In spite of writing five lengthy posts on how difficult counterinsurgency can be, I am most definitely not arguing that counterinsurgency is unwinnable. As I've mentioned repeatedly, guerrillas have often lost—sometimes because of their own mistakes, at other times because of the regime's skill at fighting a counterinsurgency war, and often both. It's entirely possible for both sides to win. To illustrate, the following table lists a few insurgencies that ended in a regime victory, which includes cases when the guerrillas could also claim a victory.
|INSURGENCIES: WHO WON?|
|Greek Civil War||--||++|
|Moro uprising (Philippines)||-||+|
|Huk rebellion (Philippines)||--||++|
|El Salvador (1979-1992)||+||+|
|South Africa (anti-apartheid)||++||+|
++ = major victory
+ = minor victory
- = minor defeat
-- = major defeat
While we might argue over the rankings for a particular war (for example, was the way apartheid ended under P.W. Botha's leadership a partial victory for the regime?), the basic points are clear. Governments can beat insurgents, and counterinsurgency isn't necessarily a zero-sum game.
The possibility of a mutual victory usually opens when both sides re-appraise their war aims. As discussed in one of the early "official" posts, war aims change in all forms of armed conflict, and guerrilla warfare is no exception. The combatants may change their objectives when it becomes clear that neither side can totally eliminate the enemy, either by crushing the insurgents or toppling the regime.
This re-appraisal is most likely to happen when one or both sides of the war are internally divided. Different factions in the government may form an alliance of convenience, as long as victory on current terms seems possible. However, coalition members may defect if they become convinced the current war aims or strategy isn't viable. This is, in fact, the norm for counterinsurgency wars, making it important for an ally like the United States to recognize these opportunities when they arise. Similarly, it's rare to find a fully unified guerrilla movement, free of any factionalism. The revolutionaries may have their own falling out, once it becomes clear the insurgency is on the wrong path.
The recent civil war in El Salvador provides a good example. In 1980, the five main guerrilla groups that formed the FMLN, and the guerrillas' political fronts that coalesced into the FDR, were as determined as the government they were fighting to win a total victory. Behind the government was the landed elite, which fostered a murderous paramilitary movement to complement the armed forces. Those two coalitions remained intact through the first few years of the war, though fractures were evident by the mid-1980s. In 1984, Christian Democrat José Napoleón Duarte, who opposed the methods that the Salvadoran military and the death squads were using, was elected president of El Salvador. Although Duarte was often thwarted by the landed elites and his own government, it became clear that at least some leaders were skeptical of the brutal approach the government was taking. Meanwhile, the FDR/FMLN was having its own internal argument, less visible to the outside world, over its strategy. The dispute was temporarily "settled" by the mysterious deaths of two FMLN leaders, which gave strongest leader among the FMLN commanders, Joaquin Villalobos, freedom to pursue a maximalist strategy aimed at a Cuban-style victory. However, the fractures within the guerrilla movement still existed, and would re-open later in the war
By the late 1980s, both coalitions were coming apart. The FMLN's failed 1989 offensive was the final nail in the coffin of both sides' maximalist strategies. The insurgents who were willing to re-enter normal politics, either through a power-sharing arrangement or elections, signaled their willingness to negotiate, as long as the insurgents could claim they had successfully forced the Salvadoran government to reform. On the government side, the advocates of a negotiated settlement pointed to the final offensive as a sign that, as much progress as the government had made in political and military reforms, the FMLN was not beaten. The war concluded with the 1992 Chapultepec peace accords, in which the government promised free and fair elections, including former guerrillas. Soon afterwards, former enemies appeared on a common ballot.
Sometimes, these negotiated settlements are purely cynical. The recent history of Angola is a sad tale of fighting between UNITA and the MPLA, punctuated by temporary cease-fires and contrived displays of a return to "normal" politics, only to see any temporary peace disintegrate into new fighting. While lamentable, these situations underscore the importance of building new political, administrative, economic, police, and military arrangements during the counterinsurgency campaign. If these do not take hold, nothing stops a guerrilla movement from using the peaceful interlude to recruit new members, collect more weapons and other resources, and plan the next phase of violence.
Once again, it's important to point out the significant differences between the US strategies for Afghanistan and Iraq. This time, it's important to note how, in one case, US leaders have provided an escape route for enemies who may want to settle for something less than total victory in one case, and in the other, almost none at all.
In Afghanistan, the US helped arrange a new government that, in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, would include many different factions. Most groups decided to join the new regime, with one major exception: the Hezb-i-Islami, headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. While Hezb-i-Islami originally agreed to be part of the coalition government, it later decided to defect when Hekmatyar decided that his faction wasn't getting enough important posts and other spoils in the coalition government. While Hekmatyar has nominally allied himself with the Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants still fighting the new Afghan government and its NATO allies. However, given the mercurial nature of Afghan politics, the door is always open for Hekmatyar to return to the fold. After all, the government already incorporated many former Taliban members, so it should have the same capacity to absorb Hezb-i-Islami, as long as its leaders believe it's beneficial to do so.
This opening would not be possible had the new government phrased the terms of reconciliation with insurgent groups in less forgiving terms. The Karzai government is willing to accept former Taliban members, as long as they are not still overtly associated with that movement and working against the regime. (Given the clan-based politics of Afghanistan, it's hard for former Taliban fighters to renounce all connections to the Taliban, since other members of the clan may still be found in the Taliban's ranks.) The regime has made its intent to dismantle warlordism clear, but it is not picking on any particular warlord.
In contrast, the new Iraqi government has far less latitude to admit its former enemies into the political fold. The US government bears a great deal of blame for this situation. Having labeled all insurgents as terrorists, US officials have made it harder to support any amnesty that the Iraqi government wishes to grant the less objectionable elements of the insurgency. (However, the Iraqi government has made at least one amnesty offer, with no real success.) The American theater strategy, which emphasizes killing insurgents over population control, gives little hint that the Iraqi government's patron has any interest in letting former insurgents lay down their arms and join the new government. These two aspects of American policy make it harder to reconcile the differences among Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds, or among the clans within these general groupings. While the US and Iraqi governments may invite disgruntled factions to join the new Iraq government, it leaves almost no room for the armed expression of that dissatisfaction to be reconciled. Although most Iraqis do not support the insurgent groups, enough Iraqis support, sympathize with, or are related to particular insurgents to complicate matters.
The conspicuous exception to this rule is Jaish-i-Mahdi (the Army of the Mahdi), headed by Muktada al-Sadr. Although there is no formal reconciliation between the Iraqi government and Jaish-i-Mahdi, it's clear that the cease fire that exists between them has led to a subtle form of normalization. The battles in Najaf, Karbala, Kufa, and Fallujah gave both sides pause. The government realized that it could evict the Mahdists from cities, but only at a very high cost (and only when the US assumed the burden of fighting the insurgents). The Mahdists realized that they could continue to shift fighting from city to city, maintaining the perception that the Mahdists were a force to be reckoned with. However, they also realized that they were far from gaining a major role in the new Iraqi government. Therefore, Muktada al-Sadr is free at large, Jaish-i-Mahdi is the de facto government and police in some communities, but there is no formal recognition of the Mahdists as a legitimate political party.
If there is any lesson to draw from the example of Jaish-i-Mahdi, it is the opposite of the one the United States intends. The road to quasi-normalization, it seems, is the ability to maintain an armed opposition to the Iraqi government and its US patron.