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

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

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

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


When insurgent groups challenge powerful states, defeat is not always inevitable. Increasingly, guerrilla forces have overcome enormous disadvantages and succeeded in extending the period of violent conflict, raising the costs of war, and occasionally winning. Noriyuki Katagiri investigates the circumstances and tactics that allow some insurgencies to succeed in wars against foreign governments while others fail.

Adapting to Win examines almost 150 instances of violent insurgencies pitted against state powers, including in-depth case studies of the war in Afghanistan and the 2003 Iraq war. By applying sequencing theory, Katagiri provides insights into guerrilla operations ranging from Somalia to Benin and Indochina, demonstrating how some insurgents learn and change in response to shifting circumstances. Ultimately, his research shows that successful insurgent groups have evolved into mature armed forces, and then demonstrates what evolutionary paths are likely to be successful or unsuccessful for those organizations. Adapting to Win will interest scholars of international relations, security studies, and third world politics and contains implications for government officials, military officers, and strategic thinkers around the globe as they grapple with how to cope with tenacious and violent insurgent organizations.


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 . . .

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