Good Times and Bad Apples: Rebel Recruitment in Crackdown and Truce

The forthcoming article “Good Times and Bad Apples: Rebel Recruitment in Crackdown and Truce” by Kolby Hanson is summarized by the author below. 

Rebellion is a dangerous business, but some times are more dangerous than others. During periods of government crackdown, life for rebel soldiers is dangerous and difficult, deterring would-be rebels from taking up arms. In many separatist conflicts, however, governments have allowed rebels to operate and recruit freely for years as part of a long-term truce like those in Senegal, Georgia, and Myanmar. Counterinsurgents often worry that these periods of toleration encourage would-be rebels to take up arms, attracted by newfound safety and comfort. Even when rebel groups have few material resources, periods of toleration enable a modicum of comfort: a soft bed, a warm meal, and a few dollars at the end of the week. 

In this paper, I argue that government toleration actually weakens rebel groups in the long run by unraveling an important screening process in rebel recruitmentWhen life for rebels is dangerous and difficult, only the most community-oriented, committed recruits take up arms. Safety and comfort, by contrast, attract many self-oriented low-commitment recruits who later prone to desert on the battlefield, defect to the enemy, or abuse civilian supporters. Limited by weak disciplinary institutions and active recruitment competition, rebel leaders often struggle to maintain discipline and cohesion with these self-oriented recruits. 

I explore rebel recruitment with experimental and qualitative evidence inside five rebel movements in Northeast India. First, I explored how potential rebel recruits evaluate rebel organizations using a conjoint survey experiment. By speaking to young men in local hotspots of rebel recruitment – such as ethnic volunteer organizations, tea shops, and moonshiners – my team surveyed nearly 400 likely rebel recruits, testing what factors make them more likely to join a rebel group. This survey shows that community-oriented recruits from ethnic volunteer organizations care about very different factors than do self-oriented recruits from other gathering places. While the community-oriented recruits will join rebel groups even during the danger and difficulty of open conflict, self-oriented recruits will join only when doing so requires few sacrifices, as in times of toleration. 

Second, the paper explores how government crackdown and toleration have shaped the trajectories of Northeast India’s two longest-running and largest rebel movements. Through dozens of in-depth interviews with current and former rebels (and civilians in the area), I explore how the government’s long-running truce in Nagaland has actually weakened Naga rebel groups. Even as rebels in Nagaland have gained resources and recruits, they have simultaneously have eroded into indiscipline and fragmentation. 

Cases like those in Northeast India illustrate that leniency against rebels may ultimately play into the hands of the state. Counterinsurgency, by contrast, can be counterproductive for governments even when it is implemented “correctly,” screening out low-quality recruits and strengthening rebel organizations. 

About the Author: Kolby Hanson is a Strategy and Policy Postdoctoral Fellow at the U.S. Naval War College. Their research “Good Times and Bad Apples: Rebel Recruitment in Crackdown and Truce” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.