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Economic Shocks and Rebel Tactics: Evidence from Colombia

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Abstract:

Why do rebels vary their tactics? Some insurgents employ terrorism and hit-and run attacks; others wage conventional wars against state rivals. Although recent research investigates how and why the technologies of rebellion differ across insurgencies (Kalyvas and Balcells, 2010), we still know little about the conditions under which rebels vary tactics within conflicts, from irregular violence to conventional tactics and vice versa.

I argue that internal and external constraints shape the incentives and opportunities for armed rebel groups to shift their tactics from irregular, hit-and-run attacks to conventional, frontal assaults. Three constraints bind rebels’ tactical choices: economic opportunities of non-combatants, state strength, and rebel capacity. Because the severity of these constraints may be shaped by conflict dynamics, I study plausibly random shocks to the economic foundation of each constraint. The observable implications of my argument are straightforward. When governments benefit from local windfalls and economic conditions improve for civilians, insurgents favor irregular tactics. When rebels are strengthened by revenue booms, they favor conventional tactics.

To test if these constraints shape the character of insurgency, I study microdata on rebel violence in Colombia and exploit plausibly random shocks to local income from coffee, oil, and coca production. I focus on three main results. First, negative shocks to local coffee income lead rebels to shift their tactics substantially. Second, positive shocks to government revenue from oil cause insurgents shift to irregular, hit-and-run attacks on state forces. Third, negative shocks to rebel rents from coca production lead resource-constrained rebels to avoid direct engagements with state forces and employ guerrilla and terrorist tactics instead. These results are robust to accounting for numerous potential sources of bias, including atmospheric dispersion of illicit crop herbicides, violence spillovers from drug trafficking, and foreign military aid shocks.

These core findings challenge existing theories of insurgency. Theories of contestation suggest that rebels use violence to signal resolve (Hultman, 2012). For violence to be a credible signal of rebels’ willingness to continue the insurgency, it must convey strength (Walter, 2009). Rebels, accordingly, invest heavily in sophisticated attacks when they are least capable of carrying them out. I find, however, that as relative capabilities degrade, rebels revert to irregular violence, allocating scarce resources to ambush and sabotage tactics. Theories of control differentiate zones governed by insurgents and state actors and claim that the character of violence changes with the degree of political sovereignty (Kalyvas, 2006). Contrary to these claims, I find that rebels produce a variety of violence, and the character of this violence cannot be explained by the degree of political sovereignty alone. Variation in rebel institutions also cannot explain these results. Theories of organization anticipate that the character of violence perpetrated by rebel groups will be consistent across regions and over time within a given conflict (Weinstein, 2007). The institutional endowments of rebels shape their violence, independent of variation in group and state capacity, and persistence of organization in insurgency translates into consistency in rebel tactics. Thus, Colombia’s civil conflict represents a least-likely setting for observing tactical substitution. Yet, as I demonstrate, the portfolio of violence used by rebels is highly variable, despite continuity in the microlevel institutions governing rebellion during the period of study.

This paper also brings rebel capacity back into the study of insurgent violence, theoretically and empirically. I situate rebel capacity within a theoretical framework that incorporates outside options and state strength. Studying these three constraints together allows us to explore how each plays a distinct yet vital role in shaping the violence rebel groups employ. This paper contributes to the empirical study of rebel capacity by using microlevel shocks to coca cultivation to study variation in rebel income. The administrative and climatic data I use to investigate shocks to rebel capacity are unparalleled in the historical study of Colombia’s internal conflict and among the first in the comparative study of political violence. I also introduce a new method for the retrospective estimation of drug production. This estimation procedure combines methodological insights from remote sensing with high resolution, historical satellite imagery to predict the extent and intensity of drug production when no such data exists. The solution is highly portable, and resolves a long-standing problem in the study of drug and agricultural production: incomplete data.
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MLA Citation:

Wright, Austin. "Economic Shocks and Rebel Tactics: Evidence from Colombia" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, TBA, Philadelphia, PA, Sep 01, 2016 <Not Available>. 2017-11-28 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p1128526_index.html>

APA Citation:

Wright, A. , 2016-09-01 "Economic Shocks and Rebel Tactics: Evidence from Colombia" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, TBA, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2017-11-28 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p1128526_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Review Method: Peer Reviewed
Abstract: Why do rebels vary their tactics? Some insurgents employ terrorism and hit-and run attacks; others wage conventional wars against state rivals. Although recent research investigates how and why the technologies of rebellion differ across insurgencies (Kalyvas and Balcells, 2010), we still know little about the conditions under which rebels vary tactics within conflicts, from irregular violence to conventional tactics and vice versa.

I argue that internal and external constraints shape the incentives and opportunities for armed rebel groups to shift their tactics from irregular, hit-and-run attacks to conventional, frontal assaults. Three constraints bind rebels’ tactical choices: economic opportunities of non-combatants, state strength, and rebel capacity. Because the severity of these constraints may be shaped by conflict dynamics, I study plausibly random shocks to the economic foundation of each constraint. The observable implications of my argument are straightforward. When governments benefit from local windfalls and economic conditions improve for civilians, insurgents favor irregular tactics. When rebels are strengthened by revenue booms, they favor conventional tactics.

To test if these constraints shape the character of insurgency, I study microdata on rebel violence in Colombia and exploit plausibly random shocks to local income from coffee, oil, and coca production. I focus on three main results. First, negative shocks to local coffee income lead rebels to shift their tactics substantially. Second, positive shocks to government revenue from oil cause insurgents shift to irregular, hit-and-run attacks on state forces. Third, negative shocks to rebel rents from coca production lead resource-constrained rebels to avoid direct engagements with state forces and employ guerrilla and terrorist tactics instead. These results are robust to accounting for numerous potential sources of bias, including atmospheric dispersion of illicit crop herbicides, violence spillovers from drug trafficking, and foreign military aid shocks.

These core findings challenge existing theories of insurgency. Theories of contestation suggest that rebels use violence to signal resolve (Hultman, 2012). For violence to be a credible signal of rebels’ willingness to continue the insurgency, it must convey strength (Walter, 2009). Rebels, accordingly, invest heavily in sophisticated attacks when they are least capable of carrying them out. I find, however, that as relative capabilities degrade, rebels revert to irregular violence, allocating scarce resources to ambush and sabotage tactics. Theories of control differentiate zones governed by insurgents and state actors and claim that the character of violence changes with the degree of political sovereignty (Kalyvas, 2006). Contrary to these claims, I find that rebels produce a variety of violence, and the character of this violence cannot be explained by the degree of political sovereignty alone. Variation in rebel institutions also cannot explain these results. Theories of organization anticipate that the character of violence perpetrated by rebel groups will be consistent across regions and over time within a given conflict (Weinstein, 2007). The institutional endowments of rebels shape their violence, independent of variation in group and state capacity, and persistence of organization in insurgency translates into consistency in rebel tactics. Thus, Colombia’s civil conflict represents a least-likely setting for observing tactical substitution. Yet, as I demonstrate, the portfolio of violence used by rebels is highly variable, despite continuity in the microlevel institutions governing rebellion during the period of study.

This paper also brings rebel capacity back into the study of insurgent violence, theoretically and empirically. I situate rebel capacity within a theoretical framework that incorporates outside options and state strength. Studying these three constraints together allows us to explore how each plays a distinct yet vital role in shaping the violence rebel groups employ. This paper contributes to the empirical study of rebel capacity by using microlevel shocks to coca cultivation to study variation in rebel income. The administrative and climatic data I use to investigate shocks to rebel capacity are unparalleled in the historical study of Colombia’s internal conflict and among the first in the comparative study of political violence. I also introduce a new method for the retrospective estimation of drug production. This estimation procedure combines methodological insights from remote sensing with high resolution, historical satellite imagery to predict the extent and intensity of drug production when no such data exists. The solution is highly portable, and resolves a long-standing problem in the study of drug and agricultural production: incomplete data.


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