Polaris A Takshashila Institution Blog on International Politics and Security

Are Democracies Inherently Better at Defeating Insurgencies?

Authoritarian regimes are marked by ideologies and principles that are ultimately self-defeating.

In an interview with the BBC, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, an icon for liberal democracy after his glasnost and perestroika policies in the 1980s unwittingly brought an end to communism in his country, asserts that the United States cannot win its current counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan: “Victory is impossible in Afghanistan. Obama is right to pull the troops out. No matter how difficult it will be.” Gorbachev is—not surprisingly—drawing from his own experiences as leader of a country fighting an insurgency there, in a campaign that had lasting impacts on Afghanistan, its region, and the Soviet Union itself. However, such comparisons between the Soviet and American experiences are illusory.

Why exactly did the Soviets lose in Afghanistan? There are multiple explanations, of which four stand out, each with its own distinct lessons. First, as many now argue, Afghanistan, being ‘the Graveyard of Empires,’ was simply unconquerable as a result of its physical and human terrain and always will be. Second, as the “COIN-dinistas” believe, Soviet military failures were largely to blame. If only they had got counterinsurgency right, the outcome would have been in their favour. A third view is that external support—Pakistani sanctuary and training, Saudi funding, and U.S. military support (including, specifically, Stinger missiles)—was the primary cause of the Soviets’ defeat. And finally, some argue that Soviet withdrawal was based on a conscious decision by Gorbachev to extract the Soviet army, making it a matter of political will.

We can dismiss with the Graveyard of Empires thesis, informed only by the Soviet experience and that of the British in the first Anglo-Afghan War (that the British returned, and that their objective was a buffer zone, are often conveniently forgotten). But, taken together, the other three arguments suggest that the Soviet Union lost primarily for another reason: it was an autocracy.

Conventional wisdom suggests that democracies are at a disadvantage against insurgencies. Democracies prefer the use of firepower over manpower-intensive small wars. The costs of fighting insurgencies, as ascertained by voters, outweigh the benefits. Democracies may also be hampered—if justifiably—by human rights concerns and public opinion, which is often against war of any kind.  Some, such as Michael Engelhardt, writing in 1992, have concluded that regime type is not a factor. Comparing the performance of 10 countries, split evenly between democracies and non-democracies, in 25 conflicts, he argued that regime type makes little difference to the success or failure of campaigns against insurgents. Nevertheless, there is enough about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, as compared to the American experience in Iraq, to suggest that democracies actually hold the advantage.

To begin with, the Soviet Union suffered from a centralized decision-making system and woefully dysfunctional civil-military dialogue. This resulted in a fatal disjuncture between its means and goals in Afghanistan. At a December 9, 1979 meeting, Brezhnev and his senior advisors decided to invade Afghanistan with the narrow objectives of effecting regime change and supporting the Afghan Army against rebels. In the lead up to the invasion, Chief of General Staff Nikolai Ogarkov and KGB officials in Moscow and Kabul questioned some of the Politburo’s assessments, but their concerns were systematically ignored. Things only went bad from Moscow’s standpoint in late February 1980.  With the Afghan public, even in Kabul, in open revolt of the Soviet occupying force, and the Afghan military performing terribly against rebels, Moscow directed the 40th Army to perform offensive operations against insurgents in the countryside. Yet the Kremlin did not sanction an increase in troop numbers or develop a new strategy to correspond to the shift in goals. Comparisons to Vietnam in this regard are terribly deceiving. Moscow consistently wanted Afghanistan to be a limited war involving a light footprint. Troop levels never exceeded 120,000, and the name used to describe the force in Afghanistan—“Limited Contingent”—was more appropriate than most such euphemisms.

Second, Soviet Marxist ideology was fundamentally incompatible with Afghan culture and values, in a manner that democracy is not. The rebellion that resulted in Moscow’s intervention in Afghanistan erupted in Herat in March 1979, following the zealous introduction by the communist government in Kabul of secular reform programs. These included the banning of Islamic lending systems and dowries, and the forcible conscription of soldiers. It was also the Soviet disdain for ethnic and religious differences that made them underestimate the motivations of the Afghan mujahideen and also fail to take advantage of the natural cleavages in what proved to be a fractured Afghan resistance movement.

Third, the Soviet approach to dealing with the Afghan insurgency was one-dimensionally militarily focused, reflecting little regard for public welfare. To keep their own casualties low, they relied on air assault operations, which resulted not just in wanton death and displacement, but also destroyed the resource base they were supposed to protect and develop. The Soviets also used chemical weapons, including nerve and blood agents. The results of these strategies were predictably devastating: the standard of living in Afghanistan plummeted, 75 percent of communication lines were destroyed in four years, and the country went from being a net exporter of food to a net importer. In all, 1.3 million Afghans were killed, 5.5 million were made refugees, and another 2 million were displaced internally.  While in no way justifiable, the civilian suffering inflicted by U.S. and NATO forces today offers no comparison.

Finally, it was not so much that the Soviets made operational errors—after all, what military does not?—but that their system of governance lacked the benefits of self-correction afforded liberal, democratic states. Soviet military doctrines were inflexible, and easily predictable to insurgents, but they failed to improvise because they were reluctant to disperse authority.  The bulk of Soviet soldiers were draftees with no training in mountain warfare provided with heavy equipment and inappropriate field gear, but there were few attempts by Moscow to remedy any of this. The USSR’s emphasis on programmatic operational procedures and its military’s poor tradition of delegating responsibility were key components of its military’s ethos that could serve it well in conventional wars or invasions, but not in prolonged counterinsurgencies. Furthermore, over 60 percent of Soviet troops became seriously ill during their tours in Afghanistan, often from hepatitis or typhoid, due to inadequate sanitation and medical facilities. This was avoidable, worsened morale and only made a manpower-intensive task more difficult. In large part, the absence of self-correcting mechanisms was due to the lack of public accountability. Four years after the invasion, the official Soviet press had reported only six dead and wounded; in fact, by then, over 6000 Soviet soldiers had died. Contrast all this to the fundamental reorientation of the American military over the last five years, resulting in no small part from public criticism and intense media scrutiny following failures and casualties in Iraq.

The Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan not despite the fact that it was a military superpower, but because it espoused a set of ideologies and principles—inherent in its social and economic policies and structures at home and abroad—that were ultimately self-defeating. There are lessons for India here, some of which are obvious: insurgencies cannot be defeated by bullets alone and there are inherent benefits to showing respect for local social and cultural norms. Beyond that, the media and public criticism need not always be considered an inhibiting factor, but rather part of a feedback loop. And finally, fidelity must be maintained between means and goals, even if the latter shifts over the course of a campaign.  That, in turn, requires a healthy civil-military dialogue, and appropriate checks and balances in the policymaking structure. That may sound simple, but it is surprising how often it is overlooked.

2 Responses to “Are Democracies Inherently Better at Defeating Insurgencies?”

  1. Still not convinced with your argument that democracies are inherently better at defeating insurgencies than other systems. I see your point about the inept Soviet administrative setup but think you underplay the human rights angle a lot which has been a major element in forcing withdrawals in the face of a resolute insurgent movement. Democracies are far more susceptible to their impact. My guess is that the willingness of society to bear hardship, take casualties and remain engaged in the face of odds has a lot to do with it, democracy or not. Weakness of the economic recovery and the youth bulge particularly among certain communities such as Catholics must have a lot to do with the American ability to endure long drawn campaigns, democracy or not.

  2. Satish,

    Please elaborate on what makes a society endure losses or hardships. Acc to this article a crucial part of USSR’s campaign was actively dis-informing their citizens. There are only a handful of very specific circumstances under which a nation would tolerate their armies being decimated in a battlefield that is literally eons away from them. This would be the situation irrespective of the government structure. Though it is more easy to do the same in a controlled information and expression environment.

    Especially in today’s media rich society, no country professing liberal values in practice, can sustain a large supply of body bags. The more irrelevant the war, the less is the capacity. US’s capacity to stay arises out of a different set of reasons:

    1. Its population “might” be used to its policeman role, and hence expects occupation and stabilisation roles.
    2. WW2 and Cold War and early USA expansion has ensured that the population is de-sensitised to US army personnel stationed aboard, sometimes in hostile situations.
    3. Widespread USA commercial, civilian and strategic interests require a force projection along with boots on the ground.

    USA being the exception to the rule (Chinese engagement in Sudan might be a similar trend), compare the same to actions of independent European states. Countries without a direct or indirect stake, and which have not been playing any variation of the great game for some time, are first to withdraw. Spain being an example.

    To conclude, democracies might not be the best at fighting insurgencies, but they might be the most efficient barometer for determining the acceptable costs of combating an insurgency.

    Mike.