Small Wars Journal

A Well Worn Path

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A Well Worn Path:

The Soviet and American Approaches to the Critical Tasks of Counter Insurgency

by Bart Howard

Download the Full Article: A Well Worn Path

The conflict in Afghanistan is clearly at the top of the list of U.S. foreign policy challenges. Each year more and more resources are committed to the effort to stabilize and secure Afghanistan. The cost of this effort is more than just monetary. U.S. "blood and treasure" is being spilled as Americans debate the potential success or failure in this enigmatic and distant country. Soon all discussion and debate will intensify on the concept of "transition" sometime in the near future.

Afghanistan has been called a "graveyard of empires" because of the long list of nations that have previously attempted to conduct military campaigns that have ended in failure. The most recent super power to wage a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan was the Soviet Union, which fought an expensive and costly campaign spanning from 1979-1989. Although Russia committed billions of dollars and lost thousands lives in the undertaking, the resulting withdraw and eventual collapse of the Afghan government was perceived as a humiliating defeat for Russia.

After nearly a decade of very mixed results, the United States must ask the inevitable question, is this working? Although the records of other nation's adventures in Afghanistan are dismal, it does not mean that history will merely repeat itself, but it does bring to light the importance of looking at the efforts of the current campaign in Afghanistan through the lens of history. The experience of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan should not be dismissed; in fact it should be seriously examined to reveal if there are key lessons that can be gleaned in the conduct of the counterinsurgency campaign.

How did the Soviet Union and the United States approach two critical tasks in conducting a counterinsurgency; Denying sanctuary to insurgents and Building effective host nation forces to conduct counterinsurgency operations?

These critical tasks are derived from United States Army Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency, also known as Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No 3-33.5. This publication generated much intellectual discussion when it was first produced and was the first military manual reviewed by the New York Times. The theories in the publication came after extensive research of numerous counterinsurgencies and full vetting of drafts by a wide audience. For basis of analysis, this manual describes the doctrine for U.S. military ground forces conducting counterinsurgency operations and as such describes "the fundamental principles that guide the employment of US military forces in coordinated action toward a common objective."

For the sake of brevity, this paper will examine two critical operational tenets outlined in chapter one; Deny sanctuary to insurgents and Train military forces to conduct counterinsurgency operations. Although there are numerous tasks to accomplish in conducting a counterinsurgency if the enemy has access to external resources and a safe haven and there is no effective host nation capability to defeat the insurgents, the ability for the host nation to emerge victorious is impossible.

Download the Full Article: A Well Worn Path

Colonel (Ret) Bart Howard earned a Bachelor Degree in History and was commissioned a Distinguished Military Student in Armor from Santa Clara University in 1984. He holds a Master of Military Studies and a Master of Military Science. He has commanded at the Company, Battalion and Brigade level. He has conducted operations in the Republic of Korea, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In 2006-7, he served as the Chief of Staff of the Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan and in the International Security Assistance Force HQ (ISAF) in Kabul. He is a graduate of the Australian Command and Staff College in Queenscliff, Victoria, the Army War College and was a participant in the 2007 National Defense University, US-Russia Colonel Exchange program. He currently serves as the Operations Manager in the Center for Civil-Military Relations at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

Editor's Note: This essay continues our conversation with the deep thinkers of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA on the need/utility of rethinking modern counterinsurgency.

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