TCS: Counterinsurgency and the American Way of War

My latest piece, “Counterinsurgency and the American Way of War,” is up at Tech Central Station.

The conclusion:

The problem in Vietnam and Iraq is not so much that the U.S. military is bad at counterinsurgency but that insurgencies are incredibly hard to defeat. Whereas a conventional force fights in the open and can be taken on directly, an insurgency fights piecemeal and hides among the civilian population. This puts the counterinsurgency force — especially a foreign power — at a great disadvantage. On the one hand, they can go in full force to kill insurgents and almost certainly kill innocents, alienating the local population whose support is desperately needed. On the other, being too patient allows the insurgents to continue their reign of terror, not only killing friendly soldiers but also creating the impression that the host government and/or its foreign backers cannot keep order.

A professional military can defeat an insurgency despite these obstacles but, unfortunately, they can not do it quickly. In a society that demands fast results, that time is usually not a luxury the military has. This is even more true in an age of 24/7 television and the constant clamoring of pundits on the tube, talk radio, and blogs. Add to that an increasingly hostile partisan atmosphere and a never-ending campaign cycle, which means that politics no longer end at the water’s edge, the pressure is even stronger.

The bottom line is that the United States military is pretty good at counterinsurgency. The American public, however, is not.

More at the link.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Iraq War, Military Affairs, Published Elsewhere, , , , , , ,
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. Mike says:

    I agree; perhaps politicians shouldn’t promise quick results (“greeted as liberators”, etc…) and then be surprised when people are disappointed.

  2. odograph says:

    I’ve only quicly scanned the full article, but I agree with about half the conclusion.

    Before I tackle my half-disagreement, I’ll name a couple other obvious difficulties: the whole “suicide” bomber effect really cuts into the effectiveness of “stop or I’ll shoot.”
    And, referencing back to threads about capital punishments, if extremists consider executions to make martyrs (with heavenly rewards), it cuts into the cuts into the effectiveness of that “deterrent.”

    But the missing piece in the conclusion is that the critical factor in defeating an insurgency is the social structure in the target country – not here.

    You need two things for success, a military to fight the insurgents (we’ve got that), and a cohesive “majority government” to emerge out of the conflict.

    Isn’t the lack of a cohesive majority the real problem here?

  3. James Joyner says:

    Odo: It’s certainly part of the problem but the insurgency and terrorist activity are undermining that effort.

    Still, in the grand scheme of things, the current constitution has pretty strong support among Shia and Kurds and there’s growing acceptance on part of the Sunnis. Security is more an issue than cohesiveness.

  4. odograph says:


    The training of Iraqi security forces has suffered a big “setback” in the last six months, with the army and other forces being increasingly used to settle scores and make other political gains, Iraqi Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer said Monday.

    The guy doesn’t want us to leave, but things like this make it hard to picture who we are protecting, as well as who we are fighting.

    If you fight back after your village is attaced by government security forces, are you a terrorist?

    more here:

  5. odograph says:


    You are driving along when you feel a tire going flat. You keep driving. Your wife says “aren’t you going to pull over and fix it.” You say, “nobody ever talks about the good news. we still have three full tires.”

    … stay the course.

  6. Chris Batchelor says:

    I do not think the level of intelligence or ingenuity of the counterinsurgency operations in Iraq are as high as the insurgency. This level of ingenuity needs to be matched or exceed before significant success is made. Driving vehicles down street openly and not using stealth is an example of our incompetence, or disregard for the life of the military man. Since it is apparent that the Iraqi forces are full of info leaks to the insurgency, then it would be possible to take advantage of this to strategically annihilate the insurgency. Not that we need to find out who is leaking, but provide the info which gets leaked. We can bait the enemy, but the US leadership needs to be crafty enough to think on their feet like the insurgency, or like the American colonists in 1776. But instead the US Army has de-evolved to a military of leaders who can do not much more than plug numbers into formulas, and plug equipment in.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Odo: Ultimately, wars are fought to achieve political objectives and they are lost if we lose the will to fight prior to winning. In Vietnam–which I would argue was likely not winnable in a political sense anyway–the U.S. military never lost a major battle but we nonetheless lost the war.

    My piece isn’t an argument either way on Iraq. It’s just a response to the charge that the U.S. military isn’t tactically good at small wars.

  8. James Joyner says:

    CB: Remember, though, counterinsurgency is not the main mission for U.S. forces in Iraq. We’re rebuilding an infrastructure, training indigenous forces, helping set up a government, and so forth. Those tasks generally require being there in the open but using security measures.

  9. McGehee says:

    I agree; perhaps politicians shouldn’t promise quick results (“greeted as liberators”, etc…)

    I’d like a link to a transcript where anybody promised this — and a Democrat claiming there’d been such a promise doesn’t count.

  10. odograph says:

    James – with regard to “commitment”

    There is a sad undertone to all this that a 6-12 “commitment” is all anyone in Washington, Republican or Democrat, is willing to make.

    I think that grows out of how far we can stretch the non-draft army.

    … and if it’s true … the outcome is determined.

  11. James Joyner says:


    Maybe so. Of course, one presumes that we’d reach that point even faster with a draft army since the “well, they volunteered for it” argument goes out the door.

    I still believe Americans are willing to fight a sustained war if they think the stakes are high enough. As Iraq has devolved into a long nation building exercisewith the drip-drip-drip of casualties, it has been harder to sustain the view that it’s worth it.

  12. anjin-san says:

    Maybe we should just stay out of countries where we have no business being…

  13. odograph says:

    That’s the ying and yang of it. Bush knew that if he asked for a draft and a war he wouldn’t have gotten either. So he went for the war without the draft.

    Basically he needed those rosy troop requirement estimates, in order to make the war work.

    I’ve worried that there might be a parallel between those estimates and what I’ve seen in the computer software industry. It goes like this:

    A company has a problem and calls in prospective engenering managers to discuss it. The first candidate estimates a 3 year project. That’s way too much, so they keep looking. A few more guys come in and estimate 1.5 to 2 years. Looking better! Finally one guy comes in, says everyone else is an idiot, and he can do it in 6 months.

    It should be obvious that this ‘flier’ in the optimistic direction is dangerous, but time and again companies will hire “six month guy” who then turns out to be a liar and/or an idiot himself.

    Who did we get as generals on this, moderates with the consensus view, or the “most optimistic?”

    (see also “the winner’s curse”)