National Archives II
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The United States and other members of the international community have expended significant resources and thousands of lives confronting insurgent organizations across the globe. Strikingly, however, there has been little systematic analysis of how some groups have developed the military capacity to challenge superior forces. This puzzle has played out in Afghanistan where the Taliban’s success has confounded analysts, in Syria and Mali, where insurgents pose significant challenges to stability, and most recently in Iraq, where the Islamic State (IS) operated with military prowess.
Existing research has been unable to explain this variation for two reasons: (1) it has not conceptualized military effectiveness in a sub-state context, and (2) it is focused on structural determinants of insurgent behavior. In response, the manuscript crafts a novel conception of insurgent military effectiveness that isolates five meaningful categories of insurgent behavior. I then argue that variation in insurgent capabilities is driven by their organizational composition and ability to adapt rather than by structural conditions such as access to external support or strong social networks—it is what insurgents do with what they have that matters, not just what they have.
After using a large-N analysis to demonstrate that structural factors are poor predictors of organizational structure, I test the theory with 25 in-depth case studies of groups from Vietnam (1940-1975) and Iraq (2003-2016) using archival documents, interviews with ex-combatants, and secondary sources. During nearly five months at the National Archives II in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (pictured to the left), I reviewed thousands of documents including internal memoranda from rebel organizations along with French interrogations and intelligence reporting. I similarly reviewed a significant number of documents in the The Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University for the Second Indochina War. For the Iraq conflict, I draw on hundreds of captured insurgent documents collected by the Harmony Project at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center
My research untangles puzzles such as how, in Vietnam, the Viet Minh and the People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF, also known as the Viet Cong) became so successful while other nationalist and religious groups did not or, in Iraq, how IS, and its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, consistently conducted complex fire and maneuver operations. My findings also help to clarify existing research—such as the study of fragmentation during civil war—while providing precise suggestions about managing sub-state violence by helping to better identify and train partners, to craft and maintain peace agreements, and to address poor governance that perpetuates conflict.