Ed's Blog

"Some people know everything, but that's all they know."



The United States has fought three counterinsurgency wars in the past half century, all of which have or are about to turn out less than resoundingly victorious, to say the least. You would think America would get the hang of counterinsurgency warfare, getting it right eventually; but there are lessons American political leaders never learn.  (Read the full column at EWRoss.com)


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35 Responses

  1. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    I agree Mr. Ross. Virtually every war is about “control of the land”. To attack, fight, withdraw for the same piece of land over and over again is counterproductive. In order to win hearts and minds you have to be present day in/out. Of course this is oversimplifying the issue, but IMHO is at the root of it.

    By Michael E. Homer

  2. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    I don’t believe the problem is at the tactical (or even operational, level.) We seem to do fine in the bush or desert. We SUCK at the strategic/political level…from resourcing to public affairs…to HEART in general. And to take it another step…we seem to suck just as badly after the bullets stop flying…’yards deserted, the Afghans deserted (after we’d already won that scrape) and the foreign fighters allowed back in. I don’t see much liklihood that East Africa will be any better. Just very depressing.
    “If you don’t like what’s coming out of Washington, just vote them out…!” HOW’S THAT WORKIN’ FOR YA ?!?

    By Thomas Hill, III

  3. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    With Attribution to… http://www.STRATFOR.com, had an Analysis on “Avoiding the Wars That Never End – Geopolitical Weekly” (with ten links) dated 1/15/13. Highly recommend the read as it goes hand-in-hand with your discussion.

    Also agree fully with your acessment that “American Political Leaders Never Learn.” It’s a simple History Lesson that they are apparently too STUPID to follow?

    By Metro Boone

  4. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    Nothing to learn about
    Is just business as usual, for the weapons industry

    By coco roco

  5. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    Ed: I both agree and disagree with your analysis. I do agree that the reason these wars were nbot won -and in these wars not winning is very close to losing- were political rather than military.

    The reason why the war in Viet Nam was not won (it was actually lost, but about a year after US combat troops had been withdrawn, not when the Kissinger-Le Duc Tho accords were signed: these were actually quite favorable to the US, but they were not respected by the North Viet Nam aside) essentially had to do with three aspects:

    (1) No RVN (South Viet Nam) government was able to garner wide support within the population; the overthrow of Diem, to which the Kennedy administration acquiesced, rather than improving governance, made things even worse.

    (2) The US lost the battle for public opinion, ie with the vocal part in Congress, the media, the universities, etc. The silent majority expresses itself only in presidential elections: Nixon was reelected by a landslide, with the second largest popular majority since WW II. At all other times the silent majority stayed just that -silent. The lack of candor of the Johnson administration -see the Gulf of Tonkin resolution- only made matters worse.

    (3) North Viet Nam, a tightly disciplined country, had no need for majority support. It didn’t have free media or any form of freedom of speech.

    (4) Incrementalism is indeed no way to win a war: it is synonymous with too little too late. Lyndon Johnson’s policy was a classic case of incrementalism.

    Militarily the US got very close to winning the war -in 1972 when most US land troops had been withdrawn under US pressure, with basically RVN troops and US strategic bombers and fighter-bombers. North Viet Nam believed it could break the US at that stage and launched a massive offensive. It failed for two reasons: first, the Nixon-Kissinger overture to China had the result that in the context of Chinese-Soviet enmity relations with the US became more important than Chinese-North Vietnamese ones. And this context of Chinese-Soviet enmity made the Soviet fearful of US-Chinese collusion: here again Soviet-US relations were then viewed by Moscow as more important that Soviet-North Vietnamese ones. The result was that extreme demands by the North Vietnam side lost Chinese and Russian support. Both Communist giants started to apply discreet pressure on North Vietnam si that the latter starts negotiating seriously. The combination of the change in Soviet and Chinese attitude and the failure of the North Vietnamese 1972 offensive -bombings of the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and Cambodia were causing major resupply problems to Hanoi’s forces in the South- forced North Viet Nam to negotiate seriously and I will agree with Kissinger that the finalm agreement was favorable to the US, as it provided for a continuation of an independent South Vietnam unless decided otherwise in free elections.

    The agreements provided that both parties could act in the event of major violations by the other party. In other words the US was entitled militarily to act in the event of major North Viet Nam violations. Unfortunately the US was prevented from taking advantage of such provisions by its domestic situation. Congress and the media would not countenance anything that looked like an increased military effort in Viet Nam, at which time the Watergate scandal, which clearly Richard Nixon brought upon himself, started paralysing his administration including on foreign matters. North Viet Nam calculated that it could go ahead in the South without fear of US retaliation. This is actually when the war was won by North Viet Nam.

    By Giles Raymond DeMourot

  6. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    (continued from previous post)

    The fact of the matter is that many in the US believed USG was not interested in making peace, but in waging war. One excuse they had was a product of the secret character of all talks with North Viet Nam. Many in the press who had otherwise moderate views and no softness for Communism believed that the US did not want to negotiate seriously, while it was actually North Viet Nam which didn’t, at least until 1972, as the reciord shows.

    The lack of confidence of the US population in their own government was something that took a long time to cure. Reagan did it, though not completely. Things will never be the same again, at least in the foreseeable future, I’m afraid. The lack of staying power of the US, which has been exaggerated though not thoroughly made up, has less to do with fear and wariness than with rising suspicion after a time.

    This distrust remains a major issue. For instance a majority of Americans believe that GW Bush and his administration simply lied on the issue of remaing WMD stocks, the legal justification for a war that had also the motivations. Actually this was a major intelligence failure and not a decision by the executive to lie to Americans (*). No amount of evidence will convince these Americans otherwise. This is irrespective of whether the decision to invade Iran was right or wrong.

    As I am pressed for time I’ll deal with Iraq and Afghanistan later.

    By Giles Raymond DeMourot

  7. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    OBJECTION: Now we are supposed to blame our intelligence community for the intrusive interference into the analytic process by the Vice President and his top collaborators in their mendacious efforts to find a justification for the invasion of Iraq? I suppose we are also supposed to believe that the President did all his homework in the more than 30 days of warning prior to the 9-11 attacks? And, therefore, we will have to conclude that the ignored Finding that sat on President Bush’s desk unread for over a week before the attacks was not part of his homework? Whatever happened to the “high crimes and misdemeanors” language of the Constitution?

    By Richard Schwartz

  8. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    You can add Korea to the list. Douglas MacArthur predicted that the concept of limited war without victory would lead to disaster. He didn’t even know that Viet Nam would be a repeat of Korea, or that Jimmy Carter was going to get North Korea started on nuclear power, or that it would lead North Korea into nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles to deliver them. Now, intelligence experts are predicting a hot war in Korea in the very near future. We have been surrounded by fools since the Korean War, and it’s getting worse instead of better. Or is the problem something worse, the unthinkable idea that the American left has been clever and deliberate in steering us toward our end?

    By Ronald Bouwman

  9. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    These latest conflicts and the conflict with Al Qaida and their ilk is not over territory or governments per se but of ideology and terror. You cannot fight terror as you do a country to country declared war, it simply will not work. What government “rules” Al Qaida, not Saudi, not Afghanistan? The West must understand these conflicts of ideology are not the same as a gov’t against a gov’t. That IMHO is the lesson that needs to be learned and understood.

    By Harvey Betan

  10. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    I am membership officer of Counterparts, we are an organization made up of former advisors in Vietnam. Early on, we made overtures across several levels in the army to participate in seminars or brief on our advisory experiences. Totally ignored save for one battalion at Fort Benning who invited us to speak — 5 men with both tactical and CORDS experience went and it was highly successful. The army does not want to learn abouit things it does not want to do.

    By John Haseman

  11. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    Ed, the saying “how soon we forget” rings true throughout this article.


    By Jim Prouty

  12. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    The World Police are alive, but not all that well……

    By David Pompili

  13. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    Mr. Ross,

    I would like to comment on your article. Generally, I find your work excellent, but I see some problems with this one.

    In my opinion, based on first hand experience in Vietnam, El Salvador and Afghanistan, that COIN must be won by the host nation’s government. Those government must have legitimacy, as you suggest. Malaya is a classic case in point. Initially, the British were not successful because they fought a war of attrition. The war ended when the British switched policies making the Malayas responsible for their war. They created a National (IDAD Plan-Internal Defesne and Development Plan) which included all elements of National Power. Thus, key to all successful COIN Campaigns, I believe, must have ownership in the outcome.

    Agree with you that flawed strategies don’t help. Since the beginning of the current two fights, was we had no effective post war strategy at the beginning of both and now we struggle with whether it is CT or COIN. If we followed our own military doctrine, we would understand that an IDAD Campaign Plan, then CT and COIN would be complimentary not competitive.

    Vietnam was not fought initially as a COIN problem, becasue the conventional military resisted COIN. After Tet, we switch commanders and strategies, from attrition to COIN. Unfortunately, the NVA switched from insurgency to conventional warfare. Compounding the problem was our poliltical community switch from warfare to negotiated settlement. Then Congress stopped funding the South and the South was invaded by the North in a conventional war. COIN was why the South lost. In fact, by 1972, the VC was 90% destroyed thanks to CORDS (started around 1967).

    Iraq lacked a COIN strategy because we fought conventional war and did not think through the post war reality. The problem was we decapitated their government and had no effective plan to replace it. Our military was not prepared to take control of the government, so our strategy became adapt or make it up. This lead to the internal violence with outside support. When we finally embraced COIN, it was only after we first reject Iraqi ethnic support, as if it were are own idea.

    Afghanistan is the best example of how not to conduct COIN. We had a brillant and cheap victory in 2001, which got wasted in 2003 when we went to Iraq. Then we lost a series of years by under resourcing the war because of Iraq. My own experience indicates we kept the Afghans from ownership. To be sure, lots of problems with the Afghans. But, we were also part of the problem.

    COIN is difficult, requires time, cultural understanding and the right force structure. In my opinion, we don’t understand COIN and we now hot to once again abandon it.

    By Jeff Nelson

  14. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    Have served in all three conflicts over a period of 45 years, I had a front row seat to all of the ignorance of lessons learned. I recommended all of our civilian and military leaders read “The American Experience with Pacification in Vietnam” written by the Institute for Defense Analysis in 1972. It lays out the good, the bad and the ugly regarding Vietnam and gives recommendations for the course of action to follow should we become engaged in another insurgency. With the exception of the Special Forces, a few Marines, and General Petraeus, we went 30 years without looking at how to successfully address an insurgency.

    By Richard Cavagnol

  15. P. Ngo says:


    As a former native of RVN, I cannot agree more with your arguments and conclusions, There are however some other princinples of irregular warfare, thought maybe implied, were not articulated:
    1. The number game apply to conventional warfare but may not be the key elements of irregular wafare. Enemies in irregular warefare resort more heavily on surprises and tactical mutancy. Even if we had 1 million troupes, we could not ppost sufficient troupes at avery corner of a country, because the enemies will attack the weakest posts with their troupe gathering from small contingents to outnembers of scattered “defensive” outposts. Air power can hel[p but it ma be to late..
    2. So we have to go on the offensive to neutralize the insidious number games. The US always posseses unparallel fire power to eliminate any force.
    However, in irregular warfare, it’s more difficult to find them (search) the ennemies than to destroy them. Newer technology in ISR may help to a limited extent. Other factors will be discuss in the next section.
    3. more than 2,500 years ago, in the “art of war”, and later in China warring statethe s (I am not Chinese), the senior military advisor to Liu’s warring state, summarized the strategy/tactics as follow:
    a) A winning army must fight a war with good cause, justification (make the Heaven happy) so the populace can support. Without legetimate causa belli, it’s a loosing war to start with… so… that’s one of the things to win the hearts of people.
    b) A winning army must learn how to put local geography, weather…etc, to its advantage without destryong the subsistence of people.
    c) A winning army must be disciplined and respect the people (mostly innocent) to win their hearts, so they can support us, and become uncooperative with bad guys, Well, we have to be the good guys first. It’s difficult, but what’s the choice when you are in foreign lands? Bomb them to stoane age?… That would be a hollow victory at a high cost to the US.

  16. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    Vietnam: Should’ve listened to CINPACFLT. Contrary to urban legend, CINC’s back then were allowed to enter the public policy debate. We adopted a French policy that relocated, and gave property and wealth, to Northern Catholics. Then we attempted to manage their culture. On a strategic level, it did work to suck the Soviets dry.
    Afghanistan: We made the decision to insert a federal government vice allowing a more conferated process. (I remember media, and both party leaders, insisted on establishing a “federal” type republic.) We introduced Karzai, so sortof wedded to him. The “nation building” (DOD and DOS) syndicate won the early debate. Again, managing their culture. The strategic question will be whether that direct engagement sucked the anti-western Islamo-fascist movement dry. Indications are perhaps not. We’ll see.

    By Joe H Parker

  17. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    Ed, I couldn’t agree with you more. Being a former Vietnam Veteran, I was so angry to see us going to war with Iraq and hearing people say this is not like Vietnam. When are we going to learn to teach our soldiers or at least the Civil Affairs people to speak the indiginous language. War is not about the people of this country deciding it is right. It is about a few political leaders serving their own agenda and then building their case, no matter the cost. We had people deciding to support this war because they had to support their party. They were not willing to learn from history!!!!

    By Chuck Gilmer

  18. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    Very true, Ed.

    By Michael McMaken

  19. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    If you look back at all our wars, we are killing off our young people. That is the most horrifying thing to me that we are stealling these young people’s future. Yet they proudly join to protect our country and our way of life. GOD BLESS YOU ALL.

    By Don Birdsong

  20. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    Keep DoS out of the mixture until the military mission is completes. DoS is always diametrically opposed to what the military is trying to accomplish to the point of being pests that are consistently under foot and in the way. On the same point, keep all politicians (there and ours) under a tight leash and out of the military decision making process. We don’t need presidential oversight of target lists or low level bureaucrats running helter skelter through a country with their steroid addled armed security force in an effort to get to the fire sale at the PX.

    We also need to keep a tighter hold on the pocketbook. We don’t need to be looked upon as “good old boys” who will hand out $10,000 at a whim, yet that is what we always do. US personnel really need to learn the art of price negotiation instead of taking the first price offered.

    Instead of having main force units on the ground attempting to do COIN/FID, leave it to the units that specialize in COIN/FID. Armor/Infantry/Cavalry are all meant to kill people and break things. They are fine as a reactionary force, but aren’t trained to interface with local inhabitants like the SF/CA types.

    By James Westover

    • Reposted from LinkedIn says:

      @James…The debacle of Lima Site 85 in Laos is a prime example of what happens when Ambassadors/politicos run combat ops…the instant replay, same ambassador, Muong Soui, Laos, and the crap continues, over and over …..

      By David Pompili

  21. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    Good article, but to say that Afghanistan has “no history of effective central government” is arguable at best. Even in “modern times” there were periods of stability, calm, and effective central government (relatively speaking). For instance, Amanullah Khan, 1919-1929 won independence, advanced civil rights, advanced education, and modernized the constitution. Mohammed Shah’s brief reign (1929-1933) saw higher education introduced to Afghanistan–Kabul University. Zahir’s 40 year reign (1933-1973) saw women’s rights (including suffrage), continued modernization, and free elections. During the latter part of Zahir, Afghanistan was a popular destination for tourists. Since then, obviously, much has changed. Unfortunately 30+ years of war have rendered two lost generations and a largely illiterate population. The country is starting over from scratch, and it’s being re-built on donor aid (which is being siphoned off through corrupt machinery). Meanwhile nefarious external entities continue to meddle. However, we should not discount the Afghan spirit (there are pockets of hope that can be seen in Kabul, as we speak, and other areas), and should look beyond the 30+ years of tortured history to completely appreciate what Afghanistan reall is.

    By Timothy Fawcett, PMP

    • Reposted from LinkedIn says:

      The primary reason for the success of the Shah from 1933-1973 is that the central government played a very small role in running the “country” (borders determined by the British, not by tribal boundries). They basically collected taxes and raised an army when need. All of the decision-making, policing and justice issues were settled at shuras and jirgas held at the village and tribal level. While is is not the form of government the West tries to impose on third-world countries, it was effective. Perhaps not all countries want to the global economic participants. Rather than blowing into countries we are trying to “save” we should study the culture, come in and look, listen, analyze, see what is working and reinforce those processes. I introduced the People Capability Maturity Model (CMM) into Iraq in 2007 to try and help define, monitor and evaluate processes at the MoD and MoI similar to what my team at Deloitte had done with our Fortune 100 companies. The lead advisors liked it but the Army said it was too complicated.

      By Richard Cavagnol

  22. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    The trick is to be a “gracious winner.” We did that well in the Marshall Plan. Somehow, we lost the recipe… Haven’t gotten it right since. The “Political Correctness Police” seem to think there is something wrong with winning first…

    By Edward Schmitt

  23. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    Half a century is too long unless you sit high looking low–sadly that is what happens.

    By Dr. CJ Jeffery

  24. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    In 2013 we don’t use carpet bombing, fire bombing, or any other type of massive bombing. We use precision weapons like JDAMS and Sensor Fuzed Bombs. Collateral damage is minimized, although not totally eliminated. We don’t bomb areas anymore, we fly bombs through the window where the bad guys are gathered.

    By Robert Coleman

  25. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    Exactly Robert that is the problem here. We have made war too sterile and clean. If the population is not placed in fear they will never quit. We cannot police the world but we can make the world police itself.

    By Rick Yerby

  26. Reposted from LinkedIn says:


    Agree! But, we have also created an expectation with our technologies. The Gulf War created a public opinion that we (military) could win war on the cheap and fast. Of course, the 100 hours fought did not count on how long it took build up the necessary force to do it. Again, the SF/SOF 2001 campaign showed what technology can bring to the fight. However, it is only part of the fight. The post war confusion due to the lack of real plans distracted from that great victory.

    I spent two years working on the Future Force. There were some interesting take always:
    1. Fighting two wars and modernizing the force was not affordable.
    2. Band-width not there at the time
    3. Intelligence sharing & the COP (common operating picture)- how do we share and do we share equally? No, lots of reasons some good, some not.
    4. Technology not exactly there and grows faster than we can integrate.

    I like technology. By I believe we will need to human in harm’s way with technology will be helpful. The movie “Demolition Man” comes to mind. They had to unfreeze a old cop to fight old criminals, because technology could not adapt. People adapt.

    By Jeff Nelson

  27. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    Given this history of counterinsurgency wars in the last half century and to quote you “sooner or later” – would it appear that North Korea, Syria, Iran and North Africa are all in line to be the next battle front? Is one of the lessons that these type of wars are inevitable and the US (& UN, NATO, EU, ASEAN) should be even more vigilant and preventative (or pre-emptive)?
    Appreciate the article Ed – keen to publish it in the APSM if of interest – welcome you let me know.

    By Chris Cubbage

  28. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    Lessons-Learned and researching the adversary with culture, history, religion, etc;will always make a decision maker more knowledgeable with the situation and the counter measures to employ! We can defeat any threats by utilizing our modern technologies and being smart by placing the best qualified Commander in charge, and that means understanding ,service experience and knowledge of the A.O. What ever happened to those responsible for Benghazi-gate? Accountability can be a hard thing to stand up to with no spine to begin with! Arm chair Quarter-Backing will never win, they should be in the field C3!
    R, Jim

    By James Schombs

  29. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    One of the few COIN victories we have had is El Salvador. I feel there are two main reasons for this. One, the lack of media involvement and two the use of death squads. The lack of media prevented the leftist from mobilizing opposition to the effort. Also as with the phoenix program taking out the ideological leaders left the foot soldiers vulnerable. Also as I’ve remarked without a fear factor victory is impossible. For example a market owner see’s a IED being planted near his business. He has several options ,One tell them to not do that (result death), Two tell the Americans (result death) or three do nothing and live. I wonder which he will choose.

    By Rick Yerby

  30. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    I was an early “trainer” in El Salvador in 1983. The CinC called us and asked what technology would want to help win the war. My boss and I though about it for a minute. Our answer, 2 128k dual disk drive Apple Compuers with 2 color printers (very state of the art then). The reason was to manage logistics. The CinC was shocked and told us he meant technology. We sensed he had something in mind, so we asked what? He said, AC-47s. We pointed out that there was no Air Ground Communications and it was very likely a error could made. As you probably guess what would two SF operators know about technology? So, the AC-47s arrived and then shot-up two friendly villages.

    We were both we’re Vietnam vets so we loved the aircraft, but not their implementation in ElSal.

    I managed the nightly AC-130 flights while there, but the rules of engagement required them to be unarmed. So, great intel platform and the only support they could provide in an emergency was to tell us where the bad guys were. We then could go someplace else. Technology.

    Did see it work well in Afghanistan in 2011 from behind the fence.

    By Jeff Nelson

  31. Reposted from LinkedIn says:

    Great article Mr. Ross and your analysis is sound and on the mark. The only point I would disagree with is that “most” of our Generals/Politicians don’t have a clue regarding the proper execution of population-centric counterinsurgency as evidenced by failure to do so by the Generals and the late Amb. Bremmer that preceded Gen Petraeus. Unfortunately, all the gains achieved by Gen. Petraeus have been lost due to the failure of securing a Status of Forces agreement – as you mentioned – and Iran now calls the shots in Iraq. In regards to Afghanistan, we rightfully made them pay for harboring the perpetrators of the 9-11 attacks – as you also mentioned – but failed to deal with their enablers; the Pakistani government and the ISI – who to this day continue to aid and abet the actions of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

    James del Rio Sr

  32. […] Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan: Lessons America Never Learns (ewrossblog.com) […]

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