Tag Archives: COIN

Why History Matters: The Disastrous Effects of Long Insurgency Campaigns on the Nations that Wage them and the Armies that Fight Them

French Mobile Group in Indochina

“Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it.” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

The effects of the wars Indo-China, Algeria and Vietnam on the French and American military organizations internally and in relationship to their nations piqued my interest in 2005. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan forced me to start asking the question of what short and long term effect that these wars might have on the U.S. military. As such I wondered what historical precedent that there was for the question. My interest was furthered by my deployment with Marine and Army advisors to Iraqi Army and Security forces in 2007-2008. My search led to the French experiences in Indo-China and Algeria and the American experience in Vietnam. Recently with the Iraq war winding down and ongoing war in Afghanistan which has gone from apparent victory to mounting concern that we are losing the war in Afghanistan as Taliban and Al Qaida have regained momentum amid widespread corruption by the Afghan government and weakness of NATO forces.
The counterinsurgency campaigns conducted by the French and American militaries in Vietnam and Algeria had deep and long lasting effects on them as did the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The effects included developments in organization and tactics, relationship of the military to the government and people, and sociological changes. The effects were tumultuous and often corrosive. The French Army in Algeria revolted against the government. The US Army, scarred by Vietnam went through a crisis of leadership and confidence which eventually resulted in end of the draft and formation the all volunteer military. The Soviet not only lost their war but they saw their country collapse and the military with it. The effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are yet unknown but could result in similar situations to the militaries and governments involved.

French Surrender at Dien Bien Phu

There is a wealth of data regarding these wars. There are several types of materials. The accounts of soldiers, diplomats and reporters who experienced these events contained in memoirs and diaries. The best include David Hackworth’s About Face and Steel My Soldiers Hearts; and General Harold Moore’s We Were Soldiers Once… and Young. French works include Jules Roy’s The Battle of Dien Bien Phu and General Paul Aussaresses’ The Battle of the Casbah. There are innumerable popular accounts written by NCOs and junior officers. These accounts may contain a wealth of information, but are limited by a number of factors. First, the authors, veterans of the wars, only saw part of the overall picture and first-hand experience in war can skew a writer’s objectivity. Those who have been through the trauma of war interpret war through their own experience. Physical and psychological wounds can have a major impact on the interpretation of these writers as can their experience and political ideology. Finally few of these writers are trained historians. Despite this they can be a valuable resource for the historian.

Viet Minh Main Force Soldiers

Another source is found in the official histories written by the military forces involved in the wars. Often these incorporate unit histories and individual narratives and analyze specific battles and the wider campaigns, but do little in regard to broader conditions that affected operations. While a good source, many are not as critical of their institutions as they should be.

Histories by trained historians and journalists provide another view. The most insightful of the journalist accounts include Bernard Fall’ Street Without Joy and The Siege of Dien Bien Phu: Hell in a Very Small Place. A limitation of all of these is that they are often heavily influenced by the political and societal events. This means that earlier accounts are more likely to be reactive and judgmental versus critical and balanced. Later accounts have the benefit of access to the opposing side and documents not available to earlier writers. Alistair Horn in A Savage War of Peace provides one of the most informative and balanced accounts of the war in Algeria. Martin Winslow does the same regarding Dien Bien Phu in The Last Valley.

Foreign Legion in Algeria

Another source is the writings of participants who critically examine their participation in the wars. Many of these, French and American provide insights into the minds of leaders who are reflective and critically examine what happened to their military institutions in these wars. The best of these is French Colonel David Galula whose books Pacification in Algeria 1956-1958 and Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice provide first-hand accounts of the subject combined with critical reflection. Galula’s works have been important to John Nagl, General David Petreus and others who helped write the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency manual. Andrew Krepinevich in The Army and Vietnam provides a critical analysis of the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Other sources, both online and print, such as RAND, provide excellent analysis of selected topics within the scope of this essay, especially COIN.

Battles in the Streets of Algiers

The ability to dispassionately and critically examine and evaluate these sources over a period of several years was and integrate them with my own experience has been a critical to me. It has changed the way that I look at sources, and caused me to be much more aware of bias, the limitations of sources and the need to have a multiplicity of sources and points of view and to be suspicious of contemporary reports and accounts of the war in Afghanistan regardless of the source.

The conflicts in French Indo-China, Algeria and Vietnam had major effects on the French and American military institutions. These effects can be classified in a number of ways. First, the manner in which each military waged war, including tactics employed and use and development of weapons systems was changed. The use of airpower, especially helicopters and use of riverine forces provided an added dimension of battlefield mobility but did not bring victory. As John Shy and Thomas Collier noted regarding the French in Indo-China: “French mobility and firepower could take them almost anywhere in Vietnam, but they could not stay, and could show only wasted resources and time for their efforts.”[1]

Assassination and Terrorism in Algiers

The use of intelligence and psychological warfare, including the use of torture became common practice in both the French and American armies. The wars had an effect on the institutional culture of these armed services; neither completely embraced the idea of counterinsurgency and for the most part fought conventionally. Galula notes how the “legacy of conventional thinking” slowed the implementation of proper counterinsurgency tactics even after most commanders learned that “the population was the objective.”[2] Krepinevich notes that “any changes that might have come about through the service’s experience in Vietnam were effectively short-circuited by Army goals and policies.”[3] Finally the wars had a chilling effect on the relationship between the both militaries and the state, veterans from each nation often felt betrayed or disconnected from their country and people. Unfortunately instances of all of these have occurred or can be seen in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

US Army in Vietnam

The French Army had the misfortune of fighting two major insurgencies back to back. The French military was handicapped even before it went into these wars. The Army came out of World War II defeated by the Germans, divided by loyalties to Vichy or one of the Free French factions. They were humiliated by the Japanese in Indo-China, while in Algeria France’s crushing defeat was devastating. “Muslim minds, particularly sensitive to prestige and baraka, the humiliation made a deep impression.”[4] French society was as divided as the Army; the economy in shambles, the government weak and divided. The Viet-Minh had prepared well making use of time and training to get ready for war. “Once full-scale hostilities broke out, the French, for budgetary and political reasons could not immediately make the large scale effort to contain the rebellion in the confines of small-scale warfare.”[5]

Paras of the 1st Colonial Parachute Regiment jump in Algeria

In both Indo-China and Algeria the French attempted to fight the budding insurgencies in a conventional manner. This was particularly disastrous in Indo-China when on a number of occasions battalion and regimental combat team sized elements were annihilated by Viet-Minh regulars. Between October 1st and 17th 1950 every French garrison along the Chinese border was over-run. The French lost over 6000 troops and enough equipment to outfit “a whole additional Viet-Minh division.” It was their worst colonial defeat since Montcalm at Quebec.[6] In Algeria when the fight began in earnest France’s “ponderous ponderous N.A.T.O forces found themselves at an impossible disadvantage,”[7] unable to have any influence off the main roads.

Marcel Bigard: One of the most effective French commanders in Indochina and Algeria

In Vietnam the French did not absorb the lessons of fighting a well established insurgent force. French forces hoped to draw the Viet-Minh main forces into battles of attrition where their superior firepower could be brought to bear. Such was the case at Na San in December 1952 where the French established an “Air ground base” deep in Viet-Minh territory to draw Giap’s forces into open battle. This worked, but just barely. General Giap, short of artillery and not planning on a long battle frittered away his troops in mass charges. However, the French, because of Na Son assumed they had found the key to victory. In their embrace of the “air ground base concept, French staff officers were following an intellectual tradition that had long been prone to seduction by elegant theories.”[8] The result was the disaster at Dien Bien Phu the following year. The destruction of the elite Group-mobile 100 near Pleiku in 1954 was the coup de grace. In Indo-China the French made limited use of helicopters, used paratroops widely, and developed riverine forces. One thing they were critically short of was significant tactical air support.[9]

Roger Trinquier helped develop tactics in Indochina which helped turn the tide in Algeria, until the French Government ended the war leaving their soldiers to feel betrayed

The most inventive French creation in Indochina was the GCMA/GMI forces composed of mountain tribesmen led by French NCOs and Junior Officers. They were designed to provide “permanent guerilla groups rooted in remote areas” to harass and interdict Viet-Minh forces.[10] Trinquier noted that at the time of the Dien Bien Phu defeat that these forces had reached over 20,000 trained and equipped maquis in the Upper Region of Tonkin and Laos. These forces achieved their greatest success retaking Lao Cai and Lai Chau May 1954 as Dien Bien Phu fell.[11] Trinquier stated that “the sudden cessation of hostilities prevented us from exploiting our opportunities in depth.”[12] The GMI units and their French leaders were abandoned fighting on for years after the defeat. One account noted a French NCO two years after the defeat cursing an aircraft patrolling the border “for not dropping them ammunition so they could die like men.”[13] In the end the French left Indo-China and Giap remarked to Jules Roy in 1963 “If you were defeated, you were defeated by yourselves.”[14]
Algeria was different being part of Metropolitan France; there the French had support of European settlers, the pieds-noir. Many French soldiers had come directly from Indo-China. There French made better adaptations to local conditions, and realized that they had to win the population and isolate the insurgents from it and outside support. As Galula said, victory is the destruction of the insurgent’s political and military structures, plus “the permanent isolation from the population, not forced upon the population, but by and with the population.”[15] The lessons learned by the French in both Algerian and Indo-China were lost upon the Americans.

US Armored Cavalry in Vietnam

The United States military, especially the Army approached the Vietnam War with a conventional mindset, referred to as the “Army concept.” [16] It not only approached the war in this manner, but it trained and organized the South Vietnamese forces, ARVN into the American model. Americans re-organized ARVN into divisions “based upon the U.S. divisional force structure.”[17] Due to the imposition of an American template and organizational structure upon it, ARVN was not structured appropriately for the threat that it faced.”[18] The results were as to be expected. Large numbers of American troops poured in taking the lead against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong . The American method of counterinsurgency was costly. It was “almost a purely military approach”[19] which ignored political and social realities on the ground. Instead of focusing on protecting the Vietnamese people and denying the Communists a safe haven the Army in particular believed that massive firepower was the best means to be “utilized by the Army to achieve the desired end of the attrition strategy-the body count.”[20] In the end the American defeat was a “failure of understanding and imagination.”[21] The one shining success was the Marine Corps experimentation with “Combined Action Program” platoons which lived in the villages with militia for long periods of time. This program produced great results “in eliminating local guerillas”[22] but was killed by the Army.

US and ARVN Soldiers in Joint Operation

These wars tore the heart out French and American armies. For the French the defeats inflicted a terrible toll. In Indo-China many French career soldiers felt that the government’s “lack of interest in the fate of both thousands of missing French prisoners and loyal North Vietnamese…as dishonorable.”[23] Divisions arose between those who served and those who remained in France or Germany and created bitter enmity between soldiers. France would endure a military coup which involved many who had fought in Vietnam and Algeria. Having militarily won that war, were turned into what Jean Lartenguy called The Centurions had been turned into liars.”[24] They were forced to abandon those who they had fought for and following the mutiny, tried, imprisoned, exiled or disgraced. Colonial troops who remained loyal to France were left without homes in their “independent” nations. They saw Dien Bien Phu as the defining moment. “They responded with that terrible cry of pain which pretends to free a man from his sworn duty, and promises such chaos to come: ‘Nous sommes trahis!’-‘We are betrayed.’”[25]

War Protests in the United States 

The U.S. Army left Vietnam and returned to a country deeply divided by the war. Vietnam veterans remained ostracized by the society until the 1980s. As Harold Moore recounts “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publically questioned.” [26] The Army endured a massive reorganization that resulted in the formation of the All-Volunteer force, which would redeem itself and emerge from the ashes in the Gulf War.

Taliban in Afghanistan

The Americans would not learn the lessons of revolutionary warfare and counterinsurgency until forced to do so in Iraq in 2004-2007. These lessons however were not applied to Afghanistan and the Taliban which seemed to have been defeated have regained the initiative, policy is being debated amid discord in the west and there are reports of American and NATO forces becoming discouraged by the course of the war and concern that their efforts will be in vain. This is a dangerous situation to be in and if we learn from anything from our own history as well as that of foreign military forces in Afghanistan we need to be very careful in implementing strategy to get whatever we do right.

US Advisers with Afghanistan National Army Troops

The greatest success of the war was finally killing the leader of Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden at his Pakistani hide-out. That did not occur in Afghanistan and was the result of smart work by the CIA and other American intelligence services and the superb conduct of the mission by Navy SEAL Team Six. It was not the product of our costly counter-insurgency and nation building campaign in Afghanistan. There are many professional think tank “experts” that now urge continuing the Afghan mission indefinitely despite its massive cost and questionable strategic value. The costs of the war which are over 2 billion dollars a week are staggering with little to be shown from the hundreds of billions already spent in Afghanistan, much of which is spent on projects where corrupt Afghan government officials and tribal leaders are the only ones to benefit. Likewise the long term health of the military is imperiled. The money that should go to modernizing the force and replacing equipment worn out by war as well as the enormous costs in lives and the continuing care needed by military personnel wounding in body, mind and spirit remaining on active duty and those in the Veteran’s Administration system are imperiled.

Remote Training Team Base in Afghanistan

The effects of the wars in French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam on the French and American military establishments were long lasting and often tragic. The acceptance of torture as a means to an end sullied even the hardest French officers. Men like Galula and Marcel Bigeard refused to countenance it, while others like Paul Aussaresses never recanted. Americans would repeat the tactic at Abu Ghraib rallying the Iraqis against them and nearly losing the war because of it.

Soviet Paratroops in Afghanistan

For the Americans, the effects of Vietnam continued at home. Race riots tore at the force while drug addictions and criminal activities were rampant. Many incompetent leaders who had “ticket punched” their careers kept their jobs and highly successful leaders who became whistle blowers like Hackworth were scorned by the Army institution. The years following Vietnam were a severe test of the US Military and took years for the military to recover. Likewise it took years before either the French or American veterans again felt a part of their countries. They ended up going to war, and when it was over; feeling abandoned, their deepest bonds were to their comrades who had fought by their side.

Osama Bin Laden leading Mujaheddin in 1984 

If this is not enough we have the experiences of the Soviet Union, the British Empire and others that have attempted to rule Afghanistan as plumb lines to gauge our effectiveness. Others have tried and failed miserably at this. The Soviets learned the hard way and found that Afghanistan was one of the major reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reading the history of Soviet operations in Afghanistan is frighteningly like reading the history of our campaign.

Two Soviet Mi-24 “Hind” attack helicopters flying in an Afghan Valley

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 they used their 40th Army which initially was composed of “two motorized rifle divisions, an airborne division, an air assault brigade and separate motorized rifle regiments.”[27] These forces totaled about 52,000 troops and were “considered sufficient to guarantee the viability of Afghanistan.”[28] The 40th Army was a standard Cold War Soviet Combined Arms Army designed for high tempo conventional operations. It was not designed for nor trained in counterinsurgency operations or what the Soviets and Russians class as “anti-guerilla operations.” It was poorly suited to mountain and dessert combat and at the beginning “not only had no practical skills in the conduct of counter-guerilla warfare, they also did not have a single well-developed theoretical manual, regulation or tactical guideline for fighting such a war.”[29]

Downed Soviet Mi-4 “Hound” with Mujaheddin 

The Soviets did not expect to be involved in combat operations and the Afghan population reacted to their presence with resistance which spread across the country both against their own government which they viewed as a puppet of the Soviets but also against the Soviet Forces. As time went on the Soviets attempted to use raids and large scale operations to attempt to bring Mujahidin forces to battle, however the insurgents were very skillful and the Soviets attempted to increase the training of their forces as well as their numbers. By 1986 the numbers on the ground had increased to 108,000 personnel in four divisions, five separate brigades, four separate regiments and six separate battalions.[30] In the nearly 10 years of operations over a half million Soviet soldiers and support personnel served in Afghanistan. Tours for enlisted personnel who were primarily conscripts served 12-18 months in country and officers 2 years. Few returned for subsequent tours meaning that the 40th Army had few personnel very familiar with the country, its people and the challenges faced by Soviet forces. According to official sources the 40th Army suffered 13,833 killed in action or died of wounds, 49,985 wounded and 311 missing in action a figured of 1 in 8 Soviet Soldiers being casualties. 14.3 percent of the casualties were officers.[31] Of course the official figure is doubted many believing the number killed in action or died of wounds to be closer to 26,000.[32]

Soviet T-62 Tank guarding a convoy in a mountain pass

Like their American and French counterparts the Soviet veterans have experienced the unhealed wounds of war and a country that does not understand their experiences. The stigma of war wounds and PTSD haunt many Soviet veterans and were compounded by the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact in 1989. They returned home, lost their country and were by and large abandoned by their countrymen. A good number of these men and women travel to one of 5 centers across the country where according to one of the veterans come to for “social and psychological help.” He said that “The best thing about this place is that it provides us with a chance to share our Afghan memories with comrades who understand what we are talking about.” That camaraderie of being able to share their experiences with others that understand is helping some to return to something akin to “normal” life. They are joined by the soldiers that have experienced similar things in Chechnya. Russian veterans of the Afghan War are still so closely linked to it that they refer to themselves as “Afghans.”

Soviet Mi-8 “Hip” Helicopters in Afghanistan preparing for a mission

The Soviet Forces supported the Army of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan which numbered at their peak on average between 120,000-150,000 soldiers.[33] The Afghan forces, then as now were at the mercy of tribal, familial and communist party affiliations. Over 70 percent of the DRA was conscripted, desertions averaged 1,500 to 2,000 soldiers a month and units were usually optimistically 25-40 percent under their TO&E strength.[34]Limitations on training and leadership meant that typically DRA units could not conduct large scale missions without Soviet help. As such most of the fighting was done by Soviet formations.

Soviet Troops preparing to leave Afghanistan

Many of these problems have plagued the United States and ISAF throughout the first 9 years of the current Afghan War. As former Afghanistan Commander General Stanley McChrystal noted in his assessment “ISAF is a conventional force that is poorly configured for COIN, inexperienced in local languages and culture, and struggling with the challenges inherent to coalition warfare. These intrinsic disadvantages are exacerbated by our current culture and how we operate.”[35]

We should have learned. A retired Red Army Colonel who served in Afghanistan from 1986-1988 who learned the Dari language in order to negotiate with the Afghan Mujahedeen warned what will happen when the Americans and NATO leave the country and the mistake that we made in entering Afghanistan. Frants Klinsevich now a member of the Russian Parliament comment to reporters at a wreath laying ceremony at a veteran’s convention that “they (NATO and the United States) are 100 percent repeating the same mistake we made by entering into a war in that country” and that “As soon as the Americans and Europeans leave, the Taliban will crack down on everything.” Klinsevich noted that he understood the American desire to tame Afghanistan but that “the problem of radical Islam will not be solved there, its violence cannot be solved. It is simply unsolvable.” He said that he wished that the United States had consulted the Russians about Afghanistan saying “they should have invited Russian specialists, involved Russia, really studied how they could use Russia. But unfortunately Americans think they know everything.” The former Russian commander understands far more that the majority of American policy makers on this subject. [36]

The fact is that we are hamstrung by the ongoing wars which limit our ability to respond to rapidly changing situations. We are in a similar situation to the Germans in 1942 and 1943 overcommitted, overstretched and lacking true strategic depth to respond to unanticipated situations as are now occurring across the Middle East. In 1942 and 1943 the Germans were always just short of the forces that would have turned the tide. Like the Germans our economy is laboring on the verge of collapse and we have to honestly answer the question “What is the strategic value in continuing to wage war in Afghanistan in the way that we are doing?”

What are the lessons to be learned from these campaigns as well as from the various accounts? Andrew Krepinevich prophetically noted that the failure to learn the lessons of Vietnam “represents a very dangerous mixture that in the end may see the Army again attempting to fight a conventional war against a very unconventional opponent.”[37] Obviously, there are lessons to be learned, especially in understanding the nature of revolutionary war as well as the culture and history of our opponents. The U.S. has made some improvement in this regard but there is still much to be learned, especially since after the war the Army was “erecting barriers to avoid fighting another Vietnam War.”[38] From these wars we learn that nations and incompetent governments who mismanage wars can alienate themselves from the soldiers that they send to fight, with serious consequences. As far as historiography we learn that certain historical fallacies are evident when one reads the accounts critically and recognize the bias and limitations of the various sources.

The fact is that we have learned little about such wars and are paying a terrible price for it. The debate now is should we continue the war as it is with minor withdraws of troops or begin a rapid exit in order to preserve and rebuild our force and to reduce the cost of these operations. But that debate and decision are well above my pay grade. But then maybe we need to remember what Field Marshall Gerd Von Rundstedt told his staff in September of 1944 when asked how to recover from the disastrous collapse of the German front following the Allied breakout from Normandy and dash across France. “Make peace you fools.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ch56NAL1C-I

Peace
Padre Steve+
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[1] Shy, John and Collier, Thomas W. “Revolutionary War” in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age,” Peter Paret editor. Princeton University Press, Princeton N.J. 1986 p.849
[2] Galula, David. Counterinsurgency in Algeria: 1956-1958. RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA. 2006. First published by RAND in 1963. p.244
[3] Krepinevich, Andrew F. “The Army and Vietnam,” The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1986 p.213
[4] Horn, Alistair. “A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962,” a New York Review Book published by the New York Review of Books, New York, 1977, 1987, 1996, and 2006 p 41
[5] Fall, Bernard B. “Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina.”Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA, 2005, originally published by Stackpole Publications 1961 p.27
[6] Ibid. p.33
[7] Horn. p.100.
[8] Windrow, Martin. “The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam,” Da Capo Press, Novato, CA 2006, originally published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London 2004 p.63
[9] Fall, Bernard B. “The Siege of Dien Bien Phu: Hell in a Very Small Place.” Da Capo Press, New York an unabridged reprint of the 1st Edition reprinted in arrangement with Harper and Row Publishers, New York. 1967 pp. 456-457 Fall discusses in depth the lack of French Air support and the antecedents that led to the shortage following World War II.
[10] Pottier, Philippe(2005)’Articles: GCMA/GMI: A French Experience in Counterinsurgency during the French Indochina War’, Small Wars & Insurgencies,16:2,125 — 146http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09592310500079874
[11] Simpson, Howard K. “Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot,”Potomac Books Inc. Washington DC 2005, originally published by Brassey’s Inc. 1994 pp. 170-171
[12] Trinquier, Roger. “Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency,” translated from the French by Daniel Lee with an Introduction by Bernard B. Fall. Praeger Security International, Westport CT and London. 1964 and 2006. Originally published under the title “La Guerre Moderne” by Editions Table Ronde. p.87
[13] Windrow. p.652.
[14] Roy, Jules. “The Battle of Dien Bien Phu” Carrol and Graf Publishers, New York 1984. Translated from the French by Robert Baldrick. English translation copyright 1965 by Harper and Row Publishers, New York. p.xxx
[15] Galula, David. “Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice.”Praeger Security International, Westport CT 1964 and 2006 p. 54
[16] Krepinevich. p.213
[17] Ibid. p.24
[18] Nagl, John A. “Learning to East Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam,” University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2005 p.138
[19] Shy. p.856
[20] Krepinevich. p.202
[21] Spector, Ronald H. “After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam,” Vintage Press, a division of Random House, New York, 1993 p.314
[22] Millett, Allan R. and Maslowski, Peter. “For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America.” The Free Press, a division of Macmillian, Inc. New York, 1984 p.555
[23] Windrow. p.655
[24] Ibid. p.657
[25] Ibid.
[26] Moore, Harold G and Galloway, Joseph L. “We were Soldiers Once…and Young: Ia Drang: The Battle that Changed Vietnam,” Harper Collins Publishers, New York NY 1992 p. xx
[27] The Russian General Staff. The Soviet Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost” translated and edited by Lester A. Grau and Michael A. Gress, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence KS 2002 p.17.
[28] Ibid. p.18
[29] Ibid. p.43
[30] Ibid. p.28
[31] Ibid. p.309
[32] Ibid. p.xix
[33] Ibid. p.48
[34] Ibid. pp.48-51
[35] McChrystal, Stanley. “Commander’s Initial Assessment Commander International Security Assistance Force Afghanistan” dated 30 August 2009 pp. 1-2
[36] “Russian veteran warns of Afghan violence.” Reuters 16 May 2011. Edited by Paul Tait and Daniel Magnowski obtained 11 June 2011 at http://www.trust.org/alertnet/news/interview-russian-veteran-warns-of-unsolvable-afghan-violence/
[37] Krepinevich. p.275
[38] Ibid. p.274

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, Political Commentary, vietnam, world war two in europe

A Quiet Remembrance: The Fall of Dien Bien Phu May 7th 1954

French Prisoners

On May 7th in Hanoi a small remembrance was held to mark the fall of Dien Bien Phu and honor the victor, 101 year old General Vo Nguyen Giap at his home.  It was one of the few remembrances held anywhere marking that battle which was one of the watersheds of the 20th Century. A half a world away in Houston Texas a small group of French veterans, expatriates and historians laid a wreath at the Vietnam War Memorial.  In Paris an ever shrinking number of French survivors gather each year on May 7th at 1815 hours for a religious service at the Church of Saint Louis des Invalides to remember the dead and missing of the French Expeditionary Corps lost in Indochina.  This battle is nearly forgotten by time even though it and the war that it symbolized is probably the one that we need to learn from before Afghanistan becomes our Indochina.

French Major Marcel Bigeard at Dien Bien Phu. A revered leader he died in 2010

On May 8th 1954 the last of the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Viet Minh following the surrender of the main garrison the previous day.  It was the end of the ill-fated Operation Castor in which the French had planned to lure the Viet Minh Regulars into open battle and use superior firepower to decimate them.  The strategy which had been used once on a smaller scale the previous year at Na Son would prove to be the Göttdammerung of French colonial rule in Indochina.

French Paras landing at Dien Bien Phu

The French had thought they had come up with a template based on Na Son in how to engage and destroy the Viet Minh which had in the years between 1945 and 1954 had turned an insurgent force into a strong Army capable of taking on large French forces.  As a result the French decided that they would attempt to draw Giap’s Army into open combat where their superiority in heavy weaponry and in the air could be used to destroy the Viet Minh. The plan was called the “Air-land base.”  It involved having strong forces in a defensible position deep behind enemy lines supplied by air.  At Na Son the plan worked as the French were on high ground and had superiority in artillery and air forces.  They were also were blessed by General Giap using human wave assaults which made the Viet Minh troops fodder for the French defenders.  Even still Na Son was a near run thing for the French and had almost no effect on Viet Minh operations elsewhere in Indochina while tying down a almost a full division of troops and a large portion of French air power. They inflicted heavy losses on the Viet Minh but did not destroy them.

The French command assumed that they had found a way to defeat the Viet Minh.  They decided to repeat the strategy used at Na-Son at the remote the remote town of Dien Bien Phu near the Laotian border.  The French desired to use Dien Bien Phu as a base from which they could conduct offensive operations against the Viet Minh and to draw Giap’s forces into a conventional fight that they thought they could win.  Unfortunately the French chose badly. Dien Bien Phu lay in a marshy valley surrounded by mountains which were covered in dense nearly impassible jungle.  It was a poor location to conduct offensive operations from and a worse place to defend.

Viet Minh Main Force Regulars

The French elected to go light on artillery and due to the terrain it had to be deployed in nearly open conditions with neither cover not concealment.  Unlike Na Son the Dien Bien Phu air head was at the far end of the range of French aircraft, especially relatively weak tactical air assets.  French logistics needs were far greater than the French Air Force and American contractors could supply.  The French strong points in the valley were exposed and not mutually supporting and as such Giap and the Viet Minh were able to close with and attack each strong point in time overwhelming each after valiant French resistance.  The terrain was so poor that French units were incapable of any meaningful offensive operations against the Viet Minh.  As such they could only dig in and wait for battle.  Even so many positions were not adequately fortified and the artillery was exposed. The French garrison was a good force.  It was comprised of airborne units, the Foreign Legion, Colonial Paratroops (Marines), North Africans from Tunisia and Algeria as well as Vietnamese troops.  Many of the officers including Lieutenant Colonel Langlais and Major Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indo-China including David Galula and Jacques Trinquier would write books which would help Americans in Iraq.  Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of the Giap and his divisions.

Giap rapidly concentrated his forces and built excellent logistics support.  He placed his artillery in well concealed and fortified positions which could use direct fire on French positions. Giap also had more and heavier artillery than the French believed him to have.  Additionally he brought in a large number of anti-aircraft batteries whose positions enabled the Viet Minh to take a heavy toll among French Aircraft.  Giap also did not throw his men away in human assaults.  Instead he used his Sappers (combat engineers) to build protective trenches leading up to the very wire of French defensive positions.  In time these trenches came to resemble a spider web.

Without belaboring this post the French fought hard as did the Viet Minh.  Many French positions were overwhelmed by accurate artillery and well planned attacks.  The French hoped for U.S. air intervention, even the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh.  They were turned down.  Relief forces were unable to get through.  The garrison died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops and Legionaries.  The French garrison was let down by their high command and their government and lost the battle due to inadequate logistics and air power.  The survivors endured a forced march of nearly 400 miles by foot to POW camps in which many died.  Many were subjected to torture and group discipline.  Few French caved to the Viet Minh interrogations but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries.  French and their Algerian comrades would apply these lessons against each other within a year of their release.  French soldiers and officers were shipped from Indo-China to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency.  Militarily they had all but won the war when their government pulled out. French troops, especially the Legionaries and Paratroops felt betrayed by their nation, much like many Vietnam Vets felt about the United States government after that war.  I find today that both our government and people are caring for our returning troops in a far better manner than the past.  Even still the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan share almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong.

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indo-China were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam.  In fact the US Army made a conscious effort to ignore the advice of those that they called “losers.”  It was an arrogance for which we paid dearly in that war.

Despite our efforts in Afghanistan and the valiant sacrifices of our Marines and Soldiers we seem to have difficulty learning the lessons of the Vietnam Wars.  Old habits die hard, counterinsurgency done right isn’t sexy and there are no easy formulas to make it work.  What works in one country may not work in another as we are found when we tried to emulate our counterinsurgency success in Iraq in Afghanistan.  Despite a lot of institutional resistance from traditionally minded Army officers we were able to apply the lessons of counterinsurgency in Iraq and work with Iraqis to make that country more secure than it was before we took this type of warfare seriously.  Despite its continued problems Iraq is doing better and will likely do well in the long run as it recovers from the damage caused by the war.  They have known civilization since antiquity and are a proud people.  Someday I hope to take up the invitation of Iraqi friends to go back as they say as a tourist.

I am concerned about Afghanistan, despite the killing of Osama Bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan because it seems that the Taliban spring offensive is off to a good start.  U.S. and NATO Forces in Khandehar and Helmand Province have been placed on a higher alert and confined to their bases following a major assault on the Afghan provincial government installations in Khandehar.  The Taliban and other Afghan insurgents are only concerned with Afghanistan and even though Bin Laden is dead the deepening rift between the United States and Pakistan will likely ensure that they will enjoy military, personnel, financial support from many in Pakistan including the Intelligence agency in the remote and ungovernable northwest territories of that country which are a safe haven much like Communist China was for the Viet Minh.

Will there be a situation where an isolated NATO garrison is overrun by Taliban forces as French forces were in Indochina?  An isolated outpost was nearly overrun at Wanat in July of 2008 and at two isolated outposts near the Pakistani border in October 2009.  One would hope not, but we cannot underestimate the Afghans and their ability to adapt to NATO tactics and weapons.   Their predecessors successfully drove out the Soviets, the British, the Persians and the Greeks.  Dien Bien Phu is a warning from history not to leave troops in places where their exposure leaves them vulnerable.

But even more Dien Bien Phu serves to remind us that in such wars it is not always the highly trained and organized Western forces that win.  These are local wars and once the momentum shifts to the insurgent they are difficult to turn around.  In a sense the French were trying to do what we are trying to do now in taking the fight to the enemy.  It turned out badly for them and it could turn out badly for us.  I hope that we don’t forget.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“Victory” and Reality: Never think that War will be Easy

“No one starts a war-or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so-without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” – Karl von Clausewitz

I was talking with a friend recently and the subject came to the support of a certain church for the war in Iraq back in 2003.  My friend, who is very thoughtful, spiritual and circumspect made the comment that “they were even against the war” when we discussed the merits of this particular church.  I thought for a second and said “after the past nine years of war was that wrong?” He paused a moment and said “I see your point.” I think that in the early months and years of this war, where we quickly deposed the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq that we made unfounded assumptions about our “successes” with the end result that we have had to fight a much more protracted, bloody and costly series of wars than we had ever imagined. Like so many nations who entered into wars believing that they would have easy victories achieved at a cheap price in blood and treasure we have discovered once again that the serpent of the fog and friction of war coupled with hasty or politically expedient decisions has come to cause us great pain as a nation and after nine years a foreboding sense that we might not win in Afghanistan.

Like most Americans after the attacks of 9-11-2001 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon I was all in favor of going after those that attacked this country wherever they were to bring those that planned these vile attacks to justice.  Within a month the United States had driven the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan and put the leaders of Al Qaida on the run.  By 2002 the US Government had began making a case against Iraq, one of a trio of nations identified as the “Axis of Evil.”  In 2003 we went to war with Iraq after failing to convince many allies of the necessity of the attack. When the “shock and awe” campaign was launched, Iraq forces defeated, Baghdad captured and Saddam Hussein driven from power there was a heady feeling of success.  Even those opposed to the invasion were amazed at the speed of and apparent ease of the conquest as pictures of cheering Iraqis filled the screen as the statues of Saddam came down.  In May President Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln to proclaim “mission accomplished.” “We support the troops” ribbons and bumper stickers were the rage, victory has many friends and some churches even ascribed the victory to God.  But as the muse would say to the returning Roman conquerors, “victory is fleeting.”

We thought that we had achieved a “revolution in warfare” in the two campaigns but within months the tide had shifted in Iraq as in a colossal mistake of epic proportions a decision was made either in Washington DC or by the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority Ambassador Paul Bremer. A decision was made to disband the Iraqi Military, Police and Civil Service offices without having enough troops in place to police Iraq or civilians including NGOs and the UN available to fill the civil service gaps.  This was in direct contravention to years of CENTCOM plans. To make matters worse we had gone in so light that we had not disarmed or demobilized the Iraqi forces, thus we sent the people who could best help us restore Iraq to working order home. We sent them home and as anyone that knows Arab culture can tell you we dishonored them and created enemies out of potential friends while placing corrupt opportunists in power.  It was if we were making things up as we went rather than thinking things through and the result was a disaster.  By the end of 2004 a full-fledged insurgency had broken out an insurgency that would cost thousands of Americans and Iraqis their lives with tens of thousands of others wounded.  It was not until late 2007 and 2008 that the tides turned in Iraq as Iraqi Sunnis realized that Al Qaida backed insurgents were more of a threat to them than the American forces were.

Over the course of the war the thrill of the early days was forgotten as American Soldiers and Marines engaged a resourceful enemy that was willing to fight us in ways that we had neither expected nor planned.  War loses its luster when the thrill of victory is gone.  With the transition of the mission in Iraq and a renewed focus on Afghanistan where the Taliban had come back with a vengeance we are now moving toward being at war for 10 years.  We have fought the war with a military force that is well under 1% of the US population.  The military has fought well. We have not been defeated in open combat despite losing many troops to IEDs and ambushes; though in Afghanistan there have been a couple of near run events where small bases were nearly overrun by Taliban forces. We should remember General Hans Guderian, the creator of the Blitzkrieg and his words about the German campaign in Russia after the Battle of Kursk in 1943: “We have severely underestimated the Russians, the extent of the country and the treachery of the climate. This is the revenge of reality.” General Heinz Guderian

Nine plus years after 9-11 most of the American public as well as the political class of both parties have soured on the wars even while others seek war with Iran and maybe North Korea. I wonder about the wisdom of taking on even more enemies when the military is stretched to the breaking point and the nation is heading into bankruptcy.

But such things are not new from a historic point of view, if only we would look to history. Back in 1940 after their victories in France and the Low Countries the Germans felt as if they were invincible. By 1941 their troops were bailing out the Italians in North Africa and the Balkans while engaging the British in the air above Great Britain and in the seas around it. That did not stop Hitler from attacking the Soviet Union where as in France and the Balkans the German Army enjoyed amazing success until winter arrived and the Soviets counter-attacked.  Thereafter the German Army would not enjoy the same success and millions of German Soldiers; not to mention at least 20 million Soviet citizens and Red Army Soldiers died. Eventually the Wehrmacht was shattered, defeated and Europe devastated.

I am not saying that this will happen to the US, but it can.  We need to learn from history and look at how good people were enticed by the aphrodisiac of the “victory disease” that accompanied supposedly easy victories.  If one looks at Germany many officers, soldiers and civilians drank the aphrodisiac of victory and had their faith in Germany, their leaders and their cause destroyed as the war turned against them and they experienced defeat even while many times getting the best of their enemies on the battlefield.  Honorable men that had served their country well were either cashiered by the Nazi government and many killed by that instrument of evil because they voiced opposition to the regime.  Initially many had been lured into the trap of easy victory.

Back in 2001 and into 2003 I was like many of those men who served in the German military.  I was excited about the apparent easy victories in both Afghanistan and Iraq.   But like some German officers of that day who realized as the campaign in Russia was going badly into the fall of 1941 by late 2003 I began to sense that something was going terrible wrong in Iraq.  I think it was the moment that I heard that we had disbanded the Iraqi Army, Security forces and Civil Service as I started my course of study with the Marine Command and Staff College program held at the Joint Forces Staff College.  The experience of serving with thoughtful Marines in my unit and my fellow students; Marine, Navy, Coast Guard and Allied officers at the school helped me see the danger that was developing in our campaigns.  By the time I arrived in Iraq in the summer of 2007 the tide was beginning to turn but I saw the devastation of the country, ministered to wounded Marines and Soldiers and seen the affect of the war on Iraqis.  My duties with our advisors and their Iraqi counterparts were enlightening as I travelled about Al Anbar Province.

In the end I think that the Iraqis despite everything will do okay. I believe that most are tired of war and will not succumb again to sectarian violence on a large scale. I do not think that they have an easy road ahead but I believe the words of Brigadier General Ali as I left him for the final time: “You come back to Iraq in five years, as tourist, it will be better then.” I am not so optimistic about Afghanistan or Pakistan and I do not think we have yet seen the worst in those countries, but at least despite all of our mistakes Iraq most likely will do well.

The experience of war coupled with my study of history and military theory at the Command and Staff College as well as in my studies from my Master’s degree in Military History changed my perspective. I still serve faithfully and hope and pray for a conclusion to the wars that leaves us in better shape and brings peace to the lands that we have shed the blood of our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and other Federal intelligence, diplomatic and police agencies and treasure in.  I pray for my friends serving in harm’s way and those preparing to deploy and I pray for the safety of my Iraqi military friends and their families.

I am not a defeatist should someone level that charge at me.  I agree with Ralph Peters who made this comment: “We will not be beaten. But we may be shamed and embarrassed on a needlessly long road to victory.” However, I wonder if this country has the will to win and to make the sacrifices to do so and not just shovel them off on those that serve and have served throughout this war, a war which appears to have no end and which may expand to other countries.

Like the Germans we are engaged in a multi-front and multi-theater war but we have been trying to do so upon the backs of less than one percent of the population. This allows the rest of the country to live under the illusion of peace and prosperity with the bitter losses and memories of 9-11 fade into a yearly remembrance called “Patriot Day” by politicians of all stripes who often mouth empty words to eulogize the victims and thank the troops and then move on to their next fundraiser.  By doing this we have worn out the force without the full support of the nation which is absolutely necessary for the successful prosecution of a war, especially a long drawn out war such as we have now.  Unfortunately most Americans have little patience and while we mythologize a lot about World War Two one has to remember that there was a strong lobby that desired to end the war in 1944 even if victory had not been achieved.

We have a military now composed of many battle hardened and deployment weary soldiers who live in a world that the bulk of the nation does not understand nor really wants to understand.  We have seen the cost of the war multiply to the point that it has drained the ability of the military to prepare for other wars and modernize itself.  What happens if God forbid we are forced into a war with Iran or North Korea?  With what will we fight those wars?

When the Allies were cracking the German front in Normandy and the Red Army was decimating Army Group Center in the East, Field Marshall Gerd Von Rundstedt was asked what needed to be done by a General at Hitler’s military headquarters. The old Prussian warhorse simply said “make peace you idiot.” He was fired shortly thereafter. We certainly have not reached that point but should anything else break out while we are still engaged in Afghanistan and maintain a large number of troops in Iraq that could change.

One always needs to be careful when getting into “easy” and “quick” wars as more often than not they are neither easy nor quick.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Fighting a World Wide Insurgency: The Problem Fighting Revolutionary Terrorists and Insurgents- Part One

Taliban Insurgents

“Warfare is now an interlocking system of actions political, economic, psychological; military that aims at the overthrow of the established authority in a country and its replacement by another regime.  To achieve this end, the aggressor tries to exploit the internal tensions of the country attacked ideological, social, religious, economic, any conflict liable to have a profound influence on the population to be conquered.” Roger Trinquier Modern Warfare

The United State and our allies have been at war with Islamic terrorists as well as nationally based insurgencies for over nine years.  The war that we are fighting is not like the Second World War where we fought a conventional war against enemies that were defined by national, political and geographic boundaries.  That war as well as the First World War and most recently the 1991 Gulf War but rather is a global insurgency in which we are pitted against a number of sometimes disparate groups One of the things that seems to be misunderstood by much of the media as well as the public

Muslim terrorist groups they use some tenants of Islam, mostly from the Wahabi school that emerged on the Arabian Peninsula in the late 1700s to justify what they do. Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard use the Islam taught by the school of the Ayatollah to do the same.

However that being said there are a sizable number of Muslims worldwide that oppose the terrorists and their brands of Islam but still can be offended and driven to the other side by Americans doing just what pastor Jones got started. The radicals take this and use it as propaganda against us.

The fact is that it is all about using propaganda effectively and not giving the terrorists the grist they need to use against us. The terrorist or the insurgent has no need to tell the truth and usually will not and will twist any “truth” to his own end. This is true in every revolutionary war, which is what all of these groups are waging. They are fighting to turn all of Islam and anyone else they can against us. This is the case since the beginning of time and not limited to Muslims.

We as Americans have been pretty lousy at this except when we were the revolutionaries. It is a fact, not just with the Muslims but all revolutionaries that since they are on the weak side of the military equation that they use propaganda, especially what any of our people do to radicalize people on the fence against us. Jones and others played into their hands and by doing so jeopardize the mission and endanger our troops. The fact is that we neither have the resources or people to allow this to become a war against all of Islam. Thus we have to exploit natural divisions and cultural divides in the Moslem world to isolate and neutralize the radicals of Al Qaeda, Hamas, the Taliban, Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

It may seem on the surface to be politically correct appeasement but a true strategic purpose is served. The counter-insurgent cannot do what the insurgent can as they will lose the propaganda war and with it the broader war. We are fighting a world-wide revolutionary war against Moslem fundamentalist extremists that want us to make it a war against all of Islam. If that were to be the case we would have to go to a total war footing, ignore our own economy renew the draft and prepare for a war that in the long run we cannot win and will leave us as broken as Germany after WWII.

The problem with Islam as that for the most part much of Islam especially in the Middle East still lives in the 14th century with fancy technology. They did not have the Renaissance, Reformation or the enlightenment thus the appeal of the fundamentalist sects and radical Islam. That makes our job hard and that of Bin Laden easy as their world-view  promotes a black and white understanding of the world which makes recruitment of youthful idealists easy especially when the conflict is framed as against “Crusaders” or “Imperialists” opposed to Islam.

The war that we are engaged in is not conventional and we do not have a good record in recent times of fighting this kind of war. We lost in Vietnam because we ignored this. We won all the battles and lost the war. Despite what some pundits believe this is not like WWII and no new incarnation of George Patton will win it.

As I said we are engaged in a revolutionary war which is different than other types of war. In revolutionary wars the revolutionary no matter what his cause is able to use propaganda to influence opinion, usually of people that they are trying to bring to their side. Our founders were very good in portraying the British as violent and brutal occupiers. We used British excess especially in Boston and in the South against them very well. The Jihadists are promoting a revolutionary cause, that cause being the overthrow of established governments in the Middle East and bringing about a radical and fundamental brand of Islamic rule. This happened in Iran and after 30 years the young people are beginning to revolt against the Ayatollahs. It is also revolutionary because they are actively promoting the overthrow of established states and have a goal of establishing their brand of Islam over the entire world. The use revolutionary techniques and strategies used successfully by other revolutionaries attempting to control the populations where they operate through both terror and by discrediting unpopular or corrupt governments.

One of the problems that we in the United States have in understanding Al Qaida and other Islamic groups that rely on terrorism as their primary means of conducting warfare is the nature of the terrorist himself.  Roger Trinquier who observed and fought against such groups in the 1940s and 1950s wrote one of the fundamental books on this type of warfare.  Trinquier said something that will undoubtedly be taken wrong by some readers of this essay but if one understands the nature of Revolutionary war has been true going back for centuries and is not confined to militant Islamic Fundamentalism.   Trinquier observed that “the terrorist should not be considered an ordinary criminal.  Actually he fights within the framework of his organization, without personal interest, for a cause he considers noble and for a respectable ideal, the same as soldiers in the armies confronting him.”

One can see how this is demonstrated in history in such disparate groups as the Israeli Irgun fighters who used terrorist tactics from 1931 until the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 against the British occupiers, the Irish Republican Army.  This is even part of the American experience in the post Civil War South of the Reconstruction era.  Then many Southern whites organized into guerrilla terrorist units such as the Klan in Tennessee, the Red Shirts in South Carolina, the Knights of the White Camellia in Louisiana, the Young Men’s Democratic Club in Florida in order to attack anyone associated with Reconstruction. Their targets included newly free blacks, carpetbaggers, Scalawags, teachers from the North, Freedmen Bureau officials, northern troops, and Republicans.  If you read their writings or even query their current day descendants you will find that none believed that they were criminals and their actions, while unacceptable to many were justified.  One does not have to agree that the terrorists cause is right to acknowledge that terrorists believe this to be true.  Thus in fighting the terrorist organizations one has to employ a wide variety of tactics to protect the populations targeted by terrorists to include police, limited military involvement, the use of propaganda, and “soft” methods to provide aid to these populations and isolate the terrorists from them.

The current batch of Jihadists are actually fairly disparate and not necessarily allies as we found out in Iraq where Al Qaeda and the foreign fighters turned the population of Al Anbar Province against them and brought that Sunni population to our side. They also have sometimes conflicting goals or limit their cause to local areas. The Sunni and the Shi’a have a hard time working together so while this is a global revolution it is not monolithic. Thus if we are smart we can exploit natural divisions in these groups. To do so we have to play smart in how we fight them recognizing that the “soft” approach often is better as the French found out too late in Vietnam but did well with in Algeria. See books by David Galula “Counterinsurgency in Algeria 1956-1954” “Counterinsurgency Warfare”, Roger Trinquier’s “Modern Warfare” as well as the book by Alister Horne “A Savage War of Peace” all are excellent reads. Bernard Fall’s book “Street Without Joy” is a good study of how this happened in French Indochina. The US Counterinsurgency Manual is available online or in bookstores as is “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife” by John Nagl, a major writer of US Counterinsurgency doctrine.

US Advisors with Afghan Army Officers

In a world-wide insurgency even actions which seem logical to Americans at home can be detrimental to US Forces and political goals in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq and throughout the Muslim world. I’m not a fan of the Mosque near the World Trade Center even though it is the equivalent of 6 normal city blocks away and not visible from the site. Many Americans if not an outright majority oppose this building project yet the builders don’t seem to understand the raw wounds that the project has opened for many Americans. I’m sure for them that much of it is a business, they are developers in New York City and the land was available. Yet the project can quite rightly be seen as insensitive because of what it means to the victims.

At the same time politicians and protesters by naming it the “Ground Zero Mosque” has raised its propaganda value exponentially, that is why Hamas and Hezbollah have also raised the ante in their talk about it. Thus what was an annoyance and hurtful to the victims has become a propaganda victory for the terrorists. In a sense we have let our collective outrage play into the terrorist’s hands. When he pastor of a small church in Florida threatened to burn a large number of copies of the Koran he helped ignite a firestorm of protest in many parts of the Islamic world especially in the epicenter of our current struggle in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

We are at war with the warlike highly militant strains of Islam and trying to keep the more Western leaning peaceful variants on the sidelines or enlist them to our side. This is a hard path for our leaders to walk as President Bush found out and President Obama is finding out is that most Americans don’t see it that way.  To many Americans all of Islam is the enemy and nothing can change that and the heated passion of our population often plays into the hands of our enemies.  Thus both Presidents’ comments about Islam have usually fallen on deaf ears and both have been excoriated for straddling this fence.

Anyway as you gather I have spent a considerable amount of time studying this type of warfare. I admit that this is pretty unusual for a chaplain, but I also have a Masters degree in Military History as well as the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. When I was in Iraq I knew more than many Marine and Army officers about fighting this type of war. Kind of weird I know but what can I say?

One of the most famous and successful practitioners of Counterinsurgency Warfare was French Colonel David Galula.  Galula in a sense is the “voice crying in the wilderness” of counterinsurgency doctrine and his methods have been used with some measure of success during the “Surge” in Iraq and the “Anbar Awakening” which turned the tide of the Iraqi insurgency.  Galula commented about terrorist tactics, tactics that have not changed in either Iraq or Afghanistan:

“The rebels realized that they could achieve the greatest psychological effect on the French and on world opinion at the cheapest price by stepping up terrorism in the main cities, notably in Algiers, which served as headquarters to most French and foreign correspondents and thus acted as a natural amplifier. A grenade or a bomb in a café there would produce far more noise than an obscure ambush against French soldiers in the Ouarsenis Mountains.” Galula “Counterinsurgency in Algeria”

One of the most frustrating aspects for military and police personnel fighting insurgencies that employ terrorist tactics is that quite often superior forces cannot finish off the insurgents. Galula provides an answer to this question.

“Our forces were vastly superior to the rebels. Then why couldn’t we finish with them quickly? Because they managed to mobilize the population through terror and persuasion . . . It was therefore imperative that we isolate the rebels from the population and that we gain the support of the population.  This implied that under no circumstances could we afford to antagonize the population even if we had to take risks for ourselves in sparing it.”

This is a lesson that we have not always learned as incidents such as the Abu Ghraib torture and most recently a series of targeted killings of Afghan civilians by a squad of Army Soldiers in Afghanistan in which they allegedly planned the killings in advance and kept body parts of their victims.  Unfortunately atrocities like this as was demonstrated at Mei Lai in Vietnam do little to the enemy and everything to turn the populations that we are trying to protect and world opinion against us. It also provides grist for the terrorist propaganda purposes and aids him in recruiting more insurgents to his cause.

Galula recognized the quandary that commanders of police and military units involved in counterinsurgency operations face when dealing with populations where terrorists operate. Galula was a realist about this and noted “If we distinguish between people and rebels, then we have a chance. One cannot catch a fly with vinegar. My rules are this: outwardly treat every civilian as a friend; inwardly you must consider him as a rebel ally until you have positive proof to the contrary.” This may seem contradictory but the concept was used by Ronald Reagan during the Cold War using the term “trust but verify” in relationship to the Soviet Union and arms control.

David Kilcullen an Australian Army Lieutenant Colonel and counterinsurgency expert and advisor to General David Petreus noted

Colonel Dennis Drew writing in 1988 understood the linkage of all parts of insurgency and how well an insurgency represents the essence of the thought of Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz: “Although theorists consider insurgent warfare to be anti-Clausewitzian, such warfare is the very embodiment of the Prussian master’s most famous dictum. Insurgency represents the total integration of political and military factors, but with political factors always in complete domination.” (INSURGENCY AND COUNTERINSURGENCY American Military Dilemmas and Doctrinal Proposals- Air University Press Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama 1988)

Thus attempting to fight an insurgency and terrorist groups thinking that one can defeat them in the style of world War Two, as is so often espoused by pundits and amateur military theorists that crowd the airwaves and cyber space is foolish and only leads to the defeat of the counter-insurgent and the loss of the population targeted by the insurgent. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not conventional wars and the political outweighs the military in every respect.  As Drew noted:

“Although the military aspect of the struggle may ebb and flow, the source of insurgent strength–a covert political infrastructure–remains constant. This infrastructure, the bitter fruit resulting from the perceived political and economic inequities sown much earlier, is the most important ingredient in the insurgent recipe for success. The political infrastructure performs at least six major functions vital to the survival, growth, and eventual success of the insurgency: (1) intelligence gathering and transmission; (2) provision of supplies and financial resources; (13) recruitment; (4) political expansion and penetration; (5) sabotage, terrorism, and intimidation; and (6) establishment of a shadow government.”

This is exactly what has happened in Afghanistan and why we have such difficulty in fighting the insurgency.

One of the most common tactics that the United States has attempted in attacking the insurgents is the strategy of decapitation. In this the U.S. has attempted to kill the leaders at the top echelons of the insurgency with limited success. Even when we kill off a senior Al Qaida or Taliban leader others rapidly take their place with little affect in their operations against us. Galula recognized the fallacy of this approach in Algeria when the French government succeeded in capturing five top leaders of the Algerian rebellion. “Then, five top leaders of the rebellion, including Ben Bella, had been neatly caught during a flight from Rabat to Tunis. Their capture, I admit, had little effect on the direction of the rebellion, because the movement was too loosely organized to crumble under such a blow.” The lesson here is that should we ever succeed in capturing or killing Osama Bin Laden or Mullah Omar that this will not lead to victory unless we are able to protect the population of Afghanistan.

Protecting the population Iraqi Police and Civilians in Ramadi

To do this the population must come to our side because they know that we will stay the course and that we can be counted on to help them.  This cannot just be the military aspect of protecting them against the terrorists as well as economic and political reforms that is consistent with their traditional way of life which is not necessarily consistent with Western political and social traditions or practices. In fact the difficulty for the United States and NATO in Afghanistan is the political struggle on the home front where as Drew states:

“American military dilemma concerns time, public support, and image. Time is the ally of the insurgent; the longer an insurgent survives, the stronger its chances of growing. Meanwhile, as time drags on, the American military position is weakened by declining support, impatience, and war weariness at home, particularly if there is no perceived progress in the struggle. Maintaining public support is clearly a responsibility of the political side of the equation and involves factors far beyond the battlefield–although military progress is a key ingredient. The connection between the duration of the struggle and public support is the image of the insurgency presented to the American body politic.”

To be continued….

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve’s Military History and Theory Articles

I am not normal, ask anyone who knows me.  I am a Priest who is also a military history and theory “wonk.”  I guess part of the reason for this as that I did not begin life as a clergyman. In fact way back when, when I was a young whippersnapper it was my desire to be in the military.  I was a Navy brat who grew up during the height of the Vietnam War and had friends whose fathers did not return from that war.  Likewise when my dad was serving in Vietnam surrounded by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in a town called An Loc I had a blessed Sunday school teacher tell me that my dad was a “baby killer.”  When you are an eleven year or twelve year-old and get told that your dad is a baby killer by some hippie wench you grow somewhat cynical about such people early in life.

Even worse than Limbaugh and Hannity is Michael Savage. Savage who despite having an earned PhD in the field of nutrition is so clueless and rude in discussing military issues that I can’t believe my ears whenever I run into his program. His absolute disdain that he shows for military leadership and actual implications of how we wage war in this era is so off base that it isn’t even funny.  For all of their lack of understanding of military strategy and policy at least Limbaugh and Hannity for the most part treat people in the military respectfully.

We no longer live in the World War Two world, warfare has changed and as the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review notes that the United States must “prevail in today’s wars” while at the same time “prevent and deter conflict” which involves “preventing the rise of threats to U.S. interests requires the integrated use of diplomacy, development, and defense, along with intelligence, law enforcement, and economic tools of statecraft, to help build the capacity of partners to maintain and promote stability.” If deterrence fails we must Prepare to defeat adversaries and succeed in a wide range of contingencies: If deterrence fails and adversaries challenge our interests with the threat or use of force, the United States must be prepared to respond in support of U.S. national interests. Not all contingencies will require the involvement of U.S. military forces, but the Defense Department must be prepared to provide the President with options across a wide range of contingencies, which include supporting a response to an attack or natural disaster at home, defeating aggression by adversary states, supporting and stabilizing fragile states facing serious internal threats, and preventing human suffering due to mass atrocities or large-scale natural disasters abroad.” (2010 QDR Executive Summary pp. v-vi)

So tonight I am highlighting a series of articles that I have written that deal with the kind of war that we are waging in Afghanistan and have done in Iraq as well as a couple of studies from military history that discuss how the diplomatic, intelligence, economic and military resources of a nation are all important in the continuum of conflict and the importance of alliances when waging global warfare. These are the articles that I have produced so far and will as time goes on continue to add to.  They span the spectrum and hopefully will assist the reader in sorting through a lot of the mindless gibberish that is pumped out from the political right and left on TV, radio and the internet.  Some of these are drawn out of military history but have an application today while others are more targeted at what is going on today.  Since this is an ever expanding subject for me I expect to post more articles on a regular basis.

Learning to Apply the Principles of Counterinsurgency Part One: Introduction to the Soviet-Afghan War

Mission Accomplished in Al Anbar: The Marines Turn Over the Mission to the Iraqis

The Anomaly of Operation Desert Storm and Its Consequences Today

War Without Mercy: Race, Religion, Ideology and Total War

Lessons on Coalition Warfare: The Dysfunctional Coalition German and the Axis Partners on the Eastern Front

The Afghan War 2009-2012: Lessons from Algeria 1954-1960 A Review of “A Savage War of Peace

Moslem Allies and Friends

Lessons for the Afghan War: The Effects of Counterinsurgency Warfare on the French Army in Indo-China and Algeria and the United States Military in Vietnam

The most dangerous assignment: 4 More Advisers Die In Afghanistan

Brothers to the End…the Bond between those Who Serve Together in Unpopular Wars

Iran Makes Noise in Persian Gulf: Obama Dispatches Patriots and Ships to Deter

Mission Accomplished in Al Anbar: The Marines Turn Over the Mission to the Iraqis

The Dangerous and Often Thankless Duty of Military Advisers

More on our Unsung Heroes-Military Advisers, Past and Present

The Ideological War: How Hitler’s Racial Theories Influenced German Operations in Poland and Russia

D-Day- Courage, Sacrifice and Luck, the Costs of War and Reconciliation

Dien Bien Phu- Reflections 55 Years Later

God in the Empty Places

I hope that this rather diverse series of articles and my comments will be helpful to the reader in sorting through all the crap that floats about as “truth” from all sides of the media and the various political parties, special interest groups and others more intent on seeing their often divergent and uninformed agendas.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under counterinsurency in afghanistan, Foreign Policy, hampton roads and tidewater, History, iraq,afghanistan, Military

Learning to Apply the Principles of Counterinsurgency Part One: Introduction to the Soviet-Afghan War

Soviets Enter Afghanistan

Note: This is the First Part of a Series which I will be writing on Afghanistan and Counterinsurgency strategy in that country. Part of this will be a review of various historical materials especially from Russian sources as well as analysis of the Afghan insurgency and its foreign supporters including Al Qaeda. I have written a number of other articles on the Afghan War and associated topics.  Links are provided at the end of this article.

Counterinsurgency is not just thinking man’s warfare—it is the graduate level of war. Special Forces Officer in Iraq, 2005

“Protracted conflicts favor insurgents, and no approach makes better use of that asymmetry than the protracted popular war. The Chinese Communists used this approach to conquer China after World War II. The North Vietnamese and Algerians adapted it to fit their respective situations. And some Al Qaeda leaders suggest it in their writings today. This approach is complex; few contemporary insurgent movements apply its full program, although many apply parts of it. It is, therefore, of more than just historical interest. Knowledge of it can be a powerful aid to understanding some insurgent movements.”[i]

Introduction

US Training Team Base

The United States has entered its 9th year of military involvement in Afghanistan following the October 2001 invasion that came as a response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon of September 11th 2001.  In that time the United States, its NATO allies and the United Nations have endeavored to bring stability as well as a more democratic and accountable government to the country in the face of resistance from various political, religious and tribal groups with a diverse and sometimes conflicting agendas.  The foremost of these resistance groups was and is the Taliban which arose during the Soviet occupation of the country and eventually took power after winning a civil war against a number of other Mujahidin groups.   As the United States diverted force and focused its efforts on Iraq’s insurgency the Taliban using bases in remote areas along the Pakistani border and monetary and political support from Moslem groups with similar goals rehabilitated and reorganized its forces and began the process of regaining influence in Afghanistan.  By 2008 it was apparent that the situation had reached a crisis point.  The vast majority of Afghans as well as many in the international community came to view the Karzai government as corrupt, weak and unpopular.  The Taliban and other groups began to work more closely together despite differing agendas and the political and military situation deteriorated to the point that the incoming Obama administration appointed a new commander, General Stanley McChrystal to evaluate the situation and based on his recommendations and those of General David Petreus, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and others announced a “surge” to try to regain the initiative in the country.  That troop buildup is currently underway. By the time it reaches its maximum the United States will have approximately 100, 000 troops in Afghanistan and the NATO and ISAF allies approximately another 38,000.  These are supporting and training the Afghan National Army and Police which number approximately 97,000 in the Army and another 98,000 in the National Police.  The Afghan forces have not proven to be reliable and have been infiltrated by Taliban and Al Qaeda members and the NATO and ISAF allies are often limited in the scope of their mission and have restrictive rules of engagement.  Thus the bulk of the fight rests on the United States and some allies with more robust rules of engagement such as Canada, Britain and France.  The lack of internal credibility of the Afghan Government, the weakness of its army and security forces coupled with the numerical weakness of US and ISAF forces has given the various indigenous insurgent groups, especially the Taliban to make a comeback that threatens the mission.  General McChrystal noted:

“The situation in Afghanistan is serious; neither success nor failure can be taken for granted. Although considerable effort and sacrifice have resulted in some progress, many indicators suggest the overall situation is deteriorating. We face not only a resilient and growing insurgency; there is also a crisis of confidence among Afghans—in both their government and the international community—that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents. Further, a perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents.”[ii]

Taliban Insurgents

The situation is such in Afghanistan that many Americans are struggling how the “good war” could go “bad.”  Many armchair strategists, many political and media figures and even some in the military fail to understand the nature of Counterinsurgency and its complexity as opposed to conventional warfare. In fact many of these assume that the simple application of combat force using conventional tactics is the cure for the situation, however history shows that such is not the case especially in Afghanistan.

This introduction to this study will focus on some commonalities of the Soviet and American experiences in Afghanistan.

Soviet Mi-24s

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 they used their 40th Army which initially was composed of “two motorized rifle divisions, an airborne division, an air assault brigade and separate motorized rifle regiments.”[iii] These forces totaled about 52,000 troops and were “considered sufficient to guarantee the viability of Afghanistan.”[iv] The 40th Army was a standard Cold War Soviet Combined Arms Army designed for high tempo conventional operations.  It was not designed for nor trained in counterinsurgency operations or what the Soviets and Russians class as “anti-guerilla operations.” It was poorly suited to mountain and dessert combat and at the beginning “not only had no practical skills in the conduct of counter-guerilla warfare, they also did not have a single well-developed theoretical manual, regulation or tactical guideline for fighting such a war.”[v]

Soviet Tank Guarding Convoy

The Soviets did not expect to be involved in combat operations and the Afghan population reacted to their presence with resistance which spread across the country both against their own government which they viewed as a puppet of the Soviets but also against the Soviet Forces.  As time went on the Soviets attempted to use raids and large scale operations to attempt to bring Mujahidin forces to battle, however the insurgents were very skillful and the Soviets attempted to increase the training of their forces as well as their numbers.  By 1986 the numbers on the ground had increased to 108,000 personnel in four divisions, five separate brigades, four separate regiments and six separate battalions.[vi] In the nearly 10 years of operations over a half million Soviet soldiers and support personnel served in Afghanistan. Tours for enlisted personnel who were primarily conscripts served 12-18 months in country and officers 2 years.  Few returned for subsequent tours meaning that the 40th Army had few personnel very familiar with the country, its people and the challenges faced by Soviet forces.  According to official sources the 40th Army suffered 13,833 killed in action or died of wounds, 49,985 wounded and 311 missing in action a figured of 1 in 8 Soviet Soldiers being casualties.  14.3 percent of the casualties were officers.[vii] Of course the official figure is doubted many believing the number killed in action or died of wounds to be closer to 26,000.[viii]

Soviet Troops Preparing to Leave Afghanistan 1989

The Soviet Forces supported the Army of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan which numbered at their peak on average between 120,000-150,000 soldiers.[ix] The Afghan forces, then as now were at the mercy of tribal, familial and communist party affiliations. Over 70 percent of the DRA was conscripted, desertions averaged 1,500 to 2,000 soldiers a month and units were usually optimistically 25-40 percent under their TO&E strength.[x] Limitations on training and leadership meant that typically DRA units could not conduct large scale missions without Soviet help. As such most of the fighting was done by Soviet formations.

Many of these problems have plagued the United States and ISAF throughout the first 8 years of the current Afghan War.  As General McChrystal has noted in his assessment “ISAF is a conventional force that is poorly configured for COIN, inexperienced in local languages and culture, and struggling with the challenges inherent to coalition warfare. These intrinsic disadvantages are exacerbated by our current culture and how we operate.”[xi]

End of part one to be continued…

Links:

Lessons on Coalition Warfare: The Dysfunctional Coalition German and the Axis Partners on the Eastern Front

The Afghan War 2009-2012: Lessons from Algeria 1954-1960 A Review of “A Savage War of Peace

Unequal Allies: Lessons from The German’s and Their Allies on the Eastern Front for Today

The Effects of Counter-Insurgency Operations on U.S. and French Forces in Vietnam and Algeria and Implications for Afghanistan

Brothers to the End…the Bond between those Who Serve Together in Unpopular Wars


[i] ______________ “The Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual FM 3-24 MCWP 3-33.5,” HQ Department of the Army and HQ Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Washington DC 2006.  p. 1-6

[ii] MCChrystal, Stanley. “Commander’s Initial Assessment Commander International Security Assistance Force Afghanistan” dated 30 August 2009 p. 1-1

[iii] The Russian General Staff. The Soviet Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost” translated and edited by Lester A. Grau and Michael A. Gress, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence KS 2002 p.17.

[iv] Ibid. p.18

[v] Ibid. p.43

[vi] Ibid. p.28

[vii] Ibid. p.309

[viii] Ibid. p.xix

[ix] Ibid. p.48

[x] Ibid. pp.48-51

[xi] McChrystal. p.1-2

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Lessons for the Afghan War: The Effects of Counterinsurgency Warfare on the French Army in Indo-China and Algeria and the United States Military in Vietnam

Note: This is an article that I wrote for a class a year ago which has been updated in order to show the lessons of history that can be useful in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

legion indo-china

French Foreign Legionnaires in Indo-China

The effects of the wars Indo-China, Algeria and Vietnam on the French and American military organizations internally and in relationship to their nations piqued my interest in 2005. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan forced me to start asking the question of what short and long term effect that these wars might have on the U.S. military.  As such I wondered what historical precedent that there was for the question. My interest was furthered by my deployment with Marine and Army advisors to Iraqi Army and Security forces in 2007-2008.  My search led to the French experiences in Indo-China and Algeria and the American experience in Vietnam.  Recently with the Iraq war winding down and ongoing war in Afghanistan which has gone from apparent victory to mounting concern that the effort could fail as the Taliban and Al Qaida have regained momentum amid widespread corruption by the Afghan government and weakness of NATO forces.

Thesis

The counterinsurgency campaigns conducted by the French and American militaries in Vietnam and Algeria had deep and long lasting effects on them.  The effects included developments in organization and tactics, relationship of the military to the government and people, and sociological changes.  The effects were tumultuous and often corrosive.  The French Army in Algeria revolted against the government. The US Army, scarred by Vietnam went through a crisis of leadership and confidence which eventually resulted in end of the draft and formation the all volunteer military.  The effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are yet unknown but could result in similar situations to the militaries and governments involved,

Historiography

legion algeriaForeign Legion in Algeria

There is a wealth of data regarding these wars. There are several types of materials. The accounts of soldiers, diplomats and reporters who experienced these events contained in memoirs and diaries. The best include David Hackworth’s About Face and Steel My Soldiers Hearts; and General Harold Moore’s We Were Soldiers Once… and Young. French works include Jules Roy’s The Battle of Dien Bien Phu and General Paul Aussaresses’ The Battle of the Casbah. There are innumerable popular accounts written by NCOs and junior officers.  These accounts may contain a wealth of information, but are limited by a number of factors. First, the authors, veterans of the wars, only saw part of the overall picture and first-hand experience in war can skew a writer’s objectivity. Those who have been through the trauma of war interpret war through their own experience.  Physical and psychological wounds can have a major impact on the interpretation of these writers as can their experience and political ideology. Finally few of these writers are trained historians. Despite this they can be a valuable resource for the historian.

Another source is found in the official histories written by the military forces involved in the wars. Often these incorporate unit histories and individual narratives and analyze specific battles and the wider campaigns, but do little in regard to broader conditions that affected operations.  While a good source, many are not as critical of their institutions as they should be.

Histories by trained historians and journalists provide another view. The most insightful of the journalist accounts include Bernard Fall’ Street Without Joy and The Siege of Dien Bien Phu: Hell in a Very Small Place. A limitation of all of these is that they are often heavily influenced by the political and societal events. This means that earlier accounts are more likely to be reactive and judgmental versus critical and balanced. Later accounts have the benefit of access to the opposing side and documents not available to earlier writers.  Alistair Horn in A Savage War of Peace provides one of the most informative and balanced accounts of the war in Algeria. Martin Winslow does the same regarding Dien Bien Phu in The Last Valley.

Another source is the writings of participants who critically examine their participation in the wars.  Many of these, French and American provide insights into the minds of leaders who are reflective and critically examine what happened to their military institutions in these wars. The best of these is French Colonel David Galula whose books Pacification in Algeria 1956-1958 and Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice provide first-hand accounts of the subject combined with critical reflection. Galula’s works have been important to John Nagl, General David Petreus and others who helped write the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency manual. Andrew Krepinevich in The Army and Vietnam provides a critical analysis of the U.S. Army in Vietnam.  Other sources, both online and print, such as RAND, provide excellent analysis of selected topics within the scope of this essay, especially COIN.

Dien Bien Phu 1French at Dien Bien Phu

The ability to dispassionately and critically examine and evaluate these sources over a period of several years was and integrate them with my own experience has been a critical to me.  It has changed the way that I look at sources, and caused me to be much more aware of bias, the limitations of sources and the need to have a multiplicity of sources and points of view and to be suspicious of contemporary reports and accounts of the war in Afghanistan regardless of the source.

Analysis of the Issue

viet minh supplyViet Minh Supply Columns were Never Stopped by French Air power or Artillery

The conflicts in French Indo-China, Algeria and Vietnam had major effects on the French and American military institutions. These effects can be classified in a number of ways. First, the manner in which each military waged war, including tactics employed and use and development of weapons systems was changed.  The use of airpower, especially helicopters and use of riverine forces provided an added dimension of battlefield mobility but did not bring victory. As John Shy and Thomas Collier noted regarding the French in Indo-China: “French mobility and firepower could take them almost anywhere in Vietnam, but they could not stay, and could show only wasted resources and time for their efforts.”[1]

Joint_operation_with_ARVN_112-1Joint US and ARVN Operation

The use of intelligence and psychological warfare, including the use of torture became common practice in both the French and American armies.  The wars had an effect on the institutional culture of these armed services; neither completely embraced the idea of counterinsurgency and for the most part fought conventionally. Galula notes how the “legacy of conventional thinking” slowed the implementation of proper counterinsurgency tactics even after most commanders learned that “the population was the objective.”[2] Krepinevich notes that “any changes that might have come about through the service’s experience in Vietnam were effectively short-circuited by Army goals and policies.”[3] Finally the wars had a chilling effect on the relationship between the both militaries and the state, veterans from each nation often felt betrayed or disconnected from their country and people.  Unfortunately instances of all of these have occurred or can be seen in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

VIETNAM DIEN BIEN PHUFrench Prisoners after Dien Bien Phu: Many Survivors Would be Fighting in Algeria within Two Years

The French Army had the misfortune of fighting two major insurgencies back to back.  The French military was handicapped even before it went into these wars. The Army came out of World War II defeated by the Germans, divided by loyalties to Vichy or one of the Free French factions. They were humiliated by the Japanese in Indo-China, while in Algeria France’s crushing defeat was devastating.  “Muslim minds, particularly sensitive to prestige and baraka, the humiliation made a deep impression.”[4] French society was as divided as the Army; the economy in shambles, the government weak and divided.  The Viet-Minh had prepared well making use of time and training to get ready for war.  “Once full-scale hostilities broke out, the French, for budgetary and political reasons could not immediately make the large scale effort to contain the rebellion in the confines of small-scale warfare.”[5]

In both Indo-China and Algeria the French attempted to fight the budding insurgencies in a conventional manner.  This was particularly disastrous in Indo-China when on a number of occasions battalion and regimental combat team sized elements were annihilated by Viet-Minh regulars.  Between October 1st and 17th 1950 every French garrison along the Chinese border was over-run.  The French lost over 6000 troops and enough equipment to outfit “a whole additional Viet-Minh division.” It was their worst colonial defeat since Montcalm at Quebec.[6] In Algeria when the fight began in earnest France’s “ponderous ponderous N.A.T.O forces found themselves at an impossible disadvantage,”[7] unable to have any influence off the main roads.

french troops indochinaFrench Troops and Tanks in Indo-China: Road Bound Forces were often Defeated by Viet- Minh Forces

In Vietnam the French did not absorb the lessons of fighting a well established insurgent force. French forces hoped to draw the Viet-Minh main forces into battles of attrition where their superior firepower could be brought to bear. Such was the case at Na San in December 1952 where the French established an “Air ground base” deep in Viet-Minh territory to draw Giap’s forces into open battle.  This worked, but just barely. General Giap, short of artillery and not planning on a long battle frittered away his troops in mass charges.  However, the French, because of Na Son assumed they had found the key to victory. In their embrace of the “air ground base concept, French staff officers were following an intellectual tradition that had long been prone to seduction by elegant theories.”[8] The result was the disaster at Dien Bien Phu the following year.  The destruction of the elite Group-mobile 100 near Pleiku in 1954 was the coup de grace. In Indo-China the French made limited use of helicopters, used paratroops widely, and developed riverine forces. One thing they were critically short of was significant tactical air support.[9]

The most inventive French creation in Indochina was the GCMA/GMI forces composed of mountain tribesmen led by French NCOs and Junior Officers.  They were designed to provide “permanent guerilla groups rooted in remote areas” to harass and interdict Viet-Minh forces.[10] Trinquier noted that at the time of the Dien Bien Phu defeat that these forces had reached over 20,000 trained and equipped maquis in the Upper Region of Tonkin and Laos. These forces achieved their greatest success retaking Lao Cai and Lai Chau May 1954 as Dien Bien Phu fell.[11] Trinquier stated that “the sudden cessation of hostilities prevented us from exploiting our opportunities in depth.”[12] The GMI units and their French leaders were abandoned fighting on for years after the defeat. One account noted a French NCO two years after the defeat cursing an aircraft patrolling the border “for not dropping them ammunition so they could die like men.”[13] In the end the French left Indo-China and Giap remarked to Jules Roy in 1963 “If you were defeated, you were defeated by yourselves.”[14]

Algeria was different being part of Metropolitan France; there the French had support of European settlers, the pieds-noir. Many French soldiers had come directly from Indo-China. There French made better adaptations to local conditions, and realized that they had to win the population and isolate the insurgents from it and outside support. As Galula said, victory is the destruction of the insurgent’s political and military structures, plus “the permanent isolation from the population, not forced upon the population, but by and with the population.”[15] The lessons learned by the French in both Algerian and Indo-China were lost upon the Americans.

4CavVnM48US Heavy Forces including Armor had Little Utility in Many Parts of Vietnam

The United States military, especially the Army approached the Vietnam War with a conventional mindset, referred to as the “Army concept.” [16] It not only approached the war in this manner, but it trained and organized the South Vietnamese forces, ARVN into the American model. Americans re-organized ARVN into divisions “based upon the U.S. divisional force structure.”[17] Due to the imposition of an American template and organizational structure upon it, ARVN was not structured appropriately for the threat that it faced.”[18] The results were as to be expected. Large numbers of American troops poured in taking the lead against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong . The American method of counterinsurgency was costly.  It was “almost a purely military approach”[19] which ignored political and social realities on the ground. Instead of focusing on protecting the Vietnamese people and denying the Communists a safe haven the Army in particular believed that massive firepower was the best means to be“utilized by the Army to achieve the desired end of the attrition strategy-the body count.”[20] In the end the American defeat was a “failure of understanding and imagination.”[21] The one shining success was the Marine Corps experimentation with “Combined Action Program” platoons which lived in the villages with militia for long periods of time. This program produced great results “in eliminating local guerillas”[22] but was killed by the Army.

NlfmainforceNVA Main Forces

These wars tore the heart out French and American armies. For the French the defeats inflicted a terrible toll.  In Indo-China many French career soldiers felt that the government’s “lack of interest in the fate of both thousands of missing French prisoners and loyal North Vietnamese…as dishonorable.”[23] Divisions arose between those who served and those who remained in France or Germany and created bitter enmity between soldiers.  France would endure a military coup which involved many who had fought in Vietnam and Algeria. Having militarily won that war, were turned into what Jean Lartenguy called The Centurions had been turned into liars.”[24] They were forced to abandon those who they had fought for and following the mutiny, tried, imprisoned, exiled or disgraced. Colonial troops who remained loyal to France were left without homes in their “independent” nations.  They saw Dien Bien Phu as the defining moment. “They responded with that terrible cry of pain which pretends to free a man from his sworn duty, and promises such chaos to come: ‘Nous sommes trahis!’-‘We are betrayed.’”[25]

war protestUS Veterans of Vietnam Would Return to a Deeply Divided Country that turned its Back on Them for Years

The U.S. Army left Vietnam and returned to a country deeply divided by the war.  Vietnam veterans remained ostracized by the society until the 1980s.  As Harold Moore recounts “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publically questioned.”[26] The Army endured a massive reorganization that resulted in the formation of the All-Volunteer force, which would redeem itself and emerge from the ashes in the Gulf War. The Americans would not learn the lessons of revolutionary warfare and counterinsurgency until forced to do so in Iraq in 2004-2007. These lessons however were not applied to Afghanistan and the Taliban which seemed to have been defeated have regained the initiative, policy is being debated amid discord in the west and there are reports of American and NATO forces becoming discouraged by the course of the war and concern that their efforts will be in vain. This is a dangerous situation to be in and if we learn from anything from our own history as well as that of foreign military forces in Afghanistan we need to be very careful in implementing strategy to get whatever we do right.

training team baseTraining Team Base in Afghanistan: Some of these Bases Have proven Vulnerable to Well Planned and Coordinated Taliban Attacks

Conclusion

The effects of these wars on the French and American military establishments were long lasting and often tragic. The acceptance of torture as a means to an end sullied even the hardest French officers. Men like Galula and Marcel Bigeard refused to countenance it, while others like Paul Aussaresses never recanted.  Americans would repeat the tactic at Abu Ghraib rallying the Iraqis against them and nearly losing the war because of it.

For the Americans, the effects of Vietnam continued at home. Race riots tore at the force while drug addictions and criminal activities were rampant.  Many incompetent leaders who had “ticket punched” their careers kept their jobs and highly successful leaders who became whistle blowers like Hackworth were scorned by the Army institution.  The years following Vietnam were a severe test of the US Military and took years for the military to recover.  Likewise It took years before either the French or American veterans again felt a part of their countries.  They ended up going to war, and when it was over; feeling abandoned, their deepest bonds were to their comrades who had fought by their side.

What are the lessons to be learned from these campaigns as well as from the various accounts?  Andrew Krepinevich prophetically noted that the failure to learn the lessons of Vietnam “represents a very dangerous mixture that in the end may see the Army again attempting to fight a conventional war against a very unconventional opponent.”[27] Obviously, there are lessons to be learned, especially in understanding the nature of revolutionary war as well as the culture and history of our opponents. The U.S. has made some improvement in this regard but there is still much to be learned, especially since after the war the Army was “erecting barriers to avoid fighting another Vietnam War.”[28] From these wars we learn that nations and incompetent governments who mismanage wars can alienate themselves from the soldiers that they send to fight, with serious consequences.  As far as historiography we learn that certain historical fallacies are evident when one reads the accounts critically and recognize the bias and limitations of the various sources.

 

 


[1] Shy, John and Collier, Thomas W. “Revolutionary War” in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age,” Peter Paret editor. Princeton University Press, Princeton N.J. 1986  p.849

[2] Galula, David. Counterinsurgency in Algeria: 1956-1958. RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA. 2006. First published by RAND in 1963. p.244

[3] Krepinevich, Andrew F. “The Army and Vietnam,” The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1986 p.213

[4] Horn, Alistair. “A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962,” a New York Review Book published by the New York Review of Books, New York, 1977, 1987, 1996, and 2006 p 41

[5] Fall, Bernard B. “Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina.” Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA, 2005, originally published by Stackpole Publications 1961 p.27

[6] Ibid. p.33

[7] Horn. p.100.

[8] Windrow, Martin. “The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam,” Da Capo Press, Novato, CA 2006, originally published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London 2004 p.63

[9] Fall, Bernard B. “The Siege of Dien Bien Phu: Hell in a Very Small Place.” Da Capo Press, New York an unabridged reprint of the 1st Edition reprinted in arrangement with Harper and Row Publishers, New York. 1967 pp. 456-457  Fall discusses in depth the lack of French Air support and the antecedents that led to the shortage following World War II.

[10] Pottier, Philippe(2005)’Articles: GCMA/GMI: A French Experience in Counterinsurgency during the French Indochina War’, Small Wars & Insurgencies,16:2,125 — 146 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09592310500079874

[11] Simpson, Howard K. “Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot,” Potomac Books Inc. Washington DC 2005, originally published by Brassey’s Inc. 1994 pp. 170-171

[12] Trinquier, Roger. “Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency,” translated from the French by Daniel Lee with an Introduction by Bernard B. Fall. Praeger Security International, Westport CT and London. 1964 and 2006. Originally published under the title “La Guerre Moderne” by Editions Table Ronde. p.87

[13] Windrow. p.652.

[14] Roy, Jules. “The Battle of Dien Bien Phu” Carrol and Graf Publishers, New York 1984. Translated from the French by Robert Baldrick. English translation copyright 1965 by Harper and Row Publishers, New York. p.xxx

[15] Galula, David. “Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice.” Praeger Security International, Westport CT 1964 and 2006 p. 54

[16] Krepinevich. p.213

[17] Ibid. p.24

[18] Nagl, John A. “Learning to East Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam,” University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2005 p.138

[19] Shy. p.856

[20] Krepinevich. p.202

[21] Spector, Ronald H. “After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam,” Vintage Press, a division of Random House, New York, 1993 p.314

[22] Millett, Allan R. and Maslowski, Peter. “For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America.” The Free Press, a division of Macmillian, Inc. New York, 1984 p.555

[23] Windrow. p.655

[24] Ibid. p.657

[25] Ibid.

[26] Moore, Harold G and Galloway, Joseph L. “We were Soldiers Once…and Young: Ia Drang: The Battle that Changed Vietnam,” Harper Collins Publishers, New York NY 1992  p. xx

 

[27] Krepinevich. p.275

[28] Ibid. p.274

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