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Bookshelf: Exit Afghanistan – history’s lessons

Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare
Daniel Marston and Carter Malkasian, Editors
Osprey Publishing, 2008
$33.00, 304 pages

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has declared that Canada’s contribution of a battlegroup to regional command south in Afghanistan will cease in 2011. Exiting gracefully, however, is no easy task.

In Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare, editors Daniel Marston and Carter Malkasian offer the perspectives of long established academic authorities such as Britain’s Charles Townsend and U.S. Army Lieutenant-Colonel John A. Nagl on how different counterinsurgency strategies were developed, and “how they contributed to the ultimate success or failure of the campaign.”

While the book is not an exploration of exit strategies per se, it does provide examples of how “outsiders,” “foreign interventionists” or “soldiers from away” extricated themselves from counterinsurgency warfare.

Seventeen conflicts are considered in thirteen chapters, including Afghanistan 2001-2007 and Iraq 2003-2007. Notably absent, however, are discussions of the recent Soviet and earlier British exits from Afghanistan or British operations in Iraq before Iraqi independence.

Among those considered are German anti-partisan operations during World War II on the Eastern Front and in France. Whether the Germans were dealing with a counterinsurgency or their opponents simply used guerilla tactics is perhaps a moot point. However, this study is relevant as it is suggested – in another essay as well – that German anti-partisan techniques influenced French Resistance fighters who later went on to develop French counterinsurgency tactics. Interestingly, German anti-partisan campaigns in the Balkans are not mentioned.

Though the Germans did not “exit” – they were forced out by conventional military force in overwhelming numbers – many “exits” from counterinsurgency situations are explored in this well written anthology.

British “exits” such as Ireland 1916-1922; Palestine 1921-1948; Malaya 1948-1960; Aden 1962-1967; and most familiar to Canadian readers, Northern Ireland 1967-2007. Not mentioned are British campaigns in Cyprus, Kenya, Oman, Borneo, or most of all, India, if that conflict is considered in the realm of “counterinsurgency.”

Among American counterinsurgency operations examined are, of course, Vietnam, but also the Philippines in 1899-1902 and again in 1946-1954. Neither Haiti (1915-1934) nor the Dominican Republic (1916-1924) is scrutinized, nor is America’s current involvement in the Philippines. The U.S. Marine intervention in Nicaragua (1909-1912) is explored, though it was admittedly not a counterinsurgency, and the “exit” was short-lived – American marines returned in 1927 for a longer period.

French counterinsurgent campaigns in Indo China and Algeria, both of which led to “exits,” are studied, but campaigns in Africa, some of which are ongoing, require further examination in a book of similar quality.

The failure of the white Rhodesian counterinsurgency receives a chapter. Unfortunately, Robert Mugabe’s counterinsurgent campaign in the 1980s against his principal rivals in Matabeleland with his North Korean-trained brigade is not discussed. It might have provided insight as to how former insurgents fight insurgency. Brutally, it would appear from anecdotal evidence.

Also included is the Israeli Defense Forces counterinsurgency response to one specific “Intifada” campaign from 2000-2005. There was no “exit” in this case, only construction of a wall to separate Gaza and the West Bank from Israeli citizens.

This survey is hardly exhaustive. Soviet and Russian counterinsurgency campaigns have been examined elsewhere, and more is needed on China’s approaches to dealing with insurgency, although we continue to catch glimpses of its response to Tibetan resistance; clearly, “exit” is not a consideration.

Pakistan, India and Bangladesh are all fighting insurgents in campaigns that seemed to receive limited exposure; Burma too has a history of counterinsurgency operations.

Most of these overlooked examples do not involve “exits” but rather indigenous governments exercising their authority through force, and hopefully, from our perspective, eventual accommodation with the insurgents. Perhaps these counterinsurgency campaigns foreshadow what we can expect when NATO exits Afghanistan.

So while this collection is not a consideration of “exits,” it does provide guidance on how foreigners withdrew from counterinsurgency campaigns over the past century. A common cue for “outsiders” exiting stage left would appear to be lack of popular support both at home and in the country where the insurgency is fought.

Reviewed by Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC)

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