Are Insurgencies Beatable?

This is perhaps one of relevant political-historic questions of today. As the United States military – the stronger one in the world - continues to fight Iraqi insurgencies, more and more people point out to the Bush administration and the General Staff that historically modern armies have never beaten this type of armies. The French lost to FLN in Algeria, the Soviets lost to the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, and the Americans lost to Viet Cong in Vietnam. While certainly insurgencies have been more common in 20th and 21st century history, in Western history, they date as far back as the Spanish guerrilla resistance against Napoleon’s army in early 19th century. Even Carl von Clausewitz in his classic On War has devoted a chapter to “people’s wars” in the scheme of his more widely read conventional war analysis. More recently, the Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld wrote The Transformation of War, the only non-American book on the U.S. army officer-reading list. In this book, he advises Western nations to assemble smaller armies that mimic insurgencies if they want to win these types of wars, because Western soldiers are morally discouraged from fighting weaker enemies.

Certainly there is merit in citing Western nations’ bad track record and promoting smaller armies, but overall, the pessimistic critiques of modern armies much too often fail to examine all warfare against insurgencies. When one starts to recollect that Syria beat the Muslim Brotherhood and Lebanon forced out the PLO, among the many non-Western victories over insurgencies, the track record of conventional militaries suddenly dramatically improves. The truth is that insurgencies are weak. They can be beat and they have been beaten before. It’s not an easy task. In case of the Syrians, it takes a massacre of an entire city of Hama to do the job, but nevertheless, it can be done. Unlike the successful non-Western powers, Western nations have lost to insurgencies because of a lack of dedication and will. The French, the Soviets, and the Americans never made it a priority to win in their perspective wars. Even Iraq has been just one of the issues in American politics. What Western nations need to understand is that to win wars against insurgencies they must be devoted: they must be ready to face very heavy causalities among their soldiers and they must be ready to inflict even heavier casualties on the civilians of the opposing side. Just because they are fighting a scattered army doesn’t mean that they can win easily or that the other side is unbeatable; they must treat it as a conventional war, which certainly costly, but winnable. If they start to show weakness by trying to minimize causalities of their army personal and the local civilians, as the Israelis have done in the 1982 and 2006 Wars with Lebanon, they will never achieve their tasks. That being said: is the cost of war against insurgencies worth it? That’s up to politicians and the public to decide. Are insurgencies beatable? Absolutely.


cody said...

Well sure, anything is beatable. Heck, worst comes to worst, we just lob a few nukes over there and make a parking lot out of the Middle East. Ok, it'll take a few hundred years for the oil to stop being radioactive, but at least we'll have "won."

If fighting an insurgency is unconventional warfare, then winning such a war must not be measured by conventional means either. We win against an insurgency when the civilian population that makes up such an insurgency no longer has the desire to fight. WE DO NOT WIN JUST BY KILLING EVERYONE THAT OPPOSES US.

Yes, the war in Iraq is winnable. It's not being won right now because of the haphazard and reckless way it has been fought. But it can be won. Just not by killing every single Iraqi that doesn't like us, because eventually (the longer we stay) that will mean every single Iraqi, period.

Demosthenes said...

The two examples you point out are of a government ejecting an insurgency from its own territory, while the three unsuccessful examples are of a government trying to eject an insurgency from a territory they occupy. It's difficult to think of an example in the past half-century of an occupier successfully competing against a homegrown insurgency. Given this, I would suggest that the American campaign in Iraq has dismal prospects for success, but it does perhaps lend some hope to the sovereign Iraqi government eventually solidifying control.