Authors: James R. Arnold
JUNGLE OF SNAKES
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Crisis in the Snows: Russia Confronts Napoleon:
The Eylau Campaign 1806–1807
Marengo and Hohenlinden: Napoleon’s Rise to Power
Jeff Davis’s Own: Cavalry, Comanches, and the
Battle for the Texas Frontier
Grant Wins the War: Decision at Vicksburg
The Armies of U. S. Grant
Napoleon Conquers Austria: The 1809 Campaign for Vienna
Presidents Under Fire: Commanders in Chief in Victory and Defeat
The First Domino: Eisenhower, the Military,
and America’s Intervention in Vietnam
Crisis on the Danube: Napoleon’s Austrian Campaign of 1809
A CENTURY OF COUNTERINSURGENCY
WARFARE FROM THE PHILIPPINES TO IRAQ
JAMES R. ARNOLD
Copyright © 2009 by James R. Arnold
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Arnold, James R.
Jungle of snakes : a century of counterinsurgency warfare from the Philippines to Iraq / James R. Arnold.—1st U.S. ed.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Counterinsurgency—History—20th century. 2. Military history, Modern—20th century. 3. Counterinsurgency—United States—History—20th
4. Counterinsurgency—Great Britain—History—20th century.
5. Counterinsurgency—France—History—20th century. 6. United States—History, Military—20th century. 7. Great Britain—History,
Military—20th century. 8. France—History, Military—20th century. I. Title.
First U.S. Edition 2009
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
Typeset by Westchester Book Group
Printed in the United States of America by Quebecor World Fairfield
To the American soldier
THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL IN 1989 and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union signaled the end of the Cold War. A new dawn
gave promise that a more peaceful era was at hand. Citizens of the United States anticipated that for them at least, the scourge
of war was no more. The emergence of a fresh set of conflicts dashed this promise. In the words of a former director of the
Central Intelligence Agency, James Woolsey, “It is as if we were struggling with a large dragon for 45 years, killed it, and
then found ourselves in a jungle full of poisonous snakes.”
The snakes he referred to are insurgents, guerrillas, and terrorists.
Insurgents are people who forcibly strive to overthrow constituted authority. One’s view of them depends on where one’s loyalties
lie. America proudly celebrates its patriots of 1776. By any definition, from George Washington down to the humblest Continental
private shivering in his camp at Valley Forge, they were insurgents. They rebelled against established British authority and
unlawfully formed fighting units to violently resist British government controls. The British were, conversely, the counterinsurgents,
fighting to restore order.
While some of the fighting in the War of In dependence was a formal clash of armies on recognizable battlefields, the American
rebels were opposing the full might of a great empire and often avoided conventional warfare. It was what would today be called
an “asymmetric conflict,” where the weaker force resorts to whatever tactics work, including many that appall the counterinsurgents.
American leaders included men such as Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, whose guerrilla approach to war helped defeat the British
invasion of the southern colonies. And the American rebels freely employed terror—whether the tarring and feathering of a
British tax collector or the hanging of a backwoods loyalist leader—to advance their cause. In the end, because their victory
gave birth to our nation, they are remembered as Founding Fathers rather than treasonous insurgents.
While insurgents and counterinsurgents look at the same set of facts differently, there is general agreement that today, as
in the past, Woolsey’s “jungle full of poisonous snakes” can present a lethal threat to established order. September 11, 2001,
brought that threat into shocking public view.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon caused American political leaders to commit the nation’s armed forces to
a global war on terror. Pursuing terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States invaded, displaced the existing regimes,
and took on the job of stabilizing the newly occupied territory. What had begun as a hunt for small bands of violent, ruthless
men became a counterinsurgency, seeking to impose order in places most U.S. citizens had never heard of. Concerned citizens
learned a new vocabulary. In place of intercontinental ballistic missiles, mutually assured destruction, and the Fulda Gap,
they heard about roadside bombs, jihad, and a Baghdad slum called Sadr City.
Like the American public, the U.S. military had to learn, or in some cases relearn, what appeared to be a new way of war.
When deliberating about how to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, insurgents in Iraq, or a seemingly omnipresent Al Qaeda
wherever it can be found, some military thinkers returned to the lessons of history. From the campaigns of Spanish insurgents
against Napoleon—the era that gave the world the term
, or “small war”—to the Communist insurgencies in Vietnam and the triumph of Afghan rebels against the Soviets, they found
numerous well-known examples of skillfully waged insurgencies. These conflicts along with a host of less well-remembered episodes
demonstrate that insurgents, guerrillas, and terrorists enjoy many advantages in their struggles to overthrow a government
or evict foreign occupiers. However, they are not predestined to win.
A successful counterinsurgency requires a deft blend of military and political policies. Formulating this blend is a supremely
daunting challenge. Both the insurgents and the counterinsurgents compete for the support of the civilian population. Mao
Tse-tung’s classic formulation, that to survive guerrillas must be like fish swimming in a sheltering sea of popular support,
appropriately focuses attention on the salient importance of this competition. Likewise, the classic counterinsurgency formulation
describes this competition as the battle for “hearts and minds.”
History shows that if insurgents build, maintain, and eventually expand a network of support within the general population,
they will triumph. For a counterinsurgency to win, it must also gain civilian support. Such support is critical in order to
obtain timely intelligence that allows the counterinsurgency power to separate the insurgents from the general population.
It may seem simplistic to say that government forces cannot defeat guerrillas unless they can find them, except that history
records that this task is painfully difficult.
Given that civilian support is critical to ultimate victory, insurgents work to prevent civilians from assisting the government
by employing intimidation tactics ranging from threats and extortion to kidnappings and assassinations. Insurgent terror eliminates
government supporters and silences the mass of neutrals.
A government will not receive civilian support against the insurgents unless it can provide physical security for the population.
However, a government seldom has enough military strength to garrison every vulnerable place. It must therefore enlist local
self-defense forces in the form of police and militia. Able recruits for those forces will not be forthcoming if the recruits
perceive that government service puts their lives and their families at excessive risk.
The conundrum for a counterinsurgency power is as follows: it will not obtain civilian support unless it can provide physical
security; it is very hard to provide that security without civilian support. This conundrum brings politics to the forefront
in two arenas: the internal politics of the government that the insurgents are seeking to topple and the home politics of
the counterinsurgent power.
A government confronting an internal insurgency is usually a weak government in crisis. To undermine popular support for the
insurgents, the government must address civil grievances and make meaningful reforms. However, weak governments by definition
have a precarious hold on power. They usually depend on support from the internal security forces, the military, government
bureaucrats, and perhaps a business elite. If such a government responds to civil grievances by offering to share power with
the disenfranchised, it risks losing the support of its core backers. Reform measures are equally fraught with peril for a
weak government. Weak governments provide supporters with rewards to ensure their continuing support. These rewards are often
official licenses to exploit the unrest by some form of corruption. Reform, on the other hand, requires an elimination of
corruption and an emphasis on efficient performance. Changes in the social, political, and economic status quo will always
be resisted, which is a large part of the reason that few tasks are as difficult as nation building in the midst of a violent
Meanwhile, the home government of the counterinsurgent power that is trying to prop up a foreign government under attack has
to address its own set of political issues. The people ask their leaders—with public voice in a democracy, with muted tones
elsewhere—why sacrifice on foreign soil is necessary. How those leaders answer is as important as how well their soldiers
conduct the fight.
JUNGLE OF SNAKES
describes four counterinsurgency wars. In two cases, the United States in the Philippines and Great Britain in Malaya, a major
power defeated an insurgency. In the other two cases, France in Algeria and the United States in Vietnam, the insurgents won.
In 1898 the United States declared war on Spain. The ensuing “Splendid Little War” brought the Philippines under American
control by right of conquest. However, when President William McKinley decided to retain control of the islands for the indefinite
future, Filipino nationalists violently resisted.
McKinley had little understanding of the country to where he was committing U.S. troops. His administration and its military
advisers grossly underestimated the number of troops required to achieve the objective. Thereafter, they underestimated the
depth of Filipino resistance to the American occupation. To undermine that resistance, administration policy tried simultaneously
to impose a civil government and defeat an insurgency. At first, the American policy relied upon a variety of social and economic
measures designed to persuade would-be insurgents that they could enjoy a better life if they laid down their weapons and
accepted the American version of civil government. When these policies failed, the United States adopted sterner measures.
Thereafter, several times senior military men claimed the war all but won, only to reverse course when a new round of violence
exploded. Meanwhile, an influential chorus of American intellectuals including Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), William James,
Samuel Gompers, and Andrew Carnegie formed a movement to oppose the war. As time passed with inconclusive military results
and as reports of military misconduct, abuse, and torture gained currency, the American public began to turn against the war.
New York Times
The American people are plainly tired of the Philippine War. The administration must be aware that the case of its enemies
is not weakened nor the confidence of its friends augmented by the daily reading about all this cost and killing. To kill
rebellion by inches and trust to patience and slow time to bring back peace and contentment is not a humane or wise policy.
Yet in spite of fighting in an alien environment far from home against an insurgency partially fueled by nationalist sentiment
and hatred of foreigners, the United States did win.
In 1948 Great Britain faced a Communist insurgency in Malaya. The insurgents depended on terrorism to cow the civilian population
and to drive out the British. London insurance firms would not cover British-owned Malayan businesses against losses incurred
during a civil war. Accordingly, British authorities proclaimed the insurrection an “Emergency” instead of a rebellion or
war, and set in train a counterinsurgency. As was the case with the United States’ response to guerrilla warfare in the Philippines,
the British initial reaction was sluggish and off target. Yet, like the United States, Great Britain managed to recover and
defeat the insurgents. The victory is recognized as the outstanding example of a successful counterinsurgency campaign. The
British stressed the importance of operating within the rule of law. They emphasized that a successful counterinsurgency had
to rely on an honest and competent civil service. Above all, the British recognized the centrality of gaining the loyalty
and commitment of the civilian population.
The 1954 war in Algeria pitted France against Muslim nationalists directed by the Front of National Liberation (FLN). The
FLN objective was the restoration of a sovereign Algerian state. It advocated social democracy within an Islamic framework.
To accomplish its goals, the FLN promoted armed struggle against France’s colonial occupation. A majority of French politicians
of all stripes believed that Algeria was a fundamental part of France. They committed France’s armed might to retaining possession.
After much trial and error, the French military developed a successful strategy. A combination of fortified barriers and population
regrouping shifted the war’s military momentum decisively in favor of the French. The senior French general in Algeria proclaimed,
“The military phrase of the rebellion is terminated in the interior.” For one last agonizing time, French military leaders
believed that the army’s blood sacrifices had brought victory. This belief would heighten their sense of betrayal when Charles
de Gaulle concluded that France had to abandon Algeria because the war was being irretrievably lost politically both on the
international front and within France itself.
When American ground forces entered Vietnam in 1965 they confronted a nationalist-inspired Communist insurgency. Whereas the
Communists understood local needs and attitudes, the South Vietnamese government did not. It was weak, disorga nized, corrupt,
aloof from its own people, and unable to perform the routine tasks of governing. The American commander, General William C.
Westmoreland, described the formidable challenge: “Vietnam is involved in two simultaneous and very difficult tasks, nation
building and fighting a vicious and well-organized enemy.” He ruefully added that if South Vietnam could do either alone,
the task would be simplified, but instead “it’s got to do both at once.”
As was the case in the Philippines, Malaya, and Algeria, in Vietnam trial and error led to a counterinsurgency approach that
might have led to victory. But it came too late. The American public demanded an end, even if it meant something far short
of victory. In spite of heroic sacrifice, victory in Vietnam had proved beyond American capacity.
THE LESSONS OF Vietnam and the merits of various counterinsurgency approaches elsewhere continue to be debated furiously among
those who believe that historical experience can provide signposts for future conduct. Simultaneously, the first decade of
the twenty-first century witnesses active counterinsurgency operations on every populated continent except North America and
Australia. The battle rages across what American military thinkers call the zone of instability—an arc stretching from northwest
Africa across the Middle East and through Central Asia to the Islamic frontiers in Indonesia and the Philippines.
Today, the American architects of the global war on terrorism—or the “Long War,” as it may become known—describe the fighting
as asymmetric conflict. The paradox is stark. An ostensibly superior military power confronts an inferior foe. The superior
power has unlimited means but only limited goals. Compared to their superior opponent, the insurgents have limited means and
inferior armaments. But the insurgents have a high tolerance for casualties while the stronger power does not. More important,
the insurgents know that their enemy’s unwillingness to suffer casualties stems from his uncertain will. The insurgents do
not have to defeat their enemy; they merely must outlast him.