Small Wars Journal

Original and Good

Wed, 05/07/2014 - 3:16am

Original and Good: The New US Army and Marine Corps “Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies” Field Manual

John A. Nagl

Not long after arriving at Oxford for graduate studies, I submitted a proposal for my Master’s thesis to a terribly formidable don.  He provided a curt analysis over sherry a few days later:  “Your thesis proposal is both original and good.  Unfortunately, the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.”

He was right—so right that I couldn’t extend my Master’s thesis into a doctoral dissertation a few years later and had to start over from scratch, choosing the then-esoteric field of counterinsurgency.  In the twenty years since that discussion, many, many books have been written on counterinsurgency, and, after a decades-long hiatus, a few field manuals as well.  The Army and Marines have been working for several years to update the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual published on December 15, 2006, and have finally completed their work. 

The new edition, also numbered FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 but now titled Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, is both original and good.  However, unlike my Master’s thesis, the original parts are quite good, incorporating many lessons learned from the last decade of war.  The new manual also keeps much of what made the 2006 edition of Counterinsurgency noteworthy, including the strategic principles beginning with “Legitimacy is the Main Objective” that were a key part of the first chapter of the last version of the manual.  Also carrying over are the paradoxes of counterinsurgency, beginning with “Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be”, although these have moved from the first chapter to the seventh, “Planning and Operational Considerations.”

Carrying over the “Principles” and the “Paradoxes” of counterinsurgency from the 2006 to the 2014 the Manual suggests that the general approaches of the two broadly coincide, and this is in fact the case; like the earlier manual, this one is dedicated to building a host nation government that has the support of the population.  It recognizes that accomplishing that objective requires military forces to do things that are counterintuitive to them—accepting risk themselves in order to minimize the risk to the civilian population that is the ultimate target and prize of the campaign, for instance.  A new chapter on “Culture” acknowledges that to succeed in a counterinsurgency campaign, an intervening government must understand the politics, language, tribal relationships, and economics (among many other factors) that may create fault lines in a society under strain.  Each society is unique; hence the manual’s title, which recognizes that every insurgency is sui generis even as the principles of previous counterinsurgency campaigns can be used to defeat it.

The single biggest change in the new manual is the addition of Chapter 10, “Indirect Methods for Countering Insurgencies”, a tacit admission that the “Clear, Hold, and Build” method recommended in the 2006 edition may be too expensive in lives, time, and treasure for an America chastened by a hard decade and more of counterinsurgency campaigns.  The earlier manual, written as Iraq was plummeting into civil war, focused on the problem at hand; there was no chance that anything but a direct intervention of foreign troops using classic counterinsurgency techniques could mitigate that train wreck.  The new one advocates earlier interventions with smaller footprints, as often as possible using host nation forces to carry most of the burden, whenever that option is available.  This is enormously valuable as a guide to policymakers but perhaps less so to the conventional Army and Marine Corps, as most often it will be Special Operating Forces that will implement future small footprint COIN campaigns. 

To its credit, the new manual recognizes that in future wars there may be no small footprint, indirect options available, and so includes the large footprint “Shape-Clear-Hold-Build-Transition” framework in Chapter 9, “Direct Approaches to Counter an Insurgency.”  That chapter features one of the most complicated diagrams this author has seen in an Army Field Manual, Figure 9.2, “Example of a Possible Transition Framework”.  It replaces the brilliant Peter Chiarelli/Patrick Michaelis diagram that was the cornerstone of the last manual’s Chapter 5, “Conducting Counterinsurgency Operations.” 

The other regrettable omission from the new FM 3-24 is more understandable.  In recognition of the extraordinary breadth of knowledge required to succeed in a counterinsurgency campaign, and the Army and Marine Corps’ historical amnesia on the subject, the 2006 edition of the manual included an annotated bibliography of additional reading on the subject—to this author’s knowledge, the first ever included in a Field Manual.  An updated version that included works like Carter Malkasian’s “War Comes to Garmser” and David Kilcullen’s “Out of the Mountains” would have been a service to the community interested in the subject, but most readers of this review are probably already familiar with these books.  It may also be the case that doctrinal manuals should not be used to advocate particular commercial books, no matter how valuable reading them may be as a tool for preparing military personnel for future wars.

For that is the purpose of doctrine:  to gather best practices from history in order to inform preparations for and conduct of combat operations anywhere on the spectrum, most certainly including counterinsurgency.  After Vietnam, decades passed without the Army and Marines conducting significant thinking about the preparation for and conduct of counterinsurgency operations, leaving an enormous vulnerability which enemies of this nation exploited ruthlessly in the first decade of this century.  Relearning the forgotten lessons of Vietnam and earlier counterinsurgency campaigns demanded a heavy price in blood.  Writing FM 3-24 took about a year; rewriting it required nearly eight additional years of continuous learning and adaptation.  May the next version come more quickly and build on the foundation of these two good, and original, works of military doctrine.

About the Author(s)

John A Nagl is the ninth Headmaster of The Haverford School.  A retired Army officer with service in both Iraq wars, he helped write the 2006 edition of FM 3-24 and is the author of the forthcoming book Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice.



Glen Segell

Thu, 05/08/2014 - 10:26am

A Field Manual should serve one purpose and one purpose only. It is a how-to book for soldiers, to be written at sixth-grade level. Any attempt to serve other purposes or aim at a higher level will find the writer and reader constrained because "there are no good, if any, sources about the future". I commend the authors of both editions for their efforts and insights. Only time will tell if the readers, the soldiers, can apply the Field Manual without the necessity of a Technical Manual to handle nationalism, religious zealots and psychopathic terrorists who are a backbone in insurgent social movements.

J Harlan

Thu, 05/08/2014 - 1:54pm

To sum up the history of rebellion post WW 2. Insurgencies occur as resistance to 1. criminal and criminally bad government and 2. foreign occupation. The cure to the first is much better government and/or heavy coercion.

There is no cure for the second that any western state can and would employ if the insurgents cannot be cut off from outside support and sanctuaries. Public opinion (always a wasting asset) and the law are the limiting factors. If the insurgents can be physically isolated they can be worn down by the security forces. National freedom always trumps individual liberty and political rights so whatever range of improved services an occupier provides will achieve nothing (other than stalemate) as long as foreign troops are highly visible.

The problem for the US in its COIN campaigns has been local nationalism not doctrine. The occupations have driven the resistance compounded by bad local governments. No rewrites of doctrine manuals will change the psychology of an occupied people.


Wed, 05/07/2014 - 12:50pm

I appreciate John Nagl's take, along with all the other discourse here and elsewhere, on the new pubs. There seems to be anticipation that we have captured and understood many "lessons learned". Where there appears to be cause for concern is the framework of historical constructs (older and more recent) rather than recognition or emphasis on how the operating environment and threats are evolving and necessitating a re-reframing of our concepts, constructs, and ideas concerning consequences.

Considering Janis Berzin's just published study of new-generation Russian warfare, current models of a Chinese disruptive strategy, and other recent works, and combining some of this newer thinking about warfare with our current understanding of Transnational/Violent Criminal Organizations and other emergent or evolving gray-area threat actors, suggests a much different Insurgency-Counter Insurgency problem set may be on the horizon.

US military and interagency doctrine and strategy mechanisms have proven themselves handicapped with regards to anticipating, and slow with regards to realizing/acknowledging, change... at least slower than the pace of technological change, cultural and political change, and changes in strategies and tactics adopted by committed adversaries driven by operational necessity. I'm looking forward to reading 3-24 and seeing how it accounts for changes in the future landscape.


Wed, 05/07/2014 - 11:51am

Thanks for taking the time to write this. I have one basic comment. It is not the role of doctrine to advocate policy and I do not think the new FM does that. However, it does acknowledge that the United States has a range of different capabilities that could be integrated to enable a nation to defeat an insurgency at various costs and risks. It is up to the civil leadership and the military to have a dialogue about those various options and to formulate policy and strategy. (See paragraph 1-10 to 1-13 of draft).

"The new one advocates earlier interventions with smaller footprints, as often as possible using host nation forces to carry most of the burden, whenever that option is available. This is enormously valuable as a guide to policymakers."

Unfortunately, policy is driven by politics based not only on the irrational but also erroneous assumptions . . . Although I am not telling anyone anything they don't know, it might be wise to remember what FDR said about Somoza down in Nicaragua during the 1930s: that being that Somoza was a son-of-a-bitch, but adding, "he was our SOB."

Therefore, it stands to reason if doctrine states we should intervene often as possible, our military advice in formulating policy should at least endeavor to ensure whomever we look upon as the legitimate head of a nation where America's national security interests lie, is in fact our SOB.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 05/07/2014 - 4:09pm

In reply to by Sparapet

Sparapet---if you go back and really look at the US Army SF in the 50/60/70s which was configured specifically for UW they had all the elements available internally to run a multi mode counter UW operation which we did on several occasions down to having and running their own psywar operations much as is currently ongoing in the Ukraine.

Multimode including tie into the three letters, the respective country teams and DoS.

Would though say and many would not like this regardless of the Russian governmental structures they are in fact running a whole of government approach.

The reason the BDE staffs are weak has been due to the ops tempo---if they come off it and stabilize officer/NCO assignments back to the 3-4 years in a specific unit then the institutional knowledge skill set builds over the natural life of the staff and proficiency improves. That will take about another 5 yrs due to the RIF turmoil.

It includes also a hefty training cycle for GPF on what SF really does and what UW really is and how to development tactics/operational planning to implement tasked counter UW operations if and when tasked to support.

DATE as the scenario training vehicle is a disaster.


Wed, 05/07/2014 - 3:47pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09


If we place UW on a spectrum of "Range of military operations" it comes in right on the heels of security and a few degrees of intensity short of a full blown insurgency (i.e. rebellion). I agree with you that the GPF is not the place for UW expertise, and by definition, SOF is the proper home. What I don't agree with (or perhaps misunderstand your meaning in) is the idea that GPF have some natural GPF speed limit on how reactive they can be.

While our current staff structure/process and highly technocratic war making habits may in fact impose such a speed limit, the last 13 years have been chiefly about overcoming it. But more to the point, a comprehensive campaign could include UW, CW, or any combination of both. And I think we can agree that SOF is not the proper place from which to run a multi-mode campaign.

I would also like to point out that what the Russians are doing is not a "whole of government" campaign as Americans understand it. What they have is unified command of all elements of government, with this campaign being chiefly run by the Security services (the GRU being the strong lead). The only reason that is possible is because of one (rather despotic) Mr. Putin. We could NEVER even approximate that level of coordination in the US government without the President taking charge. Our nearest analog is a COCOM led multi-agency TF, and even those are royal charlie foxtrots most of the time unless they have umpteen years and generous appropriations to get into gear and find their stride.

The last time I sat in multi-agency negotiations with the Russians (right after Putin got re-elected) what surprised me most was the degree to which a large, multi-agency delegation was able to stay on message for days on end. We are many, many reforms from that level of coordination in the USG. Our only work around our convoluted statutory mess of responsibilities is a very strong President that directs an executive agent or our cute little inter-agency MOU/MOAs, which are basically fair-weather gentlemen's agreements.

Finally, the Russian 5 Phase plan has an implied 6th Phase, conventional operations. It is required because if conventional forces are employed against UW, the UW effort would be in jeopardy. That is why there are 40,000 troops massed on the border. 40,000 wouldn't be enough to occupy even eastern Ukraine, but it would be plenty to crush any Ukranian maneuver elements. The UW campaign is succeeding because 1. the Ukrainians have no counter-UW capability 2. Russian conventional forces are acting as a deterrent to the only thing that could stop SOF, which is GPF.

PS the reason our BDE staffs are weak are tied to the #1 lesson of GWOT, getting the right types of people with the right types of education and temperament to lead our troops. NTC was awesome when all you needed to do was survive a Defense or an Offense. But it never truly figured out how to test the abilities of the staffs and commanders beyond that. That is, the capacity for prosecuting effective campaigns along the entire range of military operations in the Service domain.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 05/07/2014 - 12:56pm

In reply to by Morgan

Morgan---fully agree if one is building common staff processes at that level although most SF Regt's have Command Staffs equal to the job and have worked extensively as well in command positions equal to and higher than BDEs.

My concern is the idea that conventional understands UW especially a UW strategy tied to political warfare and then the development of a counter UW strategy and the carrying out of that counter UW strategy.

Conventional carrying out a counter UW mission set would frankly scare me based on my years of being around BDE staffs.

Why?-- in the Iraq/AFG "COIN" environment many BDEs could get away with minimum changes to the daily routine as things (LOEs) tended to only change over the long haul---in an active counter UW environment one does not have that simple luxury---ie time --we are currently about three weeks into the Ukrainian eastern/southern front problems and see from what position the central government had to start from. They do not have time as it is running out if they are trying to counter the Russian UW strategy--remember the nation employing UW can change both the pace and Phases depending on how the country being attacked is reacting. With the Ukraine there is no counter UW in play--they are simply in survival mode.

And because we nationally do not have a strategic UW concept we are actually reacting as well to events on the ground---and that does not bode well. That is what SWJ writers like David M, Robert J, and Bill M often mention here.

Currently conventional side does not have that capability as they have never trained for it nor deployed in support of a counter UW mission set.

What is in the books one reads never matches the UW reality on the ground and what is now is not five minutes from now---another reason BDE staffs would fail---they simply do not have the speed necessary to match ground developments ie just look at a single days' worth of ground reporting in the Ukraine in an area that is even larger than some BDEs AORs were in Iraq and they struggled with Iraqi sized AORs with simply too few personnel.

If one looks at say Phase Three, four and parts of Phase Five of the Russian New-Generation Warfare which is purely non linear UW ---I currently cannot think of a single conventional BDE that could pull off a counter UW strategy against any of those three Phases.

Actually to counter the Russian UW strategy requires a "whole of government approach" which many in the conventional community the last few years seem to run from when the words were mentioned and or rolled their eyes and ignored--- coupled with SF UW teams on the ground.

The following are the first five Phases from the Russian strategic UW strategy (New-Generation Warfare) which one is seeing actively playing out in the Ukraine.

First Phase: non-military asymmetric warfare (encompassing information, moral, psychological, ideological, diplomatic, and economic measures as part of a plan to establish a favorable political, economic, and military setup).

Second Phase: special operations to mislead political and military leaders by coordinated measures carried out by diplomatic channels, media, and top government and military agencies by leaking false data, orders, directives, and instructions.

Third Phase: intimidation, deceiving, and bribing government and military officers, with the objective of making them abandon their service duties.

Fourth Phase: destabilizing propaganda to increase discontent among the population, boosted by the arrival of Russian bands of militants, escalating subversion.

Fifth Phase: establishment of no-fly zones over the country to be attacked, imposition of blockades, and extensive use of private military companies in close cooperation with armed
opposition units.


Wed, 05/07/2014 - 11:21am

In reply to by Outlaw 09


I was speaking in broad terms, not necessarily addressing the specifics of a non-conventional environment.

Agreed that USASF has the UW background & knowledge, but when building a force made up predominately of illiterates, focusing on the basics (kindergarten level) tends to take precedence over more the complex like COIN, UW/ IW (higher grade level).

Do our officers & NCOs on staffs at BDE/ Div/ Corps understand the minutiae of COIN, UW / IW, CT, etc....unlikely. But do they know how to operate on staffs....yes (even if they don't do it well, it is still better than what other less-developed forces are capable of). They know that certain issues are addressed in certain venues and/ or certain formats, that staff sections are responsible for well-defined areas, that the BDE DCO and BDE Chief of Staff do different jobs and generally focus on different areas. Developing basic staff processes was my point though I did a poor job of articulating it.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 05/07/2014 - 9:57am

In reply to by Morgan

Morgan---Reference your comments below;

"Our SOF seem very well suited to developing "door-kicker" forces and irregular/ guerrilla elements. But I would highly recommend the use of conventional forces, likely organized into small, regionally aligned elements/ teams, to be the ones to focus on training, advising, & developing conventional host-nation forces, particularly their staffs. While not a fun-filled adventure (like the door-kicker thing), conventional forces seem better suited to this......effective staffs make for effective units."

All I can say is how long did it take our BDE and BN Staffs to grasp COIN?--having spent 41 BDE rotations in the desert of Fort Erwin working with them from 2006 to 2010 and again in 2012 I am not so sure I would agree with your comments.

If that were the case then why did we have to retrain every BDE/BN staff over and over prior to each of their deployments---we retained basically because there was no institutional knowledge levels inside each deploying BDE especially on the staff processes--yes individual Staff members had individual knowledge but actual living breathing institutional knowledge as a functioning staff based on being together in previous deployments in COIN was never there.

Now mix in the strategic UW strategy of the Russians currently being used in the Ukraine in support of their political warfare against the Ukraine under their new doctrine called New-Generation Warfare with eight specific phases of which the first five are UW and now the Chinese with their Three Stages of Warfare which is basically all UW focused.

What BDE/Div/Corp Staff pray tell has the inherent UW training and abilities to operate in either of those environments. What past or current BDE/Div/Corp staff has had counter UW deployment experience that would suffice if they were dropped into the middle of the Ukraine or Lativa or Poland and told to conduct a counter UW mission and or training?

Or better yet where is there a joint training center now in place to train conventional forces on the missions of USASF and UW?

Example---what if there is a Ukrainian style unrest started in Estonia that is short of the definition of War as per Article 5 of the NATO charter-what BDE/Div/Corp staff could drop in and conduct counter UW operations against say the first five Phases of the new Russian doctrine that is actually being currently carried out so therefore just not a doctrine?

Why counter UW because if the country is not being physically attacked then Article 5 collective self defense does not kick in and one must then be prepared to execute against at least the first five Phases of the Russian New-Generation Warfare which is UW.

While it is great we have these new manuals coming on line do they really address counter UW against a UW strategy coupled with political warfare that is now actually being seen in first Georgia, then Moldavia, then Crimea and now in the Ukraine and agitations starting in the Baltics.

Do the manuals actually even address counter UW? ----do they stress the development of a counter UW strategy? or even for that matter an in general UW strategy?--no not really.

Really look at the Russian New-Generation Warfare Phases and one sees we have gone in a complete different direction.

Check our DATE scenarios---none of them train against the New-Generation Warfare (Russia) and or the Three Stages of Warfare Strategy (China).

Have we done BDE/Div/Corp COIN deployments to Somalia, Nigeria, Libya, Syria, CAR where COIN might be effective or better yet based on internal US politics and budget constraints will/or could we ever deploy there?

Really look at the fighting now on the ground in eastern Ukraine and ask just how is the new manual addressing what one is actually seeing for reality?

A failing state with two revolutionary populations, military/security forces/police split ethnically or better bribed to ignore everything and stand still, economic collapse on the verge, civilians wrapped in multiple different uniforms, armed irregulars/reservists on the ground, outsiders from across the border mixing in, special forces/ministry of interior special troops and intelligence officers on the ground, nationalism rising it's head, massive corruption and bribery, lack of functioning state institutions and on and on---where in DATE exercises is all of that reflected in a single exercise?--nowhere.

Actually we saw some of this in Iraq which we ourselves caused and it took how many thousands of troops and we still really did not calm it down as it was the Awakening that reined in AQI not some US doctrine and now in Iraq even the doctrine has failed totally.

DATE was to take us into the 21st century as what we envisioned the world would be like based on 13 years of COIN experiences---nothing like the Ukraine was ever envisioned nor the Russian/Chinese reliance now on strategic UW tied to political warfare.

By the way there is only one US Army organization that has the UW training and historical background to conduct counter UW and that is the USASF and no conventional unit can claim that regardless of lesson learned at staff levels in Iraq and AFG.

To me this is a simple argument to get a mission set to keep BDEs busy in a non war environment as we are now in---it is all about the funds for the coming years---not really about what we are now seeing in the 21st century which is definitely not COIN.

J. Nagl says, "The new one advocates earlier interventions with smaller footprints, as often as possible using host nation forces to carry most of the burden, whenever that option is available. This is enormously valuable as a guide to policymakers but perhaps less so to the conventional Army and Marine Corps, as most often it will be Special Operating Forces that will implement future small footprint COIN campaigns."

I hope that future small-footprint approaches include the regular use of conventional forces organized for such duty. During the last year plus, I've had ample opportunity to observe US special operations forces (SOF), both active and retired types, build a host-nation SOF organization including schoolhouse and operational forces. I've been surprised by the general tendency of our SOF to do things themselves in order to ensure the host-nation force "doesn't fail" or, equally often, because the host-nation force takes too long. Additionally, among our SOF is an apparent lack of familiarity with staff processes which highlights itself when our SOF are tasked with developing host-nation staffs (battalion, brigade, and higher).

Our SOF seem very well suited to developing "door-kicker" forces and irregular/ guerrilla elements. But I would highly recommend the use of conventional forces, likely organized into small, regionally aligned elements/ teams, to be the ones to focus on training, advising, & developing conventional host-nation forces, particularly their staffs. While not a fun-filled adventure (like the door-kicker thing), conventional forces seem better suited to this......effective staffs make for effective units.