RAND Study Says Lessons from Fighting Cold War-Era Insurgencies Could Aid U.S. Efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan

For Release

November 29, 2006

Tactics used to battle Cold War-era insurgencies – such as offering amnesty to combatants and securing national borders – could help the United States as it confronts insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a new RAND Corporation report.

While the insurgency in Iraq often is seen as too fragmented to be compared with past events, a review of five decades of RAND research on non-traditional warfare suggests that the current struggle in Iraq is similar in many ways to past insurgencies faced by the United States and other nations.

“The differences between past and current fights against insurgencies are overstated,” said Austin Long, author of the new RAND report. “Many insurgencies during the Cold War were fragmented, with rebel groups fighting each other as well as a central opposition force.”

Long said his review of five decades of counterinsurgency research by RAND suggests there are four lessons of particular relevance to today's ongoing battles: the proper organization of counterinsurgency efforts; the use of amnesty and reward programs; the control of national borders; and pacification of a nation's population.

Long, a doctoral candidate in securities studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reviewed dozens of past RAND studies about tactics used against insurgencies in such disparate places as Vietnam, Algiers and El Salvador in order to distill lessons for today's conflicts.

His efforts included working to declassify several reports so that their lessons could be incorporated into his report, which is titled “On ‘Other War' – Lessons from Five Decades of RAND Counterinsurgency Research.” RAND is a nonprofit research organization.

Long said that past experience shows that measuring progress against insurgents is difficult because the traditional military indicators such as movement of the front line or the number of enemy killed may be misleading. However, there are a number of best-practices in counterinsurgency operations that hold promise for the current efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Long concludes that the best organization to combat insurgencies appears to bring together political and military components into one decision-making group, which insures that the efforts of one does not undercut the progress of the other.

Some movement toward this model has occurred in both Iraq and Afghanistan with efforts called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which include representatives from the military, the U.S. State Department, development experts and local officials. The teams work together to move forward the dual goals of improving security and developing government resources.

Long suggests these teams be expanded to create similar efforts at the regional and national levels, where they could coordinate overall efforts for counterinsurgency operations and development, as well as settling disagreements that occur at the local level.

“This type of organization helps wean military officials from thinking in terms of divisions and brigades when it comes to counterinsurgency efforts,” Long said.

Another strategy outlined in “Other War” involves extending amnesty to those involved in an insurgency, as well as offering rewards to people who turn in those who are involved in insurgent fighting.

Long argues that in Iraq amnesty should be offered even to insurgents who have been involved in killings, but only if the combatants agree to fully cooperate with the government and relocate away from insurgent-dominated areas.

Experiences in fighting insurgencies in places such as Malaya and Vietnam show that amnesty programs can encourage thousands of fighters to give up their arms by providing an alternative to the “fight to the finish” mindset that characterizes insurgent battles, according to the report.

Offering rewards for information leading to the capture or killing of insurgents — not just top leaders — could prove to be effective in Iraq, as it has during other counterinsurgency efforts, according to Long. The current reward program in Iraq is heavily focused on top leaders, with little funding devoted to encouraging reporting on rank-and-file insurgents.

A third recommendation for improving counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan is investigating border security systems for each country. The insurgencies in both nations have been fed by the flow of arms and fighters across national borders, with relatively little technology employed to stop the flow.

The rugged terrain in some portions of the two countries and the remoteness in other sections have made it difficult for coalition troops to adequately secure the borders. But the use of technologies such as remote-piloted vehicles cued by ground-based sensors could provide a cost-effective way to monitor infiltration, allowing troops to respond when activity occurs, according to Long.

The Boeing Co. recently received a federal contract to create and deploy technology along a portion of the U.S.-Mexico border in an effort to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants. Officials expect such a system eventually could lead to a virtual fence along 7,500 miles of the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada.

Five decades ago the French were able to halt infiltration in Algiers across terrain similar to that found in Iraq, providing a lesson that the United States could build upon on its efforts in Iraq, according to the report.

Long's final recommendation is that commanders of counterinsurgency efforts rethink some basic concepts about security, focusing on ways to pacify local areas rather than focusing on the nation as a whole.

The United States and its allies should consider aiding creation of local militias that could act as a bridge between the police and the military, providing a permanent security presence in local areas, according to the report. Violence in Iraq has led to the creation of unauthorized militias, a troubling trend that could be co-opted by efforts to bring at least some of the militias into the government.

In addition, development efforts should target local areas that show a willingness to support their own defense, while development efforts at the national level should focus on improving infrastructure and other shared resources, according to the report.

The report was produced by RAND's National Defense Research Institute, which conducts research and analysis for sponsors including the Office of the Secretary of Defense, defense agencies and the U.S. Intelligence Community.

Printed copies of “ On ‘Other War' – Lessons from Five Decades of RAND Counterinsurgency Research” (ISBN: 978-0-8330-3926-2) can be ordered from RAND's Distribution Services (order@rand.org or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).

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