Analyst: Afghan Insurgents Unlikely to Succeed

NATO and Afghan forces are fighting back after Taliban forces occupied villages near Kandahar. But Harvard's Mark Kramer says that if history is any indication, the recent Taliban insurgency won't last very long.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

NATO and Afghan forces are fighting back after Taliban forces occupied villages near Kandahar. Now, the government says it has driven out the Taliban from those towns. You will remember, last week, that nearly 400 Taliban fighters broke out of the main prison there, and many of those fighters were the ones who flooded the region near Kandahar. The Taliban's strength has ebbed and flowed with the seasons.

NATO will not be allowing anything close to a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan if they can help it. But at the same time, the insurgency still survives and causes problems for the future stability of the country. Joining us to analyze the Taliban's chances is Mark Kramer. He's a senior fellow at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Hello, Professor Kramer. How are you?

Dr. MARK KRAMER (Senior Fellow, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies; Harvard University): Good morning.

PESCA: So you looked at a really interesting database with all the insurgencies of the past half-century, or most?

Dr. KRAMER: No, that's right. I compiled a database of insurgencies in the 20th century, which is a large volume of them. We've looked at both insurgencies within countries that the local government's dealt with, and then insurgencies involved in decolonization, when it was foreign troops, and insurgencies like Vietnam, where foreign troops were just involved on behalf of another government. And what it showed is that, generally, except for the special cases for decolonization, is that insurgencies almost never succeed, that the chances of success are so small that if you are thinking about how to gain independence, you wouldn't want to launch an insurgency.

PESCA: Well, how are we to think of the Taliban? Because before they were an insurgency, they were the government. Does that change anything?

Dr. KRAMER: That's correct. The Taliban - some of what the database also shows is that the prospects of success do hinge a little on how a particular group emerges. The Taliban emerged in the context of civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and it was in power from 1996 until late 2001. Now, during that time, the Taliban certainly did not endear themselves to the majority of the Afghan population. So when they were driven from power, it was broadly a popular move in Afghanistan. And that definitely reduces their prospects for success now.

PESCA: So when you look at insurgencies, the ones that really do - and it's hard to do public polling in a lot of these places - but the ones that really do seem to be acting on the will of the people have a greater chance of succeeding?

Dr. KRAMER: Yeah, that's correct to the extent that - and again, insurgencies in general very rarely succeed. But the smaller number of cases that do, they generally have been able to win popular support in a particular region, but also they capitalize on two mistakes made by the counter-insurgent forces. It's usually that latter factor, mistakes made by counterinsurgent forces that are in some ways more important.

PESCA: Obviously, you're not recommending that NATO commanders or the Afghan military put their feet up and say, hey, we've got statistics on our side. But how should they use what you found?

Dr. KRAMER: Absolutely. I mean, on the one hand, what I've found gives some reason for optimism. But if enough time is allowed to pass, this insurgency can be crushed. You're talking about an average of nine to 11 years, in other words, a decade or so, that is often needed to crush an insurgency. NATO has made some mistakes recently, and this is what worries me a little bit, is that, as I look at NATO's performance in Afghanistan, especially with some of the troops that have been deployed by countries that won't let them actually fight, that does worry me.

But I think the recent gains made, especially in Kandahar and other regions of south and southeastern Afghanistan, by the Taliban have alarmed NATO enough that they're actually going to respond more effectively from now on. The Canadians, I should say, have been performing very well. And it's really a question of getting some of the other NATO countries to contribute as well.

PESCA: There's always that old aphorism about the generals, or whoever's controlling things, fighting the last war. And in terms of a mass insurgency, of course, American minds go back to Vietnam. Now, Ho Chi Minh first laid claim to Hanoi in 1945. Saigon didn't fall until 1974. That's almost 30 years.

Dr. KRAMER: Yes.

PESCA: Would you put that - that's in, I guess for you, the post-colonial category.

Dr. KRAMER: Yes. The Vietnam War, again, was a somewhat special case because it does come in the context of decolonization against the French.

PESCA: Let me interrupt you for a second. Though the fact that it's a special case, but it weighs so heavily on American minds, are we then skewed towards paying too much attention to the special case?

Dr. KRAMER: Yes. Even there, though, the United States, during the Johnson administration, waged a highly ineffective counterinsurgency strategy, a counterinsurgency strategy that you can look at it and in almost every respect it was bound to fail. That changed and actually, U.S. counterinsurgency strategy became quite effective toward the end of the war. But by then, popular support for it had thoroughly collapsed, so it was irrelevant at that point.

Whatever tactical successes were being made had been undermined by the loss of strategic support at the political level. In this case, it is - despite the widespread unpopularity of the Iraq war, the American public does remain broadly supportive of the effort in Afghanistan. And that's true as well of the other NATO countries. It's a very different situation in that respect from Iraq.

PESCA: You know, for most of my life, and I'm 36 years old, there seems to have been rebel groups that just persist. Now, there are exceptions. The guerillas of the Shining Path in Peru were, you know, causing terrible havoc in the '80s and they've pretty much died out. Chechnya seems to have sorted itself out, maybe not to the pleasure of the Chechnyians.

Dr. KRAMER: Right.

PESCA: But you know, you look at the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, they've been going on since - nearly for, you know, 20, 30 years. FARC in Colombia, in this hemisphere, the biggest and longest insurgency group. Are these just exceptions, or are they high - if you're going to make an average of 10 years, they're just the high end of the average?

Dr. KRAMER: No, my database definitely takes account of these long-lasting groups. The FARC is actually a good example. It is, as you've mentioned, the longest-lasting rebel group. And it is, though, now, really being routed by a combination of the Colombian security forces and with foreign assistance. So there it, actually, probably is going to conform to the model. It just took a considerable while longer.

If you look at other rebel groups, the only one I've really been able to find that lasted a long while and eventually did succeed was in Eritrea. Eritrea broke free from Ethiopia in the early 1990s, and that came after a 31-year civil war, a very bloody civil war, hundreds of thousands of people killed in it. That was, though, also, in the special context of the demise of the Soviet Union, which had been a major supporter of the Ethiopian government against Eritrean rebels.

So you can look at even the very small number of cases that succeed and still find circumstances that don't really apply to current-day Afghanistan. One - if I could add - one especially important experience to look at is the Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and what most people, in retrospect, fail to remember is that, actually, Soviet counterinsurgency strategy - after some early mistakes - but the strategy actually proved quite effective.

PESCA: It was just that the mistakes had been made in the public, even though they are not a democracy. We do have to...

Dr. KRAMER: When the draw was made, it was a political decision not driven by military considerations.

PESCA: Mark Kramer, senior fellow at the Davis Center of Russian and Eurasian studies at Harvard. Thank you, that was great.

Dr. KRAMER: Very good.

PESCA: Coming up, we will talk about the Mozilla Firefox web browser, a new bug, on the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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