What we’re up against

Over the last month, with the Petraeus report and the debates before and after, we’ve been discussing the situation in Iraq with one pretty clear idea of what counterinsurgency operations are and how they operate: protect the civilian population from insurgents, win their hearts and minds and thus create the breathing space for political reconciliation that all parties agree is the real solution to Iraq’s endless carnage and anarchy.

But just how many successful counterinsurgencies have there been, exactly? I got to thinking about this because we frequently hear about how the British are the pros at counterinsurgency. And they certainly fought quite a few of them — and on many continents. They’ve got the experience. And yet, pretty much by definition, they lost every one.

We often hear about the Brits’ boffo counterinsurgency in Malaysia — sometimes hailed as the only truly successful counterinsurgency operation. But are the British still in Malaysia?

As far as I know, the answer to that question is no.

Yes, it was a communist insurgency, which the British defeated. But part of the equation in their victory was the Brits’ departure from Malaysia altogether, which drained much of the nationalist drive behind the insurgency.

A few other big examples come to mind — the First Intifada in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, the French in Algeria and the U.S. in Vietnam. But at the risk of stating the obvious, none of those went that well for the counterinsurgent power. At least not in the final analysis. 

On the other side of the equation, there were cases from Central America in the 1980s that were more successful — at least in the very narrow sense that the great power sponsoring the counterinsurgencies got a policy outcome they were satisfied with. But taking a broad view, many of the great insurgent battles ended with the great power sent packing.

Indeed, one recent study, co-written by scholars at Princeton (Jason Lyall) and West Point (Isaiah Wilson III), shows that great powers have become less and less likely to win counterinsurgencies as their economies have become more industrialized and their militaries more mechanized. At one level, this is kind of intuitive. One of the key points of the study is that militaries focused on mechanization and technology aren’t very well-equipped to do the sort of information-gathering upon which successful counterinsurgency is based.

And there’s one other point we tend to overlook in the current debate, one of the most unlovely: There have been successful counterinsurgencies. One thinks of our own in the Philippines, numerous examples in Latin America over the last century and more in other parts of the world. Some of the most successful, though, were won because the counterinsurgency power was willing to use mass terror as part of a deliberate strategy of pacification — using massacres, group punishments, torture and more. We like to tell ourselves that these practices don’t work in the long run, but there are countless autocracies and oligarchies around the world whose long persistence in power would say otherwise. 

Thankfully, these policies of mass brutality and genocide are not ones we’re willing to countenance any more. And thank God for that. But if we’re going to have this debate about calming or ending the insurgency in Iraq, we need to be a lot more deliberate and candid about why it’s happening (most people don’t like their countries being occupied by foreign militaries) and what the chances are in succeeding in putting it down.

Marshall is editor of talkingpointsmemo.com.
His column appears in The Hill each week.
E-mail: jmarshall@thehill.com