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Archive for April, 2012

Best of the Comments On Last Week’s Note: We Won The Counterinsurgency War In Vietnam: Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Others: Small Wars, Insurgents and Terrorists and Threats, American Foreign Policy, and the American Public, Part 9

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

A very thoughtful and experienced friend sent the following reply to last week’s note.

“Success?  Victory?  The ultimate question is did the application of military
force leave a political situation that is congruent with US national
interests?  In Viet Nam it did NOT matter that the VC were on the ropes
because this was really not an insurgency but a civil war.  At the end of
the day the US did not leave a military situation that was conducive to an
acceptable political end.  It never ceases to amaze me when retired Generals
prance about declaring victory in Viet Nam because their units were
tactically successful.  The sheer irrelevance of that position in the long
view is shocking.  Read this month’s Foreign Affairs at the state of Iraq –
“Iraq – The Next Failed State.”  For an insurgency to be defeated there must
be a credible government at the end of the effort.  Unfortunately in Viet
Nam like so many other nations the credible government was not the one the
US wanted.”

Next week, we’ll change topics and look forward with a discussion of future weakly-governed and poor states, how we can predict which ones are most likely to fall into conflict, and what is and is not the US’s role, with and without partners, in efforts to head off the conflict before it gets started.  As a start, here’s March 27th testimony by RAND expert Seth Jones before the House Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities (part of the House Committee on Armed Services), titled “The Future of Irregular Warfare.”

“Over the past decade, the United States has faced considerable irregular warfare challenges.  Take Afghanistan. By early 2012, there were approximately 432,000 counterinsurgency forces in  Afghanistan – approximately 90,000 U.S. soldiers, 30,000 NATO soldiers, 300,000 Afghan National Security Forces, and 12,000 Afghan Local Police. In addition, the United States spent over $100 billion per year and deployed a range of sophisticated platforms and systems. The Taliban, on the other hand, deployed between 20,000 and 40,000 forces (a ratio of nearly 11 to 1 in favor of counterinsurgents) and had revenues of $100-$200 million per year (a ratio of 500 to 1 in favor of counterinsurgents). In addition, Afghan insurgent groups focused on a range of asymmetric strategies and tactics, from tribal engagement to the use of improvised explosive devices and the Internet. Yet the Taliban’s ability to utilize limited resources and sustain a prolonged insurgency highlight some of America’s irregular warfare challenges. Consequently, this testimony focuses on three questions:

• What types of irregular warfare challenges is the United States likely to face in the future?
• What strategies are best suited to deal with future challenges?
• What are existing examples or models to support these strategies and effectively manage irregular warfare challenges?
Much like with terrorism and insurgency, there are a range of definitions for irregular warfare. In practical terms, irregular warfare is a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over a specific population. Irregular threats include actors who employmethods such as guerrilla warfare, terrorism, sabotage, subversion, criminal activities, and more.
This testimony begins with a brief discussion of irregular warfare challenges,
including the threat from state and non-state actors. Next, it outlines irregular warfare strategies for situations in which the United States supports both counterinsurgents and insurgents. It then discusses the Village Stability Operations program in Afghanistan as a useful model.
What types of irregular warfare challenges is the United States likely to face in the future? Over the next decade, the United States will likely face a range of irregular warfare challenges. They include threats from non-state actors like terrorist groups (such as al Qa’ida and Hezbollah), drug trafficking organizations (such as Mexican cartels), and violent global activists (such as anarchist groups). The United States will also face threats from states that generate irregular warfare challenges purposefully (such as Iran) and from those who do so inadvertently because of weak governance (such as instability in Mexico). These threats are increasingly networked, adaptable, and empowered by cyberspace to find new ways to recruit, collect intelligence, train, distribute
propaganda, finance, and operate.
To illustrate future threats, it is useful to highlight al Qa’ida and its affiliates, who some skeptics dismiss as being significantly weakened. The future threat from al Qa’ida and its affiliates will likely depend on several factors: the survival of a leadership structure; weak governments in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia; and some support from local cells. Based on current trends, it appears likely that al Qa’ida will retain key leaders (though not necessarily in Pakistan), some governments will remain weak, and al Qa’ida will enjoy local support in some countries. Its objectives will likely remain fairly consistent: overthrowing multiple regimes to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate (the near enemy, or al-Adou al-Qareeb), and fighting the United States and its allies who support them (the far enemy, or al-Adou al-Baeed). But how these trends develop is unclear. For instance, al Qa’ida may become increasingly decentralized as a global movement, with central al Qa’ida in Pakistan becoming less relevant as power devolves to its affiliates in Iraq (al Qa’ida in Iraq), Yemen (al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula), Somalia (al Shabaab), North Africa (al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb), or other locations. This
decentralization would lead al Qa’ida down a path envisioned by the Syrian strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, who encouraged Muslims to become involved in “individual jihad” and “small cell terrorism.”
Still, al Qa’ida’s pan-Islamic movement suggests that the United States will need to counter its support in multiple regions. Figure 1 shows al Qa’ida’s affiliates (groups whose emirs have sworn bayat to al Qa’ida’s leaders) and allies across the globe. The map highlights countries in which al Qa’ida may aid insurgent groups in the future. In some of these countries, such as Saudi Arabia, it has already tried – and failed – to initiate an insurgency, but could try again.8 In others, such as Yemen and Iraq, it is already assisting insurgent groups. Countries shaded in black represent those with a current presence where al Qa’ida could support – or continue to support – insurgencies. Of particular note are countries in Africa (such as Nigeria and Egypt) and the Middle East (such as Jordan and Iran) where al Qa’ida could provide aid to insurgencies if there
is an opportunity.
Figure 1: Potential Areas Impacted by Al Qa’ida and its Affiliates

In addition to these threats, there are a range of challenges that may impact the future of U.S. irregular warfare efforts. Examples include:
• Inter-Agency Cooperation: Inter-agency cooperation appears to have improved
between some organizations, such as U.S. Special Operations and the Central
Intelligence Agency. But it has been mixed between other organizations, such as the
Department of Defense and civilian agencies like the Department of State and U.S.
Agency for International Development. These challenges have, at times, strained
relations between military and civilian agencies at the strategic, operational, and tactical
levels from Afghanistan to Yemen.
• Vietnam War Syndrome: There is also a possibility that the challenges in Iraq and
Afghanistan – as well as the prospect of conventional conflict in such areas as North
Korea and Taiwan – will tempt some in the U.S. military to dismiss the importance of
irregular warfare in the future. As John Nagl concluded in his study of counterinsurgency
warfare, referring to the post-Vietnam era: “Rather than squarely face up to the fact that
army counterinsurgency doctrine had failed in Vietnam, the army decided that the United States should no longer involve itself in counterinsurgency operations.”9 Not only will irregular warfare remain important for the foreseeable future, but there is a growing body of useful analysis on topics like how insurgencies end that needs to be preserved.10
• Health of U.S. Forces: More than a decade of combat has taxed U.S. forces involved in
irregular warfare. Soldiers have had to deal with considerable stress on their families,
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), battle wounds, and numerous other challenges.
• Technological Changes: Insurgent and terrorist groups will increasingly utilize the
Internet and social media forums to communicate, distribute propaganda, recruit
individuals, and accomplish other tasks in the future. Figure 2 highlights trends in global Internet Protocol (IP) traffic through 2015. Overall, IP traffic is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 32 percent through 2015, which suggests that the number of devices connected to IP networks could be twice as high as the global population in 2015. By 2015, Wi-Fi and mobile devices could account for as much as 54 percent of IP traffic, while wired devices could account for 46 percent of IP traffic. This growth will not just occur in the West, but may grow at the fastest rates in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa.13 These developments will likely have a notable impact on insurgent operations and tactics, making it easier for insurgents to recruit, distribute propaganda, and communicate.
Figure 2: Global IP Traffic, 2010-2015
But these documents do not outline irregular warfare strategies if, by “strategy,” we mean a plan for using armed forces and other instruments to achieve military and political goals. The U.S. Department of Defense’s publication Irregular Warfare: Countering Irregular Threats deals more substantively with irregular warfare, yet it focuses on how U.S. military forces are expected to conduct joint operations within a military campaign in the future – not on strategies. In the absence of irregular warfare strategies in these assessments, we must look elsewhere. Below I outline several examples.
A. Counterinsurgency
There are two main counterinsurgency strategies for irregular warfare applicable to the United States:
Population-centric: The first is the population-centric strategy outlined in Field Manual 3-24 and other sources. FM 3-24 drew many of its best practices from such cases as the British in Malaya and the French in Algeria. In these and a range of other cases, the counterinsurgent was also the government. However, in most current cases, it is more difficult for outside powers to force local governments to make necessary political changes. As the U.S. experienced in Vietnam and Afghanistan, an outside power cannot force a local government to be legitimate. In addition, deploying large numbers of outside forces – as some advocates of this strategy insist – has not always been successful.
Indirect: In some cases a better approach may be an indirect strategy that focuses on advising, equipping, and supporting local regular and irregular forces and actors. This type of assistance – which includes foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare – has historically been performed by U.S. Special Operations Forces and intelligence agencies. U.S. efforts to assist the Philippines in 1950s and again since 2001, Thailand in the 1960s, and Colombia against its insurgents in the 1990s and 2000s were relatively successful in weakening or defeating insurgent groups. In each case, the United States used an indirect approach rather than a direct approach.  The indirect approach meant that U.S. personnel provided advice and support to host nation forces as those nations did the fighting. While this support at times even included tactical leadership, the focus was always on assisting the host nation and not on U.S. elements engaging
the enemy.
B. Insurgency
At other times, the United States may be involved in supporting insurgent groups and will likely have to choose between one of two strategies.
Maoist insurgent strategy: First is the traditional Maoist-style strategy of guerrilla warfare, which the United States supported against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It involves organizing a portion of a state’s population to impose exorbitant costs on the government.  Although a Maoist strategy targets opposing armed forces and their support networks, its goal is to destroy the will of the attacker, not necessarily its capacity to fight. It is not a strategy aimed at securing a quick government defeat. As Mao notes, it aims to exhaust the enemy into submission: “When guerrillas engage a stronger enemy, they withdraw when he advances; harass him when he stops; strike him when he is weary; pursue him when he withdraws. In guerrilla strategy, the enemy’s rear, flanks, and other vulnerable spots are his vital points, and there he must be harassed, attacked, dispersed, exhausted and annihilated.”
A Maoist strategy consists of three sequential but overlapping phases. The first involves
organizing insurgent political and military structures from among the population. As Mao concluded: “A primary feature of guerrilla operations is their dependence upon the people themselves to organize battalions and other units.” One of the primary objectives during the first phase is to persuade as many people as possible – by co-opting or coercing them – to commit to the movement. While a Maoist strategy has generally been implemented in rural insurgencies, and was conceived by Mao for that purpose, it has also been adapted to urban insurgencies. If the insurgents can gradually gain support and achieve initial military successes, they enter the second and longest phase, which is characterized by guerrilla warfare and progressive expansion. Further victories, if they occur, may lead to demoralization, lethargy, and defections from the government. This leads to a third phase, which involves destruction of the enemy.

It involves skipping Mao’s first two stages and focusing on conventional military action against the government. This strategy includes the use of armed forces to capture or destroy the adversary’s armed forces, thereby gaining control of its values – population, territory, cities, or vital industrial and communications centers. The goal is to win the war in a decisive engagement or a series of engagements by destroying the adversary’s physical capacity to resist. Insurgent forces may, for example, advance to capture a defender’s values or strategic assets – like a capital city, communications center, or base – and the defender moves to thwart that effort. A battle or series of battles then follows until one side admits defeat or there is a political settlement.

One of the most useful – and recent – models has been the development of Village Stability Operations (VSO) and Afghan Local Police (ALP), indirect programs that supplement direct action and civilian efforts in Afghanistan. They have been developed over the last three years by Special Operations Forces in a range of rural villages. Their goals are to help Afghans stand up for themselves and re-empower their traditional institutions of security, economic development, and informal governance in step with Afghan history and culture. VSO and ALP are joint and interagency in nature. Since 2009, VSO and ALP have involved deploying Afghan and U.S. forces to Afghan villages to help local communities provide security, governance, and development – and better connect them to the central government. VSO and ALP sites quickly multiplied across the country and have been successful in regaining territory from the Taliban.

Based on America’s recent experience in irregular warfare and future threats, there are several issues that should be considered:
• Organization: Based on current threats and challenges, U.S. Special Operations
Command (SOCOM) should play the frontline Department of Defense role in
countering terrorist, insurgent, and other irregular warfare threats. Despite the austere economic environment, it would be wise to continue – if not increase – funds for a range of programs in the future, such as 1208 and the Village Stability Operations / Afghan Local Police programs (the latter which are paid for using Afghanistan Security Force Funds).
• Health of U.S. Forces: U.S. soldiers and their families have dealt with enormous
stress because of irregular warfare deployments. The likely continuation of these
threats – and deployments – suggests that the U.S. Department of Defense needs to
continue improving its physical and mental health programs for soldiers and their
families. Incidents such as the March 2012 alleged killing of civilians in Kandahar
Province, Afghanistan by a U.S. soldier have a negative strategic impact on U.S.
irregular warfare operations – and U.S. foreign policy more broadly.
• Training and Education: U.S. irregular warfare training has been ad hoc, especially
for conventional U.S. forces. Education at core U.S. military institutions, such as the
U.S. Army War College, has been better. But there is a danger that irregular warfare
training and funding will be cut because some services and institutions may view it as
antiquated. Much like after the Vietnam War, this would be a serious mistake.”
• Inter-Agency Cooperation: Congress may consider supporting an assessment of
inter-agency “lessons learned” during irregular warfare campaigns, as it has done for
inter-agency teams conducting counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Inter-agency cooperation has not been as effective as it should be, and it may be
worth considering an objective, analytical evaluation.  The irregular warfare struggle will be a long one. The battlefield remains a global one, stretching from the great shores of America and the United Kingdom to the rugged peaks of Yemen and Pakistan. This struggle will be measured in decades, not months or years – a concept that doesn’t come easy easily to most Westerners.
Share your perspectives and thoughts with us by posting a comment on the Roundtable, at, or by sending me a note at  I’ll share them with our readers.



We Won The Counterinsurgency War In Vietnam: Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Others: Small Wars, Insurgents and Terrorists and Threats, American Foreign Policy, and the American Public, Part 9

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

Assessing Pacification in Vietnam: We Won the Counterinsurgency War!

About the Author

J. R. Bullington’s diplomatic posts included Ambassador to Burundi, and he was Dean of the State Department’s highest level training program, the Senior Seminar. After retirement from the Foreign Service, he worked in academia and then was Peace Corps Director in Niger, 2000-2006. He currently lives in Williamsburg, VA, and is a Senior Fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk.