Lessons Learned in Counter-Insurgency

As the US military withdraws from Iraq and begins to wind down combat operations in Afghanistan, there will no doubt be a lengthy and painful reassessment of the doctrine, tactics and even roles and mission for the Army and Marine Corps.  Couple this with what are likely to be crippling budget cuts and the entire future of US ground forces becomes very cloudy.

Historically, the period after a major war, or when there are significant changes to warfare has caused a great deal in intellectual angst among military officers as they seek to understand the changes that are occurring and react accordingly.  These two books are excellent volumes to further that process, at least from a COIN perspective.

 Kilcullen's first volume, The Accidental Guerrilla, is part memoir, part lessons learned, and part instruction manual for conducting the sort of low-intensity conflict (LIC) and COIN operations the US military has traditionally been loath to conduct.  Kilcullen, an Australian army officer who became a major advisor to General David Petraus during his command of US forces in Iraq,  offers some historical insights to ethnic and religious guerrilla warfare, pointing out some significant differences from traditional Cold War communist insurgencies.  These differences, primarily resulting from the influence of religion, culture, and even geography, offer some fascinating insights into why US forces had such a difficult time recognizing the scale and threat of the Iraqi insurgency from mid-2003 until mid-2006.  Kilcullen's description of his service in East Timor offer additional insights on the role of military force in LIC operations such as "peacekeeping" or rather "peacemaking" where heavily armed Western armies try to keep lesser equipped foes from killing each other and everyone that gets in their way, ala Bosnia and Kosova in the late 1990s.  It concludes with some of Kilcullen's observations of the US efforts in Afghanistan in the 2006 time frame and his opinions on how to transfer the lessons from Iraq to the hills of Afghanistan.

His second volume is really more of a how-to guide for conducting COIN, or more specifically the newly minted "population-centric" COIN, where the use of light infantry units living among the population in a heavily urban setting is described in great detail, especially Kilcullen's 28 rules for successful COIN ops.  This volume also has some case study elements from Afghanistan but the basic principles could be applied by the company or field grade officer in a variety of situations.

Both of these volumes work well together and offer an excellent introduction to the changes and new face of COIN in the 21st century.  Kilcullen does an excellent job of explaining why today's guerrillas are vastly different from the Communist fighters for "national liberation" and are, in fact, even more dangerous due to the proliferation of cheap information technology to spread their propaganda and high quality weapons to increase their lethality on the battlefield.  Counterinsurgency should definitely be required reading for new company commanders as they grapple with the lessons learned from the last 10 years of warfare and help shape the future US Army and Marine Corps into the 2020s.

This begs a larger questions beyond this review essay of what the US military should be re-grouping, reequipping and retraining to do.  Hopefully, there will not be a reaction ala the post-Vietnam era where the military institutionalizes a desire to forget the last 10 years as an anomaly.  In the opinion of this Grouchy Historian, the US is much more likely in the next 10 years to be fighting narco-terrorists coming across the Mexican border rather than stopping the North Korean hordes sweeping down the 38th parallel.  As the US begins to reorient its military focus to the Pacific and begin to emphasis air and naval power, the ground forces face a tremendous need to retool and rebuild after nearly 10 years of continuous combat. 

The question will be-do we rebuild a heavily armored, mechanized force like we did in the 1980s, the one that won the First Gulf War and wiped out the Iraqi military in three weeks?  Or do we build a highly, mobile, but more lightly mechanized force ala Don Rumsfeld to react to smaller operations, like securing Pakistan's nuclear weapons and that country breaks apart into Islamic anarchy....which I think is truly the most important and dangerous mission the US military is likely to face in the next 10 years.

Whichever road is taken will have huge implications for the security of US and our allies.  Reading these two books gives a basic introduction to what the US military has learned and accomplished over the last 10 years and offers a valuable guide to being and decide where we go from here.