Relearning Counterinsurgency Warfare

By Tomes, Robert R. | Parameters, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Relearning Counterinsurgency Warfare

Tomes, Robert R., Parameters

Thirty years after the signing of the January 1973 Paris peace agreement ending the Vietnam War, the United States finds itself leading a broad coalition of military forces engaged in peacemaking, nation-building, and now counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq. A turning point appeared in mid-October 2003 when US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's memo on the future of Iraqi operations surfaced. His musings about whether US forces were ready for protracted guerrilla warfare sparked widespread debate about US planning for counterinsurgency operations.

Little attention has been paid to the theory and practice of counterinsurgency warfare in mainstream strategic studies journals. Discussions of the so-called revolution in military affairs (RMA) and RMA-associated technologies for battlefield surveillance and precision targeting dominated defense planning discourse in the 1990s. Nation-building and peacekeeping discussions rarely addressed counterinsurgency warfare, perhaps because nation-building operations during the 1990s did not confront a determined, violent insurgency. Meanwhile, with knowledge about counterinsurgency warfare waning among policymakers, resurgent terrorism scholarship and counterterrorism policy initiatives avoided the issue of a strategic terrorist campaign to destabilize nation-building. More recently, vague historical references and misplaced analogies to Vietnam have muddled discussions of the Iraqi counterinsurgency effort.

Lessons and insights from past low-intensity wars deserve revisiting. They provide perspective as well as context for what may be a defining period for the American war on terrorism. What lessons from past counterinsurgencies can inform current efforts? What theoretical and operational issues are available to aid Coalition activities?

This exploration of why counterinsurgencies fail avoids the American experience in Vietnam, a subject that continues to evoke images and arguments that could possibly overshadow the central purpose--that is, discussing the lessons of previous counterinsurgencies and their applicability to US strategy in Iraq. Avoiding the US experience in Vietnam also shifts attention to historical cases that may be more applicable to Iraq than was the US war in Southeast Asia.

Revisiting Modern War

Those seeking historical insights into counterinsurgency warfare will find Roger Trinquier's classic Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency disturbingly current. First published in 1961 and one of the best-selling post-World War II books in France, Trinquier influenced a generation of counterinsurgency scholarship. He succeeded in describing the true face of what current observers also label "modern war." Nearly 40 years later, for example, Mark Bowden subtitled his bestseller Black Hawk Down, the story of a US Special Forces operation in Somalia gone awry, A Story of Modern War. (1) Despite important differences between Somalia and the colonial independence conflicts Trinquier participated in, ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq reflect many of the nonlinear, unconventional elements of what Trinquier labeled modern war to distinguish between armored battles between nation-states and counterinsurgencies pitting nation-builders against organizations using terrorist tactics.

Trinquier was introduced to counterinsurgency warfare in Indochina before being assigned to Algeria in 1957 as a Lieutenant Colonel with the French 10th Parachute Division. Decades of service conditioned his views. Algeria inspired his writings on modern war, including a penetrating testimony to the central tenet of counterinsurgency: winning the allegiance of the indigenous population. A systematic approach is needed. Counterinsurgencies require "an interlocking system of actions--political, economic, psychological, military--that aims at the [insurgents' intended] overthrow of the established authority in a country and its replacement by another regime. …

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