Likelihood of Success in Afghanistan

Spoiler Alert:  Not likely.

Dr. Andrew Enterline and Joseph Magagnoli (a grad student of Enterline’s) have co-written a report surveying the history of counterinsugency success rates in the 20th century.  In this instance, counterinsurgency undertaken by a foreign/colonial power in order to assist in a local appointed state government (i.e. just like what we have in Afghanistan right now).

They have a short overview of their report that they’ve posted to ForeignPolicy here.  The full report which is an impressive document is here.

They write:

By the broadest metric — the rate of success across the entire pool — militaries succeeded about 60 percent of the time. After World War II, this rate dropped to 48 percent. Given these raw estimates, the prospects for success in Afghanistan appear rather grim, worse than a coin toss.

Yet this initial assessment fails to incorporate the dynamic nature of counterinsurgency warfare. In the post-1946 period, if militaries altered their strategies during a war, the chance of success improved to 55 percent, an example of which is the successful switch in British strategy during the 1952-1960 Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. If foreign states did not alter their strategies in the face of recalcitrant insurgents, however, the rate of success fell to 38 percent. Thus, though strategy changes do not serve as silver bullets, they do improve the odds of success significantly — while a failure to adapt strategically reduces them.

What of switches to hearts-and-minds strategies? During the entire 20th century, their adoption resulted in a rate of military success of 75 percent. After World War II, such strategies won in two-thirds of conflicts — again, an improvement on the norm.

All of which seems to suggest the new coming population-centric strategy of Gen. McChrystal in Afghanistan has some good odds behind it.  Except for this little fact (my emphasis):

Finally, we analyzed the timing of the strategic change against the final outcome of the counterinsurgency campaign. Some pundits and analysts have claimed the new strategy in Afghanistan misses the early “window of opportunity” necessary to make a difference in the outcome of the conflict, one in which the insurgency is entrenched and Afghan suspicion of foreign forces becomes heightened. Our analysis indicates that all foreign states that shifted to a hearts-and-minds strategy after eight years of counterinsurgency ultimately failed to defeat the insurgents, a pattern that does not bode well for Afghanistan.

Well it does not bode well for the US/NATO effort in Afghanistan.  Whether it bodes well or ill for the Afghanis themselves is less clear.

As I said the article is a very helpful analysis of what it covers, but in terms of its methods (i.e. what it is informing us about) I have some questions.  Here it’s better to read the full report because the authors do recognize the limitations of the study they carry out.  The main limitation being that they are not analyzing the political end game that countersinsurgency campaigns ultimately are tied to (and in fact serve).

For example, the list of “winners” of COIN in the post WWII era includes the French in Algeria.  Now how many people out there consider the French campaign in Algeria a win?  How many French would? Even the authors must concede (from page 8 of their report):

Furthermore, a military victory achieved might be accomplished at high cost, and in turn prompt a foreign power to accept political defeat, which is what one might argue occurred during the French involvement in the Algerian war of Independence.

Exactly.  On the level of military success in COIN alone, the outlook is not good.  Of course history is never a completely deterministic affair, but it does repeat itself.  Just having fancier weapons systems alone does not mean that history has been overcome in this kind of scenario.

But more importantly, it doesn’t tell us the broader question of the relation of the war to the peace/stabilization/political effort.

In other words, what if you gain military victory at the price of losing your political soul?

And here Afghanistan is sunk and there seems to me no way around that fact.  Just as in Iraq (although worse given the fractured history of Afghanistan) the chance to build a state–if there ever was a legitimate chance to do so–is gone.  The attempt at nation building at this phase is a fool’s errand in my mind. Instead of seeing Afghanistan through the lens of failed state status (and therefore needing a state to be created through elections and training army/police) I think the US should think much more flexibly about the reality of state-lets and how best to manage them–again if management is at all a possibility.

Another point that I think is not sufficiently clarified is the brutality index of the counterinsurgency “success” campaigns.  Victors in the Enterline-Magagnoli list include the Sinhalese against the Tamil Tigers, the Russians against the Chechens, the Indonesians against the East Timorese (human rights violations anyone?), and the British in Kenya and Malaya.  What those campaigns all have in common is the total brutality of the victors.  The Russian COIN campaign against the Chechens is classified as a “hearts and minds” approach (i.e. population-centric warfare).  Well population-centric might just mean being embedded in the local population so you can brutalize the people and terrorize them into not supporting the insurgency. I’ve described this pattern before at the League and it’s worth repeating.

In Kenya the British publicly hanged insurgents and kept people in essentially concentration camps.  Now we know for a lot of reasons the US can’t (nor should) do such a horrific thing.  In Malaya they [ed: The British] were fighting an ethnic Chinese minority who did not have the support of much of the local population–an analogy that applies perhaps in the northern parts of Afghanistan but certainly not the south.

When that last point is factored in–only on the military success side–the prospects are worse than grim.  Add the political factor and it looks as bleak as possible.

I know Vietnam immediately rears its ugly head and the fear of the quagmirization of Afghanistan comes to mind.  But I’m not sure that analogy holds.  The Vietcong had a plan to take over a state and were in that sense classical fighters of that era.  I’m still not really convinced that the various groups collectively known as the Taliban–or at least all of its leadership–really want to replay the 90s and take the country over.  I see much more in the professionalization of the narco and gun-running industry and a more mafia-like “extortion/protection racket” coming into being than a full fledged ideological state-entity (as communism held for Ho Chi Minh).

Update I: Br. Will points me to this post discussing COIN in relation to Star Wars wherein Matt Yglesias makes basically the same point I’m making. Namely being evil enough does pay dividends in warfare.   The commentariat bring up the (real life!!!) example of the Chechen revolt as I did.  The one thing to think about re: Afghanistan is that the Taliban are the biggest, baddest, and most psychotic players in the neighborhood.  Maybe they are immune to eradication.  It’s a totally hypothetical though because the US is not going to be going Russians vs. Chechens (or Death Star offensive threat capacity) against the ‘ban.

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2 thoughts on “Likelihood of Success in Afghanistan

  1. Once upon a time, I could have told you what success in Afghanistan would look like:

    Osama confirmed killed or captured.

    That was pretty much it. Barring that, the whole “we’re pretty sure he’s dead” thing would have sufficed (had he not released that tape in 2004, for example, I’d have been certain enough that he was dead).

    Barring both of those, I’d be content with the whole “we sure sent a lot of message in a very short time” message given to the Taliban in Kabul… but then we’d have to declare victory and go home.

    As it stands, we didn’t get either of the first two and we have no hope of achieving the third.

    I wouldn’t even know what victory in Afghanistan would even look like at this point.

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  2. it’s tough. basically al-qaeda has largely moved next door to Pakistan. Victory for the US (in the peace/stabilization sense is completely unclear to me). Some victory-ish scenario for the Afghans is probably some de facto regionalization and some non-aggression amongst the various warlord types who control feudal like territories. Ain’t pretty that’s for damn sure.

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