Small Wars Journal

On Counterinsurgency: Thoughts on the Re-write of Field Manual 3-24

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I would like to offer a synopsis of my thoughts on what the re-write of FM 3-24 should encompass. These thoughts take their cues from my own intellectual journey through lessons the military supposedly “learned” about Vietnam, other examples of COIN operations, my peers’ stories about Iraq and other places, and my own experiences in South America and Afghanistan. I hope to learn more from people’s comments to this, as I do not pretend to know the answer to all counterinsurgencies or the solution in Afghanistan- this is my surely-flawed understanding of the phenomenon.

The bottom-line up-front: The COIN manual should attempt to avoid limiting itself to the current American political and cultural environment, to a small sliver of historical COIN examples that seem to some to fit the current environment, and to implying wholesale social, cultural, political, and economic change and efforts. Instead the COIN manual should stick to historical examples of local efforts that have worked and haven’t worked and stressing the importance of crafting strategies (and changing them constantly) to take into account regional power politics, changing U.S. attitudes, and the capability of our nation to continue to support our efforts. We should stress that COIN can be very small and simple efforts that are not expensive or even noticeable in many instances, and that the military should subordinate itself to the top civilian in-country or to the National Security Council when conducting COIN. The COIN manual should point out the possibility that building a force that mimics the insurgents in many ways might be beneficial. Lastly, we cannot stress enough in the manual that the military has to monitor the domestic political environment- not to influence it- but to make sure at all times that our military actions are synched with the will of our own populace.

On Definitions:

- On the definition of “insurgency”: I think our definition for insurgency- Insurgency: an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict-  relies too much on the Westphalian concept of a nation-state, ignores unorganized movements that still have the same effect as an insurgency, and do not describe all activities that insurgents engage in. I would change it to read: “organized and sometimes unorganized movements aimed at supplanting the de facto system of governance or existing or traditional social order in an area or among a subset of a population group through the use of subversion, armed conflict and/or other, more subtle methods (such as using alternative systems of services more commonly known to emanate from or reside in a governmental organization, etc.).”

- On the definition of “counterinsurgency”: Likewise, I think our definition for counterinsurgency- Counterinsurgency: military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency- ignores local, unorganized, and decentralized efforts taken to counter insurgent activities. It also ignores the example wherein an external entity fights insurgents for a host government- which, although I think our doctrine should advise against, should be noted in the definition. I would re-word to capture a more generic concept thusly: “any actions taken by any group to counter the activities of another group to supplant the existing or traditional social order of an area or population group.”

These definitions would allow us to apply COIN in local areas (or, preferably, support local areas in conducting their COIN) or apply UW in the instances wherein the local area is governed by an order that is outlawed by a country or found to be in our interests to supplant. This takes away the confusing situation wherein we say we are conducting COIN in an area simply because the de facto ruling group in that area is attempting to overthrow the national government. Conducting COIN against the de facto government makes no sense- instead we would need to conduct UW in those cases (it makes COIN and UW a local call instead of one delineated by nebulous political borders).

- On historical case studies (in consideration of the limitations of the adoption of techniques such as massive resettlement of the population and the application of overwhelming firepower): When talking principles- I don’t think we should limit ourselves to current US policy, attitudes, and the contemporary media environment and thus ignore COIN examples that we would not be able to stomach today. This gives us a skewed perception of insurgency and COIN and limits our understanding of the forces at work in these situations.

For argument's sake- even if one were to limit oneself to only those examples that may have been more "humane" from today's perspective, it would be a mistake to think that we would want to apply the resultant principles in every situation that calls for COIN- we would need to conclude that there may be instances wherein NOT using the less humane (from our perspective) practices would render us wholly ineffective, and therefore we should advise against applying our way of conducting COIN- and instead come up with a non-military or non-COIN method of approaching the situation or don’t approach it at all.

In other words, I wouldn’t limit COIN case studies at all, but simply note that whatever the reason for us conducting COIN and the attitudes of the day may rule out some methods of conducting COIN that were relatively successful in the past.

On COIN Principles

- On the principle of “Legitimacy Is the Main Objective”: The first “principle” implies too much importance for the populace. Although the discussion of this principle does note that some governments gain legitimacy from coercion, it later asserts that governments that have to use coercion are inherently unstable. This is a skewed, Western vision of how societies work. Instead, it might be just as plausible that certain populace’s traditions and divisions make one government in one country attaining a marked legitimacy to be improbable, and thus, any efforts away from coercion are bound to lead quickly to more instability. Further, the entire manual, but especially this part, assumes universal principles for all population groups. This assumption, stated as fact in our doctrine, if false- which I believe it is- would undermine a lot of what we do now, and thus we need to entertain the notion that it could be based on our own flawed understanding of the world. If the Arab “Spring” has taught us anything it should be that the drive towards legitimacy can be bumpy and filled with more instability, not less.

I would instead emphasize in the first principle that the main objective is different in every locality, and concentrate our studies on what possibly makes different population groups within the subject country to come to a relatively peaceful balance that enables some kind of governance. It may just be that if one group is not treated unfairly, then civil war, general violence, and even genocide can breakout. In that case, talking about that group giving a governing entity legitimacy is completely counterproductive.

- On the principle of “Unity of Effort Is Essential”: Unity of effort is tricky. I would argue that in many instances, unity of effort manifests itself into centralized and top-down control and micromanaging of COIN campaigns. Unity of effort should be gained through the 2 things: the host nation owning the effort and all external military forces being subordinate to the highest civilian in country (U.S. ambassador or presidentially-appointed special consular). Coordinating all actions at the highest levels may be impossible and even unnecessary. What we do want to avoid is the military running the campaign. If 80% of COIN really is political, then why shouldn’t the military subordinate itself to the civilian authorities while conducting COIN?

- On the principle of “Political Factors Being Primary”: This makes sense to the American brain, but I’m unsure if this helps us fundamentally understand the insurgent environment. Everything is political and many don’t see a separation. I’m not sure this is good as a principle except that it should stress to the military mind that we shouldn’t be the lead in COIN.

- On the principle that “Counterinsurgents Must Understand the Environment”: This is most likely impossible, but nevertheless, since it is an important goal- it should stress us to structure our personnel system, policies, and our own structure to take advantage of those who understand the environment more and ensure they are used in key positions during COIN.

- On “Intelligence Driving Operations”: Yes- leave it in. But this should imply that we have to be out collecting that intelligence as opposed to sitting in FOBs. Human intelligence in COIN should be the majority of the intel that drives ops. If, due to political realities or something else, we are unable to get out from a defensive posture, FOB-like existence, then we need to describe the difficulties of our operations in that kind of environment and the implications. How do we run operations with little to no human intelligence?

- On the principle “Insurgents Must be Isolated from Their Cause and Support”: This is not a good principle. Sometimes this is impossible. This black-and-white understanding of people is too simplistic and it might imply a requirement to conduct wholesale cultural change of population groups. Instead maybe note that in some instances, wherein there are easily apparent differences between the insurgents and the rest of the population, it would be preferred to isolate the insurgents. In other instances, it should be noted, this may be impossible, and thus we must admit that and stop wasting our time chasing after an impossible objective.

- On the principle “Security Under the Rule of Law is Essential”: This is not a principle, but a U.S.-centric concept. Legal systems do not always need to be established- and definitely should not be established by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. Many countries see no difference between the military and the police forces. Intimating that eventually major combat operations will be replaced by law enforcement is a U.S. understanding of how criminals and insurgents should be treated that has no grounding in other population groups’ understanding. Instead, I would highlight the importance of a group having the monopoly on the use of force in an area. In Afghanistan, for instance- what “rule of law” will we support? Sharia? Tribal tradition? U.N. mandates? NATO-influenced GIRoA laws? None of these would be essential to keeping the Taliban from rising to power or Al-Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan, why should we pretend they would?

- On the principle “Counterinsurgents Should Prepare for a Long-Term Commitment”: This is a terrible principle- I urge us to take this out or re-write it to be more focused on the host nation. It does not have to cost a lot of resources to do COIN. It does not have to take standing headquarters and decades of support. COIN can be conducted on the cheap with small teams of SOF. This can be sustained indefinitely. COIN can be conducted with hundreds of thousands of conventional forces and hundreds of billions of dollars- but it would seem to me that in 99.99% of all situations it would be against the U.S.’s interests to do so. And the language urging selling the locals and the U.S. on further U.S. action is terrible. If the locals do not support the U.S. being there- we should leave (THAT would be population-centric COIN…) and if the U.S. people have to be sold on an effort- then we shouldn’t be there. Put simply- the attitudes of the local people and the U.S. people should drive our involvement, not the other way around. If we have to sell anything, then legitimacy isn’t there and our nation’s interests aren’t at stake.

On COIN Imperatives

- On the imperative “Manage Information and Expectations”: This should be changed to “tell the truth- and be brutally honest, refuse to give projections- especially rosy ones, and always under promise”.

- On the imperative: “Use the Appropriate Level of Force”: Instead of this imperative- how about replacing it with “out-insurgent the insurgent”. Become like the insurgent. Train and equip host nation forces like the insurgent and not like us. I would assume that if a COIN campaign is long, then the cheapest and most effective organization we can set up will be rewarded with more population support (not to mention it will be sustainable by the host nation…). Of course, this assumes that our population supports our efforts in a pragmatic way. If we are following our principles, then we shouldn’t be faced with the environment wherein we have to worry about lethal operations and collateral damage- but, if we are faced with that environment and we still are ordered to conduct COIN, then we should be up-front about our limitations to the politicians and understand ourselves that we will be limited in terms of what we will be able to accomplish.

- On the imperative: “Learn and Adapt”: I think this should be broadened to describe Senge’s learning organization- which stresses changing one’s structure and rewarding those who take risks and improve themselves and ways which are successful.

- On the imperative: “Empower the Lowest Levels”: I think this is the second most important imperative- and should be expounded on and highlighted elsewhere- because this is the one in my experience we have failed miserably in.

- On the imperative “Support the Host Nation”: This is THE most important imperative- and one we have failed in as well. I don’t understand why we fight our own COIN fight and try to get the host nation to support us instead of the other way around.

On COIN Concepts and Narratives

- On the relevance of Mao to today’s insurgencies: Irrelevant. Mao talked of people's wars that had a lot to do with his time and place- post-WWII and post-imperialist systems. A better one to study for the current day, in my opinion, would be the Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire. In other areas and times- Mao might be better. In still other areas it doesn't make sense applying most- if not all- historical examples. In the future we should look at all historical examples, not accept any simple reasons they were acceptable or conventional wisdom about them, and work on being adaptive learners.

- On applying ratios of troops to population: I would take out the ratios all together. They rest on a mountain of assumptions that might or might not be applicable to future scenarios. Does it also conclude how many kills we should have per month? This engineering/formulaic approach just doesn’t work with complex systems.

- On Galula’s concept of COIN being 80% politics and 20% military: Clausewitz said war was another form of politics. I think applying a wholly Western concept of a separation of the political and military does us no favors. I think the idea is valid: that we can't rely on tons of military actions, but that has been twisted into a meaning that implies the military should only do military things 20% of the time, and the other 80 the military should be building governments and supporting economic opportunities. I think the idea should be that we should only use the military 20% of the time- and other things (not done by the military) 80% of the time…

- On “Fairness”: we should not talk about “fairness”. Insurgents don’t fight “unfairly”. If anything- we fight unfairly since we use massive amounts of air support, travel by rotary wing and in up-armored vehicles, and wear body armor! Take all that out- insurgents simply fight effectively and inexpensively. We should mimic that- not try to copy ourselves or compare others to how we think everyone should fight.

- On “Our nation's capability/capacity”: We should add in that the military should at all times take into consideration our nation’s capability and capacity to support- both politically and fiscally- our efforts, and craft our strategies around those realities. This implies constantly keeping abreast of those measures and adjusting as the situation changes. Ideologies and worldviews held by the majority of the military and military commanders CANNOT trump the will of our people and the capacity of our nation.

- On “our nation's interests”: In alignment with the last point, the military should constantly ensure all operations support the nation’s interests. If it is difficult to sell what we are doing to our people in terms of our interests, we should end the campaign or change our operations. Staying wed to one worldview about what is best for our country is dangerous and to some could be equated to disloyal to our civilian authorities.

- On “Regional politics”: Having a naïve view of regional frictions and global implications does us no service. In Afghanistan we are involving ourselves not only in inter-tribal issues, but also inter-regional- the least of which is the struggle between Pakistan and India. Ignoring this is insane. We MUST take regional politics into consideration and either be willing to play the regional political game, or we should leave- or at least admit our limited capability if we stay and hard-headedly act Pollyannaish.

- On “causes of insurgencies”: I see a lot of writings in military publications about formulaic ways in which to understand root causes of insurgencies and working on negating those causes. I think we should stay away from attempting to describe root causes of complex subjects. Oftentimes this is impossible and we either get it wholly wrong or we force an illusion of understanding that just isn’t there on ourselves. Root causes often deal with multiple narratives that go back centuries and that are subjective, irrational, and bathed in value considerations. I couldn’t imagine attempting to do COIN in Palestine and trying to address the “root causes” of the issues there. For every person who offers one up, I’m willing to bet another person has a 180 degree take on things.

- On addressing “complexity”: The manual should keep itself to noting that most insurgencies are going to reflect complex characteristics and thus getting into the causes of insurgencies is problematic. Each insurgency should be treated as unique- and even though there are possible insights to be gained through the study of those in the past, the fact that whatever insurgency we happen to be dealing with is alive and well at the time should point to the fact that it has adapted and evolved into a wholly new and different entity. A few paragraphs describing the difficulties with complex systems (underlining complexity and systems theory as theories only and that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to only using those theories to help build understanding) and possible ways to approach them may be useful.

- On addressing “criminal gangs, militias, and warlords”: Categorizing these as things we must fight is wrong-headed: these entities should be looked at just the same as NGOs, indigenous groups, etc. All entities within the operational area should be looked at as opportunities instead of looking at everything in a Leave-it-to-Beaver style naivety.

- On “criminal activity”: We should rely on the host nation to make that call and support them only when we can easily tie our national interests to supporting that effort.

- On “legitimacy”: Legitimacy should be defined in terms of either the current ruling system/group or what the populace/powerbrokers would most likely support if things changed. This would take into account the most likely system that would develop after a power vacuum develops. It makes no sense to assume that only a system that has 51% of a population’s support is legitimate if the only feasible systems at one’s disposal will result in either a 30% support or a 20% support. One should aim for the 30% (in my example) instead of a 51% solution that will never be reachable.

The components of legitimacy should be two: local (as defined above) and U.S. legitimacy. Many times legitimate systems and groups that locals will support won’t be considered legitimate in the U.S. population’s eyes- even when there may be a clear connection to the need for action tied to U.S. national security. It is during these times that the U.S. military must ensure they are subordinate to the host nation, the U.S. civilian leadership, and be willing to quickly and almost constantly change operations (and thus the overall campaign strategy), to include possibly leaving the area for an extended or shortened timeframe until such time that the U.S. population (through its elected leaders) deems it vital to reengage.

They should be measured by taking into account the traditional legitimate groups and systems, the current cultural climate, outside factors, factors that could change things, powerbrokers in place now, most likely powerbrokers that could develop or move in once COIN starts/continues.

- On “population-centricity”: Population-centric should not mean anything more than trying to understand a population. Assuming that pop-centric should always mean securing and control leaves one open to huge problems if those assumptions are wrong. Just because a population wants something different than we think is a universal norm should not make us blind to the effects of our wrong-headedness. For example, the colonists in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War did not need protection by the British from the irregulars (insurgents), so it would have made no sense to attempt to protect them. But, the British probably would have been taking a chapter out of our current COIN manual if they indeed would have attempted to force whatever governmental system they thought was better than the one in place and chased Francis Marion around the swamps in order to protect the locals…

And, population-centric should mean that one attempts to understand one's own population as well (I avoid the use of the term “understand” as opposed to “attempts to understand” deliberately, since I think it has to be a continuous effort).

- On “metrics”: It should take into account time, money, national interests, and regional interests. Metrics for success should include continued support by the U.S. populace and some kind of metric should be used to show how disingenuous we find ourselves becoming in order to influence that support (in such a way as to discourage it).

On Doctrinal Concepts and Planning Tools

- On the “Center of Gravity” concept: I think the “center of gravity” concept does little to help us- unless you count the value of the analysis and discount the conclusions one draws. This attempt to simplify the complex is a waste of time if we are using it to target a “center” of anything. There is no center in complex systems: thus their complexity and resilience.

- On our doctrine applying a “whole of government approach”: I think it implies that the military is in the lead and others are partners. While this sounds good in theory- in practice the military takes its orders from its COCOM- and the civilian agencies are steam-rolled. But, regardless, the military should be subordinate to an in-country civilian entity- whether the ambassador or a special representative of the president’s (since COIN is only “20% military…).

- On “unified command”: For MOST COIN ops we should stress unity of command to mean that all military in-country answer to the civilian leadership of an embassy or civilian coalition body. How can you have 80% non-military if the military doesn't answer to any non-military??

- On interacting with other government agencies and non-governmental agencies: We must address this as a principle. In Afghanistan we walled ourselves off on huge FOBs and instituted policies which made it both impossible to bring civilians onto our FOB or for us to visit them. My answer? Make the military subordinate to the top civilian- and then they could order us to talk to them.

- On the six lines of operation for COIN operations (Conduct information operations, Conduct combat operations/civil security operations, Train and employ HN security forces, Establish or restore essential services, Support development of better governance, Support economic development): These are not lines of operation that the military should engage in. The first one should not be a line of operation- instead we should have an imperative to tell the truth- no matter the short-term fall-out. The second one should be conduct security operations in support and in conjunction with host nation forces. The third one is good. The fourth one should be that the military supports a civilian agency in supporting the host nation in essential services. The fifth one should be that the military supports a civilian agency in supporting the host nation in developing better governance. The last one should be deleted.

- On addressing COIN when the national government is itself considered a threat by parts of the population: In that case- again the highest civilian in country would make the call- but for the military it really would boil down to one of these options: leaving, supporting the host nation against the perceived will of the people because it aligns with our interests or because it is the best of several evils, supporting local efforts while distancing ourselves from the national government, or re-aligning ourselves with a group to conduct UW (if CENTCOM does not have a plan on the shelf for conducting UW with the newly revitalized Northern Alliance against a Pashtun/Taliban axis that threatens to overwhelm Pakistan and empower Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan...).


The U.S. arguably approached counterinsurgency in Vietnam with a conventional mindset that did not lend itself to building goodwill with the local populace. It is debatable, however, that even with a more “population-centric” approach we could have been successful in building support for the government with the people. Even with all of these issues, we still defeated the insurgency and all conventional force attempts to take over the South. In the end, however, we established a security force that could not defeat a Northern conventional attack without our support.  The assumption that they would have our support was proven wrong when the U.S. Congress, due to a lack of a perceived connection between our ways in Vietnam with our ends at home (not to mention a massive credibility gap), withdrew all support to Vietnam.

Lessons: do not assume that we will always support a country; therefore from the beginning we should work on setting up a capability that will outlast fickle political support (i.e., maybe Vietnam needed an insurgent capability more than a conventional capability); don’t try to sell your efforts to the U.S. populace- be honest with at least the politicians, if not the people too- if the U.S. politicians and/or populace (one would hope these would be synched) do not want us engaged in COIN in a certain country, then we shouldn’t be; if one is going to support a government that has little or no legitimacy then one has just succeeded in making the situation very complex and the connection between one’s efforts and the home populace’s ends better be clear and supported by the people and politicians at home; and, finally, that an insurgency can be defeated sometimes (most times?) at the tactical level by “old-fashioned” conventional forces conducting lethal operations (of course, assuming that one’s population will support what that entails: death and destruction), especially if the insurgents decide to mass in a conventional manner- but that tactical success can ALWAYS be undermined by strategic confusion and mistakes.

In Afghanistan we face a similarly weak government with little legitimacy (should that be a surprise, since we helped set them up just a few years ago?) and an insurgency with sanctuaries, but no conventional force threat. Unfortunately we also face a regional political complexity reminiscent of Lebanon perhaps, a tribal situation that rivals any heterogeneous area that I know of, and an insurgency that is both local and regional, religiously empowered, and fueled by multiple factors. Politically we are in the 9th inning and the crowd really doesn’t want to stay for extra innings. Our COIN doctrine needs to at least acknowledge the frictions inherent in these very different situations and not pretend the same tools and ways of framing our operations will still lead to success no matter the environment.


About the Author(s)

LTC Grant M. Martin is a Special Forces officer in the U.S. Army. He has served in Korea, Afghanistan and South America. He graduated from The Citadel, has an MBA from George Mason University, and an MMAS from the School of Advanced Military Studies. He is a Ph.D. candidate at North Carolina State University’s Public Administration program with special interest in researching the organizational obstacles within SOCOM and DoD to effective Irregular Warfare. He has been published in the International JournalMilitary, and the Small Wars Journal, in addition to contributing to chapters in two textbooks on Design Thinking.


Proposed Bottom Line and Primary Lesson Learned:

Our principal goal in life is to facilitate the installation -- in other countries -- of political, economic and social orders that are similar to our own. It is for this specific purpose that we have installed, and/or now support and defend, the current ruler. Likewise, this is the reason that we might work with various population groups to undermine and overthrow certain regimes. Herein, we believe that the lack of our political, economic and social systems -- in this country/these countries -- is the universal "root cause" of the difficulty (for example: terrorism) that has caused us to consider intervening here in the first place.

The primary goal of the local population, however, may be to retain their present way of life -- or to achieve a political, economic and social order that is -- otherwise -- better able to defend itself against the United States, et al.

How does one do COIN in these circumstances?

NOT by immediately -- and via full-force WOG -- shoving our political, economic and social order down the throat of these populations. This can, quite obviously, have a very catastrophic and counterproductive effect.

Rather, we must consider that a more-gradual, more-subtle and more-long term approach may be needed to achieve our objective. Herein, we must be prepared to work, at least initially, by, with and through the political, economic and social systems that are more familiar to the populations concerned. This approach providing that the United States and the government/leader that it has installed and/or is working with might not damage their legitimacy -- and their possibilities for success -- further in this opening gambit.

Bill M.

Wed, 03/21/2012 - 12:59pm

Agree with the jist of Dave's and Bob's comments. There definitely shouldn't be a generic mission statement for an ODA, and I doubt that an ODA would be capable of reinstalling or establishing a legitimate government to begin with. UW will remain a dream for SF beyond the tactical realm if the GCC, OSD, State and other senior staff members are not educated on UW.

Bob makes good points about the focus on the urgent, and of course focusing on the urgent is a compelling logic, because it is hard to argue the necessity of knocking down the 5 meter target first. The counter argument is does this require everyone to focus on the 5 meter target, or should we focus a percentage of the force to start looking at potential challenges over the horizon? Ideally focused on preventative efforts, but of course they won't always succeed because there are real limits to our ability to influence others, so we should also focus on developing creative options short of war, and UW can be one of those.

Contrary to the popular myth circulating at Ft. Bragg that we can't do UW after the crisis starts, the reality is we have habitually done UW after the crisis starts (WWII, Vietnam, Afghanistan, etc.). The maxium should be, we can do it more effectively if we prepare pre-crisis.


Mon, 03/26/2012 - 3:44pm

In reply to by G Martin

No amount of reasoning that the FM is intended as a tactical and operational guide rather than a route map to tactical and operational decision-making will stop FM doctrine being regurgitated in masterful presentations, lengthy written insights, sagest renditions and amusing antidotes for the sole purpose of self –promotion in a HQ Staff setting. Individuals who have come to realise they do not have the ability for active tactical and operational command invariably convince themselves they can ‘teach’ it.

With so much ‘visionary’ military doctrine revering the theory and method of Clausewitz, Von Moltke, Jomini, Seeckt etc the proliferation of the undesirable ‘Power-point Ranger’ is a dead certainty. The German cure for this disease was called Auftragstaktik.

The Prussian aphorism that mules could be taught to obey but officers were expected to know when to disobey was precisely aimed at the unsuitable officer who foolishly thought he could parrot his way up the chain of command squawking das FuG or Truppenfuhrung doctrine in the earshot of his superiors. Unfortunately Auftragstaktik (Mission Thoughts) translates into English as badly as it transfers to non- German cognition.

Auftragstaktik ensured the exchange of broad, mission-oriented direction between commander and junior officer evinced into tactics and operations the necessary latitude to achieve mission success.

Many in the US military may find it difficult to imagine actions contrary to orders being considered laudable displays of trustworthiness and aggressiveness. However Auftragstaktik by default ensured that any junior officer who went on to senior leadership had thrived from the outset of his career using self-sufficiency, imagination, flexibility and initiative in the most demanding circumstances.

Obviously in the middle of a war it is difficult, if not impossible, to experiment with doctrine but there are thousands of examples of failed operational manuals (ten times thicker than FM 3-24) which attempted to enhance/reshape the work-place of tens of millions of skilled and semi-skilled workers in the US manufacturing industry . All of these failed attempts at emulating the successful German manufacturing industry used the same presentational/ spoon-feeding approach towards specifications, logistics, efficiencies, operations, strategy etc.

The systematic failure to recognize the tactically and operational astute individual will over time destroy the organisation. The dislocation between the tactical/operational reality and the doctrinal ‘establishment’ renders the emergence of a successful strategy virtually impossible. Individuals offering grounded insight are either trampled underfoot by the ‘mules’ jealously guarding their ‘pivotal’ position or join the herd braying their way to inevitable ruin or disaster.


Bill C.

Wed, 03/21/2012 - 10:25am

In reply to by G Martin

My emphasis, of course, is to focus on the overarching goals and objectives of the United States and its allies and to, accordingly, ask what I believe are the most important questions: (1) "Strategy, tactics, etc., to what end? And (2) "why?" And then to propose an answer to these most important questions. Thus:

Q: Strategy, tactics, etc., to what end?

A: To transform outlier states and societies along western lines. (Applies to and encompasses -- in differing degrees and amounts -- not only AFPAK but also Russia, China, N. Korea, Iran, Arab Spring countries, Burma, etc; to wit: all states and societies not like us/our allies.)

Q: Why?

A: So as to provide that these outlier states and societies might come to burden the modern world with fewer problems and come to offer the modern world greater access, use-ability and utility instead.

One must start, I believe, by asking the questions I have proposed above. Obviously one may get different answers than those which I suggest.

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 03/21/2012 - 8:53am

In reply to by G Martin

Grant: To answer your specific UW question my answer is no, I do not know. I am no longer affiliated in any official way with USASOC or USSOCOM so I cannot speak for them, only for myself. However, your questions brings to mind a problem I think we have. We have long focused on UW at the tactical level. Frankly, if we are worried about a UW mission statement for an ODA we are missing the boat. What I want to know is what is the mission statment (and intent) of the theater or national level UW campaign plan and what is the policy and guidance and strategic direction coming out of the NSC for the development of a national or theater UW campaign (either as stand alone of in support of a larger campaing or strategy). Do we have policy makers strategists at the national and theater level who understand UW as capability to support strategic level objectives? That is where we need to focus our effort and this is where we need to focus our education so that we have people beyond tactical level Special Forces who understand Unconventional Warfare.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 03/21/2012 - 6:16am

In reply to by G Martin


UW is a much abused term, and a much abused operational concept as well. Currently we put it in a bit too small of a box with our SOF official definitions, we put it in far too small of a box in terms of how SOF perceives it being executed, and the conventional force puts it in far too large of a box when they see it as all warfare not "conventional."

It's a hot mess.

But that said, I think the missing link for planning and employing SOF forces effectively today among critical populaces in critical locations in a manner designed to develop the very cultural and language knowledge and understanding that are so critical to all that we do, are best done in the context of Phase 0 for an ultimate, though most often never happening, later UW campagin. The value is in the focus provided by that ultimate potential mission over the focus provided by the chasing of some "threat de jure." The value is the focus on the locations and populaces that are truly critical to our national interests, free of any current threat stream, determined solely by an assessment of geo-strategy, interests, and other more enduring factors.

We must break the cycle of simply chasing non state threats around the globe, or only focusing on locations where such groups currently raise challenges or take sanctuary. This is the tyranny of the urgent. Often important, often not. But always urgent. We need a focus that elevates that which is of enduring importance, but arguably has little current urgency. UW offers an excellent vehicle for thinking about and planning for such engagement that we lack under our current vehicles for such thinking, planning and execution.

Bill M.

Wed, 03/21/2012 - 1:32am

In reply to by G Martin

I tend to agree with your comments on the levels of war, but I was referring to strategy (the plan/approach for accomplishing our objectives) not the strategic level of war/conflict.

Lets assume one of our goals is to defeat the Taliban. If we rely on intell driven ops we simply go out and play whack-a-mole to no real end. Strictly for purposes of illustration because what I'm proposing is not the correct strategy. Assume we were pursuing the military defeat of the Taliban, well then simply conducting raids nightly against relatively low level leaders and IED emplacers won't get us much further down the road, but that is in fact what intell driven ops are.

On the other hand if we had a strategy that focused on identifying an array of targets such as financers, propagandists, technicians, and some leaders that were near simultaneously targeted by SOF, while GPF leads an unrelenting ground campaign to disrupt freedom of movement and kill those dumb enough to stay and fight, we would then be pursuing a strategy of sorts. The strategy would drive intell and ops, the way it is supposed to work.

G Martin

Tue, 03/20/2012 - 11:23pm

COL M- speaking of "UW"- any ideas on an ODA's mission statement when it comes to UW? Lots of debate on that that I'm hearing. "ODA xxxx conducts UW IOT reestablish legitimate government" vs. "ODA xxxx infils NET yyyy to link up with insurgents IOT reinstall legitimate government" are two options I've heard. Not sure I like either!

bz- great point about the writers taking good points and putting them "into stone". Gets to Dr. P's point about the whole doctrine system. A good friend of mine mentioned to me what I've often heard- that doctrine is only a guide. Maybe we just need more education and training on how to use doctrine- because from what I've seen we refuse to be creative and instead just apply doctrinal concepts. Or maybe our institution punishes creativity- or at the least- isn't conducive to being creative... ??

Pap- I agree to some extent on how the military is possibly more like a social science than a physical science- and that our tools may need to follow their example more. Definitions are more fuzzy in my mind- at some level we need to know how to talk to each other- but I agree that language can pen our brains in and keep us from being creative/innovative. Should be a book about that! ;)

The conversation on types of insurgencies was great- appreciate that. I too think that using language insinuating a legitimate government instead of one we've set-up is problematic. I wouldn't stop there, though- I wonder if there's more important nuances than just revolution or resistance? Could we come up with different words to describe many more examples of "insurgency" that would better frame what we are facing?

I am honestly not following the modernization comment- but I do agree it would be beneficial to talk about "to what end" and "why". Have to ponder that a little more...

DJBI- I must admit to some bias on the subject of "understanding". To me it implies an endstate- something one can achieve. That implies that one can one day understand algebra- but not so much human populations. As human population groups change every day, understanding is more of an elusive dream. As soon as I left Afghanistan- my "understanding"- which may have been, at most, 33%, is immediately diminished and continues so exponentially. But- your points are very valid- our structure, IMO, gets in the way of us being at 33%...

Bill M- my head's big now- thanks! I agree with your comments on intel driving ops. I think I was thinking more in terms of tactical and lower level operations. Totally agree that strategy should drive ops- although I wonder about potentially artificial concepts like strategic and operations. Seems disingenuous of us to think all military action can (and should) be separated into levels like that- or those levels. Sure, it helps our pea-sized brains understand some heavy stuff, but, I have to always ask- in each situation we do it in- was it helpful? I'm not sure it is helpful in A-stan. I would argue a potentially better alternative for A-stan might be means-priorities-policy objectives. That construct has made some time-frames more sensible to me- and the separation between means and policy objectives much more stark and scary. Another game I play is to try to imagine how the insurgents view/attempt to make sense of our operations. Do they view ISAF's campaign plan like we do? Do they see the strategic level of our actions? Attempting to look at it through their eyes sometimes makes things jump out that I've totally missed. And- yes- the manual mentions fairness!

Scott- again, I wonder if our real problem isn't doctrine, but how we apply it. We seem to lack the creativity (or a system that encourages creativity) to get away from pre-conceived templates that doctrine often provides. The solution probably goes back to DJBI's comments.

Bill M.

Thu, 03/15/2012 - 2:11am

In reply to by Scott Kinner

You made a case for doctrine, and few are opposed to good doctrine. The arguments below (by several people and of course the author) is against self-delusional doctrine, which is the category our COIN doctrine falls into.

Scott Kinner

Wed, 03/14/2012 - 1:16pm

Grant - thank you very much for taking the time to elucidate some of the issues with FM 3-24/MCWP 3-55.5 (yes, it is a Marine Corps pub as well). As a doctrine writer, I would like to throw out a few things that I believe support your concerns, and the concerns of many here...

1. Doctrine is supposed to provide "timely, relevant, and compelling guidance for use in the planning and execution of operations." There are three things to take away from this.
First, doctrine is guidance, a starting point from which to deviate, a place where, like the medical community, a lexicon can be established so at least everyone is speaking the same language. However commanders are the ultimate arbiters of how to solve the problems they've been given. Doctrine exists because commanders can't possibly know everything about every possible problem they may be faced with. If we had to suddenly defend the Fulda Gap again, you can bet that today's commanders would be looking to doctrine to provide them some insight into how to create engagement areas, conduct a mobile defense, etc.
Second, we must possess doctrine, imperfect as it is, so that we have some insight into what has gone before, so we can help inform what will be, and because we can't possibly create a military consisting of creative thinking, generalist, warrior/scholars, who know everything and spend their waking hours burning incense and contemplating Sun Tzu. No, we've got to have doctrine to inform a thinking military that we create out of the human resources the American people choose to provide us.
Third, doctrine is not political, it is "compelling guidance" that assists in the execution of planning and operations. Already the content of the FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 rewrite has been buffeted by the winds of "people will read this outside of the military." So what? The audience is those who will be asked to "do COIN" the next time it shows up, not making statements on policy, worldview, or ideology that is far beyond the purview of a Field Manual or Warfighting Publication.

2. I greatly appreciate your well stated position that proper COIN doctrine, for the reasons I've indicated, must be applicable, "compelling," to those that pull it off the shelf to help them deal with and understand the situation they are actually facing - not presupposed or predetermined situations that ought not be in a doctrinal pub. Doctrine should discuss the considerations for - but NOT dictate - things such as centers of gravity, battlespace frameworks, operational approaches, lines of operation, etc. Doctrine owes the commander some "compelling guidance," even best practices and TTPs on these issues for his consideration - but it is NOT the place of doctrine to dictate a solution - that is the purview of the commander.

3. Finally, while I know the devil is in the details, I appreciate your overarching sweep which is that COIN, conducted across the range of military operations, and US participation in it, can take many different guises. It can be as simple as providing training to visiting host nation forces right here in the United States to the level of a major operation on par with the Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. A new COIN pub owes its readers some broader commentary on how they might fit into the COIN fight they face, not just the one we faced over the last decade.


You’re an iconoclast, and in so being you have earned an honorary real Green Beret, you know what I’m talking about, one with a De Oppresso Liber emblem on it instead signifying the mind of a free man, instead of a beret with an officer’s rank on it which symbolizes conformity. Principle one, we can’t free the oppressed unless we first free ourselves of self-delusional doctrine.
Since I agreed with many of counter arguments against the so called principles of COIN, I will only briefly elaborate on a few. First a hat tip to Dayuhan for pointing out the obvious to those not blind that there is a difference between an established government conducting COIN and a government recently installed by us conducting COIN (regardless of what crayon you use to color it, it still looks like an occupation).
Before I praise your brilliance I first have to disagree with your support of intelligence driven operations. Never in my life have I conducted an operation without considering the intelligence, but operations are driven by strategy, not intelligence. We conduct operations in support of a strategy, intelligence informs us (when it is capable, often we don’t have the intelligence) of potential courses of action. If intelligence drives the operations, then we’re simply playing whack a mole.
Whether we’re doing COIN or FID, or going in proposition should not be to prepare for a long term commitment. As you implied this leads to many officers soiling their honor by developing b.s. assessments on the conflict in an effort to hoodwink their own citizens in hopes they’ll continue to support the war, and in some cases a flawed strategy. This isn’t patriotism, it is loyalty only to one’s rater and career, not to the nation. Tell the American people the truth and let them decide what kind of commitment should be made. If it is really in the national interest they’ll support it, but we’ll first have to regain their trust after several years of intentionally misleading them.
This may trigger an scolding from Dave Maxwell, but great comments on Mao. History is useful to expand one’s understanding of conflict and human nature, but when we default to stupid and apply Mao’s phases to every conflict just because we like to dumb things down, then we’re simply seeing what we want to see (selecting events and interpretations to fit our preconceptions), instead of freeing our minds to appreciate what is actually happening.
Fairness? I don’t recall seeing that in the manual, but if it is there then it deserves a belly laugh. We use all sorts of advanced technology to dominate our foes tactically, and we’re complaining about fairness? This isn’t a boxing match where we have to be the same weight class, and follow a set of rules.
I think we killed the fallacy of the center of gravity concept sufficiently elsewhere in SWJ, but it doesn’t hurt to give it another hard kick, but wait… isn’t there, so I can’t kick it.
The six LOOs you address look like a hodgepodge of post conflict LOOs, nation building, and FID, but few of them have little to do with actual COIN.

Anytime I was stuck in a staff setting in either Iraq or Afghanistan enduring torture by doctrine, especially when they presented their slides indicating all the progress being made along those magical lines of effort, I felt like I was in an opium den and I was the only guy without a pipe. Everyone was stoned and enjoying this but me. I didn't want to be left out, so I started looking around and saw a pipe that someone laid down, it actually looked like a FM, but it couldn't have been, because when people pick up it their view of reality suddenly becomes disorted, they see rainbows made of positive metrics everywhere.


Tue, 03/13/2012 - 7:38pm

At the risk of sounding sarcastic, is an effort to compose/edit any concise manual on COIN quixotic? In no way do I intend to demean this exhaustively comprehensive analysis of FM 3-24. Perhaps I'm just a cynic. That said, my following response comes from the experiences of 3 deployments to Iraq as an enlisted NCO, not privy to the complexities of operations above Company level. My experiences are from the 'tactical corporal' perspective and I can merely speculate as to the myriad strategic considerations/complications above that.

I posit that effectively combating an inherently mutable, nebulous insurgency would require an overhaul of our leadership heirarchy (assuming that counterinsurgency utilizes hundreds of thousands of troops and not SOF teams as I mention later). You addressed this in the following:

"On the principle that “Counterinsurgents Must Understand the Environment”: This is most likely impossible, but nevertheless, since it is an important goal- it should stress us to structure our personnel system, policies, and our own structure to take advantage of those who understand the environment more and ensure they are used in key positions during COIN."

However, of the whole paragraph, I take issue with two things: 1)I think you sell our military(counterinsurgents) short in assuming that it is, "most likely impossible," for counterinsurgents to understand the environment. I do not believe this is due to an incapacity of counterinsurgents to understand complex topics, but rather a lack of emphasis on the subjects (societal norms, government, regional issues and language being key). Furthermore, I think this should be the most important principle, augmenting, and becoming a force-multiplier for, your second-most important imperative of 'Empowering the Lowest Levels.' And, 2)I don't think there is enough emphasis on the necessity of ensuring merit, competence, and an understanding of the environment dictate the leadership heirarchy. Our military norms restrict the fluid transfer of competent leadership, seniority too often taking precedent, especially when vying for combat experience/leadership. (Here, I realize my company-centric, enlisted viewpoints may not carry as much credence to the higher echelons of decision making within the commissioned ranks) However, too often I witnessed incompetence/neglegence of leadership due to a lack of comprehensive environmental understanding. Rather than disposing of these 'strategic knuckleheads' and providing extensive remedial education, they were left in place to continue and return on future deployments and again stymieing--or reversing--progress previously made. I do not have any plausible solutions to this problem. I merely wish to emphasize and highlight the systemic issue which has numerous implications for combating insurgencies. In fairness, you allude to potential restructuing (though not explicitly to the leadership heirarchy) in your analysis of the, “Learn and Adapt" imperative.

Aside from the aforementioned points I wholly agree with the rest of the paper. Especially:
[on COIN] "It does not have to take standing headquarters and decades of support. COIN can be conducted on the cheap with small teams of SOF."

The 'long war' and the need for multitudes of warriors is a fallacy. Let these SOF teams, especially SF(not to stroke your ego), perform their intended mandate. This would likely obviate the need to address my previous concerns. Alas, with all the politicking between the military branches to garner their tranche of combat operations and validate their relevance, this is highly unlikely.

In closing, I wish to state that I do not pretend to know the vast inner-workings and implications of COIN within the higher levels of our military operations, but to assert my opinions based on my experiences at the tactical level. Again, thank you for this profound paper evaluating a flawed document that many are reticent to address.

Bill C.

Tue, 03/13/2012 - 10:55pm

At my comment further below (Mar 13, 3:22 PM), I attempt to address Dayuhan's suggestion re: distinguishing between (1) insurgents threatening governments installed by the U.S. post-regime change and (2) insurgents threatening pre-existing governments.

Bill C.

Tue, 03/13/2012 - 11:44pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

Certainly there can be other causes -- other than resistance to modernization along western lines -- of insurgency in the present age.

For example, a common cause of insurgency in the present era might be the failure of standing governments to modernize their state and society as rapidly and as completely as various population groups might desire. (In such instances, however, one would expect that it would be less likely that the United States would intervene on the side of such governments.)

In any case, let us simply use my suggestion -- of resistance to modernization as being a/the most likely cause of insurgency that the U.S. would become involved in supporting a government today -- as an example to address whether the new or updated counterinsurgency manual should discuss, at its beginning -- at its middle -- and at its end, such issues as:

a. Counterinsurgency to what end? And

b. Why?


Tue, 03/13/2012 - 6:37pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Are you assuming a modernization campaign? What if there isn't one? I don't see any reason to assume that insurgency is necessarily related to resistance to modernization, there can be many other causes.

Bill C.

Tue, 03/13/2012 - 11:40am

It is critical, I believe, that we start the manual by asking -- and then by answering and addressing -- the following questions: Counterinsurgency (COIN) (1) to what end and (2) why?

Potential answers to questions (1) and (2) above:

1. COIN to what end? To provide that the present government (installed by us or otherwise) is able to overcome the resistance to its modernization (along western lines) program, purpose and agenda.

2. Why? Modernization (and counter-insurgency efforts to overcome resistance to the government's modernization program) is needed so that these states and societies might come to cause themselves and the modern world fewer problems (insurgencies, terrorism, genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, etc.) and come to offer themselves and the modern world greater utility and usefulness instead. The fundamental problem being that the political, economic and social systems of these states and societies are so obsolete and so outdated as to be incompatible with (a) the present needs of these states and societies themselves and (b) the current and future needs of the more-modern/modernizing world at-large.

If the above are not considered to be the proper use, purpose and reason why we would do COIN in the present age, then I would invite others to address these matters (to wit: COIN to what end and why) so that we might step off (or not step off) more-correctly in the future.

Bill C.

Tue, 03/13/2012 - 4:22pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

Could it be that the reason we fail to distinguish between (1) insurgencies threating pre-existing governments and (2) insurgencies threating post-regime change governments that we created is that such a distinction is considered to be of no great importance; either to the United States or to the insurgents?

The matter of much greater importance -- to both the United States and to the insurgents -- being the policy direction and agenda of said governments and, specifically, whether such governments are moving out smartly to modernize their state and society along western lines.

Herein, the United States being very much "for" such a modernization effort by said governments -- regardless of how such governments were originally conceived. The insurgents, for their part, being very much opposed to any such policy direction and agenda; again, regardless of how such governments came into being in the first place.

A test for this thesis:

a. Would the United States be as likely to attempt to overthrow a government -- regardless of how said government was originally conceived -- if said government was moving out smartly to modernize the state and society along western lines?

b. Would the insurgents be as likely to attempt to overthrow a government -- regardless of how such a government originally came into being -- if said government adopted the cause of the insurgents (to wit: to oppose the modernization of the state and society along western lines)?


Wed, 03/14/2012 - 8:57am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

If you insist on depicting the GIRoA as some sort of a Tajik proxy without legitimacy in the eyes of the Pathans living inside Afghanistan why is it you leave out the same Pakistani/ISI connotations when you describe the Taliban?

As you are aware most Afghans who actually live in Afghanistan consider anyone born more than 20 to 30 clicks from their village as suspect and any Afghan born and raised in a camp in Pakistan as a Pakistani. And as for someone who claims to be a mujahid and then runs away and hides in Pakistan......?!

I fail to see how the 200,000 Pathans born and bred and living in Afghanistan (leaving aside the 150K who are not Pathan) who have volunteered for the Afghan Army so as to be trained by the ISAF are somehow not legitimate whereas the 10,000 or so Pathans in the ranks of the Taliban (many of them neither born nor currently living n Afghanistan ) are legitimate.

I’m having difficulty in understanding how a rudimentary maddarrass education and some basic ISI instruction on planting IEDs obtained in Pakistan grants legitimacy and an ISAF training program based on a western school of arms and ROEs renders the GIRoA trainee illegitimate.

Furthermore on what basis do the Taliban justify attacking the VSO militia? What form of village-centric security could be more legitimate than a force of militiamen who are hand-picked by the village elders and actually trained in their village and the surrounding farmland? Is it because SF is actually setting up women and children to be murdered in their sleep? That is certainly the legitimacy angle the Taliban are propagating at the moment.

If the Taliban where essentially targeting ISAF and ANA forces I could see some credibility in their claim to parity in the political/legitimacy equation. Unfortunately this is not the case as their primary tactical weapon will always kill 90% civilians and relatively few ANA and even fewer ISAF.



Tue, 03/13/2012 - 9:14am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I don't think the Taliban are fighting for "legal venues to express their reasonable discontent", I think they're fighting to take back the power that was taken from them... but you know that already.

There are two immediate problems with any effort to strike bargains with "the Taliban". First, they are not a monolithic organization and there's nobody who can speak or negotiate for any more than a portion of the whole. Second, once we leave any deal we make is off: we and they both know that once we're gone, we won't be going back for anything short of a 9/11 scale attack.

Ultimately I think any American effort to impose compromise or dictate the way Afghanistan is governed is going to fail It's not something we should be trying to do in the first place IMO.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 03/13/2012 - 8:00am

In reply to by Dayuhan


I would put a bit of a finer point on that idea. The type of insurgency is the same, but where we delude ourselves is that we can follow the old Colonial guide books on replacing a problematic regime with one we feel will prioritize our interests over those of their own people and be able to make that work in the current era we all live in. Such approaches had really begun to fail by the late 1800s, and are totally inappropriate now. No amount of foreign security, or foreign democracy, or foreign development can overcome the fact that such governments are born of foreign legitimacy. But both are revolutionary insurgencies in nature, arguably not warfare at all and more appropriately seen as illegal political challenges to governments by populaces denied adequate legal venues to express their reasonable discontent.

As to the form of insurgency faced by the foreign intervening power, that is a resistance, which is very much warfare. It is the type of warfare that occurs once the government and military have been defeated and the only aspect of the nation left in the fight are the people. Some people are more willing than others to submit to such foreign intrusions. Certainly the Afghan people have earned a reputation as being on the other end of the spectrum. To make the resistance end the only good answer is for the foreign presence to simply go away.

In Afghanistan we have both, we have a resistance waged against the US for our very presence, and in many ways against elements of the Northern Alliance GIRoA that is also essentially an occupation of regions of Afghanistan that are foreign to them. This is the fight with in Afghanistan that ISAF wages. It is largely a conflict fueled by our very presence, and the only victory is in the defeat or the forced submission of the non-Northern Alliance Afghan populace. The overarching conflict, however, is the revolutionary insurgency of political nature between the Taliban government in exile in Pakistan and the Northern Alliance government in Kabul. That can be resolved through compromise and reconciliation, or by the prevailing of one over the other on their own two feet. When foreign powers tip the scales, as Pakistan and the US do, it creates false results that are typically unacceptable to the losers, so conflict tends to continue on and on.

If asked to place a bet, I would submit that if the US and ISAF left Afghanistan the resistance would begin to fade immediately, and that GIRoA would immediately get very serious about reconciliation. Taliban will sense opportunity and press the revolution for a total victory. The way to prevent that is if the US strikes a bargain with the Taliban in advance to attack them if they attempt to take it all violently, but to support them in any efforts to work legally to take a whole or part. All in exchange for them denying the Taliban sanctuary that is totally theirs to control.

But you are right, our manuals and our strategy do not appreciate the nuance between Revolution and Resistance and tend to lump both as parts of the same, while being unable to appreciate why any people would resist the goodness of our presence.



To me perhaps the greatest cognitive dissonance in our recent insurgency/COIN discourse is the refusal to distinguish between insurgencies threatening pre-existing governments and post-regime change insurgencies that threaten governments we created as part of a regime change effort. Pretending that we are simply assisting a "duly constituted" allied government in Iraq or Afghanistan may be satisfying, but it is not realistic, and it leads us to overlook the considerable extent to which our presence and our attempts to define the pattern of local governance are causes of the insurgency.


My beef is with the idea that we can create single text books for military science.

I am not a fan of higher order doctrines (by higher order, I mean something other than maneuver techniques, small unit procedures, and such).

Why can't we rely on current journal articles (by the way do we have a blind peer review journal on COIN?) and seminal books (Galula, etc.) on the subject? This is the sort of knowledge structure (epistemology) that other professions deliberate on.

Also, I am really becoming intolerant of our propensity to categorize (and sub-, sub-sub-, sub-sub-sub- ...) our military interventions. Why do we have to have common definitions "settled" by the stroke of a pen? Military science is mostly a social science. Social science is constructed much more fluidly...where terms and definitions are NEVER settled. Why should we be so arrogant to think WE can settle on them. The world is better seen (interpreted, made sense of) through the sliding scales of continua than categories anyway.

My two bits!


just a few thoughts on one of your sections:

"On the principle “Insurgents Must be Isolated from Their Cause and Support”: This is not a good principle. Sometimes this is impossible. This black-and-white understanding of people is too simplistic and it might imply a requirement to conduct wholesale cultural change of population groups. Instead maybe note that in some instances, wherein there are easily apparent differences between the insurgents and the rest of the population, it would be preferred to isolate the insurgents. In other instances, it should be noted, this may be impossible, and thus we must admit that and stop wasting our time chasing after an impossible objective."

I think you nailed it here; we (as a military institution) tend to take doctrine and play the "paint-by-numbers" proceduralism game, with each deployment of leaders and staffs building upon the previous work- thus campaigns and plans become cemented within organizational 'self-worth'; and we arrive at a point where fresh perspectives cannot make a dent in the massive jabberwocky of operational plans and products to impact change. If we started out with a plan to isolate insurgents from their cause and support as a primary objective or LOE, virtually every element within our multi-layered military organization now has nested within that logic. What happens when we get it wrong?

As you say, we seem to prefer to chase after an impossible objective rather than re-frame, consider critically what the more effective course is, and change direction. Above all, we refuse to change- and I mean, really change- once we set upon a golden path that has tons of planner-hours and meetings with senior decision-makers established in its lineage. Are we confusing tactical patience with institutional rigidness and an overt fear of intellectual curiosity/critical thinking?

When you look at Afghanistan and this faulty COIN dogma, one must ask, what exactly is the insurgent "cause"? Do the Taliban and AQ share the same one? Are we separating criminal cartels, smugglers, corrupt warlords, Taliban, Pashtunistan separatists, and the motley crew of foreign fighters and isolating each of them from their own unique "causes"? Or do we lump every "bad-guy" into the same vanilla-flavored cause that fits neatly on a PowerPoint slide or paragraph in a BASEORD?

Targeting the cause only works if you really appreciate it; and recognize when you are missing it. Drone strikes and jackpot raids can build up quantifiable metrics against tangible "causes" and "support" if we fool ourselves into believing that we can target these things...but we may just be admiring the wrong problems and missing the bigger phenomenon of “cause” and “support” and what they fundamentally mean within the context of the larger system (dynamic and adaptive).

More shockingly for COIN theory and military applications- what happens when we are confronted by a ‘cause’ that we cannot directly influence with any of our kinetic military systems? I think this is likely the case in Afghanistan today; support is equally an elusive and adaptive phenomenon at work that is not easily controlled, no matter how many Afghans you bribe into the Afghan Peace-through-Reintegration program (another reincarnation of failed DDR and DIAG programs for bribing more Afghans into temporary compliance), or how many schools or hospitals you erect. Killing jackpots does little to impact ‘cause’ and ‘support’ either, especially when the information war is entirely in our rival’s court.
The only point you implied, that I would like to address as well, deals with the perpetual danger of doctrine and closed-thinkers within our military institution. Some folks just want the simple answers, in order, and preferably with a nice graphic.

For all the critical thinking your article raises on where our COIN doctrine should move, I fear that doctrine writers might cast some of your innovations into concrete, thus solidifying for the next generation yet another “paint-by-number” book on COIN; this will not help much either. Instead, should COIN be captured in doctrine, in some new ADP 3-24 format? Or might it follow in the wake of ADP 3-0 and be a mere 30 pages or so? As an institution, we could throw the book out, and leave just the bare structure upon which each organization might grow and harvest their own unique COIN crop that is tailored to the particular threat environment that they will work in…

I look forward to the further comments here at SWJ.


Dave Maxwell

Mon, 03/12/2012 - 6:58am

This should reignite the COIN debate and fan the flames for awhile (and hopefully contribute to the re-write of 3-24). Note his mention of unconventional warfare in his discussion. Lot of food for thought and grist for the mill, e.g., just a couple of excerpts:

"- On the “Center of Gravity” concept: I think the “center of gravity” concept does little to help us- unless you count the value of the analysis and discount the conclusions one draws. This attempt to simplify the complex is a waste of time if we are using it to target a “center” of anything. There is no center in complex systems: thus their complexity and resilience."

"- On the relevance of Mao to today’s insurgencies: Irrelevant. Mao talked of people's wars that had a lot to do with his time and place- post-WWII and post-imperialist systems. A better one to study for the current day, in my opinion, would be the Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire. In other areas and times- Mao might be better. In still other areas it doesn't make sense applying most- if not all- historical examples. In the future we should look at all historical examples, not accept any simple reasons they were acceptable or conventional wisdom about them, and work on being adaptive learners."

I am glad he caveated his comment about Mao because I am loathe to discard any history (and I would have really taken him to task had his first statement in that bullet not been clarified in the later text), though I strongly agree that blindly following some prinicple or looking for a silver bullet or holy grail from history (or doctrine) is counter-productive and has often led us astray.