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Thread: Mack's Small Wars and Afghanistan

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    Default Mack's Small Wars and Afghanistan

    The United States and its allies are currently facing critical choices in Iraq and Afghanistan with regards to the continued prosecution of those conflicts. Along with the previous difficulties already experienced since their respective starts in 2001 and 2003, and the Afghan situation in particular is widely agreed to have worsened since 2007. I decided to analyze these conflicts – but specifically Afghanistan - using the framework provided by Andrew Mack’s seminal ‘Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars’ (1975). The timing of Mack’s paper, at the immediate end of the Vietnam War, also provides a contemporary look at how the U.S. and other countries practiced counterinsurgency during some of the most notorious insurgencies of the 20th century. The tenants of the paper hold up surprisingly well given the three decades that have passed since its publication, lending support to Mack’s assertion that the form of war itself is a determining factor in how the conflict is fought and ultimately resolved.
    Mack notes that war’s ultimate aim to affect the enemy by defeating the opposing side. This notion seems simple enough, but his analysis proves there are complex ways to reach this end goal, especially in an insurgency and ‘small war.’ Here there is a division between the developed nation, or metropolitan power, and the insurgency and each has different requirements for being successful in prosecuting the conflict. In particular, as the maxim goes, the ‘guerilla wins if he does not lose.’ The resiliency of the Taliban in Afghanistan has shown that despite being massively outgunned and perhaps even outnumbered, the continued struggle to root out the insurgents and recent uptick of activity demonstrates the capacity of the insurgency to ‘win’ simply by not losing. Furthermore, in keeping with Mack’s argument, the Taliban cannot invade the United States in a conventional sense as we would see in a total war (i.e., World War II). As a result, their aim is not really to win a conventional war over the NATO and American forces, but to bring politics into play as an extension of war by other means (to paraphrase Clausewitz). Their individual campaigns may fail to affect NATO and American forces in significant tactical ways, but the insurgents may be able to affect political divisions in Washington and Brussels that make it difficult for the war to be sustained.
    Much has also been made of the ‘Iraqization’ of the Afghan War. Following the 2003 invasion and the development in the next two years of an arguably very successful insurgency, the previously declining and dismissed Taliban made a ferocious return – utilizing many of the same tactics as the Iraqi mujahedeen. In Iraq domestic American support for the war had steadily eroded as the insurgency grew and the country became more violent. Like the NLF’s Tet Offensive the Iraqi insurgents were rarely able to secure tactical victories, but focused instead on creating political turmoil in the U.S. and other countries as a result of the increasing violence and casualties. A similar situation occurred with France in Algeria. At home antiwar groups such as ANSWR and Code Pink mobilized to question the morality of the war, especially following the Haditha massacre and Abu Grahb scandal. They were able to do so Mack says because the conflict is not a war of existential threat for the U.S. The war ultimately, as Mack predicted, began eating up more and more political attention in Washington – to the expense of domestic priorities. The potential for Afghanistan to do the same should be carefully considered.
    The ultimate aim of an insurgency unable to meet conventional armies in battle is to take the war into the political and social discourse of the metropolitan power. By inflicting costs, both in treasure and lives, on the superior power it can spark a division in the political landscape as factions reassess their support and move to appease domestic dissent. The metropolitan power also does not have its very existence at stake in its wars, and so as the costs rise the support for expending resources on a far-away battle increase dramatically. As a result, and somewhat paradoxically, support for military reinforcements wane and more segments of society support capitulating to the demands of the insurgency. Mack notes that even totalitarian or authoritarian states are not able to avoid the very structure of the war being fought, sighting post-coup Portugal’s campaigns in Africa during the 1970s as an example. Furthermore different counterinsurgencies, he says, cannot be forced into the same models of analysis as some scholars attempt to do, but all rely on the very paradigm and nature of limited war. It is from this structure that he draws his analysis.
    Mack makes the interesting note that anti-war groups are indeed playing into the hands of the insurgencies by creating domestic pressure, but that such pressure seems part of the inherent contradictions of the very nature of the style of war. He notes repeatedly that insurgencies are wars of contradiction, in that actions taken to attempt to halt the war may actually excite the conflict further and increase the insurgents’ strengths. As the metropolitan state tries to limit its battlefield commitments and appease domestic opinion, while at the same time constraining its tactical abilities. When it commits great deals of troops to achieve tactical success greater the risks are that increased costs will be exacted by insurgents – thus increasing domestic opposition. It is this Catch-22 situation that should be carefully recognized by policymakers deciding on the future face of the American and NATO commitment to Afghanistan. As Mack demonstrates in his still-relevant essay the best of intentions taken during a small war can have unforeseen and dramatic consequences. President Obama would do well to heed his analysis as he shifts Afghanistan to the forefront of America’s military commitments.

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