This brief essay attempts to address the problems of identifying relevant historical lessons to countering an insurgency.
The illustrations most often used to describe success in counterinsurgency are the British experience in Malaya and the American experience in the Philippines. Conversely, the French experiences in Vietnam and Algeria, aside from some tactical innovations, are considered to be cautionary tales in how not to conduct counterinsurgency operations.
When one reads the myriad of news reports and analysis, it is easy to get the impression that by making (what we believe to be) correct historical similarities, we can therefore correctly identify and isolate both the components of the insurgency and the correct methodology for countering it (as opposed to “combating” it).
The British example in Malaya is clear example of precision labeling in identifying the “kind of war” that one is fighting (notice the inference to Clausewitz?). The British used the term “Emergency” to mobilize the desired government agencies, police and military organizations to prosecute the counterinsurgency effort. ‘Prosecute’ appears to be the best description of events because of the British emphasis on the rule of law and the heavy use and primacy of police in all its operations and engagement strategies. This is not to say that the military was not used, on the contrary, they were; however, they played a secondary role and were subordinate in many cases to other agencies and departments.
The American experience in the Philippines can primarily be attributed to Magsaysay through his effective leadership, military and governmental reforms. Military operations were subordinate to the goal of winning the support of the people, not only in tactics, but in behavior. A detail often overlooked by US analysts, is the fact that the Philippine Army had not been created entirely in the image of the US Army. Thus it was not indoctrinated with conventional US solutions, tactical doctrine and organizations. All of these “force multipliers” were never fully understood by US Commanders that believed in large full scale military operations that depended heavily on the use of superior firepower and felt that the best model for success was the historical examples of WW II.
What does this mean for those that intend to use the historical lessons learned? The first question that must be asked is what is unique about the kind of insurgency being faced? What kind of insurgency is this? Where is the “white noise” that seemingly distracts one’s ability to root out and identify the root cause? Once both the kind of war that being fought and the factors that make the particular counterinsurgency unique have been identified, questions can be asked of what lessons are transferable from previous experiences to this new situation.
In essence, some general lessons of success from the Malayan Experience and the Philippine experience can be articulated as follows:
· Military operations are subordinate to and dominated by political objectives; this includes behavior and tactics
· Solid intelligence from the civilian sources that is vetted and validated by multiple sources drives military operations if those operations support political objectives
· Small unit tactics reign supreme; small unit night patrols, ambushes, long range reconnaissance and commando squads, combined with a careful targeting of psychological warfare and information operations based on solid intelligence.
· Live with and mingle with the population; leaders must constantly review the element of risk to the force. “Going Native” early and quickly will mitigate that risk.
· Avoid the pitfalls’ of “do-goodism”; throwing resources and “largess” at a problem without participation and support of the people/government/population in the entire decision making process creates no confidence or support in the reforms or programs.
Lastly, remember that these are general historical lessons and estimates. How and if these lessons can be applied to say Iraq or Afghanistan needs to be carefully weighed against the questions we posed earlier: What is unique about this new and particular situation? What experience and lessons can be transferred? How do we adapt the appropriate general lessons to a unique situation?
For comparison; the two tanks in the middle are cold war era soviet tanks. The tank facing you on the right is a Soviet T54/55 series tank. The bore evacuator is at the end of the gun tube. The tank on the left is a soviet T-62. There are many variants of both vehicles and sometimes the location of the bore evacuator is not a good indication that you have correctly identified the tank. Other considerations include road wheel spacing, machine gun type mounted on the turret, location of infra-red lights, search lights and other equipment fixed on the hull or turret