The Craze for Counter-Insurgency

‘Like Churchill, Obama is not in awe of the overrated expertise of generals’

Sometimes writers who were ignored in their day receive their just deserts decades later. This is true of the French soldier-intellectual David Galula (1919-1967) whose thoughts on population-centric counter-insurgency (Coin) warfare permeate the doctrine of the US army today, notably the strategy proposed by General Stanley McChrystal for defeating the Taliban. 

A graduate of St Cyr, Galula was dismissed from the Vichy armed forces under the infamous Statute on the Jews. From 1941 to 1944, he fought for the Free French, before joining the French embassies in Beijing and Hong Kong with an interval observing the civil war in Greece. While doing spooky things in China, Galula was captured by the Red Army. After initial trepidation, he spent an agreeable week discussing revolutionary warfare with Chinese officers before he was released. These experiences influenced his work as a company commander in Algeria’s rugged Kabyle region in the late 1950s. 

Like authoring a sex manual, it helps when theorists of counter-insurgency warfare are experienced. Galula was no softy and he held racist attitudes towards Arabs. He had few qualms about confining suspected Algerian FLN sympathisers in a dark oven. His strategy was to separate the insurgents from the population by doing nothing to antagonise the latter while winning their sympathies through the emancipation of women, and building clinics and schools. In the FLN-free spaces he established, Galula tried to build a core of political support, based on Berbers who had fought for the Free French. Although French generals and politicians frequently visited his district, almost nothing of what Galula practised found its way into operational manuals. He was just a piece in a much larger mosaic, where in other districts killing militants was the priority. The army even balked at promoting him, on the grounds that combat decorations (and body counts) determined who rose up the hierarchy. 

In 1963, Galula converted his thoughts on counter-revolutionary warfare into a Harvard PhD and then a book (Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory & Practice), while turning his experiences in Algeria into a Rand Foundation report. What he had to say made no impression on the US generals whose conventionally structured armies waged a war in Vietnam obsessed with the metric of “whack and stack”, with no regard either for the collateral Vietnamese casualties of bombing raids. Galula’s experiences were mirrored in those of the US counter-insurgency expert John Paul Vann, the anti-hero of Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie. Believing that the best weapon in Vietnam was a knife rather than a B-52, Vann was involved in the Phoenix programme to eliminate the Vietcong underground, while winning hearts and minds (Wham for short) through civil affairs programmes. Vann’s critical reports on the war impressed his fellow officers, but were killed off by senior generals as they made their way to the Pentagon’s secure conference room. The US Army also none too politely ignored a British Advisory Mission consisting of some of the top men who had neutralised the 1948-62 Malayan insurgency.

Instead of internalising the lessons of Vietnam, the US military practised a form of institutional amnesia. “We got defeated and thrown out…the best we can do is forget it,” said one general. Force structures were reconfigured for major wars in central Europe, which suited an industrial sector that made big profits from sophisticated weapons platforms rather than combat knives or lessons in obscure Third World languages. The neglect of Coin warfare was evident when the general who led the campaign to depose Panama’s General Manuel Noriega confessed that he had not devoted “five minutes” to the follow-up plan to combat anarchy and looting. 

The systematic recovery of this forgotten history of counter-insurgency warfare lies at the heart of the US Army and Marine Corps Coin manual commissioned by General David Petraeus in 2006, which helped reverse Donald Rumsfeld’s botched occupation of Iraq. Petraeus conducts operations as if they were a perpetual seminar, based on constant correctional changes and input from outside human rights experts. 

Neither he nor McChrystal should be surprised that President Barack Obama and Defence Secretary Robert Gates have adopted the same approach, albeit at a much higher political level, as they ponder whether to press on with Coin warfare, or revert to a scaled-down counter-terrorism campaign focused on al-Qaeda. That is called leadership in wartime, for, like Churchill, Obama is not in awe of the overrated expertise of generals, another of history’s many ambivalent lessons.

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