Can you defeat an insurgency?


Good question.

Here is what Canadian Press wrote a year ago when Jack Layton suggested you couldn’t.

… the historical portrait Layton paints is far fuzzier in reality.

The British did in fact defeat an Afghan insurgency in the Second Afghan War in 1880 – and the battle ended in Kandahar, where Canadian troops are currently located. And Alexander’s trek through Asia did not stall in Afghanistan. It ended in India, after his troops had already marched through Afghanistan and founded the cities of Herat and Kandahar. The latter was named after him.

Layton’s remarks drew scorn from some military experts.

A British ex-special forces officer who fought alongside the mujahedeen in the 1980s and now runs a security company called the comments erroneous. Alan Bell also called them unhelpful to the Afghan government, and to the morale of Canadian soldiers and their families.

And Canadian military analyst John Thompson added: “I don’t talk about social policy. (Layton) shouldn’t talk about military history or strategy. I don’t know much about social policy, and it’s clear he doesn’t know much about military history or strategy.”


Can you defeat an insurgency?

  1. Any enemy can be defeated! … for awhile …. but the best way to defeat an enemy is not through conflict with them but if you do -> If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected. = Sun Tzu

  2. Can you defeat an insurgency? Yes.

    Not sure if we are going to defeat Afghan insurgency or not but other insurgencies have been defeated.

    • Really! Name a couple and then tell us at what price?

      • Most famously, and endlessly referenced , is the Malay rebellion squelched by the Brits.

        And I’m not sure how to qualify the 80-odd US excursions into Central and South America through the 20th century. Defending their freedoms, I suppose.

        Africa ? Depends on who and when we’re talking about.

        But , generally speaking , insurgencies that don’t go away are eventually successful. Stating the obvious.

        And I’m not sure I’d describe any of the three Afghan/Brit wars as a success for the Brits.

        • Sisyphus
          Thanks for the info. My pt being that you may win if yr prepared to be even more brutal then the enemy or are yourself in overwelmingly superior numbers or weapons – and then not always.

      • Bolsheviks over White Army, North beat South in American Civil War, Brits defeated Mau Mau, the Malayan’s defeated the Malayan National Liberation Army, Nazis stopped the Warsaw Uprising, French defeated FLN in Algeria, Brits beat Boers, Chinese defeat Tibet … etc.

        Don’t know how much they cost, tho.

        • Well the father of a friend of mine fought in the emergency in Malaya – judging by some of his stories i’d say we don’t have the stomach to fight like that. Although what the hell do i know, some of the things the Americans and Brits did in Iraq wasn’t too pretty!

          • Even in Iraq the Americans and Brits have drawn the line at wholesale massacres of the civilian population as a form of collective punishment . . . which is how you defeat an insurgency.

          • I don’t think Western nations have the stomach for defeating insurgencies anymore. Significant percentage of people need to be killed/tortured/jailed, buildings/cities have to be leveled and I don’t believe there is any support from us for that kind of action.

            And Afghan is a whole other story. From what I can tell, the people are rather fatalistic and society is still medieval so who knows what troops would have to do to defeat insurgency there.

          • Yeah i think the Brits did a form of that in Malaya, with some pretty good counter insurgency. Now the way the world is wired it world be difficult to do this, not to mention unethical. The Israelis carry on a more defined form of collective punishment. Not too sure how effective it is really.

        • Just details , jwl , but ….

          Kenyatta ( Mau Mau ) was the first president of Kenya.

          The leaders of the FLN were included in the independence government of Algeria.

          The Boers lost the battles of the Boer War but they eventually forced the Brits out.

          Some people think the US Civil War isn’t over.

          History has a longer time line than the one we impose on it.

          • Sis

            I was thinking of Zhou Enlai’s quote “it’s too early to tell” when asked about impact of French Revolution while I was reading The End Of Democracy? article earlier this morning. Some insurgencies are like ‘whack a mole’, I guess.

  3. Aaron, as you have made a habit of of late, this contrast between Harper and Layton is completely disingenuous. First of all, on Layton’s comments, he WAS historically wrong. Second of all, it is not the same thing to say “The Taliban will never be wiped out, therefore there is no point in remaining.” and saying “The Taliban will never be wiped out, but we can create security for an Afghan government.”

    There were still Communists in Russia after the Berlin Wall fell, but I think we mostly figured the Cold War was over at that point. Since the Taliban has a near unlimited supply of foreign fighters flowing in, it may be true that they can never be eradicated. But can they be controlled? This is a question of debate. Your lampoons are nice if you just mean to spit at Conservatives but the truth is that Layton was totally wrong in his historic analysis (also failing to recognize the difference between conquering a nation and helping to uphold its native government!), and it has very little in common with Harper’s comments (which were probably stupid anyways, and don’t need your twisting).

    You’re a great writer Aaron, and I sympathize with the fact that anyone following this government closely probably has a huge pent-up desire to scream their faults to the world. But your BS reporting lately looks bad on you.

    • “Since the Taliban has a near unlimited supply of foreign fighters flowing in, it may be true that they can never be eradicated. But can they be controlled? “

      Funny, I don’t remember Harper or McKay or any of the Foreign Affairs Ministers (are we up to half a dozen yet?) ever making the argument that the objective is to simply “control” the Taliban. Not once. Not once in the many many speeches they have given, including when they sought out support for the extension of the mission. You know, when McKay told Canadians that the job would not be done until the Afghanistan is “completely free of the shadows of Taliban terror.”

  4. I think Jack Layton read the history of Afghanistan before Harper did.

    • I don’t think Jack Layton read the history of anything before Harper did. Layton’s grasp of history is demonstrably weak.

      • I’ll bet you a nickel that Jack read the history of labour in Canada before Harper did.

        • Good point . I’ll revise my statement.

          I don’t think Jack Layton read the history of anything significant before Harper did.

          Just kidding! ;-)

          • Hey, a nickel’s a nickel.

  5. Surely the only real question is, as far as Layton’s position goes, is if we had pulled out how would that have improved things in anyway for the Afgans? Layton’s arguement would hold more water if the Afgan people were saying: no, you can’t win, go home. They didn’t ; so we didn’t. We know there was/is no perfect solution and this should have been stated from the beginning, instead we got Taliban Jack et al. It’s a basic problem i have with the ndp, while i like the heart they show and admire their tenacity, i’m not impresssed with a postion they often seem to adopt – if the plan wont work perfectly, doing nothing is always an option. Unfair, i know as they often do have alternatives, but they are often unrealistic. I’m gonna get my helmet on now before the lads turn up!

    • Again, the NDP option was not to just walk away.

      Granted, their policy did not propose anything that would have been useful or acceptable at the time.

      But they were not just saying ” We’re outa here “. And I think that what they were saying then might well apply at some point in the future.

  6. Ted- check John Geddes post from yesterday or the day before entitled (something like) “Harper consistent on Taliban”

    I’m sure when politicians make speeches that Canadians should live free of the fear of walking in their neighbourhoods they don’t LITERALLY mean that there will never be a crime in the country again. See also Aaron’s next post quoting Chretien saying essentially the same thing: there will be no victory day when the LAST Taliban will be killed or captured.

    Everyone slams Harper for being cartoonishly black and white, and then when he states the obvious he gets slammed for not being cartoonishly black and white.

    Like there aren’t enough legitimate reasons to critique…

  7. A bit of a problem there – Kandahar is not named after Alexander, and wasn’t founded by him either. Kandahar is the modern name for the ancient Hindu kingdom of Gandhara, and details for the same are recorded in Alexander’s Anabasis by his own historians.

  8. Thank you, Aaron. That article was a disgrace at the time it was written and it deserves the scorn being heaped on it now. The basic idea–that Layton was wrongheaded to claim that Afghanistan is unconquerable–originally came from a similar article written by Jack Granatstein at about the same time.

    The foolishness of this counter-argument should have been obvious at the time. For God’s sake, Afghanistan is known around the world as the GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES.

    I’m mean, how dumb can “experts” like Granatstein, Bell and Thompson actually be? Do these guys not know what “Google” is? Have they never heard of the country before? Did they not own a television in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when that phrase was used about four hundred thousand times?

    One can claim that entire conventional view of Afghan history is wrong, but the nickname “graveyard of empires” pretty much closes the case on whether it’s REASONABLE to claim the country cannot be conquered by outsiders or whether such a claim is somehow worthy of derision.

    Even beyond that, any intelliegent reader should have been recognized these guys as the fools they are just by reading the piece. While they attacked Layton because he disagreed with their unpopular support for the war, they didn’t challenge a single substantive element of his analysis. It’s a sure sign of a weak and ignorant argument when one resorts solely to rhetoric.

  9. Can you defeat an insurgency which enjoys support from a significant percentage of the inhabitants? And whose language, culture, religion, internal politics, terrain and climate are utterly foreign to you? When the puppet regime you’re propping up is unrepresentative, weak and corrupt?


    But feel free to waste billions of dollars and hundreds of lives while you pretend to try.

  10. control is an illusion. Humans can not control the physical world, only influence it. Nobody wins war, anyone who engages in the aberrant behaviors of war are in fact mentally ill, and need to be treated as such. If we had leaders who were not mentally ill, only then could we hope to evolve, or to win anything. Unfortunately Canadian society rewards aberrant behavior with leadership roles and lots of money, Leaving the sane population an oppressed minority. This has been perpetuated for a very long time, we are still following the indoctrination of the mentally ill bloodlines of the dark ages. If there was a democracy in Canada, maybe we could choose our leaders and keep the mentally ill cavemen away from public positions of power.

    Is there really any hope?

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