Small Wars Journal

Peace, Love, COIN? (Updated Links)

Wed, 12/12/2007 - 4:00pm

The December '07 issue of Armed Forces Journal contains two commentary pieces that are harbingers of a debate brewing "inside and outside the beltway" concerning Counterinsurgency (COIN) / Irregular Warfare (IW) operations "after Iraq." While the two AFJ articles focus on Army and Marine Corps COIN doctrine approved last December and its execution in Iraq, the issues the authors raise will most certainly carryover into a larger debate that will shape our National Security Strategy and military capabilities for decades to come.

The first article, Dishonest Doctrine by Ralph Peters, accuses the Army and Marine Corps of selective use of history in writing FM 3-24 / MCWP 3-33.5 Counterinsurgency. Arguably the most damning of Peters' claims is his accusation that the primary authors took an "academic approach" -- formulating conclusions up-front in the writing process and conducting biased research in search of historical examples that supported those conclusions.

The troubling aspect of all this for the Army's intellectual integrity comes from the neo-Stalinist approach to history a number of the manual's authors internalized during their pursuit of doctorates on "the best" American campuses. Instead of seeking to analyze the requirements of counterinsurgency warfare rigorously before proceeding to draw impartial conclusions based on a broad array of historical evidence, they took the academic's path of first setting up their thesis, then citing only examples that supported it.

The troubling aspect of Peters' claim is his questioning the intellectual and personal integrity of the primary authors. As someone who has professional and personal relationships with many of those authors I can only write that off as an unfortunate by-product of Peters' in-your-face adversarial and controversy-driven writing style. That said, it does anger me that he took such an over-the-top and deceitful approach.

What Peters neglects to mention is the true primary authors were Army General David Petraeus and Marine Generals James Amos and James Mattis. He makes scant reference to Petraeus "signing off" on the doctrine, leaving an impression that FM 3-24 was just another in a long line of documents that briefly cross a general's desk in need of the official rubber stamp. This is seriously misleading as all three generals took keen personal interest in the production of FM 3-24 - offering up time and resources to see the process through. Petraeus and Mattis in particular, as commanders who led ground units in a COIN environment in Iraq and as serious students of the art of war, placed high priority in filling a doctrinal gap and "getting it right".

While not a contributing author to FM 3-24, I am well aware of the great pains both the Army and the Marine Corps took to be inclusive in taking all comers during the writing process -- hardly a month went by when a draft copy of the FM or a request for information did not arrive in my (and many, many others') "day-job" e-mail inbox soliciting critical comment. It's hard to imagine that anyone; military, government or otherwise; who had a vested interest and desire to contribute to this doctrine was not given an opportunity to participate.

But I'll defer to the insights of someone who was a primary contributor -- Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl in his SWJ post The Evolution and Importance of Army/Marine Corps Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency.

... To take lead on perhaps the most important driver of intellectual change for the Army and Marine Corps—a complete rewrite of the interim Counterinsurgency Field Manual—Petraeus turned to his West Point classmate Conrad Crane. Crane, a retired lieutenant colonel with a doctorate in history from Stanford University, called on the expertise of both academics and Army and Marine Corps veterans of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq...

The tight timeline was driven by an unprecedented vetting session of the draft manual held at Leavenworth in mid-February 2006. This conference, which brought together journalists, human rights advocates, academics, and practitioners of counterinsurgency, thoroughly revised the manual and dramatically improved it. Some military officers questioned the utility of the representatives from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's) and the media, but they proved to be the most insightful of commentators. James Fallows, of the Atlantic Monthly, commented at the end of the conference that he had never seen such an open transfer of ideas in any institution, and stated that the nation would be better for more such exchanges.

Then began a summer of revisions that bled over into a fall of revisions as nearly every word in the manual was argued over by the military, by academics, by politicians, and by the press, which pounced upon a leaked early draft that was posted on the Internet. The final version was sharper than the initial draft, finding a balance between the discriminate targeting of irreconcilable insurgents and the persuasion of less committed enemies to give up the fight with the political, economic, and informational elements of power. It benefited greatly from the revisions of far too many dedicated public servants to cite here, most of whom took on the task after duty hours out of a desire to help the Army and Marine Corps adapt to the pressing demands of waging counterinsurgency more effectively. Among them was Lieutenant General James Amos, who picked up the torch of leading change for the Marine Corps when Mattis left Quantico to take command of the I Marine Expeditionary Force...

But I surmise that some of Peters' annoyance comes from the fact that non-military professionals, in concert with their military counterparts, had a hand in the production of FM 3-24 as he takes exception to the doctrine's use of the General Chang Ting-chen 20 / 80 percent quotation.

To wit, the most over-cited bit of nonsense from the manual is the claim that counterinsurgency warfare is only 20 percent military and 80 percent political.

Anyone looking objectively at the situation in Iraq could hardly claim that it's only 20 percent military and 80 percent diplomatic. Even the State Department doesn't really believe that one — or they would've kept a tighter leash on their private security contractors.

Wishful thinking doesn't defeat insurgencies. Without the will to establish and maintain security for the population, nothing else works.

Peters misses the mark here by misrepresenting FM 3-24's intent of presenting the 20 / 80 "rule of thumb" as a metaphoric means of conveying that political factors are primary during COIN.

General Chang Ting-chen of Mao Zedong's central committee once stated that revolutionary war was 80 percent political action and only 20 percent military. Such an assertion is arguable and certainly depends on the insurgency's stage of development; it does, however, capture the fact that political factors have primacy in COIN. At the beginning of a COIN operation, military actions may appear predominant as security forces conduct operations to secure the populace and kill or capture insurgents; however, political objectives must guide the military's approach. Commanders must, for example, consider how operations contribute to strengthening the HN government's legitimacy and achieving U.S. political goals.

This means that political and diplomatic leaders must actively participate throughout the conduct (planning, preparation, execution, and assessment) of COIN operations. The political and military aspects of insurgencies are so bound together as to be inseparable. Most insurgent approaches recognize that fact.

Military actions executed without properly assessing their political effects at best result in reduced effectiveness and at worst are counterproductive. Resolving most insurgencies requires a political solution; it is thus imperative that counterinsurgent actions do not hinder achieving that political solution.

While using the current situation in Iraq as an example Peters conveniently neglects to acknowledge (or does not believe) that we paid dearly for not implementing a strategy of political primacy early in the execution of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Instead, we had a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) responsible for the non-military elements of national power. The CPA and its Chief Executive L. Paul Bremer were a disaster -- inexperienced and political ideologues in critical jobs, disbanding the Iraqi Army, "de-Ba'athification" and the hate-hate relationship between the CPA and the military's Combined Joint Task Force 7 (later Multi-National Force-Iraq) are but a few examples of what can be called a classic case study in how to create and fuel an insurgency due to political neglect.

Peters' is also off the mark in implying the Department of State does not believe political factors are primary during COIN. That is simply not true - Peters' ignores the efforts by State and other non-military government departments and agencies to correct their budget, manpower, organizational, doctrinal and other shortfalls that preclude their fulfilling the political requirements of COIN. Moreover, he wrongly equates all political solutions as residing with non-military organizations. Dr. David Kilcullen (until recently the senior COIN adviser to General Petraeus) pointed out in a September COIN seminar that this equation is misleading as many of the military's roles and missions as well as a large proportion of military spending are invested in political related programs and efforts and are in support of political objectives.

Turning to COIN doctrine and its practice in Iraq, Peters implies that General Petraeus set aside FM 3-24 due to its irrelevance in the "real world" and concentrated on the "missing" kinetic-centric enemy-focused approach to counterinsurgency.

Entrusted with the mission of turning Iraq around, Petraeus turned out to be a marvelously focused and methodical killer, able to set aside the dysfunctional aspects of the doctrine he had signed off on. Given the responsibility of command, he recognized that, when all the frills are stripped away, counterinsurgency warfare is about killing those who need killing, helping those who need help — and knowing the difference between the two (we spent our first four years in Iraq striking out on all three counts). Although Petraeus has, indeed, concentrated many assets on helping those who need help, he grasped that, without providing durable security — which requires killing those who need killing — none of the reconstruction or reconciliation was going to stick. On the ground, Petraeus has supplied the missing kinetic half of the manual.

By focusing solely on Iraq and implying the doctrine was written with only Iraq in mind, Peters misses the bottom-line purpose of FM 3-24 and the leeway it affords commanders and leaders on the ground.

Doctrine by definition is broad in scope and involves principles, tactics, techniques, and procedures applicable worldwide. Thus, this publication is not focused on any region or country and is not intended to be a standalone reference. Users should assess information from other sources to help them decide how to apply the doctrine in this publication to the specific circumstances facing them.

Peters is himself guilty of selective citing in his focus on the non-kinetic / non-security related aspects of COIN best practices while omitting mention of the holistic approach FM 3-24 presents -- to include use of force. Nor does he adequately acknowledge the complexities and unique nature of the COIN environment that dictate constant evaluation and adjustment of tactics, techniques and procedures -- sometimes day to day and block to block. Examples from the Foreword and Chapter One include:

Foreword: A counterinsurgency campaign is, as described in this manual, a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations conducted along multiple lines of operations. It requires Soldiers and Marines to employ a mix of familiar combat tasks and skills more often associated with nonmilitary agencies.

The balance between them depends on the local situation. Achieving this balance is not easy. It requires leaders at all levels to adjust their approach constantly. They must ensure that their Soldiers and Marines are ready to be greeted with either a handshake or a hand grenade...

Chapter One, 1-131: The cornerstone of any COIN effort is establishing security for the civilian populace.

Chapter One, 1-141: Any use of force generates a series of reactions. There may be times when an overwhelming effort is necessary to destroy or intimidate an opponent and reassure the populace. Extremist insurgent combatants often have to be killed. In any case, however, counterinsurgents should calculate carefully the type and amount of force to be applied and who wields it for any operation. An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of fifty more insurgents.

Chapter One, 1-142: In a COIN environment, it is vital for commanders to adopt appropriate and measured levels of force and apply that force precisely so that it accomplishes the mission without causing unnecessary loss of life or suffering. Normally, counterinsurgents can use escalation of force/force continuum procedures to minimize potential loss of life.

Chapter One, 1-148: The principles and imperatives discussed above reveal that COIN presents a complex and often unfamiliar set of missions and considerations. In many ways, the conduct of COIN is counterintuitive to the traditional U.S. view of war—although COIN operations have actually formed a substantial part of the U.S. military experience. Some representative paradoxes of COIN are presented here as examples of the different mindset required. These paradoxes are offered to stimulate thinking, not to limit it. The applicability of the thoughts behind the paradoxes depends on a sense of the local situation and, in particular, the state of the insurgency. For example, the admonition "Sometimes, the More Force Used, the Less Effective It Is" does not apply when the enemy is "coming over the barricades"; however, that thought is applicable when increased security is achieved in an area. In short, these paradoxes should not be reduced to a checklist; rather, they should be used with considerable thought.

Chapter One, 1-49: Ultimate success in COIN is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations must be conducted, risk shared with the populace, and contact maintained.

Chapter One, 1-50: Any use of force produces many effects, not all of which can be foreseen. The more force applied, the greater the chance of collateral damage and mistakes. Using substantial force also increases the opportunity for insurgent propaganda to portray lethal military activities as brutal. In contrast, using force precisely and discriminately strengthens the rule of law that needs to be established. As noted above, the key for counterinsurgents is knowing when more force is needed—and when it might be counterproductive. This judgment involves constant assessment of the security situation and a sense of timing regarding insurgents' actions.

Apparently, the use of military force as part of the larger COIN effort was not good enough for Peters as he zeroed in on a COIN case study he believes was unfairly neglected in FM 3-24.

The manual's worth revisiting a bit longer to underscore the dishonesty of the selective use of history. Citing a narrow range of past insurgencies — all ideological, all comparatively recent — the authors carefully ignored parallel or earlier examples that would've undercut their position. For example, the British experience in Malaya is cited ad nauseum (although it's portrayed as far less bloody than it was in fact), but the same decade saw a very different and even more successful British campaign against the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya. After realizing (a bit ploddingly) that the Mau Mau could not be controlled by colonial police forces, the British took a tough-minded three-track approach: concentration camps for more than 100,000 Kenyans; hanging courts that sent more than 1,000 Mau Mau activists and sympathizers to the gallows; and relentless military pursuits that tracked down the hardcore insurgents and killed them. It worked. A few years later, British rule ended in Kenya — but only because Britain had decided to give up its empire. And the thousands of British citizens who remained behind in Kenya weren't massacred.

However, citing the British experience in Kenya wouldn't have been politically correct — no matter that it worked after gentler methods had failed. The COIN manual's authors weren't concerned with winning but with defending their dissertations.

Say again? Not advocating concentration camps and hanging courts is somehow politically correct? How about American core values correct? Sure, I'll concede that such a strategy and its accompanying tactics might provide some short-lived battlefield success but I submit that the temporary tactical success such a strategy might provide would succumb eventually to strategic defeat of epic proportion. Dr. Steven Metz sums up the dilemma of sure-win vs. reality-based COIN doctrine on a Small Wars Council thread concerning Peters' article.

As always, I'm green with envy over Ralph's way with words. But this hasn't shifted me from my long held position: in the broadest sense, there are two approaches to counterinsurgency. Treat it like war and either kill or cow those who oppose you (call it the "Roman" method). Or try and minimize the extent to which it is like war, stress the political and economic, and try and win support thereby undercutting the insurgency (call this the "British" method).

My feeling is that history suggests that the Roman method is more effective. The British method takes much longer and has a lower probability of success. But American strategic culture has simply taken the Roman method off the table for us. Where, I think, Ralph and I diverge is that I don't believe that even the most articulate national leadership can sell the American public on it. The British were able to deviate from their own method--South Africa and, to some degree, Kenya--specifically because their public was not as engaged in the course of colonial wars as our public is in small wars. American strategic culture may be a terrible impediment, but we cannot wish it away. So we're left with the British method even given all of its complications and shortcomings.

In summation, FM 3-24 was intended to compliment, not replace, existing U.S. doctrine such as FM 3-0 Operations. In the same SWC thread as the Metz post, Lieutenant Colonel Gian Gentile sounds a cautionary note.

We don't need an alternative for COIN doctrine because the new FM 3-24 as I stated up front in my "Eating Soup with a Spoon" [AFJ, Sept. 2007] piece is excellent doctrinal writing. As counterinsurgency doctrine it has its place. But the point I have been trying to make is that now its place in the Army is that it has become our FM 3-0, operational doctrine. And it has come to this without serious question or thought, which is why I have been making thread postings like this one. The American Army needs to acknowledge that we have become a counterinsurgency only force, and then we need to seriously debate this issue and where it is taking us in the future.

Point well taken and maybe something I missed the boat on because in my mind FM 3-24 is a doctrinal publication that addresses pressing needs not met elsewhere. Ensuring FM 3-24 "stays in its doctrinal lane" is a leadership, education and training problem; not a deficiency in the doctrine or its intent. Moreover, Counterinsurgency should be viewed as a guide on how to think about and not what to think concerning COIN. The FM is up-front in stating that its intent is to provide guidelines not addressed elsewhere and encourages users to assess information from other sources in deciding how to apply COIN doctrine to specific circumstances. In short, the FM enjoins and encourages COIN students and practitioners to be constantly learning, flexible and adaptive -- accepting nothing at face-value in a dynamic and difficult environment.

The second AFJ article, The Dogmas of War: A Rigid Counterinsurgency Doctrine Obscures Iraq's Realities by Lieutenant Colonel Gian Gentile, will be addressed in a follow-on SWJ posting.


Uses of History in the Debate Over COIN - ZenPundit

Ave Caesar! - Defense and the National Interest

Why We Hate the New Counterinsurgency Manual - War Historian

Thoughts on the Counterinsurgency Campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan - The Captain's Journal

Discuss at Small Wars Council