Counterinsurgency: The Impossible War?

The time has finally come, apparently. After almost twenty years of  turning many purported corners towards victory, the United States and its allies have decided to withdraw their combined military forces from Afghanistan. President Joe Biden announced this move on April 14th, 2021, with the intent of completing the withdrawal by September 11th, 2021 (a weird choice as that date that holds no symbolic significance insofar as I can remember). This withdrawal has already begun in earnest at the time of writing this essay and is due to pick up in the coming months.

I for one, am all in favor of this withdrawal – assuming we actually follow through on it. Lord knows that an entire army of  think tank personalities, politicians and both current and former government and military officials have been mobilizing since the announcement was made in order to offer every reason under the sun why withdrawing from Afghanistan would be a tragic and horrible mistake. If you can imagine a reason to stay forever, someone has probably written an op-ed about it by now in one of the broadsheet newspapers or for one of the major news networks.

But if we actually do leave, I think its way past time. Don’t get me wrong, I am by no means indifferent to the fate and plight of the Afghan people once we do leave. I’m not blind to what will probably happen to the fragile Afghan state and military in the face of the Taliban and other armed groups once Western forces are no longer propping them up, and I dread the thought of what will happen to ordinary Afghans in the face of what will likely be unleashed upon them after the withdrawal is complete. What is almost certainly going to happen is horrible and tragic – that is one thing I agree with all the talking heads on in this situation.

That is about the only thing I agree with them on, however. The fact that the Afghan state will almost certainly collapse after we leave is indicative of the fact that twenty years of U.S. and NATO counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and other armed groups have been an abject failure – as have any related measures in the realm of nation-building. Our being there hasn’t helped anything, but has only made things worse through our own ineptitude or callousness (or sometimes both). While things will very likely get worse for Afghanistan in the near-term – and that is awful – our being there will only be worse for their country and our own in the long-run. It is arguable whether we even had to be there in the first place to accomplish our original reason for going in. It is time to leave, end of story.

Now, we could have a long, in-depth political discussion about why we stayed in Afghanistan for so long and underlying reasons for why we choose to go in to begin with – aside from going after Osama bin Laden (who was a fucking horrible person by the way, make no mistake; rest in piss, Osama). But that’s not what I want to focus on in this essay. Sorry if you’re disappointed.

Instead, I feel the withdrawal from Afghanistan is an excellent opportunity to talk about another obvious question: why the United States and its allies couldn’t “win” the war in Afghanistan after twenty years occupying it, thousands upon thousands of lives lost and people maimed, and billions of dollars spent. This in turn opens up a wider discussion about whether or not you can actually win what has been dubbed “counterinsurgency” to begin with, especially when you draw a long line through the myriad of other attempted COIN campaigns throughout recent history.

Strap yourselves in. This is gonna be (another) long one, people. Another heads up, I’m obviously will work to back my historical claims with some evidence, but a lot of my general musings on insurgency as a form of warfare are basically just my own mental vomit in text form. I haven’t served in uniform, and my experience as a defense profession has focused on conventional war. I’m just trying to offer my perspective looking in after growing up in the shadow of these wars, trying to point out what seems obvious to me after twenty something years.

Chasing the COIN Dragon

When I titled this essay, I was very careful to put a question mark after “the impossible war” because as an analyst, I try to avoid absolute certainties and black and white reads of a situation. A truly successful COIN campaign may be achievable, but I feel like the number of circumstances that would have to line up to make such a victory possible would be so unique and specific to any given situation (as well as rare) as to be unrepeatable and un-useful as a template. So, while I leave myself open to that possibility, such a war – even if feasible – would be the exception, not the rule. With that in mind, whenever I say that COIN is “impossible”, why don’t’ you just assume I mean “next-to-impossible” or “practically impossible” in reality.

But all that being said, I started writing this piece in late 2020 and in that time, I’ve tried to think of some actual “wins” in COIN. By win, I mean where the COIN side of the conflict actually won the war wholesale, completely defeating the insurgent adversary. I consider myself a fairly astute student of modern military history, and as I searched my mental databank of 20th and 21st century insurgencies, I couldn’t think of a single goddamn one where the COIN force actually won. Oh, I can think of at least a handful of insurgencies that eventually grew to the point they successfully overthrew the government they were fighting: Cuba, Vietnam, There still aren’t a ton of instances where the insurgents fully win either – something I’ll touch on later – but there’s still more of those instances I can think than ones where COIN forces won.

I expect someone may disagree with me here and try and offer up their favorite COIN campaign as proof I’m wrong. One potential COIN “victory” that may get brought up is the Malayan Emergency where the British supposedly helped wage a successful COIN campaign against Malayan communists. Well, two problems for me with that campaign: 1.) the success was only fleeting, as within a decade or so of it ending a fresh insurgency had cropped up, going on for decades until ending with a peace accord in 1989; and 2.) it required some methods that quite frankly would be war crimes today (and arguably would have been that even at the time), and I think the moment you need to resort to war crimes to be “successful” in any war you’ve lost the plot completely.

There may be other conflicts someone might bring up to say “the government won this civil war here, so ha ha.” The thing is that a civil war and an insurgency are not necessarily the same thing to me. Most insurgencies are civil wars, but you can have an insurgency that isn’t a civil war – when its solely against a foreign occupying power. You can also have a civil war that is mostly conventional in nature, with both sides fighting in open warfare. An insurgency can grow into a full-scale civil war or rebellion, but that is not guaranteed to happen and depends on a lot of factors – another thing I’ll touch on in a bit. Since I harp on about definitions a lot, the definition of insurgency I’m using is the Merriam-Webster definition  of “a condition of revolt against a government that is less than an organized revolution and that is not recognized as belligerency.”

So, now that we know what we’re talking about with insurgencies, why is it that there doesn’t seem to be any real COIN victories? That is a question I feel the U.S. military hasn’t asked enough – if at all. They’ve focused so much on trying to find a “theory of victory” for COIN I don’t think they ever stopped to really consider why they haven’t been able to win already if they’re supposedly doing all the “right” things. The U.S. military establishment has put a lot of time, money, and effort into devising ways to try and prosecute COIN, including a whole-ass manual written by everyone’s favorite four-star philander General David Petraeus (Ret.) along with Trump’s formerly favorite Marine General James “Chaos”/”Mad Dog”/”Warrior Monk” Mattis (Ret.) back in 2006.

This approach really illustrates the heart of the matter, which is a lot of times people who think about COIN think about it purely in the sense of fighting a war in the tactical sense, focusing on killing hostiles and what have you – even if they pay lip service to hearts and mind. I bet a lot of the “successful” COIN campaigns some people would offer to me in rebuttal would be ones where the COIN force showed some success at least in finding and kill insurgents or temporarily disrupting their operations at a tactical level – but still failed to bring the conflict to a conclusion. What these approaches miss is that insurgency is inherently a political issue, not purely a military one, and therefore cannot be solved by military means on their own.

And so, we reach the main point of my article (half-way in): COIN is almost impossible to win because at the end of the day, the only way you can make it stop permanently is by offering some kind of political concession to the insurgents – which inherently involves admitting defeat in the conflict to some degree.

But why is that the case? Again, I’m not a COIN expert by profession (arguably, no one is), but the best way I can figure an insurgency or any kind of rebellion or armed uprising or civil war usually begins because there is a group of people within a territory with certain demands or needs that are not being met by the power in control – whether that be a government or an occupier. The group feels that any other avenue through which change could feasibly be achieved has been closed off to them or rendered ineffectual, and that they have been left with no other recourse than to resort to armed conflict in order to try and force those in power to answer their grievances – whether those be a limited set of policies or actions or the removal of the authorities themselves from power and their replacement with new leaders.

It’s important to note before we go any further that these demands or needs don’t necessarily have to be legitimate or reasonable or altruistic or even potentially based on reality, but they have to be ones that the group feels strongly enough about to go to war over for whatever reasons. It’s also important to note that none of this is assuming the insurgents are going to be the “good guys” by default. I can think of more than a few insurgent groups from history that started out with good intentions only to become as bad as or worse than the governments they were fighting – or insurgent groups that started out bad and had bad opinions from the get-go only to get even worse over time. However, we’re not debating the justness of insurgencies here. What we’re looking at is the mechanics of why winning them is next to impossible.

“We’ve Always Been at War With East Insurgentia”

Getting back on track: in an ideal world, you either would have everyone’s needs met, or if they weren’t, the people would at least feel they had other mechanisms through which to enact change short of armed violence. Of course, we live in a less than ideal world. States are often not only deaf to the requests or pleas of their citizens, but also often react to those pleas with violence as a punishment for ever questioning their authority in the first place. This is to say nothing of how an occupying power may react. When people feel that the system is broken – or there is no system for them to work through in the first place – it’s no wonder why rebellions and insurgencies so often occur. What is more surprising is why governments and their supporters or backers are often so surprised that they can’t seem to end an insurgency when the cause and the solution to their problem has been in front of their face the entire time.

As long as the original grievances that were bad enough to cause an insurgency to exist continue to do so, and the system to address grievances remains broken or non-existent, and the grievances go unanswered, an insurgency will likely continue. It doesn’t matter how many insurgents are killed, weapons caches seized, hearts and minds attempted to be won – as long as that original cause is still there the fighting can linger on for decades. After all, when people are willing to take up arms for a cause, chances are they’re willing to die for it or hold out until they see some results. There may be pauses or lulls, but at the end of the day they are only that: pauses. So, the only way you will ever conclusively end the fighting is to either give the insurgents what they want or reach some kind of compromise that they find amenable and fair and in which you are giving up something that is acceptable to you and you are willing to part with in negotiations.

This is why you can’t “win” a counterinsurgency in the same way you can defeat an invading army or other conventional aggressor. You can avoid flat-out losing in COIN indefinitely, but because an ultimate end to an insurgency requires some kind of appeasement to insurgent demands, total victory is impossible. If you are not willing to concede and accept a loss, or compromise and accept some form of a draw, the best-case scenario is to be locked in a forever war that maybe you can maybe keep locked down from expending a vast number of lives and resources – if you’re lucky. Even then, the best you can hope for is to essentially keep a house fire limited to one corner of one room, with the ever-constant threat hanging over you that it may suddenly flare up again and having to keep expensive firefighting equipment on standby at all times to manage the fire and be prepared for a spread.

This is also the reason that while I consider a counterinsurgency unwinnable, I do not think the same of a more conventional civil war. This speaks to a paradox or irony of insurgency I’ve noticed when it comes to the insurgent side. When your rebellion remains limited to an insurgency, disparate and spread out in small disconnect groups, it’s really hard for you to lose but – much like the COIN guys have a hard time winning – it’s also hard for you to win if your goal is overthrowing the government or throwing out the occupier. With a foreign occupier, you may still be able to win as a low level insurgency if you’re just willing to sit tight and wait it out for a few decades until they finally realize it’s not worth it and withdraw. But, if you’re also fighting your own government, they may hang on harder because they stand to lose more if you’re seeking to kick them out or hold them to account or lop off a sizeable chunk of their territory and secede as your own country.

This is why Mao Tse-Tung (who I’m not a fan of but does understand this subject fairly well) divided guerilla warfare into three different phases, as detailed in his own book on the subject, translated by the U.S. Marines. The first phase consists of organizing, training, equipping, and consolidating your forces out of harm’s way, before escalating to insurgency in the second phase. It was only in the third and final phase when the guerilla force reached critical mass and the enemy was weakened that the insurgency would cease to be an insurgency and shift into a conventional war of maneuver against the enemy forces.

Therein lies the paradox that, by increasing your forces and shifting your strategy to focus on conventional warfare, while your chances of victory increase, so do your chances of defeat. It’s a lot easier for your army to be defeated when you have to maneuver in the open, massing your formerly disparate forces where they can be spotted and hit with artillery and airstrikes if you don’t remain dynamic and flexible as a commander. That’s why, while there are arguably no cases where a COIN force outright defeated an insurgency, there are still more than a handful of cases where the government or governing power in a conventional civil war defeated the rebel force. Escalating to that level carries obvious risks to the insurgent force if done at the wrong time or under the wrong circumstances and maybe that’s why many insurgencies appear to stay as insurgencies indefinitely.

This brings up an interesting point that, while its ultimately easier for an insurgent force to win an insurgency than a COIN force to win a counter-insurgency, it’s still damn hard for the insurgents to win. More often than not, it seems insurgencies just drag on indefinitely, only occasionally resulting in a definite conclusion. Otherwise, what you get are what we now know as “forever wars”, with the death and destruction and senseless waste crawling on across decades to the point you have entire generations who have only ever known the war.

The unwinnable nature of counterinsurgency is especially obvious when you consider the core reasons why counterinsurgency efforts to preserve colonial empires ultimately failed. The French were never going to win in Algeria or Vietnam, nor the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, or the Dutch in Indonesia, and so on and so on. The original grievance of the local people was the very fact that those foreign colonial empires had control of their lands, and the only way it was ever going to end was with the imperial powers leaving.

Even some of the counterinsurgency “victories” among this era of the final gasps of colonialism that someone might bring up to challenge my argument aren’t really victories when you look closer. We already saw this with the Malayan Emergency, but it can be found in another British example from that period in Africa. The British “defeated” the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya – after spending £55 million in 1950s money and the largest wartime use of capital punishment in the history of the British Empire – only to turn around and give Kenya independence some three years after the uprising had supposedly ended. Who really won there in the end? 

This brings us back to Afghanistan, the muse for this piece. However bad the Taliban and al Qaeda are – and they are in fact very bad – at the end of the day, we invaded Afghanistan. We were never invited in with the consent of its people to help them to push back an invader or to undertake some other altruistic task. While military planners and think tank ghouls scratch their hands and agonize over how their various COIN tactics and strategies haven’t panned out, the point flies over their head. They ignore or forget that the key reason why the Taliban still attracts support and is able to fight back against us is because ultimately, more than enough Afghans do not want us there and will not stop until Western militaries are no longer in that country.

This is by no means an apologia for the Taliban or al-Qaeda or Islamic State or any of the other groups that brutalize and oppress Afghans – let me be crystal clear, fuck those guys. But at the end of the day, other ideology aside, enough Afghans oppose a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and the government that we established after the invasion that until we are gone, and changes are made to the way that Afghanistan is governed, conflict there will never end. It’s that simple. If COIN is already extraordinarily difficult to win as a state fighting its own population, it must be truly impossible as an imperial power that has assumed control of an area – especially when you consider how many empires have tried and failed to conquer Afghanistan in particular, earning it its moniker of the “Graveyard of Empires.”

“The only winning move is not to play”

Ok, so counterinsurgency is practically unwinnable. I could walk away just at that and call it an essay. But I feel it’s worth trying to end this with something actionable here instead of just dealing with this purely in a “not even once” negative message.

If COIN is unwinnable, the real “winning” strategy is a preemptive one. (i.e., ensuring that you create the conditions that would prevent an insurgency from breaking out in the first place). Having a political system that is truly free, democratic, just, transparent and responsive to any grievances from its citizens seems like a good and obvious starting point – so they have avenues to go down to try and change things that are actually working and available and have a shot of success. Likewise, working to create a system where the basic needs of your citizens are provided for seems like it would stop a lot of people from having serious grievances to begin with, let alone resorting to taking up arms to seek redress. Granted, I am a pie-in-the-sky lefty, so what the fuck do I know, right? This would never make it in a McKinsey slide deck.

But even when the will to do this is present, there’s the question of “but what good does this do for a country like Afghanistan?” Fair point, honestly. It’s easy to say all this living in a developed, Western country – even with all the many, many problems those have these days. All I can say to that is, even if other countries are willing and able to offer the assistance to try and make that happen, at the end of the day the people of that country also have to want a different system and be willing to take action to make that happen. It’s not something that can be forced upon them, nor should it be forced upon them (this is part of the reason I am very much opposed to regime change by outside forces, something I want to write about in another essay, so stay tuned). It is up to the people in a given polity to decide when enough is enough. It may be hard to watch people suffering from the outside in – I know it is for me when I look at the world today – but ultimately that choice is theirs and theirs alone. Decades of sunk costs in Afghanistan should be proof of that. A people have to decide for themselves when it’s time for a change, not foreign entities. All you can do in the meantime from the outside is do what you can to help them survive until they make that choice themselves.

The flip side to this may be “what about when a foreign power or entity is supporting an insurgency”, artificially inflating its power and capabilities and influence when it otherwise may not have that much or even exist to begin with. That’s another valid question and to be honest I don’t have a good answer to that. This is part of why I put a question mark after “unwinnable” in the title of this essay. There’s a lot of uncertainty. I don’t pretend to have all the answers here, and this is something that is worth some additional study. What happens when a foreign power is supporting an insurgency with malintent? I’d probably argue to an extent that the ability to be able to create an insurgency or inflate the powers of one still shows there is some kind of underlying grievance or issue in the country at hand, but that still may not be the case depending on the motivations of the intervening powers or powers supporting the insurgency. All I can say to that is, this is an idea I want to stick a pin in and think of later, because it is something that could become an issue in the future for new democratic socialist governments across the world that come to power and are faced with hostile forces unwilling to let them govern by any means available to them.

This admission by me in a way shows how little supposed defense analysts like myself understand about insurgency, despite the fact it has seemingly become the most common form of armed conflict in the world. Many so-called experts have knowingly or unknowingly misunderstood or misinterpreted the underlying issues of insurgency for decades now. As we finally, hopefully withdraw from Afghanistan after spending the majority of my life so-far fighting a fruitless and bloody war there, I can only hope that this leads to an awakening in understanding the reasons for why insurgencies begin in the first place, the pointlessness in trying to win them militarily, initiatives to try and remove the conditions that cause them to start in the first place.

Being the cynical bastard that I am, I don’t hold out a lot of hope that these concepts will sink in anytime soon. But maybe someday. You have to hold out hope for something these days, right?

6 thoughts on “Counterinsurgency: The Impossible War?

  1. Second comment on this blog, hopefully this one will show up.

    There are plenty of successful counter-insurgency campaigns: Insurgencies were defeated in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion, in Chechnya by the Russians, in Ukraine after WW2 against by the Russians, Shining Path, the PKK in Turkey, the IRA… It’s actually quite a long list.

    The more salient question is why the U.S. wasn’t able to end the Taliban’s insurgency? And the answer to that is because: 1) A nominal U.S. ally, Pakistan, was backing the Taliban (and even Al-Qaeda, bin Laden’s compound was like a mile away from a Pakistani military base or something) and the support of state actors is a crucial element in keeping an insurgency going (Mao even listed it in one of his conditions for successful guerrilla warfare) 2) The U.S. never confronted Pakistan about their support for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda or imposed a cost so of course they kept doing it 3) The U.S. also turned a blind eye to the insane levels of corruption of its Afghan allies like Karzai (who, it turns out, was parlaying with the Taliban) and this corruption effectively destroyed all the money and effort that went into ‘nation-building’. Defeating an insurgency isn’t just a question of brute force, it’s also a question of politics and Afghans, understandably, had very low levels of confidence in the U.S.-backed government which created the cracks in which the Taliban could operate.

    The U.S.’s successful counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq after the invasion had more to do with political changes from 2005 onward than it did with Bush’s temporary surge of 30,000 additional troops there or David Petraeus’ strategic genius (🙄). The basic jist of what happened is that Al-Qaeda hijacked the post-invasion Sunni insurgency and overreached; they started trying to impose their will on Sunni tribes, tried to force the Sunni tribes to approve of marriages with Al-Qaeda foreign fighters, and the Sunni tribes turned on them and asked the U.S. (and the fledgling Iraqi government) for help in getting rid of Al-Qaeda. That wasn’t something the U.S. or the Shia-dominated Iraqi government could engineer, it took place organically and largely independently of U.S. policymakers, but the U.S. did the right thing by seizing on the opportunity. Eventually Maliki came along and undid all this by alienating the Sunni minority with his sectarian, pro-Iran, autocratic repression and a new Sunni insurgency—this time led by ISIS—emerged in 2014. And once again this insurgency was subdued by the U.S. in conjunction with Iraqi allies.

    How and why U.S. ‘nation building’ kind of, sort of succeeded in Iraq and kind of, sort of didn’t succeed in Afghanistan has a lot to do with the difference in political outcomes between the two wars.

    And as I’ve said in my previous comment, the notion that no good came out of U.S. presence in Afghanistan (“our being there hasn’t helped anything”) is plainly untrue: A whole generation of Afghan girls and women got their educations and careers that they otherwise wouldn’t had were it not for the occupation. We can debate whether or not that was worth all the money, blood, and effort that went into ‘nation building’ but to say zero good was achieved is just demonstrably false.

    As for the argument that the U.S. didn’t invade with the consent of the Afghan people, well, yes; the U.S. didn’t invade Germany or Japan with the consent of their peoples either. The difficulty for your case for withdrawal though is that the U.S. withdrew and ceded Afghanistan to the Taliban without the consent of the Afghan people. If it was wrong to invade without their consent, how is it right to withdraw without their consent?


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