The key to success in Afghanistan: independence

Summary:  The key ingredient for a foreign army’s success fighting an insurgency is independence.  Building and supporting the local government’s legitimacy, with their people confident that the foreigners will leave after winning.  It’s the key theme of FM 3-24, the COIN guide — but ignored in practice by our military.  It contributed to victory in Malaysia, and can do so in Afghanistan.  Americans should instinctively understand this!

  1. The Malaysian insurgency:  victory and independence
  2.  It also will work in Afghanistan
  3. What does victory mean for us in Afghanistan?  (added in response to reader responses)

(1)  The Malaysian insurgency:  victory and independence

The Brit’s gradual emancipation of Malaysia played a great (if commonly underestimated) role in the insurgents defeat  (the Malayan Emergency of June 1948 – July 1960; see Wikipedia).  Independence was granted in August 1957.

(a)  Excerpt from Martin Van Creveld’s Transformation of War

Against these defeats, numbering in the dozen, there is just one shining (and often-quoted) example of a former colonial power “winning” a struggle in the Third World. The British armed forces in Malaysia successfully put down a communist insurgency which, truth to say, was largely confined to the Chinese minority and unsupported by most of the population. By this feat they acquired a high reputation, also learning “lessons” from which others have since sought to benefit.

What is often overlooked, however, is that this particular struggle was conducted in a vacuum. It was perhaps the only time in history when a country, far from using war for expansionist ends, from the beginning announced its intention of not doing so. The British Conservative Government headed by Winston Churchill entered the struggle with the promise that Malaysia would be evacuated once the insurgency was defeated. When it was defeated, the British kept their word.

(b)  Excerpt from John A. Nagl’s Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife:

All of these efforts were guided by Templer’s vision of fulfilling the British government’s intention that Malaya should become self-governing once the emergency had ended. He made the point quite plain in his first speech to the Legislative Council of Malaya on 19 March 1952.

… This healthy political life, from which independence would flower, would first require “the uniting of all races and classes in a common effort by the creation of a greater sence Isic! of Malayan loyalty and unity.”‘ That sense of unity was already developing in the shape of the Alliance Party. The United Malay National Organisation and the Malayan Chinese Association joined forces in January of 1952 while contesting municipal elections in Kuala Lumpur; the alliance won time of eleven seats and became a national organization in 1953. By meeting the primary British requirement of a multiethnic society, the alliance allowed an increasing transfer of power to the local people and transformed “a colonial struggle in which the people could have been united against an alien government to a struggle for independence in which the colonial government had become an accessory to an emergent nation.”” Harnessing nationalism as an issue for the government against the insurgents was the single most vital part of winning the “hearts and minds” of the population.

Although the political direction of the campaign toward full independence was necessary for the defeat of the insurgents, it was not sufficient; both organizational and operational changes were required to bring the insurgents fully to heel.

(2)  It also will work in Afghanistan

Large segments of the Afghanistan people yearn for true independence after generations of foreign control by the Brits, Russia, and now us.  Tapping this can help us to victory, as described in this excerpt from “Legitimation Crisis in Afghanistan“, William R. Polk, The Nation, 19 April 2010:

If we aim to create and leave behind a reasonably secure society in Afghanistan, we must abandon this failed policy and set a firm and reasonably prompt date for withdrawal. Only thus can we dissociate humanitarian aid from counterinsurgency warfare. This is because once a timetable is clearly announced, a fundamental transformation will begin in the political psychology of our relationship. The Afghans will have no reason (or progressively less reason, as withdrawal begins to be carried out) to regard our aid as a counterinsurgency tactic. At that point, beneficial projects will become acceptable to the local jirgas, whose members naturally focus on their own and their neighbors’ prosperity and health. They will then eagerly seek and protect what they now allow the Taliban to destroy.

If under this different circumstance the Taliban try to destroy what the town councils have come to see as beneficial, the councils will cease to provide the active or passive support, sanctuary and information that make the Taliban effective. Without that cooperation, as Mao Zedong long ago told us, they will be like fish with no water in which to swim. Thus, setting a firm and clear date for withdrawal is essential.

(3)  What does victory mean for us in Afghanistan?  (added in response to reader responses)

Our government apparently seeks to build an Afghanistan state able to resist al Qaeda domination (or Iranian, or Russian).  That implies some degree of alliance with us, or with western interests.   This is a common view of the British success at counterinsurgency.  In wars around the world the UK lost its Empire but gained allies.  From “The British Army and Counterinsurgency: The Salience of Military Culture“, Robert M. Cassidy (Lieutenant Colonel,  U.S. Army), Military Review, May-June 2005:

The British Army fought its post-World War II campaigns in the predominantly rural jungle conditions of Malaya, Kenya, Borneo, Guyana, and Dhofar to the desert conditions of Palestine; Muscat and Oman; Radfan; and Kuwait and was successful in small-scale and medium-scale operations. The British Army helped bring about favorable political outcomes for Britain. In almost every case of devolution, newly independent states allowed the British Army to retain facilities in their countries.

We appear to be failing at this, as seen by the President of Afghanistan desperately attempting to build legitimacy by attacking the US (see here and here).

What political form will Afghanistan take after US combat troops leave?  Do we care, so long as it is (or the fragments are) friendly, and able to resist domination by its neighbors (destabilizing the region)? 

(4)  For more information about the Afghanistan War

See the FM reference page Iraq and our other wars – my articles for a complete set of links.

  1. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust
  2. The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan – an open discussion, 23 June 2009
  3. Quote of the day: Our Afghanistan War explained in 22 words, 26 August 2009
  4. The advocates for the Af-pak war demonstrate their bankruptcy. Will the American public notice?, 1 September 2009
  5. The three kinds of advocacy for the Af-Pak War, 15 October 2009
  6. We destroy a secular regime in Afghanistan (& its women’s rights), then we wage war on the new regime to restore women’s rights. Welcome to the American Empire., 20 November 2009
  7. A look behind the Afghan mask covering our operations in Afghanistan, 25 February 2010
  8. Update about the state of the Af-Pak war; my forecast was wrong, 1 March 2010
  9. France gives us tips for the Afghanistan War, from their successful role in the American Revolution, 11 March 2010


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