Small Wars Journal

Lessons Learned, Lessons Lost

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Lessons Learned, Lessons Lost

by Dr. Mark Moyar

Download the full article: Lessons Learned, Lessons Lost

At last week's SAIS/Texas Tech conference "Lessons Learned, Lessons Lost: Counterinsurgency from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan," the final panel assessed which lessons of the past have been applied or should be applied, and which have been disregarded or should be disregarded. As a member of that panel, and as someone who has visited Afghanistan recently, I think that the contents of the discussion will interest many readers of the Small Wars Journal, so I have recorded what I consider the most important lessons learned and lessons lost.

In a series of panels spanning two days, the conference concentrated for the most part on the relevance of counterinsurgency practices from Vietnam and Iraq to the current war in Afghanistan. One common theme was that we need to protect the population as Creighton Abrams and David Petraeus did, and as William Westmoreland and George Casey did not. Another was that we need to allocate more resources and people to non-military activities. Some speakers and audience members argued that we have been too concerned with a "top-down" approach in Afghanistan and ought to focus instead on "bottom-up" solutions like Vietnam's CIDGs in Vietnam and the Sons of Iraq, because the central governments in all three cases were weak. The most pessimistically inclined argued that Vietnam showed that an indigenous government without legitimacy and a powerful cause can never win a counterinsurgency and thus the Afghan enterprise is doomed.

This discourse is emblematic of much of what one hears about counterinsurgency today in government conference rooms, military lecture halls, newspaper offices, and think tanks. It is based on flawed interpretations of history as well as a misunderstanding of the nature of counterinsurgency, and therefore is in dire need of correction. Although there is value in discussing the merits of tactics centered on the population versus tactics centered on the enemy, or military activities versus non-military activities, or "top-down" approaches versus "bottom-up" approaches, those discussions do not get us very far. They also distract attention from the most important factor in the effectiveness of the counterinsurgency—the people responsible for leading counterinsurgency activities.

Download the full article: Lessons Learned, Lessons Lost

Dr. Mark Moyar is professor of national security affairs at the Marine Corps University and author of A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq (2009), Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (2006), and Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism in Vietnam (1997, new edition 2007).

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Tue, 03/09/2010 - 2:28am

Will read the article after dinner but I do have to disagree with your conclusion above "...the most important factor in the effectiveness of the counterinsurgency -- the people responsible for leading counterinsurgency activities..." I believe that the most important factor in any successful COIN campaign is to have a clear grasp of the issues and the environment and to understand what it is you have to achieve. You can have the best people in the world, as in Vietnam and Iraq, and still not get the campaign together. I'd argue that this is what we did wrong in Afghanistan from 2003-2009 in trying to restore a democracy that never existed.