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  • Interview: Eric Foner on freedom
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  • Interview: Bard O'Neill on Insurgency and Terrorism and the Iraq War


    Bard O'Neill on Insurgency, Terrorism and the Iraq War

    Continued | Back to part 2

    Q: You mentioned Vietnam, and it seems to me that the Tet Offensive was a big signal that it wasn't going to be about guerrilla attacks, but there was a move into conventional war and the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces were more vulnerable to conventional war than they thought.


    Bard E. O'Neill, a former Air Force officer and now a professor at the National Defense University, teaches future military leaders about insurgencies and is the author of "Insurgency & Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare," a new edition of which will be published in 2005. The book is a meticulous analysis of the types of insurgencies, their goals and strategies, and why they succeed or fail. We talked with Professor O'Neil two days after the 2004 election to find out what the history of insurgencies tells us about the American dilemma in Iraq.

    Related links: Bard O'Neill bio
    State of the Nation

    Interviews about the state of our country from the election to the inauguration.

    • George McGovern on Vietnam, Iraq and the election of 1972
    •  Thomas Keck on judicial activism and the conservative Supreme Court
    • Bard O'Neill on Insurgency, Terrorism and the Iraq War
    • Maurice Isserman on "America Divided"
    • Eric Foner on freedom
    Available from

    Insurgency & Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare


    The Deadly Embrace: The Impact of Israeli and Palestinian Rejectionism on the Peace Process

    BARD E. O'NEILL: That's correct. In Vietnam, you had all forms of warfare. In fact, when I was there it was the transitional year, it was 1965, and I just watched it play out. We had terrorism — things like burning up mountain yards with flamethrowers, [directed at] civilians to get the message across not to support the government. Does this sound like beheadings today? Same principle, same objective. We had guerrilla warfare, certainly where I was — hit-and-run attacks.

    And then we increasingly began to see conventional engagements as the People's Army of North Vietnam began to infiltrate, and they of course led to the big slugging matches like in the Ia Drang valley from "We Were Soldiers Once, and Young," if you've seen that.

    So all forms of warfare were at play there in Vietnam, and the issue there was not to try to deal with them all the same way — which is Westmoreland's approach, you know, kind of one-size-fits-all search-and-destroy operations — but to differentiate among these, and where they were occurring, and to deal with them each on their own terms. Where you had guerrilla warfare, to deal with it with small-unit operations, ambushes, patrols, mobile forces; and where you could find and fix and you face North Vietnamese divisions, well you'd have to go force-on-force there because nothing else would suffice.

    Q: Do you think there's a warning sign you would look for in Iraq that that kind of a war was developing?

    When you add up the sense of "This conflict is going to go on, more Americans are going to die, and it's going to cost a lot," you reach a point where people may say, "Time to reassess here. Time to figure out how to get out of here as soon as we can." That's their strategy — war by a thousand cuts.  

    BARD E. O'NEILL: Not now. Because it would be difficult for them to put large forces in the field, given modern technology and ability to detect those and to detect the communications that are required to coordinate those forces. They would throw themselves into the same dilemma they faced in March 2003. If you are in major force units, you are vulnerable to air attack, which is the strong suit of your enemy, which would be us. These people are not stupid — they are not going to revert to that kind of thing, so I would not be looking at that.

    I would rather be looking at just continued, grinding guerrilla warfare and terrorism, and the attempt by these people to escalate that, to spread it to more places, and maybe to try to coordinate it a little better. Now, the coordination part is difficult because of the different religious affiliations of groups, the different ideological positions they take — I mean, former Saddamists have nothing in the long term in common with underground Islamic militants or with jihadis from the outside. I mean, they just don't. Might they, in the short term, cooperate to a limited degree? It's possible, but that's tactical short-term coordination. So you may see some of that.

    I guess to summarize that, I don't see any signs that conventional warfare is in the near-term to mid-term future at all, because they're too vulnerable to that and they're smart enough to know that would play into our hands. That's our strong suit. You come out in large numbers, you're toast. Period.

    Q: What can they look to accomplish, then?

    BARD E. O'NEILL: Well, what they look to accomplish is to wear us down, to break our will. That's their purpose. Along the way, they'd like to break the will of our coalition partners. Absolutely. I don't care who they are and what they're doing — whether they're actually deploying military units or supporting us, say, like the Japanese. Capture their people, behead them, blow them up, make the demands, continue on with this. The imagery goes across the world instantaneously in the modern age and it creates this psychological reaction in many places. And questions will be raised, as they were in France when the Algerian war took place, as they were in Vietnam: Why are we here? Why are we doing this?

    And the people that they would like to see break ranks are the coalition people. If they can drive a wedge between the United States and its allies, fine. I mean, the Spanish are out. The Hungarians are talking about getting out of there. It's not a world-class coalition we've got. It's a very limited coalition. If they can further undermine that, it leaves us with more and more of the burden, and they understand — as Bin Laden clearly understands — the American economy is being adversely affected by this. And when you add up the sense of "This conflict is going to go on, more Americans are going to die, and it's going to cost a lot," you reach a point where people may say, "Time to reassess here. Time to figure out how to get out of here as soon as we can. We can't just keep on waiting on the Iraqis to take it over." This is what they're banking on, to be sure. I mean, that's their strategy — war by a thousand cuts.

    Q: You mentioned turning the effort over to Iraqi authorities, which sounds kind of like "Vietnamization" to me — or it makes me think of that.

    BARD E. O'NEILL: Yes. No question.

    Q: And I would say, from what I've read about Vietnam, one thing that seems consistent is that Americans found, from early on, that they couldn't rely on a lot of the top political leaders or generals on the South Vietnamese side.

    BARD E. O'NEILL: That's correct.

    Q: Do you think —

    BARD E. O'NEILL: Same thing can happen. Sure.

    Q: What are the problems in trying to rely on indigenous forces?

    BARD E. O'NEILL: Well, the problems would revolve around whether or not they have legitimacy in the eyes of their own population, and whether or not they can effect their strong instruments of control — their military and security forces that can deal with the problem. Whether or not they understand the political, social and economic dimensions of the conflict that need to be addressed — not to solve it overnight or even in the midterm, but to begin to alleviate the problem. In other words, counterinsurgency is multifaceted: social, political, economic, military, defined in various ways, depending on the nature of the threat. A pretty sophisticated approach is required, of the kind you saw with the British in Malaya — if we want an example, the sultan of Oman, at the behest of the British in the late '60s in Oman. These things can be done.

      As you build [a new army and police force] quickly, you kind of say, "Y'all come, and join, and sign a piece of paper that you're going to be loyal." Well, man, that opens the doors to infiltration to insurgents. That's age-old.
    But — the clock works against you. How soon and how fast can you spin up an indigenous structure that can be this good and do these things? How long will it take you just to train, effectively, your security forces and the military? Of course, this is the obvious problem of dismantling the Iraqi military, that we've all read about, that was a catastrophic mistake early on. Now you're trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. And what you're relying on is people who are desperate to make money, so they're really in this, when they sign up, to get money. Their hearts and souls aren't in it, because this government is new, in the eyes of many it's not legitimate, etc. So you've got to eventually turn it over to them, but it's easier said than done — that's the issue. And of course, they're working around the clock to try to make parts of this happen, and the question is whether or not we have that time.

    It would be nice if you had something to build on that was substantial. I'll give you an example. The British, when they went into Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, early '70s, made a tremendous number of mistakes. One of those mistakes was, essentially, using British forces on the ground — and military forces are trained to kill rather than to apprehend and get information. They sat down and reassessed it. Part of the reassessment — I won't get into all of it — is: We need to "Ulsterize" this thing. That is to say, we have to turn it over increasingly to the security forces, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary has to play the key role. And we have to reform the Royal Ulster Constabulary; we have to have more Catholics in it, and the Protestants that are in it have to be disciplined now. They cannot be engaging in counterproductive violence.

    But the British had the kind of system that could sustain the reassessment, that could bring to bear assets to make these changes in a reasonably short period of time. It's the U.K., you know — strong, functioning government with trained military forces, existing professional intelligence agencies, trained security people in Scotland Yard. They have an existing security structure that could be brought to bear to correct mistakes. That's very different from Iraq. In Iraq, you are barely at the beginning of establishing the infrastructure. It doesn't even exist. So you can say, "Hey, a lot of things are being done wrong — we've got to turn it over to the indigenous people," but the indigenous people aren't in a position to do anything.

    Q: There's also the problem of infiltration, as we saw last week when 49 soldiers were killed.

    BARD E. O'NEILL: Yes. That's correct. And that's part of the problem. If you don't have this existing infrastructure, you have to try to build it. [But] as you build it quickly, you kind of say, "Y'all come, and join, and sign a piece of paper that you're going to be loyal." Well, man, that opens the doors to infiltration to insurgents. That's age-old, sure. Yeah. No question.

    Continued: Previous | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | Next

    NOVEMBER 24, 2004

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