The False Promise of the Governance Model of Counterinsurgency Warfare

Posted: 17 Jul 2012 Last revised: 18 Jan 2016

Date Written: 2012


What explains success in counterinsurgency (COIN)? The conventional wisdom says that COIN success requires major reforms that will remove the popular grievances fueling the insurgency. The logic is that state building and good governance will win broad popular support, marginalizing the insurgent cause and weakening the guerrillas. But this view of COIN success, what I term the “governance model,” relies on a misreading of history. This study tests the governance approach in the very cases proponents themselves present as models -- the British campaign in Malaya, the U.S.-backed defeat of the Huks in the Philippines, the British-led success in Dhofar, Oman, and the U.S.-backed success in El Salvador -- a test it should pass easily. But the model fails. I find no empirical evidence that the governance approach defeats insurgencies. Indeed, the governance approach was not even applied in these cases. It is very difficult to apply -- even imperfectly -- for a powerful reason: Major reforms threaten the interests of the elites expected to implement them. In addition, the elites' great power sponsor lacks the leverage to force the issue. This study shows that the governance model is theoretically and empirically mistaken in its assumptions; its emphasis on major reforms; and its mechanism of building popular support for the state as the key to defeating the insurgency. The cases typically identified as exemplars of governance COIN contradict the governance approach in all respects. Each case included significant intentional uses of force against civilians and relatively little state development or democratization. This research suggests that policymakers and military planners relying on the governance approach base their decisions on a myth, and that employing this approach in current or future conflicts will not lead to success.

Keywords: Counterinsurgency, military intervention, asymmetric conflict, internal conflict, civil wars

Suggested Citation

Hazelton, Jacqueline L., The False Promise of the Governance Model of Counterinsurgency Warfare (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Jacqueline L. Hazelton (Contact Author)

U.S. Naval War College ( email )

686 Cushing Road
Newport, RI 02841
United States

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