Counter-Terrorism: Ignoring the Wrong Experts


February12, 2007: It's become popular for pundits to disparage the ability of American troops to deal with irregular warfare. This is odd, as the United States has an enviable track record when it comes to defeating guerillas, and irregular forces in general. Even Vietnam, which conventional wisdom counts as a defeat, wasn't. The conventional wisdom, as is often the case, is wrong. By the time the last U.S. combat units pulled out of South Vietnam in 1972, the local guerilla movement, the Viet Cong, was destroyed. North Vietnam came south three years later with a conventional invasion, sending tank and infantry divisions charging across the border, and conquering their neighbor the old fashioned way.

When the United States first got involved with Vietnam in the late 1950s, there was good reason to believe American assistance would lead to the defeat of the communist guerilla movement in South Vietnam. In the previous two decades, there had been twelve communist insurgencies, and 75 percent of them had been defeated. These included Greek Civil War (1944-1949), Spanish Republican Insurgency (1944-1952), Iranian Communist Uprising (1945-1946), Philippine Huk War (1946-1954), Madagascan Nationalist Revolt (1947-1949), Korean Partisan War (1948-1953), Sarawak/Sabah "Confrontation" (1960-1966), Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), Kenyan Mau-Mau Rebellion (1952-1955). The communists won in the Cuban Revolution (1956-1958), the First Indochina War (1945-1954) and the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949). The communists went on to lose the guerilla phase of the Second Indochina War (1959-1970). Guerillas make great copy for journalists. You know, the little guy, fighting against impossible odds. What we tend to forget (and the record is quite clear, and easily available), is that these insurgent movements almost always get stamped out. That does not make good copy, and the dismal details of those defeats rarely make it into the mass media, or the popular consciousness.

The main problem with COIN (Counterinsurgency Warfare) is that the American armed forces takes it for granted. U.S. troops have been defeating guerilla movements for centuries. Through most of American history, COIN has been the most frequent form of warfare American troops have been involved with. But COIN has always been viewed as a minor, secondary, military role. It never got any respect. The generals preferred to prepare for a major war with a proper army, not playing cops and robbers with a bunch of poorly organized losers.

Even the U.S. Marine Corps, after half a century of COIN operations, were glad to put that behind them in the late 1930s. All that remained of that experience was a classic book, "The Small Wars Manual," written by some marine officers on the eve of World War II. That book, which is still in print, contained timeless wisdom and techniques on how to deal with COIN operations, and "small wars" in general. Every COIN book since simply repeats the basic wisdom laid down in "The Small Wars Manual."

The basic truth is that COIN tactics and techniques have not changed for thousands of years. What has also not changed is the professional soldiers disdain for COIN operations. This sort of thing has never been considered "real soldiering." But the U.S. Army and Marines have finally come to accept that COIN is a major job, something that U.S. troops have always been good at, and something that you have to pay attention to.

So when you see more news stories about new COIN manuals, or American ignorance of irregular warfare, keep in mind the history of that kind of warfare, and how long, and successfully, Americans have been dealing with it.




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