“M P” versus “V I A” – When Does Counter-insurgency Work ?

| January 17, 2011 | Comments (0)

(My blogging policy is generally not to get too “political”, but from time to time I make exceptions. Because I think figthing wars and unnecessarily wasting blood and treasure is tragic, I am posting the  blog that appears below.)                       

Malaysia, the  Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. These are countries where counter-insurgency warfare has been waged with starkly different results.

Malaysia and the Philippines represent textbook success stories where, in the 1950s,  the doctrine of counter-insurgency was formulated and tested with highly positive outcomes. In both cases, within a few years growing threats to national stability in the form of movements designed to overthrow the existing governments, were countered and eventually eliminated.

In Vietnam between 1962 and 1975, an attempt by the United States to defeat a communist guerilla movement with a counter-insurgent strategy supplemented by  massive conventional  force build-ups of more than half a million American troops failed  to realize its objective resulting in the first major military defeat for the United States with nearly 60,000 American lives lost and over two million Indochinese fatalities, mostly non-combatant civilians.

Wars are currently being waged by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan with positive outcomes far from certain. Why has the experience with counter-insurgency been so different in these five countries? Certain  conditions  determine whether a strategy of counter-insurgency will be successful or  not.  If these condition  are not present, no amount of overwhelming firepower in the form of a “surge” of military force can produce  favorable outcomes  for  governments fighting an insurgency.

Counter-insurgency’s unique feature is  the use of  military force combined with a political agenda to win the “hearts and minds” of the population whose loyalty and support is being sought by both the insurgents and the government in power. To successfully compete for the allegiance of the  “fish in the sea”, to use counter-insurgency jargon, the population must be offered physical security coupled with  a reasonable system of governance  which promises  a modicum of prosperity or at least some relief from the cycle of poverty and misery that has  created conditions for  launching an insurgency in the first place.

Military victory is a prerequisite to security, but it is neither easy to achieve nor long-lasting especially when the driving force behind the intervention is foreign as was the case in Vietnam and is today in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Once the foreign presence departs, an artificially supported regime can collapse  in a short time.  A decline in armed hostility must be accompanied  by “soft” activities  that include improved health, education,  nutrition and shelter programs which bring tangible benefits to the population who have been suffering  deprivations of war such as “collateral damage”, the killing of non-combatant civilians .

Building on military gains,  motivated, relatively uncorrupt political leadership  is essential.  Ramon Magsaysay was the Knight in Shining Armor who led the crusade which defeated the Hukbalahap insurgents in the Philippines; Ho Chi Minh and his fellow mandarin revolutionaries  gave  Communist Vietnam – in reality anti-colonialists fighting for independence from France – the  dynamic leadership  that was lacking in American-supported South Vietnam;  in Afghanistan President Karzai  demonstrates,  as he careens from one self-inflicted disaster to another, that he may soon  be as dysfunctional and disastrous as Saigon’s  ill-fated  Ngo Dinh Diem.

Political and military success is  sustained by belief in a “cause” or a movement.  In Vietnam,  non-communist forces were handicapped by the lack of any strong belief to carry them forward whereas their Communist opponents were driven by their  struggle for national independence. Today in Afghanistan, the Taliban and Al Qaeda have  the edge on “belief” and ideology which they can effectively marshal to motivate their fighters. Other factors including terrain and geographic proximity – Pakistan as a sanctuary for Afghan Taliban and Iran as a haven for Iraqi terrorist activity – also play an important role.

We also know, from Vietnam and Afghanistan,  that ”surges” don’t always work and that great power support even in massive doses, becomes impotent when faced with motivated, well-led  albeit ill-equipped forces.  In fact, a foreign presence works to the insurgents’ advantage , furnishing  it with captured weapons and other essential  war materiel. The M P – V I A yardstick is a clear indication that what is past is prologue. Malaysia’s insurgency was relatively simple to address and  fizzled when the ethnic Chinese minority, who were at  the heart of the rebellion, were given the right to own property and vote;  the Philippines was led out of lawlessness and rebellion by a gifted leader who tapped the sentiments of a population already highly favorable to the culture of western democracy after half a century under a benign American colonial regime.

The  Vietnam War is a classic example  of Western  ignorance in understanding  Asian history:  to Washington’s Cold Warriors, Ho Chi Minh’s verbatim  borrowing of the wording of the US constitution for his own country’s document had no meaning; nor did his written plea in 1945 to the US Embassy in Paris to help Vietnam shake off the French colonial yoke that was being re-imposed after World War II with US support. His letter was filed away without any action  by a Foreign Service  First Secretary and only surfaced a generation later, a quaint historic relic. Similarly an ignorance of Afghanistan’s history and the disastrous results of British and Soviet  interventions seem to characterize American policy deliberations and strategic decisions as we careen towards another foreign quagmire.

The outcome of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still awaited. But we know that military victory and political success are unlikely  in the absence of viable national leadership and as long as powerful neighbors – Iran and Pakistan – support insurgents whose message becomes stronger with each bomb dropped and life lost.

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