Insurgencies Rarely Win: Implications for Iraq
The cold, hard truth about the Bush administration’s strategy of “surging” additional U.S. forces into Iraq is that it could work. Insurgencies are rarely as strong or successful as the public has come to believe. Iraq’s various insurgent groups have succeeded in creating a lot of chaos. But they’re likely not strong enough to succeed in the long term. Sending more American troops into Iraq with the aim of pacifying Baghdad could provide a foundation for their ultimate defeat, but only if the United States does not repeat its previous mistakes.Stoker notes that there's been a few successes -- Algeria and Cuba are a couple of examples -- but the list of failed insurgencies is lengthy:
Myths about invincible guerrillas and insurgents are a direct result of America’s collective misunderstanding of its defeat in South Vietnam. This loss is generally credited to the brilliance and military virtues of the pajama-clad Vietcong. The Vietnamese may have been tough and persistent, but they were not brilliant. Rather, they were lucky—they faced an opponent with leaders unwilling to learn from their failures: the United States. When the Vietcong went toe-to-toe with U.S. forces in the 1968 Tet Offensive, they were decimated. When South Vietnam finally fell in 1975, it did so not to the Vietcong, but to regular units of the invading North Vietnamese Army. The Vietcong insurgency contributed greatly to the erosion of the American public’s will to fight, but so did the way that President Lyndon Johnson and the American military waged the war. It was North Vietnam’s will and American failure, not skillful use of an insurgency, that were the keys to Hanoi’s victory.
Stoker's right about the timeline. Public opinion has become increasingly sensitive to the costs of the war, and the congressional elections provided a huge wake-up call to the administration. Should the surge strategy prove successful throughout 2007 -- with perhaps a decline in sectarian violence and U.S. casualties -- public backing may improve and allow the U.S. to continue the hard job of securing and consolidating the Iraqi democracy. I agree with Stoker, though: It may be too late.
Insurgencies generally fail if all they are able to do is fight an irregular war. Successful practitioners of the guerrilla art from Nathanael Greene in the American Revolution to Mao Zedong in the Chinese Civil War have insisted upon having a regular army for which their guerrilla forces served mainly as an adjunct. Insurgencies also have inherent weaknesses and disadvantages vis-à-vis an established state. They lack governmental authority, established training areas, and secure supply lines. The danger is that insurgents can create these things, if given the time to do so. And, once they have them, they are well on their way to establishing themselves as a functioning and powerful alternative to the government. If they reach this point, they can very well succeed.
That’s why the real question in Iraq is not whether the insurgency can be defeated—it can be. The real question is whether the United States might have already missed its chance to snuff it out. The United States has failed to provide internal security for the Iraqi populace. The result is a climate of fear and insecurity in areas of the country overrun by insurgents, particularly in Baghdad....
But the strategy of “surging” troops could offer a rare chance for success—if the Pentagon and the White House learn from their past mistakes....
That’s welcome news, because one thing is certain: time is running out. Combating an insurgency typically requires 8 to 11 years. But the administration has done such a poor job of managing U.S. public opinion, to say nothing of the war itself, that it has exhausted many of its reservoirs of support. One tragedy of the Iraq war may be that the administration’s new strategy came too late to avert a rare, decisive insurgent victory.