Is the Chance of Success in Afghanistan Better Than a Coin Toss?
A detailed analysis of 20th-century counterinsurgencies suggests not.
Barack Obama has either demonstrated great foresight by changing course in Afghanistan — or great weakness by failing to stay the course in what he himself has called a "war of necessity." According to our research, the U.S. president’s shift in strategy represents foresight; but it may come too late to save a mission that has become his war to lose.
This summer, the United States recognized it was rapidly losing ground, and possibly the war, to insurgents. Obama replaced Gen. David McKiernan with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a five-year veteran of Special Operations forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. And he formulated a major strategic change, one that utilizes "clear, hold, and build," a strategy that integrates military and civil society components, rather than relying primarily on military force. McChrystal told the New York Times he hoped to fight for the Afghan population’s allegiance in a "retail war" — adopting, in essence, a variant of the "hearts and minds" strategy President Lyndon Johnson emphasized in Vietnam.
The Obama administration has said that this fall it will announce benchmarks for gauging the success of this strategy. But in the meantime, the approach raises numerous questions. Among them: Will it work? Will it prolong the conflict? And is it too late to expect outright military victory? We endeavored to answer these questions with a thorough analysis of counterinsurgency in the 20th century, providing a firmer basis for evaluating policy goals, alternatives, and expectations.
First, we collected information for 66 similar conflicts in the 20th century. In each case, a foreign state fought a counterinsurgency campaign to establish or protect central-government authority. The sample includes familiar conflicts, such as the Vietnam War, as well as lesser known ones, such as the German counterinsurgency in the Herero and Namaqua wars from 1904 to 1908 in what is now Namibia. Our sample excludes cases in which a state government fought an insurgency without foreign combat assistance — as in the Peruvian counterinsurgency against the domestic Sendero Luminoso and Tupac Amaru movements in the 1980s and 1990s. The sample breaks evenly across the common divider of World War II and excludes the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For each case, we determined whether the foreign state defeated the insurgency militarily; identified what strategy the foreign state used; noted whether the foreign state significantly altered its counterinsurgency strategy midconflict; and determined whether these strategic switches were consistent with the hearts-and-minds approach, or to use the technical term, a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy. Additionally, we examined the duration of each conflict and noted the point at which a change in strategy occurred.
By the broadest metric — the rate of success across the entire pool — militaries succeeded about 60 percent of the time. After World War II, this rate dropped to 48 percent. Given these raw estimates, the prospects for success in Afghanistan appear rather grim, worse than a coin toss.
Yet this initial assessment fails to incorporate the dynamic nature of counterinsurgency warfare. In the post-1946 period, if militaries altered their strategies during a war, the chance of success improved to 55 percent, an example of which is the successful switch in British strategy during the 1952-1960 Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. If foreign states did not alter their strategies in the face of recalcitrant insurgents, however, the rate of success fell to 38 percent. Thus, though strategy changes do not serve as silver bullets, they do improve the odds of success significantly — while a failure to adapt strategically reduces them.
What of switches to hearts-and-minds strategies? During the entire 20th century, their adoption resulted in a rate of military success of 75 percent. After World War II, such strategies won in two-thirds of conflicts — again, an improvement on the norm.
Our data also enabled us to analyze the length of time occurring between the strategy shift and the end of a conflict — a key part of the current political debate in Washington. Counterinsurgents that changed to a strategy other than hearts and minds generated conflict durations of about five years from the time of the strategy switch to the end of the conflict. Unsurprisingly, switching to a hearts-and-minds-based strategy requires a significantly longer commitment — approximately nine years.
Finally, we analyzed the timing of the strategic change against the final outcome of the counterinsurgency campaign. Some pundits and analysts have claimed the new strategy in Afghanistan misses the early "window of opportunity" necessary to make a difference in the outcome of the conflict, one in which the insurgency is entrenched and Afghan suspicion of foreign forces becomes heightened. Our analysis indicates that all foreign states that shifted to a hearts-and-minds strategy after eight years of counterinsurgency ultimately failed to defeat the insurgents, a pattern that does not bode well for Afghanistan.
Certainly, the prospects for success in Afghanistan are affected by many unique factors: the proficiency of McChrystal’s leadership, the implementation of the new strategy, the level of coordination between the allied countries, the cohesiveness of the fledgling Afghan democracy, the cooperation of Pakistan in reducing cross-border insurgent sanctuaries, and public support for the war, among others. The fight for Afghanistan is not determined by historical trends. Rather, policy choices and performance influence the baseline chances of counterinsurgency success. Yet, the historical record reflects central tendencies and in doing so provides some indication of whether McChrystal is likely to succeed.
Our assessment of the prospects for military success against the insurgents in Afghanistan relative to past patterns can be interpreted as a glass being half empty or half full. The estimated 66 percent chance of success resulting from a new strategy similar to hearts and minds seems promising: better than a military strategy left unchanged, and certainly better than a coin toss. But the average conflict duration after a conversion to a hearts-and-minds strategy is close to a decade, and historically, at least, late strategy changes of this type are rarely rewarded with military success.
By those metrics, the glass appears nearly empty.