Small Wars Journal

COIN and FM 3-24

Be Honest: Who Actually Read FM 3-24? by Starbuck at Wings over Iraq. BLUF: "At a US Army Combat Training Center, an informal poll of Observer-Controllers, many of whom had just returned from counterinsurgency conflicts and had advised units of counterinsurgency tactics, only twenty percent admitted to reading FM 3-24. Perhaps the problem with counterinsurgency lies with us, not with the doctrine?"

Starbuck is Wrong by Carl Prine at Line of Departure. BLUF: "Starbuck is wrong. And in his drive to keep getting it wrong, he's trying to rewrite FM 3--24, the military's chief doctrinal publication on counterinsurgency. But that just makes him more wrong. He's wrong about me. He's wrong about what I believe. He's wrong about the literature that informs FM 3--24. He's wrong about what the manual says and he's wrong about what it left out. He's wrong about historiography. He's wrong about how a caste of top officers and diplomats came to understand "strategy" in the wake of the occupation of Iraq."


Simon Morgan (not verified)

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 5:13pm

As an Instructor for the Expeditionary Intelligence Training Program COIN Course (EITP-COIN Course) to NATO the past 15 months instructing over 320 NATO Intelligence Officers and NCOs representing 22 nations, I have found the value of FM 3-24 as an instructional tool to be based upon how it is used. As a reference guide to assist students understand the complexity of COIN, FM 3-24 has been a good model to introduce what issues an Intelligence Analyst would have to take into consideration if involved with the design and execution of a COIN plan or operation. But also used in this way, it allows an instructor (skilled in Instructional Systems Design of exercised based scenarios
) to facilitate a wide range of exercises that really get the students to think about how and if COIN operations may or may not work given the information they are provided. So far the feedback from those former students who have deployed or who are still deployed to Afghanistan has been extremely positive. These previous students have informed us that although none of them has experienced overwhelming success in the COIN operations they have been assigned to, many of their soldiers have expressed greater confidence in our students COIN analysis and carried over into more positive interactions with the local populace. In other words, they are seeing a small positive start to something but for how long, no one really knows right now but it is a start.

As a result of the EITP COIN Course apparent success in educating NATO, several other training institutions are currently trying to mirror the EITP COIN Course but due to institutionalized service instructional thinking, treat FM 3-24 as a doctrinal template for COIN because thats just how its always been done. When FM 3-24 is used in this way it takes the thinking process out of the COIN instruction and relegates it to a formal administrative and management process and as one of the earlier commenters alluded to often leads to very clean and clinical exercise scenarios(or as some instructors say; read and regurgitate). And this is exactly what those new courses are doing; here is your exercise info, put it in a template and show me you know how to brief the template. From the initial feedback of students who have attended these new COIN courses, there has been a deep mistrust of FM 3-24 as being nothing more than US COIN 101 and many have asked, "wheres the thinking part in COIN?"

Whether or not in time these new courses in their traditional way of using FM and such will have a positive effect on the Afghan COIN strategy is up to debate. But going back to the original intent of this writing; is FM 3-24 a good or bad instructional tool, I believe based on my experience these last 15 months that it is greatly dependant upon how it is used.


Ken White (not verified)

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 12:06pm


Sorry I didn't catch it. I'm old -- and slow. However, that's no excuse, should have realized...

Bill C. (not verified)

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 11:50am

Re: FM 3-24:

Should we consider the following:

Paragraphs I-113 thru I-120, generally speaking, seems to say that: While the "Western" forms of government are frequently considered "legitimate" and effective in the eyes of their populations, other forms of government are also routinely considered as "legitimate" -- and effective -- in the eyes of other states and societies. (Herein noting, at Paragraph I-117 for example, that "different cultures ... may see acceptable levels of development, corruption, and participation differently.")

Recognizing and highlighting such distinctions, Paragraph I-118 clearly states that: "...commanders and staff determine what the HN defines as effective and legitimate governance ... commanders and staff must continually disagnose what they understand legitimacy to mean to the HN population."

Yet, in spite of this detailed and carefully articulated emphasis on understanding, accommodating and working within the HN views of governance and legitimacy, we seem to have ignored this entirely and, instead, attempted to install a radically different political, economic and social order and governing structure on the Afghan people; one which, while being completely familiar and "legitimate" to us is, in all likelihood, is considered completely foreign and illegitimate in the eyes of significant numbers of the Afghan population.

Steve (not verified)

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 10:28am


"Verve and dedication" was sarcasm (which sadly doesn't translate into web well), although I suppose one might claim that there is a certain level of verve (and certainly dedication) going into maintaining the broken personnel system and following training programs more appropriate for a WW2 force. I agree that the system as it's existed since World War I actually works against verve in most areas, and often acts to co-opt or stifle dedication.

Great post Ken and agree with most all of it. The conditions part is especially applicable and one of the reasons for my screen name. Someone else is Backwards Observer and the over-reliance on history here is unmistakeable. The causes, cultures, potential outcomes from failure, and METT-TC/PMESII-PT variables vary greatly on nearly all oft cited historical examples.

At some point it helps to realize that troops and support available includes capabilities like Abrams tanks and Apache helicopter Hellfires that utterly differ from Vietnam Cobra rockets, Korean war landing craft, WWII tanks, and Sparrow vs. AMRAAM missiles fired from stealth aircraft. Its hard to foul things up with an Abrams with some understanding of TTP and battle drills that have a common training start-point.

Yes adapt. But a start point of strength/weakness/capabilities from which to include in COIN...would appear essential.

The fouled up to disaster "exaggeration" trend may be the result of awareness that only extremists and madmen don't adhere to MAD. But I'm not alone in exaggerating. Understanding that thousands of T-62 are irrelevant against Abrams in North Korea is one example. Teens of old Iranian broken F-14 fighters and ships and a lot more junk are not a threat to our joint air and sea capabilities.

Yet on land, our Army/Marines face far more comparable threats in stability operations and hybrid threats in many potential contingencies. Gotta run.

Ken White (not verified)

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 2:36am

<b>Move Forward:</b>

That's a riddle alright...

I'm not sure how you got to disaster from fouled up but it seems to be a trend.

Just to hit a few of your points. Consider that MDMP did not exist in its current form in World War II or Korea. It really didn't exist during Viet Nam, though vestiges of it started to appear then. Immediately post Viet Nam, a series of seemingly unrelated events occurred to send the Army off, IMO, on a tangent. Officer wise, Congress insisted upon DOPMA, objectivity in training, rating and selection for promotion. That and the Personnel communitys desire for 'standards' led to insistence that any person of a given rank was essentially capable of doing any job commensurate with that rank and the training system had to be adjusted accordingly -- thus, we developed decision matrices and check lists so any incompetent could check the boxes and arrive at a conclusion. MDMP codified that and effectively locked planners in a strait jacket. The good ones interpolate and discard unneeded steps - unfortunately, all planners -- and Commanders -- are not good ones...

At the same time, the Enlisted side was confronted with a dearth of senior NCOs and the entry into the force of less than stellar recruits. To cope with that, up or out and other neat personnel management gimmicks were devised and BTMS was born. Tasks, Conditions and Standards. The Army hired a crop of civilian educators with no military experience and had them write or approve all those Tasks, Conditions and Standards. Because said civilians were inexperienced, they frequently cast enabling skills and knowledges as a 'Task.' This enabled discrete elements to be taught to slow recruits over and over (to the detriment of the total number of tasks that could be squeezed in the allotted time) so most did learn to do some tasks reasonably well. Two problems. They never learned how to integrate those tasks to accomplish a mission AND the Conditions were designed to make life easy for the schoolhouse and training centers.

My pet example on that is "Clear a building." Cool. I can do that -- umm, would that be a mud hut in Viet Nam or one in Afghanistan (they are vastly different, requiring different TTP), would it be brick house like mine, a building like a modern barrack, one like Building 4 at Benning, a high rise -- or, heaven forbid, the Sears Tower. Task the same, standard the same -- but conditions can vary widely. The process worked well for the civilian assembly line workers for whom it was developed -- it doesn't work at well for a small professional Army.

The BTMS process also introduced the ARTEP which led to the METL and its clones. Not all bad, really -- but the real reason for them was to preclude Commanders being relieved for failing the previously existing Army Training Test, a unit <i>test</i> which was graded and failure would see a new commander. The personnel people did not like that-- more work. The Congress did not like it -- might pick on a disadvantaged person of some sort. Bottom line is that all those things led to an over reliance on 'standards' and 'objectivity.' Conditions can vary too widely to get too rigid with standards but in peacetime, its easier to assess if everyone does it the same. Objectivity is great but, lacking a real war with mission success or failure, most tactical evolutions require some subjectivity. All those factors and a hang-up by senior leaders on mobilization led to an excess of Officers for a smaller Army so, to make work for the extras, Staffs were enlarged considerably. Since everyone had to rotate through Staffs (and most also through Command at the direction of Congress) real expertise and competence was harder to obtain...

To get to the Army Training Test, pre 1975 Commanders trained their people -- as did the Schools and TCs with an Army Subject Schedule and in accordance with an Army Training program. All those things were used to create BTMS, ARTEPs and the METL process -- but those latter systems removed the flexibility that was designed into the earlier documents and we began to teach people what to think instead of how to....

There was Doctrine before FM 3-0 and 3-24. Doctrine is necessary, no question -- but slavish adherence to it is inimical to innovation and initiative. You wrote:<blockquote>"No collective tasks taught at institutions and practiced in field exercises and simulation? No common procedures for moving, shooting, and communicating? No security or reconnaissance missions? No CCIR, IPB, or ISR doctrine? Every forward support battalion should do it differently...."</blockquote>No one said that or anything even close to it. The answers to your point are, in order:

- Collective tasks must be taught and a standard can and should be applied -- but it is very important that the Conditions be varied and that the <u>methods</u> used by the units not be forced to be identical. That can lead to tactical disaster - and to Group Think.

- Common procedures are necessary for shooting, moving and communicating and the control thereof but the remark above applies -- do not insist (because it's easier on the instructors, TacOs, OCs or whomever...) on set piece moves and efforts. Those people should be forcing varied approaches but all too often, they use a canned , pre planned scenario (in order to "insure all the training objectives are covered."). I wonder how long it's been since a Battalion sized unit in the US Army had a free play (no scenario, just broad objectives) force on force Exercise against a sister or equal Battalion? WE used to do those, sure did keep everyone alert.

- R & S missions are critical -- and the US Army does them generally very poorly for the reasons cited just above -- too hard to 'control.' Add the risk aversion factor and Few Reconnaissance or Scout elements are really allowed to operate IAW the doctrine. As is often the case, thats not a doctrinal flaw, thats a command weakness.

- Nothing wrong with CCIR, IPB or ISR Doctrine. There is much wrong with insisting that the CCIR conform to a specific Command's approach; Aside from the fact that one cannot really do IPB -- Battlefields tend to vary a great deal, the bad guys get a vote and all Commanders cannot and will not react the same way which is what much -- not all -- IPB discounts. ISR is one of those enabling skills and knowledges (as is IPB), it is not a discrete task unto itself. No one doe IPB or monitors ISR without a mission purpose...

- Every FSB can do a lot of things differently and I'm sure they do -- Commanders have their own ideas. Still there are some parameters that are driven by a real necessity to have some standardized approaches (a common approach, a standardized approach or operating method is not a 'standard.'). What's to be avoided are FSB practices driven by stovepiped chains upstream from the supporting unit who insist things must be done the way they think it should be done...<blockquote>"No SOPs...isn't doctrine just a service or joint SOP some which can be modified and others parts adhered to on a common basis?"</blockquote>Again, Standard Operating Procedures are not standards; a standard is applied when someone insists all SOPS must be identical. that may or may not be appropriate and METT-TC analysis will tell you whether it is or not. In many cases, it is not METT-TC derived but is at the whim of some senior staff type.

However, that last item of your really sums it all up -- doctrine is indeed a service or joint SOP which can be adhered to on a common basis. Everyone should be thoroughly conversant with Doctrine -- so they know how to modify it to suit local conditions. The important words in your sentence are the modified and / or adhered to. Doctrine gives a basis, a starting point -- it must not be allowed to become a Rule of behavior.

The Tactics Instructors at Leavenworth used to start folks off with this statement: "<i>What we are going to teach you will apply if you are in gently rolling terrain on a clear, mild June day, have all your personnel and they are fully trained and all your equipment and it is fully operational, you are fighting a near peer opponent of approximately the same strength and organization. If any of those factors change, you will have to adapt."</i>

I wonder if they do that today?<blockquote>"I would submit that asking for an Army without doctrine, tactics, techniques, procedures, SOPs, battle drills, and individual, crew, and collective tasks is advocating chaos and military anarchy."</blockquote>I agree and I'm glad no one suggested that, Armies need all those things. I note you did not mention 'standards. I agree with that omission as well, at least as the US Army applies the word today.


Thu, 07/14/2011 - 1:51am

Much thanks Ken!

<b>" and innovative ability of its people paradoxically goes to such lengths to stifle all those things by worshiping at the very foolish and flawed altar of 'standards."</b>

This philosophy of inflexible standards without situational context has invaded many fields. Usually it brings the worst performers up to mediocre at the cost of stifling and inhibiting excellence from the rest.

Hi Move Forward

Well the debate is not whether the Army should have doctrine, standardized training or a common vocabulary, it is over whether conventional or irregular forces learn faster.

Armies need those things to be armies because having them *usually* is a military advantage in most scenarios. However, in a situation with a foe of unknown size, who "breaks the rules" of warfare, does not wear uniforms and does unpredictable, undisciplined things, regimented adherence to routine procedures that do not fit the situation is unhelpful.That's when SOP needs to change and large institutions with decision makers who are far away from problems at hand frequently resist changing. It is about discretion and delegation of authority where it is required and acceptance that rules are conceived for the benefit of the organization, the org does not exist for the benefit of the rules.

and having them does not require micromanagement of subordinates - that's a choice to pare away discretionary judgment and initiative.

So guys, riddle me this...

The new FM 5-0 describes the Operations Process: Plan, Prepare, Execute, continuously Assess, outlining key elements of each activity. Are we advocating that we not teach Soldiers TLP or potential staff officers/NCOs MDMP/Design, how to prepare orders, or how to execute missions based on a commonly understood terms, control measures and their meaning?

How do you follow the commander's intent in mission command without some semblance of common understanding of what the task and purpose and intent are referring to and expecting?

Are we advocating elimination of FM 3-0 full spectrum operations or at least the stability and civil support part of it? After all, active and especially ARNG skills used for civil support can translate into stability operations. I don't see a counterterror manual out there or a guide for occupying conquered countries without ensuring bad will? Did we stomp on Japan or Germany after WWII and wasn't poor treatment of Germans after WWI what led to the second war?

Any of the warfighting functions (WFF)can be applied to any of the full spectrum operations. Staff officers and MOS/officer branches apply to all the WFF. Maybe since we should be deep thinkers/improvisers we could function in any WFF capacity...after all the school house doesn't need to train in a standard manner. Figure any task out in the field using Soldier initiative...there is no incorrect outcome as long as subordinates and leaders know how to think and not what to think.

Why bother to expect common understanding/employment of terms and graphics? Let's do it different in every division/ common calls for fire, CAS/CCA, MEDEVAC. No common spot reports. No common techniques for operating weapons in basic/AIT and units? No crew battle drills? No aircrew training manual tasks for pilots?

No collective tasks taught at institutions and practiced in field exercises and simulation? No common procedures for moving, shooting, and communicating? No security or reconnaissance missions? No CCIR, IPB, or ISR doctrine? Every forward support battalion should do it differently. No SOPs...isn't doctrine just a service or joint SOP some which can be modified and others parts adhered to on a common basis?

I would submit that asking for an Army without doctrine, tactics, techniques, procedures, SOPs, battle drills, and individual, crew, and collective tasks is advocating chaos and military anarchy.

Ken White (not verified)

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 11:58pm

Once more I commit a breach...

Or dive into one. 10:55 PM r I.

Anonymous (not verified)

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 11:55pm


Excellent and I think regrettably accurate comments. All those factors should be considered by the planners (for amelioration) and strategists (as effecting ability to readily achieve their goals and objectives). Alas, they are seldom considered by either due to ego and the pervasive bureaucracy. Too often, due to both. We have witnessed a number of debacles and near failures in recent years due to that failure.

The organizations to which you compare the Army indeed suffer from the same malaise -- but I'll bet none of them are <i>quite</i> as dogmatic. :(

I've always been fascinated by the fact that an Army that touts the initiative, drive and innovative ability of its people paradoxically goes to such lengths to stifle all those things by worshiping at the very foolish and flawed altar of 'standards.' The Army is too big, the world and missions to diverse, conditions too variable to hew to a one size fits all approach. We must focus on outcomes, not processes and not 'standards.'


Wed, 07/13/2011 - 11:09pm

Hi Gian

I think we should clarify that we are discussing *mean* organizational behavior, not *absolute* range of behavior for differing organizations.

Some conventional armies, under inspirational and dynamic leadership and enjoying a shared understanding of operational mission objectives and situational awareness, will adapt equally well or better than their irregular opponents. But not many, as Ken noted above, because bureaucracy is a form of institutional autopilot. Hierarchical bureaucracy provides many advantages, but flexibility, creativity and accelerated rates of change are not typical of them. This is as true of IBM, GE, the Department of Education, NASA, the Catholic Church or Harvard University as it is the US Army.

St. Carl would certainly disagree with the idea of armies using a "playbook" but they have them anyway. It is called doctrine which is crystallized in training exercises. St. Carl would say that theory or doctrine (frozen theory) is meant as a starting point to prepare an officer to do his own thinking. Many do, but most? Particularly in light of the personnel system mentioned by Publius?

Lastly, whether learning takes place has less to do with the US Army per se than the frequency with which it's personnel are presented with problems or scenarios outside their normal, professional frame of reference. An average major or colonel probably had a good grasp of small unit irregular tactics or terrorist tricks in 2001 but not many thought about the likelihood of a small unit of terrorists flying jet airliners into skrscrapers. The terrorists thought of it because they were amateurs, not soldiers trained to have a certain frame of tactical reference; which is why COIN wars are divergent enough from conventional ones to merit special attention.



Ken White (not verified)

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 9:53pm

<b>Steve:</b><blockquote>"...with the same verve and dedication it has shown in other areas."</blockquote>Hmm. In 45 years in and working for the Army, I missed that. I did see a lot of dedication exhibited and occasionally -- rarely, really -- a bit of verve here and there (William Wallace, Blount and Perkins were accorded God status by me for approving and conducting the Thunder Runs...). All on the part of some people <i>in</i> the Army. Absolutely <u>none</u> on the part of the institution. In fact I saw deliberate efforts to deter verve and unintended consequences that destroyed dedication...<br><br>
<b>gian p gentile:</b><blockquote>"You see though that since America's loss in Vietnam the guerilla has come to be seen as the innovator in war, and it and the paradigm of irregular war itself has been used as a foil by scholars and intellectuals to poke at the conventionally minded american army."</blockquote>The Guerilla has most always had the innovation advantage with only rare exceptions accorded the occasional gifted innovator on the Regular Force side. The conventionally minded American Army needs to be poked; it is too bureaucratic by far -- and that alone kills flexibility and initiative insuring the advantage stays with the irregular. It is excessively conventional in the primary sense of that word<br>
<br><b>Publius:</b> All true. This:<blockquote>"We just don't have a very good military now. Sure, the junior guys are fine, but the head isn't there. And it needs to be there across the board. Even if you believe all of the hype, one Petraeus doesn't solve the problem. When I think of the Brits, French and Germans in 1914, I unavoidably find myself thinking of some far more recent parallels."</blockquote>Quite sadly so...

<b>Bill M.:</b>

Yep. Good comment.<blockquote>"However, those who wrote/influenced the COIN manual are the ones who continue to fail to learn at the operational/strategic level and accept their doctrine as dogma (all learning stopped once the FM was pubished). ... the insurgents don't seem to realize they're being defeated by development or CA, nor do our troops who are actually engaged in combat tend to agree with that feel good assessment."</blockquote>Equally sadly true.

It's damn shame when a guy pushing eighty can tell an organization and many people in it that their thinking is too old fashioned by far. The good news is that all those younger guys I quoted above are thinking. Hopefully, someone is paying attention.

To return to comment on the thread; I've read the book. I've also seen the movie (or Clips, on "You Tube" and the TV). FM 3-24 is entirely too big (Won't fit in an ACU pocket...) too long and far too close to an academic treatise to be functionally useful in an Army that is not, cannot -- or should not be -- academically inclined. Most Officers and NCOs do not have and / or will not take time to consume a ream of paper to do their jobs. I think I wrote that here when the document was published, thus it is no surprise to me that it has not been read -- or practiced (that due less to length and more because it's flawed in several practical respects and as Bob Jones says, colonial experience derived...). It's a poor product and about 200 or more pages too long.

As for Abrams and drinking, that's much ado about nothing on both sides of the argument -- that from a guy who was known to occasionally consume an Imperial Quart of Bourbon at a sitting. As I said earlier, it was a very different Army then. As Publius then said, it seems we used to have a lot more fun then is the current norm.

As the Bubble Heads of the Submarine service say, "If you aren't having fun, you aren't doing it right"...

It is actually funny in my view, as Bob points out that the preface of the FM notes COIN is a competition between two learning organizations and the side that learns and adapts the quickest wins. I think that is rubbish, because they're trying to apply as a law that pertains to all conflicts, and of course it nests nicely with the underlying theme of one of the books that influenced modern COIN doctrine.

The troops on point are learning and adapting quickly at the tactical level for the most part. It doesn't take long to adjust when your life is on the line, and the S&T community has done a great job providing defenses against IEDs, advanced ISR technology, etc. that is relevant to irregular warfare.

However, those who wrote/influenced the COIN manual are the ones who continue to fail to learn at the operational/strategic level and accept their doctrine as dogma (all learning stopped once the FM was pubished). COIN doctrine now is group think, not the result of hard analysis and experimentation that results in learning. It is getting tiring to hear the same lamenting that we're defeating insurgents using development and civil affairs, when yet in fact (a fact conveniently ignored by the CNAS crowd) the insurgents don't seem to realize they're being defeated by development or CA, nor do our troops who are actually engaged in combat tend to agree with that feel good assessment.

I think Kilkullen captured it best when he said (paraphrasing) it was never the intent to convey we shouldn't focus on killing insurgents, we just assumed that was a given for the military. It should have been, and now we seem to be drifting back to accepting that reality. I don't think FM 3-24 said we shouldn't kill insurgents (I read it nice, but will relook it), so I'm not sure where this mindset developed?

Publius (not verified)

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 8:22pm

To follow up on Gian's comments, "no plan survives the first engagement," or however it goes. The prize goes to the nimble, the quick, the smarter force. Needless to say, those are qualities that we'd like to see in the folks leading those forces. Have we seen much of this since Vietnam? Schwartzkopf maybe, Petraeus? Pretty slim hall of heroes, I'd say.

IMO, the reason it's now conventional wisdom that conventional forces can't adapt rapidly to irregular warfare is pretty simple. We've got an overly bureaucratized military (some might call it calcified) that's unfortunately merely a reflection of just how old and tired our nation and our politics seem to be. We're more than a "mature democracy." We're old before our time and our military shows it. Innovation, smart guys? Nah. Throw dollars at new wonder weapons.

Despite all of the promises over the years, we've made no headway on improving the archaic personnel system, contractors routinely steal money without government officials seeming to care, and promotions to flag rank are based on, What, exactly? Do you guys on active duty truly understand just what a scandal it is that three and four-star officers routinely fall into cushy post-retirement jobs where they are able to influence the funneling of government funds to their employers? That these same officers "consult" back to their services, making tons of money for doing the job of active duty officers?

We just don't have a very good military now. Sure, the junior guys are fine, but the head isn't there. And it needs to be there across the board. Even if you believe all of the hype, one Petraeus doesn't solve the problem. When I think of the Brits, French and Germans in 1914, I unavoidably find myself thinking of some far more recent parallels.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 6:37pm


Nice points. Let me make some comments on them.

all wars involve innovation as you know. Frederick at Mollwitz learned and adapted, and after other battles innovated by coming up with the oblique order.

But I dont agree with your characterization of conventional armies having this slow motion problem of learning and adapting in irregular wars. This seems to be accepted wisdom though; that by nature conventionally trained armies are genetically disposed to learn slowly in irregular conflicts. History though does not necessarily support this view.

And the idea that there is such a thing as a "playbook" in conventional war when conventional armies fight them is simply untrue. St Carl would certainly not have accepted the idea of "playbook" since he was the one who came up with the idea of friction.

Many small warriors and thinkers since the middle of the 19th century used this notion of conventional war as "playbook" driven to show difference from what they did out in the empire and to use it as a way to gain respectability for their operations as well. Problem is that in so doing they painted a caricature of conventional war as rule bound where one need only follows the rules and victory is assured.

You see though that since America's loss in Vietnam the guerilla has come to be seen as the innovator in war, and it and the paradigm of irregular war itself has been used as a foil by scholars and intellectuals to poke at the conventionally minded american army.

Steve: I hate to break this news to you but Nagl's book is not supported by primary historical evidence. His model of organizatinal learning briefs and reads really well, but in Malaya and Vietnam things just didnt go as his model suggests. The notion that there was a tectonic shift in the British and American Armies after a certain point and a better general climbs on board is fiction. There is nothing in the primary sources to support such a view. In fact in Malaya nobody from Briggs and Templer on down were ever really worried about the performance of the British Army in the field who by and large got it and were doing what they were supposed to do. It was the Malayan police who had everybody worried.



Wed, 07/13/2011 - 5:43pm

Hi Gian,

That is a very good question.

All wars do involve learning (or should, the side that refuses to learn or learns more slowly is likelier to lose). COIN and irregular conflicts typically involve one side being composed primarily of amateurs and the others of professionals (at least the officer corps in a conscript army). Initially.

Professionals execute what they have been trained to do and are subject to military discipline and institutional culture to enforce that compliance.

Guerrillas/terrorists, often lack training and resources of effective chains of command. They are poorly disciplined and many only fight part time. The compensation is guerrillas often must turn to innovation and indirection to make the most of circumstances and to attack unexpected -i.e. non-military - targets where resistance is minimal or nonexistent. They throw a monkeywrench into the expectations of the professional and the conventional military's operational timetable. They are not following "the playbook" of conventional warfare.

Hence, more learning, initially. Arguably over time there's frequently a "mirroring" effect in COIN where the irregulars imitate the professionals and adopt greater discipline and standardized training and the professionals adopt irregular tactics and patterns. "Out-ging the G" as Hackworth said.

Not every COIN war, but in enough of them.

Bill C. (not verified)

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 5:41pm

My explanation (2:42PM above) of the current huge and unrealistic nation-building-centric COIN concept (success being measured by the transformation and incorporation of the subject state and society) helping to explain:

a. Why it takes the General Purpose Force.

b. Why it takes the Whole of Government.

c. Why it takes exceptional involvement by the private sector and

d. Why it is suggested that such success will take generations to achieve?

Steve (not verified)

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 5:35pm

"Why does it seem always necessary to treat coin as a special case?"

Possibly because the Army as an institution has historically been reluctant to capture and teach those lessons with the same verve and dedication it has shown in other areas. I think there's a sense of this problem (and it was one of the main drivers behind Nagl's book), but I'm not sure how well the lessons will survive this time, either.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 5:21pm

All war is a "learning competition" Why does it seem always necessary to treat coin as a special case?


Anymouse (not verified)

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 3:52pm

To a certain extent I agree with Jesse. I read the book, and then selectively went back to chapters and sections that were most relevant to what I was either doing or studying at the time. It was written for Iraq, because duh, that was the AOR solid COIN guidance was most needed at the time.

Also, and this must be said time and time again, FM 3-24 says up front:

<i>In COIN, the side that learns faster and adapts more rapidly--the better learning organization--usually wins.

Counterinsurgencies have been called learning competitions. Thus, this publication identifies "Learn and Adapt" as a modern COIN imperative for U.S. forces. However, Soldiers and Marines cannot wait until they are alerted to deploy to prepare for a COIN mission. Learning to conduct complex COIN operations <b>begins with study beforehand. This publication is a good place to start.</b> The annotated bibliography lists a number of <b>other sources; however, these are only a sample of the vast amount of available information on this subject.</b> Adapting occurs as Soldiers and Marines apply what they have learned through <b>study and experience, assess the results of their actions, and continue to learn during operations.</b></i>

What is so hard to understand about that? FM 3-24 was not intended to be the eternal "bible of COIN" with it's "28 articles" written on stone tablets.

An updated COIN FM is warranted, my two cents.

Bob's World

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 3:51pm

The problems with FM 3-24 are largely nuance. This is not to say that these nuances are insignificant; they are not.

The difference between avoiding insurgency altogether or have having a short, successful COIN campagin and that of having a long, drawn-out campaign is largely nuance as well.

FM 3-24 is primarily derived from the lessons learned from centuries of colonial interventions and Cold War Containment efforts. Once one peels off that nuance the manual gets a lot better.

Bill C. (not verified)

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 3:42pm

I may be completely wrong here but let me throw this out:

What seems to make our current version of COIN untenable is that it looks to equate "victory" with the successful opening up, transformation and integration of more-insular, less-modern and/or not-properly-aligned (with us) societies and states.

Thus, the "defeat of the insurgency" -- based on this concept -- can only be achieved, it would seem, (a) via methods which are designed for and adopted with this goal in mind (to wit: the opening up, transformation/modernization and integration OF THE ENTIRE STATE AND SOCIETY) and (b) when such has been fully accomplished.

Thus, a much too difficult, much too lengthy and, therefore, completely unrealistic and inappropriate goal for "counterinsurgency?"

Successful counterinsurgency, in the past, not having to meet such an entailed, comprehensive and difficult standard?

The issue with FM 3-24 is that there is no issue. It's a great book--and show exactly how refined doctrine and all the SOP's in the world couldn't save Iraq from falling into an insurgency.

Perhaps if we cut a deal with Baathist general and didn't disband the Iraq Army (Bremer!) and there was some clashing, and we "used FM 3-24," we should be sitting here saying how great the FM works.

It's only a book guys. A book that most did not read, but a book nevertheless.

And I actually enjoy it from the sociology perspective more than a military guide.

Thanks guys, great blog!


RCS (not verified)

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 12:19pm

And the debate continues... Seems to me that one our many issues as a military is our desire to template things - a surge worked in Iraq therefore that's what Afghanistan needs too. But as correctly mentioned - we do fail to read and understand our doctrine. Perhaps if we had read our Kitson we would understand that solutions to insurgencies are as numerous as the insurgencies themselves. Or better yet, if we reviewed our Clausewitz we would understand the need to understand the conflict we are in rather than trying to turn it into something it's not. So, in the ends ways and means of policy, strategy, and tactics we are right to argue COIN is not a strategy, it's a tactic. Further, no string of tactical victories is going to make up for unknown / poor policy or bad strategy (though it could prolong it). So the point is not necessarily if FM 3-24 is rubbish or not - that's inconsequential, it's that we fail to see the ends and do not properly know how to employ the means. FM 3-24 has some good points - but it would be silly to suggest that is the only way to go about countering an insurgency.

Anonymous (not verified)

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 12:16pm

I actually think this is a good give and take and I think both authors show deference and respect to each other even though they effectively use wit and sarcasm. I do not think this is ad hominem

Steve (not verified)

Wed, 07/13/2011 - 12:04pm

I see we've hit the point of "attack the person, not the ideas" in this debate. How interesting.

Both authors seem fixated on Abrams' possible drinking problem. I've seen the same thing with Grant. It's an interesting footnote if you're doing biography, but I've seen it used as well to somehow disparage what Grant accomplished. I expect the same will happen with Abrams.

It is interesting to see institutional trends replaying themselves yet again.