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David versus goliath myth on insurgency
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 28 Aug , 2017


A military historian and author of “Quest for Peace: Comparative Studies in Counterinsurgencies”.

In the 20th century insurgencies were a major issue of world politics. The decade of 1960s and 1970s were dominated by the Vietnam conflict. The decades of 1980s were dominated by the insurgency in Afghanistan. In the first instance the US and in the second instance the Soviet Union was the antagonist. The battle field defeat of the two military super powers created the enduring myth of the virtual invincibility of the ‘Guerrilla fighter’ vis-à-vis the regular soldier.

This myth has been so pervasive and widespread that it has percolated in the strategic thinking of the armies and countries faced with this threat. An in-depth historical analysis of these and many other insurgencies shows this to be only a partial truth.  It is therefore necessary to bust this myth so as to restore sanity and realism to strategic thinking.

In case of Vietnam, while the ‘Tet’ offensive of 1968 certainly shook the Americans, end however came only in 1975 when the Vietnamese Regular forces finally captured Saigon on 29 April 1975 that is seven years after the ‘Tet’ offensive. The end was hastened when South Vietnamese regular forces defected or surrendered en-masse to the North Vietnamese.

In the first Afghan War between the Mujahedeen guerrillas and the Soviet Union, the victory came to the Taliban guerrillas only in April 1992, nearly three years after the withdrawal of Soviet forces. The war that began in December 1979 with the arrival of Soviet forces did not end in February 1989 with the withdrawal of the Soviet forces. The Mujahideen forces, a bunch of Islamist warriors from all over the world (though the bulk were the local Pashtuns, from Afghanistan as well as Pakistan) were supported by the Americans with modern arms, funded by Saudi Arabia and trained and sheltered by  neighbouring Pakistan. But the fall of Afghan regime only came about in 1992 when a powerful warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, defected to the other side and Taliban were fully supported by Pakistan regular forces. The Vietnam and Afghanistan example have a lesson; ultimately the guerrilla forces can only win if the adversary conventional forces desert or defect.

The major point the author wishes to make is that Guerrilla forces on their own and unsupported by an external power find it extremely difficult to defeat a conventional army. What this means in case of Afghanistan is that unless the Taliban are supported by Pakistan, they will not be able to overcome the Afghan forces, in short repeat of 1992 is not pre-ordained. The two conditions that are needed to thwart the Taliban are; no defections from Afghan forces and no Pakistani help/interference in the civil war.

The Mujhideen victory in first Afghan war or Vietnamese victory over the Americans were made possible because the ‘insurgents’ had full backing of a major super power. Without the American arms to Afghans or Soviet and Chinese arms to Vietnam, neither of the guerrillas could have won.

This holds an important lesson for India as well. There is often some loose talk of India preparing for fighting two and half war. The presumption is that India may have to fight Pakistan and China as well as an insurgency in Kashmir (the half war). This is a totally wrong and reflects muddle headed thinking. In case of an all-out conflict between India and Pakistan, the Kashmir insurgency becomes part of overall conflict. In that case, unlike the present time when minimum force is used, the Kashmiri insurgents will face the full brunt of modern arms! One consequence of that change would be that a much smaller force will be needed to control the internal turmoil. It is noteworthy that both in 1965 and 1971, when India was engaged in open conflict with Pakistan, a discreet message was sent to the Naga rebels to keep quiet or else ruthless air power will be used against them! The Naga’s got the message and during both the open conflicts, did not create any trouble.

Coming back to Afghanistan situation, seems the Americans have forgotten their own history. It may be patriotic to claim that under George Washington the American revolutionaries defeated the British regular forces in the battle of York Town. But the truth is that without the aid and support of the French soldiers, the victory would not have been possible. In 1780 – Over 5,000 French soldiers arrived in Rhode Island in order to help the Americans defeat the British under French General de Rochambeau.  The Americans had a fighting force of approximately 8,800, who were aided by 7,800 French soldiers against a British force of about 6,000. It was a decisive battle and defeat prompted the British government to negotiate an end to the American Revolution and give the colonist their freedom.

In 1781 or 2017, insurgents cannot win without the support of regular forces. Key to prevent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is to keep Pakistan away from supporting Taliban. May be, just maybe, that is the direction in which the American ‘new’ policy is aiming! It is never too late to learn from history.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Also military historian and Kashmir watcher for last 28 years. He has authored a book ‘Let the Jhelum Smile Again’ and ‘Nuclear Menace the Satyagraha Approach’ published in 1996.

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One thought on “David versus goliath myth on insurgency

  1. Thank you for pointing this out, and you are correct that overwhelmingly people don’t understand that guerillas can and are defeated all the time. In Vietnam. the US lost the long-term war because it decided that it would no longer deploy its airpower or, by 1975, even allocate $700-million with of ammunition etc for the Republic of Vietnam. The North Vietnamese Army (PAVN) was no guerilla army, but a first class jungle conventional army. The Viet Cong started out as a guerilla army, but became a conventional one. That spelled the end, because when it challenged the US/RVN on a conventional level, Tet 1968, by attacking the cities, it was wiped out, allowing Hanoi to fully take over the war.

    The Soviet Union defeated the mujahideen in Afghanistan, but was starting to collapse internally.

    The Taliban could not, I believe, have taken Afghanistan without the help of Pakistani troops who provided leadership, organization, training, artillery, and armor – manned by the Pakistan Army.

    India has not won in Kashmir because we are a soft state. We nonetheless do need to remember that India defeated the Kashmiri insurgency, which was then taken over by foreigners.

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