To keep a conversation rolling along on a single major point, I want to look at the claim that the history of counter-insurgency in South Africa, the Phillipines and Malaysia supports the tactical and strategic conduct of the current Iraq war by the United States.
Analogies: can’t live with them, can’t live without them. They’re how history achieves much of its relevance, but it’s also easy to surgically extract a single part of a historical case to support a contemporary argument when the larger historical context might argue otherwise. (Or might suggest the relative distance instead of comparability between a particular past moment and the present.)
So are these three cases good comparisons to the current war, and do they support an argument that the current American approach can produce a victory where victory is defined as a “stable liberal democracy” of some kind or another?
1) South Africa: the South African (Boer) War, 1899-1902. I can see its appeal as an analogy for a supporter of the current war in Iraq. A large imperial power (the British Empire) confronts the small ruling elite of two states (the Transvaal and the Orange Free State) by invading their territory. The two sides fight a conventional war in which the smaller group turn out to be relatively well-armed and tactically skilled, which results in the lumbering and unprepared imperial army getting kicked around pretty hard in the early stages of the conflict. The ruling party in London is forced onto the political defensive by the poor performance of their troops. But the difference in resources is too great, and the formal conflict ends in the partial surrender of the Afrikaner republics within a year. However, many Afrikaners turn to guerilla warfare, with considerable success. The British Army adopts harsh counter-insurgent methods, including the confinement of women and children in camps so as to deny the insurgents their base of support. This further erodes popular support for the war in England. However, the counter-insurgency eventually results in the grudging formal surrender of most of the partisans.
Unfortunately, there’s a bit more to the story than counter-insurgent tactics, as there is with Iraq, and it is there that the analogy has to live or die. The first question is, “Was the war necessary for the fulfillment of vital national objectives for the United Kingdom?” The second question is, “What were its short-term and long-term consequences of the war for the national and imperial interests of England?”
On the first question, the South African War practically invented anti-colonialism in the 20th Century, largely because many contemporary observers, including a significant number of people we today would regard as economic conservatives of some kind of another, saw the war as a hugely expensive liability. Certainly it’s a good case of a war which came about not as the result of careful, prudential calculations of vital national interest but as the result of manipulations by a small number of parties with highly particular personal and institutional investments in the situation. The Afrikaner republics posed no meaningful security threat to British power, even had they allied themselves more closely with Germany. Gold had a different economic significance than it does today, due to its relationship to currency values, but imperial control over goldfields was in no way necessary (nor, as we’ll see, did it last). South Africa today would be a very different place if the war had not been fought, but I don’t think that the British Empire would have been terribly different. And that’s the unit of our analogy: the United States now compared to some past imperial or hegemonic power fighting a distant insurgency. If the investment of blood and treasure changes some place far away, but that change is in no fashion necessary or vital for the power spending those resources, what’s the point?
More potently, how about the results? Were the harsh tactics of the late part of the South African War a tactical and strategic triumph that commend themselves as models for the current conflict? They did produce a formal surrender by insurgents, after all. But the result was most certainly not a liberal democracy, at least not in a way that has a happy relationship to the present. Having extricated themselves from an unpopular and apparently fruitless war, what did the British do? They basically handed sovereignty over South Africa back to the local white population on terms that favored Afrikaners. Moreover, they agreed more or less as a condition of imperial withdrawal to hugely strengthen the power of whites over African, South Asian and mixed-race populations, who were the vast majority of the population of South Africa. The 1913 Land Act, which alienated most of the land of the country for the use of the white minority, was a direct consequence of the South African War. Apartheid after 1948 was a direct consequence of the war, in particular the final settlement of the war.
The analogy here is not to a stable liberal democratic and unified Iraq. A far better comparison would be a conclusion to the war in which the United States finally agreed to hand power back to the Sunni minority, gave the new state economic, juridical and military tools for suppressing Shi’a, Kurdish and Turkmen populations and called that a victory, even though it leads to decades of suffering and repression as well as the creation of an authoritarian state supported by a small minority of a large territory. If that’s victory, give me defeat, thanks.
If a positive use of the analogy is meant to claim instead that post-1993 South Africa is the good liberal democracy that the South African War helped to produce, then to quote John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious”. By that standard, I could defend the Mongol invasion of Europe as a great idea because it helped to spread the Black Death which in the end led to the consolidation of capital and land that was a probable precursor to early modern capitalism in Europe which led to my having an iPod. Thank you, Genghis Khan, for my big-screen TV.
Analogy requires some kind of causal proximity if it’s meant to be a guide to matching good policies with immediately good outcomes.
So in the case of South Africa, was the war a necessary expense of lives and resources from the standpoint of the occupying power? No. Did harsh counter-insurgent tactics lead to a good outcome that compares well to the declared standard for American victory in Iraq? No.
2) How about the Phillipines?
First, was the war necessary for American interests? Not in any way that I can see, even from the narrow standpoint of defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War (which I’d also argue was an unnecessary conflict, but that’s a different argument). I think the writing was on the wall for Spanish imperial control over the Phillipines by 1897, despite Aguinaldo’s agreement to go into exile. It was already the beginning of the end.
What would Filipino nationalists have made of the Phillipines without American involvement? Whatever that Filipino state might have been it’s hard to imagine how anything they achieved could have interfered in even the slightest way with American national interests in 1898. Or, for that matter, how that counterfactual state could have served American interests, either.
But the US did get involved, for what in the most charitable interpretation could be said to be accidental reasons or by other interpretations because of mendaciousness and raw militarism, and became the target of a protracted insurgency. Again, as in South Africa, there was a formal surrender by one faction of nationalist leaders, but much of the war went on for longer; in Mindanao until 1913. Harsh counter-insurgent tactics, including the use of concentration camps and torture, gradually sapped strength from the insurgency, at the cost of many Filipino lives–usually numbered between 300,000 and almost a million. Over 4,000 American soldiers died in the conflict.
So what did that achieve? A stable liberal democracy that would not have come about but for the American intervention and but for the use of harsh tactics? Well, let’s take a look around the region. Was the 20th Century political history of the Phillipines after the end of American occupation (1946) markedly different from the political history of the rest of South and Southeast Asia, to the point where we can say that American occupation and the use of harsh counter-insurgency produced a noticeably different and preferable outcome? Preferable to the 20th Century political history of Indonesia? Singapore? Thailand? Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia present some complexities in terms of their comparability, and Malaysia proper (though Singapore is tied up in that) we’ll get to in a minute. Ok, looks much better than Myanamar, I guess. But otherwise? The Phillipines is mainly remarkably for how similar its political history after 1946 has been to regional neighbors who were not occupied by the United States at the end of the 19th Century, and did not have to engage in a protracted nationalist insurgency against it. In other words, counter-insurgent tactics in the Phillipines had the main military result of eventually getting the insurgents to quiet down their activities, but achieved no political or economic aim worth their price save getting the United States out of a situation that it had no business being involved with in the first place.
3) Malaysia. I know the least about this example, but it strikes me as being complicated by its historical emplacement within the Cold War. Did England need to engage in counter-insurgent struggles in Malaysia? Your answer to that will depend on how you judge most Cold War struggles of a similar nature. I’m at least willing to consider that those struggles were necessary or important in some global sense (in a way that occupying the Phillipines or fighting the Afrikaners were not).
Were the tactics employed by the British necessary for achieving a proximate political outcome that was positive which is also potentially analogous to the declared war aims of the United States in Iraq? Yes, arguably. The other two analogies seem either inappropriate or to actually indict American tactics, but I can see this argument a bit better.
Some important differences. . The insurgents were internationally isolated (unlike similar groups elsewhere in Southeast Asia and unlike at least one faction of insurgents in Iraq today). The insurgents were highly concentrated geographically. They were mostly of a single ethnic group (Chinese) who had previously been denied political and civil rights, and one of the important tactics of the British and Malaysia counter-insurgency forces was simply to convincingly promise political inclusion and enfranchisement to the Chinese minority. The British were considerably less slow to appreciate the nature of the conflict and were considerably more attentive to the need to favorably connect with the population early on in the struggle, and if you think that you don’t get a “do-over” as far as that kind of effort goes, you could say that it doesn’t matter whether you understand this point later on: you have to do it right from the outset. More importantly, British armed forces had a lot of prior involvement with the country and a lot of strong connections to the local troops and leadership fighting against the guerillas.
But ok. One potentially plausible analogy, two that don’t work at all. How about other potentially comparable 20th Century cases of harsh counter-insurgency methods similar to what the United States is employing now? Algeria, the Mau Mau Rebellion, Indochina (French and American), various past and continuing struggles in Latin America from Colombia to Nicaragua? Rhodesia? Do any of those shape up favorably for the United States? Not particularly. On the other hand, are there any successes at all out there for societies facing protracted guerilla warfare or civil conflict? Not many, but I think I’d venture one thought: most of the sustained long-term resolutions come down to a political settlement, not to the use of intense military power and harsh repression by a foreign occupier.
As far as analogy goes, if you’ve only got one comparable case that shakes out in your favor, and a whole bunch that don’t, I’d say that’s not an encouraging sign.
One more thing to consider. I would say that all examples of guerilla wars against imperial occupiers from before 1945, and maybe even some of the conflicts of the early Cold War, are bad comparisons from a technological standpoint. The force multipliers available to early 20th Century European and American armies in relationship to non-Western guerillas were enormous; the resource disparity between cutting-edge industrial powers strongly tied into global networks and preindustrial insurgent political structures with almost no access to global resources was also huge.
In the case of the Phillipines and the late part of the South African War, imperial powers removed a large proportion of the civilian population into protected concentration camps. Is that even possible in economic and structural terms for the current American occupation in Iraq? (Leaving aside the political consequences on the international and local level.) I’d say not. On the other side of things, it’s possible for insurgents in Iraq to impede the operations of a much larger and better equipped imperial army in a way that was not possible before 1955 or so. Cheap powerful explosives and automatic weapons combined with a ready supply of martyrs adds up to force equivalency in many respects, even before you get to the normal advantage of guerillas versus occupiers (they can vanish into the population while the occupier remains exposed and vulnerable). So the United States isn’t even able to carry out some of the tactics suggested by these analogies. Which leaves only arbitrary brutality, which is not really a tactic in any respect. Or genocide, which is a far darker domain of analogy.