America didn’t learn the Lessons of Tribes & Counter-Insurgency in Vietnam, Leading to the Iraq Quagmire

By David Moore

The rise of ISIL, as well as the resurgence of the Taliban, has brought numerous “experts” out to offer analyses on the best way to combat these developments. The consensus is to bomb and arm (or re-arm Sunni) groups to fight ISIL. Since I have written a book on insurgency and counter-insurgency warfare in the First and Second Indochina Wars, I feel qualified to point out that my research shows we are on the wrong path for defeating ISIS, the Taliban, or any other insurgency in the future. (The book is based on my 1982 Master’s thesis in anthropology.)

My interest in unconventional warfare stemmed from my service in Vietnam, along with interest and education in the ancient Middle East and anthropology (a multi-disciplinary approach here is important: the first documented counter-insurgency dates to around 1,500 BC, between the Hittite Empire and Kaska tribesmen). Tribesmen have been recruited in history by diverse empires such as Babylonia, Rome and France, a practice that led to some disastrous outcomes for all three. This led me to write an anthropological case study of the effects of insurgency and counter-insurgency warfare on the various tribal groups of Vietnam, from the French involvement to the American. I later published it as “Tribal Soldiers of Vietnam: the Effects of Unconventional Warfare on Tribal Populations.”

In my book, I note that the French discovered in the First Indochina War they were not only fighting the “typical” or “historical” insurgency, i.e. guerrilla war, but a much more complex form of warfare combining politics with unconventional warfare. The signature aspect of this new insurgency, which the French considered the key aspect of modern insurgency, was labeled “parallel hierarchies.” Simply put, the insurgency establishes an effective parallel government and social services, mimicking the ineffective government offices in contested tribal areas. The French ultimately published in 1957 a landmark—but much ignored—study in the magazine Revue Militaire d’Information devoted entirely to the parallel hierarchies.

One way I described the two competing forms of warfare was through the formula RW = (GW + PW), meaning revolutionary (insurgency) warfare was a close combination of guerrilla warfare married to political warfare. The North Vietnamese set up efficient parallel services of courts, social services, military, etc. I wrote the formula for Western counter-insurgency as COIN = (GW) + (PW). Lacking an effective central government and incorruptible bureaucrats, not to mention lacking the will to create one, the quick Western fix was to hire local warlords while leaving their often brutal mechanism for control intact. These warlords supplied their own version of “anti-communism,” telling Western military and political leaders what they wanted to hear while pursuing their own agendas, oftentimes counterproductive by driving their victims into the insurgency.
The expedient use by the US military of warlord armies to fight these insurgents, in my opinion, was a foreseeable catastrophe.

The explosion of armed gangs extorting villages and individuals in Iraq and Afghanistan was not a surprise for anyone familiar with counter-insurgency in Vietnam. As I showed in my book, the growth of armed groups demanding “protection,” “taxes,” etc., is directly related to the standard recruiting and training practices of Western militaries.

Conversely, using the communist model employing parallel hierarchies, insurgencies co-opt and absorb through politics. Politics and religion can overcome tribalism, but US counter-insurgency doctrine (especially in the Middle East) has only further entrenched tribal animosities, sectarianism and chaos. As I showed in my book, left to their own devices, tribal minorities may unite for a united political end, such as independence.

In conclusion, the ability of parallel hierarchies and insurgencies to undermine ineffective and corrupt government authority should never be underestimated. It is also my opinion that, in the case of the Taliban and others in the Middle East, religion easily replaced the communist secularist political world view. One can indeed see the effective use of parallel hierarchies in the Middle East beyond the Taliban for a variety of groups to first achieve legitimacy—and ultimately supremacy. In Lebanon, for instance, Hezbollah provides better hospitals and services at a fraction of the cost. Hamas was also able to establish hospitals and schools as an alternative to the extremely corrupt PLO cronyism of Arafat.

Wherever corruption and bribery flourish in a Western-supported government, so will the parallel hierarchies, eventually undermining, delegitimizing, and finally replacing the “government.” Furthermore, the US has an uphill political battle before it, since its heavy-handed resort to drones and to hiring what amount to ex-military contract killers, has delegitimized it in the eyes of many Iraqis and Afghans. The refusal of American administrations to learn the real lessons of insurgency and counter-insurgency warfare from Vietnam has directly spawned the current (and future) chaos in the Middle East.

David Moore is author of Tribal Soldiers of Vietnam: The Effects of Unconventional Warfare on Tribal Populations

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Related video added by Juan Cole

United States Institute of Peace: “Tribal Societies & Counterterrorism in Pakistan”

12 Responses

  1. The US has long suffered from the illusion that human nature is the same everywhere and our culture is the ultimate aim of all mankind. Local cultures are simply irrelevant or at least subject to the mind bending manipulation by advertising and propaganda that has has characterized American culture and worked so well for the elite here.
    Actually, success or failure overseas is not important since it can always be spun by the media. What is important is how much money can be made along the way, and who gets to make it.

    • America has not learned, and America refuses to learn. I guess the name for this “illusion” (or delusion) is hubris. One would think that America would have learned from Korea and Viet Nam that overseas entanglements were not worth the price of blood and treasure. We still have not learned, even after Afghanistan and the many, many years of Iraq.
      Sigh…

      • Are you saying that South Korea is a complete and utter failure? Are you saying that there is an ongoing insurgency in South Korea and that the US is not doing enough to stop it?

        Are you saying that Kim Jong UN is the rightful ruler of South Korea?

  2. Speaking of parallels, another book by an actual participant points up (unintentionally, mostly) more of what’s sick and deformed about the US empire. “First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan,” by CIA paramilitary field operative Gary Schroen, somehow made it past the CIA censors, to lay out many braggadocio bits of the Great Defeat of the Evil Commies and Taliban by the “Northern Alliance” of the same kind of self-interested warlords.

    The book showcases “Policy” put into motion by the Great Wise Beltway Bubbleheads, uniformed, uninformed, or frockless, blessed with certain skill sets and lots of money and materiel to throw around, cursed by micromanagement to be consistent with “doctrine” that had to meet the jot and tittle of the Narrative and turned and pivoted not on any kind of consistent war plan but only the ascendance of one little group of “policy” people or another inside the Bubble. Schroen was well aware of and happy to use the corruptions, “shifting loyalties” and predilections of warlords to do the kinds of “regime change” and “interventions” that they do so much of, in service to some idiot vision or other or maybe just out of idiot habit and momentum, or because the gain personally from, or get off on, the Game. He apparently informed his bosses about the complexities of Afghan sociopolitics, to the extent that only idiots or perverse people could press ahead with the stratagems that led to where “we” are now: Used, screwed, bled and universally scorned and hated.

    What’s the goal and endpoint of all this? Just more of the same, until the carbon is all burned, and a very few are left to contend over the canned goods and safe drinking water? Do “we” (or those of us who create the wealth that pays for all this, fills the ranks of soldiers, all that, have to keep it up, putting up with Rulers who keep manufacturing and/or exacerbating war-able divides, just to keep themselves and the Brass in comfort and ego-satisfaction? Just curious… It seems like such a silly structure.

      • Not saying that at all. But. Please to reflect on the gentle nature of what WE have done there and what replaced the Taliban in Kabul and how successful our coalition nation building counterterrorism activities have been. And I hear it’s another record opium harvest this year, and the Taliban thing, was that defeated by a trillion bucks and all that bought? Evil is all around. Don’t be falling for Narrative illusions.

  3. I’m a political scientist not an anthropologist, but it seems to me that the Middle East is much more fractured than Vietnam. Middle Eastern countries, with some exceptions like Egypt and Iran, are largely artificial constructs dating from the aftermath of WWI, where boundary lines were drawn by colonial powers who pretty much ignored ethnic and tribal groups. Vietnam has much more of a history as a separate entity with a distinct language and culture. Also, it seems to me that the religious differences are much more stark in the Middle East than in Vietnam. In short, the shortcomings of our Vietnam policies are magnified greatly by the more difficult situations in Iraq and other ME countries.

    • North Vietnam was a colonial fief of the Soviet Union which the US didn’t invade and therefore let it be for the most part.

  4. One of the striking things in both Afghanistan and Iraq was how very much the relationships area under the “command” of coalition partners — the British and the Dutch come to mind specifically — were in fact qualitatively different. The reason usually given was that these troops were not combat, although they did operate in self-defense, sometimes often.
    The Americans inability to “buy friends” particularly in Iraq, and the extraordinarily poor quality of partners we enriched with little to show for it again suggests boobish mismanagement. In Afghanistan our inability to track and follow up on contracted was exploited furiously — and I believe the same was true in Iraq. Whether it was true incompetence, confusion/resentment of ‘the mission’ or simply a refusal to risk personal safety at all, confuses me — or yet more hopeless chain-of-command failure.
    My impression, repeatedly, was that American boorishness and frank racism made enemies quickly and indelibly — still it would be interesting to revisit the British occupation of Basra and the various sectors not-under-US authority in Afghanistan.
    It would appear, based on this thesis, that the reason Afghanistan has been spared the blood-letting “insurgency” of Iraq is that the Taliban never really went away, so regardless of the incompetence or corruption in Kabul, life did go on — miserably poor and without much improvement. (I recall the irony that American roads opened up to the attack any number previously safe remote “forgotten” villages — and competition to local producers — until the roads fell into disrepair and the price of those goods rose precipitously as transportation costs added to purchase prices.
    I’ve wondered if the European colonial experiences resulted in a better mindset, a different sort of racism or orientalism, an acquired “talent” for dealing with foreign, occupied populations that Americans were clueless about.

    • It all goes back to the aftermath of the “First” Gulf War, where we encouraged the people to rise up, and when they did, we let them get mowed down by the tune of a quarter million.

      Why would anyone trust us after that?

  5. What is different between the French in Vietnam and the Americans in Iraq is that The French were the government, the US was not. The reason we were there so long was that we let the Baathist army keep it’s weapons. The French didn’t do that.

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