The U.S. is actually quite good at fighting insurgencies

The failure to achieve strategic victories in Afghanistan and Iraq has reinforced the idea that the United States is bad at fighting insurgencies.  Much of the criticism of U.S. policy in both conflicts is warranted.  Policymakers failed to do sufficient post-conflict planning. The military took too long to switch to a counterinsurgency strategy.  Bush administration legal policy – particularly the support for torture – provided fuel for the insurgency. Moreover, the public remained disengaged from the wars throughout their duration, making it difficult for the nation to commit the resources necessary to win.

These failures, however, obscure the fact that the U.S. is actually quite good at fighting insurgencies – when it wants to.  The idea that counterinsurgency is not compatible with an “American way of war” is simply untrue. The most prominent example of this is the Cold War.  The United States’ struggle against the Soviet Union represents nothing but a global counterinsurgency operation.  As George Kennan so famously outlined in his “Long Telegram” and in his “X” article in Foreign Affairs, the Soviet Union saw itself as locked in a global, zero-sum struggle with the capitalist world.  Peaceful coexistence was not an option.  As such, Soviet foreign policy was focused, inter alia, on subverting capitalist governments, recruiting neutral states to its cause, undermining Western cohesion, delegitimizing the Western international system and capitalism in general, and of course, overtly expanding its power and influence where possible.  In short, the challenge to Western capitalist power was comprehensive and unending.

This challenge was equivalent to an insurgency against the historical dominance of Western capitalist states in modern world affairs.  This is apparent in many of the strategic difficulties associated with countering the threat.  For example, Kennan noted that “the Kremlin is under no ideological compulsion to accomplish its purposes in a hurry” because it believed “it is dealing in ideological concepts which are of long-term validity, and it can afford to be patient.” Therefore, confident in its purpose as the challenger to the status quo, as long as the USSR wasn’t losing, it was winning. This meant it could choose the time and place of its attacks on the capitalist system.  On the flip side, as the defender of the status quo, the United States faced the frustrating problem of choosing between concentration and dispersion. Washington could deploy the majority of its resources to secure selected high-profile areas at the risk of leaving other areas vulnerable or it could try and defend everything but risk not being strong enough in any one place to resist Soviet aggression.  Moreover, because of nuclear weapons, defeating the USSR through force of arms was not a realistic option; the U.S. could not kill its way out of this problem.  Instead, victory could only be achieved by convincing people both inside and outside the USSR that communism was a dead end.

U.S. policy ultimately reflected the demands of these strategic necessities.  In fact, U.S. policy throughout the Cold War, while hardly static, consistently satisfied Sir Robert Thompson’s Five Principles of Counterinsurgency:

  1. The government must have a clear political aim: to establish and maintain a free, independent and united country which is politically and economically stable and viable.
  2. The government must function in accordance with the law.
  3. The government must have an overall plan.
  4. The government must give priority to defeating the political subversion, not the guerrillas.
  5. In the guerrilla phase of an insurgency, a government must secure its base areas first.

Washington’s Cold War strategy met every single one of these requirements. It had a clear political aim, it functioned in accordance with international law and through the rule-based international system it established, it had an overall plan (containment), it kept the conflict mostly cold rather than hot, and it prioritized Western Europe’s security.

Washington also successfully confronted the problem of choosing between concentration and dispersion. According to the noted Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis, American policymakers, while committed to the policy of containment, oscillated between what he called “asymmetrical” and “symmetrical” versions of the strategy. He concluded that:

Certain postwar administrations (Truman’s before 1950, Eisenhower’s, Nixon’s and Ford’s) had sought to compete with the Soviet Union at times, in places, and in manners of their own choosing, even if this meant leaving some arenas uncontested while escalating the conflict in others; while other administrations (Truman’s after 1950, Kennedy’s and Johnson’s) had sought to compete wherever a challenge existed, without leaving any arena uncontested but also without expanding the conflict into others.

While these strategies were successful in balancing Soviet power and aggression, they failed to ultimately end the Cold War. It was Ronald Reagan who found a final solution to the Soviet challenge by combining the best of both approaches and focusing on changing minds inside the Kremlin. As Gaddis notes:

Reagan’s objective was straightforward, if daunting: to prepare the way for a new kind of Soviet leader by straining the old Soviet system to the breaking point. Kennan, Nitze, and other early strategists of containment had always held out the possibility that a Soviet leader might someday acknowledge the failures of Marxism-Leninism and the futility of Russian imperialism – the two foundations upon which the Soviet state had been constructed.

While Reagan’s policy of rollback and his decision to increase defense spending were key to fusing the symmetrical and asymmetrical approaches to containment, his true innovation came in calibrating his foreign policy around its psychological impact. Reagan knew he couldn’t kill or fight his way out of the Cold War, so he placed “the Soviet leader in the center of the picture” and embraced a policy of winning minds; he focused on defeating the source of the political subversion rather than its warriors. The result was the emergence of Gorbachev and a group of like-minded reformers inside the USSR. The rest is history.

Taken together, the Cold War represents four decades of successful US-led global counterinsurgency operations against Soviet revisionism. While recent failures such as Iraq and Afghanistan have called America’s COIN capabilities into question, the reality is Washington has the ability to effectively execute counterinsurgency strategy, as history so powerfully shows.  It follows, then, that there’s nothing inevitable about the U.S. losing against insurgencies.  It simply needs to follow Sir Thompson’s Five Principles and harness the willpower to stay the course. Such lessons are important to keep in mind not only for the next theater-focused counterinsurgency operation but also as Washington struggles to respond to China’s growing power and assertiveness in the decades to come.


All Gaddis quotes taken from his speech “Strategies of Containment: Post-Cold War Reconsiderations,” presented at George Washington University on April 15th, 2004.

Sir Robert Thompson’s Five Principles of Counterinsurgency taken from Chapter 2 of John Nagl’s book “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife” (pg. 29 to be exact).

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