"We know we're killing a lot, capturing a lot, collecting arms," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reportedly told a meeting of defense analysts and retired officers at the Pentagon last year, commenting on U.S. attempts to thwart the growing insurgency in Iraq. "We just don't know yet whether that's the same as winning." Rumsfeld's remark encapsulates the confusion and frustration that have plagued U.S. counterinsurgency efforts around the world for more than half a century—most notably in Vietnam, El Salvador, and now Iraq. The United States is not alone, however. It is the latest victim of a problem that has long afflicted the world's governments and militaries when they are confronted with insurgencies: namely, a striking inability to absorb and apply the lessons learned in previous counterinsurgency campaigns.
Guerrilla groups and terrorist organizations, on the other hand, learn lessons very well. They study their own mistakes and the successful operations of their enemies, and they adapt nimbly. The past year in Iraq has been a case in point: insurgents have moved from sporadic, relatively unsophisticated roadside bomb attacks to more coordinated, even synchronized attacks, with brutally successful results: growing numbers of coalition soldiers and Iraqi civilians are dying; security in much of the country remains fragile or elusive; Iraqi resentment of the United States is increasing; and international political support for the American occupation, never exactly formidable to begin with, is withering. By many measures the insurgents are succeeding and we are failing.
"Nation Building 101" (January 2004)
The chief threats to us and to world order come from weak, collapsed, or failed states. Learning how to fix such states—and building necessary political support at home—will be a defining issue for America in the century ahead. By Francis Fukuyama
Regardless of the ultimate outcome in Iraq, in the decades ahead the United States is likely to be drawn into other military occupations and nation-building efforts; America's superpower status and the ongoing war on terrorism make this prospect almost inevitable. To a very important degree our ability to carry out such jobs effectively will depend on an approach to counterinsurgency that makes intelligent use of the lessons that countries around the world have confronted repeatedly throughout history. At root those lessons are basic: First, always remember that the struggle is not primarily military but political, social, economic, and ideological. Second, learn to recognize the signs of a budding insurgency, and never let it develop momentum. Third, study and understand the enemy in advance. And fourth, put a strong emphasis on gathering up-to-the-minute local intelligence.