With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan counter insurgency has again entered our mainstream vocabulary. Last year there was a great article describing the history of this much sought after strategy, starting with the grandfather of counter insurgency French military philosopher, David Galula.

Galula was working for the French government in 40s China when he was captured by Mao’s communist forces during the Chinese civil war. While being held prisoner he witnessed a new kind of warfare; one where the fighting men of the communists blended in with the general population or as Chairman Mao put it, “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.”

Nothing to see here.  Just a normal fish like all you other fish
Nothing to see here. Just a normal fish like all you other fish

Galula saw the success of this new strategy that did away with conventional armies, set-piece battles and front lines. Victory instead was inside the heads of the millions of individuals that the insurgents lived among. If these fighters could persuade the people to believe in their cause and to help them – then the conventional forces would always be surrounded – and the traditional army would be defeated no matter how many victories they won.

Galula saw the problems this new strategy would cause in future wars as the old powers fought violent uprisings, using tactics they honed during World War II. So he worked to develop a strategy to defeat this new breed of insurgents. What he came up with was a strategy where he would fight fire with fire, or what we now call counter insurgency. As the guerrilla fighter moved amongst the people Galula recognized that the opposing forces would also have to do the same thing; live, work and blend in with the surrounding population. Instead of winning the minds of the locals over with communism their minds would have to be won over by promising democracy, and a new/better system of governance. As Galula tested out his theories in the French Empire’s numerous insurgencies America was first introduced to this new concept via the Hollywood, blockbuster movie, The Ugly American


JFK was fascinated by the movie and the military theory behind it and so when he came to power he set up a Special Group, Counterinsurgency in the Pentagon, SGCI. The problem though was that there weren’t any counter insurgency experts in America so they brought over Galula to lecture the Americans on this new theory. By this time Galula had published his book, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice
and so it was during these lectures that he laid out for the Americans the strengths, but in his view more importantly the weakness, of the Counter insurgency problem. Promises of democracy and better governance were just that, promises; promises that were rarely followed through and definitely not something that could compete with the utopia workers paradise that was promised by the communists. The Kryptonite of Counterinsurgency was that it had to offer a better life, something that at the time corrupt regimes couldn’t or wouldn’t offer.

The Americans ignored this weakness as they thought they had the answer to the workers paradise issue. They put their own twist on Counter insurgency by adding their secret weapon, capitalism. The Americans reasoned that they could apply market forces to counter insurgency as a replacement for promises of better governance, promising money instead of freedom. They even created a fancy name for this, “The Cost/Benefit-Coercion theory of Counterinsurgency.”

Put into practice in Vietnam, via Operation Phoenix, the Americans followed the counter insurgency doctrine by setting up special groups under the new market force infused system. These people were labeled by that great tradition of military speak, “rational actors”. Then, as Mao preached, these rational actors would “move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” Yet these fishes instead of having their heads filled with dreams of a communist utopia, had visions of wads of cash dancing in their heads. The Americans offered awards and bounties for the enemy fish in the Vietnamese population, the communist and anti-government officials. X amount of dollars for a Vietcong village official, even more for a district officer.

The problem with this is that Vietnamese culture was based on a complex value system of village rivalries and blood feuds. The “rational actors” quickly saw the benefit of the bounty system and started bagging Vietcong officials, quite successfully in fact. Tens of thousands were captured or killed but then the rational actors expanded their activities to include their village rivals; the families and allies of these rivals. Then as per Vietnam’s blood feud rituals the families of those killed retaliated against the rational actor’s allies and families who then killed more in revenge setting off a bloody cycle of violence that disillusioned everyone. The Americans were helpless as their contacts assured them that the people they were torturing and murdering were red, card carrying communists. Even if they wanted to the Americans couldn’t check it out as they were totally dependent on the Vietnamese teams for info on the insurgents. Chomsky in his book For Reasons of State quotes an American official recounting his time with the Vietnamese:

A United States intelligence officer attached to the Phoenix program in the Mekong Delta states that when he arrived in his district, he was given a list of 200 names of people who were to be killed, and when he left six months later, 260 had been killed, but none of those on his list.

In Vietnam it led to chaos in the South and was a big factor leading to the South’s defeat, in 1975. However other governments would take up the call with their own death squads in Asia and the Americas while the CIA watched. Fish chasing fish in a sea of blood.

While in South America death squads roamed latin America, the American military had shelved the strategy. Fast forward to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Rumsfeld’s new army quickly destroyed the Iraqi government but was stumped on what to do with the headless Iraqi population that it was now responsible for. After a series of mis-steps, like disbanding the Iraqi army, a growing insurgency was festering in Iraq. In response the American generals dusted off the “The Cost/Benefit-Coercion theory of Counterinsurgency” theory books and started setting up Iraqi militias to deal with the Iraqi insurgency. Again these “fish” were able to successfully swim in the Iraqi population and deal debilitating blows to the Islamic fighters who like the Vietcong had a message and dream to spread, not communism this time, but Islamic jihad. The American’s cash bounty system was able to rein them in, Bob Woodward even insists that they, not the surge, were the reason the Iraqi insurgency collapsed:

The truth is that other factors were as or even more important than the Surge … Beginning in about May 2006 the US military and intelligence agencies launched a series of TOP SECRET operations … Senior military officers and officials at the White House have asked me not to publish the details but these covert activities had a far-reaching effect on the violence and were very possibly the biggest factor in reducing it. Several said that 85-90% of the successful operations

This was recently highlighted by the emerging activities of Colonel James Steele. Steele was a veteran of the Dirty Wars in Central and South America. In the 80s he was linked to the death squads that operated in the Salvadoran Civil War and even managed to get caught up in the Iran Contra affair. He was called in during Iraq and spent some time setting up the Counterinsurgency hit teams that were so effective in reining in the Iraqi insurgency. Then, just as before in Vietnam, the American sponsored Iraqi fish got out of control. The Iraqi hit teams, mostly made up of Shiites, started carrying out their own operations against the  Sunni population and it quickly spiraled out of control. This is all beautifully shown in the Guardian documentary, Searching for Steele:

However the movie like many attempts to look back at American actions during all these conflicts is flawed. With the benefit of hindsight historians, activists look back in history and see an evil American puppet pulling the strings telling these third world “rational actors” how to act. When we should consider another possibility, market forces or profit.

Vietnam and Iraq were cases of a new theory being applied to warfare and the flawed use of market force aspect of America’s “Cost/Benefit-Coercion theory of Counterinsurgency” to correct the Kryptonite of Counterinsurgency. Much like if we allow deregulation and freedom to the wall street brokers of the financial market forces they will find a way to peak, profit and then collapse in a puddle of their own greed. In Vietnam and Iraq the Americans were getting results and through sheer incompetence let events spin out of control. There were no American puppet masters but there were market forces inevitably, like a law of nature, spinning out of control only instead of millions of dollars lost it was millions of lives.

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