AN Security

Counterinsurgency and Stability Operations in Iraq: Comparing Lessons from Vietnam

In Iraq war, strategy in iraq, war in iraq on December 31, 2009 at 9:53 pm

The US/CIA experience in Vietnam should give us plenty of evidence that there are more advantages to running COIN operations in today’s global war on terror than in conducting conventional warfare option. It is even more evident that if we were to plan and execute a sound ‘pacification’ plan in Iraq or Afghanistan, then there must be some elements of COIN at play to help balance out how we mitigate growing insurgent operations. They are smarter and faster at learning U.S. order of battle so how we fight is not a big secret. In Vietnam the same problem was encountered by the CIA as the North Vietnamese already had extensive documentation of CIA doctrine in conducting air drops, employing stay-behind units, etc. without the benefit of helping that country make changes from within. Obviously, the CIA was fairly confident it could continue to make drops and lose team after team yet they did not factor in the possibility their teams had been compromised time after time. Maybe sheer dumb luck made some missions successful and still, they were failures for a long-term solution. First, the CIA did not know the North Vietnamese had been consistently studying its methodology and quickly executing countermeasures and mostly obtained this information from the Chinese. Second, incursions carried out into a closed society must accompany a much more comprehensive plan. Once on the ground, units would have to depend on their limited training and then if they landed close enough to populated areas they were instructed to stay low for short periods of time gathering information. But then there was no plan in how to approach locals other than maybe clerics or family members and that alone always posed a great risk to the team members, thus really not accomplishing much but to get them killed or captured and tried.

There was little consideration for exploiting political and ideological angles within the population; at least just not right away. Eventually this reality would manifest itself fully. The suggestion by the CIA to President Kennedy was to engage the population with these psychological techniques, to create the illusion that there was a nascent revolutionary movement at play within North Vietnam and create the threat from within. This approach would have been a proper complement to paramilitary operations, since that could have been the second stage; to actually carry out clandestine operations, sabotage, and a direct attack on the government machine.

There was some of this work involved in the post-invasion stability operations in Japan and Germany, and these are two success stories that need to be studied more. When the allies moved in looked around and started to guide these countries into a post-war, they already had a plan, the intelligence base to tell them where to begin securing the population (borders) supervising local police and basically keeping track of everything the locals did before a turn-over could take place.

So how do we carry out these incursions and do we conduct part sabotage/assassination (just as the Israelis did) while we conduct aggressive PSYOPS campaigns? Even disinformation and propaganda efforts must carry a purpose and that is to engender in the local population the need to fight for their future. Initially the CIA’s intention was to help the Vietnamese become independent from any foreign intervention in the end and this is the basis for stability operations. The employment of irregular forces (indigenous) is of great importance because they have a vested interest in not only fighting an insurgency such as Iraq, but also to gradually wean themselves from foreign intervention, which is the main purpose of introducing stability operations (nation-building). This has not always been a well carried out concept, as we seem to engage countries with cultures totally different from ours and often we fail to recognize that those differences will affect the outcome of any conflict and how that culture will survive post-conflict/invasion.

The absence of the rule of law is the first factor that must be either established or maintained if already present in the targeted environment. Efforts of pacification were disrupted constantly by the VCI by threatening those people and agencies working on re-building the country with military attacks. Though the allies were able to fight the VCI successfully and provide protection for these activities imagine any NGO working in the field or that matter civil affairs unit while under fire. The first thing that should be provided to the non-combatant population is security. They either get it from their government with foreign assistance or they fall under the rule of insurgent groups and historically the populations do not well at all. That was a critical development in Algeria where the French government allowed more than one political fringe group to develop and begin conducting counterintelligence operations separate from government support then had to try and control more than one group with civilians at greatest risk who were ultimately main victims of hostilities. The French allowed Algerian populations to be stripped of their identities in order to make counterintelligence efforts more difficult and people were chased away from their homes by all factions so there was no security for them.

The Iraq parallel

We’ve tried this endeavor before and had been successful which I wonder if much thought was given to the application of the principles involved in stability operations in addition to the rule of law is the continuity of governance, this includes social and government services, local services, trash pickup, electrical power, potable water, police, border/population control, etc. The greatest examples are post-invasion Germany and Japan. In both cases military police were deployed to conduct law enforcement operations while there was a controlled environment of the population and local government that enabled social growth and the beginning of rebuilding their infrastructure. This could not be done if hostilities were still a consideration, from either conventional or insurgent forces. In the case of Iraq those elements of security and of continuity of governance were absent, combat forces thrust into the realm of law enforcement duties were lacking in training and experience; the difference between fighting a shooting war and maintaining law and order have had a long-term impact on life here. Reconstruction efforts can easily slow down or stop in the presence of violence, whether from insurgent activity or rampant criminality or a combination of both. This has been the case in Iraq.

The VCI also operated openly in populated areas unlike insurgents in Iraq, who opt for a more covert approach but then in some areas they do make themselves known throughout neighborhoods. Iraq insurgents don’t show the highly organized military organization as did the VCI in that the Iraqis did not form a shadow government to run counter to the local government but then there was none to speak of for a while so I guess the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) at first tried to establish a fresh government once Saddam’s regime elements were removed causing a chaotic situation which grew out of control.

I wonder, and would like to get some feedback on this, if some of you who have worked in this field directly could clarify how coalition forces could have gained more ground here by utilizing a COIN approach after the invasion and early enough in the game. Before the mass exodus of government personnel, the sacking of businesses and attacks on police stations and police elements – and I do consider the fact that the potential for those attacks was unfortunately ignored as a possibility – would have been more advantageous because the people of Iraq, though living in authoritarian but controlled environment, would have been more keen on participating in their own liberation afterwards. COIN can easily influence positive or negative political and social change in a country and an effective tool to aid in establishing the stability process.

A combined approach

I don’t want to complain without offering some sort of theoretical plan just as a mental exercise. I could see introducing COIN operations during conventional hostilities to help build an intelligence foundation we could use once things de-escalate enough to begin the stability phase. I’m not saying that using elite units to carry out sabotage missions while others carry out pure SPYOPS within the population could not work. First, we have to link up with the locals and build the necessary networks and we know from experience that native forces and other government structures will have to come into play because the nature of nation building is to return that country to an improved state of peace.

By removing the threat to security in this effort we’re increasing our success rate, of course, this cannot be edged in stone as the nature of warfare is ever changing and not every threat to our operations can be mitigated ahead of time. Perhaps there should be a series of scenarios, preferably worst case scenarios already worked out to aid in the introduction of NGOs as well as a trained and capable constabulary waiting to deploy. Combat troops should have some exposure to law enforcement training but that is not their main purpose and only a civilian constabulary should be in place to assist with these duties.

In essence, had we employed of COIN action before the loss of law and order as it stood before the invasion, the overall environment might have been more accommodating to a continuation of routine life in Iraq while helping them re-build. It’s just a theory but COIN would have been more effective in pushing the Iraqis into wanting their situation to return to some level of normalcy. Just like the Northern Vietnam PSYOPS campaigns, the objective would be to create a real or illusionary revolution or political movement to get the population to be more receptive to change and to reject helping the insurgency. A strong government in place is another necessary element which did not exist in Iraq post-invasion unlike the Vietnamese who had at least strong leadership from the top and was able to rally the people to be part of the fight. This could only be done with the balanced combination of COIN and local support. I think if this is not currently the doctrine to use COIN along with all other military and clandestine resources then that could be the future of warfare; prepare them ahead of time for what’s to come – whatever many outcomes we can devise – unlike current doctrine which to me, appears to mitigate problems as they come up…little or no vision of potential issues.


The Coalition Provisional Authority’s Experience with Governance in Iraq, Celeste Ward, United States Institute of Peace, May 2005,

The Coalition Provisional Authority’s Experience with Public Security in Iraq, Robert Perito, United States Institute of Peace, April 2005,

U.S. Police in Peace and Stability Operations, Robert Perito, United States Institute of Peace, August 2007,


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