The South Asia Channel
Counterinsurgency is a bloody, costly business
By Paul Staniland The current conventional wisdom on counterinsurgency (COIN) focuses on simultaneously building a strong state and creating mass legitimacy for the government. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has explicitly argued that the U.S. can only win in Afghanistan by winning “hearts and minds” while improving the reach and effectiveness of the Afghan government. Stephen Biddle ...
By Paul Staniland
The current conventional wisdom on counterinsurgency (COIN) focuses on simultaneously building a strong state and creating mass legitimacy for the government. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has explicitly argued that the U.S. can only win in Afghanistan by winning “hearts and minds” while improving the reach and effectiveness of the Afghan government. Stephen Biddle advocates a massive, holistic state-building enterprise in Afghanistan, a perspective that echoes the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. There is a fundamental assumption that strong states and hearts-and-minds are two sides of the same coin, and that they naturally reinforce one another. As the Obama administration considers whether to embrace this strategy, it is worth asking whether the conventional wisdom embodied in these plans has actual empirical support.
In South Asia, the region most relevant to Afghanistan, there is very little evidence that winning hearts and minds through legitimate state-building is a path to victory. Building a strong state is often in direct opposition to the will of the population (or at least a significant part of it). Imposing the control of a capable central government is precisely what the rebel periphery does not want. This creates a deep tension between establishing state authority and winning hearts and minds on the ground.
As a result of this disjuncture, insurgencies in the Indian subcontinent since 1947 have tended to end or be stabilized in one of two ways. The first is raw state coercion, including mass killings, arbitrary detention, and huge force-to-population ratios, whether grievances and governance are addressed or not. The path to the “pacification” of militancy in Sri Lanka’s three civil wars (JVP I, JVP II, the Tamil militancy), in the Indian Punjab, Indian-administered Kashmir, and West Bengal (during the first Naxal rebellion), and Pakistani Baluchistan involved large-scale violence and rights abuses by all sides in the war, including the state.
The rhetoric of governments hailed hearts and minds, but when push came to shove coercion was the key COIN tool. Hearts and minds proved far more resistant to state control than expected and governments ended up having to deploy massive military force if they wanted to imprint the authority of the central state. Human rights and good governance quickly fell by the wayside. Rather than a simple, apolitical technocratic exercise in administrative efficiency, state-building is characterized historically by relentless coercion, social homogenization, and center-periphery conflict. The imperatives of creating strong governments and of “winning hearts and minds” can directly clash with one another. This is why counterinsurgent state-building on the South Asian periphery has so often descended into intense violence, even if launched with the best of intentions.
The second path to pacification in South Asia has involved messy and ambiguous bargains that states make with armed groups and local political actors combining accommodation, coercion, bribery, and coexistence. The government accepts that insurgents will continue to control parts of their own community, but insurgents know that pushing the state too hard can trigger a crackdown. Governments flip over some former insurgents to act as pro-state militias, insurgents and warlords sponsor normal politicians, and both sides become linked to peripheral war economies. A strange but often enduring quasi-stability can persist, whether in Karachi, the Bodo hills, or Nagaland.
This is also what happened in Sunni Iraq, where a series of bargains made between insurgents and counterinsurgents fundamentally changed the tide of the conflict as al Qaeda in Iraq’s fratricide triggered defection by Sunni tribes. Crucially, this happened even before the surge began. An “ugly stability” (to borrow a phrase) can thus be maintained through collusive bargains and combinations of state and non-state power. These outcomes in South Asia and the Middle East clearly show that it is possible to get acceptable, if non-ideal, outcomes without embracing the mass coercion and resource commitments that state-building always involves.
Despite this historical record, the popular discourse on counterinsurgency still asserts that all good things go together, that states can be built while instilling mass legitimacy and providing governance. These nostrums of “classical counterinsurgency” have taken on the force of received truth despite the extremely clear evidence that counterinsurgent state-building in South Asia has tended to be violent, cruel, and protracted, regardless of a state’s intentions.
What does this tell us about Afghanistan? If regional history is any guide, a full-bore COIN/state-building campaign in Afghanistan, as suggested by McChrystal and Biddle, is likely to be bloody and costly. We may think we can “win hearts and minds” while establishing a strong state, but state formation is intrinsically about coercion and dominance. Perhaps the United States and its Afghan allies are smarter and more enlightened than other counterinsurgents in the region, but taking bets on one’s own virtue is rarely a good idea.
Embracing the logic of full-spectrum state-building can thus easily lead to a widened war and a reliance on raw military force when hearts and minds prove far less pliable than expected. This has been the historical pattern of counterinsurgency in South Asia and ignoring this record serves no honest purpose. Insurgencies can be militarily defeated, but at a high cost that may be greater than U.S. interests require. It is deeply doubtful that the U.S. should want to replicate in Afghanistan the experiences of counterinsurgency in Kashmir, Pakistani Baluchistan, or Sri Lanka. The Obama administration needs to decide if a similar strategy is worth the likely trail of American and Afghan blood.
A cheaper and more efficient policy for the United States in Afghanistan instead involves following the second pathway outlined above — ugly stability. There is evidence that this approach has at least minimally succeeded in South Asia and Iraq. This strategy requires understanding and dealing with the real and existing social sources of power on the ground, mixing accommodation, coercion, and bribery, and being willing to accept imperfect and morally ambiguous outcomes. The U.S. may be able to satisfy its basic interests in Afghanistan without trying to build a simultaneously strong and legitimate central state.
South Asia’s experience and The United States’ interests thus point us towards lower-footprint and factional-flipping strategies for Afghanistan, and very clearly away from the grandiose visions of state-building and mass political legitimacy that excite Washington pundits. Whether the Obama administration will pay attention to this history is the open question.
Paul Staniland is a PhD candidate in MIT’s Department of Political Science and Security Studies Program.
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