Academic journal article Military Review

Counterinsurgency Vocabulary and Strategic Success

Academic journal article Military Review

Counterinsurgency Vocabulary and Strategic Success

Article excerpt


WESTERN GOVERNMENTS AND MILITARIES lack a basic vocabulary to articulate counterinsurgency strategy, process, and success to their publics. The domestic public is a strategic battleground in counterinsurgency, and Western governments must fight for support at home as well as abroad.

Insurgents wreak havoc not only to maintain control over indigenous populations but also to dislodge foreign forces by alienating international public support for those forces. (1) Current counterinsurgency doctrine recognizes this; in fact, this was understood in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and outlined in the Weinberger Doctrine of 1984, which articulated strategic objectives "supported by the widest possible number of our citizens." (2) Although many scholars focus on the tactical and leadership failures that led to the loss of the Vietnam War, the collapse of political support in Congress after the public abandoned the war made a winning strategy impossible. (3)

Osama bin-Laden famously argued that the American and allied withdrawal from Lebanon and Somalia demonstrated that a collapse of public support follows U.S. casualties, proving that tactical setbacks can have strategic consequences. (4) Indeed, the media often relate public opinion to major military events, and terrorists attempt to exploit their strategic effects. (5)

Political support for a conflict historically cannot survive if public support for it drops below 50 percent. When more than half the population opposed the war in Vietnam in 1967, public support for the conflict never recovered (Figure 1). Similarly, after 2007, support for the war in Iraq collapsed and never recovered despite the extraordinary success U.S. and Iraqi counterinsurgency forces achieved. Nevertheless, just as with Vietnam, public frustration with Iraq can have strategic consequences: it suggests an Iraq War fatigue that makes extended or emergency commitments elsewhere far less likely. Public opinion has not yet reached this point for Afghanistan, but the possibility of its doing so makes the subject of this article imminently critical (Figure 2).


Insurgencies are different from conventional warfare in part due to their lengthy duration. In the modern era, the average successful insurgency has lasted 12 to 15 years.6 By comparison, the Second World War lasted five years for Great Britain and four years for the United States, and the "shooting phase" of the Korean conflict lasted only three years. More recently, conventional warfare has lived up to its "high-intensity" reputation in the Six Day War (1967), the 38 days of air strikes followed by the 100-hour liberation of Kuwait (1991), the 78-day war over Kosovo (1999), the two-month capitulation of Afghanistan (2001), the three-week conquest of Iraq (2003), and the five-day war in Georgia (2008). Major combat seems to start dramatically and stop just as quickly.

These wars of major combat also share a neat and ultimately misleading narrative structure: a surprising start, dramatic combat, and violent conclusion. The narrative of World War II is the wr-narrative. Dozens of movies and documentaries during the past 60 years have helped shape the public's basic understanding of the normative concept of warfare: bad nations commit aggression, good nations reluctantly fight back, and through force of arms, the enemy submits to unconditional surrender. The inevitable intimacy that occurs when nations fight--and the years-long post-war occupations that have occurred in Japan, Korea, Germany, Austria, Iraq, and the Balkans--fall inconveniently away from this tidy storyline. When war fails to fit the wr-narrative, we lack the tools to understand and articulate it.

We must develop these tools because insurgencies and other wars among the people are the normative reality of warfare. (7) Messy insurgencies, occupations, and efforts at nationbuilding dominate military operations, but they don't dominate our public's shared understanding of modern warfare. …

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