While current US counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan broadly conforms with historical best practices, the Taliban enjoy a slew of advantages that historically correlate with insurgent success, according to a new study of 89 past and ongoing insurgencies worldwide.
Factors that favor the Taliban include receiving sanctuary and support in another country, learning to be more discriminating in targeting their attacks, and fighting a government that's both weak and reliant on direct external support.
The historical trends suggest that the Achilles heel for the Taliban would be the loss of their Pakistani sanctuary, while the principal American vulnerability lies in Hamid Karzai's anocracy, or weak, pseudodemocracy. The study, says the author, cannot be predictive, but can help the US address or exploit these vulnerabilities.
"A lot of the things being done in the current [US military] plan are along the lines of successful things we've seen in the study," says Ben Connable, lead author of "How Insurgencies End," published by RAND Corp. in Washington. "The key is if the US recognizes it is working with an anocracy and recognizes the limits of that kind of government, you can work on solutions to that problem."
Anocracies rarely win
Solutions to the problem of this type of weak central government, he says, involve focusing on local governance and setting up local civil defense forces that are carefully tied down to one location. To some degree, the US is already doing this. In rural Helmand, the Marines are focused on building local government from scratch. And international forces have dabbled with setting up arbakai, a traditional militia tied to a local council.
Still, anocracies have won only about 15 percent of their conflicts with insurgents. "Democratizing an anocracy in the midst of an insurgency is an unappealing but not necessarily impossible venture," the report reads.
Another lesson: Indiscriminate terror attacks on civilians tends to backfire on insurgents. The report mentions the Taliban have learned to discriminate, though UN data challenge that. Most civilian deaths in 2009 were caused by insurgents. Their killing of civilians increased by 41 percent over 2008 levels, while pro-government forces reduced civilian killings by 28 percent.
However, there's little indication that these Taliban indiscretions have backfired on the movement so far.
There may be limitations to applying international templates to a country like Afghanistan, a tendency among US military planners that has caused unease among Afghanistan-specific experts. The brain trust reportedly involved in Gen. Stanley McChrystal's counterinsurgency plan relied heavily on counterinsurgency – not regional – experts.
"Afghanistan may well share similarities with other countries and societies, but these elements need to be documented rather than assumed," anthropologist Thomas Barfield writes in his new book, "Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History."
The RAND study looked at 89 insurgencies dating to the 1934 start of Mao's uprising in China. In order to be included, the conflict needed to have killed at least 1,000 people, among other criteria. Excluded conflicts include the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Sikh uprising in 1980s India, and the Uighur independence movement in China's Xinjiang Province.
The final scoreboard: 28 wins for governments, 26 wins for insurgencies, 19 mixed results, and 16 ongoing.
Most of the study's findings conform to the current conventional wisdom surrounding counterinsurgency. One exception lies in the common belief that insurgents have the advantage of time. The average length of government-won conflicts is greater than for those won by insurgents.
The median length of an insurgency is 10 years. However, "insurgencies with more than two clear parties involved have longer, more-violent, and more-complex endings. Afghanistan is a case in point," the report notes.
'Like designing a mission to Mars'
More than half the insurgencies studied ended with some negotiation, even in cases with clear winners and losers, but for Afghanistan that does not represent an easy way out.
"This is an extremely complicated negotiation theory problem," says Stephen Biddle, a counterinsurgency expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "If you were to say 'I am going to be strategist king and I am going to design the perfect solution,' it's like designing a mission to Mars – the complexity of it is really quite great."
And expectations among experts about the final outcome in Afghanistan have clearly scaled back, particularly since the fraud-riddled fiasco of Mr. Karzai's reelection.
"I doubt anybody is going to get their ideal best case out of this. The Pakistanis are very unlikely to get their Taliban government in Kabul to puppet from Islamabad. The US is very unlikely to get a strong centralized, western-style democracy," says Mr. Biddle.
President Obama's effort to speed up the resolution in Afghanistan by planning a draw down in 2011 elicits concern from Connable. He says that in cases where a foreign power like the US sponsored an embattled government, the premature withdrawal of support tended to result in the government losing.
"...Without addressing the root causes of the insurgency, without insuring the government could stand on its own two feet – then the governments tended to lose," he says.