Unfinished Business

Are We Ready to Close the Gaps in American Counterinsurgency Strategy?

On the heels of the 40th anniversary of America’s departure from Vietnam, a reflection on the past is appropriate. In honor of this occasion I found myself revisiting David Halberstam’s Best and the Brightest. Multiple dissertations could be written over individual components of the book, including Halberstam’s detailed portraits and backgrounds of the key decision-makers involved in run-up and execution of the Vietnam War.

For the purposes of brevity and clarity, this paper focuses on two related problems noted throughout the book: the inherent limitations of foreign militaries in counter-insurgencies, and the challenges associated with selecting and training local security forces.

Consider this lingering thought from General Taylor in the 1960s:

White-faced soldier, armed, equipped and trained as he is, is not a suitable guerilla fighter for Asian forests and jungles…finally there would be [the] ever present question of how foreign soldiers would distinguish between a VC and a friendly Vietnamese farmer…I am convinced that we should adhere to our past policy of keeping our ground forces out of direct counterinsurgency roles.

Taylor rightfully highlights the difficulty of ferreting out antagonists in a foreign environment. Some forty years later, aided by the technological superiority of Power Point, U.S. Army Captain Travis Patriquin created a modern, cartoon update on this thought.

While Patriquin’s modulation may be less eloquent than General Taylor’s, it reflects a continued effort to force a change in the U.S. Army’s institutional learning process.

As Patriquin went on to explain in his infamous Power-Point presentation, there are inherent gaps when the U.S. (or any foreign) military is aiding in a counter-insurgency campaign. They are an outside force without the depth of familiarity that residents accrue over a lifetime. Thus it is easy for insurgents to slip into villages and coerce/threaten/antagonize locals. If there were infinite resources, the U.S. military could post a garrison of soldiers in each village and rely on local tips to capture the enemy. But COIN is a messy affair, and human and material resources are quite limited.

With limits on the total number of forces deployed, force protection considerations, and logistical support in mind, soldiers cannot possibly forward-deploy to nearly enough villages to serve as a constant deterrent. Furthermore, there are no guarantees even when there is a standing foreign force guarding a local community that there will be goodwill and cooperation between the two parties, but that is another matter altogether.

Broadly, firepower is less important than trustworthiness…

So the critical gap remains. Short of turning every village and locality into a bristling civilian militia, the remaining solution is to rely on local security forces. More specifically, local police forces drawn from each particular community are the ideal. Broadly, firepower is less important than trustworthiness and a true knowledge to, and connection with, the community the security force is patrolling. But again, counter-insurgency is not as simple as finding X number of bodies to wear police uniforms and waiting for everything to resolve itself.

Finding competent, loyal personnel to staff the fledgling security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan has been one of the largest stumbling blocks in our recent counterinsurgency efforts. Unfortunately this aspect has received insufficient discussion in counter-insurgency circles until the last minute of when policy-makers turned to local forces as a substitute for a quick American exit-strategy. It would appear that the main reason for the lack of discussion is that there are no easy answers.

President Karzai and Prime Minister Maliki alike were wary of the militias belonging to local power-brokers

Policy-makers were faced with similar challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan: groups broadly fell into the categories of those associated with the old regime, militias belonging to various warlords/elders/etc., and a remainder without particularly strong alliances. President Karzai and Prime Minister Maliki alike were wary of the militias belonging to local power-brokers, and by and large the national security forces were selected for loyalty to the capital over competence and trustworthiness at the village/district level. We have seen the by-product of this course of action twice now with limited results.

Now that two iterations of doctrine have been issued (FM 3–24) and a handful of memoirs have tackled counterinsurgency, the debate has tapered off and the military seems more than willing to move back to conventional warfare yet again. But for me there are too many unanswered questions (and as found in Best and the Brightest, they are not new by any means) that we will inevitably face again in the future, and none of us can afford to bury the topic.

As we saw in Iraq, a lackluster force with superior tanks, trucks, and weaponry can still fold before an energetic opposition.

Many differing battles lines have been staked out on counter-insurgency, but the biggest challenge in my eyes is how we select, train, and partner with host-nation security forces. The traditional model of having U.S. military forces shoulder the load for years because host-nation security forces are not up to the standard, and then rushing to turn everything to them when the conflict loses popularity and steam has been a failure to date. More funds and resources need to be devoted to local security forces from the outset. More importantly, we need to establish clear and effective vetting procedures to make sure that we have the right personnel from the outset. As we saw in Iraq, a lackluster force with superior tanks, trucks, and weaponry can still fold before an energetic opposition.

Lastly, I am aware that there is no clear-cut solution. There will not be an inter-agency framework, model, and check-sheet for finding and supplying moderate, pro-American security forces abroad. Further discussion is necessary on how to ensure the stability of new political leaders in fractured countries without sacrificing the trust and safety of the rural populations. Furthermore, recognizing the highly political nature of counter-insurgency, this conversation is not exclusive to the Department of Defense. The intelligence community (especially in the vetting stage), and State Department need to all strive towards a unity of effort. While this is all easy to write out on paper, it seems all but impossible to facilitate in person. Nevertheless, the first step is admitting that we do not have the answers right now. And for that reason we cannot afford to let the counterinsurgency debate fall to the wayside.

Daniel Glickstein holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Security Studies from the Univeristy of Oklahoma and served with the Army National Guard in Afghanistan in 2011. His writings have previously appeared in Parameters Magazine. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: U.S. Army Sgt. instructing Iraqi soldiers on individual movement techniques | Photo by Sgt. Shawn Miller, U.S. Army