Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 14:48 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 14:48 | SYDNEY

Time and coin

1 April 2011 12:32

John Hardy is a Sir Arthur Tange Defence PhD Scholar at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, ANU

In response to friendly criticism from a colleague that I did not adequately address Anton's points about the positive trend in Counter-Insurgency (COIN) success after the tenth year of conflict, I thought that it would be instructive to take a closer look at the evidence that Anton cites.

I have four objections to evidence from the RAND study 'Victory has a Thousand Fathers' being used to support the viability of COIN in Afghanistan — two relating to a methodological flaw that underpins Anton's argument that time favours counter-insurgents and two relating to bad operational practices that apply to Afghanistan.

Firstly, the study involved 30 cases of insurgency since 1978, all of which had been concluded by the reports definition. This caveat allowed the authors to omit several very long insurgencies that would otherwise have lifted the average insurgency duration of the data set by 50%.

If we are only counting insurgencies that have been won, then the conclusion that after ten years insurgencies are more likely to be won, is not credible. The omitted cases indicate that after ten years no decisive victory either way is also a serious option.

Secondly, the study inflates the number of wins because it counts pauses in conflict as wins, but then discounts the same conflicts as they are currently ongoing.

For example, Turkey is cited as a COIN win against the PKK in 1999, despite the fact that after a lull in violence in which the PKK remained political active, the insurgency was reignited with a spate of attacks against Turkish security forces. Is this the kind of win we are looking for in Afghanistan'

Thirdly, only three of the thirty cases used for the study involved external actors as the primary COIN force — and these were all failures. The study lists an external COIN force as one of a 'dirty dozen' bad COIN practices.

Fourthly, all recorded COIN wins in RAND's data set required the control of borders to reduce or eliminate cross-border support for the insurgency — none of the insurgencies that had access to external assistance were defeated by COIN forces.

Well, I can safely say that Anton and I agree about one thing: we should learn from recent military history. But what does military history have to say about Afghanistan' For starters, external COIN forces don't win. Even domestic COIN forces, who sometimes do win, can only win if they can cut insurgents off from external assistance. I see some problems for Afghanistan on both of those fronts.

But what of the turning tides of the ten-years-plus time frame' Well, it seems that if you discount cases where there is no win, then it becomes more likely that you will win. And yet, that isn't particularly comforting when we are talking about whether or not to put our troops in harm's way.

It seems that even good operational practice, which I recently argued wasn't a good reason to stay, might actually be a good reason to go.

Photo, courtesy of the US Army Africa.