The United States defines its greatest security threats as insurgents and terrorists. It is trying to defeat them with a method of counterinsurgency (COIN) known as the population-centric approach. Is the conventional wisdom correct in claiming that the population-centric approach is the key to defeating insurgencies? Apparently not.

This project tests the population-centric approach to COIN and finds that purported population-centric successes were not in fact conducted as such. It finds that COIN success bears little empirical resemblance to the tenets of the population-centric approach. It also finds that population-centric COIN is exceedingly difficult to put into practice for reasons inherent to the paradigm. And it asks why states are only able to defeat insurgencies sometimes and develops an alternative theory of COIN success.

The population-centric paradigm prescribes building strong, responsive, distributive states while strictly limiting the use of force to avoid civilian casualties. This relative emphasis grows from the assumption that the key to victory is gaining broad popular allegiance to the state and thus marginalizing the insurgency.

But the population-centric approach is theoretically and empirically mistaken in its assumptions; in its relative emphasis on lots of political reform and only a little fighting; and in its mechanism of building broad popular support. State building and development are processes separate from COIN.

These findings suggest that U.S. policy goals based on the population-centric model may be over-ambitious, extremely costly, and simply impossible to achieve.

Cases: Dhofar, Oman, 1965–1976: the Philippines–Huks, 1946–1955; Turkey-PKK, 1991–1999; United States–Vietnam, 1956–1965; El Salvador, 1979–1992.

Please join us! Coffee and tea provided. Everyone is welcome, but admittance will be on a first come–first served basis.