Before the US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the subsequent outbreak of insurgencies in those countries, counterinsurgency was a badly neglected part of the US defense establishment's security repertoire. During the 1990s, civilian leaders, academic specialists, and the officer corps convinced themselves that insurgency was essentially a Cold War phenomenon. Instead of understanding it as enduring political-military strategy, they perceived insurgency as an operationalized form of Marxism-Leninism (and Maoism, in particular) made irrelevant by the decline of the Soviet and Chinese communist projects.
Today, the US armed forces are occupied with counterinsurgency to a degree unseen since the 1960s. The campaigns in Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom) are shaping an entire generation of military leaders. The professional military literature is awash with articles on counterinsurgency and related (and overlapping) topics such as irregular warfare and stability operations. This heightened interest is also reflected in recent doctrine. The joint Army-Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual, published in 2006, is widely seen as the most coherent and insightful statement on the subject since the Marine Corps' Small Wars manual of 1940. Senior national security officials are deeply committed to the notion that irregular warfare, rather than conventional conflict between states, has become a major security challenge to the United States. Indeed, irregular warfare "is as strategically important as traditional warfare," according to a December 2008 Pentagon directive.
This growing attention is not confined to the uniformed services. Civilian agencies such as the Department of State, the Agency for International Development, and the CIA, which have for decades considered counterinsurgency a distraction, backwater, or worse, have now embraced it--not with the fervor of the Department of Defense, perhaps, but certainly to an intensity not present since the Kennedy administration. The US Government Counterinsurgency Guide, published in January 2009, reflects Washington's commitment to a "whole of government" approach to counterinsurgency that includes major roles for departments and agencies beyond the Pentagon. Civilian officials, military officers, and policy specialists have already gleaned important lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, such as the need to keep the application of US combat power to a minimum; the requirement to understand the local peculiarities of the conflict milieu; and the importance of civilian agencies and nongovernmental organizations in promoting stability and development. These lessons are all quite sensible and prudent. However, as the Obama administration crafts its policies and strategies for and waging irregular war, other important aspects of contemporary insurgency and corresponding counterinsurgency must be considered.
Counterinsurgency 's Learning Curve
Effective counterinsurgency always entails a protracted and sometimes painful period of institutional learning. For the British, long considered the pre-eminent practitioners of "imperial policing," the first five years of the "emergency" in Malaya were marked by a laborious, hit-or-miss approach that yielded few operational or strategic successes. It was not until the late 1960s, more than a decade after the United States began its efforts to ensure the survival of South Vietnam, that US military forces, development officials, and intelligence officers began to win the so-called "other war" by rooting out the "Vietcong infrastructure" and "pacifying" the countryside.
Nor are painfully acquired lessons always transferred to later counterinsurgency campaigns. In Northern Ireland during the early 1970s, the British army, despite decades of counterinsurgency experience, waged a clumsy, brutal, and largely ineffective campaign to suppress the Provisional Irish Republican Army. …