Tuesday, July 06, 2010

How to Lose a Counter-Insurgency: Part II

(Or, Lessons the British Army Taught Us)

Part II: Let the War Drag On and On

This is General Nathanael Greene, George Washington's most trusted and innovative lieutenant. Greene is the person Washington turned to when it got ugly. He assigned Greene to cover the Continental Army's retreat from New York when the British had all but finished the American army off; he assigned Greene to solve the supply problem at Valley Forge; and he sent Greene to lead the campaign in the South after the British had positively crushed Horatio Gates and destroyed the Americans' southern army. The British were winning the South, and Nathanael Greene is the reason they didn't.

The British had begun to win in the Carolinas because they had belatedly begun a strategy that emphasized political support on the ground. The Southern colonies (or at least their coastal areas) tended to be fairly rich in British loyalists for cultural and sectarian reasons. The Southerners along the coast tended to be Church of England, unlike the various dissenting Protestants who abounded in the North. So after some military setbacks the British sent Cornwallis to take Charleston and then organize and rally the local Loyalists into militia units that could pacify the countryside and squelch the rebel militias. The early stages of the plan worked well. Then Greene, with a little help from officers like Daniel Morgan and Light-Horse Harry Lee, ruined the strategy and wrecked Cornwallis's nerves.

It's not that Greene defeated Cornwallis. He never had the troops to win a direct assault, and he lost every pitched battle he tried. Part of the rebels' success involved upsets over smaller detachments of Cornwallis's army, which kept getting smaller. But mostly Greene won by not losing. He kept his "fugitive army" in the field. He kept living to fight another day. When he was in trouble, he made brilliant and even daring retreats. (Yes, there is such a thing as a daring retreat. Greene could choose the path that led to safety through danger and pull it off.) He floated like a butterfly. He stung like a bee.

The result is that even when Cornwallis won his objectives, his forces got weaker and weaker. But worse for Cornwallis, the Revolutionary militias kept rallying, and the Loyalists volunteers dribbled away. (Although one large and misguided group did attempt to join Light-Horse Harry Lee, under the impression that he was someone else.) As long as Greene stayed in the fight, his local sympathizers stayed in the fight, too. All Greene needed was to force a series of stalemates. Cornwallis needed a decisive checkmate, which every month got harder to achieve. As long as Greene hadn't lost, he was winning. As long as Cornwallis hadn't won, he was losing.

The lesson for counterinsurgencies, including the ones that we're fighting now is that ties go to the home team. The occupying army, like Cornwallis, has to win by destroying the opposition outright. The insurgency gains strength and support just by keeping the fight going. The longer the occupying force goes without defeating the insurgents the less likely the locals are to believe that they ever will. And once you decide the occupier can't win, you start planning for the next chapter.

We began fighting in Afghanistan in October 2001, and started occupying bases there in November of that year. (If you're wondering, the Soviets spent nine years and two months fighting in Afghanistan; we are six months from breaking their record.) We are still fighting the Taliban. Can the Taliban forcibly drive us from Kabul? Hardly. Could they directly assault the main body of our forces? Of course not. They can't afford to do that. But they don't need to.

Nathanael Greene couldn't drive Cornwallis out of Charleston. He never bothered to try. And for that matter, Washington couldn't drive the British out of New York, which they took from him in late 1776 and kept for the whole war. They took Philadelphia, too, chasing out the Continental Congress and Washington couldn't do much about it. But the British couldn't win that way, and neither can we. If we can't destroy the Taliban as an effective force, they can wait us out forever. They have nowhere else to go. Charles Cornwallis wanted to go back to England someday; Nathanael Greene was already home. The visiting team needs to end the contest.

Many people complain that setting any specific date for a draw-down or withdrawal simply encourages our military enemies (whether in Afghanistan or Iraq) to wait us out. This is logical enough, but it ignores one basic fact. Our opponents in Afghanistan and Iraq have always been waiting us out. They're not going to decide to wait us out because they have a specific date to look forward to. Their original schedule was to wait us out forever. (Washington, bidding farewell to his troops in 1783, talks about gaining the victory "so much sooner than we could have expected.") Giving them a date to circle on the calendar doesn't change their plans. They will resist as long as they can. The only way to stop them is to destroy their means of resistance.

There are really only two choices for an occupying force: win or go home.

cross-posted at Dagblog

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