Lethal Business

The Marine Corps issues a best practices guide to conducting counterinsurgencies.

As thousands of Marines returned to Iraq this spring, many on their third combat tour there in as many years, a timely study of counterinsurgency operations was making its way up the Marine Corps chain of command. The study, optimistically titled "Compressing the Learning Curve," is a methodical examination of nine counter- insurgencies, some successful and others failures, conducted by a number of nations under widely disparate circumstances.

The effort, undertaken by the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities, the Corps' in-house think tank, takes a business-school approach to problem solving. By identifying the characteristics of successful operations, as well as those of failed campaigns, analysts developed a basic framework for fighting insurgencies like the one playing out in Iraq.

"All insurgencies are different, and each must be analyzed within its own cultural context. Failure to do so will almost certainly result in further failures in the future," cautions the center's executive director, Randy Gangle, in an introduction to the study. A retired Marine colonel, Gangle commanded the 5th Marine Regiment during the first Gulf War and later led a project that resulted in revisions to the Corps' urban warfare doctrine and training.

Nonetheless, Gangle says, successful counterinsurgency operations across the spectrum shared some traits: "We were looking for common threads, and from those threads, the best practices that were successfully used. Regardless of the nature of the political system, time per-iod, geography, some common elements were found."

Perhaps what's most striking about the study's findings is that the learning curve was significant in nearly every insurgency studied, including the French campaigns against the communist Vietminh of Vietnam and the Algerian rebellion to achieve independence; British counterinsurgency operations against the Mau Mau in Kenya and against Marxists in Oman; Peru's war against the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas; Colombia's ongoing efforts to eliminate the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC; Israel's ongoing attempts to thwart the al-Aqsa Intifada, the second Palestinian uprising begun in 2000; and the American anti-communist intervention in Vietnam, whose failures have clouded Americans' view of subsequent military operations elsewhere.

The best practices identified in the study will not surprise observers of the situation in Iraq-nor will the worst practices. Among the keys to success: solid intelligence grounded in the context of acute cultural awareness; military operations planned and coordinated with political and socioeconomic reforms; and well-trained indigenous security forces. Many of the worst practices were counterproductive because they alienated local populations. They included large-scale sweeps and massive detentions in crowded camps, abusive interrogation policies, insufficient political reforms and failure to integrate civilian and military programs.

A recurring and discouraging theme-and one the study explicitly hopes to counter-is nations' apparent inability to learn from mistakes. This is particularly clear with France's failures, repeated less than a generation later by the United States, to effectively thwart communist insurgencies in Vietnam. "Despite the lessons provided by the French in the 1950s, the U.S. mili- tary appeared oblivious to that period and relearned many of the same old lessons," the study says. "Over time, the American effort in Vietnam gradually took on the necessary strategic and operational efforts needed to effectively counter a strongly embedded insurgency. These efforts, however, came too late in the war, after U.S. political will at home had been expended."

Although the United States (itself born of the British failure to wage an effective counterinsurgency during the American Revolution) has a long history of engaging in counterinsurgency operations, such "irregular" warfare has long been a backwater of military intellectual currents. "For several decades, thanks in large part to lingering attitudes from the Vietnam War and the tragedy in Somalia, this area has been an intellectual and strategic orphan in U.S. professional military institutions," according to the study.

The authors warn that as its overwhelming military superiority pushes future competitors further toward unconventional warfare, the United States must develop a clearer understanding of such warfare: "Without a sound grasp of history relative to this mode of war, the U.S. could find its overwhelming military dominance completely irrelevant to its most pressing security interests."

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