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Diplomacy and Conflict • Guerrilla Warfare

A relatively new style of warfare employed to defeat an organized rebellion or revolutionary movement that aims to bring down and replace established governmental authority. Among the more confusing terms relating to the practice of warfare, counterinsurgency implies both the purpose of military operations and methods selected. U.S. interest in counterinsurgency soared in 2005 as it became increasingly apparent that an insurgency was gravely undermining the efforts of the United States and its allies to establish a new regime in Iraq after the 2003 Anglo-American-led invasion and occupation. To a somewhat lesser degree, a revived Taliban movement has also hindered U.S. progress in nation building in Afghanistan, and counterinsurgency tactics are being employed there as well.

Background and Early Applications of Counterinsurgency

Understanding the term counterinsurgency requires an appreciation of its logical opposite, insurgency. Counterinsurgency originated as a conceptual response to the spread of insurgencies, particularly as carried out by anticolonialist or communist movements during the Cold War from the late 1940s to the 1980s. Insurgents typically lack such key sources of power as financial wealth, a professional military, or advanced weaponry that are available to established regimes or governments. Consequently, insurgents adopt asymmetric tactics and strategies that focus on avoidance of direct combat until such time as governmental power have been gravely weakened. Instead, skillful insurgents blend an array of methods including propaganda, attacks on public institutions and infrastructure, the creation of secret support networks, and use of unconventional or guerrilla combat tactics. By these means, insurgents can whittle away at the strength of existing regimes or occupying powers while slowly increasing their own capabilities.

U.S. interest in counterinsurgency, sometimes referred to as counterrevolutionary warfare, grew during the Vietnam War. Efforts to defeat the Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam were considered important but more often than not took a back seat to the conduct of conventional military operations against the People's Army of Vietnam (North Vietnamese Army). With the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, however, the U.S. military resumed focusing on conventional war, and the study of counterinsurgency by the United States Army waned. Even with the end of the Cold War in 1991, the United States military did not regard the study of counterinsurgency as equally important to the mastery of conventional combat.

To many, Operation DESERT STORM in Iraq in 1991 justified the American focus on conventional combat. The Persian Gulf War provided an awesome demonstration of U.S. military proficiency and technology. Indeed, American dominance was so compelling that it may have dissuaded future potential opponents from attempting to challenge American might on any conventional battlefield. One result of this was perhaps to encourage adversaries to attack U.S. interests by asymmetric means, such as guerrilla insurgency tactics or terror. There was also a growing perception among enemies of the United States that American politicians and military leaders were extremely uncomfortable in situations in which they could not bring superior conventional military power to bear. The deaths of 18 U.S. Army soldiers on October 3–4, 1993, during a raid against a renegade warlord in Somalia may have been the exception that proved the rule. Largely a product of events in Somalia, the casualty-averse posture of U.S. forces in subsequent peacekeeping missions in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo during the 1990s tended to reinforce the view that Americans were reluctant to suffer any casualties in scenarios short of unconstrained conventional combat.

The startling terror attacks on U.S. soil on September 11, 2001, led to a swift reorientation in American military thinking. The immediate American response was to strike against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that had provided refuge for Al Qaeda terrorists who claimed responsibility for the attacks. Informed by its own support for the mujahideen guerrilla resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s, the United States decided to rely as much as possible on small teams of special operations forces, which would support allied indigenous forces with cutting-edge technologies, rather than on massed conventional forces. The fall of the Taliban regime within three months now placed American forces in the position of stabilizing a fledgling regime under Hamid Karzai.

Revival of Counterinsurgency

Very soon the tools of counterinsurgency would prove most relevant in Afghanistan against surviving remnants of the Taliban that found sanctuary along the Pakistani frontier. One important measure taken was the creation and deployment of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, known as PRTs, beginning in 2003. These combined a small number of military specialists with representatives of various U.S. or other foreign governmental agencies possessing expertise in diplomacy, policing, agriculture, and other fields relevant to the process of fostering security and development. Found to be effective in Afghanistan in extending governmental reach to remote areas, the concept soon found application in Iraq as well.

In the meantime, the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, while initially marking another triumph of conventional operations, did not result in a smooth transition to a stable civilian government. Indeed, coalition forces in Iraq soon faced a formidable counterinsurgency challenge for which neither military nor civilian officials had fully prepared. In fact, many critics maintain that the early failure to establish public order, restore services, and identify local partners provided the insurgency with an interval of chaos that enabled it to organize and grow. Sectarian leaders and their militias began to assert influence, and Al Qaeda fighters infiltrated key provinces in anticipation of a new struggle to come.

By 2005, spreading ethnic and religious violence in Iraq resulted in the deaths of many civilians as well as local governmental and security personnel. Suicide bombings as well as the remote detonation of so-called improvised explosive devices (IEDs) became signature tactics of the Iraqi insurgency. Furthermore, repeated attacks on United Nations personnel and foreign relief workers caused a virtual suspension of outside aid to the Iraqi people.

Recognition of the need to focus on counterinsurgency methods led to a vitally significant effort to publish a military doctrinal manual on the subject. An initial indicator of the official shift in U.S. military thinking was the release of Department of Defense Directive 3000–05 on November 28, 2005, which specifically acknowledged responsibility for planning and carrying out so-called support and stability operations essential to any counterinsurgency campaign. Under the leadership of Lieutenant General David Petraeus during his tenure as Commander, Combined Arms Center, and Commandant of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 2006–2007, a team of writers and practitioners with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan undertook a crash project to draft, revise, and publish the new manual.

General Petraeus and Counterinsurgency

In his opening address to the Combat Studies Institute 2006 Military History Symposium on August 8, 2006, Petraeus set forth several points of emphasis of the soon-to-be-published U.S. Army Field Manual 3–24 (also known as U.S. Marine Warfighting Publication No. 3–33.5) titled Counterinsurgency. Asserting that T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) had figured out the essentials of counterinsurgency during World War I, Petraeus contended that any prospect of success depended upon identifying capable local leaders, providing them necessary assistance without doing the hard work for them, fostering the development of public institutions, forming a partnership with existing security forces, and maintaining a flexible and patient outlook. In other words, counterinsurgency would require far more of military leaders than the performance of traditional and familiar combat tasks. Petraeus himself had practiced these principles in Iraq, where in late 2004 he served as the first commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, which focused on the training of local personnel to become civilian and military leaders in Iraq.

Officially released in December 2006, Counterinsurgency attracted great attention in the press and conveyed the impression that the military was not stuck in an outmoded mindset. Rather, U.S. Army and Marine Corps leaders on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq became increasingly adaptive and creative in the search for improved solutions to the problem of combating insurgency where nation building was still very much in progress. Counterinsurgency devoted a majority of its eight chapters and five appendices to tasks other than warfare. Lengthy sections also related to ethics, civilian and military cooperation, cultural analysis, linguistic support, the law of war, and ethical considerations.

Of course, the Army and Marine Corps had not ignored the principles of counterinsurgency before the new doctrine was published. However, publication signaled to the American public and the United States Congress that the military was wholly committed to the implementation of counterinsurgency principles. Since the end of 2007, the implementation of this new counterinsurgency doctrine began to bear fruit, as there was a sizable reduction in violence in most parts of Iraq beginning in the fourth quarter of the year. This was also due to the Bush administration's troop surge, which also began in 2007.

Counterinsurgency Efforts since 2007

In January 2007, President George W. Bush increased in the number of American troops in Iraq to provide security to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province. Bush ordered the deployment of more than 20,000 soldiers into Iraq, five additional brigades, and sent the majority of them into Baghdad. He also extended the tour of most of the Army troops in country and some of the Marines. In 2008, according to most polls, the majority of Americans thought the troop increase was effective and successful in stabilizing the war in Iraq. After taking office in January 2009, President Barack Obama reluctantly continued the surge until the military agreed that the situation had been turned around.

By 2010, the situation in Iraq had been substantially stabilized, allowing the Obama administration to begin a draw down of troops from that country, which was completed in December 2011. Unfortunately, however, the Iraqi government faced a resurgence of sectarian and terrorist violence during 2013–2017. That threatened to plunge the country into political crisis and civil war. By 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had taken root in Iraq, seizing large swaths of territory, particularly to the north and west of Baghdad. ISIS soon threatened the viability of the Iraqi government, and in the late summer of 2014, the United States cobbled together an international coalition designed to contain and degrade the ISIS insurgency, chiefly by way of airstrikes.

When that effort yielded only modest results, the Obama administration stepped up its anti-ISIS efforts in Iraq, to include the deployment of special operations troops trained to wage counterinsurgency warfare. By late 2015, the fight against ISIS had achieved more success in Iraq, although the fight was far from over. Meanwhile, the United States and its coalition partners had expanded the fight against ISIS into Syria. In the autumn of 2015, Russia staged its own intervention in Syria. By late 2017, ISIS has been virtually defeated in Iraq. In Syria, it controlled only small pockets of territory. Nevertheless, coalition troops remained in Iraq and Syria into 2018, and the civil war in Syria continued.

The situation in Afghanistan continued to deteriorate after 2009. There the Taliban and Al-Qaeda-led insurgency compelled Obama to reluctantly approve a troop surge to that nation comprised of 33,000 additional soldiers and marines in December 2009. The success of the surge was at best mixed, but as promised, Obama withdrew those forces from Afghanistan by September 2012. There were, however, more than 60,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan at the end of 2012. The White House remained largely silent about the surge, clearly an indication that it was not terribly successful. The surge did not work for several reasons. First, the Afghan government under Hamid Karzai never truly supported the initiative, and if anything it became less cooperative with America's strategy as the surge unfolded. Second, Pakistan, where many insurgents were hiding, did not crack down on insurgent strongholds along the Afghan frontier. Third, the Afghan army was neither able nor willing to control areas that had been cleared of insurgents by U.S. forces. Fourth, the surge should have been larger, and scheduled for a longer lifespan, something that the Obama administration was unwilling to do.

Afghanistan remained uncertain and shaky, and the Karzai regime did little to stabilize the country. In November 2013, the Americans and Afghans agreed on a bilateral security pact that would allow a gradual draw-down of American troops, but would give to the United States the right to determine the exact number of forces that would remain in Afghanistan for some unspecified period of time after December 2014. These troops would continue to train Afghan army and security forces and would participate in anti-terror and counterinsurgency operations against terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda. Karzai, however, refused to sign the agreement. Karzai's successor, Haider al-Abadi, finalized the status of forces agreement in September 2014. The NATO combat mission ended in December 2014, but the United States and NATO continued to station more than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after that date, in recognition that the Afghan insurgency remained a significant problem. Foreign forces will likely remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, as that nation continues to be wracked by extremist insurgency activity and a weak government.

Further Reading

Keegan, John. The Iraq War. New York: Knopf, 2004; Kitson, Frank. Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping. London: Faber and Faber, 1971; Nagl, John A. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

MLA Citation

Baumann, Robert. "Counterinsurgency." World at War: Understanding Conflict and Society, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldatwar.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1246046. Accessed 21 Apr. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2180538

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