A Few Observations on the New Counterinsurgency Manual
The first thing I noticed is that the new manual is as long or longer than the old one, and that is not a good thing. I sympathize with the authors, having participated in group writing endeavors on several occasions; it is very hard to write terse documents. However, length makes it harder for readers, especially those who will actually use the manual, to identify the most important and helpful elements among the verbiage.
This manual has been written with the benefit of hindsight of the longest period of warfare in our nation’s history. It makes some slight adjustments based on that history, but by avoiding an overt critique of past practice it risks submerging what should be the most important lesson we learn about how to conduct counterinsurgency. Here are my initial comments about what is most useful and what is missing, based on a very fast read to make the SWJ deadline.
The most important lesson that is submerged is that the United States cannot be the primary counterinsurgent. If it does not place the host nation front and center from the start, in concept and execution, it will not succeed in supporting a successful counterinsurgency. There are important statements to this effect in the opening chapter (1-5, 1-6)[i], but the manual does not proceed to organize itself around those statements and tell the practitioners how to put the host nation front and center. It is not until Chapter 10, “Indirect Methods for Countering Insurgencies,” that the issue is dealt with and then only partially.
Second, a campaign centered on the host nation must begin with the principle of legitimacy, which is very well covered in a page and a half in Chapter 1, and given its rightful position as the first of the chapter’s concluding “Strategic Principles.” (The 2006 edition’s version was just as good.) But the flaw in both the new and old manuals is that it does not tell practitioners how to operationalize that critical principle by providing a theory of political action as it relates to irregular warfare. In fact, the authors deleted the principle in the 2006 edition “Political Factors are Primary,” which cited the injunction that these types of war are 80 percent political and only 20 percent military. The section now ends with “Support the Host Nation,” which should immediately follow the Legitimacy principle. Ordering the principles in this way would provide the necessary prioritization for a campaign roadmap. A host nation will almost always need to embrace reforms to achieve the necessary legitimacy; these include political reforms and security forces that both represent and protect the population. The question of how to get there is not adequately addressed at a deep level.
Third, there is good “how to” information in the manual, but the massive Parts One and Two may deter all but the most determined readers from getting to the essential “how to” chapters of Part Three. (The first two parts have too much information that is either too basic or too detailed, though nothing there struck me as wrong.) Unfortunately, Part Three begins with Chapter 6 on Mission Command, which is not terribly enlightening; the C2 material is sketchy and granular, and the SOF-Conventional Force section consists largely of exhortations to coordinate better. The section on mission orders in the next chapter, however, captures the essence of mission command in elegant fashion.
Chapter 7 is the best and most useful chapter for the practitioner, in my opinion. The section on Conceptual Planning should be elevated to a must-read and elaborated on in training and education. It encapsulates the basic principles of operational design and ongoing adaptation through periodic assessment. To apply this approach, practitioners need to devise a method that is not too cumbersome and staff-intensive so that a small wartime headquarters can and will apply it and actually figure out what it doesn’t know or isn’t doing right. This failure to understand and adapt was the other critical lesson that has not been learned and institutionalized. Some important learning and adaptation did occur, but not in a sufficiently timely fashion. The public’s exhaustion with the war effort outpaced the needed agile learning curve.
Which brings me to my final point: the process must aid the objectives and not become an end in itself. Paragraph 7-28 states this brilliantly with regard to LOOs and LOEs: “Commanders and staffs must consistently question and evaluate lines of effort…. [T]he tasks and objectives of various lines of operation and effort may no longer be relevant or appropriate. Worse, they can trap the commander into a preconceived notion that accomplishment of various tasks will result in a successful completion.” Similarly, an entire chapter (12) is devoted to assessments, which has become a cottage industry employing vast amounts of uniformed, civilian and contractor manpower to uncertain effect. It must be remembered that assessments are an integral part of design: the purpose is to refine the campaign plan, and as with design and planning the commander must be intimately involved as these are the tools he uses to shape and adapt operations. Assessments must be user-friendly. Too often the assessment process devolves into simply counting those things that are easiest to count, resulting in faulty judgments.
In conclusion, I’ve singled out what I see as the most important parts of this manual in an effort to encourage the widest possible readership. The manual includes the important albeit obvious statement that COIN cannot substitute for and must be enshrined within a strategy. Many wish to obliterate COIN from the national vocabulary, but this manual should be an integral part of the military’s academic curricula. While the United States may refrain from countering an insurgency for a long time, it will no doubt need to rely on some or many of these practices in, say, peace enforcement operations, or countering an occupation, or any of a number of contingencies that involve armed non-state actors. In a very few years the experience possessed by the current serving members will have disappeared from the joint force and the rest of the interagency community.
[i] The key statements are: “Ideally, the host nation is the primary actor in defeating an insurgency.”(1-6) I would delete “ideally” to make this utterly categorical, definitive, and therefore the lodestar for the entire effort. “The conclusion of any counterinsurgency effort is primarily dependent on the host nation and the people who reside in that nation.”(1-6) Another powerful statement that should be the organizing principle for any COIN campaign. “Moreover, even if the U.S. is directly involved in defeating the insurgency, its primary role can be only to enable a host nation.”(1-5)