January 1, 2013  

Counterinsurgency & common sense

Preparing a smaller U.S. force for a more diverse set of tasks

The American armed forces have once again come full circle on counterinsurgency doctrine and operations. They became involved with counterinsurgency in 2003 out of need, and are ending it a decade later with much regret and some alienation. A similar problem occurred after the war in Vietnam. After that costly war, we de-emphasized counterinsurgency and downplayed the need for doctrine and training in that area. But insurgencies are and will remain common problems. The United States needs a rational, common-sense approach to determine where irregular warfare should fit in its national security portfolio, and how best to deal with these contingencies.

COIN Doctrine and Its Critics

By 2003, it was clear to many that U.S. forces in Iraq were paying a price for having put aside counterinsurgency doctrine and training after the war in Vietnam. That July, Gen. John Abizaid, the Central Command commander, contradicted his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and declared that the conflict in Iraq had evolved into an insurgency. Shortly afterward, Lt. Gen. David Barno, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, declared the conflict in his own theater an insurgency, but a less intense one than in Iraq.

Many units in the field had already come to the same conclusions. For example, in the summer of 2002, the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, led by then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, successfully adopted a population-centered, stability-focused approach to governing its ethnically diverse area of operations. Later, under fire, many units undertook successful COIN operations. U.S. efforts in Tal Afar and Ramadi in Iraq, under then-Cols. H.R. McMaster and Sean MacFarland, provided textbook examples of local initiative.

In 2005, under Gen. George Casey’s lead, a counterinsurgency academy was stood up in Iraq; another followed in Afghanistan. The following year, soldiers and Marines led by Petraeus and then-Lt. Gens. James Mattis and James Amos developed an influential new manual on counterinsurgency doctrine, which was quickly infused throughout the force. Many academics also saluted what they saw as a “hearts and minds” approach to war in the shadows. Following the philosophy of David Galula, the new manual anointed whole-of government, population-centric counterinsurgency as the approved tactical and operational doctrine. The aim of this type of COIN was to win the support of the people by protecting them, improving services and providing them good governance. The doctrine’s emphasis on stability operations even influenced the Army’s foundation manual, FM 3-0, Operations. In 2008, the new Army capstone manual highlighted war among the people and put stability operations on a par with offensive and defensive operations in all Army doctrine.

But not everyone was happy with the new approach. Some observers, such as Bing West and a few senior field commanders, believed there was too much emphasis on nation-building and not enough on destroying the enemy. There was also a small minority of critics who argued that U.S. COIN operations overemphasized firepower and combat operations, too often putting civilians in harm’s way. Even Petraeus’ focus on counterterrorist and counterguerrilla actions came in for criticism. Some critics believed — mistakenly in my view — that counterinsurgency was supposed to be a kinder, gentler form of warfare.

Later on, Col. Gian Gentile, a former combat commander and now a West Point historian, argued that the tactical and operational doctrine of counterinsurgency was exerting a controlling grip on U.S. strategy. Gentile wrote in Parameters in 2009 that the tactics of counterinsurgency were, in effect, dictating national strategy. Not only did we have a “strategy of tactics,” we were also overlooking other, nonpopulation-centric ways of conducting a counterinsurgency.

The 2009 deliberations over the surge of forces to Afghanistan reflected some of these arguments. The Afghanistan surge, just as in Iraq, focused on creating better force ratios to protect key population centers. Other courses of action — such as focusing mainly on counterterrorist operations or relying only on training local forces — did not get an adequate hearing. Bob Woodward, in “Obama’s Wars,” reported that many in the White House felt that the military — faithful to its new doctrine — was hemming in the president by presenting a narrow set of options.

Not to be outdone by military critics, a few civilian academics have begun to criticize the good-governance, population-centric approach to counterinsurgency. Jacqueline Hazelton of the University of Rochester argues that relying on good governance and reform has never been tried and is fraught with problems. U.S. efforts to push indigenous governments toward better governance have generally failed because reform measures often work against the interests of entrenched elites. Moreover, U.S. or other sponsors don’t have the leverage necessary to make the elites accept reform.

Hazelton further argues that many of the cases used to prove the validity of population-centric COIN — the British experience in Dhofar and Malaya , for example — were not successful because of good governance and building popular support. Karl Hack’s work on Malaya suggests that the forced relocation of outlying populations and depriving the enemy of food, not good governance, were the keys to British success there. (Of course, once the British openly guaranteed the people of Malaya complete independence, the guerrillas — mainly from the Chinese minority group — lost the exclusive right to the cause which propelled their movement.) Defense planners no longer see counterinsurgency and counterterrorism as the primary future for the U.S. armed forces. However, they still agree in part with the Army’s FM 3-0, that: “future wars are much more likely to be fought ‘among the people’ instead of ‘around the people.’” Along with a rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region and a renewed emphasis on conventional warfare, the new defense strategy also cites irregular warfare, counterterrorism, stability operations and counterinsurgency as priority missions for the armed forces. At the same time, however, budgets are shrinking. The Pentagon is reducing the size of the Marine Corps and the Army to about the pre-9/11 levels, and it will no longer size ground forces for prolonged long-term stability operations. The armed forces are being asked to do a more diverse set of tasks with a smaller force.

Given these constraints, how should we think about insurgency and counterinsurgency in the decades to come? What tools should we maintain for this task, and what force guidance makes sense for the future?

To start, the frequency of insurgency is likely to remain a key aspect of the international security environment. Max Boot’s new book, “Invisible Armies,” gives us an idea of how common these conflicts have been. Starting in 1775, Boot counts 443 insurgencies. Since 1945, there have been nearly 200, including the current total of more than 60 active conflicts.

Among the post-World War II insurgencies that have come to an end, Boot found that insurgents won 40 percent, the counterinsurgent governments 51 percent, and the rest could be assessed as “draws.” The U.S. has had its share of successes, including operations in the Philippines, Greece and El Salvador. In other ongoing conflicts, as in Colombia, U.S.-backed efforts have made significant progress.

Beating insurgents is therefore possible. Our experience, however, allows us to identify some warning signs.

Problems of Expeditionary Force COIN

Whenever possible, the United States should avoid large-scale, expeditionary force counterinsurgency operations. Inserting large numbers of U.S. forces into someone else’s insurgency is problematic. It raises the specter of imperialism. It creates strong propaganda talking points and recruiting tools for insurgent leaders, and it detracts from the legitimacy of the host government. Large-scale, expeditionary-force interventions also require knowledge of foreign languages and cultures, which is not a strong suit for U.S. general-purpose forces.

Large numbers of Americans in foreign, underdeveloped countries can help to create, in David Kilcullen’s apt phrase, the “accidental guerrilla,” who fights not because he or she is a committed ideologue or terrorist, but because foreigners are in his home area. Americans should be able to relate to this problem. In 1775, we were uneasy with regiments of red-coated British soldiers in American towns and cities that were still subject to the crown. Imagine our discomfort if these soldiers were from an alien culture, had different religious beliefs and did not speak the local language.

Four times in the past century or so, the United States has used large-scale expeditionary forces to fight insurgents. The first, the war in the Philippines from 1899 to1902, a follow-on conflict to the Spanish-American War, was a success by most measures. American regulars, volunteers and naval forces fought well, and the enemy was rarely able to match American firepower and organizational advantages. Fighting as a postwar occupying power with an average of 40,000 soldiers on the ground, the United States won the war, but at a high cost in U.S. (over 4,000) and Philippine lives (perhaps as many as 200,000 insurrectos and civilians). U.S. forces and their enemy both used harsh and vile methods that violated the law of war and contemporary norms of civilization. Indeed, the war ended with a series of highly publicized courts-martial that alleged violations of human rights and the extant laws of war. The U.S. effort in the Philippines defined “winning ugly,” but it was, nevertheless, a clear-cut victory.

Our next foray into large-scale, expeditionary force COIN was in Vietnam, a strategic defeat of epic proportions. Our expeditionary force grew from a few hundred advisers to more than 500,000 personnel. As the costs grew, we escalated the ground and air wars. The final cost in blood and treasure was astounding: 58,000 Americans and a million or more Vietnamese died. We spent well over a trillion dollars (adjusted for inflation). The U.S. war in Vietnam bedeviled five U.S. presidents for two decades, all in pursuit of a cause that many did not see as a vital interest.

The final two cases, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, await final historical assessment. In both cases, historians will have to search for benefits to the United States and its allies that could justify more than a trillion dollars in cost, more than 6,000 dead Americans, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, and more than 15,000 dead Afghan civilians.

The fate of Afghanistan today still hangs in the balance. The surge there has made progress, but not nearly as much as the surge in Iraq. The allied expeditionary force will depart at the end of 2014, leaving behind a large Afghan Army and police force, as well as a new, undefined NATO “advise and assist” force. A new government and progress in reconciliation may yet rescue this beleaguered state.

The assessment of our efforts in Iraq will be forever colored by the fact that the primary rationale for the operation — Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and research and development programs — had long ceased to exist before the invasion. In 2013, we can be glad that Saddam Hussein and his evil brood have gone. We can take some satisfaction from the fact that we are not threatened by the specter of Iraqi WMD research efforts. However, the Maliki government is no prize. Governance is problematical. The regional balance of power has worsened for the United States and its friends, and in 2012 thousands of Iraqis died in sectarian and ethnic violence.


In the future, smaller commitments arranged around trainers, advisers and the use of commandos — COIN Lite — may well make the best military and political sense. In most cases, the weight of operations on the low end of the conflict spectrum is likely to fall on our hard-pressed special operations forces, and especially those units that are regionally oriented. General-purpose forces can take some of the weight off of our elite warriors. Many security assistance operations involve basic skills or small-unit training. Regular forces can form “advise and assist” units or ad hoc military assistance teams to take some of the pressure off of elite forces and allow for the best possible utilization of special operators. Deployed Marine units can also help out. All of them should be supported by linguists and foreign area officers who can help the regular forces adapt to these irregular operations.

Sometimes, however, COIN Lite won’t be enough. Despite historical cautions, there may well be calls for the United States to engage in larger operations. For example, if Cuba or North Korea were to become unstable or their governments suddenly fall, this might require a large force for stability operations. An insurgency in oil-rich Nigeria might draw us into a larger conflict.

To prepare for these larger operations and support and reinforce special operations forces or security assistance teams, the Army should designate one light division — in addition to its maintaining combat readiness — as a test bed for irregular warfare, large-scale counterinsurgency and complex stability operations. The Army and Marines need to continue their peacetime cooperation on these issues. Reserve component engineers, civil affairs, psychological operations and special forces units will continue to be invaluable. These forces will be the constituencies that will hopefully keep irregular warfare doctrine alive and well.

Learning Lessons

Our contemporary experience has shown us that whole-of-government and allied participation is important in irregular conflicts. With tight budgets, it will be important to keep the superstructure of these efforts intact. The State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations must be preserved and well-supported, as should the interagency Center for Complex Operations housed at the National Defense University. This small center is the focal point for continuing interdepartmental dialogue and learning interagency lessons from the recent past. The tight relationship between the armed forces and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the field and at the combatant command level must also be exercised and preserved. These are modest, low-cost efforts, but they are not likely to do well in budget battles unless they are protected by senior departmental leaders.

In a similar vein, those same creative leaders need to keep allied involvement as high as possible. This will aid in sharing burdens and intelligence, but it is also essential for international legitimacy.

Notwithstanding the huge volume of work in the past, the irregular-warfare community needs to encourage more academic research. It is clear from the discussion above that the basic theories and models need clarification or, at the very least, revalidation. Scholars and doctrine writers need to further assess nonpopulation-centric counterinsurgency. There are also new studies that question the effectiveness of economic assistance in counterinsurgency settings. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, has exhorted the military institutions of higher learning to learn the lessons of the past decade of war. There is no more important part of that effort than re-examining our beliefs about the nature of irregular warfare and how best to fight it.

At a time when defense resources are scarce and missions are diversifying, fashioning effective tools for counterinsurgency will be difficult but not impossible. Two other things are necessary for policy success: good intelligence and prudent decision-making. Flawed intelligence puts operators at a great disadvantage. Determining what’s happening on the ground is a critical first step to making a good decision on any case. Intelligence should drive operations, but on occasion we will need to conduct covert or clandestine operations to improve situational awareness.

Next, before any discussion of available tools, there must be an assessment of what our interests are in a particular case. It goes without saying that the size of the interest in any case should dominate any question of instruments and levels of commitment. However, prudence is often frustrated by the sunk-cost problem. The more we do today, the more we are likely to do tomorrow to reap a return on investment or to safeguard our prestige. Passion or lack of passion may play a role. It is often difficult to know when and how to stop. Surging or reinforcing is not always wrong, but when it is, it can be catastrophic.

Advocating good intelligence and prudent decision-making might sound like so much “National Security 101,” but in every problematic case noted above, one or both of these factors were absent. Above all else, we must not repeat these mistakes. AFJ