American Counterinsurgency History
…Algerian insurgents did not achieve much military success of any kind; instead they garnered decisive popular support through superior organizational skills and propaganda that exploited French mistakes. These and other factors, including the loss of will in France, compelled the French to surrender.
-U.S. Army/ Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (2006)
Learning lessons from history is not something the United States military lacks the ability to do. In nearly every conflict in which the U.S. has participated, its military has proved adept at learning from its mistakes and adjusting its tactics, which Mark Moyar attributes to competent leadership. As Mark Moyar has observed, “Conventional forces adapted very well when they had adaptive commanders, even when they had not been exposed to counterinsurgency doctrine.”1 However, although the U.S. military has adapted well during each individual war to the particular circumstances it encountered, it has consciously resisted the permanent institutionalization of counterinsurgency doctrine, so lessons have had to be repeatedly relearned at great cost. In particular, counterinsurgency represents a concept that, as one expert puts it, “the U.S. military has typically paid little attention to.”2 The history of American counterinsurgency must be understood in this light. Whatever lessons about counterinsurgency were learned, and whatever doctrinal progress was made, was usually subordinated to the view that the military should focus on the “destruction of military targets,” therefore relegating stability operations and pacification to civilian, non-military entities.3
The resistance of the U.S. military to the permanent implementation of counterinsurgency lessons has a long history. This repeated, historical pattern in American military history has been called “counterinsurgency syndrome.”4 Indeed, when tracing the history of American counterinsurgency doctrine, one does not encounter a sustained progression of building on real-life experiences. Rather, one finds a history of learning and then forgetting.
The forward to the current U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual states,
This manual is designed to fill a doctrinal gap… With our Soldiers and Marines fighting insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is essential that we give them a manual that provides principles and guidelines for counterinsurgency operations. Such guidance must be grounded in historical studies.5
An example of such a “doctrinal gap” can be found during one of the United States’ first major counterinsurgencies: the American Civil War. During the mid-19th century, the concept of irregular war was undercut by the assumption that only conventional war was “honorable.” Nonetheless, units were given extremely vague orders and urged to use whatever means deemed appropriate. The Union initially treated the existence of Confederate insurgents as primarily a political issue, intending to win them over. However, that changed over the course of the war as it became apparent that the political demands of the two sides were mutually exclusive, forcing the Union to adopt a more aggressive strategy.6 But even though this led to operations designed specifically to root-out irregular guerrillas, the army had no interest in developing a permanent mechanism to institutionalize counterinsurgency.
The United States’ next rendezvous with an insurgency followed its brief war with Spain in 1898-1899. American forces captured the Philippines in order to use them as a bargaining chip in the negations to end the war. For reasons that remain in debate, the United States decided to occupy the archipelago after a successful conventional campaign.7 Upon meeting armed resistance from the local population, American forces responded extemporaneously, for there was no coherent, overall strategy in place at the outbreak of the insurgency. As in the counterinsurgency operations of the American Civil War, U.S. forces initially treated the uprising as a political matter and attempted to solve it by political means. President William McKinley said that “it should be the earnest and paramount aim of the military administration to win the confidence, respect, and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines.”8 This attitude prevailed until, frustrated by a lack of observable progress against the insurgents and stoked by criticism in the press, U.S. policy shifted to focus on the destruction of the opposing force. “Swift methods of destruction,” as suggested by one general, replaced benevolence.9 The United States ultimately emerged victorious in its political goal in the Philippines of retaining political control.
The lessons from the Philippine Insurrection, even if largely discarded, may have done more to hurt American efforts against future insurgencies than help. American forces triumphed after they changed their methods from political benevolence to violent suppression and intimidation. This invariably led those few military men who gave any thought to future counterinsurgencies to conclude that pacification was more likely to succeed with opposing force-destruction and intimidation than it would by appealing to the population by other means. One general remarked, “A short and severe war creates in the aggregate less loss and suffering than a benevolent war indefinitely prolonged.”10 The lure of such logic for the military establishment was strong, especially since it seemed to be confirmed by experience. However, as democratic nations found their societies less tolerant of such violence and communications technology became more advanced—bringing with it the advancement of many forms of liberal ideals—dirty wars of considerable brutality and mass human suffering, even if only short-lived, resulted in by-products—like international pressure and the alienation of the target populace—that became more and more severe. Therefore, according to its current doctrine, the U.S. military has decided that the only way it could fight counterinsurgencies in this “new counterinsurgency era” was to focus on winning over the population instead of relying on military force, like they did in to win the Philippine Insurrection.
Over the next few decades, during both world wars, American forces did not participate in significant counterinsurgency operations, but their experience both in Europe and the Pacific helped to cement conventional warfare as the primary strategic focus. After the world wars the United States did not encounter major insurgencies in dealing with former enemies, as most of the defeated powers already had experience with market capitalism, and were not resistant to liberal democracy.
The United States military defines stability operations as,
…various military missions, tasks, and activities conducted outside of the United States in coordination with other instruments of national power to maintain or reestablish a safe and secure environment, provide essential government services, emergency infrastructure reconstruction, and humanitarian relief.11
Even the experience with stability operations in Japan and in Western Europe, which contain some of the essential elements of counterinsurgency, did not survive long in military practice. “Despite its successful state-building enterprises in Germany and Japan following World War II,” David Ucko writes, “[the U.S. military] did not institutionalize or prepare for any similar contingencies.”12 This helps explain the “doctrinal gap,” experienced yet again when American forces committed themselves to supporting the fledgling government in South Vietnam.
As a large portion of the United States military deployed for war in Vietnam in 1965 it thought of counterinsurgency as, at best, a secondary issue. Instead the United States was thoroughly committed to fighting conventional wars. However, North Vietnamese forces were experts at participating only in battles they determined to be favorable. John Nagl, a lieutenant colonel and expert on counterinsurgency warfare wrote, “The United States Army entered the Vietnam War with a doctrine well suited for conventional war in Europe, but worse than worthless for the counterinsurgency it was about to [undertake.]”13
The central objective of the United States was to stop the spread of communism in South Vietnam, primarily by building up and protecting the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). The strategy of destroying communist military forces through attrition overlooked the salient concern for the U.S.: the political stability and viability of its ally, the Republic of Vietnam. South Vietnamese forces made themselves very unpopular throughout the countryside, and the failure of American forces seriously to confront this issue resulted eventually in its failure to meet its original objective: the establishment of a strong, popular non-communist South Vietnam.14 Nagl summed up the Vietnam War as a conflict that
demonstrates the triumph of the institutional culture of an organization over attempts at doctrinal innovation and the diminution of the effectiveness of the organization at accomplishing national interests. The United States Army had become reliant on firepower and technological superiority in its history of annihilating enemy forces; although political considerations may have governed the strategic conduct of the war, they had little connection with the tactical-level management of violence.15
Ingrained habits that had become institutionalized, he added, posed an insurmountable obstacle to military innovation, which came from the bottom-up based on smaller units’ combat experience.
Vietnam, Nagl argues, clearly demonstrated the need for an institutionalized counterinsurgency doctrine, rather than the old habit of relearning and re-adapting, which has proven so costly. After all, it would seem only logical that a war involving multiple counterinsurgency operations and resulting in tens of thousands of Americans killed in action and costing billions of dollars would actually have a lasting institutional impact regarding the military’s approach to such operations. General Westmoreland, who was in charge of the war from 1964 to 1968, concluded, “This new and traumatic experience by our nation should provide lessons for our people, our leadership, the news media, and our soldiers.”16 But while “lessons” were learned, these lessons ironically reflected a belief that counterinsurgency should be avoided. Even though it would seem logical that the U.S. military would have focused more on counterinsurgency following Vietnam, it interpreted the war as proof that such operations only distracted the military from its true purpose (conventional force destruction) and thus were to be avoided.
The next significant war in which the American military found itself, the First Gulf War, did not in fact involve counterinsurgency at all. After the United States easily defeated Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army in a short series of conventional battles, American President George H.W. Bush decided, with the ghosts of Vietnam undoubtedly in the back of his mind, not to expand military operations far into Iraq and not to attempt a regime change there. The war also displayed the U.S. military’s preference for conventional war, as Saddam Hussein’s regime was spared despite its hostility to U.S. interests.
However, once President Bush decided to assist the humanitarian efforts in Somalia in 1993 by sending troops, American troops faced a different situation and counterinsurgency warfare reared its ugly head again. The lessons of Somalia were different. Mark Bowden characterized the way the U.S. military explained the situation in Mogadishu to its soldiers, as recounted in his bestselling account of the Battle of Mogadishu, Black Hawk Down,
Warlords had so ravaged the nation battling among themselves that their people were starving to death. When the world sent food, the evil warlords hoarded it and killed those who tried to stop them. So the civilized world had decided to [respond by deploying special forces]… to clean things up.”17
Such a task could not be accomplished by conventional warfare. Using tactics that reflected a poor understanding of urban combat among a dense population the American force there had two helicopters shot down, and in the attempt to rescue the fallen crew, 19 soldiers were killed in action.18 The reaction of the American public to the events in Mogadishu—which involved a demand for troops to be withdrawn without the achievement of the central objective—indicated a lack of support for such missions. Even though a much larger war, The Gulf War, involved more troops and more casualties remained popular in the United States, the much smaller engagement in Somalia, with a fraction of the casualties resulted in more domestic unrest. While there were tactical lessons regarding the execution of urban combat, derived from the battle, counterinsurgency itself remained on the back burner.
In the context of the history of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, the 2003 invasion of Iraq represents the 21st Century Vietnam. Because the war is still ongoing, its complete history cannot yet be written. However, it has already secured a place in the history of counterinsurgency. George W. Bush had decided before the war that, unlike his father during the previous Gulf War, he must end Saddam Hussein’s regime after the conventional invasion of Iraq. This meant that a new state, one fashioned along the lines of liberal, representative governments existing in the West, was to be “built” and protected. Therefore, political stability became the end and occupation was merely the means. However, the occupation proved difficult, as an insurgency began to materialize. This was a problem of particular significance for American forces as, in David Ucko’s words, “the U.S. military’s attitude toward stability operations [right before the war] can be understood as a combination of disinterest and aversion.”19 Therefore, as in many other situations in their history, American forces found themselves unprepared for what they encountered. This has been highlighted in a military research study done by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy of the “seven essential intelligence mistakes” made by American planners. One of these “mistakes,” according to the report, was that “the planning focused strongly on the traditional military tasks, to the exclusion of post-combat requirements. In particular, the military intelligence estimates did not correctly predict the rapid development of a significant anti-coalition group.”20 Thus, counterinsurgency abruptly returned to significance.
The current counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is similar. Although less precipitous than in Iraq, the insurgency in Afghanistan has gained momentum after the conventional war had apparently ended, and continues to threaten the American objective of establishing a democratic, pro-coalition government. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has had to relearn the lessons it should have already learned from previous history. Will the United States military finally institutionalize the “lessons” from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? As one expert put it, “It is imperative that the U.S. military engage with rather than seek to forget the many lessons from Iraq.”21
The interpretation following the Vietnam War that counterinsurgency should be avoided instead of perfected, was not overturned until after Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. As Moyar has written, “Vietnam had taught [the U.S. military] to steer clear of counterinsurgencies.”22 However, the unexpected momentum and severity of the Iraq insurgency forced the Pentagon to scramble for ways to “adapt” as it has had to do often throughout history. Currently, there are many experts who suggest these lessons should be permanently institutionalized by the U.S. military. This is due to the popularly-held view, one that has been gaining momentum since the initial difficulties surrounding the occupation of Iraq beginning in 2003, that counterinsurgency operations will be necessary for years to come. According to the current doctrine of American counterinsurgency, re-learning lessons during a time of war, as evidenced by the ongoing counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been an extremely costly endeavor, one that the United States in the future would by wise to avoid. It is for exactly this reason, that the United States military has developed a strong interest in the Algerian War. However, one expert noted, “The fundamental problem with the U.S. military’s aversion to counterinsurgency and stability operations is that it has confused the undesirability of these missions with an actual ability to avoid them.”23 Even though the U.S. military wanted to avoid counterinsurgency, partially based on its experience in Vietnam, world events and strategic interests since have made it unavoidable.
In a recent analysis of the history of leadership in counterinsurgency operations, Mark Moyar has listed “ten attributes of effective counterinsurgency leaders.” Three of these attributes, “Empathy,” “Charisma,” and “Sociability,” involve social and cultural relationships between the counterinsurgency force and the host nation’s populace.24 “Empathy,” he writes, “enables leaders to appreciate the thoughts and feeling of others…This asset is of obvious value in influencing the civilian populace in an insurgent conflict.” Charisma, he adds, is useful for commanders to make “people more willing to follow their lead… not only on subordinates but also on every other friendly or neutral person, [and] charismatic leaders,” he says, ”wield influence in all cultures.” Sociability comes into play as “counterinsurgency commanders must talk with leaders of other organizations and other nationalities to obtain their cooperation.”25 All three are critical for the leaders of counterinsurgency forces in accurately determining and assessing the perceptions of the host nation’s population.
These attributes are indirectly important to the Algerian War in a strategy research project written in 2008 by Kenneth Detreux, an officer at the U.S. Army War College. Detreux argues forcefully that:
Counterinsurgency forces must understand that criticality of the center of gravity in a counterinsurgency environment: the populace…. The French had a far greater history in Algeria and quelled previous insurgencies over the time of their colonial rule. Throughout, the French failed to fully understand the importance of focusing their efforts on the dominant Muslim community and lift some of the repressive laws and rules governing Algeria.26
Detreux implies the importance of relationships between soldiers and civilians, and Moyar’s three attributes are critical in this regard. Such arguments, when applied to the particular circumstances of the Algerian War, make it clear how important understanding and dealing with the Algerian populace was to the overall success of the counterinsurgency.
1Moyar. p. 260
2David Ucko. “Innovation or Inertia: The U.S. Military and the Learning of Counterinsurgency” Orbis. Spring, 2008 p. 290
3Ibid. p. 291
4Ucko. The New Counterinsurgency Era. p. 25
5David Petraeus and James Amos. U.S. Army/ U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. p. iii
6Moyar. p. 17
7Ibid. pp 63-68
8Ibid. p. 66
9Ibid. pg. 75
10Ibid. pg. 85
11The U.S. Army Stability Operations Field Manual The University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 2009. p. viii
12 David Ucko. The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars. pg 26
13Lt. Col. John Nagl. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife:Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005p. 115
14Millen. pp. 8-24
15Nagl. p. 115
16 Gen. David Westmoreland. “Westmoreland Reflects on a War of Attrition.” Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War. ed. McMahon, Robert. p. 217
17 Mark Bowden. Black Hawk Down. p. 10
18R.D. Hooker. “Hard Day’s Night: A Retrospective on the American Intervention in Somalia.” Joint Forces Quarterly. Issue 54, 3rd Qtr, 2009.
19Ucko. The New Counterinsurgency Era. p. 47
20 Gregory Hooker. Shaping the Plan for Operation Iraqi Freedom: The Role of Military Intelligence Assessments. pp. 40,41.
21Ucko. The New Counterinsurgency Era. p. 179
22Mark Moyar. A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency From the Civil War to Iraq. London: Yale University Press, 2009 p. 1
23Ucko. “Innovation or Inertia” p. 291
24Moyar. p. 10
25Ibid. pg. 10
26Kenneth Detreux. Contemporary Counterinsurgency (COIN) Insights From the French Algerian War (1954-1962) Thesis: U.S. Army War College. p. 10