How to End an Insurgency

History tells us that insurgencies end in one of two ways.  Either the insurgency alienates the local population until, bereft of support, it disintegrates.  The Huk insurgency in the Philippines and the Maoist insurgency in Malaysia both ended ostensibly due to a lack of public support.   Often in these cases, military action is combined with greater political outreach.  As the local population’s grievances are addressed through politics (as opposed to violence) the social infrastructure becomes depleted and eventually the insurgency dies through lack of support.

The second way insurgency “ends” is through political reconciliation.  In the case of El Salvador, violence only came to end when the FMLN was allowed to enter in the political process as a legal political party.  In the United Kingdom, the IRA followed a similar pattern.  In these cases, extensive negotiations preceded a political settlement ending the conflict.  Similar to the first case, insurgents must believe that they can take political non-violent recourse to address core grievances.  In some cases, such as Iraq both political reconciliation and loss of public support for the insurgency were critical in reducing the violence.  The Sunni “Awakening” meant that Al Qaeda no longer had a home base to launch attacks.  Simultaneously, the decision of Moqtadr Al Sadr to disarm the Mahdi army and achieve political reconciliation played a role in the declining violence.

Many people wonder how the Taliban-backed insurgency will end in Afghanistan.  (This presumes—optimistically perhaps—that the fighting cannot continue indefinitely.)  Currently the U.S. military planners expect/hope the insurgency will end in the first way.  As the counter-insurgency strategy continues to put pressure on the Taliban, public support for the rebels disintegrates and Taliban melt away into the mountains, never again to pose a serious threat to the Afghan government.  The problem is that currently there is very little evidence that Taliban is losing support in the Pashtun belt.  Violence against coalition forces continues to rise month after month.  Most distressingly, political grievances among the local population continue to fester due to the rampant corruption and prevalence of warlords.  Unless there is some other recourse for the locals to seek redress on their grievances, the violence will continue.  At present, there is little evidence that Afghanistan has the political institutions necessary for this option to succeed.  If an Afghan has a tax dispute for instance, his best option is still to take arms against the government.

Can the U.S. do anything to change this dynamic?  Under the current strategy, not likely, as the Afghan people, particularly the southern Pashtuns view U.S. forces with suspicion if not outright hostility. However if the U.S. were to push for a negotiated settlement, following in essence the Salvadorian model for insurgencies, a breakthrough, though undoubtedly difficult, may be possible.  From the U.S. perspective an agreement ensuring that Al Qaeda never is allowed to set up base in Afghanistan and assurances that basic rights will be upheld will probably be the sticking points for any protracted negotiations.   There is no guarantee that such an agreement would work, but in comparison to current U.S. strategy there is at least a small glimmer of hope.

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