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Reflections on Counterinsurgency and Doctrine: Neither Strategy nor Platitudes
Robert M. Cassidy
The new U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps counterinsurgency doctrine, Insurgency and Countering Insurgencies (FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5), has some good things to offer but also has several flaws. This review distills both features, and ends with thoughts about doctrine and counterinsurgency over the last decade.
This new manual aptly defines insurgency and counterinsurgency in the very beginning, borrowing from the current Joint Pub 3-24, Counterinsurgency. Both manuals state that insurgency is organized violence to seize or undermine political authority over a geographic area whereas counterinsurgency is the use of civil and military instruments to marginalize an insurgency and to address its root causes.
This doctrine correctly states that “counterinsurgency is no substitute for strategy” in the beginning of the first chapter. There is indeed no such thing as ‘counterinsurgency strategy’ because counterinsurgency comprises the methods and approaches to render an insurgency ineffective within a larger strategy.
Forces can adapt, improve, and adopt methods to undermine or reverse an insurgency’s momentum, engagement after engagement, and fighting season after fighting season; but if strategy is absent or fundamentally deficient, it may come to naught in the end. Operational activity, the art and science of operations, and operational gains are good, but not relevant without strategy.
Two other positive aspects of this document are the inclusion of a chapter on assessments and the exclusion of any bogus split of counterinsurgency into two types, either a population-focused kind or an enemy-focused kind.
This exclusion is cause for optimism because a sound doctrine must note that counterinsurgency is counterinsurgency: killing those insurgents and leaders that warrant it and mobilizing the preponderance of the population by improving security and by addressing the grievances that catalyze insurgent support.
A chapter on assessments is important because few have figured out how to do these very well. Militaries tend to over-assess almost everything, encumbering themselves with myriad reviews, most of which exhibit propensities toward quantifying everything that is quantifiable, even if meaningless. As of this year, there were over a half-dozen overlapping, but required, reports or reviews to appraise how the war in Afghanistan was going.
This portion of the document underlines important things to measure, for example, the collection of taxes and the levels of violence against host-nation government and security officials. It also warns against counting bodies, harkening back to the emphasis on body counts during the Vietnam War, and to Robert Strange McNamara’s assertion in the 1960s that by every quantitative measure, the U.S. was winning in Vietnam.
However, that chapter also prescribes things like measuring agricultural activity and electricity output, which may not be as meaningful in determining the strength of the insurgency. In 2013-2014 in Afghanistan, the most meaningful things to measure were how the Afghan security forces fought vis-à-vis how the insurgents fought and what the outcomes of their engagements were. What were the realities and perceptions of those interactions during the first fighting season that witnessed the Afghan security forces in the genuine lead?
Notwithstanding the positive aspects noted above, this manual is a modest effort in doctrine, writing, and thinking about counterinsurgency. In many places, it is generally a compilation of platitudes and homilies. As a consequence, it is wordy and unwieldy. The art of writing cogent and compelling prose is not that evident.
Below are examples of the platitudes in this document:
“Effective counterinsurgency operations require an understanding of the military profession.”
“The U.S. Army and Marine Corps can prevent or defeat an insurgency across the range of military operations.”
“If an insurgency develops, it will require resources to defeat the insurgents.”
“An insurgency’s goals and actions are influenced by the conditions the insurgency develops in.”
“An effective counterinsurgency force is a learning organization.”
“A situation is usually more complicated than it seems when the military force first becomes involved.”
“A counterinsurgency involves simultaneous activities at every echelon.”
“Effective counterinsurgency is about effectively linking tasks to a purpose and achieving that purpose.”
Fewer pages of compact and meaningful substance and prose would stand readers and practitioners in better stead than this manual does because, then at least readers would be more inclined to read those pages, and the substance would be more comprehensible. There is no reason why this document should be more than 50 pages.
This manual strives to do everything and as a result does not do many things that well. It tries to cover design, mission command, and intelligence but doctrine already exists for design, for mission command, and for intelligence. This manual over-reaches and does not achieve what it should as a result.
The paradoxes it borrows from the 2006 doctrine are now cliché. The paradox of greatest importance to understand before undertaking counterinsurgency is the strategic paradox that finds a top-tier power fighting a war of limited ends with relatively unlimited means, against a pre-industrial foe that espouses a messianic vision and that is fighting a war with limited means for unlimited ends. Contradictions flow from this paradox that do not bode well for the ‘superior’ side.
There are also not enough questions or question marks in the document, which is a bit curious. The first need is to ask the right questions, to understand the essence of the environment and the multiple variables interacting within it. Ask the questions that will create an informed understanding about the environment, the enemy, the population, and us, operating in it. What are the causes behind the insurgency, the grievances that catalyze its support? Is the value of the political object significant enough that our political will endure the costs in magnitude and duration to see it through to a successful end?
Beyond asking the questions, there are some enduring imperatives that should appear in any counterinsurgency doctrine, many of which do emerge somewhere in this manual. These imperatives would include the following.
- Build indigenous security capacity in institutions and forces early.
- Use lethal and non-lethal action to coerce and mobilize the preponderance of the people against the insurgency and its support.
- Out-mobilize the population against the insurgents by convincing the people that the government is more capable and more legitimate than the insurgents.
- Restrain the traditional tendency to measure everything because many things may have no meaning. Indeed, Einstein once observed that some things that can be counted do not count whereas some things that count cannot be counted.
- Crucially, isolate the insurgency from external support and sanctuary. It is very difficult to neutralize an insurgency that benefits from sanctuary.
In the end, countering insurgency is difficult. It is more difficult to plan and undertake counterinsurgency when a military has neglected to think about it, teach it, organize for it, and maintain a corpus of current doctrine that informs it and guides its execution. Difficulties also certainly stem from those situations where ill-conceived policy drives badly resourced and poorly analyzed operations. Strategy that does not align the ends, the means, and the ways is not strategy. Counterinsurgency itself is not strategy.
All war is hard, but it is harder if stupidity prevails. World War I was harder than it should have been because of stupid generals and their failure to recognize that war’s character had changed due to variables that had emerged in the previous century.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were harder because of stupidity and hubris, and as a consequence of the American military’s general failure to sustain knowledge and doctrine about the historical tenets of counterinsurgency. A scholar of Clausewitz’s work offered the following insight about the U.S. and counterinsurgency after the Vietnam War:
No wonder that, after the experience of Vietnam, American strategists and military instructors long shunned the subject of small wars. They had proved particularly difficult for high-tech armed forces that were good at major campaigns in which overwhelming firepower promised success.
The U.S. military must retain the doctrine and the knowledge about the best practices and tenets associated with effective counterinsurgency, ones it was compelled to relearn in the crucible of combat across multiple insurgencies. The American military did adapt to both the Afghan and Iraq insurgencies at the operational and tactical levels of war. The failures in Iraq and the uncertainty that still obtains about the future of Afghanistan relate to strategy and policy deficits. Operational momentum is good but it is irrelevant minus strategy.
In the end, it comes down to being smart about the wars that policy impels, or being stupid about them. The former approach aligns ends, means, and ways while benefiting from thousands of years of historical experiences. The wars of the twenty-first century have been difficult because of bad estimations and misunderstandings about our enemies, about ourselves, and about the kinds of wars we undertook.
Instead of amassing an excessive amount of words, this document should have made the words count. Understanding any kind of war requires critical thinking and cogent doctrine to convey that thinking. Weighty gibberish does not serve well as doctrine because it impairs clear thinking and because jargon is the bane of critical thinking. Counterinsurgency does not equate to strategy and platitudes do not equate to doctrine.
 Beatrice Heuser, “Victory, Peace, and Justice: the Neglected Trinity,” Joint Force Quarterly (2nd Quarter 2013): 11.