Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 19, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

COUNTERINSURGENCY....Via Ken Layne, John Perry Barlow reminds me of something I was going to write about a few weeks ago but then forgot about. It seems that on a recent airplane flight Barlow was sitting next to the CEO of a firm that does private security work in Iraq, and this guy was pretty pessimistic about our chances of success in Iraq. He listed all the usual reasons, but then added this:

Finally he pointed out that history provides a gloomy prognosis. "I can't think of a single case where a popular local guerrilla movement failed to defeat a conventional foreign occupying force," he said. "From the American Revolution through Viet Nam, the guerrillas always win. Usually, it takes them a long time and they suffer most of the casualties, but they win."

Is this right? A little while back there was a list of insurgencies making the rounds of conservative blogs, the point being that in a number of cases the insurgents had lost. So Iraq wasn't hopeless at all, you see.

Now, I don't doubt that, but my first question was: what if we limit ourselves to counterinsurgencies fought by big foreign powers? How have they done?

Off the top of my head, I can think of three large-scale examples since World War II: the French in Algeria, the United States in Vietnam, and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Needless to say, the big foreign powers didn't do well in any of these.

Other, smaller examples of big-power counterinsurgencies include the British in Northern Ireland, Israel in the West Bank, and the British in Malaysia. The closest to success of the three is Northern Ireland, but it's also the least similar to Iraq since it's a stretch to call Britain a "big foreign power" in that case.

There are other examples, but no good ones come to mind where the foreign power has been successful. But I might be missing one, since military history isn't my strongest suit. Here are the requirements:

  • Involves a foreign power fighting against local insurgents. I'm thinking here of genuine foreign powers, not things like Russia in Chechnya or China in Tibet.

  • Just to be clear on this, we're looking for a case where a foreign power actually committed significant troops and did the fighting, not one where they merely provided support and a few advisors to a local government.

  • Happened sometime after World War II.

  • The foreign power clearly won.

What's the best example? Kosovo? That wasn't counterinsurgency, it was a bombing campaign. The U.S. in Afghanistan? That was a fairly ordinary short war, not an insurgency. Can anyone think of a better example?

UPDATE: Several further examples have been offered in comments:

  • The British in Malaysia. The communist insurgency was defeated, but I think it was done primarily by the Malays themselves, who contributed many more troops than the British did and were fighting against an insurgency that had little popular support in the first place. Still, it's more of a success than I gave it credit for.

  • Oman. I don't think this meets the criteria I laid out. The British provided plenty of help, but this was still mostly a local government suppressing a local insurgency.

  • Stalin against Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Hmmm. Need some help on this one. Was there really much of a military (as opposed to political) insurgency in either country? Of course, I'm not sure Stalin's methods are available to us in any case....

  • Greek communists. There was a short insurgency that was put down with British help in 1944, but it only lasted a few weeks. The 1947-49 insurgency was put down by Greek troops (with American support).

  • Cuba/Soviet Union in Angola. This is an interesting example, and one I hadn't thought of. Seems more like a traditional civil war fought with help on both sides, but it might be a good case that meets my criteria. Comments?

  • The Philippines after WWII (not the one in 1910). Yeah, the Huk rebellion fits reasonably well.

  • Vietnam against the Khmer Rouge. I was trying to avoid next door neighbors, but this isn't a bad example. The Khmer Rouge clearly lost, and Vietnam eventually pulled out.

So there appear to be four cases that might meet my criteria, depending on how tightly you construe them: the British in Malaysia, the Cubans in Angola, the Huk rebellion, and Vietnam against the Khmer Rouge. Any comments pro or con on these four? Any lessons to be learned about why they succeeded and others didn't?

Kevin Drum 8:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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