Military Strategy and the Offense-Defense Balance in Symmetric Civil Wars
30 Pages Posted: 27 Mar 2012 Last revised: 17 Jan 2013
Date Written: January 9, 2013
Most research assumes that civil wars are asymmetric conflicts. However, Stathis Kalyvas and Laia Balcells show that combatants were ‘symmetrically’ matched in three quarters of civil war onsets from 1991-2004. Military strategy is poorly understood across these wars, especially for lower capability, ‘symmetric non-conventional’ (SNC) forms such as those in Somalia and Liberia. This paper argues that the constellation of organizational and material deficiencies that characterizes low-capability warfare creates a strong defensive imbalance that incentivizes the use of positional defensive military strategies by government actors. Governments face incentives to adopt offensive strategies as the material and organizational capabilities of rebels and the government increase. Case studies of government strategy in Liberia from 1989-1990 and Angola from 1985-1987 support the plausibility of these ideas. Offense-defense theory also helps explain two existing empirical puzzles regarding SNC warfare: the tendency to stalemate and the spatial differentiation of military tactics in urban and rural areas.
Keywords: civil war, strategy, security studies, offense-defense balance
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