Insurgencies Rarely Win But Their Opponents Often Lose

Naval War College professor Donald Stoker has a provocative online piece for Foreign Policy with the self-explanatory title, “Insurgencies Rarely Win — And Iraq Won’t Be Any Different (Maybe).” The intro:

The cold, hard truth about the Bush administration’s strategy of “surging” additional U.S. forces into Iraq is that it could work. Insurgencies are rarely as strong or successful as the public has come to believe. Iraq’s various insurgent groups have succeeded in creating a lot of chaos. But they’re likely not strong enough to succeed in the long term. Sending more American troops into Iraq with the aim of pacifying Baghdad could provide a foundation for their ultimate defeat, but only if the United States does not repeat its previous mistakes.

Myths about invincible guerrillas and insurgents are a direct result of America’s collective misunderstanding of its defeat in South Vietnam. This loss is generally credited to the brilliance and military virtues of the pajama-clad Vietcong. The Vietnamese may have been tough and persistent, but they were not brilliant. Rather, they were lucky—they faced an opponent with leaders unwilling to learn from their failures: the United States. When the Vietcong went toe-to-toe with U.S. forces in the 1968 Tet Offensive, they were decimated. When South Vietnam finally fell in 1975, it did so not to the Vietcong, but to regular units of the invading North Vietnamese Army. The Vietcong insurgency contributed greatly to the erosion of the American public’s will to fight, but so did the way that President Lyndon Johnson and the American military waged the war. It was North Vietnam’s will and American failure, not skillful use of an insurgency, that were the keys to Hanoi’s victory.

Similar misunderstandings persist over the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan, the other supposed example of guerrilla invincibility. But it was not the mujahidin’s strength that forced the Soviets to leave; it was the Soviet Union’s own economic and political weakness at home. In fact, the regime the Soviets established in Afghanistan was so formidable that it managed to survive for three years after the Red Army left.

Blake Hounshell observes, correctly I think, that the strategic issues are subordinate to the political ones:

[J]ust when the Bush administration has finally developed a realistic strategy, the bottom is dropping out of the American public’s support for the war. Winning against an entrenched insurgency takes time, but time is the one thing the United States doesn’t have. We’re talking about an estimated 8-11 years, not the six more months that the pundits love to bat around.

This isn’t blaming the public for its impatience, simply an acknowledgment of the realities at hand. They have been exacerbated by the failure of the administration to persuade the public that a long-term effort in Iraq worth the attendant costs. Indeed, most of the talk in the months leading up to the invasion and the months after the fall of Saddam’s regime was of a quick transition to Iraqi self-governance.

It may well still be possible to salvage the political will to stick it out, although I’m doubtful. The “surge speech” was uninspiring and the polling shows it did nothing to move public opinion. Absent a quick turn of events, it’s hard to see how the landscape changes at this stage of the game.

UPDATE: Joe Carter is more pessimistic.

There is simply no foreseeable circumstance under which the American public will agree to fight long enough to defeat the insurgency. The war in Iraq has lasted almost three years. To a people that invented microwave popcorn, the soundbite, and Attention Deficit Disorder, three years is practically an eon.


Two months prior to the invasion a poll asked how long people thought the war in Iraq would last: 8 percent said days(!), 31 percent said weeks, 37 percent said months, 8 percent said “about a year”, and only 10 percent thought it would last longer than a year. More than three quarters of the public (76 percent) thought we’d be at war less than a year. Can you imagine the reaction if Bush has said the fight would last “8 to 11 years”? The insurgents knew they would ultimately defeat us because we told them all they had to do was hang on past the first year of fighting.

What is even more distressing than the fact that we have lost this war is that we are likely to lose the next one too. We have no interest in fighting in engagements that last longer than a season of 24. Given this reality our best option is simply to refuse to fight. Rather than engage in “pre-emptive wars” we should take a page out of France’s strategic playbook and make a habit of “preemptive surrender.”

While there’s much to this, I believe the public can be persuaded to fight long wars. The problem in Iraq has not been simply the duration of the commitment but the perception that the cost has been too high given the potential benefits. After selling the war as an exercise in ensuring Saddam Hussein did not develop nukes and sell them to terrorists, it was difficult to switch gears into nation building and counterinsurgency.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    What’s worse IMO the discussion of the surge is a distraction from the real, vitally important question: what then?

    Can anyone imagine circumstances under which both political parties aren’t running against Bush in 2008? (I said this in 2003 but was pooh-poohed at the time) Or that we won’t be trying to figure out how to disentangle ourselves from Iraq? I can’t.

    But we’ll continue to have interests in the region and Iraq-as-failed-state will adversely affect those interests and an Iraq divided into three autonomous or semi-autonomous states doesn’t do a thing to improve that.

    What do we do to secure those interests? Is that possible?

  2. cian says:


    650,000 troops have served in Iraq so far, and of that number over 170,000 have served 1+ tours. The ‘surge’ will be made up by extending the tours of those already in the country and by cutting short leave time for others in the states. Bush can ignore the will of the people as expressed through the November elections and confirmed by poll after poll, but he cannot withstand the effects of a broken army. The American public is long past the point where an inspiring speech will change anything. The facts are clear- 20,000 more troops is not a realistic response to a civil war of this ferocity. The Iraqi army has long been infiltrated by Shia militias and will not turn up when it is their districts to be cleared. The end game here will read more dead Americans and no progress other than whatever new lies the present administration can come up with.

  3. legion says:

    Bush can ignore the will of the people as expressed through the November elections and confirmed by poll after poll, but he cannot withstand the effects of a broken army.

    Regrettably, it is entirely possible that Bush can bully or bribe people into not admitting the Army is broken for a couple more years. At least the recent elections give me some hope that the American people won’t buy the GOP’s guaranteed line of “It’s the Dems’ fault” come Jan ’09 when they lose the White House too – I think they’ll remember that Iraq has been run exactly the way Bush has wanted to run it from Day 1…

  4. blake says:

    strange to hear an american military scholar talk about the ineffectiveness of insurgencies given the revolutionary history of the united states. the simple existence of this country is a testament to the contrary.

  5. James Joyner says:

    blake: The American War for Independence wasn’t an insurgency. It was, mostly, a conventional war between uniformed state armies observing the understood rules of the day. There were some elements of guerrilla warfare and even some low-grade terrorism, but that was ancillary to the main fight.

  6. MinorRipper says:

    Reading that article was a complete and total waste of time. I have learned that insurgencies sometimes succeed, and sometimes they don’t. Brilliant. How on earth did this ‘journalist’ get his job??