April 1, 2013  

Let’s not try that again: Why you can’t win someone else’s counterinsurgency

The United States has had great success fighting conventional wars as a third party. In World Wars I and II, as well as the Korean War, the U.S. fought with coalitions, defeated enemies that (except for Japan) did not directly attack the United States, and ultimately returned sovereignty to the belligerent nations.

The U.S. has met less success in the irregular wars of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Although writers such as Andrew Krepinevich, John Nagl and Max Boot argue that counterinsurgencies can be won with the right tactics and interagency support, the fact remains that a third party has rarely managed to use large-scale forces to defeat an insurgency. After spending more than $2 trillion and 65,000 lives during 40 combat-years, the U.S. needs to determine what is possible, so that policymakers do not again squander precious resources in wars that cannot be won.

the historical record

Many COIN experts cite British and French conduct in Malaya and Algeria, respectively, as examples of successful operations. Although both countries were third parties with respect to the indigenous population, the British and the French were colonial rulers of long standing and had total control of the political and military aspects of their operations. Furthermore, in Malaya, the insurgents were mostly Chinese, did not have an effective sanctuary and never numbered more than 7,000. Moreover, the British moved 15 percent of the local population into camps. In Algeria, David Galula claimed that the National Liberation Front was neutralized by 1960, but in 1962, 98 percent of Algerians voted for independence instead of remaining a French colony. Others might point to the U.S. defeat of the insurgency in the Philippines in the early 20th century, but there, too, the U.S. was the de facto government. Moreover, the methods used would not withstand public scrutiny today. With these counterexamples disposed of, we can look at the structural issues of large-scale, third-party COIN to understand why it is a bad choice.

The differing political constructs of conventional and irregular war are the primary reason why the U.S. has been successful fighting the former, but not the latter. In conventional war, victory is achieved through military force alone, while in irregular war, political objectives must be achieved through military and nonmilitary efforts. In conventional war, the population is to be avoided until hostilities cease, while in irregular war, the population is both a key tool and a center of gravity.

Because the U.S. chooses to fight insurgencies as a third party, the host-nation government should lead the political side of the effort. Dividing that which must be unified — political command — with language, religious and incentive barriers creates an insurmountable problem. Moreover, as a foreign military, the U.S. creates what COIN expert Dave Kilcullen called “accidental guerrillas.” The phenomenon is seen in the way al-Qaida uses the presence of U.S. forces in a foreign country to recruit locals into insurgency. In Afghanistan, locals protested and attacks spiked after last year’s Koran-burning incident. In Iraq, the Abu Ghraib scandal had similar effect.

Although Kilcullen described accidental guerrillas as a local problem and prescribed tactics and techniques to minimize the effect, al-Qaida has successfully used such incidents in one country to motivate potential recruits in other countries. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, al-Qaida was centralized in Afghanistan and had a small presence in East Africa. Both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri used the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan as a recruiting tool.

Today, multiple terrorist organizations have joined the cause: al-Qaida in the Arabic Peninsula, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaida in Iraq, al-Shabab in Somalia, Abu Sayyaf Group and Jemaah Islamiah. The U.S. is currently supporting a French military intervention in Mali meant to destroy AQIM. The creation of AQ-Iraq, which drew many fighters from Benghazi, Libya, some of whom were involved in the U.S. consulate attack last Sept. 11, is one example of how the physical presence of the U.S. military in a foreign country was used to recruit forces and expand a global problem with negative political consequences for the United States.

Another major issue with large-scale intervention is that the U.S. spends so much money attempting to save a local government that it destroys its legitimacy. Instead of a tactical “grenade” or weapon in the hands of local commanders, money becomes a weapon of mass disruption. In 2008, Sens. Byron Dorgan and Sheldon Whitehouse wrote: “In our estimation, the theft, conversion or other misappropriation of U.S.-provided funds and supplies by Iraqi government officials severely undermines our troops’ mission in Iraq. … It is even more outrageous when these resources are diverted to our enemies and help finance, arm and equip attacks against American soldiers.”

In Afghanistan, whose GDP is about $30 billion, the U.S. is spending about $60 billion per year. The government, not coincidentally, is ranked the fourth-most corrupt, just ahead of North Korea, Myanmar and Somalia. U.S. COIN doctrine states that maintaining culturally accepted levels of corruption is a necessary condition for legitimacy; if large-scale U.S. economic aid boosts corruption, such efforts are doomed.

Even if the U.S. again finds the political will and fiscal solvency to spend $500 billion on a war of choice for 10 years, and manages to do so in a country where the host nation government is honest, it is still uncertain that a third party can win if a large-scale force is required. As FM 3-24, the COIN field manual, puts it: “The government that is being targeted generally takes awhile to recognize that an insurgency is occurring … so counterinsurgents often have to ‘come from behind.’”

The U.S. response to playing “catch up” has been to use brigades to destroy the enemy, build indigenous security forces and promote governance. However, if such a large force is required, the military will become the dominant force in terms of security and resources, and will therefore have to do many nonmilitary activities. This situation, Galula said, is “so dangerous that it must be resisted at all costs.”

A Lighter Touch

Fortunately, there is a way that the U.S. can use military force to fight another country’s insurgency for 10 to 20 years, at low cost, while minimizing the chance for accidental guerrillas and corruption. Small-scale advisory efforts are the only way the U.S. can maintain a military partnership that will last long enough to achieve American objectives. Dubbed COIN Lite, the use of military advisers from either the conventional or special operations forces has proved successful in helping sovereign nations fight an insurgency.

In El Salvador, Congress limited the number of U.S. advisers to 55 and spent about $1 billion over 14 years. During the Huk Rebellion in the Philippines, Col. Edward Lansdale led a 20-man advisory force (later expanded to 58) and disbursed less than $1 billion (in today’s dollars) to the Filipino Army, which defeated the insurgents. In Colombia, the U.S. has had an enduring presence since the 1980s. Plan Colombia, which over 10 years cost the same as two weeks in Iraq, has helped the Colombians weaken the FARC to the point where the insurgent group has asked for peace negotiations.

Such operations leverage U.S. expertise and intelligence support while allowing domestic leadership to emerge, as was the case with Ramon Magsaysay in the Philippines and Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, without causing widespread corruption or disincentivizing local forces from fighting.

By only sending an advisory force, the U.S. assumes the risk that the host nation government will be militarily defeated. Yet if the U.S. sends a large force to fight on their behalf, the partner nation cannot win. Because insurgency is largely a political problem, U.S. policy must be calibrated around what the local government can achieve, not what the U.S. military advertises it can do in a year.

As the U.S. and al-Qaida adapt their global postures, it is imperative that America take to heart the adage that good tactics cannot overcome the political-strategic failure of using the military in the wrong way. Al-Qaida will continue to bait the U.S. with operations such as the hostage-taking in Algeria, and opportunities to get involved in foreign unrest will continue to emerge, such as France’s request that the U.S. support operations in Libya and Mali. Limited force can accomplish limited objectives: Rescue hostages, destroy enemy facilities, leaders and formations, and enable foreign militaries to do the same.


Large-scale, third-party COIN is a type of warfare that puts the U.S. at a disadvantage along virtually every line of operation and one that it has never decisively won. The U.S. military has never, and will never, be an appropriate substitute for a foreign population’s unwillingness to fight internal threats or inability to govern effectively.

U.S. policy toward assisting other nations to deal with insurgency should be predicated on a promise to the American people that what we send will be of minimal help to the enemy’s propaganda machine, will require the host nation to demonstrate a level of political and popular will that is congruent with our own, and, most importantly, will persist until our policy objectives have been achieved.