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Opinion: Isolating insurgents is nothing new

In the Vietnam era it was called pacification. Today it’s nation-building.

Army General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, looks up at a screen while speaking at the Marine Corps University's conference on "Counterinsurgency Leadership in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Beyond" in Washington, Sept. 23, 2009. (Molly Riley/Reuters)

BOSTON — When it comes to counterinsurgency efforts, Americans seem to have a very short institutional memory. General David Petraues was credited with new and radical thinking when he came out with an updated "Counterinsurgency Field Manual."

The new doctrine held that, instead of playing whack-a-mole in Iraq — i.e., trying to kill as many insurgents as we could — it would be better to try and protect the population. But much of it could have been found in the Marine Corps’ “Small War Manual,” written in 1940.

President Barack Obama announced a similar strategy in March for Afghanistan, and it lies at the heart of General Stanley McChrystal’s request for more American troops.

I can remember during the war years in Saigon a stream of British military and civilian advisers coming in to tell the Americans approximately the same thing, based on their experiences during the Malayan Emergency, in which the British successfully fought ethnic Chinese insurgents in the jungles of what is now Malaysia.

The British had a distinct advantage in that conflict which the Americans lacked. The “CT,” or communist terrorist, was of a distinct and identifiable ethnic minority, and the majority Malay community largely remained loyal. Secondly, the CTs had no safe haven as the Vietnamese Communists had in North Vietnam and in parts of Laos and Cambodia, and as the Taliban have in Pakistan. But nonetheless, the British told us of how they had gathered populations together in strategic, armed villages which had the effect of protecting them from terrorist attacks, and allowing for economic activity. It also had the effect of denying the CTs access to resources and thereby isolated them in their jungle hideouts where many starved. The U.S. was never able to seal Vietnam’s borders, but in due course we had our own “strategic hamlet" program.

The U.S. commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, had a different idea. His strategy was a war of attrition — simply put, to kill more Vietnamese Communists in the field than they could replace. The doctrine of “search and destroy,” was to locate and attack every enemy unit in the country. As his losses rose, and as the draft increased, it turned out that it was America that was being ground down.

There were dissenters. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge was against Westmoreland’s strategy, as were several high-level generals. Some of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s men, Robert McNamara, Nicholas Katzenbach and William Bundy, for example, all urged that the search-and-destroy strategy be abandoned.