As Afghanistan becomes the hottest topic in international discussions, one often hears that “this has no military solution”. US President Barack Obama has been uttering the shibboleth while increasing the number of his troops in Afghanistan. His Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been repeating it in a dozen different ways. Richard Holbrooke, the man in charge of the Afghan dossier, has echoed the sentiment, claiming that only diplomacy, presumably his brand, could end a guerrilla insurgency.
Needles to say, the media are full of editorials about how no one has ever won a war in Afghanistan and that even Alexander the Great learned that there was “no military solution” on the Hindu Kush.
Like other shibboleths, however, the phrase “there is no military solution” tells us either too much or too little. It tells us too much because it pretends to divine the outcome of a struggle that is far from over. It tells us too little because it offers no discernible alternative to what it rejects.
History, however, contains many more instances of a guerrilla insurgency being “solved” militarily than otherwise.
To start with, it is untrue that no one has ever managed to impose a military solution on Afghanistan. True, the British lost two wars against the Afghan emirs but won the third and decisive one, imposing their domination of the country for some 100 years. They also managed to detach half of Afghanistan’s Pushtun population, annexing their territory to the Indian Raj and, later, to the newly created state of Pakistan.
To be sure, a mixture of bribery and chicanery helped the British achieve victory. In the final analysis, however, superior firepower and morale played the decisive role.
American commentators often cite the United States’ failure in Vietnam and the Soviet Union’s debacle in Afghanistan to illustrate the “no military solution” claim.
In both cases, however, what had initially stared as a guerrilla operation had soon developed into full-scale conventional war. In Vietnam, the war against the US and its South Vietnamese allies was managed by the Communist regime in Hanoi, as a state, with support from the USSR and China. Militarily, the US won the war but, because of its domestic problems, failed to translate that into a political win. In other words, there was a military solution, but the US could not apply it because of politics.
In Afghanistan, too, what had began as a guerrilla insurgency soon developed into a proxy war between the US and the USSR. Even hen, had the Soviets chosen to use their full military might they would have had little trouble in crushing the US-backed insurgency in Afghanistan.
The trouble, as far as Moscow was concerned, was that the USSR’s gerontocracy under Leonid Brezhnev and his two moribund successors, lacked the will to embark on a war hat might have spread to Pakistan and even provoked a showdown with the US.
The history of the past six or seven decades offers many instances of insurgencies that were crushed by military force. The post-War Malayan insurgency, which lasted 11 years, was ultimately defeated by the British on the battlefield, despite massive support from China.
The Chinese-backed Indonesian insurgency in the 1970s fared no better and was defeated by General Suharto’s forces in Java and Sumatra.
Also in the 1970s, the Iranian army backed by British mercenaries imposed a military solution in the Omani province of Dhofar, ending a decade-long insurgency backed by the USSR and Cuba. Earlier the Omani forces had managed to defeat the Ibadhi uprising led by the Bin Ali brothers in Jabal al-Akhdhar.
In the same decade, the Pakistanis managed to defeat a Soviet-backed Baluch insurgency led by Akbar Khan Bugti.
In Africa, the British militarily defeated a number of insurgencies but had to jettison their victories because of political sentiments at home and diplomatic pressure abroad.
More recently, the Algerian army has succeeded in defeating a variety of radical Islamist guerrilla groups, opening the way for the country to rebuild its political and economic structures.
In Latin America, everyone knows of Fidel Castro’s victory in the guerrilla war that ended Battista’s despotic rule. But there are also instances of insurgencies that were crushed by military force in Guatemala, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Honduras. More recently, Peru has succeeded in crushing the Shining Path insurgency by military force. And right now, Colombia appears close to final military victory against the narco-guerrillas of FARC.
In the Middle East, Turkey is close to achieving final military victory over the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) a Marxist secessionist group using bases in Iran and Iraq.
And do we need to be reminded that the insurgency in Iraq has also been crushed largely because of the US increasing its military presence there at a crucial time?
In the past six years, The Philippines have managed to end the insurgency in the island of Mindanao while Thailand has defeated the guerrilla groups operating in two southern provinces. In Chechnya, the Russians have imposed military defeat on the insurgents and installed a government of their choosing. In East Turkestan (Xingjian) , the use of overwhelming Chinese force has brought the Uighur insurgency to an abrupt end.
To be sure, in some cases mentioned above, especially Chechnya and East Turkestan, the dismantling of insurgent bases in Afghanistan was a key factor in weakening the guerrilla movements fighting Russia and China. Nevertheless, the key element in both cases was the readiness of both Moscow and Beijing to use overwhelming military force.
As this column is being written, there are reports that the Tamil Tigers, insurgency in Sri Lanka, one of the longest lasting in recent history, may also be close to military defeat.
Repeating the cliché “there is no military solution” makes it more difficult to apply such a solution. It encourages the insurgents to keep fighting in the belief that they could win by breaking the adversary’s morale.
In most cases, it is nonsense to suggest that ” there is no military solution”. However, it is legitimate to suggest that there are better ways of ending a conflict than the use of force. All these better ways can and must be tried. But the military solution should never be taken off the table. Insurgencies could and have routinely been defeated since Alexander the Great.