Small Wars Journal

Organizing for Counterinsurgency at the Company and Platoon Level

Captain Jeremy Gwinn, US Army

In today's military, the requirement to conduct tasks far outside traditional specialties is an accepted reality. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught leaders across the services the need for flexibility and creativity both in action and organization. The recently published FM 3-24 (MCWP 3-33.5) Counterinsurgency (COIN) manual provides an excellent framework for leaders to understand the demands of the COIN environment and draw from recent lessons. With regard to organizing for COIN, the manual makes several valuable recommendations such as establishing a company level intelligence section and identifying a political and cultural advisor. My purpose here is to go one step further, providing additional, specific recommendations for company level leaders organizing for counterinsurgency operations. Some of the ideas presented involve actual changes to task organization, while others involve developing skills internally that, by doctrine, only exist in specialized attachments. These steps are by no means prescriptive, but intended as a starting point for discussion among officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) at the company level.

Why Organize for COIN?

The first step to optimizing the platoon or company organization for a COIN mission is an understanding of why reorganization is necessary. Units generally deploy as Brigade Combat Teams or similar task forces with a full complement of support: Civil Affairs (CA) Teams, Tactical Human Intelligence (HUMINT) Teams, Tactical Psychological Operations (PSYOP) Teams, as well as organic S2 (intelligence) sections, etc. These assets are task organized to the battalion and sometimes company level so that everyone gets his slice of support. Then why the necessity to develop these capabilities among infantrymen, tank crewmen, military policemen, or anyone else conducting COIN?

1. The special assets will not always be available. Though the attachments are task organized down, they are typically not available to a company commander or platoon leader on-call 24 hours a day. For instance, a company commander can receive CA team support with several days lead time to perform a major assessment or humanitarian distribution. If, however, in the course of a patrol, a platoon leader discovers a small school in serious need of repair or re-supply, he would probably not have a CA officer nearby to help assess the need. If the school sits in a key location of popular support for the insurgency, then a good assessment conducted at the platoon level with rapid follow-through of support may deal a harsher blow to the enemy than any tactical victory. The pace of operations for units in Iraq and Afghanistan is simply too fast to always say, "We'll request CA and get out here next week." If this is the case, the unit will constantly be playing catch-up.

2. The importance of the special roles must be internalized by every counterinsurgency Soldier. When the PSYOP team, HUMINT team, and CA team are the only ones doing PSYOP, HUMINT, and CA, riflemen in the platoons tend not to give these roles much thought. In these cases, our Soldiers, who probably know the area and the people better than anyone else, become reduced to just pulling security for the attachments while they do their jobs. When these capabilities are developed internally, Soldiers and their leaders understand that their jobs are much more than just clearing buildings and engaging targets. They will take ownership of these additional responsibilities. Even the most junior rifleman should understand that the hundreds of interactions he has each day with locals can have more impact on the attitudes of the population than anything the task force PSYOP officer could do. The same is true in many other areas such as intelligence collection, media interaction, CA, and others.

3. An organic unit will perform better than an ad hoc one. For obvious reasons, an organic company or platoon will encounter less friction than one that is cobbled together, often at the last minute. Maneuver units and their habitual attachments still need to train together and be prepared to operate as a team, because there will be times that it is necessary. Still, if a leader can reduce the number of attachments without losing critical capabilities, he can dramatically reduce risk and increase the odds of success. All too often, a platoon or company departs for an operation with so many attachments that the ungainly convoy resembles a battalion. Not only does such an operation create an unnecessarily large signature, it is difficult to control and account for, especially in enemy contact.

Special Operations Forces have long understood the need for multiple roles and special skills at the small-unit level. Due to the decentralized nature and low-level (usually section or platoon) of our operations in the COIN environment, our conventional units are well-advised to follow suit. This does not mean that attachment support is no longer needed at company level and below. Men and women in these units are specially trained and absolutely critical to success. We can, however, do better by developing similar capabilities organically and determining a threshold for how and when to use the attachments.

Civil Affairs

FM 3-24 recommends that platoons and companies create a political and cultural advisor position. This role can be combined with a CA specialist position. At company level, the duty typically falls to the Fire Support Officer (FSO). At the platoon level, however, the CA role breaks down. In some cases, the job may fall to the Forward Observer, but much of the time, this man is ill-suited to the responsibility. Leaders should thoughtfully select a Soldier based on maturity and organizational skills, not just on rank or Military Occupational Specialty. At the platoon level, duties would include:

1. Maintaining a file on key leaders (civil and religious) in the Area of Operations (AO).

2. Note-taking for the platoon leader during interactions.

3. Conducting simple need assessments and compiling for project nomination.

4. Organizing small quick-impact packages.

5. Reporting CA related information to the Company FSO

Regardless of rank, this Soldier should report directly to the platoon leader for operational purposes.

To facilitate downward information flow, the company and platoon CA specialists can give briefings on relevant political or cultural information and fulfill information requests, both tasks which leaders unnecessarily do themselves much of the time. In preparing Soldiers for this duty, the unit's CA team is an invaluable asset, and lateral information flow between the unit and the team should be continuous. Perhaps the most important thing that company and platoon CA specialists should learn from the unit's CAT-A is the project nomination process. Because most projects must be nominated and tracked through traditional CA channels, these Soldiers should understand how to identify potential projects and what information will be required.

Psychological Operations

The role of PSYOP within our companies and platoons will, by their nature, be less well-defined than that of CA. The three critical PSYOP capabilities at this level are:

1. Spread a message through face to face interaction.

2. Exploit an event for information purposes.

3. Prevent the enemy from exploiting an event for his information purposes.

The capability to spread a message is every Soldier's responsibility. The leader's responsibility is ensuring the content and consistency of the message. In COIN operations, information and perception are often more important to achieving success than tactical wins. For this reason, a Soldier should know his unit's information themes before departing on patrol as assuredly as he knows where his ammunition is located. Even though only key leaders generally have interpreters, every Soldier walking the streets can convey a powerful message through his actions and gestures. Arm this man with a few key phrases in the local language and the capability is multiplied.

Exploiting an event, such as a terrorist attack or a coalition operation, is absolutely critical in the counterinsurgency fight. In fact, the information effort that follows an action is often more important that the action itself. This is not license to lie or use excessive spin, which will be seen through and must be avoided, but rather a requirement to tell our side of the story as rapidly and persuasively as possible. US forces should be assured that if they fail to do so, the insurgents will seize the initiative with their own story, unconstrained by the truth.

Company level leaders must not defer this responsibility to the PSYOP team. By preparing and organizing for PSYOP, company commanders and platoon leaders can take advantage of their superior knowledge of the area, people, and events to take the initiative in the information battle. For example, in neighborhoods that experience frequent Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks, the local population undoubtedly pays a price in civilian wounded and property damage. Even though the IEDs are clearly the work of insurgents, the enemy could easily exploit the events to his favor, creating the impression that the US presence degrades neighborhood safety. If US forces respond to IED attacks with undisciplined and indiscriminate force, then the insurgent message is strengthened. The US unit must persuasively disseminate its own message: the insurgents have no regard for the safety and property of the population. Combined with medical assistance to the civilian wounded and presented in a sincere and sympathetic manner, the message can be powerful. While the temptation exists for the platoon leader or company commander to be the primary communicator in these situations because they have interpreters, this is not ideal. The platoon leader must coordinate the activities of the entire platoon. Instead, identify a team or squad to disseminate the message using the platoon leader's interpreter. Depending on the situation, the team may go door to door in the surrounding area or just talk to people gathered in the street. Other duties that should be delegated by the platoon leader are medical aid, crater analysis, and, of course, security. These duties will probably rotate and may not even be identified ahead of time. They key is that the platoon leader and his NCOs understand those actions that must be quickly accomplished after an exploitable event takes place.

Media Affairs

For interacting with members of the media, commanders cannot rely only on themselves and other company senior leaders. On the contrary, every Soldier should be comfortable and trusted in this important role. When embedded journalists are placed with a commander or platoon leader, as is usually the case, they will actively seek out opportunities to talk to the lower ranks. This is due to the common perception among the media that an officer or senior NCO will only regurgitate talking points and not speak honestly or candidly. Likewise, simply giving our junior Soldiers a list of media talking points is insufficient. The more a journalist perceives an attempt by leadership to direct the comments of the lower ranks, the more he will believe the unit has something to hide. The resulting story will reflect this bias. We should encourage (and train) our men to speak candidly to the media within the bounds of operational security, at the same time ensuring they understand that it is not the time to vent frustrations. The vast majority of Soldiers are proud of the work they do in combat, and should use media interactions to focus on their accomplishments and those of their unit, keeping comments within the scope of his duty position.


With few exceptions, collection at company level and below will be HUMINT. Our Soldiers constitute an invaluable collection asset by what they observe on a daily basis. The value of their observations, however, depends on whether they know what to look for. Requirements will constantly change, so leaders should implement a routine of disseminating information requirements and reporting observations during and after the mission.

The most valuable collection asset in the COIN environment is the local population. Leaders should strive to develop relationships with —locals, placing a priority on the safety of the informant and not attempting to rush the process. In places where mobile phone service is available, make maximum use of this resource for communicating with local contacts. The availability of Micro/Small Rewards or similar funds can also be helpful, but in many cases, locals are un—to accept money for assistance, due to feelings of guilt and increased danger if they are officially in the pay of US forces. While non-Tactical HUMINT Team units are generally not authorized to develop source networks, they can still build relationships that glean useful information about the population and the enemy. Leaders should rely on judgment to determine when a relationship reaches the point where the contact should be passed on to the Tactical HUMINT Team as a potential source, and the Tactical HUMINT Team can help determine this threshold.

Effective intelligence analysis at the company and platoon level means maintaining a current understanding of the situation in the unit's AO. The goal is to paint a nuanced picture of attitudes, intentions, and how the enemy operates with relation to the population and terrain. The picture should be a composite of all available information, including, most importantly, the knowledge contained within the company. When done properly, this product will surpass any Situation Template (SITEMP) created by the battalion S2. For this reason, SITEMPs at all levels should be driven from the bottom-up and company commanders should feed their own analysis to the S2. Some steps to help achieve the desired result are:

1. Regular debriefs at squad and platoon level.

2. Open discussions among company key leaders (at least platoon sergeant and above). A less formal setting will tend to illicit more thoughtful analysis and debate about the enemy situation.

3. Maintain a company graphic SITEMP as an evolving product. Avoid focusing on historical events. Strive to interpret enemy logistics and attack patterns, as well as attitudes and intentions of both the enemy and the population.

Intelligence analysis is one area that is so critical, the company commander may choose not to delegate, provided he has received sufficient input from below. The FSO will likely assist, as he is heavily involved in the battalion targeting process, but it is ultimately a commander responsibility. Good analysis at the company level will naturally lead to bottom-up target nomination, so the FSO should be prepared to build target packets for input to battalion. Additionally, the FSO can be helpful in tracking local contacts and building profiles on potential targets.

Outside of the company, information and intelligence flow is equally critical. Platoon leaders and platoon sergeants should be comfortable not only interacting with counterparts from other companies, but also with members of the battalion S2 section. The company commander need not be an information bottleneck, so he should not be the only member of the company permitted to ask the S2 or his staff a question.

Advising Local Military and Police Forces

Even if the unit is not specifically tasked with a MiTT (Military Transition Team) mission, they will likely have occasion to conduct combined operations with local forces. These operations can be highly effective and preferable to US-pure operations due to the local knowledge of the indigenous forces and greater likelihood of acceptance by the local population. At the same time, many of the local military and police forces in Iraq and Afghanistan still require mentorship and supervision to behave professionally, lest combined operations create a worsened impression of both indigenous and US forces.

The issue of command structure in combined operations can be sensitive. As a general rule, US company commanders will not have direct command over the local force, but should seek a partnered relationship with the indigenous commander. Such a relationship can clearly raise unity of command concerns. As with so much else in COIN, no definitive solution exists. Instead, US commanders must artfully strike a balance between unity of command and the need to respect the authority of the local commander. In organizing and preparing for these operations, commanders should consider some basic tips:

1. Let the local force take the main effort. For actions on the objective (as in a raid or cordon and search), put a small group of US Soldiers (no more than a fire team in any one place) with the locals to advise, but do not undermine the authority of the indigenous leader.

2. Give the local forces the lead on tactical questioning and interrogation, while monitoring the process closely.

3. Take advantage of US vehicles' superior protective capability when determining convoy placement.

4. Keep radio communication with the leader of the local forces during an operation. This sounds obvious, but is often not done. The local forces can usually spare a radio for a US leader's interpreter to monitor.

5. In the planning process with local forces, be very specific regarding level of force to be used and measures to minimize property damage. They will try hard to impress their US partners, but in the absence of guidance tend to err on the side of too much force and too much damage.

6. Conduct prior coordination with the MiTT to avoid redundancy and confusion. These teams are generally small and not sufficiently manned to provide supervision in multiple locations during an operation. If a local military or police unit does not have US advisors, then working to establish a relationship for combined operations is even more critical.

As a guiding principle, US commanders should let the indigenous forces do as much as possible, even though the US tendency is often to try to do it all ourselves. The presence of indigenous forces in an operation should not merely be a superficial attempt to give it a "local face". Mission success for combined operations can be defined as meeting tactical objectives while furthering the capabilities and perception among the populace of the indigenous force.


Our conventional forces have been conducting counterinsurgency operations for over five years and have adapted tremendously well to the unconventional environment. Even units that received no specific COIN training prior to deployment have, in the great tradition of our military, improvised and adapted in the course of ongoing operations.

Our training centers are now providing deploying task forces an incredibly realistic counterinsurgency experience prior to deployment, and the onus is on junior leaders to adapt their organizations before they arrive in combat. The effectiveness of pre-deployment training is multiplied when companies and platoons develop specialized capabilities organically. This is the primary level of activity in counterinsurgency and the level where tactical wins or losses contribute to the strategic outcome.

CPT Gwinn has commanded an infantry company in Afghanistan and Iraq with the Army's 10th Mountain Division, and is currently attending graduate school en route to instruct at West Point.


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