Counterinsurgency, by the Book

Richard Shultz and Andrea Dew of Tufts University’s Fletcher School have written a new book on counterinsurgency operations. They provide some clues to its contents in an op-ed in yesterday’s NYT entitled “Counterinsurgency, by the Book.” It focuses on the military’s attempt to rewrite their core CI doctrinal manual, FM 3-24.

The whole piece is worth a read (as is, according to Cori Dauber, the book itself) but this passage particularly struck me:

THE third problem with the manual is that it actually overstresses winning “hearts and minds” — the political, economic, civic and other “soft power” tactics aimed at winning popular support. Yes, such steps are keys to victory; they played a central part in counterinsurgency victories in the 1950’s by the Philippine government of Ramón Magsaysay and by the British in Malaya. In both places, the government invested heavily in education, local economies, public works and social welfare programs to wean their populations away from the insurgents.

But soft power tactics are not the only keys to victory. An insurgency is still war, and the key is finding and capturing or killing terrorist and militia leaders. It is an intelligence-led struggle. The Pentagon manual rightly insists that “intelligence drives operations” and that “without good intelligence, a counterinsurgent is like a blind boxer.” Yet the document provides no organizational blueprint for collecting such intelligence.

We have to take a lesson from other democracies that have figured out how to neutralize and defuse armed groups. The British and the Israelis, among others, have refined an effective intelligence model through bloody trial and error. It involves collecting actionable intelligence at the local level on a continual basis.

Consider the Israeli experience. After the 1967 war it built up a remarkable intelligence-gathering system in the West Bank and Gaza. But after the Oslo accords of 1993 it gave up this advantage and withdrew. However, when the second intifada erupted in late 2000 and Israeli casualties mounted, the Israelis went back to work. They honeycombed the territories with local intelligence units that infiltrated Palestinian armed groups through agents, electronic surveillance and paid informants. It was not easy, but they did it, and their intelligence successes contributed to the Palestinian Authority’s gradual de-emphasis of terrorist acts in favor of political initiatives, and even led Hamas to engage in the cease-fire that held until the current crisis.

While this is all dead-on, it is unintentionally ironic, at least in the American context. It’s simply not politically feasible for the United States to engage in decades-long counterinsurgency operations with a steady drip of friendly casualties and terrorist strikes.

Certainly, the Israeli model, with its two steps forward, three steps back results, hardly seems worth emulating. Its brilliant success from 1967 to 1993 included two major wars, minor military actions, and countless successful strikes on Israeli civilians by the PLO and Hamas. And its dogged intel ops from late 2000 to now have hardly yielded much positive. Granted, there’s no way to measure how bad things would have been had the Israeli intelligence machine not been so proficient.

Dan Drezner, now Schultz’ colleague, has some interesting thoughts on the piece as well. His comments section on this one is also well worth a read.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Cernig says:

    Hi James,

    Schultz was also one of the authors for a recent Weekly Standard article which made the same argument about hands-on intelligence work in a more detailled way. (I can only assume the WS ran it as further ammunition for the Militant Right’s conspiracy theory which blames the CIA for undermining the neocon dream.)

    It’s understandable why the Right is concentrating on what Schultz is saying about Israel but it is also a pity. He has just as much to say about the UK’s intel work in Northern Ireland in the WS piece and it is actually even more relevant.

    I say a pity because Schultz is utterly correct IMHO but then the Right (including yourself, I’m afraid to say) make the mistake of muddling Israel’s success in intel with it’s failure to do anything good with the intel…and that mistake is entirely due to Israel’s assimilation of neocon thoughts on anti-insurgency use of force which amount to “use a bigger hammer”. Every single one of Israel’s “two steps forward, three steps back results” is a result of that muddling.

    Israel and America are incredibly bad at counterinsurgency because they rely on massive sweeps by third generation warfare units (tanks, airstrikes, huge but innacurate firepower) and insist on treating the indigenous populace as part of the problem rather than potentially part of the solution. Attempts in the 80’s and 90’s to do something about that were swept aside by a drive towards bigger, shinier and more expensive toys instead.

    By contrast, the British model of “hearts and minds” first and as low an impact troop presence as possible, accompanied by a carefully targeted and selective mix of “shoot to kill” and imprisonment of leaders (you kill the really intracable ones and lock up the more moderate ones so you can do a deal for their freedom later) has been generally more successful. The Brits call it “Raid and Aid”. It worked in Northern Ireland, has been successfully used by Spain to bring ETA to negotiations and was arguably the more successful paradigm in Iraqi provinces right up until U.S. neocon meddling in higher level policies threw the Basra baby out with the Shiite bathwater.

    All the bits of the puzzle are there – it’s pretty easy to see what the practical failures of the neocon model have been and all the solutions have been available since at least the ’80’s. One has to wonder why the failed model is still being so aggresively pushed. Maybe the Weekly Standard is right when it says resistance is due to an American syndrome of “not invented here”. Then again, as you yourself recently pointed out, the needed doctrines were in U.S. service back then too but got pushed out until their exponents were regarded as mavericks.

    Regards, Cernig

  2. Anderson says:

    It’s simply not politically feasible for the United States to engage in decades-long counterinsurgency operations with a steady drip of friendly casualties and terrorist strikes.

    I’m not so sure … if we had a President who could be honest with the American people about what we have to do and why. And who didn’t have a record of screwing things up in the most cavalier fashion.

    From LBJ through Nixon & onwards, there’s been this recurrent sense that the American people won’t accept casualties and have to be lied to. I think that attitude tells us more about the sociopaths who hold it, than about America.

  3. James Joyner says:


    Interesting. I’m familiar with Schultz’ older work, having read some post-Cold War reconstruction stuff he wrote as part of my dissertation research, but haven’t seen anything lately. I’ll give the Standard piece a look.

    I do think the Brits are a better model. Unfortunately, fanatical as they might be, the Irish Republican Army are at least Westerners who operate among those raised in a modern Christian culture. They’re a very different kettle of fish than the Islamists.

    I obviously don’t know how to differentiate Israeli intel from how they use it operationally, given that I’m not privy to Israeli intel. Perhaps you can enlighten us on that score.

    I’ve been pretty critical of the Israeli approach to counterterrorism for a decade or so, although I’m sympathetic to their cause. Similarly, I’ve been opposed to the Wilsonian Idealist and Neo-Conservative approaches to world politics since I’ve been aware of them.

    I supported the Iraq War for purely Realist reasons that have since been mostly proven untrue. Once one is entered into a conflict, however, a new dynamic is created that makes leaving without achieving one’s political objectives very problematic.

  4. LJD says:

    the British model of “hearts and minds” first and as low an impact troop presence as possible, accompanied by a carefully targeted and selective mix of “shoot to kill” and imprisonment of leaders (you kill the really intracable ones and lock up the more moderate ones so you can do a deal for their freedom later) has been generally more successful.

    Except in Israel, where the ‘insurgency’ has rejected every concession in an attempt to foster peace. Where the ‘insurgency’ has vowed to destroy the country extending the olive branch.

    This sort of tactic is equated with ‘kidnappings’ by Hezbollah, for which they return the favor and demand a trade. Which brings us to our current situation: Lebanon rejecting a peace deal, at their own peril, perhaps due to their tolerance for the ‘insurgents’.

    On Anderson’s comment, I guess you need to consider who is doing the lying. We nearly expect it from all of our politicians, but there’s a clear difference in response from the noisy and venomous left.

  5. walter66 says:

    “Granted, there’s no way to measure how bad things would have been had the Israeli intelligence machine not been so proficient.”

    yep, we could of listened to Iranian spy Ahmed Chalabi about Iraq’s wmd

    we could have listened to Iranian spy Ahmed Chalabi on how we would be greeted by Iraqis

    we could have listened to Iranian spy Ahmed Chalabi’s buddy “curveball” about Iraq’s biological weapons

    Wolfiwicz said that after the fall of Saddam it was planned to turn Iraq over to Iranian spy Ahmed Chalabi

    ….oh, we did do all that……sometimes I wonder if we are using the US military to further Iran’s goals in the region?

  6. Anderson says:

    We nearly expect it from all of our politicians

    True except for the “nearly”? And then, assuming that our pols are lying, we’re unwilling to see our boys and girls die for their lying little projects.

    Leading the lying pols to say, “dammit, the people won’t accept sacrifices, we have to lie to them!” Feedback loop continues ….

  7. walter66 says:

    MOST Americans disapprove of Bush’s handling of terrorism. A new Washington Post/ABC poll shows 50 percent disapprove of his handling of terrorism (vs. 47 percent approval)

  8. Cernig says:


    I think you’ll find Schultz’s WS piece does a pretty good job of giving those details on Israeli intelligence ops as opposed to their failed military strategy and tactics.

    When you write that the IRA are not the same kettle of fish as Islamists, I assume you’re making the same point as LJD (I could be wrong here) that an Islamist insurgency is far more intractable. Sure, that’s the case now but recall that two decades ago the IRA position was that they would never surrender or negotiate unless the Brits had left Ireland and the island was reunified. Yet today they are at the political table and that demand isn’t even on their agenda. That change is mainly because all the hardliners have gone – leaving the leadership open to more moderate types (including one who was quite likely an MI5 agent).

    Considering that the neocon Right coined the term “long war” it is interesting that only what one might call the emergent “progressive realist” model is taking that phrase seriously. The neocons are still looking for quick fixes and a series of abortive sprints rather than, in the words of Kipling, filling “the unforgiving minute, With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.”

    Regards, Cernig

  9. LJD says:


    Your response is well thought, but I need some more information here. Don’t your think there’s a possibility that progressive realism only serves our enemies’ ability to train, equip, arm, and strike? Perhaps they seek to attack and/or destroy us precisely because of our way of life? Could it be that their leaders are enjoying the benefits of this free market approach, while their people starve and die of disease?

    On the ‘quick fixes and a series of abortive sprints’ I would argue that this is not ‘policy’ as much as required reaction to the propaganda war, the presence of media on the battlefield, the political climate in the country, and the fact that we are our own worst critics. The reaction is required because the impatient masses demand it. Just look at the response to the Iraq invasion, and the unprecedented successes that were glossed over. We can no longer have clear cut objectives, just reactions to polls and election years.

    There has never in history been a war won by a free country that could not get behind the effort. Then again, there has never been a country that could not collectively get behind it own best interest (without destroying or remaking itself).

  10. anna says:

    Counter insurgency always involves a whole set of assumptions from the society that delivers it.

    For example in the eighties Commentary about as pro Israeli a magazine as you can get complained that Israels policy was to give power to the Palestinian radicals in contrast to the moderates. There were a lot of forces in the various Israelis intelligence “commuities” that did not want the potential of a functional Palestinaian state.

    Later thery nurtured Hamas as a counter to the PLO.

    The whole compromise thing is pretty complex, the genera l rule of history has been that as various forces gain real day to day power and responsibilities they become less inclined to “revolutionary” actions that undo them. Of course it can be paradoxical, Arafat’s power was within a stagnant revolutionary organization and he had as little interest in a “normal” order for palestinians than Israel.

    Whatever the case the situation is dysfunctional meaning lots of tendencies towards continued disruption.

    The whole Israeli compromis, try top make a deal thing is not one way. You see the reality barrier that bocks Israels supporters right now, Hezbulah did not fire rockets until Israel bombed, unlike Israel it pretty much kept the 48 hour ceasefire, it has said it will stop if Israel stops the air raids and wil be happy to fight a pure ground war.

    Israel chose not to. It cries about the rockets which are indeed war crimes. But it commits crimes of it’s own by it’s retailiations. It’s systems are too slow to hit the crews so it destroys the village or neihborhood where it suspects they came from minutes, hours or even days after the barrage. This is justified as defence.

    Similarly it has admitted that it can’t stop the many smugglers routes coming into lebanon just as we couldn’t stop the ho Chi Minh trail. It destroys roads and blockades harbors not to stop terrorists but to punish the Lebanese population.

    But all is explained by stopping the rockets (which are a war crime.) Yet if it confined it’s assaults to ground attacks on the units firing these rockets a so far credible claim by Hezbullah is that they would cease.

    But Israel must always be the victim.

    We have a similar attitude, we also insist on being liked. Nor do we feel any obligation for those who help us. What did the Czech Republic and others get for sending troops to Iraq? Unlike “old Europe” they need visas to get in. So much for allies.

    In South Vietnam and elsewhere we helped destroy those closest to our values because they did not flatter and keep us from moral questions. The true Democrats were locked up by the South Vietnamese governments or in the case of a frined of a friend set on dnagerous missions until they dies because they questioned the system. Of course we left hundreds of thousands of records listing all those who cooperated with us because to destroy them would have risked our more precious lives.

    So we sit in our Green Zones with simplistic plans. The current administration is more naive than others. It really thought that twenty somegthing kids with politically correct values could govern better than te more expeienced so it recruited them from the Heritage Foundation resume list and set them in charge. It also felt a free market was taking Iraqi money and giving it to American corporations though indeed in the first 5 months it did give 28 million of Iraqi money (over a thousandth fo the total oil for food money we seized) and gavye it to the military for local rebuilding which it boasted about. But for the most part it could not hire Iraqi engineers or use Iraqi products because theze were associated with enterprises still technically government owned and thus socialists. Better use Irai money to hire Bechtel.

    Now the right understands this doesn’t work and the only solution is exterminate the brutes. Thus John Podhoeretz says our flaw was the inability to kill all Sunni males of military age and Limbaugh says you need to kill lots of civilians.

    This is the political impulse which directs current CI thought. That the military attempts somewhat better if imperfect models somewhat redeems us, but they are a war with the SOD an dpresident Cheney.