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Sometimes Success Means Success


Yglesias is more impressed than I by Pat Lang’s discussion of successful and failed counter-insurgency campaigns. In particular, I think he misconstrues the objectives of many of the major counter-insurgency campaigns of the post-war colonial period:

This theory of warfare [COIN] was developed by the colonial powers as a “cure” for the wave on “wars of national liberation” that swept through their overseas possessions after World War Two. Because of these revolts against authority most of the European powers found themselves faced with colonized populations engaged in extended attempts to obtain independence from the metropole. Such rebellions were usually based on ethnic and racial differences with the colonizers and were often led by vanguard Left parties with communist connections. That connection caused an eventual American policy commitment to the COIN struggle. That commitment sometimes occurred as a partner of the colonial power (Vietnam in the late ‘40s and ‘50s) and sometimes as a successor to the colonial power after at least partial independence had been achieved. (Vietnam after the French).

Whereas Lang describes COIN as being primarily about maintaining territorial control of colonies, the retention of territorial control was only sometimes the objective of war. The French wanted to hold Algeria, but the British in Malaya wished only to install and maintain a friendly regime. The latter model is more common, I think, to both the colonial era and today. For example, formal Vietnamese independence was established in 1950; the rest of the war, from both the French and American perspectives, was about installing friendly rulers. The Mau Mau revolt accelerated Kenyan independence, but only by convincing the British that it would be easier to manage their interests through a friendly African government than to govern the territory directly. Kenyatta, never deeply tied to the Mau Mau, embarked on a very pro-British foreign and domestic policy after independence. Lang’s argument is closer to the mark on Cyprus, but even there the insurgency was as much about the eventual balance of power between Greeks and Turks as it was about ejecting the British. The British also retained a very strong influence over Cypriot domestic institutions and foreign policy. Moreover, the pursuit of a friendly government isn’t exclusive to the colonial era. The Soviet aim in 1979 was the replacement of one faction of the Communist Party with another, not annexation; it is perhaps the only example of an invasion that was requested by both parties to the dispute.

The British succeeded in suppressing this revolt [in Malaya] but what did this successful effort gain them? It was enormously expensive and success was followed by British withdrawal from Malaya and the creation of an independent Malaysia completely dominated by the Malay ethnic adversaries of the overseas Chinese.

It resulted in the creation of a friendly regime, run by rulers chosen by the British. Indeed, the British escalated their commitment at the behest of the Malayan rulers that they had chosen. The establishment of friendly rulers in former colonial territories may or may not be stupid reason to fight a war for (there’s certainly a good case that it’s an immoral reason to fight a war), but Lang doesn’t really contribute on that question. I don’t know if the value of British economic and strategic interest in a friendly Malaysia over the forty years following 1958 exceeded the cost of the war, but I wouldn’t be surprised either way. Indeed, one of the key realizations on the part of metropolitan powers at the end of the colonial period was that they could retain economic (and often some political) control of their former territories if they made sure that the right people took over. The difference between friendly and not-so-friendly post-colonial leadership was seen, understandably, as something worth waging a war for. Thus, it’s a bit absurd to suggest that British success in establishing Malaysia was somehow pointless, simply because the British withdrew anyway.

Having friendly rulers in charge of foreign countries is nice; in fact, it’s one of the central reasons that countries decide to wage war. Arguing that COIN is useless because all it can do is install friendly rulers is like suggesting that a hammer is useless because it can only drive nails. The Korean War was waged in conventional fashion by the United States, and it resulted in the maintenance and survival of a South Korean state run by people we liked. The Chinese entered the war because they wanted to maintain a North Korea run by people that they liked. Edmund Burke wanted to strangle the French Revolution in its crib not because he had designs on Calais, but rather because he wanted to eliminate dangerous people in Paris. Central to the Allied war aims in 1939 was the removal of Adolf Hitler as ruler of Germany. It would never be argued, however, that success in conventional warfare is worthless because it resulted only in the installation of friendly regimes in Korea, France, and Germany.

Some of the other parts of Lang’s argument are better; COIN is expensive, long term, and fails a lot. Obviously, there’s also something twitchy about killing foreigners in an effort to determine how they’ll order their societies. I think that he gets Vietnam pretty wrong in suggesting that US counter-insurgency efforts were essentially successful in a military sense; the communist/nationalist insurgency in South Vietnam fatally weakened the state (and US attachment to South Vietnamese independence) to the degree that the North Vietnamese Army could crush its opposite number with ease in 1975. I also think that he gets some of this wrong:

COIN theory is predicated on the ability of the counterinsurgents to change the mentality of the “protected” (read controlled) population. The sad truth is that most people do not want to be deprived of their ancestral ways and will fight to protect them. “Hearts and Minds” is an empty propagandist’s phrase.

Were this true, the Chinese Communists would never have defeated the Nationalists, and the Viet Minh would have failed in Vietnam. In both cases, the insurgents offered positive revolutionary programs that defied tradition and ancestral ways; indeed, this is how the insurgents won the loyalty of the target populations. The peasants liked the insurgents because they promised to kill the landlords and redistribute their land, and because the insurgents offered an alternative (nationalist) conception of identity. Insurgencies in other parts of this world follow this pattern, offering varying degrees of revolutionary and nationalist doctrine (nationalism itself was a revolutionary doctrine, alien to traditional conceptions of village life). The Taliban doesn’t exactly campaign on a platform of restoring traditional Afghani ways of life; it also has a positive political program. “Hearts and Minds” is an empty propagandists phrase, but no less empty than “ancestral ways.” Most modern theorists of COIN reject using either term.

In the end the foreign counterinsurgent is embarked on a war that is not his own war. For him, the COIN war will always be a limited war, fought for a limited time with limited resources. For the insurgent, the war is total war. They have no where to escape to after a tour of duty. The psychological difference is massive.

While it’s true that insurgents invariably accept higher risk and endure higher costs than counter-insurgents, it’s simply not the case that there’s “nowhere to escape after a tour of duty.” The success of the “Anbar Awakening” was in giving insurgents somewhere to escape to, and thus reducing their willingness to sacrifice for the cause. Efforts to reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban are similarly about reducing the absolute commitment of the insurgent. These efforts may fail, and they may be costly in their own right, but it’s absurd to claim that every insurgent has a total commitment to the cause. When given a good reason (Americans promise to go home, for example) many insurgents may well decide that the fight isn’t worth the risk.

None of this has anything to do with whether or not a counter-insurgency approach will succeed in Afghanistan. The friendly government may be too corrupt and weak to save, the enemies too strong, civilian casualties too high, etc. I’m skeptical that even the most in-depth historical analysis can be of much assistance in determining the prospects for success in Afghanistan, and I’m really skeptical that an approach as far ranging and shallow as Lang’s can do much good.

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