If my elementary school history classes covering the American Revolutionary War were historically accurate, the Redcoats (British soldiers) marched in formation into the American battle zones and took a beating from the colonial woodsmen. The battlefield strategy that worked in Europe in the 1700’s failed in the New World. Is conventional military warfare going to win against terrorists?
“We just don’t know yet whether that’s the same as winning.” Rumsfeld’s remark encapsulates the confusion and frustration that have plagued U.S. counterinsurgency efforts around the world for more than half a century—most notably in Vietnam, El Salvador, and now Iraq. The United States is not alone, however. It is the latest victim of a problem that has long afflicted the world’s governments and militaries when they are confronted with insurgencies: namely, a striking inability to absorb and apply the lessons learned in previous counterinsurgency campaigns.
Guerrilla groups and terrorist organizations, on the other hand, learn lessons very well. They study their own mistakes and the successful operations of their enemies, and they adapt nimbly. The past year in Iraq has been a case in point: insurgents have moved from sporadic, relatively unsophisticated roadside bomb attacks to more coordinated, even synchronized attacks, with brutally successful results: growing numbers of coalition soldiers and Iraqi civilians are dying; security in much of the country remains fragile or elusive; Iraqi resentment of the United States is increasing; and international political support for the American occupation, never exactly formidable to begin with, is withering. By many measures the insurgents are succeeding and we are failing.