International Affairs Forum:
You present a model in your book that describes patterns in American insurgency conflicts through its history. Would you expand on that?
Dr. John J. Tierney, Jr.:
The pattern of behavior when America has become involved in protracted insurgencies is remarkably similar to the situation in Iraq right now and that of Vietnam forty years ago. Those two experiences in current and recent generations are not unique because they’ve occurred often in history, going back to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, Indian Wars and the several overseas occupations. This doesn’t mean that the patterns are fixed and static and that they always mean defeat for the occupier. There are ways to crush a rebellion using overwhelming force or by outplaying the rebellion by out-revolutionizing the revolutionaries. This is what Colonel (then) Ed Lansdale did in the Philippines (1950-52). However, the overwhelming set of circumstances indicate that the experiences we’ve had in Iraq have been repeated so often in the past that it’s surprising so few know it and that decision-makers do not appreciate nor anticipate it.
The pattern in this general model is:
1. The existence of an enemy who doesn’t play in the conventional rules of war. This occurred after the American occupation of Iraq. The first major indication of this was when the American military commander in Iraq, General Abizaid, said that the enemy was engaging in a classical guerilla-type campaign against 130,000 U.S. soldiers.
2. The deep American tradition to transform foreign policy goals to great crusades. This has been evidenced by the current Bush administration’s stance on converting the Middle East to democracy. These lofty goals are deeply woven into the fabric of American history even before Woodrow Wilson. Universal images of black and white, good versus evil have usually dominated the American worldview.
3. Translation of this belief into the idea that democracy could and would be introduced into the local political culture through U.S. occupation policies. This went on throughout American history, especially in Latin America where we thought democracy was transportable. We tried to convert Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and also the Philippines. In most cases it was a frustrating failure, ending in departure and dictatorship. In the case of the Philippines, it could be said that it was a moderate success although that’s questionable, especially with the Marcos regime.
4. The faith and optimism in the capacity of the conventional military machine in mastering the situation through battle victory. This is exemplified by George W. Bush’s statement, ‘mission accomplished.’ Once we occupied the country, its capital, and its army defeated easily, we then consider the war over. But the people who make up the insurgency consider it only having begun.
5. Disappointment and frustration in the light of an irregular ‘backlash’. This happened throughout American history where we suddenly had to wake up to the idea that a whole new campaign was underway after the enemy army had capitulated. In the Iraq situation, there is the Rumsfeld memo of October 2003 where he said ‘we don’t have the metrics to determine victory or defeat. It’s going to be a long, hard slog’. Frustration has continued to this day despite the new ‘war czar’ and the ‘surge.’
6. Surprise and improvisation on the ground in the search for the best options against terrorists and guerillas. This is a pattern of reappraisals as we see in Iraq with the surge being the latest. It’s a swing of options that reflect the frustration and search for what to do.
7. Public disapproval if the effort to bring results continues without visible end. This was evidenced during Vietnam and is growing now with the situation in Iraq.
8. Final resolution. Either withdrawal in the face of failure or translation of the occupation into a form of total war against the enemy and his support. This is yet to be resolved in Iraq. If withdrawal happens, history shows that an explanation will be given. In Vietnam, it was Vietnamization. Or we turn the occupation into a form of total war as was done in the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century. We take over the administration of the country and keep it for fifty years or so. We stayed in the Philippines from 1899 to 1946. Are we going to be in Iraq in 2050? Or are we going to do what we’ve done in most case as in Nicaragua where, after spending six years not being able to find the Sandinistas (1926 -1933), we just left it to its own devices. Cables sent out by the Assistant Secretary of State concluded that we had to ‘just let the strongman emerge without further waste of time.’ The same thing happened in Haiti, we just left. We were there for nineteen years and cleaned the entire country out, built roads, post offices, schools, and public utilities. Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, drafted the Haitian wrote their constitution and Marines supervised elections. Fifteen years later, in 1929, a general strike against the U.S. presence forced Washington to abandon the country to its own devices. The result was a consistent record of brutal tyrannies, including that of the Duvalier family. My suspicion is that when we leave Iraq, the new leadership will be more indicative of Saddam Hussein than George W. Bush’s vision for the country. That, at least, has been is the historical pattern.
Going back to early U.S. history, we fought guerrilla warfare during the Revolution, as you said the British experienced it, then the early wars against Native American tribes, and the Civil War where Confederates like Mosby inflicted insurgent damage on the Union. Why didn’t we learn from those experiences how to combat guerrilla warfare better?
Because we’re strategic heavyweights. The great successes we’ve had have come through a combination of direct, abrupt, and massive technological and industrial force. We attack the enemy as fast and as directly as possible. The bulk of our experience is a product of our power.
On the other side of the coin, irregular actions have never been sanctioned by U..S. leaders. Even the leadership in the Revolution (Alexander Hamilton, George Washington), tolerated this form of combat but never wished to integrate them into the American way of war. They were never appreciated and never incorporated into West Point thinking. They were considered to be dishonorable and corrupt.
During the Civil War, on the Confederate side, men like Mosby and those in Missouri/Kansas – Quantrill’s Raiders, the James and Younger brothers - were appropriately enough looked upon as thugs and killers. They were disavowed by the Confederate leadership. When we fought campaigns against irregulars, they were never identified as nationalists. They were called bandits, thugs, murderers. Abraham Lincoln and other Union leaders looked upon Mosby in this fashion and gave soldiers permission to hang any of Mosby’s men if found. These irregular forces were outside the mainstream and twentieth century experiences reinforced that.
In the twentieth century, American armed forces saw guerrilla action in places such as the Philippines in World War II. Were the experiences and lessons learned incorporated into any training?
Yes, especially by the Marines who were involved in most of the Central American and Caribbean conflicts. The Army was more involved in the Philippines. The Marine Corps had a whole body of anti-guerilla, tactical doctrines that were developed in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Finally, it came out in the first Marine Corps manual in 1940. That was updated in 2005 (The U.S. Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual) but contained remarkable similarities to the first. To a degree it had been incorporated into Marine ideas but as a supplement.
There are many writing by specialists on combating irregulars going back to late nineteenth/early twentieth century. A retired Marine, Robert Asprey, wrote a two volume book on the history of guerilla war in 1975 including many chapters on Vietnam. So, this isn’t a topic that’s totally unknown but it’s within a small circle. And during the early stages of the Vietnam War, under the Kennedy Administration, the country became fascinated by this and dozens of books came out including The Guerilla and How to Fight Him (edited by Lt. Col. T.N. Greene), which was very popular. In the 1970’s, the late Louis Gann wrote The Guerrilla in History. But there were dozens more, and it happening again including my own Chasing Ghosts (Potomac 2006)
But even though there has been a lot of theoretical work it was rarely transferred to the field. In Vietnam, bombers, artillery, and conventional battles dominated the thought of Generals like William Westmoreland. One of the great American practitioners of guerrilla warfare was Ed Lansdale, (USAF) who led the counterinsurgency in The Philippines against the Huks from 1950 to 1952. Lansdale teamed up with the Defense Minister, Ramon Magsaysay, and the two of them fought a classic campaign of irregular war so that by the 1952 elections results came in, the Huks were finished as an active insurrection. Lansdale created a number of psychological and political warfare tactics that were ingenious. Without any combat support from the U.S. he was able to turn the situation completely around in about two years.
The Counterinsurgency Field Manual advises "don’t fight by shooting bullets". Do you agree?
At a recent event, one of the speakers mentioned David Galula, author of a classic book on French guerrilla warfare "Counterinsurgency Warfare" who taught that fighting insurgency is eighty percent political. This commentator said, "no, it’s ninety percent". In The Philippines, before 1952, the Army had made huge sweeps but had killed only twelve insurgents over a five year period and saw the rebellion grow by stages. What Ed Lansdale did was completely political. He deprived the enemy of its source of arms, infiltrated their units, caused false reports to distract them and used a number of psychological “tricks” in a campaign of deception.
Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., commander of United States forces in Baghdad, recently said that Al Qaeda has been driven out of Baghdad, leading credence that that ‘surge’ is working. Your thoughts?
I think it may have a tactical chance of demonstrating small measures of visible success on a military level. This may be seen as an excuse for evacuation in two to three years or less but it’s a repetition of the conventional military manner. You can smother a revolt through numbers. If there were a million soldiers in Iraq, it could be done for a period of time. But are you going to keep those soldiers there for ten years or more? The political undercurrents of insurgency have to be addressed as priorities: to deprive the enemy its reason for being or to die. A policy of attraction is much more effective than a policy of repression. We’re still trying to stamp out an insurgency through primarily militaristic means. The infantry should actually be a police force, complimented with powerful psychological and political warfare methods. In fighting insurgency, as a theoretical metaphor, I would prefer to have a hundred politicians than a hundred soldiers. Politicians would at least offer political hope and promises for a better future, even if they are insincere or unable to be delivered. That is much better than ‘breaking furniture’ or knocking down doors. Now I don’t mean all this literally but figuratively, it shows that these are actual political campaigns that politicians should wage, not the military. You don’t roll a tank down the street to attract votes, you pass out leaflets to common workers.
What should the Americans learn from past actions against irregulars that may be applied to today’s problems in Iraq and possible future insurgency conflicts?
Looking back at history, conflicts such as in Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic just produced frustration for the U.S. and its objectives. In 1933 newly-elected Franklin D. Roosevelt used his famous Inaugural Address to announce a sharp departure from past policies. By declaring that the United States would follow the path of the “Good Neighbor” he not only renounced the failed schemes of unilateral interventionism but set the stage for a series of arrangements, pacts and alliances which preserved order and security in the western hemisphere throughout both world war and cold war.
By the mid-1930s the United States gradually began to mend fences with the rest of the world, particularly in Latin America where the cry “Yankee Go Home” had originated. In 1936 the U.S. signed a multilateral “nonintervention” declaration in Buenos Aires, signaling a new era of good relations with Latin America. Both Bolivia and Mexico nationalized U.S. oil companies in the late 1930’s but FDR resisted severe pressure to intervene and the crisis passed. Roosevelt pursued a multilateral security policy at the same time, using U.S. power and diplomacy to integrate Latin America into a tight system against the axis. In 1938 came the Declaration of Lima, affirming hemispheric solidarity; in 1939 the Act of Panama established a hemisphere-wide neutrality zone; in 1940 the Havana Conference adopted the Declaration of Reciprocal Assistance and Cooperation and a “no transfer” principle against the conversion of allied territories for Axis use. The Roosevelt Administration pursued diplomacy instead of intervention against fascism in the hemisphere, including the 1940 destroyer-base deal with Britain. Bilateral arrangements in the region enhanced general security, including base agreements with sixteen nations and lend-lease treaties with nineteen.
The diplomatic “offensive” undertaken after the frustrations of unilateral occupation produced a remarkable solidarity throughout the Western Hemisphere during and after World War II. Even pro-fascist Argentina was eventually forced to break relations with Nazi Germany. Such solidarity continued past the war, highlighted in1947 with the Rio Pact, which - two years before NATO - established the principle that an attack upon one signatory is an attack upon all. This system was the by-product of expansionist foreign policies, the dilemmas of occupation and an ideology of imperialism which had harmed America’s image in the world and, perhaps worse, challenged America’s image of itself.
Is there a chance that the experience in the Middle East today can produce an equally positive outcome? Ironically, it was Woodrow Wilson, the great advocate of a League of Nations to make the “world safe for democracy,” who dispatched the military for the same purpose in Latin America, telling Latin Americans to “elect good men.” But Wilson failed to appreciate the fact that military occupations rarely sow the seeds of representative and constitutional order. No matter how much they might produce stability, it is almost always hollow. Over time his successors discovered that the power of example, prudence, restraint and appreciation of other cultures are the first priorities for success. Only when today’s leaders reach that point will we be able to learn from our failed histories. In the meantime, we might profit from Wilson’s advice ourselves, to “elect good men.”
Dr. John J. Tierney, Jr. is Walter Kohler Professor of International Relations at the Institute of World Politics. He is also former Special Assistant and Foreign Affairs Officer, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (1981-1993); former participant in various national security negotiations for U.S. Government; former Executive Director of the Congressional Caucus on National Defense and the National Security Research Group, U.S. House of Representatives; and former Chairman, Politics Department, Catholic University.
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