Insurgencies Revisited

INSURGENCIES REVISITED….I’ve observed in the past that the post-WWII record of major military powers fighting overseas insurgencies is almost uniformly dismal: the French failed in Algeria, the United States failed in Vietnam, and the Soviet Union failed in Afghanistan. The only sizable exception is the British in Malaysia, and even that lesson is of limited use. The British used techniques in Malaysia that simply aren’t acceptable to world opinion any longer, and even at that it took them a very long time to beat the communist insurgency there.

But is the record of insurgencies really that bad? The blogger formerly known as Praktike, emailing from his new perch as web editor of, says I should check out a piece by Donald Stoker on exactly this subject. Stoker says the surge in Iraq might work and points to history to make his case:

History is not without genuine insurgent successes….But the list of failed insurgencies is longer: Malayan Communists, Greek Communists, Filipino Huks, Nicaraguan Contras, Communists in El Salvador, Che Guevara in Bolivia, the Boers in South Africa (twice), Savimbi in Angola, and Sindero Luminoso in Peru, to name just a few.

Unfortunately, this really doesn’t have much analytic power. Aside from Malaysia, only two of these insurgencies directly involved a big foreign power (South Africa and the Philippines) and they took place 50 and 100 years ago respectively. The others are all insurgencies that were defeated by local governments. Those governments may have had help from outside, but they did the primary fighting themselves.

Basically, since 1960, not a single major military power has had any success fighting directly against an overseas insurgency. Maybe, as Stoker says, this is just coincidence. But big military powers are 0 for 3 in the past 50 years, and Iraq is darn close to making it 0 for 4. (Afghanistan is still up in the air.) That’s a helluva coincidence.