The United States military is arguably the best counterinsurgency force in the world today. But if that is true, it is extremely unusual in historical context. For most of its history, the United States has been mediocre in such activities—if not actively hostile to the idea that it should even bother worrying about them. There were perhaps some exceptions in the early 20th century. But most U.S. history including the Indian wars of the 19th century as well as the Vietnam and post-Vietnam experiences of more recent times—to say nothing of the first 4 years of the Iraq war and first 4 or 5 years of the Afghanistan conflict—have demonstrated American inefficiency and incompetence in this realm of warfare. Thankfully, the U.S. armed forces have become a learning organization, and they adjusted to near-defeat in Iraq with a turnaround in counterinsurgency operations that will hopefully now also help salvage the situation in Afghanistan. But even in Iraq, it was a close call, as most members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were skeptical about or hostile to the so-called surge in Iraq even as it began to deliver good results. There are rich lessons here about the difficulties of military reform, but also about the feasibility of rapid improvement in such missions once a nation truly commits to conducting them successfully.
This essay reviews, very briefly, America’s experience in counterinsurgency including some observations about recent improvements.