Austin L. Wright

Economic Shocks and Rebel Tactics

Why do rebels vary their tactics?

Some insurgents employ terrorism and hit-and run attacks; others wage conventional wars against state rivals. Although recent scholarship studies how the technologies of rebellion differ across insurgencies, we have few explanations for why rebel tactics vary within conflicts. Wright argues that rebels’ tactical choices reflect the incentives and imperatives of three constraints: economic opportunities of non-combatants, state strength, and rebel capacity. To test if these constraints shape the character of internal violence, he studies microdata on rebel violence in Colombia and exploits plausibly random shocks to local income from coffee, oil, and coca production. He finds evidence that local economic shocks substantially affect rebel tactics. Specifically, when government forces benefit from local windfalls and economic opportunities for civilians improve, insurgents favor irregular tactics. On the other hand, when rebels are strengthened, they favor conventional tactics. 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. The main findings also support his claim that economic constraints bind rebel tactics, challenge prominent theories of insurgency, and are relevant to the comparative study of political violence, with important implications for scholars and policymakers.

(working paper)

Download Full Story (PDF)

The University of Chicago