Is counterinsurgency a viable strategy for America?

Counterinsurgency became the subject of extensive strategic study for Western European militaries following World War II, as the European colonies of Africa and Asia sought to liberate themselves from their colonial shackles. Given the post-war chaos in Europe, the third world colonies erupted in insurgencies, causing Britain and France, the most prominent among several European nations, to launch their armed forces into conflicts to suppress the anti-colonial rebels. The Soviet Union and Communist China saw opportunity in the conflicts to align the forces of international communism with these anti-colonial insurgencies, and they successfully accomplished this political marriage. Most famously, at the beginning of the 1960s, both Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Zedong put the West on notice in public speeches that they would support "national liberation" movements in the third world to encircle and eventually destroy capitalism and the western democracies. The Soviets and Chinese Communists (Chicoms) triumphantly harnessed the post-war, anti-colonial nationalism to communist imperialism.

The US presidents, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower, who were in office at the outset and subsequent spread of the anti-colonial insurgencies, were decidedly opposed to colonialism and were loath to assist the Europeans in reconquering their colonial possessions lost during the war. However, the exigencies of the Cold War in constructing alliances to contain communism occasioned reluctant American assistance to reimpose European colonialism in places like French Indo-China. The British, French, and other colonial European national leaderships petitioned the US for counterinsurgency assistance because they needed to regain the mercantile-derived wealth from their former colonies in order to fund their commitments to containing communism. The Europeans built their cases for assistance on the fact that their economies were devastated by World War II.

The US presidents Truman and Eisenhower grudgingly accepted this logic at the onset of Cold War and provided some of the aid requested. However, this aid grew with time. In fact, by 1954 the US was funding 80% of the French war against the Vietminh communist insurgents in Indo-China. Of course, 1954 was the year that the French finally lost their Indo-China counterinsurgency war at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The resultant 1954 Geneva Conference agreement following the defeat formalized the French decolonialization and physical withdrawal. It was US involvement supporting the French counterinsurgency, with funding and equipment from 1946 through 1954, that was the impetus drawing the US more and more deeply into the South Vietnamese arena to contain the North Vietnamese communist expansion as the French evacuated Laos, Cambodia, and North and South Vietnam.

During the latter half of 1950s while the US military increased their advisory presence in South Vietnam, now formally known as the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), the North Vietnamese communist government initiated an insurgency to conquer the RVN. Following the 1954 partition of the country, the North adopted as its official name the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), and declared itself firmly in the world communist camp. The method of clandestinely commencing the DRV's communist aggression in 1957 was through infiltration of Vietminh combat veterans (many of whom were originally born in the South) across the Demilitarized Military Zone (DMZ), dividing the RVN and DRV. Another infiltration avenue was via the jungle route through Laos and Cambodia that came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The communist concept of operations was to wage a "false flag" war that sought to disguise the DRV Vietminh infiltrators as indigenous South Vietnamese who were engaging in a popular, homegrown uprising against the non-communist government of the RVN. The supposed native southern insurgents changed their name from the Vietminh to the Viet Cong (VC). The DRV and their Soviet and Chicom patrons were very effective in selling this fiction of southern insurgency origin to the US and the world in general. Once this false flag origin became accepted, the communists had "plausible denial" covering DRV aggression. Hence, the source of the war, that is the enemy center of gravity, was misidentified, and this misidentification would have far reaching unfortunate consequences in the US strategy of fighting the war.

Throughout the years of US military involvement in Vietnam, the senior leadership of the US military never enthusiastically embraced the concept of counterinsurgency as a means of warfare, in spite of the fact that Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had wholeheartedly endorsed counterinsurgency as the US strategy for defeating the VC. Although the US Army, Navy, and Air Force all expanded or created "special operations" organizations to implement counterinsurgency in Vietnam, the military services' generals and admirals were largely World War II veterans who believed that counterinsurgency wasted valuable personnel and resources in operations that could never be decisive in prevailing over the enemy. The reason why the veteran US flag officers held their skeptical assessment of counterinsurgency is that it is a strategic defensive means of war. What this means in military terms is that combat takes place on the battlefield and at the time of the enemy's choosing.

The World War II combat veterans who were the US military leadership during the Vietnam War understood that unless the center of gravity source of the war is attacked and destroyed the war would end only when and if the enemy is disposed to cease combat. Of course, if the enemy discontinues combat and then desires to renew the war, as they are doing at present in Iraq, there is nothing to prevent them. In Iraq the reduction of enemy combat operations following "the surge" was portrayed as a "victory" for political reasons. But as long as the source of the enemy's personnel, training, munitions, and financing in Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia -- the war's centers of gravity -- were beyond the reach of the surge counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, the counterinsurgency remains alive and lethal. That is, the combat initiative still resides with the enemy even after the surge.

Furthermore, military professionals recognize that it takes seven to ten years for counterinsurgency to wear down the enemy. General George Marshall, US Army Chief of Staff during the Second World War, was worried even in these overwhelmingly patriotic days that the American public would not have the patience to finish the war in Pacific after Germany surrendered, thus influencing the decision to use the atomic bomb to expedite the war's end. Marshall understood that democracies cannot sustain support for prolonged wars that involve casualties and are seemingly open-ended. These two conditions are inherent to counterinsurgency because this strategically defensive means of warfare aims at causing the enemy to cease the conflict through a battle of endurance, rather than destroying the enemy's strategic centers of gravity which are essential for the enemy to continue the war.

The basic problem in Vietnam was not VC insurgency; it was aggression in the form of insurgency conceived, funded, trained, and resupplied by the DRV communists from Hanoi and Haiphong. Later it was aggression in the form of conventional war waged by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) that was the central reason the war continued -- Saigon fell to NVA tanks and conventional troops, not to insurgent VC guerrillas. The insurgent VC was destroyed as a viable combat force -- 60,000 to 85,000 KIA -- in their 1968 Tet Offensive. Because the DRV communists could never regenerate this force with recruited insurgents in the RVN, the DRV immediately flooded the South with the NVA to take the VC's place. The NVA was always the ultimate enemy that had to be defeated if the US were to prevail. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and to a lesser extent Richard Nixon, pretended that this was not the case, and consequently they misled themselves and the American people. If we had destroyed the DRV in 1966, as was within our power, there would have been no VC or NVA, and consequently, no 58,000+ US KIA. As it was, the failure to accurately identify the enemy's center of gravity had tragic results for America.

There is one more fatal structural flaw in the counterinsurgency strategy that was relevant to our failure in Vietnam, but is even more relevant in Afghanistan. The underlying premise of counterinsurgency rests on the unproven assumption that the indigenous personnel can be "taught" to be democratic, honest, and efficient by US counterinsurgency forces. This unproven assumption is based on another faulty assumption: That insurgents are motivated by a desire for Western or "modern" democratic and capitalistic values. US counterinsurgent thinkers and warriors have not grasped that these values are the antitheses of what motivates the Taliban and their recruits.

In Afghanistan the problem is not nation building of a failed Afghan government, it is instead Sharia-Islam and Islamic Jihad. The 66-page report from General Stanley McChrystal mistakenly continues the politically correct position regarding Shariah-Islam that was erroneously adopted by President George Bush. This erroneous position is that Islamic Jihadists are misinterpreting the Qur'an by promoting violence in the name of Islam. According to the McChrystal report, this theological error by the Taliban is their Achilles' heel that can be attacked by convincing the Afghani tribesmen that the Taliban's interpretation of the Qur'an is wrong!

On the contrary, the Taliban and villagers who are rallying to the Taliban are not fighting because Afghanistan has a failed government. Afghanistan has always had a failed government. The Taliban are fighting and winning because they are convincing Afghanis that Shariah instructs them to kill or subdue the infidels -- native Afghani non-believers (that is, non-Sharia practicing Muslims) and "kafir" foreigners. McChrystal's report accepts the horribly flawed sociological analytical framework that 7th century Afghani tribesmen are fighting because they don't have a Jeffersonian democracy and clean water.

On the contrary, these 7th century tribesmen are fighting to preserve 1200 year old traditions underscored by an Islamic legal doctrine - Shariah -- that demands nothing less than total submission. Any war strategy that fails to recognize that Islamic Jihad derived from classical and quite authoritative Shariah is the enemy's doctrinal template and therefore their motivation is bound to fail, just as the Vietnam strategy that did not recognize the centrality of the DRV, caused the failure in that war. 

Col. Thomas Snodgrass, USAF (retired) is Director of Military Affairs for The Society of Americans for National Existence (SANE) and an adjunct professor of history at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Prescott, AZ, campus.