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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.
Second, root causes generally reflect conditions that have developed gradually, so total government victory -- that is, when the government finally convinces most or all insurgents to put down their rifles -- also tends to be gradual. On average, modern insurgencies last about ten years, but government victory tends to take six more after that. The long tail of violence makes it very difficult for the government to know if it is winning, if it should draw down forces in the field, or if it needs further troops and money to end the war.
In addition, insurgencies that involve more than one insurgent group generally last even longer and are more violent. Each group has its own constituency that has turned to fighting for its own reasons -- each of which must be addressed to truly end the fighting. For example, three separate Angolan insurgent groups fought for independence from Portugal in the late 1960s. After the Portuguese colonial government collapsed in 1974, Angola became a battlefield among the insurgents; the fighting lasted into the 2000s. And at least 20 unique Iraqi insurgent groups fought U.S. forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2010. The insurgency there was especially bloody at its worst, and even today peace among all factions is far from assured.
Finally, insurgent groups that are voluntarily given sanctuary by another country win insurgencies -- that is totally defeat the government they are fighting -- twice as often as they lose. The value of haven is fairly self-evident: insurgents can use a secure space to train, organize, rest, refit, and, if necessary, hibernate. The loss of a haven, moreover, correlates strongly with defeat. Of those groups that had one and then lost it, only one in four went on to win its fight. This was certainly true for the Greek communist insurgents: after failing to seize control of Greece in the waning stages of World War II, the communists attempted to overthrow the Greek government. Until the middle of 1949, they enjoyed haven in Yugoslavia. Within one year of Yugoslavia closing its borders to the insurgents, the movement collapsed.
No matter what approach the Obama administration ultimately takes in Afghanistan, the Taliban insurgency will not end until the myriad root causes driving average Pushtuns to join or support the Taliban are somehow addressed. That this complex web of causes dates back centuries, and has been exacerbated by 30 years of continuous conflict, only makes matters worse. And every proposed solution carries with it a countervailing problem. Reconciliation with -- and addressing the grievances of -- those who joined the Taliban risks sparking a revolt among the ethnic Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks who make up the bulk of the U.S.-allied government and security forces. Another solution, trying to rapidly stimulate economic growth, risks increasing just the kind of official corruption that is currently fueling much of the anti-government sentiment in the country.
Even if the root causes can be addressed, the gradual nature of government victories will be especially hard on U.S. and NATO policymakers. Even if they are able to turn the campaign around, they will face the challenge of maintaining domestic support for what may appear to be a never-ending war, even as the war might, in fact, be ending. Also, some of the deals with the Taliban that the Afghan government is negotiating may end the violence but appear unsavory to the West; the balances between opposing groups that even the most successful Afghan regimes achieve tend to look like controlled violence rather than truly stable peace.
Afghanistan's insurgency, moreover, involves at least three major insurgent groups -- the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, and Hezb-e-Islami -- and a complex web of subgroups and alliances that spreads across hundreds of tribes, a dozen ethnic groups, and an Afghan diaspora of about two million, and all of them have their own motivation for fighting the central government in Kabul and one another. This kind of complexity suggests that violence will ebb even more slowly, especially since each of Afghanistan's three primary insurgent groups enjoys some sanctuary in Pakistan. And few believe that Pakistan will ever be able to fully eliminate this haven.
If the United States seeks stability in Afghanistan, its strategy will have to deal with these realities. There can be no shortcuts; although it is possible to quickly defeat insurgents, dealing with root causes, a multitude of combatants, and havens will take time. And it will be expensive: the costs of such an effort are incalculable, since it is impossible to predict how long the violence in any insurgency will drag on.
Nevertheless, a careful study of insurgencies over the last 50 years suggests that what is needed in Afghanistan now is the patient application of a traditional counterinsurgency campaign for years to come. If done well, a long-term campaign could lead to a stable Afghanistan that is so inhospitable to the major Afghan insurgent groups that they wither into irrelevance or are forced to the bargaining table. Enduring stability in Afghanistan and a consequent shift in popular support for the government could, on balance, negate the strength the Taliban continues to draw from its sanctuary in Pakistan. And although a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan will not ultimately solve the problem of terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan, neither do any of the other proposed policy options. At the very least, this kind of long-range approach accepts the realities of fighting insurgencies and could achieve a principal objective of Operation Enduring Freedom: to make Afghanistan unsafe for international terrorists.
This prognosis is sobering, but it also offers a modicum of hope for policymakers. Many have assumed that insurgents invariably win by simply holding out. This is incorrect. Historically, governments have won more often than insurgents in the long run. And even wars that seemed to be spiraling inexorably toward defeat, such as Colombia's against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, have been turned around through reinvigorated will, refocused strategy, and additional resources applied consistently over time. Policymakers should accept that a strategy designed around short-term timelines and measures to curtail costs is likely to yield limited and uncertain results. Conversely, if the United States seeks to achieve lasting stability and the denial of a terrorist haven in Afghanistan, the president and his staff must openly confront the realities and costs of such a long-term approach.