At Large

Insurgency à la Carte

Whether it's the Tamil Tigers or the Taliban, each must be reacted to on a case by case basis -- one reason Afghanistan is so dicey.

By 5.22.09

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Insurgency is a term used by a group in power to define a group that is doing everything it can to be in power, at least in terms of self-governance if not to be totally in charge. Both sides learn quickly that any weakness displayed by the other side must be exploited ruthlessly and to the maximum extent. It's a type of warfare that by its very nature is "dirty" -- and definitely not for those committed to high moral and legal principles.

Perhaps the purest example of recent insurgency is the Tamil Eelam and their Liberation Tigers in Sri Lanka. Just this past week the Tamil Tigers finally lost control of a small portion of territory it had held for many years. The central government announced that the 26-year insurgency had ended. Perhaps the fighting has ceased, but the struggle for the rights of the minority Tamils dominated by the majority Sinhalese will certainly go on.

Sri Lanka and the rebellious Tamil Tigers represented a paradigm of insurgency, but they certainly are not alone. The Eastern Congo has had rebellions in different forms going on for 49 years. Even intervention by the United Nations on several occasions hasn't been able to tamp down permanently the various uprisings.

The FARC in Colombia after many years still operate with the aid of drug trafficking. The Moros in the Philippines, interrupted by several peace agreements, have been fighting central government control in one form or another since the arrival of the Americans in 1898. Insurgencies come in many different forms, some religiously based, some ethnically based, some strictly politically based. Counter-insurgency, therefore, must be equally attuned to these often complex differences.

The Taliban are a wholly different order of insurgency in that they exist in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. With its majority of Pushtun members the Taliban is dominated by a tribe that constitutes 40 percent of the population of Afghanistan and approximately 75 percent of those inhabitants living on both sides of the eastern and southern border with Pakistan.

Basically all these Pushtun are of the same religious orientation -- if different in practice and sub-tribal affiliation. All Pushtun share an independence of political spirit. Essentially, therefore, the Afghan Pushtun tribal leaders can choose whether they want to follow the Pushtun-led government in Kabul or the Pushtun-led oligarchy of the Taliban.

One must step out of the traditional context of counter-insurgency when dealing with the Taliban. There is no military action of any sort that can be taken against the Taliban that doesn't have a political ramification, either in the broad context or simply local impact. Assaults in a given clan area have ramifications in neighboring clan areas.

There is one school of thought that holds the essence of counter-insurgent warfare is to brutally wipe out the rebellious group in such a way as to deny the possibility of revival. This takes a great deal of killing and subsequent control of the insurgent base so as to deny resumption of the rebellion.

An alternative view holds that insurgencies never can be countered with military force alone; that the ultimate key to counter-insurgency is "winning the hearts and minds" of the population through economic, political and social actions.

Combinations of all of the above have been tried with varying results wherever insurgency has arisen. There is no strict approach that can be applied to counter-insurgency. The lessons of Malaya could be applied only in part in Vietnam. The lessons of Vietnam could only be applied in part against the Philippine Moros. In the same way the lessons of Iraq are only applicable in part to Afghanistan. And nothing but annihilation seems to have worked in Sri Lanka.

Insurgency thrives on this diversity of character. It is simplistic to justify the replacement of the American commander in Afghanistan by arguing he supported conventional tactics as opposed to the new one who is devoted to special operations.

To counter any insurgency, Taliban included, it is necessary to design a wholly unique strategy with supportive tactics. Next, a military, political and economic commitment of an indefinite period of time is required. For an outside force such as the United States military or NATO to assume this open-ended responsibility is clearly impractical.

The solution requires a working alliance between Islamabad and Kabul with the West's material support in the background. Changing field commanders may give the appearance of doing something -- but unfortunately it's only a partial response, at best.

Ultimately the threat to the United States and Europe is from the international terrorist syndicate of al Qaeda and its foreign allies. They must be America's principal objective. Targeting the non-Pushtun al Qaeda as distinct from the Taliban is key to the beginning of the destruction of Osama bin Laden's organization in the region.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.