The U.S. could look at past effective counterinsurgency operations in Latin America to improve the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, former U.S. Army Col. John Waghelstein told an audience of students Tuesday in Nielsen Hall.
Waghelstein, a professor emeritus at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. commanded the 7th Special Forces Group and the U.S. Military Group in El Salvador, where he led 55 soldiers to defeat the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front insurgency during the Salvadoran Civil War of the 1980s.
Waghelstein said one of the key factors in U.S. failure to win counterinsurgency wars is its failure to do the right analysis of the situation.
“Our problem is not that we don’t know how to do this,” Waghelstein said. “We have a tendency to look at the last war we fought and say ‘OK, this is the way we won the last one, so it must work this time.’”
Waghelstein called this tendency “last battle syndrome.”
He noted the Vietnam War as an example of a counterinsurgency operation gone wrong.
He said the mentality of the U.S. Army was set to fight a “big war” rather than a counterinsurgency. Waghelstein said the Vietnam War was unsuccessful because it was a long, drawn out war that was politically divisive and resulted in major loss of life.
“American patience is not our strong suit,” Waghelstein said.
Waghelstein then compared his counterinsurgency operation in El Salvador with the operation in Vietnam. He said the reasons for his operation’s success in El Salvador were that his force conducted good analysis of the situation on the ground, kept constant pressure on the Salvadoran army for assistance and only 55 soldiers were needed to complete the job.
“The [Latin American] leftists tried to paint our operation as another Vietnam,” Waghelstein said. “Fifty-five soldiers is not another Vietnam.”
The 7th Special Forces Group trained the Salvadoran armed forces and threatened to pull out if the Salvadoran army did not perform, said Waghelstein.
“There is a tipping point where the less committed you are, the more leverage you have,” he said.
Waghelstein compared the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Vietnam War in terms of its length, how it has divided people on party lines and the growing loss of life.
While his operations in El Salvador were successful, Waghelstein said they did not provide perfect solutions for the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said that a few elements could be applied to the wars, such as having better analysis.
“If you’re going to fight these things, you better be prepared to address each one of the issues that are causing people to be pissed off in the first place,” Waghelstein said.
Waghelstein also drew on his experience training the military in El Salvador with current training operations of the foreign armies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“There comes a point in which if a host country cannot do what it needs to do on its own, I think we ought to cut bait,” Waghelstein said.