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“Counterinsurgency is Not a Substitute for Strategy”

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“Counterinsurgency is Not a Substitute for Strategy”

(para 1-4, page 1-2 FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5)

David S. Maxwell

This quote alone justifies the publication of the new FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5.  And the new title is worth noting as well – “Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies.”  The title recognizes and illustrates what scholars and practitioners alike should know – insurgency is not monolithic or single scope.  There is a broad range of insurgencies 9and revolutions) and it can be said with near certainty that no two are the same.

Overall I think this version is a vast improvement over the 2006 edition and I think it will be more useful at the tactical and operational level.  Before I get into my criticisms I will say that although it is stated many times throughout the manual that the US forces should be in support of (or work with as Chapter 11 says) host nation forces I believe that the culture of the US military remains hard pressed to let go of the reins of control nor has the patience to allow another government and its security forces to be in the lead when countering insurgencies in their countries.  Despite the multiple admonitions and direction in the manual (including the figure 11-1,  “Host Nation Security Force Meter” which shows US forces in the lead as ineffective and host nation forces in the lead as effective after they have been taught, coached, and advised by the US military) many military planners may still gravitate to leading counterinsurgency operations with US forces. 

I will also state my bias and provide a caveat up front.  I am approaching this review from a perspective based on my personal experience as a Special Forces soldier and basing it on the short time to read and study this nearly 200 page document (197 page in PDF format). 

There are two aspects of the new manual that are particularly noteworthy.  The first is the emphasis on the importance of assessment, continuous assessment and reassessment.  Not only are these critically important concepts discussed in great detail in Chapter 7 “Planning and Operational Considerations” and other chapters as well, there is a complete chapter (12) dedicated to a discussion of assessments.  There is probably no more supporting concept and capability for countering insurgencies than being able to conduct thorough and continuous assessments to gain situational understanding (vice only awareness).  As a first aside, I would note that there is some very good doctrine in the Special Forces community for conducting both area studies and area assessments and there are excellent examples of their use both in Haiti in the 1990’s and in the Philippines, post 9-11.  A similar template using guided questions was used in both operations to gather information to really learn about and understand the local conditions from security to politics to the economy.  I would have included an example of this sixty-plus question template as well as other tactical examples that have been developed over the years in an annex.  That would have really put the fine point on the importance of assessments and provide something of immediate practical value to tactical units. 

The second noteworthy addition to this manual is the discussion of conventional and special operations forces synchronization.  There is a useful discussion in Chapter 6, “Command and Control and Mission Command” and it notes that “the integration of conventional force and SOF have special considerations in counterinsurgency” as they depend on each other.  This is a lesson learned from Afghanistan and Iraq and from a special operations perspective also illustrates the 5th SOF Truth: “most special operations require non-SOF support.”   Another interesting side note is that in the reference list there is a new manual with which I am unfamiliar but I think should be read in conjunction with this one: FM 6-05/MCWP 3-36.1. CF-SOF Multi-Service Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Conventional Forces and Special Operations Forces Integration, Interoperability, and Interdependence. 13 March 2014. 

While these are two important parts of the new manual there is another aspect that requires some discussion.  The first is that Chapters 10 and 11, “Indirect Methods for Counter Insurgencies” and “Working with Host Nation Forces” does not emphasize the idea or possibility that some US operations to support a host nation in countering an insurgency might be appropriately led by US SOF.  In some situations it may be more appropriate to conduct the mission using the doctrine of Foreign Internal Defense (FID) as the proper way to frame the relationship between US Forces in a supporting role and the host nation forces in the supported role.

However, FID is not mentioned until briefly in Chapter 10, along with Security Force Assistance (a post 9-11 doctrinal development), and then only in terms of security assistance planning training host nation forces.  Passing references are made to two current and ongoing FID missions, namely Colombia and the Philippines (page 11-10, para., 11-34 and page 11-11, para., 11-36).  US SOF and other forces are conducting FID to assist the host nation government and its forces to the insurgency that threatens it.  As an aside from a historical perspective I would have recommended returning to the 1963 FM 31-22 US Army Counterinsurgency Forces (access here) which not only provides a framework and force structure for SOF led operations, it also provides many still relevant operational concepts that could have been considered for inclusion in this manual. 

As we consider historical examples, the Laotian insurgency is also mentioned in passing with an historical vignette on pages 1-3 and 1-4.  It failed to mention that the United States conducted a CIA and Special Forces led operation called White Star in Laos. (short summary here) This is another example of a historical SOF-led FID mission.

Another historical vignette used in the manual is the Huk Rebellion in the Philippines, in this case to illustrate the new framework of “shape-clear-hold-build-transition.” (Chapter 9).  This is also another example of a very limited US footprint and commitment to support the host nation government and security forces and one that was also conducted in effect by a SOF officer, Maj Gen Edward Lansdale who was a member of the OSS in WWII and later the CIA.  Three other historical vignettes of very small footprint indirect operations were Sri Lanka, Peru, and El Salvador but they are not described in terms of FID or the effective use of SOF to advise and assist host nation forces to counter insurgencies.  The problem that I see is that the manual only recognizes FID as part of security cooperation and then only in the function of training host nation forces despite the definition of FID which is  “Participation by civilian and military agencies of a government in any of the action programs taken by another government or other designated organization to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, terrorism, and other threats to its security.”  This is the most comprehensive US (military and interagency) mission to help a US friends, partners, and allies to counter insurgencies (as well as threats from subversion, lawless, and terrorism). FID provides the framework for the indirect approaches yet Chapter 10 fails to mention it.

In my opinion the main effort focus of the manual should be on the indirect methods and the support to host nation forces (as opposed to working with host nation forces – a perhaps subtle distinction – support to ensures host nation primacy, working with can be interpreted as US lead).  This would be in keeping with Defense Strategic Guidance, January 2012 that is not referenced in the manual. (access here)

Conduct Stability and Counterinsurgency Operations. In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will emphasize non-military means and military-to-military cooperation to address instability and reduce the demand for significant U.S. force commitments to stability operations. U.S. forces will nevertheless be ready to conduct limited counterinsurgency and other stability operations if required, operating alongside coalition forces wherever possible. Accordingly, U.S. forces will retain and continue to refine the lessons learned, expertise, and specialized capabilities that have been developed over the past ten years of counterinsurgency and stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations. (emphasis added)

The initial chapter makes it very clear that the Army and Marine Corps’ role in counterinsurgency is to enable the host nation.  However, as mentioned at the beginning of this review US military culture will always drive us to the desire to lead and it is hard for the US military mind to envision being a supporting effort to friends, partners, or allies.  Again, although the manual emphasizes the importance of indirect methods and the host nation there are subtle messages that can be read throughout by a mind pre-disposed to lead that will cause him or her to focus on the direct approaches.  The most obvious of the subtle messages is that the chapter “Direct Approaches to Counter an Insurgency” comes before “Indirect Methods for Countering Insurgencies” and “Working with Host Nation Forces.”  I would have recommended a reverse order if only to send the message that the direct approaches are a last resort or used in extreme situations where no host nation forces exist (though in a post-conflict situation after major combat operations the proper execution of stability operations in support of the remnants of the host nation government might well prevent an insurgency – an insurgency does not have to result from defeat in major combat operations – though it is likely in a place such as north Korea).   But even if that were changed there is simply too much discussion and too many examples of the US as the lead nation throughout the entire manual.

Planning is of course discussed in detail in Chapter 7, Planning and Operational Considerations.” but interestingly the new methodolgy of “shape-clear-hold-build- transition” is introduced and described in Chapter 9, “Direct Approaches to Counter an Insurgency.”  This appears to be the fundamental planning construct as the US method for countering an insurgency.  The relatively old (2006) but very well known “clear-hold-build” has been updated and since it is now associated with the direct approaches this is bound to reinforce, at least in the subconscious, that the direct approach is the preferred method of countering an insurgency by US forces.

I think there is a disconnect in the manual in that the joint planning model is only discussed in Chapter 11 and, like FID, is only discussed in the context of security assistance.  Although I did not find this stated since the joint planning model is only described in one context it appears that the authors do not think it is applicable for countering insurgencies using the direct or indirect methods but is used only in terms of security cooperation and war planning.  While I applaud the apparently subtle and unstated break from the rigid joint planning model I do think that replacing it with another rigid construct is not helpful.  Also at the risk of distracting from this analysis I believe that the use of “Phase Zero” and “shape” is also problematic because both imply what comes next for US forces, e.g. phases 1 through 5.  If an effective stand alone campaign can be developed for support to friends, partners and allies in the space the that joint campaign model calls Phase Zero, execution of a subsequent campaign plan with US decisive operations might be avoided.  But that will have to be for another discussion.

As noted the emphasis on assessments is important and welcomed.  Assessments must inform planning and a thorough understanding of the conditions may lead to courses of action that do not fit into the rigid construct of either the joint planning model (again with the manual only discusses in terms of security cooperation) or the new “shape-clear-hold-build-transition” in the direct approaches to countering insurgency.  The manual also discusses the importance of operational design (Chapter 7, pages 7-4 and 7-5) and the employment of design may also indicate that other phasing models may be more appropriate.  The point is that planners should not be locked into rigid phasing models by either joint doctrine or counterinsurgency doctrine.  And for another aside I would argue that this sentence on operational design misses a key point:

“Design is the conception and articulation of a framework for solving a problem, and it is critical to conceptual planning.” (page 7-4) (emphasis added)

The importance of design is that it first provides the framework for understanding a problem which must be done before a solution can developed (and even more important is the determination of whether the problem has a solution at all – a situation that is especially hard for military planners to grasp because in American military culture there is the belief that there is a solution to every problem).

The term advising is used throughout the manual and but there is only a single paragraph dedicated to it (para 11-26) and then it refers the reader to FM -22, Army Support to Security Cooperation.  Advising is a critical skill in supporting host nation forces in countering insurgencies.  I would have expected greater emphasis on this.  The report  Decade of War, Vol I, Enduring Lessons from the Past Decade of Operations 15 June 2012 (access here) emphasized the importance of advising and recommended the re-establishment of the Military Assistance and Training Advisory (MATA) course (page 34).  Although not appropriate for mention in the manual I would strongly recommend that this course be re-established at the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School to educate and train future advisors from both special operations and conventional forces.

Lastly, Part Two “Insurgencies” (Chapters 4 and 5) provides a basic overview of insurgencies and characteristics.  As part of the eight dynamics of an insurgency (para 4-48) as well as the only center of gravity discussion in the entire manual (para 7-20) I would have mentioned Clausewitz’ view on this: “In a national insurrection the center of gravity to be destroyed lies in the person of the chief leader and in public opinion; against these points the blow must be directed.” This certainly applies directly to three of the eight dynamics: leadership, ideology, and internal support.

While the chapters on insurgencies provide useful overviews they illustrate one important omission from the manual.  In general the references are slim and insurgencies and countering insurgencies is, like all warfare, a highly intellectual endeavor.  I would have expected a more thorough and comprehensive reference list. Two and a half pages of mostly government and military publications hardly provides the intellectual foundation that today’s soldiers and Marines long for to help their professional development and further their understanding of this type of warfare.  There is one solution based on past history and current work.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s the Special Operations Research Organization (SORO) conducted rigorous academic research producing a number of important publications that have stood the test of time for assessing revolutions and insurgencies, and human factors in undergrounds and insurgencies among others.  Today the US Army Special Operations Command and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory have partnered to update these studies and provide a relevant and useful reference source for Assessing Revolutions and Insurgent Strategies also known as the ARIS Project.  Below is a list of the current references.  All can be accessed here or directly on the titles below:

Casebook on Insurgency and Revolutionary Warfare, Vol 1, 1933-1962

Casebook on Insurgency and Revolutionary Warfare, Volume II 1962 - 2009.

Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies, 2d Edition, 2013

Undergrounds in Insurgent, Revolutionary, and Resistance Warfare, 2d Edition, 2013

Irregular Warfare Annotated Bibliography  (Alternate link here)

These publications provide the intellectual foundation for the study of insurgencies and I would say that no one can become a practitioner of counterinsurgency, irregular warfare, or unconventional warfare without thorough study of these publications and synthesizing and internalizing the lessons and knowledge they contain.  The title of the ARIS project is most important because even though this manual of “Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies” is focused at the tactical and operational level, all practitioners at every level need to understand the strategy of revolutions and insurgencies.  As Sun Tzu said in Chapter 3 of the The Art of War “what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy.”  Insurgencies and countering insurgencies are surely an important form of warfare and therefore attacking the enemy’s strategy is the best path to success.

Again, as I began, I think this new manual is a vast improvement over the 2006 edition.  I have outlined a critique based on my SOF perspective.  My major criticism is that I fear that US military planners will still gravitate to the US lead in countering insurgencies. I think a US lead is the exception rather than the rule.  Despite the many references to the US military in a supporting role in the manual leaders and planners must emphasize this.  The emphasis on assessment, continuous assessment, and reassessment is critically important.  The discussion of special operations forces and conventional forces synchronization and integration is important and based on experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But there is not sufficient discussion of the appropriateness of SOF being in the lead in some situations despite the fact that nearly half of the historical vignettes and references are operations in the form of Foreign Internal Defense led by SOF elements or SOF predecessors (e.g., Lansdale in the Huk rebellion). 

I will conclude with this praise and a warning.  I am heartened to read that “counterinsurgency is not a substitute for strategy.”  I think the focus within the manual on the tactical and the operational is important and correct.  However, to be effective tactically and operationally we must understand and be able to attack the enemy’ strategy.  Or more correctly stated, we must be able to advise and assist our friends, partners, and allies to understand and attack their enemies’ insurgent and revolutionary strategies.

About the Author(s)

David S. Maxwell is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Previously he was the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University.  He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the National War College.  He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense University.


Dave. Thanks for the great critique! Its good to see that we still have acknowledgment that we must counter an adversary's strategy with a strategy and that countering insurgencies, when they arise and the Nation wishes to counter that insurgency, it should devise a strategy to do so. I think one of the reasons why US does not do will at countering insurgencies is b/c of a prevailing dogma/thought amongst academics and military thinkers that countering an insurgency is not a strategy. To not do so, drives us to arriving at a strategy through tactics--and we know where that leads.

Bill M.

Fri, 05/09/2014 - 5:41am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

It is both entertaining and alarming that that after 10 plus years of failure we are still slapping ourselves on the back as though we won and our COIN doctrine works. I think Putin and China were both right when they recently commented that the U.S. was clinging to a legacy doctrine for wars that will no longer be fought the way we think they will be fought. That wasn't directed at our COIN doctrine specifically, but our overall assumptions about how we view war in general.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 05/09/2014 - 2:13am

What is interesting is while the military attempts to hold to what the alleged lessons learned were especially from Iraq now the world is faced with the collapse of the Iraqi Army---an US Army mentored, equipped and taught in the image of the US military---it is no longer about a COIN or no COIN alleged success in Iraq--it has become now a slug fest using modern heavy weapons in a shoot and move war which resembles modern warfare between two third world countries.

So when all is said and done why does the military hold fest to so called lessons learned via doctrine when in fact the lessons learned indicates that COIN failed.

Again the new COIN manual does not clearly state and repeatedly state --one does not engage unless there is a national strategy which was not apparent in both Iraq and AFG.

The following link is an eye opener for the current fighting in the Sunni triangle.…

Outlaw 09

Tue, 05/06/2014 - 3:09pm

While it is great that the US Army now has a follow on manual for insurgency/counter insurgency what manual and or strategy addresses the new Russian doctrine referred to as the New Generation Warfare as it is being currently practiced in the Ukraine or the new Chinese Three Warfares Strategy ("legal warfare", "media warfare" and "psychological warfare") which is similar in some ways to the new Russian doctrine.

Link for the Russian New Generation Warfare.

Bill M.

Sun, 06/29/2014 - 4:20am

In reply to by Bwilliams

I'm not aware of a cookie cutter approach for conducting FID? However, if big Army gets ahold of it I'm sure that will be the way it evolves. I have been involved in several FID missions in different parts of the world and they were all executed differently, often considerably. Some were well defined, planned, and adapted as the situation evolved, and others were frankly stupid and failed miserably. The human factor of leadership is generally deterministic in FID, just like most military operations.

The JP and FM may specify that there are certain principles and a way to do things, but it didn't influence our planning that much, because the State Department was usually more determinative, and often detrimental to our efforts, when it comes to FID strategy and campaigns. They have a low comfort level with success.

I also suspect if an honest assessment was done we would find we fail in half or more of our FID efforts, and fall short of our objectives in another 40%, but hey, on a positive note, that leaves a potential 10% success rate!

Sometimes that failure can be contributed to our approach, but just as often, if not more than 50%, that failure is almost entirely the fault of the partner nation we're supporting. It is just the nature of this business, but, on the positive side, it generally doesn't threaten our critical national security interests when FID fails. We also generally limit the expenditure of the blood and money and blood we expend on this adventures with small footprint operations.

If the conditions are right we could see a huge return on our investment; however, if the conditions are not so good we don't lose that much. Very much like investing in penny stocks if you do it smartly.


Sun, 06/29/2014 - 2:03am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

JP 3-22 has always seemed like an odd duck to me. Security Force Assistance is defined as “DOD’s contribution to a unified action effort to support and augment the development of the capacity and capability of foreign security forces (FSF) and their supporting institutions to facilitate the achievement of specific objectives shared by the USG.” (Page I-16). However, “FID and SFA are similar at the tactical level where advisory skills are applicable to both.” and “Both FID and SFA are subsets of SC. Neither FID nor SFA are subsets of each other.”

This confuses me. If something is tactically the same, one should not have two different names for it. And, in my view, if there is a term that both are subsets of, one should use that term. Much easier and less confusing to use Security Cooperation.

However, where FID(as represented in JP 3-24) really separates itself from SFA is with IDAD at the “grand strategy” (see chart II-1) level. Here four programs are “interdependent functions to prevent or counter internal threats (see Figure II-1). These functions are balanced development, security, neutralization, and mobilization. These four functions even have seven principles that go along with them. SFA only deals with building the security force and its institution. FID has the benefit of giving the host nation a US made “grand strategy”.

I find it rather interesting that a community that seems to pride itself in non-cookie cutter solutions would have a pretty cookie cutterish grand strategy. The section on IDAD seems to have the United States as the primary actor in shaping a nations “grand strategy” in defeating an insurgency. Some point to Walt Rostow as having influence on COIN doctrine. One should look at IDAD! It has always struck me as odd. With that, I think using FID as the go to option for countering an insurgency is about as bad as using clear-hold-build as a strategy for countering an insurgency.

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 06/28/2014 - 11:54pm

In reply to by Bill M.

You are exactly right. I am always amazed at how people think FID is simply training host nation forces. I know no one likes to read doctrine but in the Joint FID manual JP 3-22, the major discussion of training of host nation forces begins in Chapter V (section B). There is a whole lot more before and after.

And of course just the description of FID alone highlights the fact that it is not solely a military effort:


Foreign internal defense (FID) is the participation by
civilian and military agencies of a government in any
of the action programs taken by another government or
other designated organization, to free and protect its
society from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency,
terrorism, and other threats to their security. The focus
of US FID efforts is to support the host nation’s
(HN’s) internal defense and development (IDAD),
which can be described as the full range of measures
taken by a nation to promote its growth and protect
itself from the security threats described above.

And then of course there is this quote from beginning of the introductory chapter of JP 3-22:

“Although on the surface, FID [foreign internal defense] appears to be a
relatively simple concept, that appearance is deceptive; FID is a much more
nuanced and complicated operation than its definition at first implies. FID is
often confused with or equated to training foreign forces, when in reality, there
is much more to it.”

Lieutenant Colonel John Mulbury
ARSOF [Army Special Operations Forces],
General [Conventional] Purpose Forces and FID
Special Warfare, January-February 2008

Lastly I would point out that there is no joint doctrinal manual for Security Force Assistance. It is addressed in the FID manual JP 3-22.

The manual can be downloaded here:

Bill M.

Sat, 06/28/2014 - 11:27pm

In reply to by Bwilliams

I agree we have a wide range of capabilities that can support FID. Many of those capabilities are restricted by policy, but if we're allowed and it is appropriate counter threat finance, direct action, supporting fires, etc. can be part of our overall FID activity, it isn't limited to security force assistance. A lot of people still confuse SFA with FID and vice versa.


Sat, 06/28/2014 - 9:05pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

If it is in our interests to enable a partner to defeat an insurgency, we have a larger range of capabilities to enable a host nation then simply FID. Counter threat finance, direct action, fires, etc. How we enable a state depends on the context of the insurgency, how we are involved and what our policy goals are.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 05/06/2014 - 3:36pm

In reply to by Bwilliams

Doctrine is a compromise, and too often the "right" answer is what the most powerful person in the room believes personally, or believes is what his higher will be comfortable with.

So we define and write about insurgency in a manner comparable to if Issac Newton went to the leadership at Cambridge with three COAs on what gravity was. One being what he actually believed it to be; one being what he believed the Cambridge leadership would accept; and a final COA being what he believed King James II would accept. We would still be struggling to escape dark age science if that had been the case.

The fact is that insurgency, like gravity, occurs naturally in nature and is what it is, caring little what any particular human individual or organization wishes or believes it to be.

Doctrine writers, however, all live in this world of bureaucratic compromise.

Not being a doctrine writer, I will offer my uncompromised position that insurgency is simply an internal, populace-based, illegal, political challenge. Most are a response to conditions that grow within some population percieving significant grievance with the systems of governance affecting their lives and equally believing that no effective, legal means is available to them to address the same.

Democracy is closely related to insurgency. Democracy being internal, populace-based, LEGAL, political challenge. The only real difference between revolutionary insurgency and democracy is therefore being legality. This is hardly war or warfare, regardless of how violent that illegal political challenge might become at times.

On the other end of the spectrum is Tyranny. Where government uses the law to prevent or reduce the ability of some segment(s) of society to legally participate in that society or to shape governance.

Point being, too often we deal with things as what we want them to be, rather than as what they are, and are frustrated by the results. We call a conflict "war" when it is really a civil emergency demanding a very different set of solutions. Or we call a government a democracy and treat it a such, when in truth it is really a tyranny (Afghanistan and Iraq being recent tyranny's created and misnamed by us in recent years and proving so vexing to sustain in place against the insurgencies they provoked...)

Personally, I think COIN is a domestic operation. When supporting the COIN of some other place (regardless of how feeble their capacity) it is best thought of as FID. If for no other reason than to clearly denote that what we do and why we do it is very different than what the Host Nation does.

This Insurgency and COIN manual is far better than the last, but it is still a bureaucratic compromise still fails to understand insurgency for what it actully is, but rather defines it to fit within what we are comfortable in having it be.

IMO, it is time for us to get a bit more uncomfortable in how we think about the problems we face, and a good bit less controlling in what we think the right solutions to those problems might be. But that would not be politically correct, and therefore is unlikely to emerge as doctrine.


Tue, 05/06/2014 - 12:38pm

Thanks for the review. I would make two small points. One, FID is a subset of security cooperation. This is something I think the SF community has signed off on. I believe the new JP 3-22 will be titled Security Cooperation and there will be a JP 3-22.1 titled Foreign Internal Defense. In any case, I think it makes more sense to talk security cooperation because it is more holistic. One could enable a counterinsurgency with foreign military Sales, for example. One should not limit oneself, especially when there are doctrinally acceptable boarder terms.

Second, on the biography, one could say the same about 3-0 or 5-0. Of course the references in those manuals don’t provide a foundation, but that isn’t the purpose (as currently defined by TRADOC Regulation 25-36: ) In sum, there isn’t a biography because the document now falls better in line with the purpose of doctrine and the regulations that govern doctrine.