As the United States ramps up military activities against the Islamic State, President Obama has claimed that the Islamic State’s rapid accumulation of territory was both unpredictable and a surprise to U.S. intelligence officials. Not only have Islamic State militants beaten back the Iraqi army and consolidated territory throughout Syria and Iraq in a relatively short span of time, the group has also been able to hold this territory and develop a nascent, state-like governing apparatus. As recently as August, the Islamic State provided education, paid municipal salaries, built roads, opened hospitals, maintained electric, trash and sewage services, and even began issuing parking tickets.
Although the militant group’s speed may have been surprising, its ability to hold territory and act like a “state” is hardly unusual. Recently on the Monkey Cage, Aaron Zelin noted that the Islamic State’s social service provision is hardly unique among jihadist groups, and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Amichai Magen described the challenges of governance that jihadist groups face (but the Islamic State may be particularly adept at working with civilians, despite access to natural resources, as Ariel Ahram wrote). Yet, jihadist groups are by no means the first or only set of groups to provide social services and face the challenge of rebel governance.
According to new global data I collected for my dissertation on the social service provision by all active insurgent groups from 1945 to 2003, over one-third of insurgencies have provided education or health care to either members of the insurgency or civilians. This trend is fairly consistent with insurgencies across time: As the number of insurgencies began increasing in the 1960s before declining in the mid-1990s, so did the number of insurgencies providing social services.
Regional variation, however, is fairly substantial. In Europe, when excluding conflicts such as the breakup of Yugoslavia, just 15 percent of groups provided education or health care to civilians (when including these conflicts, however, the number jumps to over 30 percent). In the Americas and Africa, 27 percent and 20 percent of insurgencies provided either education or health care to civilians, respectively. In Asia, nearly 46 percent of groups provided some education or health care to civilians.
Although the cause of this regional variation is unclear, three factors may be important: State strength and development in Asia may have been slightly higher than in Africa, making it easier to recruit trained personnel, but lower than in the Americas and Europe, where it would have been more difficult to control territory and set up a competing branch of social service provision; the influence of Mao in Asia and the proximity to China; and the rising prominence of Islamist groups.
What’s particularly interesting is although Communist groups have been thought more likely to provide services than other groups, as Zaccariah Mampilly found, fewer Communist groups have arisen since the end of the Cold War. As the Cold War began to wind down, Islamist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas grew in prominence in the Middle East and in Africa. These groups often possessed a strong sense of dawa, or a call to understand a group’s interpretation of Islam, often through the provision of social services.
Even more striking, of the insurgencies that provided education and health care, nearly 72 percent of insurgencies provided education to civilians, and just over 71 percent of rebel movements provided health care. In other words, if an insurgent group provides social services, they are more likely to offer these services to civilians. Once an insurgency acquired territory, nearly 49 percent would ensure that the civilian population received education or medical care, consistent with recent research on rebel governance.
Why would an insurgent group divert finances and personnel from the insurgency to the civilian population? By providing services, not only does the insurgency lose critical resources, but if it holds territory, it can also become a clear target for the same U.S. airstrikes: The rebel group cannot hide, unless it abandons the territory it has sought to control. Some scholars have argued that social service provision helps attract recruits, or recruits that are more committed to a particular cause are more willing to engage in higher levels of violence. Some groups, such as the Viet Cong in Vietnam, used education as a tool to monitor the population for potential threats. Several insurgent organizations that provided education and health care achieved their goals or received key concessions, such as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Frontin El Salvador, the People’s Liberation Army in China or the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front; but a systematic link between the two has not yet been determined. However, over 33 percent of groups that achieved outright victory provided education or health care. Moreover, although social service provision may not necessarily predict success, it may stave off failure. The Karen National Union of Burma, for example, which has been active since 1949, is the longest ongoing insurgency in the world and has been developing an incredibly robust education and health care system. While the KNU has not achieved its independent state, it has not ended its over half-century campaign.
What does this mean in terms of U.S. foreign policy? While the Islamic State’s territorial control and social service provision might make it a clear target for airstrikes, it is unclear whether the airstrikes alone will help the United States achieve its military and policy goals. Because the Islamic State has embedded itself so deeply inside the civilian population, it may be difficult to limit the number of civilian casualties. Even if airstrikes are successful, the United States will have to contend with a power vacuum in the areas where Islamic State militants formerly held control. This power vacuum could open up the space for more violent and dangerous insurgents to consolidate control, while placing the health and well being of civilians that relied on the Islamic State’s services at risk. As Andrew Shaver and Gabriel Tenorio point out, the lack of services after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011 has been a major source of discontent in Iraq, and the authors advocate for a counter insurgency strategy that consists of both military action and addressing civilians’ governance needs. Although certainly not the main factor in determining U.S. foreign policy against the group’s threat, the Islamic State’s territorial control and social service provision is certainly an important one.
Megan A. Stewart is PhD candidate in government at Georgetown University. Her dissertation examines the determinants of insurgent public goods provision.