It is now clear (see ) that General Stanley McChrystal, top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, is recommending a strategy of “counterinsurgency” as the key to success in that country. Developed in the post-World War II period by French, British, and American strategists, counterinsurgency sought to learn from successful revolutionary movements such as those of China, Vietnam, and Algeria, in order to prevent any more such successes. Unfortunately, attempts to carry out such a strategy have been repeatedly unsuccessful, and there is little chance that such an undertaking in Afghanistan will fare any better.
Counterinsurgency theorists took seriously Mao Zedong’s dictum that guerrilla fighters must relate to the people as the fish relates to water. At least two possible—and contradictory—conclusions were drawn from this. The first was that the opponents of revolution should also relate to the people as the fish does to water. The second was that anti-revolutionary forces must attack the population, killing them or forcing them to flee, in order to “dry up the sea” in which the guerrillas live.
The problem with the former lesson was that any incumbent regime would not be facing a revolutionary insurgency in the first place if it really related to the people as the fish to water. The problem with the second lesson was that, while repression against the civilian population might strike a blow against the guerrillas, it would also alienate the population from the regime and produce more support for the guerrillas.
As the French, British, and Americans tried to combat revolutionary insurgencies they were even more subject to these problems than local regimes were. For example, if it was difficult for the South Vietnamese regime to relate to the people as the fish to water, how much more difficult was it for the alien American forces?
Thus, it should not surprise us that the record of counterinsurgency in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods was poor. The French failed in both Indochina and Algeria. The British defeated guerrillas in Malaya, but lost their colonial empire nonetheless. The Americans failed in Cuba, Vietnam, and Nicaragua, and succeeded in El Salvador. In a few other Latin American cases (such as Peru) incumbent regimes with strong U.S. support defeated insurgencies, while others (Colombia) did not.
The political price of counterinsurgency was very high. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States promoted military regimes in most of Latin America that used counterinsurgency doctrine to justify mass killings, torture, and disappearances (“drying up the sea”).
How is this relevant to Afghanistan? That country is clearly subject to the same problems that were cited earlier. It is difficult, at best, for the regime we support to really relate to its population as fish to water. It is impossible to imagine American forces doing so when few of them even speak any of the languages and there is no way that they can be at home in the cultures.
They are fighting an insurgency that grew organically out of the culture and does speak the languages. Because soldiers cannot quickly or easily tell civilians from guerrillas, innocents will inevitably be killed or hurt, and that will build support for the insurgents and undermine the regime.
There is an additional problem in Afghanistan: unlike earlier cases where we were supporting an existing regime, in this case (as also in Iraq) we invaded, overthrew the existing regime, and replaced it with one more to our liking. The regime we defend in Afghanistan has few roots and little capacity to deliver either security or wellbeing to the population.
Counterinsurgency cannot succeed under these circumstances. The war in Afghanistan was in some sense justified by Taliban and Al Qaeda aggression, but it was prosecuted incompetently with inadequate resources by the Bush administration. McChrystal now proposes a major increase in those forces, on top of the additional troops already dispatched by President Obama. But we have no better chance of prevailing there than the Soviets did in after their invasion thirty years ago. Our very presence as occupiers undermines the possibility that any government we support could ever achieve legitimacy and stability, because they will always be seen as puppets of the United States.
President Bush and his administration warned us of the catastrophic consequences of withdrawing before victory. But if they had done the careful analysis that we expect of a competent government, they would not have sent our troops in to begin with. The fundamental premise of counterinsurgency is wrong. We ought to be extricating ourselves, not escalating our involvement. The solution to the threat from Al Qaeda is not military, but political.
Counterinsurgency can, at best, hold the enemy at bay as long as we are willing to commit our resources and lives to the mission. It is a recipe for a quagmire.