Winning and Losing Counterinsurgencies
The current debate about President Obama’s decisions regarding troop levels and lengths of tenure in Afghanistan and Iraq have reopened the stunningly confusing and ill-conceived debate about whether the United States is “winning” or “losing” either or both of these conflicts. At one level, this debate is basically irrelevent; at another, it distorts what the key terms–synonyms for victory and defeat–mean in these kinds of wars.
The irrelevance comes from the recognition that it is the Iraqis and Afghans who will ultimately win or lose these wars, not the Americans. The side we back may prevail or be vanquished, and that may be conflated with victory or defeat for the United States, but that is a scorecard calculation. It is the Iraqis and Afghans, who will have to live with the outcomes and thus for whom winning and losing has real meaning. Ask yourself these questions: how will I, and by extrapolation, the American people be personally affected regardless of how either war comes out? how will the Afghans and Iraqis be affected by those outcomes? To the former question, the only positive answer has to be couched in terms of some heightened or lessened vulnerability to terrorist attacks that may or may not ever occur and which, if they do, may or may not be directly attributable to the wars’ outcomes. To the latter question, the answer can be a literal matter of life and death.
What constitutes victory or defeat is also a convoluted and confusing issue, but one with considerable emotional baggage that prejudices the debate. I know of nobody who, offered the alternatives, prefers defeat over victory. Thus, when any situation is described in those terms, it automatically prejudices the debate toward those who wrap themselves in the cause of “winning.” As just discussed, it is helpful to understand who exactly is supposed to be winning. It is even more important to specify what winning means. In conditions of insurgency-counterinsurgency, that is not as easy as toting up how many runs a baseball teams has scored.
The current confusion most clearly surrounds Afghanistan, which is both clearly an insurgency (making the United States the counterinsurgents) and a contest where the U.S. is clearly not winning. The most recent purveyors of obfuscation about what that means include Senator John McCain and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen. Both agree that the United State is not winning and that in counterinsurgency, “if you are not winning, you are losing.” Huh?
Two things need to be said about this analysis of the Afghan situation. Both start from the recognition that indeed the United States is not winning by any measure and that, in any personal or even physical sense, the United States cannot win this war.
The first comment is that winning and losing in insurgent wars are primarily NOT military determinations. As Lyndon Johnson put it so well during the Vietnam conflict, the crucial “battle” in insurgent warfare is over the “hearts and minds” of the subject population, in this case the Afghan people. The battle for loyalty is overwhelmingly a POLITICAL contest about which side the people want to see prevail. The only military contributions that can be made are either convincing the people that your side is a “winner” who deserves support, or preventing the other side from trumping the discussion by imposing its will by force on an otherwise reluctant population. In this regard, outside, foreign troops acting as counterinsurgents may actually work against the likelihood of the side they favor prevailing, because they will be identified by parts of the population as foreign devils occupying the country. The insurgents, on the other hand, will gain support because they are attempting to expel the invaders. Anyone who does not believe this dynamic is present in Afghanistan has not studied much Afghan history.
The other comment is about who wins and loses. The only real objective the United States has in Afghanistan is whether the post-war country will serve as a sanctuary for Al Qaeda. We back a regime that opposes Al Qaeda, but it is not entirely clear the U.S. is backing a winner here. Afghans say they do not like the Taliban, but they also dislike the Americans. In turn, the Taliban gains some of its support because it supports the Americans. Who will rule Afghanistan, which is what the war is actually all about (at least if you are an Afghan), is an Afghan, not an American matter. The United State may be able to declare victory if the side we back prevails (however unlikely that may be), but what if the side we favor is not the side the Afghans prefer? Does that mean the Afghans could lose while we win? Is that winning?
In the end, the confusing assessments by McCain and Mullen amount to an admission that one loses in counterinsurgency if the battle for the hearts and minds goes to the opposition. That is certainly the interpetation most students of counterinsurgncy would attach to notions of winning and losing. If that is the case and we are losing, it means we are not winning the battle of loyalties.
Therein lies the rub and what makes counterinsurgency so sifficult and frustrating. Sir Robert Thompson, the British hero of the Malay counterinsurgency of the late 1940s, made the point that an insurgency can never be won by foreign troops, because only natives of the country in which it is occurring can win the crucial battle for hearts and minds. Foreigners will, to some extent, always make matters worse because they are aliens. Overcoming that conundrum has always been the sticking point in counterinsirgency doctrine, and it is not a problem that anyone has satisfactorily overcome. That includes the United State in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So, who’s winning? Clearly not the United States, but that is not the point. It is the Afghans and Iraqis who ultimately must win or lose in both cases, and they will be the ones who pay the price depending on winners and losers. Furthermore, phrasing the whole thing in terms of the U.S. winning and losing simply raises emotional hackles for us (we don’t want to lose) that may make it more likely that the people for whom this really matters (the Iraqis and Afghans) will ultimately lose. Then who wins and who loses? Senator McCain? Admital Mullen? Your answers?