Small Wars Journal

A Few Observations on the New Counterinsurgency Manual

Tue, 05/06/2014 - 9:00am

A Few Observations on the New Counterinsurgency Manual

Linda Robinson

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.

End Note

[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)


About the Author(s)

Linda Robinson is a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. Her areas of expertise include national security strategy, international affairs, U.S. foreign policy, security force assistance, joint force development, special operations forces, irregular warfare and stability operations.



Mon, 07/21/2014 - 2:51pm

In reply to by Geoffrey Demarest

Rather the Nazis were or were not an insurgency is dependent entirely on how you conceptualize and define an insurgency. However, it would be difficult to find a definition that included Nazis as an insurgency but excluded movements like the Indian independence movement.

Geoffrey Demarest

Mon, 07/21/2014 - 11:18am

C`mon, Demarest -- it's rectitude, not turpitude. Jeeze, no wonder you get in trouble. Oh, one response to Bwilliams comment and Nazis: Can we agree that the Nazis were an insurgent movement?


Wed, 07/16/2014 - 3:28pm

In reply to by Geoffrey Demarest

The Nazis didn't have a problem with internal insurgencies, at least among the German population. Recognizing the subjective nature of how humans perceive reality isn’t puny. It is understanding that reality is mostly a construct of our experiences. Moreover, if a society accepts a government or another ruling structure, that will be based on their own internal value system. Recognizing that fact is realistic and provides some insights on why populations start or resist insurgencies.

If we try to change a society’s value system, that needs to be a policy decision and one needs to carefully consider how that may be accomplished. However, the rational for our decision to become involved in an insurgency is not relevant, at least in terms of understanding why legitimacy is an important concept. Whatever national interest we wish to pursue, understanding why a population may accept or reject an insurgency is essential in pursuing those interests, if those interests involve involvement with an insurgency.

Geoffrey Demarest

Wed, 07/16/2014 - 11:11am

Dr. Robinson, as you note, the new manual is long. I am lazy; reading is hard, so I confine to one issue and seven paragraphs of the manual’s text (1-27 through 1-33). You wrote, “a campaign centered on the host nation must begin with the principle of legitimacy.” I’m hoping I can get you to retreat a bit from that particular assumption. Legitimacy has not been so good to us as a prompt or guidepost, and I propose to you that the discussion of legitimacy in the new manual reveals why. For me, that seven paragraph essay is by itself enough that the Army should order the manual scrapped and the effort begun again. Heresy, eh?

I would join with you in promoting legitimacy as a fundamental notion upon which to plan and explain US military involvement in an insurgency or counterinsurgency -- or for that matter any category of US military expedition or endeavor -- if by legitimacy you meant moral turpitude. I like the synonym righteousness for those comfortable with religious tones. For others perhaps ‘superior humanistic values’ would set better. In any case, if we could agree that legitimacy means setting and meeting standards of behavior which we can proudly abide, OK, I’m for it. Let our officers meet their calling to provide resolve and moral compass, and make our agents toe the line of that azimuth. It is good to be good. Gracelessly, however, the manual starts with that other kind of legitimacy, and not even in its best clothing. The manual says legitimacy is the acceptance of authority. What a puny standard that is. German society accepted the Nazi government’s authority, did it not? (Godwin’s Law, check) The new manual juxtaposes legitimacy with control of the population. Do we have to underpin our missions with something as fleeting, superficial and feckless as public acceptance and the efficiency of control over a population that it supposedly provides? Anyway, popular legitimacy rarely constitutes a significant part of our initial objectives when we deploy military force. In fact, I am having a hard time thinking of any case in which it did -- so how does it get to be the assumed fundamental starting point for the objectives of operational doctrine after we arrive? Did we go to Iraq because we felt the government there did not have popular legitimacy? Or to Afghanistan? Or to anyplace ever ever?

If we go fight someplace, or to help someone else fight (setting aside for a moment discussion of other noble missions such as humanitarian relief), it is in almost always because we don’t want someone getting away with something -- either something they did, something they are busy doing or something that we fear they may soon do. Admittedly, it not soothing to hear our reason for being expressed in negative rather than positive terms – it is better aesthetically and diplomatically to say that our objective is stability, peace, justice, protection or some other lovely abstraction, I am aware. However, those expressions don’t set the course for what we as a military are actually asked to do with our weapons and the license to use them. We are always asked to punish, apprehend, kill, deter, stop, contain, dissuade. Nasty word set, and we are a positive bunch, inspired by positive goals. So I guess I agree that ultimately we need to see an expression of some commonly acceptable positive end-state.

Dr. Robinson, you double down on popular legitimacy, stating, “A host nation will almost always need to embrace reforms to achieve the necessary legitimacy….” I wondered -- necessary for what? And there it was in the new manual. Almost imperceptibly, the manual shapeshifts legitimacy from being a condition (‘the acceptance of an authority by a society’, para 1-27) to being a tool (‘Legitimacy provides willing acceptance of the authority’, para 1-29 ). So the manual transports the word from an ‘is’ to a ‘does’, and, just like that, the manual tells us that ‘legitimacy provides legitimacy’. Now I appreciate the zen-like powers of a good tautology, no problem. It is a time-honored technique of philosophical wisdoms and political harangues. As used in a military manual, however, it is an abstraction that, because it only leads to itself, is useless. We are told that legitimacy provides willing acceptance of authority, which makes the government legitimate, which allows for resource-efficient enforcement of the authority. The manual’s essay on legitimacy finally collapses onto its own self in paragraph 1-33, saying, ‘Even if a population does not see an insurgency or a government as legitimate, control can be established effectively by coercion.’ Wow. Yes, we had been advised previously that ‘most populations are controlled by a combination of consent and coercion’. It is worrisome that efficiency of enforcement of authority becomes a goal of legitimacy, which is stated to be the goal of our efforts. At the end of the manual’s legitimacy essay, we are returned to ‘Legitimacy must be seen from the different perspectives of the different groups within society.’ The suggestion seems to be that we should not only recognize those perspectives, but respect and accept them. Hmmm.

Going back to my point about positive- versus negative-sounding word sets, note that legitimate or legitimacy appear about 160 times in the new manual; liberty, meanwhile, not once. I suspect a connection. I suspect the differential is connected with the writers’ having subtracted normative moral content from the connotative definition of the word legitimacy in favor of what appeared to them to be the more measurable quantity -- popularity. Too bad. Liberty used to be a legitimate concept, and as a condition is indeed measurable. Did liberty become unpopular?
Regards, Geoff

It would seem that the idea that "the United States cannot be the primary counterinsurgent" is somewhat ludicrous -- unless the United States has determined that it will, never again and under no circumstance, invade and occupy another country.

If, however, the United States retains the option to invade and occupy another country, then, in such a circumstance as this, the US as the primary counterinsurgent remains the only option and the only reality.

As Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us, following an invasion and during the occupation and transition phases, a "host nation government," in truth, does not exist. What exists is a "puppet government" which marches, in large part, to the tune of the invading/occupying power.

This "puppet government" has -- right out of the box -- no ability or capability to act as "the primary counterinsurgent." (This "puppet government," in fact, is often the "root cause" of the insurgency.)

Again, as Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us, it will be many years (if ever) before this "puppet government" can be recognized -- by its own people and by other nations -- as a "host nation government."

Likewise it will be many years, if ever, before this puppet government attains the ability and capability to act as the "the primary counterinsurgent."

To sum up and as stated at the beginning of my comment above:

It would seem that the only way for the United States to never again act as "the primary counterinsurgent" would be if it (the United States) never again invaded and occupied another country.

If, however, invasion and occupation remain on the table, then the US as primary counterinsurgent must also remain on the table.

Bill M.

Sat, 05/10/2014 - 2:05pm

In reply to by PSmith

We're having that discussion on the Council now. I agree that you need a strategy to defeat an insurgency, but I also think there is more to it that we're missing. As you correctly stated dogma is not strategy, nor our COIN principles, and we seem to have conflated both with strategy.

I also think we can have strategies at different levels, but we still have an overarching strategic context globally (or should) and that seems a bit out of whack. Case in point, and pardon me because my thinking on this is still rough. Allegedly our strategic interest in Afghanistan wasn't Afghanistan itself but defeating Al-Qaeda, and that evolved into denying safe haven by creating a stable democracy where people would reject terrorism (fairy tale talk, but I believe I can find official sources that would confirm this). So if our strategic aim was to defeat or weaken Al-Qaeda, or we doing so or is Al-Qaeda-ism spreading? If we narrowly focus on our COIN strategy in Afghanistan we're missing the larger global terrorist trends that actually threaten our national interests. I'll try to follow up on this later, but this why I argue our COIN approach is disconnected from our strategy (at the larger level). On the other hand I think you're right we need a strategy or campaign plan (more accurate I think) to defeat an insurgency.

Good points both. Involved in the writing of this revision, I too was suspect that we were not learning the correct lessons from either Iraq or Afghanistan.
I am continually flabbergasted of the dogma that COIN is not a strategy.
Perhaps understanding that an adversary's strategy must be countered with a strategy may be the critical lesson yet to be learned.
Then again, if we don't understand the adversary, or identify the wrong adversary as Carlotta Gall suggests in "The Wrong Enemy" our strategy, if we have one, will be flawed and difficult to implement and thus inadequately connect tactics to that 'strategy.'

Outlaw 09

Fri, 05/09/2014 - 6:33am

Can the author or anyone in the national level chain point out where our strategic strategy for both Iraq and AFG was firmly written, discussed, and published for the entire country ie the military to fully understand.

Secondly, if then in fact publicly written someplace did we in the end achieve that strategic strategy and if not why not and was this actually discussed in the manual---really do not think we are very good at discussing failure as we are at patting ourselves on the back and saying it is all the Iraqi's fault or the fault of the AFG government we put into place that caused the demise of COIN as we the military have a COIN doctrine with a manual so therefore we were doing everything correctly.

Matter of fact I have not seen since the completion of the Iraq mission a complete, thorough, and detailed walk through of our failures in both COIN and on the ground actions in Iraq while being overwhelmed with praising studies/articles/books/think tank comments on how great things went.

If anything it looks like the Chinese and Russians are the one's who learned from our lessons and have developed a fifth generation of warfare the COIN manual does not touch and which in fact negates our current training scenarios built on DATE because nowhere in a DATE does a Army Bde see anything close to what Russians are using in the Ukraine in the first four phases of their New-Generation Warfare.

Maybe if we were having a discussion face to face we could come to an agreement over a couple of points I currently disagree on.

First, COIN isn't necessarily all about the supported nation (much more accurate than partner or host nation). I would argue the only time the U.S. would conduct COIN instead of FID is when we're an occupying power which we were in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of conducting COIN we blindly embraced the assumption that we had to win the support of the population and form a government of the people (that was illegitimate to their people, yet legitimate in our eyes). I think a more clear eyed and honest review of both Iraq and Afghanistan is that these two assumptions actually led to our failure (inability to achieve our stated strategic ends). We created the monster (their government) that ultimately led to our defeat.

This gets to the second issue and that is one of legitimacy. As stated above legitimate to who? Obviously important, but in a nation with multiple identity groups that can't reach a consensus we're not going to impose a government that is viewed as legitimate to all or even most of their people. Let's face it, we focused on legitimacy from a Western perspective to maintain support of the coalition. Yet we limited the ability of the coalition to actually counter the insurgents.

If our objectives were important enough, meaning if they were really tied to critical national interests we would have pursued a more heavy handed approach to containing or even defeating the threat in those locations instead of focusing on building schools and roads. I doubt that Pakistan would have remained a safe haven if Afghanistan was considered a critical security concern. True, in some situations a softer approach works, especially when we're conducting FID and helping another nation conduct COIN, but when we pretend to conduct FID when we're actually conducting COIN (OIF and OEF-A) we simply set ourselves up for failure.

I haven't read the new manual yet, but suspect in its own way it will be as politically correct as the last one, meaning that instead of being based on best practices it will be based on our ideology of how things should work. We created a narrative about COIN we are afraid to challenge, but if we did I suspect we would see that warfare is still an ugly business where a good deal of force is required to break an opponent's will. It is an adventure we should only engage in if necessary, and when we do engage we need to identify realistic objectives based on how much cost we're willing to bear as a nation (costs come in many forms, human lives, dollars, moral, national prestige, etc.). In COIN you have to apply that force much more selectively and surgically, but it is still a critical factor in victory, just as much, or more so, than legitimacy in most cases because it is unlikely we'll ever be legitimate in the eyes of most of our adversaries.