) during the state-building phase, before acquiring a modern military force to defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu. This case study is important because sequencing theory shows that even though the war lasted only eight years, it passed through three different phases of important strategic changes that became a key factor for the Vietminh victory.

I conclude the book by outlining a set of implications for the broader strategic visions of the United States. Here I draw a set of security policy implications for the United States, using the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan as a strategic context. Although the war is more complicated than simply extrasystemic, it has a strong commonality with extrasystemic wars in that they are fought between state and insurgents and both conventional and guerrilla strategies have been used. The Afghanistan and Pakistan theater has been improving for the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) since the 2011 death of Osama bin Laden, although it remains complex and fluid. At this time the war has manifested itself in a primitive pattern, with the US/ISAF coalition using a mix of regular and irregular forces to fight the Taliban starting in late 2001 in mostly guerrilla-counterguerrilla interactions. Afghan President Hamid Karzai's regime remains corrupt, fragmented, and weak, whereas neither al-Qaeda nor the Taliban nor the Haqqani network is able to produce an effective and centralized counterweight to govern the territory. The primitive model draws a theoretical implication for an eventual victory for the coalition after a series of complicated negotiations over the status of the insurgents and Afghan governance.

I show, however, that it is a challenge to analyze this war along with other cases of extrasystemic war because it represents one of the increasing numbers of insurgencies that have little interest in governance but instead seek an absence of governance as a means of achieving their ends. By the logic of Henry Kissinger's dictum that "the enemy wins if he does not lose," the Taliban and al-Qaeda may actually have won the war in Afghanistan because they have not been defeated and because the U.S. and coalition forces are leaving, which is one of their objectives of the war. The insurgency could also win insofar as it achieves its principal goal of removing, regardless of on whose terms, U.S. and coalition forces from Afghanistan. Furthermore, these groups have little interest in replacing the central government with another such structure. Thus, they have proclaimed victory on their own terms on numerous occasions as the coalition forces prepare to depart from the country in 2014.

In the meantime, the United States remains mired in economic problems at home and faces the daunting prospect of major cuts in defense spending and a resultant reduction to its capability to project power overseas. Of course, these extrasystemic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone are unlikely to have significant systemic implications on the international system. Yet the way the United States fights wars does shape the military balance between major powers. American performance in war will help determine the nature of future force planning, structure, and military strategy outside of the theaters of war. Given the rise of China and India as great powers, continuing financial troubles in the United States and Europe, and growing military volatility in parts of East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East, we must explore the meaning of the shift of strategic resources for American national security.

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