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May 24, 2007

Nation Building Is Key to Defeating Insurgents in Iraq


New sociological analysis explores counterinsurgency and claims nation-building is key to winning the war in Iraq.

The U.S. military has discovered the body of Pfc. Joseph J. Anzack Jr., who was one of three soldiers missing after insurgents attacked a U.S. military observation post south of Baghdad on May 12, 2007. In addition, the U.S. death toll in Iraq topped 100 in April of 2007, largely due to insurgent fighting. The Spring 2007 issue of the American Sociological Association’s Contexts magazine offers new insights into why U.S. forces appear to have lost control of Iraq. In an article titled “Counterinsurgency,” State University of New York-Stonybrook sociologist Ian Roxborough offers suggestions as to how the U.S. military can help create a durable peace.

“When the invasion of Iraq turned out not to be the cakewalk some enthusiasts had expected, the U.S. military found itself engaged in a form of warfare for which it was not prepared and which it did not understand,” says Roxborough.

According to the analysis, insurgency and counterinsurgency are terms that describe a struggle for control of the state. This struggle takes place simultaneously at the local, grass-roots level and involves political bargaining at the national level. Unless the U.S. military understands that counterinsurgency is about state-building it will probably fail in its efforts, according to Roxborough.

Roxborough draws comparisons between the Iraq and Vietnam Wars, stating that “a significant lesson the U.S. learned in Vietnam was that counterinsurgency is a struggle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the population. This implies that an army cannot use the same kind of overwhelming firepower it would in a traditional offensive. Both the population and insurgents who surrender need to be treated well.”

Roxborough says the “foremost lesson of Vietnam was ‘never again.’ Never again would the U.S. military be drawn into what was essentially a civil war. After Vietnam, the U.S. military . . . lapsed into a bout of collective amnesia about counterinsurgency. When the Army and Marine Corps found themselves mired in a difficult conflict in Iraq, they had to relearn rapidly the lessons of counterinsurgency, dusting off and reprinting those 40-year-old books. The problem is these lessons were based on false assumptions.”

Ultimately, Roxborough believes the military needs a better understanding of contentious politics and state-building in order to gain control. “I hope that my work will help concerned citizens think more constructively and critically about U.S. military operations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. military needs a new, and better understanding of ‘unconventional’ war.’“

For more information or a copy of the article, contact Sujata Sinha, (202) 247-9871, ssinha@asanet.org.

Further information on Contexts can be found at www.contextsmagazine.org.

About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.