The End of an Insurgency

What President Obama Can Learn From Peru, Angola, and Colombia

By the start of next year, the Obama administration will unveil its plan for ending U.S. counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. The plan will likely entail one of three options: an aggressive counterterrorism campaign paired with a speedy withdrawal of U.S. forces beginning by July 2011; counterterrorism combined with a phased troop withdrawal starting in 2011 and a transition to Afghan control by 2014; or a full counterinsurgency campaign that would require an active and costly U.S. commitment well beyond 2014.

As the Obama administration weighs its strategy, it would be wise to consider the history of 89 insurgencies in the second half of the twentieth century. How governments manage to defeat -- or be defeated by -- insurgencies reveals a number of lessons for Washington today.

First, each citizen in a country that is home to an active insurgency chooses whether to join, tolerate, or reject the insurgency. To decide to join is an extreme act typically brought about by extreme circumstances -- for example, systematic violations of human rights, extraordinary social or economic imbalances, widespread killings by government forces, or some combination thereof. Whereas the motivations of insurgent leaders may be complex and worth understanding, the reasons why a simple farmer picks up a rifle and joins that leader ultimately matter more; without followers, insurgent leaders are only isolated terrorists.

As long as basic grievances remain unaddressed, civilians will be willing to kill and die. Indeed, insurgencies have risen phoenix-like from crushing defeats because victorious governments neglected the underlying causes of the fighting. For example, the Shining Path, a communist insurgency in Peru, seemed completely defeated in 1992 after Peruvian forces captured its leader, Abimael Guzmán. But the Peruvian government failed to deal with the underlying social inequalities that had sparked the insurgency, and the movement regenerated. And although Thailand's ethnic Malay insurgency faded twice, first in the mid-1980s and then again in the late 1990s, it reappeared both times because Malays still felt disenfranchised from the Thai-led government. Algeria now faces its fourth major insurgency in 20 years because the government has continually failed to heed calls for democratization.

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