The most ignored but arguably the most important factor militating against American success in Afghanistan is the dynamic of outside intervention in internal wars. The experience of foreign countries intervening in other people’s civil conflicts is, to put it mildly, dismal.


In Distant Thunder, I went so far as to assert that there was not a single instance in the Cold War period where a racially distinct outside intervenor was successful when confronting an insurgent that had significant indigenous support. During the Cold War, the Malay insurgency of the late 1940s was used to refute this hypothesis, but the rebuke was off the mark: in Malaya, almost all the insurgents were ethnic Chinese who lacked the support of the Malay majority and who thus opposed the insurgents. While I published that assertion originally in 1993, I believe it holds to this point. I know of no other way to describe what the United States is doing in Afghanistan other than intervening in an internal war. This does not bode well for the enterprise.

I have suggested in previous postings why this is the case. For one thing, intervention rarely occurs until an insurgency is sufficiently advanced that it has substantial support and momentum, meaning the intervenor is playing “catch up” from the beginning. In Afghanistan, the Taliban were driven from power but still maintained a nascent presence and possessed an infrastructure from which to launch their effort–at a time of minimal American involvement.

Foreign intervenors are, well, foreigners, and some members of the population will almost inevitably oppose them on that basis alone. It was, after all, British military presence in New England in the 1760s and 1770s that that helped spawn the American Revolution. The longer that outsiders remain in the country “helping” the population, the more some natives are going to wonder if they ever plan to leave. Inevitably, some conclude that the intervenors may need a little help leaving and join an insurgency that promises to do just that.

In addition, the cooperation of the government against whom the insurgency is being conducted with outsiders further delegitimizes it in the eyes of some in the country. Is the government so weak that it requires being propped up by foreigners? The more foreigners there are, the more likely that criticism is to be made. Sending more American troops into the country is not necessarily going to improve the situation. It may makes it worse.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates appears to understand this possibility. In an article in today’s Washington Post by Karen De Young, he is quoted as saying, “I think most Afghans see us as there to help them and see us as their partner. I just worry that we don’t know what the size of the international presence, military presence, might be that would begin to change that.”  The answer, quite simply, is that some Afghans already see us as part of the problem, and the more we send, the more are going to reach that conclusion. Make sure General McChrystal understands that when, at the end of the year, he comes back, hat in hand, asking for more American troops.

There is only one effective way to counteract these assertions, and that is to argue that the current insurgency does not possess significant indigenous support and is thus defeatable. There is some validity to such an argument. The Taliban are not univerally popular, especially in non-Pashtun and urban areas. Indeed a recent poll showed fully three-quarters of the Afghans surveyed opposed the Taliban. Unfortunately, it was almost certainly not a representative sample, because it was largely drawn from urban areas, where the fundamentalist appeal of the Taliban is at its lowest. While the Taliban do not enjoy uniform support (insurgencies rarely do), they do have apparently strong support in rural Pashtun areas, which compose a significant part of the country. The battle in Helmand province is an attempt to see if the Taliban’s hold in such areas can be broken. If it can, there may be some chance for the COIN strategy–although its success will not be assured. If it cannot, it is back to the drawing board.

The dismal record of outside intervention in other people’s internal wars should have provided a strong cautionary note for American planners in Afghanistan, but it has not. The light drawing the moth to the flame in this case was Al Qaeda, but, as pointed out repeatedly here, that is not the primary enemy on the ground here. Can the U.S. succeed in this endeavor? The contemporary record worldwide is not encouraging, and this is, after all, Afghanistan, where the historical record is not so hot either.

Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations and national security topics.  This essay was originally published at the What After Iraq? blog.