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reading Fall’s 1965 COIN article

November 20, 2009

I happened upon Bernard Fall’s classic article on “The Theory and Practice of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency” the other day in the course of some other unrelated research, and it was as if this was written yesterday.  Clear-eyed and unsentimental, Fall– author of great books on COIN like Street Without Joy and Hell in a Very Small Place until he was blasted apart by a landmine in Vietnam in 1967 — this article still has the capacity to shock, like when it discusses the French Underground (and presumably Fall’s own actions):

The communists, or shall we say, any sound revolutionary warfare operator (the French underground, the Norwegian underground, or any other European anti-Nazi underground) most of the time used small-war tactics–not to destroy the German Army, of which they were thoroughly incapable, but to establish a competitive system of control over the population. Of course, in order to do this, here and there they had to kill some of the occupying forces and attack some of the military targets. But above all they had to kill their own people who collaborated with the enemy.

…or when it provides advice to the US regarding corrupt governments: (i.e. the Karzai brothers):

One can do almost anything with brute force except salvage an unpopular government.

Or the US’s COIN ops in Afghanistan or Iraq:

Some people have spoken of what is called the “oil-slick principle,” which has been described as the holding of one particular area, one central area, and working one’s way out of the center. That was fine when the French developed the concept for the Sahara, because in the Sahara there are obligatory watering points. If they have all the oases, those outside have to come in and get water. But Viet-Nam doesn’t happen to be the Sahara or an oasis. Thus, the oil-slick method succeeds mostly in pushing the Viet Cong units into the next province. Of course, it looks good, at least, because for one week there will be a “cleared” province. For the time being this is considered adequate until something more imaginative is discovered.

Funnily enough, I’m currently reading David Kilcullen’s fascinating new book, The Accidental Guerrilla, and he quotes Fall at length, especially from this article.  And Fall wrote this article about insurgency in 1965, when US troops numbered 184,000 in Vietnam — only 35% or so of our peak deployment of 543,000 in 1969.  The COIN heritage that Kilcullen writes about follows in Fall’s footsteps.

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