American counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan

 “Learning from history” What historical lessons did the American military use in their counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The experience of the American military in combatting two insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan has reinvigorated the field of counter-insurgency as a military philosophy. At the very top level of the American military the men commanding the forces in action have given over much time and effort into understanding this military technique. The commanders such as David Petraeus and Stanley MacChrystal are something of a new generation of general. They are educated to a third level with both men having a Phd and are widely read. They have dedicated themselves to developing a clear framework for counter-insurgency and more importantly one which can be replicated.

With this background in education and historical research their ideas and actions have received much attention from both the media and academics. The perceived level of expertise in both military and academic affairs has been hailed as a new model of commander. That both men hail from a Special Forces military background has been held up as the source of their innovative approach and ability to adapt to circumstances.

However I will argue that the American experience in both campaigns has shown that counter-insurgency is not a science and that there is no model of counter-insurgency which can be applied regardless of the country. I will also argue that the much vaunted historical lessons that have been taken from previous campaigns are tenuous at best and at worst blatant distortions of historical events to suit contemporary agendas.

By examining the campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan, the background to each insurgency, the historical analogies and the ultimate outcome of each, this essay will show that success or failure in the campaigns was not the result of any one factor or counter-insurgency policy.

The insurgency in Iraq was the result of many factors. It was neither homogenous or inevitable and it is evident that American mistakes provided a significant factor in exacerbating the resistance. The insurgency was not factored into pre-war planning. This was true of many potential problems. The prevailing attitude amongst the pentagon, state department and white house was one of optimism. The rapid success achieved in Afghanistan by the use of a small, heavily mechanized force using over whelming airpower was expected to achieve similar results in Iraq.[1] This initial expectation was indeed proved correct. When US forces launched their ground campaign against Iraq in 2003 the regular Iraqi army crumbled with little resistance. However this was not necessarily a surprise to astute observers. The Iraqi army had been devastated in its war with Iran in the 1980s followed by its humiliating defeat in 1991 in the first Gulf war. It had suffered from continuous sanctions and the strain of suppressing numerous internal uprising against Saddam. Most of its regular infantry were Shia conscripts who had a deep antipathy to the Sunni regime of Saddam and his family. [2]

The US army was invading with 130,000 ground troops in 2003. This was insufficient for anything other than a cursory operation to remove and defeat regular Iraqi units. To secure Iraqi cities and restore essential services would normally require a far larger contingent of troops. However in 2003 much of this work was outsourced to civilian construction firms, private security companies and others who replace the military in rebuilding Iraq. Within the Bush white house internal critics such as Colin Powell criticized the small number of troops and lambasted it as doing war “on the cheap”.[3] This small number of troops relative to the size of the country was itself deceptive. In reality much of these troops were taken up with providing the logistical support that a modern army requires. This left an even smaller number of troops available for such vital tasks as patrolling regions, roadblocks, stabilization and restoration of order on the streets.

Despite this potential for a severe destabilization of affairs the initial success achieved in 2003 emboldened the Bush administration. On the 1st of May 2003 an Air force fighter jet landed on an aircraft carrier just outside San Diego. President Bush announced the end of combat operations in Iraq underneath a large banner which proclaimed “mission accomplished”. This would later be seen by many to be a strong indication of the hubris which pervaded the American government at this period as over 97% of US casualties were inflicted on the American military after this date.[4]

The American invasion and subsequent occupation was further hampered by a severe lack of local intelligence. Pre-invasion much of the information that they had on conditions in Iraq came from local defectors most of whom had been exiled from Iraq from decades.[5]

As a result when the insurgency did begin in earnest the American military was unable for a considerable time to pinpoint the multitude of factions and the allegiances of the varying forces arrayed against them. This was combined with a severe breakdown of Iraqi civil society. Electricity and water supplies remained below pre-invasion levels into 2006.[6] This was coupled with a large increase in robberies. Kidnapping and looting. Armed militias had control over vast swathes of Baghdad and the Iraqi police were largely corrupt and inefficient.

The new insurgency also had access to vast amounts of weaponry. Following the invasion the US forces had failed to secure the many arms dumps scattered throughout Iraq. As a result they were systematically looted both by ordinary Iraqis and by regime loyalists who stockpiled large quantities of small arms and explosives as well as larger ordinances. This was combined with the decision to disband the Iraqi army. This put hundreds of thousands of veteran troops out of work. Many of these individuals has years of experience of commanding troops. They also had extensive military knowledge of military affairs and were highly experienced and capable. This gave the insurgency a large pool of experienced recruits who had a deep resentment of the US presence.[7]

With growing instability, lack of civil control and growing sectarian tension the insurgency escalated rapidly. Whilst in the initial weeks of the occupation US forces had been able to travel relatively freely around Baghdad and other cities they rapidly became confined to base. The insurgents escalated their campaign and showed a growing ingenuity and expertise as well as utilizing a large variety of tactics. Sniper attacks, assassinations, car bombs and improvised explosive devices became regular occurrences. The IEDs in particular were devastatingly effective. Iranian technology and assistance and an increasing use of plastic explosives meant that by 2004 there were no American armoured vehicles that were capable of surviving an elaborate IED. They accounted for over 75% of American casualties.[8]

The US military was confounded by the growing insurgency. They had not been sent to fight such an opponent and were not prepared to do so. They were left with too few troops and insufficient equipment to deal with what a well-equipped and experienced enemy with considerable local support. The man assigned to oversee the occupation General George Casey had neither experience in counter-insurgency nor any desire to descend further into the rapidly deteriorating quagmire. He was also unfortunate in that the military and political goals were not necessarily compatible. This issue was also clouded by the fact that the Pentagon and State department were at loggerheads over the correct course of action to take in Iraq. The State department favoured greater autonomy for the new Iraqi institutions and government. The pentagon along with the military argued that without maintaining basic security in Iraq the institutions could not function. This was reflected in the shambolic state of the majority of Iraqi ministries which exerted little to no control outside of the heavily fortified green zone.

The insurgency continued to grow whilst the American military and government bickered internally, unable to decide on a unified approach. There were 2,000 attacks a month by mid-2004 with many military commanders privately stating that the actual number was much higher.[9] However the internal political debate in the Bush white house was soon superseded by events on the ground. The insurgency was rapidly turning into a civil war between Shia and Sunni militias. Following the bombing of the Samarra mosque by Sunni insurgents the patience of the Shia militias snapped. A widespread campaign of ethnic cleansing was launched. 100 to 150 bodies were turning up daily in Baghdad, often tortured and shot in the head.[10]

The Shia dominated government offered political protection to many of the Shia militias. Many of them operated as death squads wearing the uniform of the new Iraqi police and army. This resulted in further Sunni alienation and made the prospect of the institutions gaining any popular legitimacy seem even more remote. This increasingly sectarian atmosphere resulted in Iraqi cities and neighbourhoods becoming increasingly homogenous. Whereas there had often been mixed neighbourhoods, particularly in Baghdad increasingly the sectarian geography was becoming more evident.[11]

A new strategy of counter-insurgency began to be discussed in Washington. A Bi-Partisan Iraqi study group had been formed to study the options available to America. There was a growing pessimism within the American public about the conduct of the war. Even the staunchly pro-military elements within the Republican Party such as Senator John McCain were beginning to question not only the conduct of the war but whether it could be won at all.[12] After eight months of investigation, including numerous trips to Iraq and discussions with the senior commanders in the country they issued a report. It included 79 recommendations to the Bush White House. The core of these proposals was a new diplomatic initiative with Iran and Syria and a drawdown of American combat troops gradually.

Having considered these proposals the Bush government chose to take a drastically different course. Rather than a drawdown of troops it was decided to increase troop levels in a new counter-insurgency effort aimed at pacifying Baghdad.[13] They also chose to replace General Casey with a commander more suited to counter-insurgency. This was to be General David Petraeus. He had commanded the 101st Airborne division in 2004-2005 in Mosul and had achieved a measure of success in keeping the insurgency at a manageable level. He was highly educated, articulate and media savvy. When called upon to replace Casey he was in the middle of writing the new US field manual on counter-insurgency. He had translated David Galula’s classic work Counter insurgency; theory and practice. The ideas espoused by Galula formed the basis for much of his own work.[14]

Petraeus accepted the new post and stressed that a necessary number of troops was required to pacify an insurgency. He estimated that a ratio of 20 counter-insurgents was needed per 1000 Iraqis. The surge would not provide this level of troops nor was the American military equipped to provide it without a draft. Petraeus immediately set about initiating his programme of reform. The idea was to replicate previous counter-insurgency campaigns by the British army in Malaysia, Kenya and elsewhere. It was felt that by combing local forces and non-military groups such as aid and reconstruction then the insurgency could be defeated.

It was felt that these counter insurgency campaigns in Malaysia and Kenya had generally been less violent and more successful. Daniel Branch in his essay Footprints in the sand: British colonial counter-insurgency and the war in Iraq argues that this was a facetious analogy and a gross misrepresentation of the actual nature of the campaigns. He quotes Colonel Chris Short as stating “The British in Malaysia was the best example of a successful counter-insurgency, typified by patience and with the right people doing it”.[15]

This was not a true reflection of the brutality of these conflicts. Nor arguably were these campaigns in the long term a “success”. However the US military held the experience of the British army in counter-insurgency in high esteem. The British were perceived to have a lengthy experience in such matters. In 1961 a British tem comprised of veterans of their Malaysian campaign were sent to Vietnam to assist the American troops in counter-insurgency and jungle warfare. They stayed for four years and helped shape American tactics and indeed policy.[16]

In Iraq much emphasis had also been placed on the lessons learned by the French in Algeria. Using the work of Galula they sought to replicate successful tactics. Much like using the experience of the British in Malaysia and Kenya this was somewhat of an odd choice given that the French experience could hardly be labelled as successful either politically or militarily in a campaign noted for its brutality. However Algeria was an Islamic insurgency and therefore of interest to a Military which now found itself combatting Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The surge itself showed little success in its first year. Violence remained high and increasing in many areas. However internal factors in Iraqi politics began to have somewhat of a stabilizing effect. Increasingly the Iraqis were rejecting the foreign insurgents, in particular Al Qaeda. Their brand of Sunni extremism with its emphasis on attacks against civilians did not endear them to the local population. Shia militias began to co-operate with US forces in hunting down these insurgents and in many cases executed them.[17]

The failure of the Iraqi surge became apparent as violence continued. The tactics of counter-insurgency were shown to be successful within certain contexts. The selective use of historical examples had for instance shown that ignoring the glaring failures of British counter-insurgency in many countries showed that there was no way to achieve a replicable set of counter-insurgency rules which could be applied to any situation.

The Americans faced not one insurgency but war on two fronts. Whilst Iraq had descended into anarchy the war and occupation in Afghanistan became the “forgotten war”. The invasion initially had seemed an easy victory. This was unsurprising given the lack of infrastructure and the fact that the Taliban were more of a tribal militia than a regular army.

The Taliban were an ethnic tribal movement. In Afghanistan loyalty was primarily given to an individual’s tribal ethnicity and the concept of an Afghani nation was somewhat elusive. The Pashtuns were the largest ethnic group with over 17 million members. Their tribal area also crossed the Pakistani border, a fact which would be a headache for the American counter-insurgency effort.[18]

The Taliban had taken power in the 1990s and established a Islamic state with brutal consequences for the people of Afghanistan. The invasion however was conducted with a great deal of co-operation between the American military and the collective of warlords and mercenaries known as the Northern Alliance. These men were long time opponents of the Taliban but had scarce regard for human rights or instituting reform. Rather they set about ethnically cleansing many Pashtu tribal villages in retaliation. Captured Taliban prisoners were tortured and there were mass executions. These events helped turn many Pashtuns against an occupation that they had been sceptical about at best.[19]

18 months after the invasion the American forces began to realize that the Taliban may not have been destroyed but rather driven underground. The first suicide bomber of the war attacked a bus carrying international forces killing 7.[20] This was merely the first noticeable incident in what rapidly became an insurgency which gripped the entire nation. The Taliban found that they were gaining support by providing basic security for everyday Afghanis tired of the lawlessness gripping their country. American troops bogged down in Iraq were unable to fight a war on two fronts and Afghanistan had been downgraded as a priority. The Taliban rapidly secured control of the rural areas, particularly their stronghold in Helmand. Outside of the capital the occupational forces had little real authority.[21]

The Taliban had significant allies within the Pakistani military establishment. Constantly worried about their long running rivalry with India in the region the Pakistani Military saw Afghanistan as being part of their zone of influence.

They supplied the Taliban with weapons, finance and intelligence. Their leaders were provided with safe havens in Pakistani cities where they could raise funds and direct operations against the American forces. The Americans attempted to quell the insurgency. They found that Afghanistan was a country which was not only suited to guerrilla warfare but which had a rich history of engaging occupying armies. The Russians and British had both lost wars in Afghanistan against determined local combatants.

The Russian war held many lessons for the Americans and they attempted to use similar tactics. They developed a heavy reliance on airpower as the Russians had but found that their helicopters were as vulnerable to a resourceful enemy as the Russians had been.[22] They also replicated other tactics from the British including the use of selective assasiantion of enemy leaders. In their war against the IRA in Northern Ireland the British military had funded and aided local loyalist paramilitaries in an attempt to break the back of the insurgency. They had provided them with weapons, intelligence and finance. This use of locally recruited forces to carry out extra judicial murder had resulted in many questions being raised about the extent of collusion.

In Afghanistan there was less scrutiny and Special Forces acted as death squads sent to kill selected targets. Drone strikes violated Pakistani sovereignty regularly further inflaming Pakistanis already resentful of the American presence in Afghanistan.[23] However there was a general acknowledgement amongst NATO that the war was being lost. Leaked intelligence documents showed the Afghani army incapable of winning engagements without significant American support.

As a result it became clear that rather than a counter-insurgency effort an attempt to politically accommodate the insurgents was needed. This approach was particularly advocated by the British government who pointed to the success in Ireland where they had succeeded in bringing the Provisional IRA into a political accommodation which secured British interests in the region. David Miliband publicly called for talks with moderate Taliban elements. Although rebuked initially the Obama regime had admitted that this is likely to be part of any final settlement in the region.[24]

The cases of Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate that the practice of counter-insurgency is not a science. The use of poor historical analogies has not served the US military well. By ignoring the wider social context of the counter-insurgency campaigns in Kenya, Malaysia, Ireland, Algeria and elsewhere they were unable to achieve a proper resolution to each conflict. Whilst these conflicts remain on-going and it is hard to declare definitively how they will end it is clear that in both Iraq and Afghanistan a political settlement will have to include elements of the insurgency in any new government. This is a failure to militarily reach a solution to insurgency. It also brings into question as to whether the popularity of historical analogies in the practice of counter-insurgency is a case of poor use of historical examples or a case of political expediency in a difficult context.

In conclusion it is clear that despite having highly intelligent and resourceful commanders the US military was unable to successfully conclude either conflict using military resources. To the extent that counter-insurgency is reaching a successful resolution which precludes a political solution this represents a failure on their part and a blow to those who espouse the doctrine of counter insurgency as one which can have basic frameworks for success regardless of context.













Branch, Daniel, Footprints in the sand: British colonial counter-insurgency and the war in Iraq, Politics society, June 2010

Burke, Jason, On the road to Kandahar, Penguin books, London, 2007

Cockburn, Patrick, The occupation war and resistance in Iraq, Verso, London, 2006

Cooley, John, Unholy wars, Pluto press, London, 2002

Goodson, Larry, Afghanistan’s endless war, University of Washington press, Washington, 2001

Gray, John, Al-Qaeda and what it means to be modern, faber & faber, London, 2003

Steele, Johnathan, Ghosts of Afghanistan, Portobello books, London, 2011



[1] Cooley, John, Unholy wars, London, 2002, p273

[2] Cockburn, Patrick, The occupation; war and resistance in Iraq, London, 2006, p11

[3] Woodward, Bob, The war within, 2008, London, p261

[4] Cockburn, Patrick, The occupation ; war and resistance in Iraq, London, 2006, p3

[5] Weiner, Tom, Legacy of ashes the history of the CIA, London, 2008, p568

[6] Burke, Jason, On the road to Kandahar, London, 2007, p213

[7] Cockburn, Patrick, The occupation ; war and resistance in Iraq, London, 2006, p71

[8] Burke, Jason, On the road to Kandahar, London, 2007, p214

[9] Woodward, Bob, The war within, London, 2008, p18

[10] Woodward, Bob, The war within, London, 2008, p35

[11] Cockburn, Patrick, The occupation ; war and resistance in Iraq, London, 2006, p71

[12] Woodward, Bob, The war within, London, 2008, p260

[13] Woodward, Bob, The war within, London, 2008, p263

[14] Woodward, Bob, The war within, London, 2008, p293

[15] Branch, Daniel, “Footprints in the sand: British colonial counter-insurgency and the war in Iraq”, politics society, June 2010, p4

[16] Branch, Daniel, “Footprints in the sand: British colonial counter-insurgency and the war in Iraq”, politics society, June 2010, p5

[17] Cockburn, Patrick, The occupation ; war and resistance in Iraq, London, 2006, p180

[18] Goodson, Larry, Afghanistan’s endless war, Washington, 2001, p109

[19] Steele, Jonathan, Ghosts of Afghanistan, London, 2011, p285

[20] Steele, Jonathan, Ghosts of Afghanistan, London, 2011, p283

[21] Burke, Jason, On the road to Kandahar, London, 2007, p58

[22] Steele, Jonathan, Ghosts of Afghanistan, London, 2011, p89

[23] Steele, Jonathan, Ghosts of Afghanistan, London, 2011, p351

[24] Steele, Jonathan, Ghosts of Afghanistan, London, 2011, p332


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