Insurgency History, Terrorist Networks

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 18, 2005 | Go to article overview

Insurgency History, Terrorist Networks


Byline: Joshua Sinai, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

As terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda and its affiliates, continue to evolve worldwide,

new solutions are required to defeat these growing threats. These issues are addressed by the two books under review.

In Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (The University of Chicago, $17, 282 pages), Lt. Col. John Nagl draws on T.E. Lawrence's (also known as Lawrence of Arabia) aphorism that "Making war upon insurgents is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife." To examine this thesis, the author draws on the counterinsurgency campaigns conducted by the British in the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960 and the United States in the Vietnam War from 1950 to 1975.

What Lt. Col. Nagl finds is that a flexible and adaptable military organizational culture that is able to integrate all elements of national power is the key variable which explains how the British army successfully won against the insurgents in Malaya and why the American army failed to do so in Vietnam.

This is an important lesson with contemporary relevance. According to Lt. Col. Nagl, militaries need to become "learning organizations" that utilize innovative ideas to change from using conventional tactics against an "unconventional" guerrilla or terrorist enemy, which is the challenge currently facing the United States and its coalition allies in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere where the war on terrorism is being fought.

Lt. Col. Nagl is well positioned to examine these issues due to his position as Military Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense and as a veteran of the 1991 Operation Desert Storm and the current conflict in Iraq.

Lt. Col. Nagl's largely historical study is especially relevant today because it suggests how to encourage such spirit of innovation. In Iraq, for example, the task for a "conventional" military is hugely complicated because to achieve security by destroying the insurgent enemy it is difficult to identify one's adversary because often it is part of the local tribal population and is able to hide in plain sight.

Thus, he writes, "'Link diagrams' depicting who talked with whom [becomes] a daily chore for a small intelligence staff more used to analyzing the ranges of enemy artillery systems." Therefore, militaries need to develop cultural awareness and long term relationships of trust with the local population in order to foster the development of indigenous forces and local governmental institutions which are necessary to eventually take over once the country becomes safe and secure. As he points out, "the majority of the Iraqi population prefers the American vision of a democratic and free Iraq to the Salafist version of Iraq as Islamic theocracy. …

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