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.