Some liberal writers have written as if counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare aka low-intensity or asymmetrical warfare is all a scam to support big defense budgets and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. COIN warfare was first developed as a field of military science in the 20th century by the British army based on its experience in colonial conflicts in Africa and the Middle East and by the U.S. Marine Corps based on its experience fighting "banana wars" in Central America and the Caribbean in the 1930s. It then underwent major modification based on British experience in colonial conflicts in the 1950s and the French experience in Indochina. It is continuously evolving based on experience. The lessons derived are genuine, even if they are often misapplied.
Five cases are usually cited as models or exemplars for successful COIN warfare: the anti-Mau Mau campaign in Kenya in the 1950s; the Greek civil war of 1944-49; the Malaysian emergency of 1948-60; the anti-Huk campaign in the Philippines in the 1950s; and the British campaign in Northern Ireland. These campaigns have several features in common. First, the insurgents were usually separatist or Communist guerrillas from a minority ethnic group. Second, the insurgents were usually ill equipped in terms of arms and military training. Third, the insurgents were usually cut off from significant outside assistance or in the case of the Greek rebels suddenly had that aid cut off for political reasons. Still, these COIN campaigns lasted on average about eight years before they were successful.
Some advocates of COIN warfare have cited marvelous statistics demonstrating that most guerrilla wars are unsuccessful. This is true--most are. But in cases of wars of national liberation involving guerrillas fighting either against Western colonial powers or where Western armies are doing much of the fighting--as in the Vietnam War of the 1960s, Iraq from 2004--2009, and Afghanistan--the success rate is much lower for the government. This is for several reasons. First, the publics in Western democracies are impatient and want quick results. Second, they are fickle and wars they support today they may turn against tomorrow if the cost is significantly raised. Third, if Western armies use severe repression as did the French in Algeria with their widespread torture, they risk losing public support for the war effort. Fourth, native populations are often sensitive about a Western military presence because of colonialism or imperialism and will often turn against a ruler who depends on foreign soldiers.
If we look at these five cases in detail the results are not as impressive for COIN warfare as one might at first imagine. The Mau Mau warriors were limited to machetes (pangas), and a few shotguns and hunting rifles that they were able to steal from the houses of white settlers. In Kenya the native Kikuyu ethnic group was largely interned in special camps and so many died that Holocaust historian Daniel J. Goldhagen cites it as a case of eliminationist policy in his 2009 book Worse Than War. And three years after declaring the Mau Mau emergency over the British were forced to grant independence to the colony. In all the other settler colonies in Africa the white settlers were either militarily defeated or fought to a stalemate, or, in the case of South Africa, the whites were forced to concede majority rule while they still had the upper hand.
In Northern Ireland after a quarter century of warfare, most of that time against only a few hundred republican terrorists at a time, the British were only able to declare a stalemate and the unionists were forced to make major political concessions to the Irish Catholic nationalist minority (of which the republicans were a further minority at the time). These included power sharing and a political link to the Republic of Ireland. London kept up the fight only because Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom only nine miles by sea from Scotland.
In the other three cases the insurgents were defeated in a shorter period of time without widespread repression. In Greece the royalists had British military advisors, but Greek soldiers did the fighting. When Tito had his falling out with Stalin he cutoff deliveries of East bloc arms to the Communist rebels. The Greek army was also led by a skilled general. In the Philippines an Air Force general served as an advisor to the local defense minister. But Filipino troops did the fighting. In Malaysia the rebels were limited to the ethnic Chinese minority who were disliked by the other main ethnic groups--the Malays and the Indians. The rural Chinese could be physically isolated from the guerrillas and then a "hearts and minds" campaign was successful. A decade later the successful advisors to the counterinsurency campaigns in the Philippines and Malaysia attempted to apply their lessons to another Asian counterinsurgency campaign. The United States ended up aiding a local effort for 21 years at great cost in both blood and treasure. The United States lost because it faced an enemy with an elaborate supply network and foreign sanctuary, the support or active acquisition of much of the rural and urban populations and sympathy throughout much of the Third World. If you haven't figured out yet I'm talking about Vietnam.
Afghanistan, although not as formidable an effort as Vietnam, is closer to being Vietnam than it is to being Malaysia, Kenya, the Philippines or Greece. The Taliban insurgency is backed by the majority ethnic group in the country, the Pashtun, who straddle the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S. Army, as in Vietnam, has a severe shortage of personnel who speak the local languages. As in Vietnam, the United States and NATO controls much of the territory by day and the insurgents control it by night.
The main rationale for the war in Afghanistan is to avoid letting the territory again become a base for Al Qaeda. But this assumes that in the Muslim world there is a shortage of failed states that can act for Al Qaeda as an alternative. Remember, Al Qaeda came to Afghanistan from Sudan in the mid-1990s when Washington pressured the government in Khartoum to expel them. Today the tribal territories in Pakistan, Somalia, the southern Philippines, and Algeria are all possible sanctuaries for Al Qaeda, if it should attempt to rebuild. There are also Arab and Turkish ghettoes in Europe that can serve that same purpose--the banlieus in France, Turkish areas in the major German cities, possibly even Albania. President Obama once famously said that he is not opposed to all wars, just dumb ones--he should seriously consider adding Afghanistan to that category.