Sunday, 17 January 2010

Have western democracies become too civilised to win in Afghanistan and Iraq?

The term 'guerrilla' is derived from the Spanish word for war – 'Guerra'. A guerrilla is one who resorts to asymmetric warfare to beat an enemy who is superior in terms of weaponry, technology and (sometimes) manpower. It goes without saying that guerrillas break all rules of warfare. They carry out hit and run attacks. They kill civilians. They provoke the enemy into mass retaliation and retribution resulting in civilian casualties, which works as a recruiting agent for the guerrillas.

Guerrilla warfare is nothing new. Jewish partisans have used it against the Romans. Hungarian fighters have used it against the all-conquering Mongols. Rumanians under Count Dracula carried out hit and run raids against the Ottoman Turks. The Scots led by Robert Bruce used it against the English. The Marathas under Shivaji and his successors used it against the Mughals. The Boers used commando raids against the British in South Africa. Chinese communists under Mao Zedong used it successfully to capture power in China after the Japanese were evicted during the Second World War. The Vietnamese used it even more successfully against the Americans and the Afghans and other Arab Mujahideen used it against the Soviets. Now, they continue to do so against the Americans and other coalition forces.

Some guerrilla movements have been successful whilst others have failed. Spanish partisans were rather successful against Napoleon’s Grande Armée. The American freedom fighters beat the British in the American war of Independence using guerrilla tactics. The Marathas had a certain degree of success against the Mughals after which they developed a large standing army. The Boers failed against the British, despite some initial successes. The Brits beat a communist insurgency in Malaysia, but the Americans failed to beat a similar movement in Vietnam.

The most recent example of a guerrilla movement being comprehensively defeated can be found in Sri Lanka. The LTTE originated as a guerrilla movement, though it evolved a standing army towards its own. However, despite having an air force and heavy artillery, it was in spirit a guerrilla movement. The final phase of the Sri Lankan civil war, sometimes referred to as Eelam War IV, started in July 2006. This phase went entirely in favour of the Sri Lankan government. The LTTE was decimated and in May 2009, its top leadership was encircled and wiped out at a place called Vellamullivaaikkaal in the Mullaitheevu district of Northern Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan army has been accused of (rightly in my opinion) callously ignoring civilian casualties as they crushed the LTTE. Of course, the LTTE was equally if not more callous in using civilians as human shields, but it cannot be denied that the Sri Lankan government was just as ruthless and nasty as the LTTE.

In South Africa, the British resorted to not only scorched earth tactics to defeat the Boers, they even interned many Boer civilians in concentration camps, resulting in the deaths of thousands. The British had a much better human rights record in the Malay campaign, where the communist insurgents where almost entirely ethnic Chinese and did not have the support of the native Malays. The British relocated many thousands of villagers who lived in isolated communities to guarded camps, in a move reminiscent of the concentration camps for the Boers, but the camps in Malaysia where much more humanely organised. The insurgents didn’t have much external support. The conflict in Korea kept the Chinese occupied. The Malayan insurgency is a rare example of a rather successful hearts and minds campaign by a large power.


It is not just the British who have successfully defeated guerillas. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Americans have crushed a large scale guerrilla movement in a forgotten war in the Philippines. The Americans acquired Philippines from Spain after the end of their war with Spain in 1898. The Filipinos had been carrying on guerrilla war against Spain and were on the verge of victory when this transfer to the US occurred. Despite initial promises, the Americans had no intention of allowing Philippines to be free. The Filipino army started to fight the Americans and from 1898 to 1902, a brutal civil war raged. The Americans used ruthless tactics and a scorched earth policy to beat the Filipinos who continued to offer sporadic resistance till 1913.

When the Americans took on the Vietnamese, they were relatively more ‘civilised’, aberrations like My Lai notwithstanding. It is possible to argue that, being relatively civilised is a weakness when fighting a guerrilla war and they lost on account of that. The Filipino rebels did not have the sort of support which the Vietnamese received from China and the Soviet Union. If they had the support of a superpower, they would have performed better, but would they have won against an enemy, who in keeping with the values of those days, did not give a damn about civilian casualties in an oriental land?

Here’s an interesting article on CNN comparing the Philippine War with the current situation in Afghanistan.

Though the CNN article does not say so in so many words, the implication is clear. To win in Afghanistan, the Americans must be willing to use brutal tactics, something which can’t be institutionally carried out by any western nation in this present age.

The Americans and other coalition forces have been accused of large scale civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, in this path breaking article, Irfan Husain explain how almost all deaths caused by drone attacks are of militants and how the common man in Pakistan actually welcomes American raids on the Pakistani Taliban.

Of course, no one can accuse the US, Brits and other coalition countries of saintly conduct in Afghanistan and Iraq. Guantanamo and incidents like the murder of Baha Mousa or the Al-Mahmudiyah killings attest to that. However, it cannot be denied that the coalition troops’ conduct of war is at much higher standard than ever followed by nation-states in similar asymmetric warfare scenarios in the past.

Fifty years ago, in a situation like this, the Americans would have installed puppet dictators in Afghanistan and Iraq and helped them kill off their enemies one by one. In a sense, Saddam was such a western proxy, until he went afoul of them. This was more or less what the Soviets were trying to do in Afghanistan and they would have got away with it, if it hadn’t been for such overwhelming American support for the Mujahideen. Now, the Taliban and the Al Qaeda don’t have the support of a superpower. However, there are few signs that that Americans are winning. In January 2010 alone, there have been 27 casualties among coalition forces in Afghanistan. My question is, have western democracies become too civilised to win the war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province?

2 comments:

Tista said...

Minor point which does not take anything away from the rest of the article: 'guerre' is French. In Spanish it is 'guerra,' 'guerrilla' being a diminutive form of the word.

Winnowed said...

Tista, that's a very useful comment. I've rectified the mistake.