Does Counterinsurgent Success Match Social Support? Evidence from a Survey Experiment in Colombia

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Miguel García-Sánchez
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ESOC Working Paper No. 3

Dominant theories of counterinsurgency suggest that state forces must win over citizens to identify insurgents among them. Yet even where state forces are losing, polling shows consistently strong support for counterinsurgents. How can we explain this discrepancy? It could be that the dominant theory of counterinsurgency is incorrect, or, as we posit, it could be that individuals systematically falsify their preferences. This study builds on the intuition that individuals may feel pressure and potentially fear that encourages them to report consistently strong support for the military when asked directly—even, perhaps especially, when they rely on an illegal organization or an illicit economy for their livelihood. We argue that this pressure decreases when individuals are asked indirectly, in a way that allows them to conceal their response. We thus assess whether support for the military is lower when measured indirectly than directly and whether the difference is more pronounced in areas of insurgent control. We test this theory of preference falsification, as well as its novel implications about spatial variation, by randomizing direct and indirect survey questions (a list experiment) in a face-to-face survey conducted across conflict contexts in Colombia.