Thursday, December 6, 2018

Max Abrahms, "Rules for Rebels"

Political science professor Max Abrahms devoted more than a decade to comparative research on rebel groups around the world, trying to figure out why some succeeded and some failed. In his new book, Rules for Rebels, he summarizes his findings in three golden rules:

  1. Don't kill innocent civilians.
  2. Create a highly centralized command structure under a clever leader.
  3. Maintain your brand through total denial when things go wrong.

The review I just read of this in the September 21 TLS focuses on the contrast between the Islamic State and Hezbollah. The Islamic State broke all these rules with abandon, and as a result, says Abrahms, united the world against it and was crushed. Its wanton killing only eroded its legitimacy, and its habit of welcoming any man willing to fight for the cause meant that its ranks were filled with uncontrollable thrill-seekers and psychopaths.

Hezbollah, on the other hand, has a tight command structure and a very strict program for new recruits, who must sit through a year of indoctrinary education. When it does kill innocents it either denies having anything to do with the murders or apologizes, as when Hassan Nasrallah went on al Jazeerah to apologize to the family of two Israeli-Arab children killed by a Hezbollah rocket in Nazareth. Note that the key point is not that rebels should never kill civilians, which is inevitable in war; it's that they are not seen to be seeking it or reveling in it. Many rebels, notably the IRA and the Jewish terrorists of the 1940s, have issued warnings demanding that all civilians be evacuated from target areas; if people stayed behind, well, then that was on them, wasn't it?

It's an interest argument, but it will take a lot to convince me. My impression is that while wanton violence often fails it sometimes succeeds. Abrahms' argument seems to be mainly statistical, i.e., he says rebel groups that intentionally kill civilians are 77 percent less likely to succeed. And maybe that's right, although I'm sure in practice figuring out which rebel groups "intentionally kill civilians" is rather complicated, and sometimes figuring out whether they succeeded is also hard. Hezbollah, for example, has succeeded in becoming a powerful group in Lebanon, but they have utterly failed to liberate Palestine.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I was thinking the same thing about Hezbollah. It sounds like by "success" Abrams means becoming a permanent player that other players can't ignore--which in many cases probably means attaining a quasi-permanent stalemate rather actual victory over one's opponent.

It's interesting that Abrams doesn't include either building a dedicated (and probably rural) base of support or getting powerful, committed foreign backing. That's the formula that worked for the Viet Minh and then the Viet Cong, as well as the Mujahideen and then the 1990s Taliban in Afghanistan. The foreign material support is probably the less important of these two--witness Castro in Cuba, the anto-Samoza movement in Nicaragua, the Khmer Rouge, and Eritrea (all of which, of course, had their foreign backers, but not the way the USSR and PRC backed the Vietnamese Communists, or the ISI did the Taliban).

Perhaps the most important criterion is to choose your opponent wisely. I'd rather try to overthrow Lon Nol than take on Israel. If your goal is to replace an unpopular government, kick out a past-its-prime colonial power, or peel off an ethnically-distinct province, you can win. But I doubt that by itself a rebel group could ever destroy a well-rooted nation-state.