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Was it All Just a Dream? Revisiting “The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreaa” Ten Years Later
Michael L. Burgoyne and Albert J. Marckwardt
Counterinsurgency isn’t dead no matter how much the U.S. military may want it to be. Ten years ago, we wrote a short parable designed to quickly inform junior leaders on the basic concepts of counterinsurgency called The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa. It seems appropriate to take this anniversary to revisit the book and the concept of counterinsurgency. After nearly two decades of frustrating conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, counterinsurgency has been widely maligned as a mythical concept and a proven failure. Most recently the National Military Strategy shifted the focus of the Department of Defense to great power conflict which some erroneously believe to be the end of counterinsurgency missions. At its heart, counterinsurgency is about controlling the population and by extension controlling terrain; this is a core characteristic of strategic landpower. The study of counterinsurgency must remain a critical element of military education and training or we will once again find ourselves unprepared when the nation calls on us to control terrain.
When we wrote the book, Mike was an observer controller at the National Training Center (NTC) and Jim was a Troop Commander in Baghdad. The majority of junior leaders arriving in combat units and coming through NTC lacked a knowledge of the basic concepts and history of counterinsurgency. They simply were not reading the new doctrine or the writings of counterinsurgency and insurgency thinkers. Both of us came up in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment where officer professional development was a part of the culture and a bullet for professional reading was the norm on your officer evaluation report. We had read E.D. Swinton’s The Defence of Duffer's Drift and knew it was a great format for teaching tactical lessons. Fiction can make complex concepts accessible and easier to comprehend.
As in The Defence of Duffer's Drift, we followed a six-dream format in which a new lieutenant learns counterinsurgency lessons through a series of failed attempts to secure a patrol base and control the surrounding area of operations. Based on our experiences and a compilation of insights from counterinsurgency and insurgency thinkers we listed a total of 16 lessons at the end. We believe they remain valid today.
We didn't have any illusions about publishing the book. We posted the entire document on platoonleader.com to get it out to the leaders who could use it. It also found its way to Small Wars Journal and companycommander.com. It is telling that junior leaders were flocking to these sites for insights largely because their formal training and military education had completely neglected counterinsurgency and insurgency. Later, John Nagl and Tom Ricks found the piece and with their help we published it through the University of Chicago Press. The army, at the time rapidly moving to fix its knowledge and doctrinal gaps, integrated the book into several officer training programs and the Center for Army Leadership drove the creation of a series of computer animated videos. The army had published FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency and a series of counterinsurgency centers sprung up across military professional education institutions and training centers. By the time the book came out, the idea that counterinsurgency and insurgency would ever be discarded from military education and training seemed ridiculous — the U.S. military had learned from its post-Vietnam purge of insurgency knowledge.
In retrospect, much of the perceived correction to the counterinsurgency doctrine and training gap was driven by defense and security policy trendiness. Having now served at the strategic and policy level we have witnessed the phenomenon firsthand. Many think tank oracles, generalist policymakers, staffers, and academics move from one hot topic to the next in a way that puts the fashion industry to shame. Often, this follows with changes in administrations, shifting to support a new foreign policy. In its more sinister form, experts shamelessly rebrand themselves to fit the trend. Witness how quickly an expert on the Soviet Union can shift to peacekeeping, then terrorism, counterinsurgency, and then to the newest fashion craze —great power competition. At the time, the debates trended towards acceptance of counterinsurgency as a valid policy ideal, with the opposition regularly branded as out of touch with reality.
Flash forward to today and passionate debates online and at military professional education institutions on the validity of counterinsurgency abound. At the U.S. Army War College, counterinsurgency and insurgency certainly come up in classroom discussions and exercises, but focused study is now limited. How can an army colonel graduate from a war college having read Kautilya but not Mao? Given the U.S. military active involvement in counterinsurgency or supporting partner nations confronting insurgencies, the topic should garner more attention. #Miltwitter is filled with statements about counterinsurgency being a "fantasy" or a "failure." In a perfect example of the toxic trendiness of national security policy, the think tank intelligentsia has turned away from small wars and embraced great power competition. It has become as fashionable to bash counterinsurgency today as it was to claim counterinsurgency expertise ten years ago. Ironically, great power conflict means proxy war, covert action, insurgency, and counterinsurgency actually become more likely as the risk of escalating a conventional conflict into a nuclear exchange is unacceptably high.
The term counterinsurgency has become associated with the costly U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Success is elusive when interventions are hamstrung by misaligned national strategies where counterinsurgency as an operational concept was executed (in the beginning) by an officer corps with little background in occupations, governance, or insurgency. National ends shifted and swayed into the goal of the creation of unified democratic countries in Afghanistan and Iraq without regard for the immense challenges associated with those objectives. Means to complete these bold objectives were never commensurate to the requirements and were actually minimized based on theories of network centric warfare. Counterinsurgency has become shorthand for expensive poorly designed intervention policies. This lets our strategic leaders off the hook for their utter failure to develop effective military strategies and sets our forces up for another round of on the job training.
How would have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan gone differently if officers had previously been educated in occupation, military governance, counterinsurgency, and insurgency? It is a counterfactual, but we would argue that it could only have improved the tactical and operational results, as well as the military advice given to policymakers. One can point to those leaders that had studied counterinsurgency and see a difference from those that had not. It is imperative that officers have an educational background in counterinsurgency, at all levels, not just the tactical level. But perhaps we are now so blinded by the polarization of the term counterinsurgency, that we fail to break down its components in healthy debate and associate its necessity as a core element of strategic landpower. Seizing and holding terrain (and the population on it) is a foundational expectation of ground forces. The army is specifically tasked by law (10 U.S. Code § 7062) to preserve “the peace and security of...any areas occupied by the United States.” The U.S. military will be asked to occupy and control hostile territory again. Our officers should have a background in the doctrine, theory, and history of insurgency and counterinsurgency. Failing to do this, just like Second Lieutenant Phil Connors in our book, the U.S. military will have to learn the basics of counterinsurgency and insurgency again — the hard way.
Defense of Jisr Al-Doreaa Lessons Learned
- Security is the number-one priority. Units must maintain 360-degree security no matter what the situation.
- The fundamentals still apply. Counterinsurgency and low-intensity conflict do not negate the value of systems time tested in countless conflicts. When establishing an out-post, it is critical to employ the fundamentals of defense, the seven steps of engagement area development, and the priorities of work.
- You can’t fulfill the mission from inside a fortified position. Providing good security is a must, but having a fortress mentality without patrolling outside leaves you open to attack.
- Be prepared for how the enemy will adapt to your actions. The enemy will change his strategy based on your capabilities.
- Employ counter-sniper measures. Counter-sniper considerations must be taken into account when establishing an outpost. Sniper screens, counter-sniper teams, and counter-sniper battle drills must be implemented.
- Briefing and enforcing rules of engagement are critical to mission accomplishment. Escalation of force and rules of engagement protect Solders by allowing them to engage quickly when it’s necessary and to avoid wounding or killing innocent civilians.
- Soldiers and leaders must be prepared to speak to the media. The media can help or hinder your mission both locally and globally. Use the media to highlight your victories and be prepared to answer tough questions about your actions.
- Do not set patterns. Vary routes, times, and tactics to avoid being targeted by the enemy.
- Language skills are critical for gaining information on the enemy and coordinating with host nation allies.
- To gain the trust and confidence of the local population, you must understand their culture. Plan and rehearse negotiations to ensure success with local leaders.
- Win early victories. Have a plan to show good faith and authority with the population within your area of responsibility.
- Maintain operational security. Do not needlessly divulge operational information to people without proper clearances, and do not make it easy for the enemy to gather intelligence on your operations.
- Avoid knee jerk reactions; base your actions on good intelligence. Striking out blindly at the population is playing into the insurgents’ plan and can only further alienate the people. The counterinsurgent should seek to make no new enemies.
- Counterinsurgency requires a concerted effort between the military, non-governmental organizations, the host nation government, and other elements of national power. Military efforts on their own cannot crate enduring success.
- Protecting established informants prevent their persecution and ensures they can continue to help their neighborhood even after coalition forces leave.
- Transition is primary! To achieve lasting success, the security and government functions of your area of operations must be transferred to local security forces and local government officials.
The views expressed in this study are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of State, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.