Fostering insurgency: `learn from the street'

IN almost 40 years since the United States helped the Greek government suppress a communist insurgency, the US has developed -- with the help of sometimes painful experience -- a considerable body of counterinsurgency doctrine. It has not developed a comparable doctrine of how, when, and why to promote insurgency. This has not been from lack of experience. In the years immediately after World War II, repeated, unsuccessful efforts were made to stir up unrest in Eastern Europe. Some of these included sabotage and came close to the same kind of terrorism the US is now frantically seeking to counter. Similar efforts were made against Cuba for several years after Castro's revolution. The Bay of Pigs was predicated on sparking an uprising.

More recently the US has supported an insurgency against the Nicaraguan government, and it continues to support an insurgency in Afghanistan. At the same time, it is making a major effort to help the government of El Salvador suppress an insurgency.

This is called working both sides of the street, and there is nothing necessarily wrong with it; but at least on the public record, there has been little systematic effort to apply on one side of the street what has been learned on the other side.

One thing which should have been learned is that broad public support is crucial. Much has been written about the importance to insurgents of support by the local population -- the sea, as Chairman Mao put it, in which guerrilla fish swim. In Vietnam, the US made much of an ill-named program called winning hearts and minds (WHAM). All of this is true enough, but it becomes irrelevant if there is not also public support in the US -- not simply a majority, but a wide consensus.

The most dramatic example of the difference made by American public opinion is the contrast between Nicaragua and Afghanistan. In the former, there is bitter controversy, and Congress has cut off the money. In the latter, there is consensus, and Congress appropriates more than the CIA had dared to ask for.

With respect to both insurgency and counterinsurgency programs, the US generally supports whatever dissident group or incumbent government is conveniently at hand. This sometimes produces unsavory allies and unintended results. It is also sometimes, perhaps usually, a substitute for a more carefully thought-out policy.

The consensus regarding Afghanistan rests on sympathy for the insurgents and a desire to harass the Soviets. But the program may be outrunning the thought that has been given to its consequences and to the policy it is designed to carry out.

One of these consequences may be the decimation of the Afghan people. Support for the heroic Afghan freedom fighters makes good political rhetoric, but it may also someday open the US to the charge of being willing to fight to the last Afghan. Much the same thing happened in Laos, where the Meo tribesmen ruined themselves, with American support, in fighting the Vietnamese.

The objective of the Afghan guerrillas is to overthrow the Soviet-backed government and drive Soviet troops from the country. The objective of the US is more modest and realistic: simply to make the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan as difficult and expensive as possible. It is conceivable that in the long run this might lead to Soviet withdrawal, camouflaged perhaps by some face-saving compromise. But it is more likely that the Soviets, unencumbered by protests at home, will gradually and methodically crush the opposition. This leaves the US having achieved its limited objective. But it also leaves a great many Afghans dead and even more trying to pick up the pieces of their lives as refugees in Pakistan and Iran.

The US can scarcely escape the responsibility it has toward people whom it encourages to take great risks and to make great sacrifices. The obligations this entails last a long time, as the Vietnamese refugee program demonstrates, and frequently bring their own complications. The US ransomed the prisoners of the Bay of Pigs. It taught them and other Cuban refugees how to perform assorted dirty tricks and later found this know-how being used to bug the Democratic National Committee and break into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist.

The US encouraged Nicaraguan guerrilla leader Ed'en Pastora and then dumped him when it found him not amenable to CIA control. But a recurring complaint is that the US cannot, in fact, control foreign insurgencies -- or, for that matter, foreign governments trying to put down insurgencies. This is, of course, true; but coming from American officials, it frequently sounds less like a complaint than an excuse for the embarrassing excesses of the insurgents (or governments) receiving American support.

These excesses (tiger cages in Vietnam, death squads in El Salvador, murder and torture by Nicaraguan and Afghan rebels) are perhaps inevitable on both sides in such conflicts, but many Americans are not comfortable with them.

Given the world's general messiness, one would not want to forswear all these programs as a matter of principle, but one would hope that policymakers would give more careful thought to their implications -- and also to possible alternatives.

Pat Holt, formerly chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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