In the long-run, it’s governments and not insurgents who win

One of the most commonly made comments about insurgencies such as those in Afghanistan or Iraq, and most famously Vietnam, is that in order to win the insurgents simply need to survive. It’s a piece of conventional wisdom challenged in a thoughtful piece in Foreign Affairs, based on looking at 89 insurgencies over the last fifty years:

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.

The conclusion the author draws for Afghanistan is:

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 … 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 …

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.

US soldier in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of US Department of DefenseDespite the sentiments expressed in that last paragraph, the conclusion from this is not necessarily that long-term NATO military deployments would be required (regardless of the political commitments from the countries with troops still in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan to pull them out). Instead, it is possible to sketch a future which involves moving away from the previous focus of success counting as a strong central government which has defeated its opponents to seeing success as featuring strong regional government and peace deals. Those can buy the time and space for the sort of long term success which the article otherwise sees as dependent on continued heavy military involvement.

Whichever route is taken, this very debate re-emphasises my previous point about how the concentration on the ‘kinetic stuff’ in much reporting misses the real stories of what is or is not happening.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Andrew Suffield 28th Sep '10 - 10:04pm

    An insurgency needs continuous hard work and recruitment to survive, or it turns into a club that writes angry letters.

    A government just needs a steady supply of fresh bureaucrats to survive.

    In the long run, governments tend to outlast everything.

  • Afghanistan is a highly immoral war because there is no longer a will for it and the politicians all know that we have truthfully failed and will continue to fail.

    The war is prolonged simply to help get Obama re-elected and David Cameron into government… there is no other reason for it now. We would do better to withdraw than put soldiers lives and the lives of civilians at risk for no purpose.

    Really it is not about insurgency or government being more likely to win, but who they have on each side. Every conflict in the past 50 years in which the USA has gotten directly involved went badly for them and us. The main reason is that however much most populations hate the other side of the political spectrum, they hate foreigners and especially Americans even more. By getting involved you let the enemy take up the ‘patriot’ position. That is the problem with Iran, American backing of the opposition is counter productive to the opposition.

    The only wars whcih America has ‘won’ have been proxy wars, because the sides they back don’t care how many people die, and most Americans never care about how many non-Americans die… but both Britain and America care about how many of their own they lose.

    And the conclusion does not support the idea that the war on Afghanistan or Iraq could be successful. The main reason is that America is fighting the previous government of both countries…. but America doesn’t run the governemnt… only the ineffectual and corrupt puppets do.

  • John Stevens 30th Sep '10 - 12:56pm

    If you think that what Afghanistan has now, or has had, in Kabul, at any period in the last forty years and probably the last four hundred years since the region was detached from Persia, can, in any meaningful sense be described as “a government”, then good luck to you.

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