The recent publicity surrounding the U.S. Marine offensive into the Helmand River valley in southern Afghanistan has once again focused the American public's attention on U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine and strategy. "Where we go, we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces," Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson declared at the beginning of the operation.

This phrase is reminiscent of the Bush administration's belated strategy of "clear, hold, and build" in Iraq, a policy announced by President George W. Bush on March 21, 2006 in the midst of a large spike in ethno-sectarian violence that would by the end of the year drive Iraq to the brink of a full scale civil war.

Yet, a general understanding of counterinsurgency doctrine and strategy remains elusive. To many Americans, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are confusing conflicts waged by shadowy enemies without the benefit of the clear military or geographic objectives common to more conventional wars.

This lack of knowledge persists despite the fact that our nation gained its independence via an insurgency and has waged a dozen or so counterinsurgency conflicts since its birth. A familiarity with the historical record is essential to understanding the wars our nation is fighting today. What, we should ask, are the historical antecedents of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how have they shaped American counterinsurgency doctrine and strategy?

Counterinsurgency Strategy – The Global Historical Context

Insurgencies have been around since the dawn of recorded history, as have the means used to suppress them. Until recently, counterinsurgency strategies have focused on the destruction of guerrilla forces, and/or on the control or devastation of the populations and environments from which insurgents gain their subsistence and support.

Imperial Britain used means such as burning villages, seizing livestock, destroying crops, and other measures to quell insurgencies. During the Second Boer War (1899-1902) the British interned 120,000 Boers, mostly women and children, in concentration camps; over 20,000 died in less than two years of confinement, mostly from improper hygiene and medical care.

When faced with an uprising in Kenya in the early 1950s, Britain again concentrated the population to prevent their support for guerrilla forces. By the end of 1954, the British forced more than 75,000 Kikuyu tribesmen into detention camps; and herded another million-plus tribesmen into protected villages to control their movements and activities. Isolated from their sources of supply and recruits and hunted incessantly in their sanctuaries, the British dealt the Mau Mau guerrilla organization a lethal blow. By 1956 the insurgent movement had collapsed. [Click here for more on recent history in Kenya.]

The United States has its own history of relocating civilian populations to enable the isolation and destruction of guerrilla forces.

During the Philippine War (1899-1902), U.S. forces in Luzon concentrated civilian populations in towns, either through enticements such as improved government services and provision of free education or through forced relocations, to enable military forces to hunt and destroy guerrilla bands in the surrounding hills and jungles.

During the Vietnam War, U.S. and British advisors worked with the South Vietnamese government to establish the strategic hamlet program, the goal of which was to separate the Vietnamese people from the Communist guerrillas by forcing them into protected villages.

Between 1961 and 1963, over 8 million people were relocated into strategic hamlets, but the poor administration of the program enabled insurgents from the National Liberation Front to overrun or infiltrate most of the villages. The program also alienated the Vietnamese peasantry by driving them away from their ancestral homes, and into the waiting arms of the Communist insurgency.

The French in Algeria also used a variety of population control measures in their efforts to defeat the insurgency that gripped the country from 1954-1962.

In Algiers, the French surrounded the most dangerous part of the city, the Casbah, with barbed wire and checkpoints to force the residents to show identification and submit to searches upon entry and exit. French paratroopers eventually gained the intelligence they needed to break up the terrorist cell responsible for the worst of the bombings in Algiers, but only through the use of torture (including waterboarding) that tainted the French effort with ethical misconduct.

French forces in rural areas of Algeria used a system called quadrillage to divide the country into sectors and positioned permanent garrisons in them to control the population and hunt down the insurgents. From 1957-1960, the French removed over two million Algerians from their villages and resettled them in more easily controlled camps to prevent them from supporting the rebels. They also created heavily patrolled barriers along the borders of Tunisia and Morocco that limited insurgent infiltration from their sanctuaries in these countries.

By 1960 the French had largely secured Algeria in a military sense, only to lose the political will to continue the struggle. In July 1962, President Charles de Gaulle granted Algeria independence, ceding territory that had been proclaimed a part of metropolitan France for over a century.

Another counterinsurgency strategy often employed is to focus efforts directly on the destruction of insurgent forces.

Russian forces in Chechnya used massive firepower to destroy guerrilla forces and sanctuaries in the Second Chechen War beginning in 1999, with over of 25,000 dead, mostly Chechen civilians. The United States, European nations, and the United Nations all roundly condemned the conduct of Russian forces, but the ability of Russian President Vladimir Putin to withstand this criticism enabled Russian forces to execute operations to destroy armed Chechen resistance, with minimal concern for the civilian population. [For more on current Russian history, see the Origins article "After Putin".]

The recent destruction of the Tamil Tiger guerrilla base on Sri Lanka and the attendant dislocation of the population in the process is another case in point

Counterinsurgency warfare does not just harm people. Often, the environment sustains major damage from the military operations designed to isolate insurgents and deny them resources and sanctuary.

Rome sowed salt into the remains of Carthage to ensure that vegetation would no longer grow there. Russians in the 19th century chopped down vast swaths of forest to deny Chechen rebels sanctuary. In Vietnam, U.S. forces used herbicides (Agent Orange) to defoliate jungle foliage in order to deny Viet Cong guerrillas cover and concealment.

In the 1990s, Saddam Hussein drained the marshes of southern Iraq to destroy the habitat of the marsh Arabs who had caused his regime so much trouble over the years. The Iraqi government today is in the process of restoring the marshes, but it will take decades for the palm groves and marshes of southern Iraq to recover from this ecocide.

As these examples illustrate, once an insurgent movement is established, its destruction has most often entailed extensive use of firepower, widespread devastation of civilian habitats, and strict control of the population, along with the collateral damage, ecocide, and civilian deaths that often accompany such measures.

However, in the absence of precise intelligence and targeting, a strategy focused on the elimination of insurgent forces is only viable provided a counterinsurgent force is willing to accept massive civilian casualties and environmental degradation, along with the negative publicity that results.

Challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan

Today, people and governments in the West have become increasingly reluctant to condone the massive level of violence and collateral damage needed to suppress an insurgency through force once it has grown beyond the embryonic stage.

Even with precision guided munitions and high technology intelligence and surveillance systems, western militaries will rarely be able to target enough of an insurgency's leaders and infrastructure to collapse an organization once it has firmly embedded among the people.

Collateral damage and civilian casualties, on the other hand, are magnified through insurgent propaganda and skillful use of the Internet, satellite television, and other media resources to sway popular opinion against the counterinsurgent.

The U.S. military campaigns in Iraq from 2003-2006 and in Afghanistan from 2001-2008 bear out these assertions. During the first year of the Iraq War after the fall of Baghdad in the spring of 2003, the shortage of U.S. ground forces, combined with the disbanding of the Iraqi army by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, meant that there were insufficient troops available to execute a counterinsurgency strategy that focused on the protection of the Iraqi people.

Instead, military forces conducted targeted raids and cordon and search operations to destroy insurgents in their strongholds. Often, U.S. forces vacated areas once they were cleared of an overt insurgent presence, only to discover that the enemy returned to these same areas once military forces withdrew.

Iraqi citizens who had cooperated with the coalition forces were then placed at the mercy of the insurgents, who tortured and killed many civilians for their collaboration with coalition forces.

Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I), under the command of General George Casey, initially continued this strategy to destroy insurgent forces in Iraq. Beginning in the spring of 2004, MNF-I ordered U.S. forces to withdraw from outposts in Iraqi cities and to position on large forward operating bases on the outskirts.

The thinking was that U.S. forces were a virus infecting Iraqi society, and the only way to prevent the forces of liberation turning into a hated occupation was to remove them from among the people. The lack of trained and ready Iraqi police and army units doomed this policy to failure.

Once U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq's cities, Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militias took control of a large part of Baghdad and other urban areas. U.S. forces, patrolling in armored vehicles into neighborhoods from their bases on the periphery, could not maintain control or protect the population. [See here for more on the history of the Sunni and Shi'a Muslim conflict.]

In the spring of 2004 Sunni insurgents gained control of Fallujah, requiring a massive offensive operation in November to root them out of their urban stronghold—an operation that destroyed a good portion of the city in the process.

General Casey needed an alternative strategy to rescue a failing mission. He seized on the transition of security responsibilities to Iraqi forces as his primary goal, neatly summed up by President Bush in a nationally televised speech, "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."

But the strength and abilities of the insurgency were growing faster than the numbers and capabilities of the Iraqi security forces. The bombing of the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra by operatives of Al Qaeda-Iraq in February 2006 fatally undermined this strategy. Iraqi forces, sometimes themselves complicit in ethno-sectarian violence, could not contain the resulting sectarian violence as Shi'ite militias swept through Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

Sunni insurgents, increasingly under the sway of Al Qaeda-Iraq extremists, gained substantial control of Al Anbar province and several neighborhoods in Baghdad, Baqubah, and Mosul. By the end of 2006, the war was nearly lost as sectarian conflict wracked Baghdad and Iraq teetered on the edge of a full-scale civil war.