The Mirage of Successful Counterinsurgency in the Middle East

From my research over the years is that the only successful counterinsurgency conducted by a Western power in the Middle East was by the Italians in Libya.1  See Vincere, The Italian Royal Army  Counterinsurgency 1922-1940 ( Federica  Saini Fasonatti.)The Italian counterinsurgency has been roundly criticized ( justifiably) as brutal and based  on brute force and purely  kinetic measures, ignoring population based doctrine..i.e.” hearts and minds,” the doctrine adhered to by the U.S. military Americans and most of the Western  world. The hearts and minds counterinsurgency as detailed in the American counterinsurgency manual  FM 3-24 espouses a population centric doctrine  “by focussing on efforts to secure safety and support of the local populace.”The doctrine emphasizes that  the US forces should support then local forces primarily with training and materiel support.

Unfortunately the last three counterinsurgency wars has not turned out well for the US Forces beginning with  Vietnam. Certainly lessons learned in  Vietnam were ostensibly widely available to commanders and troop leaders with the time and desire to read them.The FM 3-24  is an excellently written work with good historically derived information ,that if properly digested,  would provide an excellent starting point for in country on-the -ground learning process for commanders.

Reading a book I recently acquired entitled The Afghanistan Papers ( Craig Whitlock) the same mistakes and lack of veracity by government officials and military leader harked back to then Vietnam war as depicted in General McMasters Book Dereliction of Duty. In both cases the American political and military leaders lied about the progress and security situation in Afghanistan and Vietnam. As he wrote “Cultural ignorance and misunderstandings vexed military units for the entirety of the war, hampering ability their ability to conduct operations, collect intelligence, and make tactical judgements. Most troops deployed to the war zone for six to twelve months. By the time they had started to become comfortable in their surroundings it was usually time to go home. Their untutored replacements repeated the cycle year after year.”

It was exactly the same in Iraq and Vietnam. 12 to 13 month tours were the norm. Because of that it was a bloody and chaotic learning environment for the whole war.  This policy  also resulted in multiple tours with some units repeatedly deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq, One might think that the soldiers who had been there before would be culturally attuned to the environment, but this was not usual the case;  they may wind up in a culturally different region, for instance it was a totally different environment to be deployed to Ramadi or Mosul Iraq than the Southern mostly Shi’a areas or those of the Kurdish people. Moreover the lessons learned in 2005 were quite different from those  of 2011.In Vietnam this was particularly true as the early years were fought the indigenous Viet Cong in a totally counter guerilla war, while the later years we found most the enemy units were north Vietnamese conventional soldiers, fighting a conventional war.

As one who conducted hundreds of  briefings  for units deploying to the Middle East, I realized most of them were check the block exercises as I wrote in my presentation the ASMEA conference  entitled “Checking the Blocks” at  The title was a distillation of my view that the scheduled briefing were simply a means for commanders to be able to say their  units were culturally oriented. I did not blame the a commanders as I was in a similar position deploying my artillery battalion to Germany in the late seventies. The amount of actions and procedures required to get a unit from their home base in the U.S. to Germany were overwhelming, particularly in personnel affairs.  I had a similar experience as a artillery assistant S-3  deploying to Vietnam in 1966. Now in the past decade or so the social engineers and social justice warriors have unloaded on deploying  military units additional requirements of no combat value whatsoever.   Combat Training time is precious and too much time is allotted  for administrative requirements and leftist political subject that are irrelevant to soldering.

When I gave these briefings I realized that the preponderance of the soldiers present had very little interest in the briefings and classes. Those troops married were  thinking about how their wives and families would fare during their their absence and the personal actions that had to get taken care of prior to departure……. And the younger generation has very short attention spans, a result of the declining academic standards of American education in general, and social media. But I tried my best sometimes inserting portions of sex and sexual roles  in the Arab-Islamic world, which would get their momentary attention.

I consoled  myself  that perhaps some aspects were absorbed by the troops and something is better than nothing, and very often there were  individuals who became interested in the subject and were motivated to learn more.

Many, if not most of the Italian troops fighting the Libyan insurgents, were Ethiopian or Eritrean.

So after this prologue the point is this. Our Counterinsurgency doctrine  ( Hearts and Minds)based on the FM 3-24 is not the answer. Why? Because throughout the  manual the various aspects of the doctrine depends on a deep  understanding of the host culture …which is a true assessment… and we can never get to that degree of knowledge imbued among the majority of the troops. The fact that some may become well versed in the future or know how to use indigenous experts…a very complicated process with many pitfalls, is not enough. This is true because in these long irregular conflicts  such as Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, every soldier needs to be a “strategic Corporal,” i.e. a soldier who understands the strategic importance of his actions in dealing with a society in which non combatants are indistinguishable from combatants. His actions  will have repercussions at political and social levels and reverberate throughout the area.

The soldiers at the entrance of the Green Zone in Baghdad who ogled or sometimes harassed the Iraqis girls coming into Green zone has implications, as do every contact between the locals and soldiers. The enemy has the communication means to blow very unsavory action into a major adverse event, religiously, politically, or racially.

A worse case of example of this is one depicted in the book Religion is Resistance ( Eileen Ryan) concerning the Italian war against the Arab  resistance fighters in Libya. Some Italian soldiers “baptized” an orphan Libyan girl,  which of course became  widely known and provided gasoline to the fire that the Italians were in Libya  to make Christians of the very conservative and often radical Senussi Muslims of that unhappy land.

To return to the Italian campaign in Libya, it was a bloody inhumane war waged by the Italians, especially when the Fascists under Mussolini took over the government. They followed the Russian method of counterinsurgency which is in its most elementary form, is simply to make life unlivable for the people from which the insurgents draw their soldiers. It consists of mass “resettlement ” of insurgent populations to areas where they can be more easily controlled, killing livestock, destroying crops, ruthless nondiscrimination between civilians and the guerrillas.

Rodolfo Graziani Italian general who led the total war methods employed by the Italians to subdue the Libyan insurgency. As conventional Italian army commander against the British he failed totally.

But the Italians won. The Libyan resistance was ground down. The “total war”concept works. The Russians against the Chechens, and   Sri Lankan  against the Tamil insurgents  are other examples of this “successful” type of counterinsurgency.

Gian Gentile’s ground breaking book, Wrong Turn America’s Deadly Embrace of Counter-Insurgency  succinctly demonstrated that the hearts and Minds doctrine as espoused by the authors and aficionados of   FM 3-24, did not and does not work.I agree with Colonel Gentile and my input is that to implement FM 3-24 we must have the cultural social expertise at  ground level  that is impossible to acquire and more importantly to maintain.

Even in the miraculous event we possessed an army of anthropologists, my experiences lead me to have doubts that even that kind of socially conscious army  would have any better success. I think back to the sixties when I met an American officer training Saudis. He had developed an unusual level of rapport with his Saudi soldiers and Officers. He was invited to their personal fetes and celebrations, and had learned to speak a creditable level of Arabic. He told me quite sorrowfully and somewhat perplexed that following the 1967 war the Saudis absolutely shunned him.  He was devastated. To me it was a simply a truism that so many have to learn….the hard way ….. you will  never be one of them. When crises occur they go back to blood lines.

Libyan leader of resistance against the Italians Omar al Mukhtar, Arab hero. for many years evaded captured and attacked Italian units. Captured and executed. Betrayed by a follower.


Major Rene Defourneaux, one of our foremost (and rare) army  experts on Vietnam was visiting Okinawa and the US Marine general in charge asked him how he should prepare his marines to fight in Vietnam and Defourneaux  responded ” Don’t go there.” Rene Defourneaux, The Winking Fox.

1. Another excellent article to read about the Italians in Libya is written by my good friend Youssef Aboul Enein .

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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