Fighting Foreign Insurgencies

Donald Stoker defends the surge in Iraq in Foreign Affairs arguing that insurgencies never win. Granted the overall success of insurgencies is poor, but extrapolating that to Iraq makes for a weak argument.

The main reason insurgencies do not succeed is that you have a relatively weak group fighting an entrenched and more-powerful government. In Iraq we have already given the insurgents a huge hand by knocking out Saddam and replacing him with a weak government which lacks the power to easily defeat the insurgencies. Without an established government, the odds for a foreign power to suppress an insurgency drop considerably as compared to the examples Stoker provides. His arguments provide no reason why a surge as Bush has called for will make any difference at all.

Another problem is that even if insurgencies do not succeed they can still do a lot of harm. Just look at the Infantida in Israel and look at Northern Ireland. While governments may have the motivation to do whatever is necessary for self-preservation and may ultimately defeat their local insurgents, foreign powers typically will limit the degree to which they will allow suppression of an insurgency overwhelm their resources. This, along with the Viet Cong’s support from North Vietnam, is why the United States lost in Vietnam, and now must search for exit strategies in Iraq which will limit the damage to our country.

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1 Comment

  1. 1
    Tom says:

    The US lost in Vietnam for several reasons.  The main reason was that we did not have the right strategy.  US leaders insisted on fighting the war as though it were almost purely an industrial war, like WWII, WWI or the Korean War.  We overwhelmingly attempted to use conventional (and indeed as noted, industrial) warfare methods to defeat a subversive movement.  It might come as a shock, but in order to defeat an insurgency/revolutionary movement, one must use counterinsurgency (COIN)/counterrevolution. 

    History has repeatedly demonstrated that conventional methods do not work against irregular, asymmetric threats.  Had the US simply done its homework, it would have understood this.  Yet we seemed to believe Vietnam was the first time in history this type of war had ever been fought, and therefore ignored military doctrine on the subject.  It is particularly tragic because even as much as the US screwed up in that conflict, we still had many of the right tools and saw some signficant successes. 

    JFK’s brilliant foresight regarding the growing use of insurgency/terrorism/guerrilla warfare led to his creation of groups within the military trained specifically for countering such threats.  The Navy SEALs and Special Forces (Green Berets) are key assets for the US.  Furthermore the Marines have had a history of successfully countering guerrilla movements and even wrote their own book on lessons learned from such experiences, named The Small Wars Manual.”  Prior to the overhauling of the US COIN manual in 2007 by Gen Petraeus, many Marine units began studying this manual for tips on how to best defeat insurgencies. 

    Even the Army has fought some successful COINs and counter-guerrilla movements, and both the Army and Marines achieved some successes in Vietnam when they decided to apply proven COIN methods, as was the case in concepts like the Strategic Hamlet Program for example. 

    The US has yet even more assets in just the military alone, needed for defeating insurgencies.  Civil Affairs and Psychological Warfare units, Delta Force, Army Corps of Engineers, Navy SeaBees, Army Rangers, 101st Airborne, 82nd Airborne, 10th Mountain Division, and Air Force special operators all have important roles to play.  Again, this is just the military and doesn’t even include critical assets from the State Dept. like USAID, just to name one.  

    WIth the writing of the US COIN manual in 2007 the US finally has added yet another crucial piece of the institutional puzzle, along with the creation of various commando units and the establishment of Special Operations Command.  Finally the US is (re)-learning and perhaps more importantly, institutionalizing lessons learned from the type of war that is not going away any time soon. 

    Ignoring asymmetric war has not made it go away–in fact, it made it more prominent.  Enemies and opponents of the US have paid very close attention to the fact that we don’t like to fight this kind of war.  So naturally, they resort to asymmetric warfare.  Rarely in history do your enemies give you the war you train and hope for, and become proficient at.  Only Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War was dumb enough to give the US the very war we had trained for.  Most of the time one’s enemies pay very close attention to the ways their opponents are defeated, and this is precisely what groups like al-Qaeda have done. 

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