Commentary Magazine


Topic: Rick Bennet

On the Success Rate of Counterinsurgencies

Last night I took part in an interesting panel discussion at the Asia Society in New York examining lessons from Vietnam that might apply to the current war in Afghanistan. (The video is here.) One of my fellow panelists, Gordon Goldstein, author of Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, a book widely read in the Obama White House during the deliberations over Afghanistan last fall, claimed in the course of our discussion that counterinsurgencies are only successful 25 percent of the time. He was challenged on this claim by the third panelist, Rufus Phillips — an old counterinsurgency hand who first went to Vietnam in 1954 with the legendary Edward Lansdale. Goldstein replied that he had got this figure from the journal International Security.

Today my colleague Rick Bennet searched that journal’s database and could find no such figure. The closest he could find was this recent article: “The Myth of Military Myopia,” by Jonathan D. Caverley. In it, Caverley, citing another International Affairs article by Alexander Downes, claims that democracies win 47 percent of counterinsurgencies and non-democracies win 58 percent.

That’s broadly in line with this article, which ran last August in Foreign Policy. Based on a sample of 66 20th-century counterinsurgencies, the authors find that “militaries succeeded about 60 percent of the time” but that after 1945 “this rate dropped to 48 percent.” But the authors also found that adopting of a hearts-and-minds strategy — of the kind the U.S. is now employing in Afghanistan — had a much higher probability of success: 75 percent. They add, however, that “Our analysis indicates that all foreign states that shifted to a hearts-and-minds strategy after eight years of counterinsurgency ultimately failed to defeat the insurgents, a pattern that does not bode well for Afghanistan.”

I take all such quantitative analyses with a big grain of salt because I’ve looked at the data sets employed by political scientists and they are invariably skewed in scope and full of dubious assumptions. (Downes’s International Security article notes that one such data set claims that Britain and America initiated World War II in Europe and that the United States started the Vietnam War!) Generating such numbers often gives an aura of faux certainty to what are in fact highly subjective judgments. That said, even in this flawed data, I could find no support for the extremely gloomy claim that counterinsurgencies win only 25 percent of the time. The actual figure generated by social scientists is at least twice as high.

Last night I took part in an interesting panel discussion at the Asia Society in New York examining lessons from Vietnam that might apply to the current war in Afghanistan. (The video is here.) One of my fellow panelists, Gordon Goldstein, author of Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, a book widely read in the Obama White House during the deliberations over Afghanistan last fall, claimed in the course of our discussion that counterinsurgencies are only successful 25 percent of the time. He was challenged on this claim by the third panelist, Rufus Phillips — an old counterinsurgency hand who first went to Vietnam in 1954 with the legendary Edward Lansdale. Goldstein replied that he had got this figure from the journal International Security.

Today my colleague Rick Bennet searched that journal’s database and could find no such figure. The closest he could find was this recent article: “The Myth of Military Myopia,” by Jonathan D. Caverley. In it, Caverley, citing another International Affairs article by Alexander Downes, claims that democracies win 47 percent of counterinsurgencies and non-democracies win 58 percent.

That’s broadly in line with this article, which ran last August in Foreign Policy. Based on a sample of 66 20th-century counterinsurgencies, the authors find that “militaries succeeded about 60 percent of the time” but that after 1945 “this rate dropped to 48 percent.” But the authors also found that adopting of a hearts-and-minds strategy — of the kind the U.S. is now employing in Afghanistan — had a much higher probability of success: 75 percent. They add, however, that “Our analysis indicates that all foreign states that shifted to a hearts-and-minds strategy after eight years of counterinsurgency ultimately failed to defeat the insurgents, a pattern that does not bode well for Afghanistan.”

I take all such quantitative analyses with a big grain of salt because I’ve looked at the data sets employed by political scientists and they are invariably skewed in scope and full of dubious assumptions. (Downes’s International Security article notes that one such data set claims that Britain and America initiated World War II in Europe and that the United States started the Vietnam War!) Generating such numbers often gives an aura of faux certainty to what are in fact highly subjective judgments. That said, even in this flawed data, I could find no support for the extremely gloomy claim that counterinsurgencies win only 25 percent of the time. The actual figure generated by social scientists is at least twice as high.

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HRW Should Stop Punishing Colombia

If I were being ungenerous, I could easily say that no one should pay attention to what Human Rights Watch has to say in light of that group’s history of employing an investigator with a strange fetish for Nazi memorabilia and its attempt to raise money in Saudi Arabia, of all places, by advertising its battles against “pro-Israel pressure groups.” But that would be wrong because, for all its faults, HRW does some valuable work in such countries as China and Sudan. Unfortunately, HRW does not extend similar tolerance and understanding to its targets.

Case in point is its new report on Colombia: “Paramilitaries’ Heirs: The New Face of Violence in Colombia.” In it, HRW focuses on violence and drug-trafficking perpetrated by paramilitary groups that have continued to exist even after the majority of such fighters were demobilized between 2003 and 2006. As far as I can tell, HRW has collected some useful information that shows the need for greater Colombian action against these groups. I am sure that Colombia officials would be the first to say that they need to do more to combat paramilitaries along with FARC and other leftist groups. (In fact, I heard those very views voiced during my visit to Colombia in the fall.) But there is no acknowledgment in the report of the tremendous strides that the government under President Alvaro Uribe has made in combating guerrillas and terrorists of whatever strip, in pacifying much of the country, and in making it possible for citizens to enjoy their democratic rights in peace. Instead the report has a nasty, hectoring tone, suggesting, without quite coming out and saying so, that senior echelons of the government are complicit in paramilitary violence. Among the report’s recommendations for action is this:

Delay consideration of free trade deals with Colombia until the Colombian government meets human rights pre-conditions, including dismantling paramilitary structures and effectively confronting the successor groups that now pose a serious threat to trade unionists.

Actually the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is already stalled. It has been ratified by the Colombian parliament but not by the U.S. Congress, where Democrats are blocking it at the instigation of protectionist union leaders. This makes no sense as a matter of policy, because the agreement would not only provide a boost for American exporters, it would also provide much-needed economic help to America’s closest ally in Latin America. Colombia has made amazing, almost miraculous strides in beating back insurgents and narco-traffickers over the past decade, and it did so while reducing human-rights violations among its security forces and enhancing the rule of law (a story that my colleague Rick Bennet and I told in this Weekly Standard article). But the HRW report has nothing positive to say about Colombia’s achievement as far as I can tell. Instead it insists on punishing Colombia — and the U.S. economy — by stopping an important trade agreement until such time as Colombia achieves a state of perfection that will suit HRW. This is a perfect illustration of why it is hard to take seriously so much of the work that comes out of the professional “human rights” community, which too often seems colored by animus against democratic American allies such as Israel and Colombia.

If I were being ungenerous, I could easily say that no one should pay attention to what Human Rights Watch has to say in light of that group’s history of employing an investigator with a strange fetish for Nazi memorabilia and its attempt to raise money in Saudi Arabia, of all places, by advertising its battles against “pro-Israel pressure groups.” But that would be wrong because, for all its faults, HRW does some valuable work in such countries as China and Sudan. Unfortunately, HRW does not extend similar tolerance and understanding to its targets.

Case in point is its new report on Colombia: “Paramilitaries’ Heirs: The New Face of Violence in Colombia.” In it, HRW focuses on violence and drug-trafficking perpetrated by paramilitary groups that have continued to exist even after the majority of such fighters were demobilized between 2003 and 2006. As far as I can tell, HRW has collected some useful information that shows the need for greater Colombian action against these groups. I am sure that Colombia officials would be the first to say that they need to do more to combat paramilitaries along with FARC and other leftist groups. (In fact, I heard those very views voiced during my visit to Colombia in the fall.) But there is no acknowledgment in the report of the tremendous strides that the government under President Alvaro Uribe has made in combating guerrillas and terrorists of whatever strip, in pacifying much of the country, and in making it possible for citizens to enjoy their democratic rights in peace. Instead the report has a nasty, hectoring tone, suggesting, without quite coming out and saying so, that senior echelons of the government are complicit in paramilitary violence. Among the report’s recommendations for action is this:

Delay consideration of free trade deals with Colombia until the Colombian government meets human rights pre-conditions, including dismantling paramilitary structures and effectively confronting the successor groups that now pose a serious threat to trade unionists.

Actually the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is already stalled. It has been ratified by the Colombian parliament but not by the U.S. Congress, where Democrats are blocking it at the instigation of protectionist union leaders. This makes no sense as a matter of policy, because the agreement would not only provide a boost for American exporters, it would also provide much-needed economic help to America’s closest ally in Latin America. Colombia has made amazing, almost miraculous strides in beating back insurgents and narco-traffickers over the past decade, and it did so while reducing human-rights violations among its security forces and enhancing the rule of law (a story that my colleague Rick Bennet and I told in this Weekly Standard article). But the HRW report has nothing positive to say about Colombia’s achievement as far as I can tell. Instead it insists on punishing Colombia — and the U.S. economy — by stopping an important trade agreement until such time as Colombia achieves a state of perfection that will suit HRW. This is a perfect illustration of why it is hard to take seriously so much of the work that comes out of the professional “human rights” community, which too often seems colored by animus against democratic American allies such as Israel and Colombia.

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