Small Wars Journal

Supporting Rebels: Three Conditions for Success

Thu, 02/28/2013 - 3:30am

Abstract: Under what conditions can aid for rebels achieve policy objectives and avoid producing instability and humanitarian catastrophe?  I argue that three guidelines should be followed if aid is to be provided to rebels: the rebel factions should be united before aid is given, there should be only one source of aid, and the targeted state should lack the capability to draw upon extensive external support.  Looking at two cases where these conditions were lacking, Cuban support for the Guatemalan rebels in the 1950s and American support for the Afghan Mujahedeen, I find reason to believe that the lack of these conditions explains the severe costs for humanitarian objectives and stability.  Comparing these cases to two cases where the conditions were met, Cuban support for rebels in El Salvador and American support for the Northern Alliance after 9/11, I find reason to believe that where the conditions are met supporting rebels can achieve strategic objectives without causing instability or humanitarian catastrophe.

Supporting Rebels: Three Conditions for Success

American policymakers’ interest in supporting rebels as a means of achieving strategic objectives or humanitarian goals has recently increased.  The concept enjoyed a heyday during the Reagan administration when the Reagan Doctrine called for support to anti-Communist rebels including the Contras in Nicaragua, the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, and UNITA and RENAMO in Africa among others.  Following the end of the Cold War, support for aiding rebels declined, replaced by increased reliance upon multilateral interventions by the United Nations or regional organizations.  However, the concept did not disappear, and during the Kosovo intervention Senators Mitch McConnell and Joseph Lieberman proposed legislation to arm the Kosovo Liberation Army.[1]  The fallout from the intervention in Iraq and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan has returned the concept to the spotlight as a potential means of pursuing American interests and humanitarian objectives with a lighter footprint, for example in Syria.

The return of aiding rebels as a potential policy option mandates that attention be turned to if, when, and how supporting rebels can further a nation’s interests without producing instability and increased human rights abuses.  The lack of attention to these questions played a part in the disastrous lead up to the war in Iraq.  The war followed a decade in which American policy hoped for a coup or revolt against Saddam Hussein without significant attention to how one might be supported and war planning that did not include briefings on alternative courses including supporting guerrilla war.[2]  Here I argue that three conditions should be met if aid is to be provided to rebels:

1.  Rebel factions are unified before aid is provided.

2.  Only one source of support exists.

3.  The targeted state lacks the capability to draw on substantial external aid.

I will support these conditions for success with a short review of the theoretical literature on rebellion and external support for rebellion as well as an examination of four cases of states aiding rebels.

The Theoretical Basis for the Three Conditions of Success

The three conditions for success draw upon the existing theoretical literature on rebellion and external support for rebellion.  The condition that rebels should be unified before aid is given has two justifications.  First, if there are competing rebel groups, they are likely to fight amongst each other as well as against the target of the rebellion.  Infighting threatens to increase the risk of instability and makes successful coordinated action more difficult.  Second, rebellions in which there are multiple factions tend to overproduce terrorism as a way for one faction to score political points vis-à-vis another faction rather than for strategic reasons, as Andrew Kydd and Barbara Walter have argued and as Mia Bloom documented among Palestinian militant groups.[3]

The second condition is based in the danger that multiple sources of support can encourage the growth of multiple factions competing for power.  Daniel Byman suggests that the civil war among Palestinian factions in Jordan may have been a result of factions receiving support from states with divergent interests and goals.[4] The existence of multiple sources of support also diminishes the capability of a provider of support to make demands regarding the conduct of the supported group.  The group will be less reliant upon its benefactor because alternative sources of support will provide continued funding if one supporter cuts its support. 

The third condition is based in the strong evidence that external support for rebel movements increases the level of violence by provoking an escalation dynamic.  Ted Gurr notes that external support for rebels has been shown to increase the level of violence in large-n studies, and explains that states facing externally supported rebellion are likely to have their own supporters who will help fund their counterinsurgency producing a growing cycle of violence.[5]  In cases with fewer limits on external support for the state facing rebellion, there is a greater risk of escalation.

Cases of Failure: Cuba in Guatemala, the United States and the Mujahedeen

Having laid out the theoretical basis for the three conditions, I will now examine two cases of support for rebels where the three conditions were not met.

The Cuban provision of aid to Guatemalan rebels in the 1960s failed to meet the three conditions.  The Guatemalan rebels lacked unity.  Two competing rebel groups existed, the MR-13 and the Guatemalan Worker’s Party (PGT).  Despite a short period of unification, the rebel groups soon split into three factions, the Edgar Ibarra Guerrilla Front (FGEI), MR-13, and the PGT, over the question of whether to participate in elections.[6]  Though Cuba was the only available external supporter, it used its support and influence to split the rebel groups furthering disunity.[7]  Finally, the Guatemalan government was able to draw upon extensive American military support to confront the specter of Cuban sponsored Communist revolution.[8]

The result was disastrous.  Cuba did not achieve its goal of a successful revolution, and from 1966 to 1968 between 2,800 and 8,000 people were killed in a brutal counterinsurgency.[9]  Timothy Wickham-Crowley wrote that it clearly stands out as the most brutal regime of terror imposed upon a peasantry”[10] in the 1950s and 1960s.  The increase in American support to counter the Cuban supported rebellion laid the basis for the clash between a strengthened counterinsurgency state and disorganized guerrillas in the 1970s and 1980s.[11]  That clash resulted in 150,000 deaths far exceeding the toll of nearby El Salvador’s civil war.[12]

The failure of the 1960s rebels can be traced in large part to their lack of unity.  In interviews Jorge Dominguez conducted, Cuban officials said Cuba’s use of its influence to split the movement harmed the prospects for revolution.[13]  Suzanne Jonas writes, that the guerrillas “were plagued by serious internal divisions which were more fatal than the lack of experience.”[14]  George Black argues a similar point in his examination of the rebellion, writing “there was never the degree of unification necessary to co-ordinate the struggle effectively,”[15] and James Dunkerley also notes the role of disunity in preventing effective resistance to the counterinsurgency.[16]  As Suzanne Jonas has pointed out, the rebels who emerged in the 1970s shared these criticisms of disunity as hindering rebel effectiveness, and in particular noted the role of splits over whether to engage in elections.[17]

American support for the Mujahedeen provides a similar case.  The Mujahedeen were not unified, consisting of at least six major groups, some with multiple leaders, backed by external supporters with diverse interests and ideologies including the Muslim Brotherhood, Pakistani and Saudi Intelligence, the CIA, Bin Laden, and Iran.[18]  The groups would often receive aid from more than one of these sources, and sometimes from sources with extremely divergent interests.[19]  The Mujahedeen also faced a superpower, the Soviet Union, determined to maintain its power.

Again, the result was disastrous.  The Russians were forced out, but left a pro-Soviet regime that continued to be viable until the collapse of the Soviet Union removed its external support.  A million Afghans died during the war against the Soviet Union.[20]  The various competing mujahedeen groups proceeded to fight a civil war that decimated Afghan society.  Between April 1992 and April 1993, 30,000 inhabitants of Kabul were killed in the fighting.[21] The resulting instability allowed the Taliban to come to power backed by Pakistan, and provided Bin Laden, one of the competing funders of rebellion against the Soviet Union, a base from which to attack the United States.


Cases of Success: Cuba in El Salvador, the United States and the Northern Alliance

Where support for rebels has met the three conditions, the results have been more promising.  Cuban support for rebellion in El Salvador was explicitly conditioned on rebel unity.[22]  Cuba was the only state actively supporting rebellion.  Other states’ contributions were routed through Cuba.  Cuba actively mediated disputes between rebel factions and played an essential role in unifying the factions.[23]  Finally, support for the Salvadoran government was limited by American restrictions to ensure human rights.[24]

Following the provision of Cuban aid in late 1980, casualties dropped.

Maximum and Minimum Losses of Civilians and Fighters

Seligson and McElhinny

Based on field studies, Elisabeth Wood classified the rebels’ use of violence as “unusually restrained.”[25]  This restraint and the decrease in casualties can be partially explained by the development of a unified front backed with Cuban arms and training capable of sustaining a stalemate with the Salvadoran government, in contrast to the Guatemalan case, as well as by American-imposed limitations on Salvadoran violence.  Cuban support played an important role in training the rebels and building a disciplined and professional army.[26]  The training Salvadoran rebels received institutionalized codes of conduct regarding the treatment of civilians.[27]  Cuba also exercised control over rebel actions intervening to force them to accept negotiations and discouraging strategies that might result in broad escalation.[28]

Cuba did not achieve its objective of successful revolution.  However, such a measure may be inadequate to assess Cuban success, as the Cuban objective changed to maintaining rebel capability in order to use El Salvador as a bargaining chip with the United States but avoiding a revolution that might result in retaliation against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.[29]  Fidel Castro signaled the change in a September 1981 speech.[30]  Cuba was successful in this more limited objective of maintaining the rebel capability.

American support for the Northern Alliance following the 9/11 attacks provides another example of support for rebels that met the three conditions.  Opposition to Taliban rule had united previously warring groups.[31]  The potential for competing supporters of rebellion and external support for the Taliban was almost non-existent in the immediate post-9/11 era.  The United States had made it clear to Pakistan that opposing US policy would result in war.[32]  No state dared openly defy the United States in its response at that moment.

The result was that a force consisting of Northern Alliance rebels on horseback with the support of 500 CIA and Special Operation Forces members and American air power swiftly defeated Taliban forces.[33]  There were a few setbacks including the escape of Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders into Pakistan.[34]  However, American support for rebels achieved the objective of removing the Taliban from power at an extraordinarily low cost in American lives and treasure.


The positing of the three conditions for success and the comparison of Cuban support in Guatemala and El Salvador and American support for the Mujahedeen and the Northern Alliance teaches three important lessons for those considering support for rebels as a policy option.  First, contrary to the pessimists and much scholarly work, support can be provided to rebels in ways that do not encourage and may even reduce instability and human rights abuses.  Neither American support for the Northern Alliance nor Cuban support for the Salvadoran rebels produced extensive human rights violations.  The commonly cited cases where support for rebels has produced instability and extensive human rights violations are cases where the three conditions were not met, for example American support for the Mujahedeen or for the Contras.

A second lesson is that support for rebels can effectively achieve strategic objectives.  Cuba succeeded in achieving its limited aims in El Salvador by supporting a unified rebel front in a context that lacked competing sources of aid and restricted the level of support for the Salvadoran government.  The United States achieved its objective in Afghanistan when it supported a unified Northern Alliance without interference from competing powers.  However the cases where supporting rebels have successfully achieved strategic objectives without encouraging instability and human rights abuses have been in contexts where the three conditions for success apply.  Many, if not most, cases in which policymakers will want to support rebels will not share these conditions.

A third lesson is that support for rebels can be successful in achieving strategic objectives without producing humanitarian catastrophes even in cases in which the support does not lead to early war termination.  The Cuban support for the Salvadoran rebels achieved Cuba’s limited objectives and corresponded with a decrease in the level of violence despite resulting in a decade of stalemate.  It follows that support for rebels may have a place in wars with limited aims or as a way of protecting vulnerable civilian populations without threatening the survival of the regime being rebelled against.

Laying out the conditions under which supporting rebels can be successful and exploring the historical cases of success and failure is an important task that will benefit policymakers assessing the usefulness of support for rebels in the wake of the intervention in Iraq and the surge in Afghanistan.  It will also aid in the evaluation of plans for conventional wars by providing better-understood proposals regarding alternative courses to war.  Finally, it will aid analysts studying states supporting terrorist movements and rebels that challenge American interests by elucidating what objectives support for rebels can achieve and under what conditions.

[1] Ivo H. Daalder and Michael E. O’Hanlon, Winning Ugly NATO’s War to Save Kosovo, Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2000.

[2] Joseph J. Collins, Choosing War: The Decision to Invade Iraq and Its Aftermath, Washington DC: National Defense University Press, April 2008, 3, 8.

[3] Andrew Kydd and Barbara Walter, “Outbidding and the Overproduction of Terrorism”, American Political Science Association Philadelphia PA, September 2006.  Mia Bloom, Dying to Kill, New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

[4] Daniel Byman, Deadly Connections States that Sponsor Terrorism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 76.

[5] Ted Robert Gurr, Why Men Rebel, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970, 270.

[6] James Dunkerley, Power in the Isthmus, London: Verso, 1988, 454.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Susanne Jonas, The Battle for Guatemala, Boulder: Westview Press, 1991, 70.

[9] Patrick Ball, Paul Kobrak, and Herbert F. Spirer, State Violence in Guatemala, 1960-1996: A Quantitative Reflection, New York: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1999, 16.

[10] Timothy P. Wickham-Crowley, “Terror and Guerrilla Warfare in Latin America,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 32, No. 2, Apr., 1990, 208.

[11] Jonas 70.

[12] Mitchell A. Seligson and Vincent McElhinny, “Low-Intensity Warfare, High Intensity Death: The Demographic Impact of the Wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua” Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Volume 21 Number 4, 1996, 220.

[13] Jorge Dominguez, To Make a World Safe for Revolution, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989, 125. 

[14] Jonas 69.

[15]   George Black, Garrison Guatemala, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984, 68. 

[16] Dunkerley 453.

[17] Jonas 68.

[18] Dan Caldwell, Vortex of Conflict U.S. Policy Toward Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011, 43.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Joseph Collins, Understanding War in Afghanistan, Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 2011, 34.

[21] Ibid 36.

[22] José Bracamonte and David Spencer, Strategy and Tactics of the Salvadoran FMLN Guerillas, Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1995, 22.  Andrea Oñate, “The Red Affair: FMLN–Cuban relations during the Salvadoran Civil War, 1981–92,” Cold War History, Volume 11 Number 2, 2011, 138.

[23] Onate 104, Miguel Castellanos, The Comandante Speaks: Memoirs of an El Salvadoran Guerrilla Leader ed Courtney E. Prisk, Boulder: Westview Press, 1991, 23.

[24]Elisabeth Wood, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 28.

[25] Elisabeth Jean Wood, “The Social Processes of Civil War: The Wartime Transformation of Social Networks” Annual Review of Political Science Volume 11, June 2008, 548.

[26] Bracamonte and Spencer 4.  Onate 142.

[27] Leigh Binford, ‘Hegemony in the Interior of the Revolution: The ERP in Northern Morazán, El Salvador,” Journal of Latin American Anthropology 4(1): 2–45, 1999, 23.

[28] Onate 146.  Castellanos 42.

[29] Castellanos 54, 83.


[31] Don Dahler, “Reporter's Notebook: Who Are the Northern Alliance?” ABC News, 10/8/01.

[32] Joseph Collins, Understanding War in Afghanistan, Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 2011, 46.

[33] Ibid 48-49.

[34] Ibid.


About the Author(s)

David Sterman is a MA Candidate at Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies.  He blogs at Twitter: @DSterms


Mark Pyruz

Thu, 02/28/2013 - 1:49pm

Missing in the above reference in the example of successfully supporting the Norther Alliance is the critical role the Islamic Republic of Iran played in uniting the NA in its acceptance of U.S. terms for that support. The Iranians put themselves forward in the hopes of improving relations with the U.S., cooperating with American efforts during the intial stages of OEF and delivering their principal ally in Afghanistan, the NA, in the fight against the Taliban. However, after success was achieved, President Bush 'rewarded' Iran as being part of an "Axis of Evil" .

Former national security officials in the Bush Administration Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett write at length about this in their new book "Going to Tehran". The book also provides an empathetic rendering of Iran's national security and geopolitical outlook that's right on the mark and pretty much unavailable anywhere else in such detail. Well worth the read.


Thu, 02/28/2013 - 12:12pm

I think this article raises some interesting point, and I especially like the point about Cuba changing to a more limited objective. But methodologically it has a couple of issues I think need addressing.

The major problem I note is the slightly subjective definitions I'm inferring of success and failure. I know very little of the Latin American conflicts you refer to but I do not think you can as yet call support in 1980s a failure and support in 2000s a success. Ultimately, if the aim of the support in the 1980s to the mujahedeen was to assist in pushing out Soviet forces then this can easily be described as a success, rather than a failure because of the humanitarian disaster that followed. Then in in 2000s, just toppling the regime seems to be enough to categorise that as a success. It can easily be envisioned that the government will divide into factions who fight each other once we depart, leading to a further humanitarian crisis, much like the 1990s. Until the government is able to sustain itself without international support I do not think you can describe our intervention as a strategic success using the same criteria you use to categorise support to the mujahedeen as a failure.

This is a very interesting article, and something that I think needs looking at in much more depth. My thesis is on how rebels wage political warfare and defeat the government by paralysing state capacity. This of course can naturally lead, unless carefully managed, to the humanitarian crises you describe, something which intervening states (I assume) will be keen to avoid. This is why I found your Cuba comment so interesting. But I do think there needs to be at least a discussion of, and probably a tightening up of, your definition of failure and success so that the conclusions can then be tested on other conflicts. I also think you need to do this with your variables. For example, I think most of us who have observed Afghanistan over the last twelve years would question the idea that the factions that went on to form the government were united.

Martin Doyle

Thu, 02/28/2013 - 6:34am

Missing from the author's presentation is allowance for the gap between short-term involvement with rebel communities and long-term commitment. One can readily envision the dynamics of any given situation shifting focus of the rebel group, its target, and the goals of the sponsor. While this article adds value on multiple planes, the theoretical approach to the lit review might yield greater impact by incorporating input from those having direct interaction with the rebels. It will be interesting to watch this obviously industrious author gain greater leverage on this topic with greater distribution of this article. Well done!