Academic journal article International Journal of Psychological Studies

Insurgency Decision-Making under Conditions of Risk

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychological Studies

Insurgency Decision-Making under Conditions of Risk

Article excerpt

Abstract

Utilizing prospect theory, the paper contends that two insurgencies, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Chechen resistance, decided to mount a stand at Kilinochchi in Sri Lanka, and Grozny in Chechnya, because they preferred to accept the risk of losing the battles, incurring greater casualties (rather than choosing to abandon the two sites respectively) and potentially losing the war, on the chance they could win the respective battles and turn the tide of the civil war generally. In terms of prospect theory, the two insurgencies underweighted the high probability of losing the respective battles, and demonstrated the prevalence of risk aversion in choices between probable gains and sure things, and the prevalence of risk seeking in choices between probable and sure losses.

Keywords: insurgency, loss-aversion, risk-seeking, endowment, casualties

1. Introduction

In 2009 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) became embroiled in merciless combat with the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) at a site labeled Kilinochchi, located in the northern portion of the island. The LTTE had been seriously damaged in earlier combat, but chose to stand and fight at Kilinochchi (U.N. Secretary-General, 2011, p. 23; ICG, 2008, p. 5; Hariharan, 2008). In 1999 the Chechen resistance in Chechnya, Russia, became engaged in brutal combat with the Russian army at Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. The Chechen resistance had been significantly depleted by earlier combat with the Russian forces, but chose to stand and fight at Grozny (Oliker, 2001, pp. 41-42; Gordon, 1999, p. 10; New York Times, 1999).

1.1 Loss Aversion in Civil War

These respective decisions by the two insurgencies may be best explained by applying prospect theory to these separate but analogous events (Khaneman & Tversky, 1979; Tversky & Kahneman, 1992). My contention is that both insurgencies decided to make a stand at the two sites because they preferred to accept the risk of losing the battles, incurring greater casualties (rather than choosing to abandon the two sites) and potentially losing the war, on the chance they could win the battle and turn the tide of the civil war generally. But this latter potential outcome (winning the battle and thus turning the tide of the war) was significantly less likely than an outcome which would have entailed had the insurgencies chosen to retreat, which would have meant losing territory for certain, but would have incurred significantly fewer casualties, and would have held open the option (or increased the likelihood) of surviving to fight another day. In terms of prospect theory the two insurgencies "underweighted" the high probability of losing the respective battles, and demonstrated "the prevalence of risk aversion in choices between probable gains and sure things, and ... the prevalence of risk seeking in choices between probable and sure losses" (Tversky & Khaneman, 1992, p. 316).

1.2 Risk Acceptance

The two insurgencies chose to "stand their ground" even though the odds of success (winning the battles and ultimately the civil wars) were small, and the costs of losing the battles could mean increasing the likelihood of losing the wars. But the potential gains from winning the two battles were large; potentially turning the tides of both wars. The two insurgent organizations could have chosen to retreat, gaining time to regroup, and thus possibly winning the war over a longer term. But retreating would mean giving up ground to the adversary, a certain but smaller loss (especially in terms of casualties), even if that ground could conceivably be regained at a later time. The two respective decisions, by the Chechen resistance and the LTTE, to mount metropolitan defenses would have been anticipated by prospect theory (Kahneman &Tversky, 1983, p. 348). Prospect theory argues that "actors should be much more willing to run risks when they believe that failing to do so will result in certain losses" (emphasis added) (Jervis, 1992, p. …

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