The US has finally reinvented counterinsurgency

The US was so upset after the defeat in Vietnam that they failed to recognize that the war was mainly lost politically. The military strategy became the scapegoat despite the fact that the counterinsurgency was in fact quite successful during the final years. At Fort Bragg huge amount of documentation on how to conduct counterinsurgency was actually burned in the courtyard! The message was clear: Never ever get entangled in such a war again!

I often wondered why the lesson from Vietnam, and indeed those from Algeria that the French learned, seemed to have been lost when the US entered afghanistan and Iraq. Not until 2004 were the theories of counterinsurgency reinvoked, after many unnecessary lost years. Perhaps it is too late.

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Comment by Rex Brynen on May 19, 2010 at 10:04pm
Eric is right to highlight that every war--and indeed, every insurgency--is different. Consequently, flexibility (both operationally and intellectually) becomes key, and over-specialization (either in equipment or doctrine) highly problematic. This is especially true for the US, given its global reach and responsibilities.

I would also echo what Eric said about the problems of learning from history. Take for example, Iraq--what "lessons" should be derived from the turn-around in the security situation? Was it the surge that turned things around? Changes in COIN doctrine and consequent activities? AQI mistakes? The post-Samarra unleashing of Shiite militias (which led a number of Sunni combatants to recalculate their interest, as well as substantial "sectarian-cleansing" in mixed neighbourhoods)? If it was a mix of these factors, in what proportions?

If we can't agree why things turned around in Iraq (not to mention whether they are "turned around" in a lasting way), it's rather a challenge to know what the lessons are--let alone what lessons are appropriate in other contexts (such as Afghanistan).
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on May 19, 2010 at 11:07am
I totally agree that conventional operations have to be front and center in order to guarantee national sovereignty. It would be even worse to forget about conventional warfare while fixating on counterinsurgency.

Regarding the acquaintance who served in Korea, you're right too that teaching trench construction in 1950 or early 1951 would have been a complete waste of time and resources, perhaps something a lot worse. However, by 1952, this was an engineering function that should have been rediscovered. It was no longer a mobile war, and in this case capabilities did not maintain pace with needs.
Comment by Eric Duckworth on May 19, 2010 at 12:46am
Gentlemen, your comments draw on universal, but overly simplistic observations of history and the realities faced by military organizations as they prepare for conflicts be reflecting on the past as well as peering into the future. Hindsight is 20/20 and to believe that the lessons of history are so true and clear shows a lack of appreciation for the challenges in the art and science of war. Every war is different,every war is the same. Drawing on history case studies is useful but should not be used to condemn decisions either. There are just as many COIN tenets from Algeria and Vietnam that are not applicable to Iraq and Afghanistan as there are applicable lessons.

Major world powers must prepare for a full spectrum of operations from high intensity to stability assistance, they must consider a near infinite range of enemy (assymetric terrorists and organized industrial armies) and infinite environments (jungle to urban, desert to arctic, aerospace to cyberspace). Against these contingencies, commanders have finite time and resources. Donald Rumsfeld is often reviled for his comment "you go to war with the army you have," but this is real politik.

How much time does an Army prepare for counter insurgency vs. high intensity conflict? In 2003 the primary mission was to defeat organized Iraqi resistance - namely the Iraqi army. To do this, the primary planning and training focus had to be high intensity conflict. Armies must first and foremost prepare to destroy and defeat conventional forces or risk failing to protect their sovereignty. Insurgencies are often gradual and identifiable. Forces can be adaptive to the issues driving the population toward supporting the insurgent, and political actions and doctrine can be altered to counter the insurgent, as long as popular support for counterinsurgent continues.

In truth there was no organized insurgency between 2003-2004, but the enemy adapted, and the coalition failed to grasp the changing situation, or have an updated or relevant and trained COIN doctrine until 2006-2008. It is not too late in Iraq, at all. as recent as my return this month, my two tours advising and assisting Iraqi Security Forces lead me to conclude that Iraq is successfully securing the population and legitimacy of the government over the options being presented by more extremist entities. Not withstanding some wild cards, and continued challenges to the Iraqi government, the US strategy in Iraq should prove successful.

New Army FM 3.0 and FM 5.0 demonstrate a more comprehensive understanding of campaign planning and design so that commanders are now challenged to plan for full spectrum operations from combat to peace and try to identify and shift between operations. This is no simple matter. More concerning, while Army and Joint Doctrine recognizes the need to combine military campaign as only part of the political strategy, my observations lead me to believe that the Department of State has yet to understand or embrace an integrated doctrine. Only time will tell.

Jim and Anthony, I must disagree with your comments. Again, to condemn forces for failing to learn from history is selective at best. Jim, I contest that comment by the Black Watch engineer as invalid. By my logic, if the US Army was wrong to train trench defenses, then the French were correct to invest in the Maginot line by drawing on the historical lessons of WWI.

In Korea, the application of mobile combined arms defenses, tank and infantry ridge running maneuver with airpower, as well as Joint amphibious landings at Inchon, that forced the NKPA into defeat, and eventually put the CHICOMs back on the defense. Task Force Smith may be the historical example of the failure of defensive preparation, but the subsequent defensive works of the Pusan Perimeter and Chipyong-ni are testaments that US/UN forces were more than capable of conducting successful defenses. Had UN forces focused training on WWI tactics at the cost of WWII combined arms lessons - their effectiveness may have been worse.

Mr Hicks, the age-old lessons of history are not so clear nor universal. I think we falsly believe there are simple tenets that never change. Albeit there are tenets and principles that much be considered in each course of action, every solution to a tactical problem differs because the political and technological aspects differ.
It is not that each generation thinks itself smarter, it is that each generation is provided with options that did not previously exist to achieve solutions. Militaries must balance between the principles of war and weigh them against the evolutions/revolutions in technology and tactics that occur with each generation.

For example, the "age-old" lessons of 18th Century warfare were not applicable to the new operational models brought into being by revolutionary French mobilization and Napoleonic innovations. Napoleonic fire and maneuver or were not applicable to the forces of the American Civil War, although they were constantly applied for a number of years (even up to Europe in 1914)

We learn plenty from history. We learned in 2001 from Soviet and British operations in Afghanistan that the way to oust the Taliban was to co-opt the Northern Alliance allies and actually approach warfare in Afghanistan with a small footprint of "occupying Soldiers." We then arguably used similar concepts in Iraq to successfully defeat organized defense, but failed to conceptualize the occupation. Now we are applying the successes of the Iraqi surge to Afghanistan, but I think we might be drawing on the wrong lessons because the institutional and cultural challenges are so much greater than in Iraq, the strategic gain is much less, and the will of the NATO Coalition to continue this war in a time of economic crises is strained. I think you will have to see a political compromise with the Taliban that somehow denies the resurgence of Al Qaeda as the only acceptable way to end the insurgency. Time will tell, and we'll have a new historical lesson to analyze.

Gentlemen, I enjoy the discourse. Thanks for the opportunity.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on May 18, 2010 at 9:53am
This is a recurring pattern. Years ago I spoke with a man who had duel British and American citizenship, and served in both the Black Watch and the United States Army, the latter as a combat engineer in Korea. During that war, he said, the United States actually forgot how to dig a trench. Oh, anyone can dig a big long ditch, but the Army had forgotten all about drainage, fire steps, parapets, and all the stuff that makes a trench a really defensible, long-term defensive work.

He and another soldier ended up getting old 1918 field manuals, from a time when trench construction was almost second nature. But hardly anyone had thought to learn this skill since World War I, amid the belief that mobility would reign on the battlespace forever and ever.

You're right, the lessons of history do get forgotten, and on purpose. Counterinsurgency isn't alone though.
Comment by Anthony Hicks on May 18, 2010 at 8:49am
Just goes to show that we learn nothing from history. Each generation thinks it is much smarter and more sophisticated than the previous ones. In reality, the age-old lessons of history are almost always applicable.

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