When do rebels turn against each other?

Last week, we heard about the somewhat mysterious death of a Libyan rebel commander, leading to some speculation about rebels turning against each other as they inch ever closer to (possibly) capturing Tripoli. This reminded me of a toy model I wrote down several months ago (linked here) that, frankly, I didn’t know what to do with. Ergo, I’m putting it here to see what folks think.

Here’s the basic story from the abstract:

Why do some rebel groups divert resources from fighting the government in order to fight other rebel groups before the government is defeated? I analyze resource allocation decisions in which two rebel groups divide finite resources between fighting their common enemy, the government, and fighting one another to influence the distribution of power for the power-sharing contest that follows military victory. In equilibrium, the inability of rebel groups to commit not to exploit the loser in a power-sharing contest can lead them to divert resources away from fighting the government and towards undermining each other when the government is sufficiently weak. In other words, as the prospects for defeating the government improve, rebels become more likely to work against one another, further delaying their ultimate victory.

So when (1) there’s no guarantee that rebels can trust each other to share power once the government’s toppled and (2) the chances of defeating the government start looking pretty good, rebel groups will divert some resources away from the main war effort and husband them for using against one another once victory’s achieved. That, of course, gives us an explanation for why fortunes can be both difficult to judge and pretty volatile in civil wars. Or, from the (very bare-bones) write-up of the model:

Perversely, the better the rebels expect to do against the government, the fewer resources they devote to the war in order to husband their strength for the power-sharing contest that follows victory. Neither side wishes to let the other gain a sufficient advantage, and thus they reduce their chances of victory, perhaps even prolonging the war, because of the commitment problem created by postwar control over the state apparatus.

Now, of course, the question is what to do with this thing. There’s some other work out there linking the number of groups to the duration of war, but (if I remember correctly) for different reasons, but I am, as always, open to suggestions.

2 thoughts on “When do rebels turn against each other?

  1. This is something that I have been interested in for a while now. Also, I think Leslie is working on a paper about this, and Nigel Lo is writing his dissertation on a similar topic: “Breaking Up: The Causes and Consequences of Rebel Group Splintering.”

    Nevertheless, a real world example of this can been seen in the post-Soviet Afghanistan civil war (1988-9 to 1995-6). After the Soviet withdraw in 1989, the communist government of Najibullah was weakened to a point that all they really controlled as Kabul, but the regime was able to hold on to power for three years because of fighting between the competing rebel groups. Although they competed with each other for foreign assistance and saw each other as rivals, Massaud (Northern Afghnistan,Tajik), Hekmatyar* (Eastern Afghanistan, Pashtun), and others fought together (kind of) against the Soviets. The rivalries of power, culture, religion, and esteem, while present in the Soviet War, did not fully manifest until after the Soviet withdraw when the chances of victory became greater and the access to resources became limited. After the Soviet withdraw, the civil war became bloodier as competing rebels sought to gain power. In this turmoil came the Taliban. Omar** (Southern Afghnistan, Pashtun) was able to unite the Pashtun people because his group offered the stability and the piety the Pashtun people sought.

    Further, during my last trip to Afghanistan, my team and the intel guys developed a operation in which we would spread rumors about one rebel group to their rivals and vice-versa. Through the use of informants, face to face meetings with elders in associated villages, and when in the markets, we would tell “stories” about group A to group B in order to incite violence between them. The idea was that if they are fighting each other they are not fighting us….

    *The story of Hekmatyar is full of alliance and betrayal and needs more time to tell then I have right now, but it seems to fit your model.

    **Omar was very cleaver. In a way very similar to Milosevic use of the narrative of The Battle of Blackbirds field and his parading the remains of King Lazar throughout the country to build a national identity of superiority, Omar went to a Mosque in Kandahar that claimed to keep a shroud once worn by Mohammad. In front of a large crowd, he climbed to the top of the mosque gave a speech about the need to end corruption and secularism and institute Sharia Law to bring law and order back to Afghanistan and the Pashtuns (the majority of Afghans) back to power. He then put on the shroud and the people accepted him as their ruler. The Taliban was formed.

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