Governance, Identity, and Counterinsurgency Strategy

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The premise of most Western thinking on counterinsurgency is that success depends on establishing a perception of legitimacy among local populations. The path to legitimacy is often seen as the improvement of governance in the form of effective and efficient administration of government and public services. However, good governance is not the only possible basis for claims to legitimacy. Prompted by recent experience in Iraq, the research presented here formally considers whether in insurgencies where ethno-religious identities are politically salient, claims to legitimacy may rest more on the identity of who governs, rather than on how whoever governs governs. Specifically, this dissertation poses and tests the hypothesis that in the presence of major ethno-religious cleavages, good governance will contribute much less to counterinsurgent success than will efforts toward reaching political agreements that directly address those cleavages.

The dissertation reviews and synthesizes the record of scholarship and policy regarding insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, the politics of ethnic identity, governance, and legitimacy. Building on this synthesis, it presents an analytic framework designed to formalize the terms of the main hypothesis sufficiently to enable empirical tests.

It then applies that framework to brief analyses of counterinsurgent experiences in Malaya, Algeria, South Vietnam, and then of two detailed local cases studies of American counterinsurgency operations in Iraq: Ramadi from 2004-2005; and Tal Afar from 2005-2006. These Iraq case studies are based on primary research, including 37 interviews with participants and eyewitnesses.

The cases examined yield ample evidence that ethno-religious identity politics do shape counterinsurgency outcomes in important ways, and also offer qualified support for the hypothesis about the relative importance to counterinsurgent success of identity politics versus good governance. However, the cases do not discredit the utility to counterinsurgents of providing good governance, and they corroborate the traditional view that population security is the most important element of successful counterinsurgency strategy. Key policy implications include the importance of making strategy development as sensitive as possible to the dynamics of identity politics, and to local variations and complexity in causal relationships among popular loyalties, grievances, and political violence.