We begin with some elementary observations. The armed forces of the most advanced countries, and certainly of the United States, all formidable against enemies assembled in conveniently targetable massed formations, are least effective in fighting insurgents. That was demonstrated in Vietnam in many different ways over many years, even as the occasional North Vietnamese regular unit that ventured to fight conventionally was efficiently destroyed. The same two-part proposition is unnecessarily being proven all over again in Iraq, damaging the reputation of the United States for wisdom and strength, misusing fine soldiers, wasting vast amounts of money on skillful but ineffectual air and ground operations, inflicting added suffering on Iraqis at large, and taking the lives of young Americans whose sacrifice, one fears, will be deemed futile.
But there is much more to it than that. Specifically, there is the matter of politics, on both sides. Unless insurgents confine their operations to thoroughly deserted areas where there is no one to observe them, they must have at least the passive cooperation of local inhabitants. Whether they fail to report the insurgents to the authorities out of sympathy for their cause or in terror of their vengeance is entirely irrelevant. In either case, the insurgents are in control of the population around them, and not the authorities. That essentially political advantage is enough to allow motivated insurgents to overcome all manner of tactical weaknesses in combat skills and weapons.
As in so many previous cases, in a manner abundantly familiar from previous insurgencies, that political situation is now playing out in Iraq, where insurgents live very safely in Sunni neighborhoods, towns, and villages, emerging to place bombs or launch attacks when and where it suits them before resuming innocuous civilian identities once again. Local insurgents may indeed pass unobserved by their neighbors when inactive, but not when they take up weapons and gather for operations, while the foreign volunteers among them necessarily attract attention even when they carry no weapons because of their distinct speech and manner. Many of the local inhabitants certainly know who the insurgents are and where they keep their stores of explosives and weapons, but they are not telling. That is why U.S. Army and Marine patrols cannot find insurgents unless they choose to reveal themselves by engaging in direct combat, which of course they rarely do, and only when they think that they have a great advantage. The mostly futile American patrols therefore expose soldiers to the mines, remote-controlled explosives, snipers, and mortar bombs that inflict daily casualties.
Naturally, every form of technical intelligence and every possible sensor is being employed to supplant the lack of very elementary but indispensable human intelligence, including synthetic-aperture radars aboard big four-engine aircraft and the infrared and video sensors of the latest targeting pods on two-seat heavyweight jet fighters. The expense of these flights alone is huge, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars a month, but the results are very meager. The aim, of course, is to gather immediately actionable imagery, especially at night, showing such things as insurgents placing side bombs alongside U.S. patrol routes or approaching oil pipelines bearing explosives. Failing that, it is at least hoped that possible insurgent activities could be detected for further investigation; for example, people furtively bringing things to isolated buildings at night. But in practice, unless insurgents carry recognizable weapons, it is simply impossible to differentiate between them and innocent people going about their peaceful business. In the meantime, very elaborate equipment that is very costly to operate, and very effective in identifying armored vehicles, bunkers, missile launchers, and any other readily recognizable target of classic form, is still being employed every day in futile attempts to detect deliveries of a few dollars of food, or the emplacement of readily improvised explosive devices. This too is an aspect of the structural unsuitability of modern armed forces to fight elusive enemies that present no stable targets.
The essentially political advantage of the insurgents in commanding at least the silence of the local population cannot be overcome by technical means no matter how advanced. Nor can the better operational methods and tactics advocated in FM 3-24 DRAFT be of much help. So few of the insurgents ever engage in direct combat, so much of the insurgency takes covert forms, ranging from the infiltration of the government to bombings, sabotage, and assassinations, that the tactical defeats inflicted on the insurgents—including the killing of their top leaders and heroes—have no perceptible impact on the volume of the violence, and of its political consequences.
Perfectly ordinary regular armed forces, with no counterinsurgency doctrine or training whatever, have in the past regularly defeated insurgents, by using a number of well-proven methods. It is enough to consider these methods to see why the armed forces of the United States or of any other democratic country cannot possibly use them.
The simple starting point is that insurgents are not the only ones who can intimidate or terrorize civilians. For instance, whenever insurgents are believed to be present in a village, small town, or distinct city district—a very common occurrence in Iraq at present, as in other insurgency situations—the local notables can be compelled to surrender them to the authorities, under the threat of escalating punishments, all the way to mass executions. That is how the Ottoman Empire could control entire provinces with a few feared janissaries and a squadron or two of cavalry. The Turks were simply too few to hunt down hidden rebels, but they did not have to: they went to the village chiefs and town notables instead, to demand their surrender, or else. A massacre once in a while remained an effective warning for decades. So it was mostly by social pressure rather than brute force that the Ottomans preserved their rule: it was the leaders of each ethnic or religious group inclined to rebellion that did their best to keep things quiet, and if they failed, they were quite likely to tell the Turks where to find the rebels before more harm was done.
By contrast, the capacity of American armed forces to inflict collective punishments does not extend much beyond curfews and other such restrictions, inconvenient to be sure and perhaps sufficient to impose real hardship, but obviously insufficient to out-terrorize insurgents. Needless to say, this is not a political limitation that Americans would ever want their armed forces to overcome, but it does leave the insurgents in control of the population, the real “terrain” of any insurgency. Of course, the ordinary administrative functions of government can also be employed against the insurgents, less compellingly perhaps but without need of violence. Insurgents everywhere seek to prohibit any form of collaboration or contact with the authorities, but they cannot normally prevent civilians from entering government offices to apply for obligatory licenses, permits, travel documents, and such. That provides venues for intelligence officers on site to ask applicants to provide information on the insurgents, in exchange for the approval of their requests and perhaps other rewards. This effective and straightforward method has been widely used, and there is no ethical or legal reason why it should not be used by the armed forces of the United States as well. But it does require the apparatus of military government, complete with administrative services for civilians. During and after the Second World War, after very detailed preparations, the U.S. Army and Navy governed the American zone of Germany, all of Japan, and parts of Italy. Initially, U.S. officers were themselves the administrators, with such assistance from local officials they chose to re-employ. Since then, however, the United States has preferred both in Vietnam long ago and now in Iraq to leave government to the locals.
That decision reflects another kind of politics, manifest in the ambivalence of a United States government that is willing to fight wars, that is willing to start wars because of future threats, that is willing to conquer territory or even entire countries, and yet is unwilling to govern what it conquers, even for a few years. Consequently, for all the real talent manifest in the writing of FM 3-24 DRAFT, its prescriptions are in the end of little or no use and amount to a kind of malpractice. All its best methods, all its clever tactics, all the treasure and blood that the United States has been willing to expend, cannot overcome the crippling ambivalence of occupiers who refuse to govern, and their principled and inevitable refusal to out-terrorize the insurgents, the necessary and sufficient condition of a tranquil occupation.
(Emphasis added. Hat tip to the brilliant and very unique Mencius Moldbug.)