Sunday, July 29, 2007

Counter-Insurgency for Beginners

While fighting the current insurgency in Iraq, our military is once again re-learning the same lessons it forgot after Vietnam. One surprising fact I discovered while reading Fiasco by Thomas Ricks, a Pulitzer-prize winning writer for The Washington Post who is very well read on military and counter-insurgency matters, is that during the post-Vietnam era, the Army mothballed the counter-insurgency tactics and strategies in a desire to forget the Indochina experience. While some sections of the military, such as The U.S. Army Special Forces (which is almost a separate branch of the Army and thus not included in this critique), studied counter-insurgency methods and applied them successfully over the years, such strategies were largely ignored inU.S. Army doctrine, thus leaving our military woefully unprepared for recognizing and fighting an insurgency.

Colonel David Galula, a Frenchman, wrote what is considered by military experts to be the leading book on counter-insurgency: Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice ( It is only 97 pages but each sentence is a nugget of strategy and information for fighting an insurgency.

Col. Galula graduated from St. Cyr Military Academy in 1939 and served in the French army in the North Africa campaign and the liberation of Italy and France during World War II. In addition, he later served in China, Greece, Indochina, and Algeria, which gave him the opportunity to personally study the civil wars and insurgencies in each country.

There is a Rand report online,, from the early 1960's written by Col. Galula that forms the basis for this well-respected book. Rand has provided free versions for downloading. There is a 14 page summary, , and the much longer original report,

If you do not wish to read the longer version, read its introduction as it contains some truly keen insights by the French Colonel:
The absence of counterinsurgency doctrine: “In my zone, as everywhere in Algeria, the order was to ‘pacify.’ But exactly how? The sad truth was that, in spite of all our past experience,we had no single, official doctrine for counterinsurgencywarfare.”
• The perils of failure to recognize the signs of a buddinginsurgency: “ ‘Ordinary banditry,’ said a high-ranking governmentofficial in Algiers . . . By the time the insurrectionwas finally recognized for what it was, only drastic politicaland military action would have reversed the tide, and slowlyin any case.” (Sound familiar? Remember when Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld casually dismissed any talk of an insurgency?)
• The insurgents’ urban terrorist strategy: “The rebels realizedthat they could achieve the greatest psychological effecton the French and on world opinion at the cheapest price bystepping up terrorism in the main cities, notably in Algiers,which served as headquarters to most French and foreign correspondentsand thus acted as a natural amplifier. A grenade or a bombin a cafĂ© there would produce far more noise thanan obscure ambush against French soldiers in the Ouarsenis Mountains.”
• The imperative of separating the population from the insurgents:“Our forces were vastly superior to the rebels. Then whycouldn’t we finish with them quickly? Because they managedto mobilize the population through terror and persuasion . . .It was therefore imperative that we isolate the rebels from thepopulation and that we gain the support of the population.This implied that under no circumstances could we affordto antagonize the population even if we had to take risks forourselves in sparing it.” ( This is one of the reasons for the "surge". Give the Iraqis a measure of security and then they begin to help American troops as well as develop politically.)
• The concomitant imperative of not inadvertently alienatingthe indigenous population: “If we distinguish betweenpeople and rebels, then we have a chance. One cannot catch afly with vinegar. My rules are this: outwardly treat every civilianas a friend; inwardly you must consider him as a rebel allyuntil you have positive proof to the contrary.” (Our massive sweeps did not follow this principle and instead treated all Iraqis as the same, thus driving them into the arms of the insurgents.)
• Promoting women’s rights to counteract support for theinsurgents: “Reflecting on who might be our potential alliesin the population, I thought that the Kabyle women, giventheir subjugated condition, would naturally be on our side ifwe emancipated them.”
• The emphasis on policing rather than military tactics incountering an insurgency: “While the insurgent does nothesitate to use terror, the counterinsurgent has to engage inpolice work . . . The police work was not to my liking, but itwas vital and therefore I accepted it.”
• The fallacy of a decapitation strategy to defeat an insurgency:“Then, five top leaders of the rebellion, including BenBella, had been neatly caught during a flight from Rabat toTunis. Their capture, I admit, had little effect on the directionof the rebellion, because the movement was too looselyorganized to crumble under such a blow.” (This accounts for why the insurgents are not stopped even when we kill or capture Saddam, Zarqawi, and other leaders. How many times have we successfully taken out a leader of the enemy and then heard Sean Hannity et al crow about how we are turning the corner and the insurgency will decline, only to see that it keeps operating at the same levels? Their ignorance on counter-insurgency warfare is obvious as it is clear that the insurgents operate in cells, which avoids the dependence on top down leadership so prevalent in our military. Thus when we take out one leader, a few more pop up to replace him. The insurgents are not the Mafia, where the capture of a few Dons will destroy their effectiveness).
• The critical importance in a counterinsurgency of an effectiveinformation operations campaign: “If there was a fieldin which we were definitely and infinitely more stupid than our opponents, it was propaganda.” (Any student of the Iraqi war will attest to the fact that we have completely failed to follow this principle. We were slow to combat the use of Al-Jazeera and other Arab media outlets by the insurgents. Nearly a year went by before we established a network in Iraq, thus giving the enemy time to spread its message unopposed. Considering the high rates of illiteracy in the Arab world, it is very crucial that this principle is followed when fighting the enemy).
• The importance of sealing off the borders: “The borders withMorocco and Tunisia would easily have required 100,000men to control with reasonable effectiveness, given theirlength and the local terrain. In order to save personnel, it wasdecided to build an artificial fence, a project which was completed along both borders by the spring of 1958.” (This was something we COMPLETELY failed to do in Iraq. Wolfowitz completely ignored the issue of the borders, thus resulting in a stream of assistance from Iran and Syria in much the same way China sent aid, advisers, and support to the Viet Minh. He thought that within a year or so after the overthrow of the regime was concluded, that only 30,000 or so troops were needed (P. 97 of Fiasco). When General Shinseki told Congress that probably close to 300,000 troops would be needed, he was publicly backstabbed by the Rummie/Wolfie axis even though he turned out to be correct. )
• The importance of according humane treatment to capturedinsurgents: “Throughout the war our prisoner camps wereopen for unannounced inspection by the International RedCross, the reports of which were made public . . . In the bestcamps, efforts were made to sift the tough prisoners from thesoft; where it was not done, the camps became schools forrebel cadres.” (Does this REALLY need any comment?)

It is quite clear that there is very little informed discussion about Iraq among our elites and those who consider themselves to be educated. The opponents of the war say bring them home now while ignoring the fact that due to logistics, it would require 12-18 months just to withdraw from Iraq. Too many of the more vocal hawks say we just need to put pressure on Iran and Syria, kill the leaders, and just pour more troops into the war. While they continously bicker, it is worth noting that counter-insurgency has been successfully fought in other areas. Colonel Galula had success against the Algerian rebels during his tenure in that country and observed the successful counter-insurgency in the Philipinnes. A reading of his counter-insurgency strategies will show exactly what we are fighting, how we have made serious mistakes in Iraq, and how best to correct those mistakes. There is much to be learned from his writings by both supporters and opponents of the Iraq War. One thing has not changed: the ability to forget hard-earned lessons while being impressed by ivory-tower credentials and titles. Hopefully, the perfumed princes in Washington and other places will realize the type of fight this war is and act accordingly.

additional posts on this blog on related topics:


Brian Johnson said...

One wishes the administration had taken the idea of the insurgency seriously from the beginning. It should have been obvious to them that set-piece military resistance would be easy to crush and that the real fight would be an insurgency. Hussein fought that way right from the beginning, and his only successes, limited as they were, during the invasion came from guerrilla fighting. Wolfowitz et al. were apparently too enamored of the B.S. Chalabi was selling to take the task before them seriously, and their infighting with the State Department insured that the only people who knew anything about Iraq were locked out of the process.

I do have to take issue with two things you wrote. One was that opponents of the war believe we can bring all the troops home now. I don't think that's a fair description of the majority of opponents. The recent row between Clinton and that Cheney stooge Edelman was over planning for a withdrawal, for instance, and she explicitly stated that the purpose of such planning was to provide for force protection.

You also misstate the central purpose of the surge. Yes, it was supposed to bring security to the Iraqi people, but the desiderata there was to give cover for politicians to reach the compromises necessary to build a coherent government. There is no sign that the political effort is succeeding, which is the reason why some American politicians (much to your ire, I know) have declared the war lost.

There are, I think, two central lessons we should draw from Vietnam with direct relevance to Iraq. The first is that if you lie to the American people, you will destroy their support for the war. Tet was a military victory for the U.S. and a political disaster, because Westmoreland and LBJ had been telling the American people that the war was just about over. After years of such lies, (and they were lies, not well intentioned mistakes), Tet broke the camel's back.

The American people (except Republicans) no longer believe even legitimate good news from Iraq because the administration has been lying to them for years. And if Petreus gives us a positive report on the surge in September, why should we believe him? He is clearly a political creature, and when he was in charge of training Iraqi troops, he lied to us over and over again about their readiness. Right-wingers like to say that we lost Vietnam because we lost our will to fight, as if the fault somehow lies with the American people. The truth is that the manipulations and lies of the Johnson and Nixon administrations destroyed that political will, just as Bush has destroyed our political will now.

The second, related lesson is that military victories are short-lived if they are not married to political victories. The reason why we could not win in Vietnam is that the South Vietnam government was a) corrupt and violent, b) never democratic and thus c) had virtually no support among the south Vietnamese. There simply wasn't a base for establishing a real democratic government there, or at least, the American government would not support the measures such a government would require--like massive land reform.

I do not think the war in Iraq is lost, but I do not think it can be won either. The principal reason is that, as in Vietnam, we are fighting to preserve a government the native population does not want to preserve. The reason why the surge has not produced political compromise is that neither the Kurds, the Shiites, nor the Sunnis want such compromise. The Kurds will never sign on to the more centralized constitution the Bush administration and the Sunnis require. The Sunnis and the Shiites are both just waiting for their opportunity to unleash total war against each other. They will wait a year or they will wait five years. The Shiites have scores to settle, and they're not going to forgive. (This is one reason why Iraq will not become an al Qaeda haven like pre-9/11 Afghanistan if the U.S. withdraws. The Shiites will slaughter al Qaeda in the streets, using brutal tactics the U.S. could never pursue.)

Given these political realities, it seems strategically prudent to me that we withdraw the bulk of our forces to Kurdistan. This will prevent a declaration of Kurdish sovereignty and the entry of Turkey into the war. It will give us quick-strike capability into Iraq. It will counter-balance the influence of the Iranians. It will protect our troops from Sunni and Shiite attack, thus lowering the cost of the war in treasure and American lives, thus making it far more palatable to the American public.


Kingfish said...

Your first paragraph I agree with as would Colonel Galula if he were alive. Its clear that they didn't take it seriously. By they I mean the Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz/Feith Cabal. Impressive credentials, high IQ scores, and stuck in the ivory towers and considered to be total dumbasses by those in the military with heavy experience in Iraqi affairs.

As for your claim about Petreaus not telling the truth, I must disagree. His record speaks for itself. When he was in Iraq has head of the 101st Airborne, he conducted operations in his area in a way that should've been a model for the rest of the army. Ricks has an excellent section in his book on this period.

If there is a commander in Iraq that really does get it, it is him. He has recognized the importance of winning over the population and showing it respect. He has shown more common sense and initiative than other generals have along with a better understanding of what is going on in Iraq.

Its still early in the surge. If he says it has a chance of working then I think he deserves that chance based on his record in the field. Its also ridiculous to expect the surge to work immediately. These things do take time and the enemy does not always cooperate. however, he is a general who has shown an impressive ability to adapt to changes in the environment which is one of the leading traits you need in a commander.

I say give the military more time for one reason. I think you are right. Bush et al totally misjudged the situation. Completely. I dont't think they so much lied as they were incompetent and as Galula stated in his treatise, had no clue about military matters, insurgencies, etc. If they had retained Shelton, that might have happened, however, he was cashiered and his Special Forces expertise was lost.

However, in 2002 the Army War College nailed it in a study I linked what would happen if Saddam was replaced. When you get away from the Pentagon civilian leadership and to the true experts in the military, they have pretty much gotten everything right but have been ignored.

What I think is happening now is that Bush is finally letting the true military run the show and people like Petreus who have a true understanding of what they are facing are calling the shots alot more than before. Bush got rid of Rumsfeld, Gates changed leadership, lets see what happens.

If it is the military that is finally running this operation and determining the strategy, then I like the chances of success (which I define as stability, not democracy)better than if its another scheme by the Pentagon itself.

As for my characterization of opponents and supporters, I simplifed somewhat as I didn't want to digress from what was a long post anyway.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, just to say it is so refreshing to finally hear people talking about coin operations and having a vague understanding about what they require. If you want to read a cracking book on coin then read Thompson - lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Something along those lines anyway. It's what us Brits did in Malaya, Borneo, Yemen, Oman... and it worked! It is working in Afgan right now and it could work in Iraq. Indeed I read recently in a paper or some random magazine, that there is a US military commander doing exactly what I would have liked to have seen done from the word go - secure towns and villages, then ship in the local troops with our own advisers, and then fight outwards. Whilst this allows for security of those fixing the local amenities, it also dissalows the insurgents back in. Very basic hearts and minds stuff.
Also it should be noted that the US military did actually want to send in a lot more troops than the administration allowed and would peobably have done it properly if the politicians hadn't been sticking their noses in. In the British Army we call it mission command, and in essence it is setting the mission, aims or goals and setting out all the parameters, then allowing junior commanders to get on with it. As long as you know what you have to achieve and what you have available to achieve it, then you should be allowed to crack on at all levels. Maybe this has always been a problem for the US military though.
Lastly I thought that was a really good point about the move towards the Kurds. People have forgotten that Iraq is really 3 separate countries, and that the Kurds are totally happy in their part. If only we could sort out the problem with the shiites and sunnis, but I guess people smarter than me will do that!
Anyway, from a British Infantry Army Officer this is all very refreshing, thanks for allowing the rest of us to read your thoughts.


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