The Counterinsurgency Myth

Yves here. The American fantasy of supporting counterinsurgency movements to change the fundamental values of countries we wanted to tame is utterly nuts when you unpack what its sponsors actually believed. It’s another layer of the propaganda devised to make the Project for a New American Century sound dimly feasible.

By Nicholas Guarnaccia, a freelance writer and researcher. His recent work focuses on militarization, particularly the connection between coloniality and counterinsurgency. He has a master’s degree from the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Boston where he studied conflict transformation and social/political movements. Originally published at openDemocracy

In early December 2001, just nine weeks after invading Afghanistan, the US military overthrew the Taliban government, accomplishing what it is most apt at doing: winning conventional military battles. In the following days, the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, made it clear that “the war in Afghanistan is not won… We may be hunting Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan for months from now.”

Wolfowitz’s statement acknowledged the transition from conventional warfare aimed at overthrowing the Taliban regime to a concerted campaign of unconventional, irregular, and special operations warfare known as counterinsurgency. Over the next 19 years and eight months, the US and its allies’ counterinsurgency campaign terrorised and alienated the Afghan population, leading to the resuscitation of a defeated and unpopular Taliban – and, ultimately, the inevitable but potentially infinitely prolonged withdrawal of coalition forces.

It would be incorrect to say that counterinsurgency went awry in Afghanistan, because it did what it has always done: wage war on people and their livelihoods; treat politics as a zero-sum game; and use the guise of new technology and professionalism to inflict brutality upon civilian populations. The modern iteration of counterinsurgency doctrine implemented in Afghanistan mirrors four centuries of irregular, population-centred warfare carried out by the US, revealing the patterns of violence and the outcome in Afghanistan as not only likely, but logical.

Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

In December 2001, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar offered a conditional surrender to the then-interim Afghan president, Hamid Karzai: the Taliban would lay down their weapons in exchange for an amnesty. However, the US had not come to Afghanistan just for regime change, but to fight a global ‘War on Terror’. The conditional surrender was rejected outright by the US, commencing what would become two decades of counterinsurgent warfare intended at weeding out ‘terrorism’ from the region.

The 2006 US military manual ‘Counterinsurgency’ codified the approach in Afghanistan (and Iraq). It defines counterinsurgency as “those political, economic, military, paramilitary, psychological, and civic actions taken… to defeat an insurgency”. In contrast to a conventional military operation, it is conceived as “a struggle for the support of the population”, where “political objectives must retain primacy” over military ones.

Following from that doctrine, the US and its coalition allies undertook what appears to be a highly counterintuitive approach. Their engagement was primarily militaristic outside of Kabul and other urban, government-controlled areas. They relied on minimal ground troops, preferring instead to use air power – strikes, drones and gunships that killed countless civilians and has led to immense psychological trauma. To create a façade of accountability, the US outsourced much of the violence to Afghan security forces and proxies, who were notorious for their war crimes and abuses.

When American troops did engage on the ground, it was most commonly through night raids and kill/capture missions that violated local cultural and religious norms and frequently led to civilian casualties. Those who were lucky enough to be captured and not killed during the night raids were often detained, tortured and interrogated by coalition personnel. Each of these operations relied heavily on ‘intelligence’, in many cases misinformation obtained extrajudicially. This technologically sophisticated apparatus was supposed to surgically remove the insurgency while limiting the cost of war. Defined by its precision firepower and electronic remote weaponry, it was termed by retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl America’s “industrial-scale counter-terrorism killing machine”.

Word of the humiliation and devastation of night raids travelled quickly, however. The killing and capture of community leaders upended social structures and resentment proliferated from civilian massacres and their cover-ups. In a matter of a few years, US counterinsurgency had managed to reinvigorate the Taliban, increasing its legitimacy, and providing fresh recruits eager to join its ranks. By late 2005, the Taliban had regained prominence and the US was rapidly losing the support of the people. Despite this, the US largely persisted with these same tactics for the entirety of the two decades.

Counterinsurgency did not fail in Afghanistan because it was poorly executed. Instead, it failed precisely because counterinsurgency is incapable of accomplishing its purported aim: to win the support of the population by engaging with it politically.

The Central Contradiction

The logic of counterinsurgency, as it is conceived by its designers, is contradictory. It is a strategy that purports to be political in nature, as it attempts to win ‘hearts and minds’, yet as political theorist Laleh Khalili has argued, “Counterinsurgency refuses politics… transform[ing] political conflicts and contestations, revolts and insurgencies, into technical problems to be solved.” This renders the political ‘battlefield’ as zero-sum terrain – “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” – whereby the legitimacy of the counterinsurgency is contingent upon the insurgency’s illegitimacy.

The political inflexibility inherent to the counterinsurgency doctrine negates and demonises the opposition, resulting in a misunderstanding of what the ‘insurgency’ is seeking to achieve and how it will go about doing it. As the US manual states, “The insurgent succeeds by sowing chaos and disorder everywhere… [and is] constrained by neither the law of war nor the bounds of human decency.” This leads to a fundamental misrepresentation of the insurgency’s goals and tactics. In fact, rather than being some inexplicably malevolent force, an insurgency – which is always under-resourced and under-manned – relies on its ability to gain the support of the people and morally isolate the counterinsurgent effort.

The result is that counterinsurgency oversimplifies and misjudges the relationship between the insurgency and the general population, since its strategy and tactics are based on a clear distinction between the two. Mao Zedong famously characterised the relationship between guerrillas and the people as that of fish to water. The counterinsurgency’s tactical response is to ‘drain the water’. But the line between the two constitutive groups, people and insurgents, is indistinct.

The artificiality of this line is reflected in the experience of the counterinsurgent soldier, who is constantly unsure whether the local stranger walking towards him should be shot or embraced. The ‘people’ are simultaneously viewed as passive, desperate and ‘self-interested’ as well as suspicious, conniving, and dangerous. Trust the people and risk being killed by the insurgents; shoot the people, and create more insurgents. The safest move for the soldier is usually at odds with the aim of the mission. Thus, it is no accident that counterinsurgency tends to reproduce the very enemies it aims to eliminate.

The great strength of counterinsurgency is supposed to be its adaptiveness and dynamism. It employs military tactics as well as capacity-building ones. Yet its political rigidity leads to an obsession with order, control, obedience and stability over participation, consent and change, which makes people the objects of policy in such a way that renders the incorporation of contextually specific and well-intentioned tactics largely irrelevant.

Counterinsurgency’s contradictory nature sheds light on how this ‘limited’ form of warfare so often reproduces the conditions of its own downfall and relies on brutality, destruction, and terror for ‘success’.

A Genealogy of US Counterinsurgency

Western media coverage of the Afghanistan withdrawal gives the impression that violence and brutality throughout the war merely reflected the difficulties and insufficiencies of the situation, rather than being the logical result of counterinsurgency warfare. However, four centuries of American counterinsurgency, waged at home and abroad, reveal similar patterns that lay bare its central contradiction and propensity for extreme violence.

The founding of the US took place through a genocidal campaign of decentralised war waged on indigenous peoples and their way of life. “A war tradition that saw non-professional soldiers pursue unlimited objectives, often through irregular means,” in the words of military historian John Grenier, cohered, he suggested, around three central pillars: unlimited or total war; the creation of special forces, known as rangers, used to penetrate and harass indigenous groups deep in their territory; and the privatisation of the war effort, in the form of scalping bounties, to mobilise the civilian population with economic incentives. These nascent counterinsurgency techniques, which Grenier termed America’s “first way of war”, ensured the settler-colonial project achieved its agenda of conquest and erasure.

Chattel slavery provided a sufficient internal threat to ensure the development of the other side of early counterinsurgency tactics: policing. A regime of surveillance and terror was developed by white settlers – outnumbered by slaves in the southern states – and carried out by slave patrols, groups of citizens who enforced the institution of slavery through physical and psychological brutality.

The US colonisation of the Philippines in 1898 consolidated this approach into America’s main tool of foreign conquest. Over the course of 13 years, the US army launched a brutal counterinsurgency campaign relying on the use of torture, especially waterboarding; large-scale extrajudicial killings; forced starvation by destroying vital food sources; and massive displacement into some of the earliest concentration camps. It is estimated that 20% of the Filipino population was killed during the campaign.

This same era is characterised by the formal bureaucratisation of domestic counterinsurgency operations. By the 1880s, all major US cities had established police departments, creating a paradigm shift from policing as a reactive decentralised enterprise to a centralised one focused on ‘preventive’ measures to ensure order. This approach placed a particular emphasis on surveillance, large-scale arrests and the use of performative violence against the ‘dangerous classes’: freed blacks, poor whites and immigrants.

After emerging from the Second World War as the global hegemon, and having to navigate the politics of decolonisation and the Cold War, the US transformed and implemented its counterinsurgency agenda through policing. This helped it combat the image of its empire at home and abroad: reforming policing at home, to ensure that it became nominally divorced from Jim Crow racial apartheid; and training police abroad, so that foreign interventions were carried out by native soldiers in police uniforms.

Training largely focused on professionalising policing – the use of standards, routines, and protocols to help separate the institution from its overtly political origins – and modernising police forces with new technology that enhanced communication and surveillance capabilities. This global initiative led to some of the most abhorrent moments of the Cold War: the arrest and assassination of countless Black liberation, left-wing and indigenous revolutionaries, the massacre of one million communists in Indonesia, the practice of ‘disappearing’ people across Latin America, and the ruthless destruction of Vietnam.

The period since 2000 has seen the modern iteration of US counterinsurgency on full display. Abroad, unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been waged in the name of combatting the amorphous and existential threat of terrorism. Modern counterinsurgency has been neo-liberalised, relying heavily on private military forces, contractors, and proxies, who remain insulated from financial or democratic accountability, reaping enormous profits for defence corporations and their investors.

At home, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests of 2014-15 and 2020 are responses to centuries of racialised apartheid experienced through the lens of counterinsurgency’s most recent morbid symptoms: militarised police, mass surveillance and, as always, gratuitous violence. The incorporation of surveillance technologies, ‘non-lethal’ weaponry and police training attempt to sanitise domestic counterinsurgent violence and to create the illusion of change while never disrupting its fundamental nature.

The coincidence of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan calls not only for a reflection of the past two decades of US warfare but an indictment of more than four centuries of American warmongering, of which counterinsurgency has been the most central feature. Counterinsurgency’s propensity to reproduce the conditions of its own defeat is the result of its internal logic, exemplified par excellence in Afghanistan. Its propensity towards extravagant violence is there because it was forged in a settler-colonial project, chattel slavery, imperial excursions, neo-colonial domination, and racial apartheid. Understanding and highlighting the history and logic of counterinsurgency will be crucial to challenging the US’s next imperial impulse.

This is an edited version of an article that was first published by the Transnational Institute.

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  1. anEnt

    Minor correction on diction in your intro and apologies for the nit-picking, Yves:

    We support insurgencies / (proto-)rebellions before they take power.
    Once the faction(s) we support take power, we then engage in counterinsurgency tactics (strategy is too strong a word) against the supporters of the former government.

  2. Tom Stone

    The models for successful COIN operations are Kenya and Malaysia, the lessons learned there are either not pertinent to or have been ignored in every situation since.

    1. Synoia

      Neither Kenya nor Malaysia nor Aden were successes.

      I was at University with the British Army officers who were in those actions.

      All three of then, and most other Colonies, became Independent and released from British Colonial Rule.

    2. Gaianne

      Whether or not Kenya was a success, the outcome was a result of partial genocide of the Kenyatta tribe, as declassified documents from the British defense ministry (much) later made clear.

      Arguably the military actions led to more British control of the post-independence government than otherwise would have occurred.


  3. PlutoniumKun

    I’m glad the author mentioned the Philippines, its amazing how many historians and writers casually describe those islands as some sort of ‘protectorate’ of the US while comdemning the colonialism of the British or French, etc. The forced US occupation of the Phillipines was every bit as brutal as the French occupation of Indochine or the British in Malaya or India. In many ways, even in leaving the US left that country in a far worse mess than the British or French did in most of their ex colonies.

    What I find interesting in a perverse way is just badly the US manages to unlearn lessons learned with such pain by other colonisers in anti-insurgent actions, or indeed in its own actions in South and Central America or in ‘arms length’ insurgency wars such as in Indonesia. If you are facing a very determined insurgency you really have two choices. You can be extremely ruthless and brutal, as with the British in Malaya (aided it should be said, by cold eyed exploitation of racial issues) or by Suharto in Indonesia or any number of other South and Central American countries; or you can be more suble, and recognise the legitimacy of the insurgency and try to accommodate them through a mix of political compromise and outright bribery of the right people (Northern Ireland being a very good example). The US managed neither in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    I suspect one reason is simple – just how few generals or political leaders suffer from getting things wrong. How many generals or intelligence leaders have been fired for incompetence in the US in the past 3 or 4 decades? Not many I would guess.

    1. Procopius

      The Manual for Small Wars, published by the U.S. Marine Corps to preserve the lessons they had learned since 1896, was completely ignored in Afghanistan. They emphasized, for example, it was vital the occupiers establish a well paid, well trained, well fed police force and they must scrupulously maintain the law. The law must apply to them as well, and once the police are established it is vital to establish an honest and fair judiciary. Our underlying failure in Afghanistan was not maintaining control over these government activities. When we initially installed the corrupt warlords of the Northern Alliance as the government in Afghanistan we were in a position to take control. The Cheney/Bush/PNAC gang were as incompetent there as in Iraq.

    2. Dr. R.k. Barkhi

      I agree. If i may add,i don’t think the government(read:the MIBC) views any of these as failures or “lessons unlearned” etc. They are undertaken as crimminal exploitations for purely material and power gain. The only”lessons” i see applied are: which kind of force,which level of ruthlessness works best at extracting the most wealth in the way that satisfies them best while sucking the most money from U.S. citizens for weapons etc.

      Viewing the Afghanistan “war” in that light dramatically changes one’s perspective.

    3. Sameer Gupta

      Ironically the US manages to do counter insurgency much better domestically. The modern Democratic Party is little more than a big well funded psy-op which exists to sap peoples revolutionary energy and prevent the establishment of an independent peoples movement.

      I mean look at how they have tried to suppress the frontline BLM groups by showering susceptible elements of the national leadership with funds, access and media platforms while those folks turn around and dutifully parrot that the mission was to elect Joe Biden. As this article points out, such a position is a betrayal of what BLM is fighting for.

      The well-funded NGO industrial complex has produced an entire class of middle class people who can claim to monopolize the discourse on “decolonization”, “anti-racism” and so on, while their entire careers rest on the benevolence on the very same folks who would stand to lose the most from any left-wing, likely Indigenous and/or Black lead insurgency in this country.

      So-called Progressive Democrats are the best counterinsurgency tool the US has developed, one that has done a lot to keep insurgent movements largely marginal in American discourse despite growing discontent. How long that can continue without any meaningful concessions to the lower-middle class? That’s anybody’s guess.

  4. chaco52

    History shows that wars versus local populations, so called guerilla wars, are never successful except in the instance of Rome’s war against the Jews, where after burning Jerusalem the Romans exiled the population.

    It’s also worth mentioning Smedley Butler’s pamphlet, ” War is a Racket”, when reviewing America’s history of military adventurism around the globe.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      If wars against local populatons always failed, none of the empires of the world would have existed. From the Romans through to the British, French and Russian revolutions, through to modern insurgencies in India, Thailand, Peru, Columbia, China, Indonesia, Israel and many, many others, authoritarian countries have either defeated insurgencies or reduced them to manageable levels.

      1. Procopius

        Bear in mind that the fight against “insurgency” in Thailand was conducted by the local government, not be outsiders. Also, they were quite unsuccessful until the military dictators were overthrown and an intelligent general, Phrem Tinsulanonda, was appointed Prime Minister by the junta. He forced the army to negotiate with the insurgents (called Communists, at the time) and matters were settled fairly quickly. The army was not succeeding against them, despite extremely brutal measures.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          I think that if you ask any northern Thais who conducted the counterinsurgency, they would most definitely describe them as outsiders (they really don’t like the southern Thais, who are culturally and linguistically very different people from those in the north). I was also thinking when I posted that of the long time ongoing muslim insurgency in the very south of the country.

    2. Alex

      Russia has been reasonably successful in Chechnya (success being defined by the decrease of violence) and it looks like in Syria insurgents are going to be defeated eventually

      1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

        It could be argued with much evidence that in both those instances, the ‘insurgencies’ were instigated and financed by outside actors.

    3. Captain Spaulding

      The problem is that the United States has no vocabulary for a self-appointed mission like Afghanistan. We called this war, but that was over after the capture-the-flag phase in late 2001. The subsequent “Nation-building” is a term that appeals to the sensibilities of the society that thinks of itself a spreader of freedom. But in almost every historical instance where a power has successfully quelled an insurgency, it’s been through one of two routes.

      One is to incorporate the subject society into your broader Empire, either directly or through indirect rule. That has to be successful enough for people to want to go along with it voluntarily. The second route, which also applies to anybody who doesn’t accept the outcome of the first strategy, is extreme brutality and scorched-earth tactics. The Romans, like Alexander before then, and like the Mongols and Nazis afterwards, understood this perfectly. Some peripheral societies could be incorporated into the larger Empire on varying degrees of autonomy. Others, like Carthage, were utterly destroyed and had the proverbial salt sown over them.

      The U.S. could have exterminated the Taliban, and the Vietcong before them, if U.S. society had been willing to do that. It was certainly within our military capability. But it wasn’t an option, as even the bloodthirstyist neocon had to maintain the pretense that we were trying to extend freedom, not pacify imperial resistors. So the overall effort was doomed to failure, as will every similar effort in future.

  5. The Rev Kev

    Can’t find it now but I was reading an account of how Afghans have fared in the past twenty years. If you lived in the cities it may have not been so bad but in the countryside it was murder. This guy found that nearly every single family that he had interviewed in the countryside had lost several members to American or Coalition actions over the years. Some young men joined the Taliban when they realized that it was only a matter of time before they too became a target. Others wanted payback.

    I cannot remember the exact ratio but if a drone operator could make a kill of a suspect, it was permitted to kill several innocent bystanders. The number of them may have been seventeen or lower but it was a lot. And after that strike, if neighbours and friends and family went in to rescue the injured, the drone operator would then launch a second missile to kill them too. That is not a military tactic but a terrorist tactic. Can you imagine that in your own neighourhood? The drones would patrol over the villages so that their sound would unnerve the villagers living below too and make them afraid.

    At nighttime you would have the special forces go out on raids. If a guy came out with a rifle, he was killed because he was assumed to be an enemy. But in rural Afghanistan, guns were everywhere. If you are a villager and hear a noise outside, of course you take your gun as it might be a wild animal or a raider or whatever. But the special forces would just say that he was Taliban and maybe, make a small payment to the survivors. So in the end the Coalition had destroyed any support in the countryside for them so when the Taliban made their move, it was all over in a fortnight.

    1. Alex Cox

      How can you call the ‘double tap’ – in which US drone operators murder the first responders and ambulance drivers – an act of terrorism? It was invented by a Nobel peace prize winner!

    2. BlakeFelix

      That was a very good article. Either it was “the other women of Afghanistan”, or that was another good article.

  6. David

    You wouldn’t know it from the article, but there’s a massive literature on counter-insurgency, and it’s a very old tactic, used in many places in the world and by many nations other than the US. Indeed, the US has never really practised COIN as a doctrine, and so attempts to judge its efficacy by US experience are beside the point. It might have been helpful to at least nod to all this experience rather than wandering off into talking about Black Lives Matter.

    So let’s start at the beginning. What’s insurgency? That’s when an armed group is unable to confront the formal government, occupying force or dominant group in conventional combat. It therefore turns to small-scale irregular warfare, designed to deny the government (or other) control of an area. It does this by concentrating on small-scale actions, often at village or district level. It may co-opt, convince, or just replace local power structures, and demand recruits and money or logistic support. Locals may or may not agree with the insurgents, but in any case they usually have little choice but to comply with their wishes.

    This kind of warfare has many advantages. It can leverage links of clan, religion and tribe, it can profit from rural distrust of towns and regional distrust of the capital as well (as in Afghanistan) as traditionalist distrust of modernisation. Its practitioners don’t wear uniform (and so are not, in practice, entitled to protection under the Geneva Convention or the APs), and move from combatant to non-combatant status depending on the circumstances. They often use women and children in operations, and one of the classic tactics, since Mao, has been to provoke government forces into over-reaction, to precipitate (or in some case manufacture) atrocities. The Kosovo Liberation Army were especially good at that. Such groups don’t see themselves, as the weaker party, obliged to respect the laws of war: the Taliban were notorious for attacking medical personnel and facilities, and, according to someone who was there at the time, nearly pulled off a suicide attack on the hospital at Bagram, using a bomber in a wheelchair, carrying 25kg of explosives.

    Attempts to counter this form of warfare are logically enough called Counter-Insurgency, or COIN for short. That doctrine has a mixed record, but it has little to do with US behaviour in Afghanistan. When it is successful (as with the French in Algeria or the Portuguese in Angola) it requires huge numbers of troops, and the ability to blanket the country. It also requires overwhelmingly infantry forces, the recruitment of locals in specialist COIN units (not the ANA model) and a massive investment in time and intelligence gathering. Among other things it has to give local populations the feeling that they have more to gain by supporting the government than the insurgents, and that they will be protected if they do so. It’s also incredibly expensive, and fighting insurgents with their own tactics can be politically unacceptable. This was the reason why the French and the Portuguese finally lost.

    This has little to do with the US experience in Afghanistan, which is less a case of COIN doctrine than a recognition that the US just can’t do it. High-tech warfare cannot ultimately defeat insurgencies: drone strikes can take out commanders and disrupt operations, but by themselves they can’t win wars.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      One of the interesting things about COIN is that nearly everything is written from the perspective of the CO rather than the IN side, so to speak, the latter is usually restricted to a few quotes from Mao or Che G. Memoirs from insurgents are invariably only from those who won (or claimed to have won, such as the various anti-Nazi groups in Europe).

      Whether it succeeds or not depends very much on how quick on its feet the Insurgents can be. I was browsing recently through a history of the Irish War of Independence and it was striking how modern military historians discount most of the memoirs that were the basis for the history. In reality, the IRA at the time changed their tactics multiple times in response to repeated set backs, and probably only succeeded because they had a counterintelligence genius in Michael Collins and some very smart political operators in the US who made it impossible for the British to do what they regularly did in the farther colonies. In Iraq, the insurgents had the big advantage of a lot of high level advice from the Iranians. In Afghanistan, the Taliban seem to have been pretty smart at recognising their own limitations and did what the US should have been doing – slowly working away to ‘turn’ or otherwise neutralise their Afghan opponents. Insurgents who have failed are usually those that lacked the ability to change tactic rapidly under changing circumstances and build on their own strengths. It will be interesting to see if the various Myanmar groups such as the Karen who have been fighting Rongoon for years will change their ways of operating to take advantage of the current situation.

    2. Darthbobber

      I would think that the Portuguese in Angola and the French in Algeria enjoyed a rather ambiguous success. Rather like a firefighting operation being pronounced “successful” in spite of the fact that its impossible to ever withdraw the firefighters without having the fire blaze up again. One might also point out that the political aspects of the French effort were the detonator for the collapse of the 4th Republic, as well as an abortive coup.

      And the Portuguese military efforts in their colonies were a major cause of the armed forces initiated revolution that brought the end of the dictatorship.

      I’d add the latter part of the Boer War, which was an unambiguously successful counterinsurgency in a purely military sense, but was concluded with a treaty so clearly favorable to the Boers that there would never have been a Boer War at all had the British been willing to make such concessions earlier.

    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      Interesting comment. Upon reflection, the article was indeed about condemning America for things, and not about “counterinsurgency” as a subject at all. If it were, it would have discussed various counterinsurgencies waged by various governments against various insurgencies at various times and places.

      The article may well go to show why America is uniquely unable and unfit to conduct counterinsurgency.

    4. drsteve0

      I’m confused, let’s see if I’ve got this straight. The counter insurgencies the French and Portuguese waged in those ‘A’ countries in Africa were so ‘successful’ that they ultimately, ‘finally lost’. M-Kay. Somehow in my naïveté I got the impression the real losers were the indigenous folk suffering from the onslaught of imperial colonialism, but what would I know. Any blowback the French et al. suffered was well deserved, as it is for ‘murica’.

  7. Dave in Austin

    Two caveats on the article: the “20% of the Philippines population killed” is suspect and I’d like a source; 1965 in Indonesia was purely a local affair aimed mainly at the Chinese and Sukarno’s attempt to make a “Red Guard” style alternative to the army. The US had essentially nothing to do with it (I’ve talked with people involved).

    COIN has a number of problems.

    The first is the “unsealable land border” issue. Algeria, Kenya, the Philipines and Malaya could be isolated from outside help; South Vietnam, Afghanistan and King Philips War are examples of the of the open border issue.

    Second, after the German atrocities in WWI Belgium and later against everybody in mainland Europe, the populations of all the western democracies had a visceral understanding of how someone with a heal on his or her neck felt. Colonial wars turned soft, and western civilians reading the news about COIN activities in Ireland, Algeria and Vietnam got queasy. The Third World didn’t go soft. Thus we got modern, post-colonial “Intranational Colonialism” and various ethnic cleansing and wars of conquest on behalf of majority group peasants in Irian Jaya, the Amazon, Myanmar… and least we forget… against the Montagnards by the land-hungry Vietnamese. The American-west-style expansion by high-birth-rate peasants wasn’t invented in the US and it continues.

    Third, urban revolutions have largely failed while rural ones have a chance to succeed. The US response to this “urban problem” was brilliant; we took the insights of Gene Sharp (look him up in Wikipedia- and read him) and turned them on their head to take down regimes we didn’t like. The US Institute of Peace wrote the book on color wars. Funded by Congress it is “Independent” and thus not subject to the FOIA, so don’t expect to read their books on tactics. By now the rest of the world has read Sharp and the USIP, knows the tricks, and responds to the tactics.

    1. caucus99percenter

      > The US had essentially nothing to do with it (I’ve talked with people involved).

      The U.S.’s own historical record (to the extent it’s been declassified) seems to strongly indicate that the people you refer to were, alas, taking advantage of your willingness to believe them and, in short, handing you a line of b.s.

      John Roosa is an associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and author of a seminal book on Indonesia in 1965. After reviewing the new documents and their media coverage this week, he told me that much “of the U.S. foreign policy establishment viewed it as a great victory that they were able to sort of ‘flip’ Indonesia very quickly.” Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest country by population size, and its communist party was the world’s third-largest, after China and the Soviet Union.

      Roosa added that a major problem with framing the events of 1965 is that it’s often claimed the United States simply “stood by,” as the bloodbath occurred, which is incorrect. “It’s easy for American commentators to fall into that approach, but the U.S. was part and parcel of the operation, strategizing with the Indonesian army and encouraging them to go after the PKI.”

      1. The Rev Kev

        The US Embassy in Indonesia gave the government there a hit-list of people to take out at the time so Indonesia must have been closely watched for years.

        1. Sameer Gupta

          The Jakarta Method has a quote from an interview with a state dept official in the 90s where they stated as much, in a pretty glib matter if I may add.

    2. Darthbobber

      Hard to see “going soft” as a valid description of how the US, France. and others went about their various wars. (French methodology in Algeria and ours in Indochina hardly take a back seat in brutality to earlier ventures).

      Also not much of an explanation for decolonization. The British headed rapidly for the exits in most of the empire because postwar Britain was neither economically nor militarily capable any longer of doing what it would take to sustain such a thing. Even with the substantial settler population in Algeria France not only suffered diplomatically and politically from the venture, but also couldn’t maintain long-term control without spending more in blood and treasure than anything the colony might be worth to them.

      Without willingness on the part of the United States to bankroll and militarily back the maintenance of their empires, the former colonial powers were manifestly incapable of doing so themselves.

      You may have talked with people involved in the events in Indonesia, but it is by now a matter of record that their recollection is “flawed”, to say the least.

  8. Darthbobber

    The first years of the Afghanistan operation could hardly be described as counterinsurgency of any kind, as there was initially no insurgency to counter. Between the nasty shakedowns instituted by the local poohbahs of our shiny new government, and the lunatic nature of our “terrorist hunting” raids, the United States and its puppet government actually created the conditions for an insurgency which we then decided to counter.

    One thing not often noted in discussions of counterinsurgency American-style is that the political and social aspect (reforms designed to win support from the population) never actually happens. Partly thats dictated by the choice of locals we invariably decide to deal with. The idea of the Diem or Thieu regimes in SVN ever implementing anything resembling land reform (or reform of any kind) was always laughable on the face of it.

    And the various gangs of thieves installed in Afghanistan, whether Karzai or Ghani served as the public face, were by no means amenable to doing much of anything for any part of the populace other than themselves and their hangers-on.

    But these are the sort of “allies” we invariably choose from the available options.

    Even on the military side, the United State will implement no strategy that might require significant casualties. (And in a war the public already doesn’t support it doesn’t take all that much in the way of casualties to be significant.) For example, deploying actual light infantry that might be able to maintain contact with the opponent when they disengaged was anathema. Even Ranger troops were loaded down with 40 to 60 pounds of gear. Most engagements happened when the Taliban was willing for them to happen and ended when they disengaged.

    And most of our tech warfare, intended to substitute for the politically unpalatable boots on the ground, was at least as good at producing new enemies as it was at disposing of existing ones.

    1. Alex

      Interestingly, the US did pressure some of their allies (Taiwan, Japan and S Korea) to implement land reform back in 1940s-1950s to decrease the appeal of communism for the rural population

    2. Anon

      World Peace is bad for business. It’s kind of like full-employment. We need enemies, like we need the reserve-army of the unemployed… and where there are none, we must create them. It’s a philosophical/moral imperative.

  9. Procopius

    The whole problem was summed up by one of the witnesses quoted in The Afghanistan Papers. He said when new troops arrived, they all asked him hot to tell the good guys from the bad guys. And it’s just like a joke I first heard around 2003: “There are some bad people in this world who want to kill us, so, of course, we have to kill them first, but they have friends and family who don’t like that so now they want to kill us, so we have to kill them first.”

  10. Jose Oliveira

    Given the historic defeats of american efforts for nation changes (USA has lost all wars since WWII), it’s astonishing that all these unsuccesses never led to an upgrade of tactics. Quite the opposite. The patterns have remained unchanged over and over again, as if they are immune to the consequencies of failure. Anyone suggests reasons for this absurdity????

    1. Anon

      Two… the Atlantic, and the Pacific… or perhaps the Mandate of Heaven? Also, victory is relative, depending on your objectives. I can’t imagine anyone in Afghanistan with a good head on their shoulders feels like a winner… perhaps more like a beaten wife, once her husband has passed out drunk.

    2. Starry Gordon

      Maybe they (the American ruling class etc.) didn’t really want to win. One difference between the older empires and that of the US is that, for the most part, the conquered provinces are not made into a part of the imperial state. The newer model evidently called for native leaders who had been bought off and would understand the rules of the new game. Although American leadership is grudgy, it comes around after awhile, and China and Vietnam and so forth become trading partners. When things go bad, the local population holds the local leadership responsible, heads are rolled and replaced, and the beat goes on.

  11. Dick Swenson

    The article from which the item in this blog was edited is interesting to read.

    One item from the 14th paragraph “Yet its political rigidity leads to an obsession with order, control, obedience and stability over participation, consent and change, which makes people the objects of policy in such a way that renders the incorporation of contextually specific and well-intentioned tactics largely irrelevant.” has relevance to another subject, the behaviour of police in the US.

    During the Black Lives Matter and other events the phrase “defund the police” arose. The phrase was a bad choice as it ignored what was really the problem, namely that the police motto “To Serve an Protect” never explained who was going to be served and protected.

    The police have a history and even mandates to protect governments, not citizens. And their techniques are just those noted in the item above – maintain order, control, obediance and stability. Police are an internal organization to manage populations.

    Governments seem to act in ways that develop insurgencies. Insurgencies then encourage governments to attempt to suppress insurgencies. We seem to be in a loop, be it local or global.

    1. JBird4049

      Slight quibble with the explanation for the creation of the police in the United States. It developed in two different regions under different missions.

      Modern policing in the American North developed from the hiring of police to protect local businesses from the poor whites and European immigrants, not blacks specifically in the late 19th century. The keys to the police telephone boxes were often given to local businesses and the upper classes, not to the working or poor classes. Head busting was done, but the total control that Southern policing had.

      The Great Migration of Blacks from the South of the early to mid 20th century with combined with the many Southern veterans took jobs in policing outside the South, brought a more brutal kind of policing, I think. Oakland, California is one example.

      I do not think it is an accident that some of the most brutal and militarized police departments, outside of the Portland Police Bureau, are in the South and in those cities that need a Black workforce during and the world wars and the boom years afterwards like Chicago, Detroit, Oakland, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

      More to the point, the police in those cities are often treated like an occupying army by the local Black residents, because they are acting like one. Some of the comments about the American military, the Taliban and the local Afghans remind me of those on the various poor communities, the gangs, and the police in the United States.

      IIRC, there were several terrorist or freedom fighter wanna organizations in the United States in the early 1970s, but the local communities they were in did not support them, so the government was able to destroy them. The water did not support the fishes using Mao’s metaphor.

      However, not trying to be hyperbolic here, but it almost looks like the government is getting ready to do COIN here in the States especially as they seem determine to repeat the failures of the past in government, war, and law enforcement.

  12. James McFadden

    The book “The Phoenix Program” by Douglas Valentine provides an in-depth study of why counter-insurgency failed in Vietnam. So many of the mistakes made there were repeated in Afghanistan and Iraq. Counterinsurgency can only deemed successful if the goal is to terrorize a population and fund the military industrial complex.

  13. HH

    Most Americans have no problem with unspeakable brutality inflicted on foreigners, as long as it is done by our “heroes” and it is dressed up with lies and favorable media coverage. The Good Americans, like their Good German counterparts in WWII, know what is going on in these foreign wars, and they sleep soundly. History shows that it takes a massive calamity to burn militarism out of a society. We are headed for such a calamity because we are led by cruel and stupid politicians who reflect the character of our nation. The myopic plutocrats who fund the American political circus are too obsessed with chasing their next billion to grasp that their cozy lives can vanish in the 30 minutes it takes for a nuclear exchange.

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