- - Monday, August 9, 2021

With the United States and its NATO allies scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by mid-September 2021, following an almost 20-year military intervention to defeat the insurgency by the Taliban guerrilla fighters and their al Qaeda terrorist allies in order to restore political stability to the war-torn country, can the American counterinsurgency campaign be assessed as a success or a failure?

Are there measures of effectiveness in an ideally implemented counterinsurgency campaign that can be applied to assessing the effectiveness of the American-led intervention in Afghanistan, as well as in other conflict-ridden countries such as Iraq and Somalia, where American and other countries’ forces have intervened to help the embattled local governments restore political order in these countries?

These and other important questions about components of effectiveness in counterinsurgency are insightfully answered in Daniel Whittingham’s and Stuart Mitchell’s important and fascinating book, “Counterinsurgency: Theory and Reality.”



The authors are ideally suited to examine these issues, with both prominent British experts on counterinsurgency. Mr. Mitchell is Senior Lecturer at the Department of War Studies, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and Mr. Whittingham is Lecturer in the History of Warfare and Conflict at the Department of History, University of Birmingham.

To examine these issues, it is necessary to define insurgency and counterinsurgency. In what is one of the finest definitions of insurgency this reviewer has seen, the authors define it as an organized rebellion within a country which employs “violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region. It is a competition of wills. The violence may vary from small-scale ambushes, guerrilla warfare, and terrorism to full-scale conventional operations.” The mission of a counterinsurgency campaign, therefore, is to “defeat an insurgency either locally, regionally or internationally. This may rely on a combination of political, military, legal, psychological, social, civic or economic means.”

What is especially unique about the American and British counterinsurgency campaigns, the authors point out, is that they generally took place as military interventions in support of embattled governments in foreign countries which lacked the capability on their own to defeat the rebellions challenging them. For Britain, its noteworthy counterinsurgency campaigns, which are discussed in the book, took place in pre-independence Israel’s Mandatory Palestine (1944-48), Malaya (1948-60), Kenya (1952-60), and Northern Ireland (1969-1997), although it is part of the United Kingdom.

Notable counterinsurgency campaigns by the United States are also discussed, such as Vietnam (1954-75), which the authors contend “was essentially unwinnable and should never have been fought at all,” Iraq (2003-present), and Afghanistan (late 2001-present). 
Also discussed is the French counterinsurgency campaign in Algeria (1954-62), which is considered one of the last counterinsurgencies by a European colonial power, with the Algerian insurgents succeeding in winning their independence from France, although the French government was willing to withdraw from the country on its own volition.

What are the components of effective counterinsurgency? Although the authors do not provide their own listing of measures of effectiveness in one place, one can glean the following components from their discussion: military measures must support an overall effort to achieve a political solution, including upgrading the local government’s governing capability and legitimacy; the counterinsurgents must understand the nature of the local population, whose safety must be secured from insurgent attacks, and whose popular support needs to be gained (i.e., winning their ‘hearts and minds’); foreign support for the insurgents must be curtailed, while foreign support for the counterinsurgency campaign must be strengthened; and the insurgents base of support among the population needs to be marginalized in the effort to neutralize them militarily (i.e., defeated).  

With these measures of effectiveness providing a yardstick to assess the current American-led counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, the authors find that, at least under the government of former President Hamid Karzai (late December 2001-2014), it “lacked widespread legitimacy,” with corruption “permeating all levels” of the government; that, in terms of dealing with the local population, the complex tribal “web of loyalties” served to undermine “the efforts to pacify and defeat the Taliban”; that Pakistan, the important neighboring power, was a “fickle ally” “frequently harbouring divided loyalties (such as in providing ‘safe haven’ to Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Abbottabad); and that the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) were “corrupt and unreliable.”

Finally, although the authors do not discuss the latest developments in Afghanistan, where under current President Ashraf Ghani, some of these systematic problems may have been reduced, in assessing the effectiveness of the current American-led counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban insurgents, hopefully by the time the American and allied forces withdraw from the country, the local government will be able to make progress with the on-going peace talks with the Taliban and that Afghan military and police forces will succeed in holding off any major Taliban guerrilla offensives to take over the country to impose their harsh theocratic rule over the country.

To understand what needs to be done by the Afghan government as well as other governments facing prolonged insurgency rebellions, “Counterinsurgency: Theory and Reality” is highly recommended as a valuable yardstick in successfully waging counterinsurgency campaigns.  

• Joshua Sinai is a Professor of Practice, Counterterrorism Studies, at Capitol Technology University, Laurel, MD. 

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