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Weighing the History of 'Violent Politics'

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Weighing the History of 'Violent Politics'

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Weighing the History of 'Violent Politics'

Weighing the History of 'Violent Politics'

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In his book Violent Politics, William Polks uses 11 tales of national turmoil for insight into counter-insurgency efforts. Polk finds echoes of Vietnam and the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan as he weighs U.S. policy in Iraq.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Last week, General David Petraeus, an author of the Army's revised text on counterinsurgency, testified on progress achieved through the surge and the application of his doctrines in Iraq.

General Petraeus is up against the conundrum that William Polk addresses in his latest book. How is it that the Army that has the power so often loses the war when its enemy is homegrown and practices guerrilla tactics and terrorism?

A H: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism and Guerrilla War from the American Revolution to Iraq." And there are chapters on insurgencies chronologically in between those two conflicts in Spain, Greece, Algeria, Vietnam and elsewhere.

He started studying the subject when he was a U.S. diplomat back in the 1960s. Polk says he found that insurgent movements tend to develop in three stages.

WILLIAM POLK: The first of these was political. The insurgents are very few, so they fall back on the tactic of the weak, which is terrorism. The insurgents had to prove that they were the nationalists in their countries. The second part was administration. And what we saw in Vietnam was that the Viet Cong virtually killed everyone in the South Vietnamese administration. Then they have to replace it.

Those two things amounted to something like 95 percent of the total capacity of the insurgency. The third stage is simply fighting. As I suggested, that amounted into something like 5 percent. And that was what we devoted all the years of our involvement in Vietnam with.

SIEGEL: One phrase comes to mind. In your book, you cited Donald Rumsfeld had spoken of fighting the long war. The lengths of some of the conflicts you describe in Algeria, with its roots deep in the 19th century; in Ireland, which you say you could've been the longest war in history - we're really talking about long wars in history.

POLK: Long wars. And of course, many of them - we talk a lot today about staying the course, we stayed the course for 16 years in Vietnam. The French stayed it far longer. In Ireland, as you mentioned, the Irish fought intermittently against the English from the 11th century on. In a way, they're still fighting it.

SIEGEL: How much can one generalize, though? As you relate in writing about Greece during and after the Second World War, British forces who occupied that country with the most cynical imperialist motives, were received as liberators by the Greeks. If you apply those lessons - I gather they were applied in Vietnam - you would get totally different inferences about what can be achieved against an insurgency.

POLK: I don't think we like to believe that. I don't think that's quite true. I think the difference in Greece is that the Communists split. And the Communists really killed each other off. So the movement virtually committed suicide. It wasn't so much that the Greek government or our people won as that the Communists lost. And of course we couldn't apply that in Vietnam because there was never any hint of any dissension within the Viet Minh organization.

SIEGEL: Today in Iraq, a war of which you've been critical both of its conception and its execution, General Petraeus is enlisting traditional leaders, tribal sheikhs and local alliances. He's keeping U.S. troops in the neighborhoods day and night and for longer times than they were staying before. Can what he's doing work?

POLK: The short answer is no. What he's talking about is counterinsurgency. And that is a wonderful buzzword and sounds very impressive, but it's not new. We tried it in Vietnam. It didn't work for us there. It didn't work for the Russians in Afghanistan. We both tried the whole range of techniques that he's talking about. In Vietnam, we put virtually the entire population about seven of ten Vietnamese in some 6,800 barbed wire-encircled hamlets, assassinated or imprisoned thousands of suspected guerrillas, obliterated whole areas with massive bombing and defoliation. In short, we used a whole range of counterinsurgency techniques. What was the result?

Listen to what the editors of the Pentagon papers who, after all, drew on the most impressive range of intelligence documents that I suppose has ever been collected. They said, the program was, in short, an attempt to translate the whole newly articulated theory of counterinsurgency into operational reality. The objective was political. Though the means to its realization were a mixture of military, social, psychological, economic and political measures, the long history of these efforts was marked by consistency in results as well as in techniques - all failed dismally.

SIEGEL: There's a moment in your chapter on Ireland that I could imagine giving statesmen and policymakers all sorts of ideas. David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, having lost a million men in the First World War, decides to impose in 1918 conscription - the draft - on the Irish. It is, as one might expect, wildly unpopular. His cabinet backs down. And you say that led many of the Irish to figure out that perhaps you could make the English back down.

POLK: Well, of course, the same thing happened in our revolution. And Benjamin Franklin pointed out that the first major battle before the revolution was against the French and the Indians. The British fought and their military force was virtually wiped out. And he said, this gives us the feeling that perhaps the English are not invincible.

SIEGEL: Of course, the lesson that might impart to statesmen is never show any give, because they'll read that you're weak; they'll figure out that you could be beat.

POLK: I think that that's a snare and a delusion, unfortunately, where we are in Iraq, because if we had some kind of a political strategy that was aimed toward the position that we could ultimately get out, yes, that could be an arguable position. We did that after all in Vietnam until Tet. And Tet made it possible, indeed, made it imperative that the American government begin to get out.

SIEGEL: That was early 1968? (Unintelligible)

POLK: '68. Right. And we brought back General Westmoreland, with all of his stars and medals and uniform and so forth, to convince the American public that the Viet Cong were finished and were starving to death and were unable to fight anymore, and all we had to do is mop them up. And then, of course, two months later, came the Tet offensive in which they almost captured Saigon.

But after we had decided to get out, we took four years. And that was a very critical period. In the four years, we lost 21,000 more American soldiers, almost as many as we lost in the entire fighting part of the war.

And I think what we need to do is to figure a way out of the dilemma that you pose, which is a real one. And the suggestion that I have made on this is that we turn over a part of the task to an international stability force, which we would agree to pay for. And it would cost us about 4 percent of what it would cost us to try to do it ourselves. And of course, we wouldn't have our people killed. And that group would work for the Iraqi government, and would be a kind of a transitional point between our leaving and their being able to take over. And I think this could be made a viable alternative.

SIEGEL: William Polk, thank you very much for talking to us today.

POLK: Thank you, Sir.

SIEGEL: William Polk is author of the most recently of "Violent Politics." And you can read more about Polk's three stages of insurgency in an excerpt from his book at

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Excerpt: 'Violent Politics'

Cover of 'Violent Politics'

Each of the insurgencies with which I deal — and others that are too numerous to be fully recounted here — begins with almost ludicrously tiny groups of disaffected people who sally forth against vastly superior armies and police forces. The odds appear impossible — even absurd. Consider the record:

In this preliminary stage, the insurgents are too few to fight as guerrillas so they fight as terrorists. This was what happened in Cyprus, where fewer than eighty men attacked the ruling British colonial government that was supported by thousands of troops and police. In the Palestine Mandate, a tiny group to be known as Irgun Zeva'i Le'umi split off from the Jewish Agency's military force, the Haganah, to attack the British administration; briefly during the Second World War, the Irgun ceased attacks on the British and Avraham Stern split off to form a new group, known as Stern or LEHI, and gathered a handful of followers, probably fewer than twenty, to continue attacks on the British. Stern's most spectacular action was the murder of the senior British official in the Middle East in 1944. Stern was so successful that Irgun, by then under the leadership of Menachem Begin, swung back toward Stern's policy and in 1946 blew up the largest hotel in Jerusalem, where a number of senior British officials were housed. By that time, Irgun and Stern numbered perhaps a hundred men. Most other groups were similarly tiny at inception. In Yugoslavia, for example, Drazha Mihailovic (also written Mihailovich), a Serb who had been a colonel in the defeated royalist army, began the Cetniks with only twenty-six like-minded former officers and soldiers. In Greece, the resistance was formed by only fifteen men. Then, in Vietnam, the first action by the Viet Minh against the French in 1944 involved their total force — only thirty-four Vietnamese. Such small groups could not engage in guerrilla warfare. For them, acts of terrorism were the only possible acts. So terrorism is often the first stage of insurgency.

As terrorist acts succeed, other angry men and women join or form similar small groups. When the dominant government seeks to suppress them, two things frequently happen. Almost inevitably the government disrupts the lives of innocent bystanders and hurts or kills still more. In 1808 in Spain Napoleon's soldiers routinely hanged all rebels they caught and those suspected of favoring them. The relatives and friends of the hanged quickly came to hate the French. Against the Philippine rebels, first the Spaniards and then the Americans undertook search and destroy operations that killed thousands of people in the 1890s, tortured or humiliated many more, and burned scores of villages. Doing so triggered Philippine resistance. In Yugoslavia during the Second World War, the Germans employed a draconian system of reprisals, executing not only all the partisans they captured but hundreds of civilian hostages in retaliation for the death of each German soldier. The relatives, neighbors, and friends of those killed by foreign troops sought revenge, and the place to get it was in the ranks of insurgents. So from a handful, their numbers grew.

On Cyprus, the insurgent force tripled in a year, from about 80 to 273 active combatants backed up by perhaps three times that many part-time fighters. Castro overthrew the foreign-supported Batista dictatorship with a rebel force that grew from a dozen or so to a force of about 1,500 within a year. The Viet Minh military force grew from 34 in 1944 to about 5,000 in just a few months. In Algeria, the guerrillas began with fewer than a hundred and ultimately reached about 13,000 in their fight against 485,000 French and Foreign Legion soldiers.

Numbers were important because they made possible the spread of insurgency and also because they attenuated the forces of their opponents, whom they forced to protect more territory. More important than numbers, however, was that in their operations, the insurgents came to symbolize the nationalist cause. Mao thought that identifying with the people was the single most important task of the guerrilla. Tito captured the position of national leader because, unlike Mihailovic who temporized, husbanded his resources, and even made deals with the Italians and Germans, he fought. In Vietnam, similarly, so firmly did Ho Chi Minh come to symbolize the nationalist cause that the Americans realized that he would win perhaps 80 percent of the vote in a free election even in the American-controlled south.

Thus, we can observe that after shadowy beginnings, the insurgency in what we can call Phase 1 both gains a critical mass for extended operations and achieves recognition as the national champion. This, as the record will demonstrate, is the most critical event in insurgency. In Vietnam, that event occurred long before the first American soldiers arrived.

However, some insurgencies never progress beyond this first, terrorist, phase. The reasons are several. Among them, perhaps the two most likely are that the original group fails to capture the aura of legitimacy or leadership and so cannot recruit enough followers, or that it cannot find sufficient space for maneuver into true guerrilla warfare. Both of these factors affected the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Basque Separatist Movement (ETA).

Toward the end of the first phase, groups of men, often numbering only a score or so, begin to seek targets that will yield what they most desperately lack: weapons. Often, at this time, the insurgents have only shotguns or even just agricultural tools with which to fight; so what the seizure of a small outpost can yield, rifles or even a machine gun or two, is literally priceless. The attackers pick isolated targets where they can achieve superiority. The booty they seize enables them to attract more followers, while the arms they acquire give them more capability. If they are beaten off, as certainly many have been, they run, drop their weapons, and hide. If they have prepared the neighborhood, they can pretend to be just peasants working in the fields. To use Mao Tse-tung's famous phrase, they behave as fish and seek shelter and sustenance among the people, the sea.

Phase 2 of an insurgency comes about when the combatants disrupt the administration of the dominant power and its local allies. The French journalist Bernard Fall searched the French police records to discover the way this happened in South Vietnam. There the local branch of the Viet Minh, the Giai Phong Quan, systematically murdered government-appointed village officials. Fall estimated that the Giai Phong Quan killed about seven hundred during 1957–1958, twenty-five hundred from 1959 to 1960, and four thousand from 1960 to 1961. But it was not just the officials who were liquidated. As George Carver of the CIA wrote in 1966 in Foreign Affairs, "The terror was directed not only against officials but against all whose operations were essential to the functioning of organized political society, school teachers, health workers, agricultural officials, etc." Thus, by the time the Americans became active in Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government had virtually ceased to function. It could not collect taxes or even deliver mail much beyond downtown Saigon. Its officials could move only during daylight. Even in Saigon, as I witnessed one night, government patrols avoided the streets when darkness fell.

Disruption is followed by substitution. Having killed or chased away the representatives of the regime, the insurgents immediately begin to create an alternative administration or "anti-state." We can see this most recently in the struggle of the Viet Minh against the French, but it was evident in the American Revolution, where "Committees of Safety" became local governments; the Spanish war against the French, where juntas replaced both the old royalist government and the French invaders. Tito, inspired by having observed peoples' committees, known as soviets, during the Russian Revolution, created odbors ( people's councils) to manage local affairs; the committees opened schools, published a newspaper, and even arranged sports events. Similarly in Greece the National Liberation Front (Ethnikon Apeleftherotikon Metopon, or EAM) underground created village councils that collected taxes to support the andartes (combatants). Each committee was headed by a "responsible person" (Greek: Ipefthinos), a local man who was almost invariably a member of the Communist Party. In turn, each Ipefthinos became a member of the council of a group of villages and so on to create a political pyramid that effectively ruled occupied Greece.

This process is the guerrilla version of what the leading French counterinsurgent, Colonel (later General) Joseph Gallieni, called the tache d'huile, or oil spot. Gallieni argued that as each "spot," each village or district, was secured, it would merge with other spots until the whole country was under control. The theory was sound, but the French found that it was easier for guerrilla oil spots to spread than for those of counterguerrillas. Americans, in their turn in Vietnam, found the same.

Why is this? Mao Tse-tung and other guerrilla leaders provide an answer. It is that control of territory has exactly the opposite meaning for guerrillas and counterinsurgents. When counterinsurgents acquire territory, they create new targets for the guerrillas, and so to protect their installations, they have to spread out their forces and go on the defensive. Thus, in any given place, the guerrillas are apt to be able to concentrate to attack with overwhelming force. When guerrillas move into an area, they are not trying to protect installations; their objective is to take control and win over the people. To prevent them from doing so, the counterinsurgents are forced into repressive and unpopular actions. In Malaya first and then in Vietnam, experiments were tried to so isolate the people that the rebels could not reach them. In Malaya the British even prevented villagers from cooking their own food so that they could not pass any of it to the rebels; in Kenya the British put about 150,000 people in concentration camps; in Vietnam the Americans forced virtually the entire rural population to move out of their villages into strategic hamlets, ap-chien-luoc. As the editors of the Pentagon Papers wrote, "The long history of these efforts were marked by consistency in results as well as in techniques: all failed dismally."

Occasionally, however, neither the guerrillas nor their enemies managed to create organizations outside of small autonomous areas or even single villages. This was the situation in Afghanistan during the resistance to the Soviet Union. The lack of unity made it impossible for the Russians to defeat the guerrillas, but also made it impossible for the guerrillas to defeat the Russians. It left as its legacy the warlords who destroyed much of their own country after the Russians left and created the conditions that made the Afghans welcome the Taliban. It is a legacy that still shapes Afghan society and politics.

Sometimes, in the rebel-controlled areas, even those that were only temporarily secured, quite sophisticated organizations were created. Tito, whose Partisans were nearly always on the run from the far superior German forces, used one period of relative security to organize factories to manufacture rifles and even to turn out cigarettes. Later in the war, his Partisans ran a postal service on a captured railroad. The Viet Minh created repair shops for the weapons they captured and even manufactured duplicates of captured light machine guns. In wartime Greece the EAM organized a system of taxation and countrywide reconstruction support. In Spain, during the war against Napoleon, one guerrilla organization took over and ran the customs for external trade. Although far less sophisticated, the Mau Mau guerrillas in Kenya set up shops in the jungle to convert door bolts and springs into the crude firearms they used against the British. In short, during Phase 2, those insurgent organizations that ultimately were successful created anti-administrations, anti-economies, and ultimately anti-governments for their increasingly large groups of fighters and even larger groups of supporters.

Up to this point, the tactics that have served the guerrillas — hit and run, ambush and fade away, wear down the enemy piecemeal, and concentrate on winning over the general population — no longer seem sufficient. In a memorable passage the American scholar Robert Taber compared the guerrilla to a flea: "The guerrilla fights the war of the flea. The flea bites, hops, and bites again, nimbly avoiding the foot that would crush him. He does not seek to kill his enemy at a blow, but to bleed him and feed on him, to plague and bedevil him, to keep him from resting and to destroy his nerve and his morale. All of this requires time. Still more time is required to breed more fleas. What starts as a local infestation must become an epidemic, as one by one the areas of resistance link up, like spreading ink spots on a blotter."

The insurgent commanders lose patience. They worry that their supporters will tire or even go over to the enemy. Their men age or get wounded or killed. By this time, guerrilla formations have reached a comparatively large scale. Their leaders then seek to transform the combat from small-scale, hit-and-run combat to regular warfare. So they are tempted to seek the means to strike a mortal blow. Thus, Phase 3 sees the bulk of the fighting.

In his 1937 pamphlet on guerrilla warfare, Mao Tse-tung wrote that in the final phase of the struggle "there must be a gradual change from guerrilla formations to orthodox regimental organization" that can meet the enemy on his own terms. For Mao, timing was crucial: to make the transition before the conditions were propitious was to court disaster. Mao took his time — more than a decade — but some other commanders have tried to move too quickly. In Vietnam, the Viet Minh strategist Vo Nguyen Giap threw his army into three disastrous campaigns against superior French forces during 1951 that almost wiped it out.

Mao's and Giap's transformations of their forces almost certainly were done for objective tactical reasons, but, as I will point out, others appear to have moved for subjective or prestige reasons. Some aspired to match their opponents' formality and even appearance. In the American Revolution, George Washington despised not only the guerrillas who operated successfully far from his command but even the militia on which he had to rely. He found them to be "an exceeding dirty and nasty people [evincing] an unaccountable kind of stupidity." As quickly as he could, he dispensed with both and devoted his energies to creating a British-type army, the Continental Line. As a result, he was defeated time after time and almost lost the war. As his great critic in that war, General Charles Lee, put it, to use "Hyde Park tactics," as Washington wanted to do, was bound to fail. It took years to create the kind of army the British had. The Americans could hope to be only amateurs and to pit them against "a disciplined Enemy, would, in my Opinion, be downright Murder [at best] they will make an Awkward Figure, be laugh'd at as a bad Army by their Enemy, and defeated in every Rencontre which depends on Manoeuvres." But, as we shall see, more leaders followed Washington than Lee. Military commanders choose to overlook the Kenyan proverb that proclaims the power of the flea — "A flea can trouble a lion more than the lion can harm a flea." Most generals would rather be lions than fleas.

From Violent Politics. Copyright (c) 2007 by William R. Polk. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

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