Conflict Termination: How to End -- and Not to End -- Insurgencies

U.S. Army Maj. Robert Rodriguez shakes hands with a local child.

U.S. Army Maj. Robert Rodriguez shakes hands with a local child during a visit to the market in Taji, Iraq, on Oct. 11, 2007. Rodriguez is the executive officer of 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. DoD photo by Senior Airman Steve Czyz, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

Editor's Note

A sizeable majority of Americans, according to polling data, are dissatisfied with the war in Iraq (and the less reported war in Afghanistan). How to end the war, however, remains unclear. The dilemma the United States now faces getting out of Iraq has been faced by a number of other nations which found themselves battling indigenous insurgencies. In this essay, military historian Joe Guilmartin looks back at the post-WWII era to examine other examples of "conflict termination." Professor Guilmartin brings a particular expertise to this task: in addition to being a distinguished historian, Joe Guilmartin flew helicopters in two tours during Vietnam, including during the evacuation of Saigon.

Concern over the trajectory of the on-going American military commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan has combined with memories of Vietnam and its aftermath to fuel interest in conflict termination, the process by which wars are ended. While we have paid a great deal of attention to how wars get started—and even more attention on how to fight wars—we tend not to talk very much about how a war should end. It is surely an understatement to assert that books and articles about conflict termination are outnumbered a thousand to one by works on the manner in which wars are waged and won. What comes after the military leaves? How should a peace be constructed and what does "peace" mean after a war? How best do we create a successful outcome? For us? For the country we leave? Given the problems now apparent in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how and when we get out of these wars may be the most important decisions we make in these long and important conflicts.

It is my intention here to move toward redressing the imbalance. There is no shortage of examples in history of both successful and failed strategies for ending wars. Though I will not explicitly address our options for extricating ourselves from our military commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan, concern for what they might be and their consequences are at the heart of this essay. In consequence, I will pay particular attention to wars in the relatively recent past involving attempts by external powers to overcome insurgencies, rebellions and revolutionary movements in other states.

What is War? Peace? Insurgency?
The necessary starting place is our understanding of the nature of war, what it is and how it is waged. That understanding is a product of the Age of Reason – the enlightenment of the 18th century - and assumes implicitly that wars are mostly fought between nation states and involve the clash of armed forces. That understanding is reflected in the two dictionary definitions below.

war \ n,a (1): a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between political units (as states or nations) .
Webster's Third New International Dictionary, unabridged (Springfield, Massachusetts, 1981)

war, n, 1. a contest between nations or states (international war) or between parties in the same state (civil war), carried on by force of arms for various purposes, as to settle disputes about territorial possessions, to maintain rights that have been interfered with, to resist oppression, to avenge injuries, to conquer territory to extend dominion, etc.; a conflict of arms between hostile parties or nations; open hostility declared and engaged in.
Webster's Monarch Dictionary, unabridged (Chicago, 1916)

Note that the second, and older, of the two definitions includes not only civil war, but conflict involving "parties" as well as nations. Still, the emphasis on "open hostility declared and engaged in" has a whiff of the Age of Reason about it. If these definitions are representative of our society's understanding of war—and I believe they are—then we have some intellectual re-tooling to do. I offer my own working definition by way of a starting point.

war, n,organized, socially sanctioned armed violence employed by opposing groups against one another, normally for political, social or economic purposes.

In encompassing conflict among non-state entities so long as they enjoy social sanction within their host societies this definition more closely approximates the realities of both the recent and remote past. To say that wars are waged for political, social or economic purposes does not exclude objectives that we might consider irrational or criminal. If we define political purposes to mean the ability to exercise power over others, ethnic cleansing and even genocide become political objectives. It is important to recognize that wars – even civil wars and insurgencies – are fought for real reasons and with objectives that are rational, at least to the participants.

Based on the assumption that peace is the desired outcome of conflict termination—and bearing in mind that for some entities the only desirable peace is that of the grave—we must consider the inherent nature of peace. It is not, as we tend to assume, the mere absence of war as defined in the traditional Euro-centric sense as discussed above. I offer the following:

peace \ n, – a state of social harmony in the which inherent tensions among nations and/or their component socio-political groups are dealt with effectively enough that the threshold of war is not crossed <can be maintained through satisfaction of needs and aspirations and/or by force>.
Working definition by Mr. Tom Doumaux.
Ohio State University, Class of 1992

How to End Wars: The Lessons of History
A certain conventional wisdom holds that an unreasonable expenditure of blood and treasure is required to suppress insurgencies mounted with broad popular support against an external occupying power and its indigenous allies. But even with this broad definition of peace that is clearly not the case. The British, for example, were successful in suppressing the communist-led insurgency in Malaya during the 1950s. We and our Philippine allies successfully suppressed the communist-led post-World War II Hukbalahap insurgency in the Philippines. So let us turn to several case studies to explore these issues more closely.

The story of the Vietnamese insurgency begins, appropriately enough, with the allied conflict termination strategy for Asia in World War II. In contrast to the European theater, where in the final analysis the war was brought to a close by advancing Allied troops, conflict termination in Asia on a local basis was in the hands of the Japanese. This was both because the Japanese still occupied most of their empire when they agreed to surrender and because Allied Generalissimo Douglas MacArthur prohibited the entry of Allied forces into Japanese-occupied territory until the formal signing of the peace treaty, a period of just over two weeks. The only exceptions were small detachments of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and AGAS (Air-Ground Aid Service) sent in to succor prisoners of war held by the Japanese. Taking advantage of this period of operational freedom, the Japanese in Indochina were able to render significant aid to the communist-led Vietminh, aid that effectively jump-started the anti-French insurgency.

The results are too well known to merit repetition and we can turn directly to French conflict termination, negotiated in the 1955 Geneva Accords and implemented on the ground in Indochina. In a diplomatic settlement that speaks more to Soviet and Chinese ambivalence about an independent, communist-led, North Vietnam than to French negotiating skills or American influence, the French surrendered outright only North Vietnam, securing independent, non-communist governments in Laos, Cambodia and—most pivotally—South Vietnam, where they continued to exercise a large degree of political control. The agreement provided for an orderly withdrawal of French forces from North Vietnam and for a parallel withdrawal of a significant body of Vietminh from South Vietnam. The period allotted for the exchange was sufficiently long, from June of 1954 until May of 1955, that the French were able to arrange for the evacuation from North Vietnam of a considerable number of Vietnamese who had supported the French and other anti-communists, notably Catholics.

The results on the ground were not pretty. A reasonably stable non-French, non-communist government emerged in the South only after more than a year of turmoil that at times rose to the level of civil war; within a year and a half of the departure of the last French ship from Haiphong harbor, portions of central North Vietnam were convulsed by a peasant uprising against the Hanoi government. Viewing the situation from the perspective of how it managed a counter insurgency, these results were about as good as could be expected, and the French conflict-termination looks good in comparison to that of their successor in the conflict, the United States.

Ironically, after a rough start, American forces and their South Vietnamese allies effectively suppressed the Viet Cong insurgency in the South between the failure of the communist 1968 Têt Offensive and 1970-71. By then, however, the American public had concluded that the expenditure of blood and treasure was more than the stakes warranted, and this public opposition created the pressure to begin the withdrawal of American ground forces, then on the withdrawal of all direct American military support, and finally on the curtailment of financial support to South Vietnam. While US advisors and air power helped South Vietnamese forces drive back a major conventional invasion from the north in 1972, by 1975 American patience was at an end and, despite occasionally heroic stands by South Vietnamese forces, communist forces rolled to victory. American officials on the spot, particularly Ambassador to Saigon Graham Martin, responded in an inchoate manner. Unwilling to accept the reality that South Vietnam was doomed, HE began serious measures to secure the evacuation of US citizens and friendly South Vietnamese and other foreign nationals at risk only at the eleventh hour.

The final evacuation was mounted belatedly, using helicopters based aboard US Navy ships in the South China Sea, and while a significant number of evacuees were brought out, including essentially all Americans who wanted to be evacuated, belated and faulty implementation ensured that among friendly Vietnamese the bulk of those most a risk were left behind. Unlike the French, the Americans had failed to plan effectively for defeat, with disorder and chaos resulting.

By contrast, the earlier evacuation of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, had gone surprisingly well and only the refusal of the Cambodian government to release its own citizens had precluded the evacuation of a significant number of Khymer who, as we now know, would die at the hands of the Khymer Rouge.

France and Algeria
Our next case study is French conflict termination in Algeria (especially 1954-1962). The Algerian rebellion began with a spontaneous anti-French uprising in the immediate aftermath of VE Day in 1945. The initial uprising was put down with bloody and now infamous ruthlessness, but French retreat in Indochina fueled nationalist aspirations and anti-French sentiment among the Arab populace, and by 1955 the French were faced with a full-bore insurgency. In a limiting case of military control of strategic objectives and military means, the French Army responded with force and ferocity, making widespread and effective use of torture to break into guerrilla cells, effectively ending the insurgency in urban areas and driving it to the ground in the countryside. As part of their strategy, the French worked hard and successfully to bring elements of the Arab populace over to their side, and at the end French-armed anti-insurgents, the so-called Harkis, far outnumbered the nationalist insurgents.

But military victory had been purchased at a cost in human suffering rejected not only by international opinion, but by the vast majority of the French public. The result was President de Gaulle's decision to accept defeat and withdraw, granting Algerian independence. That decision prevailed despite a revolt by French forces in Algeria that threatened to overthrow the government in Paris, the last attempt at a military coup d'etat in a western democracy.

Just how many Algerians who had supported the French died in the early days of independence will never be known, but the total is surely staggering. Of equal or greater importance over the long term, French tactics desensitized many Algerians to violence. This desensitization expressed itself in a fundamentalist insurgency against the secular post-independence government. The horrendous consequences are still being worked out today, over a half century after French defeat. If the French in Indochina get a B+ in conflict termination, because there was an attempt to create the time and space for an orderly end to the conflict, and the US in Indochina gets a D-, for exactly the opposite reasons, the French in Algeria get a solid F. The extreme violence of the events in Algeria convulsed both Algerian and French society, and those events remain a black mark on French history and a destabilizing force in Algerian society.

The Portuguese Empire
Our next case involves the dissolution of the Portuguese colonial empire in Africa and Asia. Communist-supported guerrilla insurgencies got under way in the African countries of Mozambique, Guinea and Angola; and in Indonesia's Timor region in the early 1960s and entered what turned out to the their final phase in the wake of American withdrawal from Vietnam. By this time, Portugal had become an impoverished country, but it was not the financial cost of combating the insurgencies that brought the Portuguese empire down, rather it was defeatism among the soldiers who were fighting it, combined with the growth of communist influence within the Portuguese Army. In essence, paraphrasing a reporter for the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Portuguese threw the keys to city hall on the table and went home. Of our case studies, this was surely the most unplanned and un-systematic example of conflict termination, and although not as widely known as the Algerian or Vietnamese cases, arguably the most destructive. Timor, with the least-developed anti-Portuguese resistance, enjoyed a terrible fate, first under brutal Indonesian occupation before finally asserting independence. Both Angola and Mozambique were engulfed in multi-sided civil wars of incredible brutality from which they are only now beginning to emerge. Only Guinea has enjoyed reasonably orderly transition to independence, a function of the uncommon abilities of the leaders of the resistance. Like the French in Algeria, the Portuguese get an F, because the Portuguese neglected to confront the power vacuum left by their departure and the chaos that resulted from it.

The Soviets in Afghanistan
Finally, we have the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, a case that in many ways parallels that of the French in Algeria. Like the French in Algeria, the Soviets and their clients in Afghanistan made liberal use of torture and atrocity, and, as in Algeria, the insurgents replied in kind. As with France in Algeria, but in a somewhat different way—economic considerations rather than popular revulsion seem to have been the driving factor—the Soviet body politic wearied of the conflict and withdrew, leaving a full-blown civil war in their wake. As with the French in Algeria, the Soviets seem to have had no systematic plan for disengagement, and, as in the Algerian case, the human toll of the ensuing years of civil war and ruthless suppression of secularism by the victorious Taliban will never be known, but it was surely huge. The Soviets, too, receive an F, especially when we look at the fracturing of Afghani society and the rise of the Taliban that followed in the wake of Soviet withdrawal.

The Lessons of Recent History
Looking back on this largely sad history of conflict termination in the post WWII era we can draw a few conclusions. The conflicts reviewed here, except the Soviets in Afghanistan, stemmed from the collapse of larger imperial systems: the French in Indochina, the French in northern Africa, and the Portuguese in southwestern Africa. Thus, the failure to plan adequately for the end of these conflicts might be seen as a consequence of the end of empire. The U.S. has no long colonial history in either Afghanistan or Iraq, but the Iraqis certainly have their own collective memory of occupation by foreign powers, starting with the Ottomans, then the British. As was the case with American involvement in Vietnam, therefore, the U.S., as mounting evidence suggests, is now viewed as simply the latest colonial occupier, at least by some sectors of Iraqi society. One man's "liberation" might well be another man's "occupation."

More ominously, however, it increasingly appears that the U.S. embarked on the war in Iraq without sufficient post-war planning, nor is there much evidence, nearly five years into the war, that there is even now sufficient planning for how to end it, especially given the painstaking groundwork needed that can often take years to lay. Our record at the end of the Vietnam War does not give cause for optimism. In this sense, the U.S. might find itself exactly in the position of European colonial powers that found it easier to get into their colonies than they found it to get out of them. Finally, and perhaps this is most discouraging, it has taken years for these developing nations to recover from the effects of ineffective conflict-termination. Indeed, some, like Afghanistan and Cambodia, have not done so yet. The examples reviewed here, then, remind us that when Ambassador Ryan Crocker testified before Congress in September 2007 and described Iraq as a "traumatized society," such societies often take a very long time to heal.

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