Small Wars Journal

The American Way of Counterinsurgency: Lessons for Great Power Competition

Wed, 10/13/2021 - 8:51pm

The American Way of Counterinsurgency: Lessons for Great Power Competition

by Robert S. Burrell


The recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 and resulting takeover of governance by the Taliban has caused significant doubt in America’s ability to conduct long-lasting and effective counterinsurgency operations. However, a historical analysis into America’s small wars (or dirty wars) over the past two centuries offers an indispensable perspective. The United States has been at war for about 226 of its 245 years, the vast majority of these conflicts have been prosecuted short of traditional war, and many came as a result of great power competition. During this same period, the United States has developed its own unique methods of addressing insurgency. This essay illuminates the evolution and adoption of America’s double-edged reward and punishment approach to addressing insurgency, from the Plains Indian Wars through the Vietnam War, the lessons of which are essential to consider before embarking upon tomorrow’s conflict.


The Plains Indian Wars, 1830 – 1880


Native American Indian Sioux Tribe on Horses[1]


The United States remained in a nearly perpetual state of violence with its Native American inhabitants from its inception though around 1890. The contests with each tribal nation are distinctive, but perhaps the greatest lessons for the U.S. government and its army derived from the conquest of the Great Plains tribes, generally fought between the 1830s and the 1870s. The most famous of these Plains Indians included the Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, Navajo, and Sioux, who inhabited what was previously known as French Louisiana, which the United States had purchased from France in 1803.


Through their cataclysmic encounters with rapid technological development and European colonial expansion, these tribes evolved into nomadic horse cultures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – dependent on the huge Buffalo herds migrating between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Pressured by their forced migration, they established sophisticated methods of resistance, adaptation, and survival. Competition with other Plains’ tribes further sharpened their abilities to conduct efficient forms of mobile warfare. These tribes, in fact, were so formidable that the United States primarily attempted dialog and peace overtures for decades following the Louisiana Purchase. It was not until after the Mexican American War, and the acquisition of California in 1848, that the United States made serious attempts to pacify the Plains Indians, who posed a threat to settlers traveling along the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails to California, as well as a danger to lines of communication between the East and West coasts of the United States.


With a hub and spoke strategy, the U.S. Army erected a number of Forts along the eastern boundaries of Indian Country (generally the Mississippi River), and eventually a few in interior locations, the most famous being Fort Laramie in modern day Wyoming. From these defensive forts, the U.S. Cavalry escorted travelers, as well as military and commercial goods, across the Great Plains. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan in the Twentieth Century would recognize this approach of constructing fortified bases connected by convoys. Meanwhile, the mobilized Indian tribes remained a significant threat. The U.S. Government preferred addressing them through mediation and negotiations, but conflict between the settlers and the Indians over lands and resources inevitably led to open hostilities.[2]


From a military perspective, the Indians appeared nearly unassailable, as they “had no home base, no line of operations or defense, no strategic points to defend and no important storage facilities for ammunition or provisions.”[3] Or perhaps best explained by U.S. soldiers of the era, “living off the country, without impediments of any description, and with no lines of retreat to cover, he [the Indian] is enabled to withhold himself from combat, unless he finds himself very superior in number and position.”[4] Further, the tribes had excellent leadership, possessing military architects like Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and a seemingly inexhaustible source of others.


One American officer with unique experience in the Civil War, General William T. Sherman, promptly identified the tribes’ greatest weakness, stating that “the quickest way to compel the Indians to settle down to civilized life was to send ten regiments of soldiers to the plains, with orders to shoot buffaloes until they became too scarce to support the redskins.”[5] Simultaneously, Sherman recognized that established land routes, like the Union Pacific and Kansas Pacific railroads, would give the U.S. Army ready access to the vast Plains and “seal the fate of the aboriginal inhabitants.”[6]


            The virtual extermination of American buffalo (a colossal endeavor prosecuted over decades), combined with new access provided by railways over the great plains, were instrumental in subduing the American Indians and bringing them to the negotiating table. In exchange for land, native populations received recognition of sovereignty as nation states and often access to education, health care, and a common rule of law. These pacification tools (backed up by the threat of force) proved generally effective in keeping the peace, shaping the U.S. Government’s approach in later conflicts.[7]


            Historians like Russell F. Weigly argued that the Indian campaigns demonstrated the evolution of a “total victory” development in American warfare. However, the Plains Indians War’s also produced a distinctive approach to counterinsurgency, one that used brute force primarily but increasingly introduced what many progressive Americans perceived as incentives. The creation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (headed by its first Native American in 1869) demonstrates another persuasion tactic in addressing resistance. This approach emulated the prevailing and contrasting moods of the American population – some of whom viewed the Indians as a nuisance to be eradicated and others who admired them.[8] The fact that the United States created national treaties with indigenous populations at all is rather unique (with Canada and New Zealand comprising the other notable exceptions), demonstrating an American preference for arbitration with resistance movements and the use of governmental programs to address their grievances if possible. 


The Philippine Insurrection, 1898 – 1913


A Burden That Cannot Be Honorably Disposed at Present[9]


In a speedy and globally prosecuted three-month war, the United States decisively defeated Spain in 1898, liberating Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. However, to complicate the situation, the Filipinos had already started a revolution for independence from Spain and had established its own national congress and national army. When Spain surrendered, the United States decided the Philippines was not yet capable of self-rule and needed further development as a U.S. territory. Such concerns were particularly relevant as the vast majority of Asia remained colonized by England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, in addition to the growing Japanese threat.[10] The Philippine National Congress disagreed with the “wait and see” promise of independence and violence erupted. What the United States called the Philippine Insurrection lasted from 1898 to 1913 and added more traditions to an evolving American approach to counterinsurgency. 


            The Philippines consisted of thousands of inhabited islands, populated by dozens of ethnic groups and native inhabitants, all of whom were fiercely independent. On the northern island of Southern Luzon, the Tagalog had established themselves as the economic and political powerbrokers of the islands’ peoples. Concurrently, the Tagalog also took the lead on the struggle for national autonomy. Accordingly, a national congress and national army had already been established in revolution prior to the United States entry into war with Spain. 


            The United States quickly defeated the national army under General Emilio Aguinaldo, at which point the Filipinos turned to extensive guerilla warfare (which they were particularly good at). Many insurgent leaders on Luzon, like General Miguel Malvar continued to resist the United States until 1902. Other insurgents throughout the Visayans and Mindanao (such as the Muslim Filipinos in the south referred to as Moros) fought the United States until around 1913.  It remains difficult to assess when resistance to the United States actually ended as the vast majority of Philippine Islands remained virtually independent of occupation.


As in the Plains Indian Wars, the Army continued its use of the hub and spoke method of remote fortresses connected by land or sea lines of supply – using ships or pack mules. To address the unruly hinterlands, the U.S. Army utilized long-range patrols and raids, but maintained centralized garrisons of at least battalion-sized strength because small outposts could be quickly overwhelmed. The Army also issued domestic identification for locals and implemented checkpoints on roadways in order to control the movement of suspected insurgents between townships.


Like the Great Plains, the Philippine Islands proved far too vast to occupy and completely control. However, control of the maritime domain limited the mobility of insurgents between islands while simultaneously hampering their illicit trade and income. For many of those in the rebellion, cooperation with the Americans simply proved easier in the long run than opposing them, and a blanket amnesty for those who surrendered made it a simple matter of reintegrating with society. Additionally, most of the islands returned to their normalized state of autonomy, with little interference from the capital in Manila and the United States.


During this time period, the United States moderately increased the rewards versus punishments approach in addressing resistance. One of the most important methods utilized in pacifying the Philippines resulted from infrastructure, employment, medical, and education programs. The United States sponsored a number of road building programs, which positively impacted local populations with part-time jobs and increased access to commerce. Additionally, it established a health organization to assist with medical care, sanitation, and vaccinations programs, not only in Manila, but in the many barrios throughout the major islands.[11] Perhaps the most impactful was the establishment of a Philippines education system, which addressed the entire population – including elementary, secondary, and university opportunities. After a comprehensive effort, the literacy rate in the Colonial Philippines rose dramatically, only outdone by Japan throughout the entirety of Asia prior to World War II.[12] Of additional benefit, Filipinos used hundreds of languages, and English grew into a common form of cross-communication and eventually the national language.[13] As a result of these efforts to improve the general welfare of the Filipino population, the United States created considerable good will and a friendship which has remained between the two nations for a hundred years.  


The Banana Wars, 1898-1934


Theodore Roosevelt and his Big Stick in the Caribbean[14]


            Simultaneous with the Spanish American War, the United States entered a new phase of frequent interventions into Latin America which lasted until 1934. The U.S. executed these “small wars” under the executive authority of the President and without a declaration of war from Congress. As such, the primary instrument in carrying out these conflicts involved the U.S. Marine Corps, which operated in coordination with the State Department.[15] One could certainly argue that these long-term activities altruistically supported stabilization of the region and simultaneously limiting interventions from European powers. Meanwhile, critics (like decorated military veteran of these activities – Smedley Butler), would question the motives of the U.S. government as too heavily influenced by large American corporations seeking higher profits – a practice called “dollar diplomacy.”[16]


            Between 1898 to 1934. the United States invaded and then directed governmental functions in Cuba, Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua, some of these lasting two decades in duration.  Each of these interventions had their own unique histories but the occupation in Haiti from 1915 to 1934 provides a good example. Between 1911 and 1915, this small Caribbean country on Hispaniola experienced an astonishing seven violent deaths or overthrows of its President. In the face of an active indigenous insurgency and anarchy left in the absence of rule of law, President Woodrow Wilson sent in a Marine occupation force in 1915 and established a U.S. military-led government. The United States controlled the treasury, ensured the election of a pro-American President, and stood up a constabulary made up of local soldiers and police supervised by Marines.[17] The Marines finally withdrew in 1934, but strong diplomatic and economic relations between the two nations have remained.


The U.S. Marines codified their lessons of the Banana Wars in their 1940 small wars manual.[18] What stands out straight away is the emphasis on the indigenous population. Firstly, it recommends training and equipping an indigenous constabulary to reestablish rule of law. The tactics and equipment of the constabulary should support the native customs (not simply mirror those of U.S. forces). One caveat, however, was that the constabulary should remain non-partisan to enhance its legitimacy within all segments of the population. Secondly, after establishment of the partner force, combined operations with the Marines would neutralize or destroy armed opposition. Once the insurgency had been quelled, democratic and free elections should be held. And, after a new government had been installed, the Marines would leave.


Vietnam, 1946-1975