Insurgencies do not usually end with a bang. They usually end in a whimper. Statistically, according to Rand, out of 73 concluded insurgencies, 47 ended with either a government win or what Rand calls a “mixed outcome.” Rand considers a mixed outcome to be a negotiated settlement of the conflict. Government victories and negotiated endings are almost always whimpers. Insurgent success is usually with a bang. Almost exactly two thirds of insurgencies end in whimpers.
Galula described this effect, and described the political win as rendering the insurgent “irrelevant.” Galula pointed out that the goal of the counterinsurgent is to make the insurgent irrelevant and then the “true believers” are reduced to the level of violent criminals. When this happens, it is eventually a “win” for the government. But, I would consider a negotiated settlement a win as well.
Why would a negotiated settlement be a win? Let’s narrow down the bang and whimper thing. Insurgencies end with either the reintegration into the (non-violent) political process of the greater part of the insurgency, they end with a total changeover of the government (insurgent win), or they end up with the annihilation of the insurgent. Annihilation of the movements themselves are rare. The most recent example is the defeat of the Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankan government. But there are few similarities and significant differences between the Tamil Tigers and Afghan insurgencies.
From what we see, nearly two thirds of insurgencies that have been decided ended either with reintegration of enough of the insurgency into the process to make further insurgency irrelevant or the total destruction of the insurgent. Let’s look at the first case, since the second is much rarer. Reintegration sometimes happened by the government responding to the legitimate concerns of the people and reducing the level of dissatisfaction (grievances) while simultaneously protecting both its own employees and the people themselves from insurgent influence. It sometimes happened through negotiating to bring the insurgents back into the political process. Either is acceptable, so long as the core values of the government are not breached. A combination would also work. The point is, when the political violence ends or ceases to be a serious threat to the government, the issues and contenders exit the realm of warfare and enter the realm of domestic politics. That is success, because the insurgency is effectively over, and it has not completely unseated the legitimate government.
The particulars of whether it is by reformation, negotiation or any mixture of both are irrelevant. The end result was the inclusion or re-inclusion of the formerly violent opposition into a civil political process, ending their participation in hostilities. That, truly is the goal of the counterinsurgent. Any other outcome is either indecisive or a loss for the counterinsurgent. Indecisive is when the fighting continues.
When the government wins, it is often not even apparent for some time. Governments usually win by a combination of factors that include some type of political reform. Either the government gets better, or it will likely lose. In a competition to govern, one path to success is to actually win in the area of governance. The violent component of insurgency can interfere with this to a great extent, so security is a key feature of success as well.
The most ideologically-driven insurgents will often “fight on” for years, but eventually become a criminal problem rather than a real political threat. Nonetheless, the apparent continuation of hostilities will often give the illusion of continued insurgency, but there is a point, which is very hard to describe or pinpoint, that insurgency degrades into a condition that looks more like Timothy McVeigh and less like Mao. That is the true tipping point, but it is often not clearly seen except in retrospect. That is a challenge for the government under threat of an insurgency, but it is even more of a challenge for the public support of international counterinsurgents; the home front.
National will is tested severely in counterinsurgencies. The will of the nation beset by an insurgency is severely tested, and the lives of its citizenry are at risk and often made miserable by the contest. The national will of nations assisting a counterinsurgency are also seriously tested, as we see in our own country. The significant delay in perception of when momentum actually shifts in a counterinsurgency is not a positive when it comes to maintaining public support for a course of action that includes active counterinsurgency by an international force.
The insurgency itself is also tested, and continuously so. Insurgents have natural strengths, such as the ability to remain largely difficult to detect. But they also have weaknesses or challenges to overcome, including morale, funding, recruitment, losses and sometimes even the basics like food and shelter. Weapons are not free, and neither is ammunition. In Afghanistan, it is remarkable that in many areas the insurgent can only afford to engage once every few days. This provides pressure on the insurgents to keep supplies coming. When governance improves and security is improved, local public support becomes harder to come by and information regarding the insurgents will begin to trickle in.
If things continue to improve, many pressures are put on the part-timers to quit showing up for ambushes. Finally, the local die-hards don’t quite quit at that point and probably never will. These long-term local engagements with insurgents are the real chess games in Afghanistan. They are like that weird 3-D game of chess on Star Trek, because each instance of the game will have three main components; military/security, governance and economic development. This game of 3-D chess is normally played out between locally savvy elder insurgents, generally one or more local GIRoA officials, and a series of Captains and Lieutenant Colonels who are on the ground for a year at a time. In the past couple of years, it has increasingly included USAID and State Department personnel. The insurgent competes in the military/security and governance lines and sometimes in the development line, although the insurgency itself provides little in the way of economic development.
By exception, in Afghanistan, poppy provides a significant example of how insurgents can provide development to serve their purposes. Of course, it’s not what we would like to see in long-term, sustainable development, but I submit that it is an example of insurgents manipulating the economy and providing employment opportunities. Insurgents may also control the access of humanitarian organizations to create the impression of providing services or development. However, there is no strong evidence that not providing social services has ever led to the failure of an insurgency. There is also no strong evidence that the provision of social services will result in a government win. Providing effective and acceptable governance, on the other hand, unarguably does often result in government wins. The provision of social services is a feel-good action that is not synonymous with good governance.
Statistically, the longer an insurgency is dragged out, the incidents of counterinsurgent wins actually increase slightly. But the loss or unreliability of foreign support has been a significant factor in a number of insurgent wins. Foreign forces engaged in counterinsurgencies are successful a little less than 50 percent of the time; if “government wins” is the measure of success as used by Rand. However, if we consider a success to include negotiated solutions that bring an end to insurgency, then the success rate of foreign active interventions is 12 of 17 or 70%.
As we’ve seen, about two thirds of insurgencies end with what could be termed success for the sitting government. While the outright collapse of insurgencies is included in that two thirds, more often it is by degrees and may include negotiated settlements. Quite often, it is months after the tipping point is reached before it is apparent that an insurgency is subsiding.
This describes how insurgencies have tended to work out, and a few examples of how these principles apply in Afghanistan. Obviously, we are trying to work this one into the two thirds of “successful” outcomes.
A success will sound more like a whimper than a bang. This doesn’t sit so well in a country that likes touchdowns, home runs and actually seeing someone win on “The Biggest Loser” or “American Idol.” Yet, that’s exactly what we are striving for. The next question is, “How do we fit Afghanistan into that successful, whimpering two thirds?”