Small Wars Journal

How Do Insurgencies End?

Sat, 10/11/2014 - 12:10am

How Do Insurgencies End?

Assessing the Existing International Security Literature

Russell Croy


Many nations struggle with protracted wars and insurgencies, yet some of them end relatively quickly while others continue for decades – how does the literature explain the variation? The ability to understand how and why insurgencies end can provide better insight for counterinsurgent stakeholders and for more accurate applied foreign policy prescriptions. This paper seeks to explore the issue by examining current theories in relation to two distinct examples: The Second Chechen War and the Darul Islam movement in West Java, Indonesia post-WWII. This paper finds that while scholars have contributed heavily to today’s understanding of insurgencies and influenced experts in the field of international security, they do not provide a strong, generalizable theory on how insurgencies actually end. Moreover, this paper argues for the importance of reframing the discussion from how insurgencies are “defeated”, to how they “end” to avoid approaching the topic from a traditional, military-centric perspective that may perhaps overlook other political, economic, and social components that could also be responsible for insurgencies ending.


In 1994, Russia launched a massive military campaign against secessionist rebels in its southern Republic of Chechnya. Several decades prior, in 1947, Indonesia launched its own military campaign against secessionist rebels in its province of West Java. After nearly 15 years of fighting, the radical movement in Indonesia was all but defunct. Meanwhile, in Chechnya, the fighting continues over 20 years later.  How could it be that Russia, with its relatively superior military and technological capabilities, could spend so many years unsuccessfully clashing with separatist rebels in Chechnya and across the Caucasus region while Indonesia was so successful in its own efforts to quell the Darul Islam secessionist uprisings in West Java during the years following World War II? Given the military and economic might of both Russia and Indonesia compared to the relatively weak technical military capabilities of their rebel opponents, conventional wisdom would assume a swift and decisive end to both of these uprisings – so why the variation?

Currently, the literature of international security provides little in the way of functional answers to these questions. It has much to say about insurgencies, counterinsurgency campaigns, and civil conflict in general, but the examples of Chechnya and Darul Islam, for instance, beg the question as to why these conflicts are so unpredictable. Despite the fact that the security literature says quite a bit about the nature of these conflicts and their general characteristics, it appears to lack any sort of generalizable theory on how insurgencies actually end. The literature’s failure to answer this question might explain why insurgencies are so difficult to predict and have such varied outcomes. Moreover, without any clear theories on how insurgencies end, there is little to be done to address the challenges that counterinsurgent forces face when trying to combat them. The goals of this paper include the following: (1) exploring and synthesizing the existing theories on how insurgencies end within the international security literature, (2) reviewing the assumptions of those theories in relation to two distinct examples, and (3) providing for a way to advance the literature in future research.

Review of the Theories

There are presently two main camps of literature on how insurgencies end: the first, logistical explanations, suggest that the insurgency’s ability to organize, garner local support, and the extended duration of the conflict all affect outcomes. Second, military-centric explanations explore intervention by local or expeditionary forces that seek to disrupt the insurgency by way of military repression. More specifically, these two camps can be broken down into five variables that have all been indicated to influence the ending of an insurgency:

  1. Political Problems: Loss of Popular Support (Both Internal & External)
  2. Lack of Organization and/or Structural Deficiencies
  3. Duration of the Conflict (<10 years)
  4. Death or Capture of Influential Insurgent Leader
  5. Formal state military intervention (both domestic and expeditionary)

Short of an insurgency ending because they have achieved their cause, when some combination of these five variables is present within an insurgency (particularly the loss of local support), the literature presumes that an insurgency is more likely to have ended. In other words, when an insurgency makes mistakes in organizing themselves or lose their local support network and face military repression and/or the loss of an instrumental leader, these vulnerabilities are capitalized on by opposing state forces that play to the insurgent’s weaknesses, bringing about their eventual demise (Krause, 2009).


Chechnya: Following the first Chechen War (1994-1996), the Republic of Chechnya was suffering from a lack of legitimate governance and the region was still largely devastated from previous fighting. While still debated, Moscow’s primary claim for a second invasion was based on a previous incursion by separatist rebels in Dagestan and bombings within Moscow. Russian military operations to counter separatist rebels were centered on three main strategies of (a) direct military action and counterterrorism, (b) disrupting Chechnya’s external support (namely cash flows), and (c) gaining support of the local population (Schaeffer 2011, 202-206). Several high value targets of the Chechen resistance were targeted for assassination (including the eventual death of resistance leader Shamil Basayev in July 2006 [Schaeffer 2011, 218]) and official counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations lasted until mid-2009. However, despite the massive campaign launched by the Russian military, insurgent and terrorist attacks “have increased by at least 20 percent in 2010, and the violence has continued to spread westward” (Schaeffer 2011, 276).

With well over a thousand insurgent attacks in the North Caucasus region between 2008 and 2009 (Schaefer, 2011) and violent uprisings still occurring in regions surrounding Chechnya (i.e. Dagestan and Ingushetia) insurgent tactics have proven to be extremely effective as Russia continues to witness the unsophisticated, but effective use of ambush attacks and improvised explosive devices against military and civilian targets around the region with no distinct solution on the horizon.

Darul Islam: The Darul Islam movement originated in post-war Indonesia in 1947 over disputes related to whether or not the new government was to be a secular republic or centered on an Islamic state (Kilcullen, 2010). Disagreements over whether secular or Sharia law would dominate the new political structure allowed the influential Islamic leader Sekarmaji Marijan Kartusuwiryo to lead the efforts to form an Islamic Indonesian state in the region of West Java. The Darul Islam movement coalesced around Kartusuwiryo and fought against Dutch and Republican forces that aimed to instill a secular government.

Republican forces eventually assassinated Kartusuwiryo but also employed strong military repressive action and launched a PR campaign against the Darul Islam separatists by leveraging the movement’s lack of broad appeal to the population (Kilcullen, 2010). Key to the insurgent’s demise was the fact that the local Republican forces painted the movement as a poorly organized group centered on separatism rather than a distinctive Islamic ideology. In other words, the separatists were framed to the public as bandits that were more concerned about politics than religious ideology. Kartusuwiryo was eventually captured while the public’s support for Darul Islam simultaneously began to dwindle. Paired with strong, direct military action and counterterror measures, the Darul Islam movement was eventually defeated in 1962 and was the basis from which future counterinsurgency operations would be carried out in East Timor from 1974-1999 (whose results were incredibly ineffectual despite the use of similar tactics after scholars propped up the case in West Java as an exemplar from which to follow). Factors in East Timor that impeded the counterinsurgency effort included geography, road and rail infrastructure, population density, as well as religious and cultural differences between the local population and the Indonesian army forces. These contingencies served as unforeseen hurdles that ultimately disrupted outcomes expected by the literature. 


Both examples presented are domestic (as opposed to expeditionary), separatist insurgencies that share similar characteristics in their overall objectives and tactics. The information provided by the literature on how insurgencies end would have assumed that in both of these instances, the insurgencies should have ended – or at least were much more likely to end. Both of the examples saw (1) the demise of local popular support in the region for the movement (as evidenced in Chechnya by Moscow’s “Chechenization” strategy to supplant pro-Russian, Chechen religious figures in office [Schaefer 2011, 4]), (2) the loss of influential resistance leaders, (3) the duration of the conflict surpassed ten years, and lastly, (4) formal state military intervention and repression by both the Russian and Indonesian governments, respectively (see Figure 1 below). One would assume that both cases would, at the very least share similar outcomes. However, for these two particular examples, the theories fell short in reliably assuming the outcomes of the insurgencies.

Figure 1: Recurring Independent Variables; Different Outcomes

The Limitations

The two examples show that the variables presented by the literature appear to say very little about how these insurgencies actually ended - suggesting that perhaps the literature’s assumptions only appear to apply in a haphazard manner at best. While there are several theories presented in the security literature, very few of the findings seem to apply beyond individual cases and many do not entirely address how necessary environments formulate for insurgencies to end, nor do they elaborate on how to influence events on the battlefield outside of formal, state military intervention. Moreover, the field’s concepts and ideas seem to have a piecemeal approach that essentially claim: “this is what happened during insurgency x…it may or may not apply to insurgency z” with minimal discussion on the inherent uniqueness and complex, multifaceted nature of individual insurgencies.

Three key issues appear to limit the existing knowledge on how insurgencies end. First, (1) most of the security literature about how insurgencies end offers over-simplified analyses of complex social events, or relies too heavily on case-by-case descriptions. For instance, many of the case studies used in the literature often examine insurgencies as a singular event rather than examining how context and environments shifted over time, where change over time created the necessary environments for such insurgencies to actually end. Secondly, (2) while there are some general trends among the literature’s findings, they are often vague and describe what happened without explaining how it happened.  Lastly, (3) many studies use the same outdated exemplars, often from “colonial-era campaigns involving expeditionary [rather than domestic] forces from Western countries” (Kilcullen 2010, 78). Prior research in this area tends to have a basis in military-centric action without consideration as to whether or not there were other, non-military variables responsible for the cessation of insurgencies such as those rooted in political, social, or economic action.

Implications & the Way Forward

While it is clear that security scholars have contributed heavily to today’s understanding of insurgencies and influenced experts in the field of international security, they appear to offer no generalizable theories on how insurgencies end. This is troubling not only from an academic perspective but, even more importantly, from a practical foreign policy point-of-view as many foreign policy prescriptions appear to be rooted in the teachings and findings of these theories. Moreover, these implications call in to question real-world foreign policies that are crafted in relation to insurgent activity when there is no concrete, conclusive data on how insurgencies end other than some recurring variables.

We need to stop asking how insurgencies and terrorist groups are “defeated” and instead focus on how they end. The term defeating implies a conventional, militaristic approach from the outset that may obstruct political, economic, and social strategies from being seriously analyzed and considered as a viable foreign policy strategy. Our foreign security goals shouldn’t start from the position of military action, but rather, from the end goal of achieving a desirable and peaceful outcome. The first step in achieving this might simply begin with rephrasing political discourse and reshaping the very questions we ask about how to achieve our foreign policy objectives.


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About the Author(s)

Russell Croy recently graduated with a M.A. in Political Science from Colorado State University (with an emphasis in international relations, public policy, and international security). He also served as a Corporal in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and deployed to the Al Anbar region of Iraq in early 2008.


Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 7:20am

Good paper.

I thought of the so-called Afghan surge when reading this piece by Sumit Ganguly:
<blockquote>As of mid-1996, the insurgency appears to have reached a stalemate. Despite substantial Pakistani assistance and the involvement of several thousand Afghan mujahideen, the insurgents cannot prevail on the battlefield. Nor have the Indian security forces been able to crush the insurgents militarily. <strong>The present government strategy appears to be three-pronged: to apply substantial military pressure on the insurgents, to sow discord in their ranks with offers of negotiation, and to revive the political process in the state. This strategy has evolved from the government's experience of defeating insurgent movements in the neighboring state of Punjab and in India's northeastern states.</strong>(3)</blockquote>

So maybe someone within the American system did study Punjab, they just took away a very different lesson than I got out of it, because of forgetting to factor in that NATO is a third party expeditionary force, and that the our third party counterinsurgents were trying to modernize the nation that is the sanctuary at the same time we attempted counterinsurgency on both sides of the fence. Ambitious and unprecedented, indeed.

I wish Max Boot or Frederick Kagan, or some (I said some, not all) of the other counterinsurgency or surge experts, showed even the tiniest bit of interest in these topics. Doesn't bode well for the study of unconventional warfare from the usual sources. Lack of self-awareness is the best way for others to "get" at our system....

Interesting read, thanks.

Cory Newton

Sat, 10/11/2014 - 1:10am

I think what the scholars leave out is the enemy's will to fight.

The quantity of force necessary to destroy the enemy is known. The quantity of force necessary to destroy the enemy's will to fight is often an unknown variable. There is a fine line between the quantity of force that will destroy the enemy's will to fight and the quantity of force that will galvanize their will to fight.

It depends on the enemy.

If they expect more benefits than costs associated with a political or diplomatic settlement the insurgency will end sooner. If the enemy expects more costs than benefits associated with political and diplomatic settlements the fighting will continue. It is rational to continue fighting if the benefits of fighting exceed the costs of not fighting.