Fighting the War of the Flea: The Geography of Insurgent Tactics and Road Infrastructure

Rebel groups draw on a wide range of tactics to pursue military objectives, and which tactics rebels deploy can vary dramatically across a country’s territory. While extant literature has explored how rebel groups wield violence generally, insurgents’ use of tactics often follow distinct logics. We present an account of the strategic considerations underlying where insurgents choose to carry out costly, disruptive attacks against the state. Such disruptive tactics are fundamental to asymmetric, irregular conflicts common across many contexts, yet are understudied. Using detailed event data on a broad array of rebel behavior, an instrumental variable strategy, and a survey of inter-city trade from the Colombian civil war, we show that rebels tend to leverage disruptive tactics in locales densely connected to the country’s road system, but not tactics bearing on territorial conquest. We further provide evidence that the trade-boosting effect of road infrastructure is a plausible mechanism linking these variables. The findings have implications for understanding rebel strategy and speak to growing scholarship on the nexus between roads and civil war violence.

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