by Bing West
The 2014 Counterinsurgency Field Manual Requires Pre-Publication Review
A new field manual on counterinsurgency (COIN) is about to be published. The FM states, “Many important decisions are not made by generals.” COIN is conducted by captains, not generals. So why not let the captains decide about the merits of this FM? Ask a dozen company commanders from Afghanistan to respond to the following query:
Rate the 2014 COIN FM on a scale of one to three below:
1. This FM contains overly-optimistic advice and unachievable goals. It leads down the wrong path.
2. The FM is not worth the time it takes to read. It leaves me indifferent. It is a signpost pointing to a dozen different paths.
3. The FM clarifies the principles that must be followed in the next COIN. It must be read and followed by all at battalion level and above. It leads down the correct path.
As currently written, the 2014 FM endorses and enlarges upon the 2006 FM that declared, “Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as warriors.” If doctrine collapses in practice, do not repeat it. We tried COIN as nation-building twice, and twice it failed.
“Write this down,” President George W. Bush said in 2003. “Afghanistan and Iraq will lead that part of the world to democracy. They are going to be the catalyst to change the Middle East and the world.”
After 3,000 civilians were murdered at the Twin Towers, the question was how to destroy Al Qaeda. The answer, enthusiastically endorsed by the US military, was to build two democracies in the Islamic, authoritarian Middle East. That was a non sequitur. Thus the American military hurled itself into host nation governance, economic development and politics, where it had no expertise. Disaster followed.
In Iraq, the US military, after easily destroying the Saddam regime, uttered no protest when an inexperienced American pro-counsel abolished the Sunni-centric Iraqi Army. For the next four years, we waged war against Al Qaeda, disaffected Iraqi officers and Sunni tribes. In 2006, a breakthrough came via the Anbar Awakening. In 2007, Generals Petraeus and Odierno adroitly deployed a surge force courageously ordered by President Bush. The FM claims the Sunni tribes went over to the government side. Abu Risha, however, told me they came over to the strongest tribe – the US military. They remained disdainful and deeply suspicious of the Shiite sectarian government. Nonetheless, civil war was averted. It seemed the COIN FM was confirmed.
However, the COIN FM demanded four tasks (lines of operations/effort) of our units: 1) security; 2) development; 3) establishment of good governance; and 4) rule of law. Security seemed to succeed. Development was a sinkhole. Good governance and rule of law were abject failures. We were batting one for four.
Then, according to Mr. Bush, Petraeus and Odierno agreed with him to pull out all US troops. Thus our commanders were key in making a political decision that threw away success. Maliki, a sectarian tyrant, disenfranchised the Sunnis. The tribes stood aside while Al Qaeda re-seized Fallujah. Today, Iran has more influence in Iraq than does America. The US military did not build the stable democratic nation in Iraq that was the objective of FM 3-24.
In Afghanistan, Karzai was more an opponent than ally. The urban dwellers have voted for a new president in 2014. But democracy in Afghanistan is similar to that in Russia and Pakistan: a kleptocracy where oligarchs divide the profits. Afghanistan is rated as the world’s most corrupt state. Any future president of Afghanistan will share the wealth of America among his cronies.
Hundreds of billions in aid were wasted and stolen. There was no rule of law. There were no Pashtun villagers driving out the Taliban. Because we are not colonialists, we did not fire the people in charge, even when they were corrupt, weak, inept or as antagonistic as Karzai. We did not destroy Al Qaeda, or defeat the Taliban, or create a true democracy. Our basic mistake was handing freedom as a gift and doing the fighting for others.
Our most revered generals enthusiastically embraced the effort to change the Afghan culture. They knew it would take decades to succeed in counterinsurgency defined as nation building. Yet they dribbled in their requests for more manpower and more time. The high command believed that our nineteen year-old soldiers could change the character of Islamic nations. But the Pashtun tribes never came over to our side.
Worse, our high command was unable to decide whether the Taliban were a distraction or a mortal enemy like Al Qaeda. Which was it? Were we in a death struggle with the Taliban? Or were they a legitimate force in Afghan politics, deserving to share in the political power? If so, why were we fighting and dying against them for 13 years? To this day, no US official will answer that basic question. Our military leaders lost their way by trying to do too much. The gains from defining COIIN as nation-building were not worth the costs.
Despite that track record, the 2014 COIN FM repeats the canard that COIN must be nation-building. Yes, the new FM lays out a spectrum of responses, explaining COIN is not a strategy. But it then proceeds to sanctify the four lines of operation/effort cited above. The FM is a model of opacity, offering something for all tastes and employing the subjunctive and conditional tenses of grammar in place of declarative sentences. E.G., “The U.S. could enable a host nation, that may be capable of providing civil control.” Without the conditional “may”, the FM would be three pages in length. Using one hundred words wherever ten suffice, the document bombards the reader with bromides. No tautology is overlooked. E.G., “When the U.S. directly involves itself in a counterinsurgency, stability may be essential.”
“Warfare,” according to the 2014 FM, “remains a clash of interests and will between organized groups characterized by the use of force.” That bowdlerized sentence supports General McChrystal’s philosophy while commanding in Afghanistan: “I wanted to take away any incentives that might drive commanders and their men to see killing insurgents as the primary goal.” We saw how well it worked to convert the Marine Corps into a Peace Corps.
War remains the act of killing until the enemy capitulates. “Military history must never stray from the tragic story of killing,” wrote the eminent historian Victor Davis Hanson. “To speak of war in any other fashion brings with it a sort of immorality. Euphemism in battle narrative or the omission of graphic killing altogether is a near criminal offense of the military historian.”
After five frustrating years, Secretary of Defense Gates concluded in his memoir that the US military should have focused on two objectives: bashing the Taliban and developing the Afghan army. Leave politics and economics to others.
The 2014 FM hurtles down the wrong track. It offers no advice about resolve, cohesion, morale, ferocity, trust and victory. It offers no insights into partnering. If we cannot put our enemies six feet in the ground and infuse that same fierce, implacable, winning spirit into the host nation forces, friendly persuasion and development aid will be seen by our enemies as weakness and fecklessness.
In place of firmness, the 2014 FM endorses our Afghanistan doctrine: War will be won by gaining the support of the population and transitioning a stable situation to dedicated host nation forces and officials, while reintegrating the insurgents who have seen the errors of their ways and convincing neighboring countries to desist from aiding and sheltering the terrorists.
Question: how well did that doctrine work out? How many Islamists came over? How many village militias proved reliable? When did Pakistan cease aiding and sheltering the Taliban?
I was an adviser in Vietnam and a Marine grunt. Later I served as assistant secretary of defense for international security. During the past ten years, I’ve embedded with dozens of platoons on dozens of trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, conducting a hundred patrols. Over those years, I saw a large gap grow between how our grunts fought and what they believed, versus COIN doctrine regurgitated as catechism by the generals.
The fact is the generals did make the decisions, with little input from the grunts who had well-founded doubts about persuading Pashtun tribes to support us as the midwives, let alone to support the mendacious government in Kabul. Communications were distinctly one-way: down. The four-star command in Kabul even sent a tactical directive to all platoon leaders, many of whom had to submit power point briefs before leaving the wire. It is untruthful to claim that COIN as nation-building succeeded in destroying the Islamist terrorist organizations or their safe havens. In the end, we pulled out of Afghanistan – leaving the Taliban intact in the Green Zone and Pakistan as duplicitous as always.
The first objective of any doctrine is: above all, do no harm The COIN FM is harmful because it teaches war as sociology. In a future ground war, the enemy will not wear uniforms and will seek shelter among civilians. Our grunts will be kicked in the teeth if they fight with a naïve doctrine.
We need to pause to rethink. But large bureaucracies rarely halt production. This FM has been on the production line for several years. Like the tape cassette player, it will soon be among us, already obsolete.