Konstantin Sonin, Jarnickae Wilson, and Austin L. Wright

Rebel Capacity, Intelligence Gathering, and the Timing of Combat Operations

Classic theories of counterinsurgency claim rebel forces execute attacks in an unpredictable manner to limit the government’s ability to anticipate and defend against them. We study a model of combat and information-gathering during an irregular insurgency. We test empirical implications of the model using newly declassified military records from Afghanistan that include highly detailed information about rebel attacks and counterinsurgent operations, including close air support missions, bomb neutralizations, and covert government-led surveillance activity. Our conflict microdata also include previously unreleased information about insurgent-led spy networks, where rebels monitor troop movement and military base activity, as well as military base infiltration and insider attacks. We couple these data with granular information on opium production and farmgate prices. Consistent with our simple theoretical model, we find that the capacity (wealth) of local rebel units influences the timing of their attacks. As rebels gather more resources, their attacks become temporally concentrated in a manner that is distinguishable from randomized combat. This main effect is significantly enhanced in areas where rebels have the capacity to spy on and infiltrate military installations. Taken together, these findings suggest economic shocks that increase the capacity of insurgents may influence the timing of rebel attacks through the acquisition of precise information about military weaknesses.

Working Paper

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The University of Chicago