Much has been made of the provision of sanctuary to Afghan insurgencies by Pakistan. Whether it is completely voluntary on the part of Pakistan is open to debate, but there is no doubt that there is a certain amount of collusion on the part of, at a minimum, the ISI and the several insurgencies. Conventional wisdom states that an insurgency that has an external safe haven will win. Conventional wisdom is often roughly equal to pop-culture wisdom. It may have it right in general and still be deeply flawed.
It turns out that safe havens are certainly an enabler to insurgencies, but by no means a guarantee of success. In rural insurgencies such as those in Afghanistan, safe haven may be had one valley away from a relatively strong government presence. A more deciding factor in rural insurgencies is not whether there is a safe haven available, but if the government can actually assert its presence in these rural areas. In Afghanistan, it’s a combination of being present and being effective. Afghans love effective people. They refer to them as, “active.” If an Afghan says that a government official is “active,” he usually means that the official is effective, at least as far as that man is concerned. It’s effectiveness in a local context.
The failure to do this is more linked with failure for counterinsurgents than the ability of the insurgent to find safe haven.
We have been using data provided by Rand to explore why insurgencies end, and it turns out that they looked at the issue of safe havens as well. The Rand study examined 53 insurgencies that have been decided which included sanctuaries. Of these, 30 ended with government victories or mixed outcomes. That’s a 56% rate of a favorable or less than catastrophic ending with the existence of sanctuary. That’s opposed to 18 out of 21 when there was no sanctuary. What does this tell us?
This tells us that with the presence of a sanctuary, a successful or acceptable outcome resulted 8 percent less than two thirds of the time. This is a slight decrease from the overall outcomes discussed in the last post. But, in the absence of an insurgent sanctuary, the success rate of the counterinsurgents is much higher. The existence of sanctuary does not presage an insurgent victory.
Conventional wisdom busted.
The absence of sanctuary makes the counterinsurgent’s job much easier. So, lamenting the presence of sanctuaries in Pakistan is like crying because your car is the wrong color. It is what it is, but that does not mean that the insurgents will necessarily be successful. The presence and effectiveness of the government in rural areas is a much greater indicator of success or failure for counterinsurgents.
This does not mean that the Pakistanis should not be continuously pressured to step up. It means that safe havens are not a deal-killer. It also tells us where to focus our efforts. But, since we already know that insurgency is a competition to govern, it’s really no surprise that focusing on providing acceptable governance is really more of a key to success than whether or not the insurgents have a place to hide.