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Internal Wars: Rethinking Problem and Response

Authored by Dr. Max G. Manwaring. | September 2001

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The end of the Cold War did not produce an end to internal or regional conflict and the expected peace dividend. Today, over half the countries in the international community are faced with one variation or another of asymmetric small (i.e., guerrilla) wars. Insurgencies, internal wars, and other small-scale contingencies (SSCs) are the most pervasive and likely type of conflict in the new world order. It is almost certain that, sooner or later, the United States will become involved, directly or indirectly, in many of these conflicts. It is also certain that the deplorable experience of Vietnam distorts and blurs American thinking about guerrilla insurgency. As a result, there appears to be little or no recognition and application of the strategic-level lessons of the Vietnam War and the hundreds of other smaller conflicts that have taken place over the past several years.

These lessons are not being lost on the new political actors emerging into the contemporary multi-polar global security arena. Ironically, strategies being developed to protect or further the interests of a number of new players on the international scene are inspired by the dual idea of evading and frustrating superior conventional military force within the global chaos. The better a power such as the United States becomes at the operational level of conventional war, the more a potential opponent turns to asymmetric solutions. Thus, the purpose of this monograph is to draw from the lessons of the recent past to better prepare today?s civilian and military leaders for the unconventional and asymmetric warfare challenges that face the United States and the rest of the global community.

To help leaders come to grips analytically with the most salient strategic lessons and rules that dominate contemporary asymmetry, we do four things. First, we clarify the strategic lessons of Vietnam. These lessonsprovide a short list of fundamental rules for dealing with contemporary conflict. Second, with this as background, we develop lessons from several other guerrilla wars that have taken place since the end of World War II. The complementary lessons from 69 additional cases demonstrate important ?intermediate? rules for playing in the contemporary global security arena. Third, we examine the future of guerrilla war. This examination includes an analysis of the signposts along the road to the 21st century and concludes that the hard-learned lessons of the past remain valid. Finally, we outline two ?advanced? structural rules for generating strategic clarity and success in current and future conflict. All this, hopefully, will generate the broad strategic vision necessary to win a war?not just the battles, but the war itself.

Summary and Conclusions.

In sum, the lessons from over a half-century of bitter experience suffered by governments involved in dealing with guerrilla wars, and similar global destabilizers, show that a given international intervention often ends short of achieving the desired peace. Too often this is because short-, mid-, and long-term objectives are irrelevant or unclear, the ?end-game? is undefined, consistent and appropriate support is not provided, and national and international civil-military unity of purpose remains unachieved. Thus, despite acknowledged difficulties, it is imperative to develop leaders and organizational structures that can generate strategic clarity and make it work.

Even though every conflict situation differs in time, place, and circumstance, none is ever truly unique. Throughout the universe of contemporary guerrilla war, there are salient analytical commonalities. The final outcome of conflicts such as those in Vietnam or Colombia?or the nearly 100 conflicts the U.N. Security Council has recognized since 1990 as destabilizing intrastate struggles?is not determined primarily by the skillful manipulation of violence on the battlefield. Control of the situation and its resolution are determined by the qualitative leader judgments and the synergistic organizational processes established before, during, and after a small internal war is politically recognized to have begun. These are the fundamental components of strategic clarity. And strategic clarity is essential to success in the new millennium.