Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story.

Summary:  Advocates for the Af-Pak war often make dubious statements about the past, attempting to rekindle America’s enthusiasm for a war in which we have no meaningful stake.  Today Max Boot provides another example.

This is the first of series about the history of counterinsurgency.  The other chapters:

(2)  A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, which reviews the present and past analysis of  counter-insurgency.  This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.
(3)  A look at the history of victories over insurgents. How often do foreign armies win?  — About a RAND study examining the victories of foreign armies over insurgents. It holds powerful lessons for us.

Max Boot makes a powerful claim in “Yes We Can … Win in Afghanistan“, blog of Commentary, 18 June 2010:

Will Afghanistan definitely be a success if we will it? Nothing is definite, especially not in the confusing realm of warfare. But I think the odds are good — certainly better than 50% — that a reasonable commitment of time and resources can make Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy (which Andrew helped formulate) to succeed.

Population-centric counterinsurgency has worked in countries as diverse as Iraq, Malaya, the Philippines, Northern Ireland, Oman, and Colombia. Historically speaking (and I say this based on research I’m currently doing for a book on the history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism), it is the most successful counterinsurgency strategy there is. Does that mean it will work in every instance? Of course not. But it works more often than not, and I have yet to see any evidence that Afghanistan is uniquely resistant to such an approach.

Boot’s history is dubious at best.  Let’s look at his list of successful counterinsurgencies (I assume by “most often successful” he means often successful, not least often failing).

(1)  Columbia:  locals vs. locals

First, and most important, we’re foreigners fighting an insurgency.  Locals fighting a local insurgency often win; foreigners almost always lose.   Our geopolitical experts usually ignore this clear lesson from history, as it discourages the foreign military interventions which are our military’s primary role today.  (see this for more about the two types of insurgencies)

Columbia was locals vs. locals, with no infidel foreigners playing a big role in the front lines.

(2)  Iraq:  the locals did it; we get an assist (at most)

With Iran’s help (withdrawing support from the Mahdi army), the Shiite Arabs resolved their internal divisions with minimal fighting.  The Sunni Arabs turned on the al Qaeda-in-Iraq fundamentalists (after which we helped them, including providing weapons and money).   The Kurds and Shiite Arabs employed ethnic cleansing to isolate the Sunni Arabs.  In none of this were we the prime mover, or even a major player.

Given the numbers of the various ethnic and religious groups, the current outcome might well have happened even if after deposing Saddam we had made a firm commitment to leave.  The insurgency was to a large extent a reaction to our occupation, which appeared permanent (per US offical statements, such as mention of our “enduring bases”).

(3)  The Malaysian insurgency:  victory and independence

Perhaps the most often cited foreigners-defeat-insurgents story is the Malayan Emergency of 1948 – 1960 (see Wikipedia).   The UK success in Malaysia offers few lessons for us in Afghanistan.  The differences are more important than the similarities.

  • The UK had ruled Malaysia since 1824, giving them great logistical and intelligence resources that we lack in Iraq.
  • The UK had vital assistance from a functional Malaysian government, its army and police forces – and a “Special Constabulary” raised to fight the insurgents.  For example, the government was able to require everyone over 12 to carry an identity card at all times.  The Iraq national government is virtually a phantom by comparison.
  • The insurgents (Communists, members of the minority Chinese population) had no safe haven across the Thai or Burmese borders to which they could retreat under pressure. Iraq has open borders.
  • The Brit’s methods were brutal, more similar to that of the Nazi’s than anything we can do today.
  • The Brit’s gradual emancipation of Malaysia played a large role in the insurgents’ defeat.  Independence was granted in August 1957.
  • It still took 12 years.

Here are three brief explanations.

(3a)  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.

(3b)  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.

(3c)   Excerpt from “Why Malaya Is No Model For Iraq”, Caroline Elkins, The New Republic, 19 December 2005 — Free link here.

“The corpses of guerrillas were routinely put on display. Decapitation was also practiced: A photograph of a Marine commando holding two insurgents’ heads caused an outcry in the spring of 1952. … Nearly the entire Chinese population of 400,000 to 500,000 were forced from their homes and were resettled into some 400 heavily guarded barbed-wire villages. They were deprived of all civil rights, and they endured great physical and emotional abuse.”

For more information about this see “Getting the job done: Iraq and the Malayan Emergency”, Dr Milton Osborne, Perspectives (published by the Lowry Institute), 21 February 2005

(2)  The Philipines-American War (1899 – 1902)

Our tactics in the Philipines have little resemblance to ours in Afghanistan.  Even more important, the art of insurgency (aka 4th generation war) developed during the 20th century and was brought to maturity by Mao in 1950 with his successful revolution.  It’s a bright line in history, after which colonies were almost impossible to hold.  For more about this conflict see Wikipedia (as always, it value comes from the links and references at the end of the entry).

(3)  Northern Ireland

Hardly a case of foreigners defeating local insurgents, as the Brits are not foreigners in Northern Island.  The population is too mixed to even determine ethnicity.  About half of the population is Protestant by background.  The Brits have been involved in Ireland since the 12th century, and share a common culture.  So they don’t have the strategic weaknesses typical of foreigners fighting insurgencies — esp ignorance about the locals.

(4)  Oman — Dhofar Rebellion  (1962 – 1975)

From Wikipedia:  Rebellion in the province of Dhofar against the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, which had British support, from 1962 to 1975. It ended with the defeat of the rebels, but the state of Oman had to be radically reformed and modernized to cope with the campaign.  Five hundred British troops (24 dead); 4,000 Iran troops (~500 KIA).

Perhaps Boot will explain in his book, but this is not obviously a foreign victory over insurgents.  Here’s the usual description, from “Supporting allies in counterinsurgency: Britain and the Dhofar Rebellion“, Walter C. Ladwig III (Oxford), Small Wars and Insurgencies, March 2008 — Abstract:

From 1964 to 1975 a small group of British officers, advisors, and trainers guided the forces of the Sultanate of Oman to victory in their conflict with the Marxist insurgents of the People’s Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG). This campaign provides a clear example of how to effectively support an ally’s counterinsurgency efforts with a minimal commitment of men and material. In particular, the critical assistance provided by the British consisted of experienced leadership and skilled technical support personnel as well as a viable strategy for victory.

However, more important for the ultimate success of the counterinsurgency campaign was the emergence of new progressive leadership with the accession of Sultan Qaboos. The most important lesson from this study is that while security assistance can reinforce positive political efforts, it is not enough on its own to bring about a victory in an unfavourable political environment.

(5)  Often cited as a foreign victory over insurgents:  the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya (1952 – 1960; Wikipedia)

Not mentioned by Boot, but often cited as an example of successful counter-insurgency.

Only a few dozen (circa 32) whites died at the hands of the insurgents (probably fewer than died in traffic accidents), whereas thousands of blacks of all types were killed (346 hanged, tens or perhaps hundreds of thousand in the Brits’ concentration camps).  The Mau-Mau killings of whites were portrayed as outbreaks of primitive sadistic black cruelty because of the inherent illegitimacy of blacks using violence against whites. Reprisals (torture and exectuions) by contrast were part of the natural order of things.

The result is unambiguous.  The British sought to retain Kenya as a colony.  The Brits won all the battles against the Mau Mau and lost the war.  Direct elections for Kenyans to the Legislative Council took place in 1957; Kenya became independent in 1963.

(6)  Other foreign armies who have fought insurgencies

The pattern is well-described in Chapter 6.2 in Martin van Creveld’s Changing Face of War (2006):

“What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure … {W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s explusion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Ertrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon. … Even in Denmark {during WWII}, “the model protectorate”, resistance increased as time went on.

“Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to defeat local insurgencies. Despite that, foreign forces have an almost uniform record of defeat. Such as the French-Algerian War, which the French waged until their government collapsed.”  {pp 6-7}

(7) For more information about these topics

(8)  Afterword and contact info

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