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

Adapting to Win: How Insurgents Fight and Defeat Foreign States in War by Noriyuki Katagiri. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, 312 pp.

Noriyuki Katagiri’s Adapting to Win presents a model for how post–World War II insurgent groups have applied lessons from previous wars to increasingly defeat powerful states. This thesis is presented through the model of sequencing theory, which posits that insurgencies that appropriately evolve through three phases—guerilla warfare, conventional warfare, and state building—can dramatically increase their likelihood of victory. The discussion looks at 148 wars since 1816 and chooses six as case studies to examine why some insurgencies succeed while most fail.

Most of Adapting to Win focuses on applying six potential sequencing models to corresponding violent insurgencies. The first two models, “conventional”and “primitive,” demonstrate how insurgents fighting a stronger state typically lose due to overwhelming power disparities and an inability to transition the conflict through a period of state building, making it difficult for the insurgency to build “institutions, authority, and legitimacy” (p. 87). The low probability of success for insurgents waging a conventional or primitive war (19 percent and 16 percent, respectively [p. 61]) informs states that their chance for success dramatically increases if they can apply conventional or counterinsurgency tactics appropriately to prevent an insurgency from winning the battle for “hearts and minds” and developing the trappings of a state.

The next two sequencing models—the degenerative and premature—each have a 0 percent success rate and present the models least likely to lead to victory for insurgents. Unlike the first two models examined, these models see a transition from either a conventional conflict to an insurgency (degenerative) or an insurgency to conventional war (premature). However, like the conventional and primitive models, the degenerative and premature models both see the insurgents failing at state building and unable to confront overwhelming force of a state.

Katagiri then presents his main argument that since the end of World War II, insurgents have recognized the futility of confronting state power directly without the legitimacy of a state and have been able to increase their probability for success through sequencing. The last two models presented—the “Maoist” and “progressive”—see insurgencies progressing through a phase of state building before a final conventional stage to achieve success rates of 80 percent and 100 percent, respectively (p. 61). While extremely challenging, Katagiri proposes that insurgent groups that can successively navigate state building and transition to a conventional conflict will likely defeat their opponents (p. 61).

Adapting to Win is exceptionally well-researched and presents a compelling account for how states can minimize the risk of defeat against insurgencies by preventing a conflict from transitioning to a state-building phase. In particular, the degenerative chapter examining the transition of the Iraq War from a conventional conflict in 2003 to the insurgency that lasted until 2011 provides an extensive review of literature on the conflict and provides a detailed account of US policy failures and successes leading to the “defeat” of the insurgency by 2011. The primitive chapter focusing on the Malayan Emergency of 1948 to 1960 and the progressive chapter on France’s Indochina War of 1946 to 1954 also provide fresh perspectives on conflicts familiar to readers who have read works on counterinsurgency by authors such as John Nagl and David Kilcullen.

While convincing, Adapting to Win is not without several flaws. One notable flaw is the absence of the United States in Vietnam on Katagiri’s list of the 148 extrasystemic conflicts examined between 1816 and 2011. This is even more notable as the precursor Indochina War of 1946–1954 involving France and Vietnam is one of the centerpieces of the narrative and because the US war would likely have been considered a victory for the insurgents (North Vietnam), thus bolstering the success rate of post–World War II insurgencies.

Another flaw is the examination of the 2003–2011 Iraq War’s characterization as degenerative. While Katagiri discusses how the roots of the insurgency were linked to the disbanding of the Iraqi army (p. 102), he downplays the fact that the most influential and enduring enemy in Iraq, the Islamic al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), was drastically different from the secular Iraq of Saddam Hussein. Although the Sunni insurgency followed the conventional phase of the Iraq War, the foreign leadership of AQI and differing goals could classify Iraq as independent conventional and primitive conflicts. Unfortunately, the analysis of the Iraq War ends with the departure of US forces and what is considered by Katagiri to be a “victory,” albeit not clear-cut, for the United States in 2011 due to success of the surge, a sharp decrease in violence, and failure of the insurgency to establish a state (p. 111–12). Considering the collapse of the US-backed Nouri al-Maliki regime and Iraqi security forces in 2014, this analysis should be considered incomplete.

Lastly, the small sample size and recent (post WWII) occurrences of the premature, Maoist, and progressive model conflicts potentially challenge and otherwise detract from a convincing thesis. It is hard to imagine that the plethora of futile, colonial-era conventional conflicts have much bearing on the twenty-first century insurgent. Furthermore, the insurgencies waging primitive conflicts since WWII have won at an increasing rate, winning in four out of eight conflicts compared to one in 24 in the preceding 129 years. The increasing success rate of insurgencies goes unexamined, which is disappointing considering few policy makers would likely invest resources in a conflict with a coin toss chance of winning. Indeed, the success of irregular Somali insurgents in 1993 against the United States could have warranted an examination of how the primitive model continues to pose great risk to Western policy makers.

The flaws of Adapting to Win, including several formatting errors and a misplaced reference to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (p. 170), are unfortunate as Katagiri does an excellent job showing how sequencing theory has made insurgencies more likely to succeed while offering many valuable lessons for readers and policy makers. While the analysis of the Iraq War is flawed and the absence of the US&rsqup;s Vietnam war glaring, this book will be thoroughly enjoyed by students familiar with the steady stream of literature related to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and readers who seek to understand how the Taliban and the Islamic state could potentially defeat the United States.

Nicholas A. Reinhold, Captain, USAF


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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