By Dale Andrade, the U.S. Army historian. The views expressed here are his own (THE WASHINGTON POST, 03/11/06):
When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took office in May, he spoke of reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites. Five months later, as the country tumbles deeper into the abyss of sectarian violence, that seems increasingly unlikely.
National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley traveled to Baghdad this week in hopes of working out some sort of solution to the parade of kidnappings, assassinations and bombings. One of the items likely to be on the agenda is an amnesty program — a proposal brought up this past summer but quickly killed by objections from all sides.
Shiites oppose granting amnesty to those responsible for repression under Saddam Hussein and killings by Sunni gangs after his overthrow. Sunnis want to exclude Shiites involved in local religious militias. And U.S. officials have resisted amnesty for Iraqis who killed American soldiers.
When the Iraqi government first announced an amnesty plan, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said, “The idea that they should even consider talking about amnesty for people who have killed people who liberated their country is unconscionable.”
The result of all this is sure to be a very fuzzy definition of who is eligible for amnesty. “The fighter who did not kill anyone will be included in the amnesty,” Maliki said in an interview in May, “but the fighter who killed someone will not be.” Whom does that leave?
It’s natural to balk at the idea of giving bloodthirsty terrorists a free pass, but the key question is this: Will an amnesty program weaken the insurgency and reduce the violence? Probably not in the short term, but most successful counterinsurgency campaigns have included some sort of amnesty along the path toward peace.
There are two facets to any counterinsurgency: military force to create a secure environment, and political programs and reforms to persuade the population to support the government rather than the insurgents. Amnesty is an important part of both — simultaneously a carrot and a stick. On the military side it aids in the attrition of guerrilla ranks; on the political side it holds out the possibility of a peaceful end, something not possible if the government pursues a policy of unconditional surrender or death.
An amnesty program erodes guerrilla morale and forces the leadership to take steps to prevent further defections. Defectors become an important intelligence resource for the government. When offered in conjunction with ongoing military efforts to capture or kill the insurgent leadership, amnesty can greatly weaken the enemy’s will to fight.
Many counterinsurgency campaigns have given insurgents a chance to willingly lay down their arms. During the 1950s the newly independent government of the Philippines, with help from its former American colonizers, put down the Hukbalahap rebellion partly by offering amnesty to guerrillas. This “Attraction Program,” as it was called, offered freedom from prosecution as well as help in beginning a new life outside the insurgency.
Britain’s celebrated counterinsurgency campaign in Malaya is particularly instructive. In 1949 the British instituted an amnesty program but refused to pardon guerrillas implicated in capital crimes. The guerrillas doubted the government’s promise of fair treatment, and relatively few surrendered. In response, the plan was revamped to include suspending criminal prosecution and offering money to those who surrendered. According to one account, the new plan “did improve the surrender rate markedly, and the numbers continued to increase as the insurgents became more and more disillusioned and disheartened.” Although there were many other factors in the insurgents’ eventual defeat, amnesty was crucial.
In Vietnam, amnesty was a key part of the counterinsurgency strategy. In 1963, at the urging of American advisers, the South Vietnamese instituted the Chieu Hoi, or “Open Arms,” program. Guerrillas who “rallied” to the government cause received free housing and a new life in special communities, though they were not paid to surrender. Figures show that between 1963 and 1973 (when U.S. forces left South Vietnam) almost 200,000 communist guerrillas and political cadre surrendered under the protection of the program. Obviously, many of them had killed Americans.
One study concluded that this was “one of the most effective and least costly” programs of the war. While it accounted for about 14 percent of total enemy losses, each “rallier” cost the government only about $300 to educate and resettle — an insignificant amount in the overall military cost of the war. The communists called the Chieu Hoi program “very dangerous to us,” and one captured document noted that “defections among the local forces and guerrilla elements were critical.” As a result, the insurgents regularly attacked resettlement compounds, and ralliers were targeted for assassination.
Amnesty is not a silver bullet. It’s a tool that, when combined with others, can work toward a favorable conclusion. As the Iraqi government and the coalition craft their amnesty offer to the various insurgent groups, they would do well to consider the past. History indicates that these programs can be successful.
The insurgents can be counted on to retaliate — in fact the vehemence of their reaction will be a good indicator of the program’s impact. But in the long run, an amnesty program will persuade many insurgents to give up the fight, and those who do so will no longer be killing Americans or other Iraqis. That in itself is a big step toward ending the war.