New Counterinsurgency Manual, Same Old Military

Michael Gordon has an interesting look at the nearly-complete revisions to the counterinsurgency manual and the cultural turmoil it is causing within the American military.

The United States Army and Marines are finishing work on a new counterinsurgency doctrine that draws on the hard-learned lessons from Iraq and makes the welfare and protection of civilians a bedrock element of military strategy. The doctrine warns against some of the practices used early in the war, when the military operated without an effective counterinsurgency playbook. It cautions against overly aggressive raids and mistreatment of detainees. Instead it emphasizes the importance of safeguarding civilians and restoring essential services, and the rapid development of local security forces.

The current military leadership in Iraq has already embraced many of the ideas in the doctrine. But some military experts question whether the Army and the Marines have sufficient troops to carry out the doctrine effectively while also preparing for other threats.

The subtleties of the battle were highlighted Wednesday when the Iraqi Interior Ministry suspended a police brigade on suspicion that some members had been involved in death squads. The move was the most serious step Iraqi officials had taken to tackle the festering problem of militias operating within ministry forces.

The new doctrine is part of a broader effort to change the culture of a military that has long promoted the virtues of using firepower and battlefield maneuvers in swift, decisive operations against a conventional enemy. “The Army will use this manual to change its entire culture as it transitions to irregular warfare,” said Jack Keane, a retired four-star general who served in 2003 as the acting chief of staff of the Army. “But the Army does not have nearly enough resources, particularly in terms of people, to meet its global responsibilities while making such a significant commitment to irregular warfare.”


The military generally turned its back on counterinsurgency operations after the Vietnam War. The Army concentrated on defending Europe against a Soviet attack. The Marines were focused on expeditionary operations in the third world.

“Basically, after Vietnam, the general attitude of the American military was that we don’t want to fight that kind of war again,” said Conrad C. Crane, the director of the military history institute at the Army War College, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and one of the principal drafters of the new doctrine. “The Army’s idea was to fight the big war against the Russians and ignore these other things.”

A common assumption was that if the military trained for major combat operations, it would be able to easily handle less violent operations like peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. But that assumption proved to be wrong in Iraq; in effect, the military without an up-to-date doctrine. Different units improvised different approaches. The failure by civilian policy makers to prepare for the reconstruction of Iraq compounded the problem.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the idea that the American military doesn’t understand how to fight counterinsurgency is nonsense. We’ve been doing it successfully since the French and Indian War. The United States Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual has been a seminal book on the subject since 1940.

The problem isn’t doctrine but culture. Since at least the 1993 debacle in Somalia, it has been clear that our force was not properly configured for what we now call peace and stability operations. We lack sufficient civil affairs, special forces, military police, engineer, translator, and psychological operations assets. To his credit, Don Rumsfeld began to change this a few years ago. But the speed and scope of the change has been inadequate to the operations tempo.

Kevin Drum, an opponent of the war who nonetheless would like to see us win, asks three interesting questions:

  • Is the Pentagon really serious about this, top to bottom? Or is this new doctrine the work of a small cadre of counterinsurgency acolytes, destined to be adopted reluctantly if at all by most battalion and brigade level commanders?
  • A manual is good, but how long will it take to actually train combat brigades to get good at this stuff? A year? Five years?
  • Do we have enough troops to make it work? Do we have enough time?

He skepticism on all counts is well founded.

The Iraq War has surely changed the mindset of much of the senior leadership, and almost everyone at the battalion level and below has now grown up in a military that has primarily engaged in what we once called “operations other than war.” Still, there are powerful incentives institutionally and politically to prepare for big wars rather than small ones.

We can retrain our forces pretty quickly at the unit level. Indeed, I suspect it’s already happened on the fly. Professional militaries adapt quickly and organically to changing threats. Given that they die while learning, the incentives are strong. The problem, again, is not that our Infantry and Armor forces can’t learn counterinsurgency but rather than we’re fighting an insurgency using mostly Infantry and Armor forces.

Do we have enough troops? It depends on how long we’ll be in Iraq doing this mission. Three years ago, I would have predicted (indeed, almost certainly predicted) that we’d be down to an advisory cadre by now. Obviously, that hasn’t happened.

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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. I agree that the US has long shown expertise in counterinsurgency. The problem is that we keep having to re-discover that expertise.

    We had certainly had trouble, but ended up doing fairly well in the Philippines after the Spanish-American war. Sometimes part of the answer was technology such as the 1911 Colt .45 which helped to stop the drugged up suicide attackers of the day.

    But the next several large wars had a minimal amount of counterinsurgency for different reasons. WWI because it ended with armies in the field, rather than conquering. WWII because while there were some attempts to start a counter insurgency, most of the fodder for that insurgency had been thrown away in last ditch stands and the unrelenting destruction from bombing made the “sea” for the insurgents to numb and desperate for survival to shelter a counter insurgency. Korea didn’t see it because like WWI it was ended with armies in the field. Vietnam could be considered primarily counter insurgency, but much of the military emphasis was on the battles. And of course, Vietnam was ultimately a loss, despite the military winning all the battles. You can argue whether that loss was a “fifth column” betrayal at home that sapped the will to fight, an enemy which absorbed enormous loses and kept fighting, the limitations self imposed because of cold war considerations that provided sanctuaries to the enemy, inept senior leadership both political and military or a combination. And again with the Gulf war, we ended the war with armies in the field (sort of for the Iraqis), so not true counterinsurgency against us (and we didn’t support the counter insurgency against the other side).

    Yes there were several “small wars”. The 1940 manual was what we learned from those in the 20’s and 30’s. But the big promotions came with the big wars.

    So to Drum’s questions I think there are some answers.
    1) From what I have read, most of the battalion and brigade commanders that have been through Iraq are adopting this. Yes, there have been some exceptions, but they are becoming less and less. To put it another way, promotion is general given to those who do well. Those battalion and brigade commanders rotating through Iraq are likely to either go along with this or find their careers stunted. That is probably as good an impetus for “being really serious” as you can get at this level (besides the impetus to win, which still might lead you to taking a poor path).
    2) Again, the quality of the response in 2006 seems to be light years ahead of 2003. Each year has been showing improvement. Look at the build up of Iraqi forces we have trained as a piece of this.
    3) We currently have about 147K troops. We have 300K Iraqi troops with about 70% of them sufficiently trained to be in the lead. We have about 17.5K coalition troops (about 2/3 UK and south Korea). So since I haven’t seen the numbers “required” by the new manual for Iraq, I can’t speak to this. But we currently show 375K plus more coming on line as the 90K Iraqi troops complete their training. Would it have been nice to have the 206K army and 27K marines (about 30 and 13% of their pre-Clinton totals) along with 138K air force and 137K Navy cut by Clinton to be able to throw into the mix? Sure. But as a wise man said, you go to war with the army you have.

  2. Cernig says:


    Oftimes political loyalty is a laudable thing but there comes a point where it becomes blinkered against the truth and this administration has long passed that point.

    Rumsfield talks a good game on reconstruction, but his tenure at Defense has been characterized by dropping multiple billions into black-hole boondoggles like the ABM system, DDX destroyers, F-22s for anti-IED operations, nuclear subs for special ops insertions and especially the Future Combat Systems program. Every single one has been plagued by over-runs, cost-plus pork and program failures that are pushing the definition of Cheop’s Law to untold heights.

    You’re right that this manual is nothing new – it is a reprint of stuff that’s been known for a long time, as evidenced by not just that 1940 Marine text but also more recent work by the likes of William S. Lind, the man who coined the term Fourth Generational warfare and who anticipated every single thing that has gone wrong in the Occupation President’s misadventures.

    Most non-loyalist analysts agree, the truth is that the Bush administration is led and misled by old and cold warriors who agreed with the neoconservative movement (who firmly believed that conventional Third Generation forces would suffice to create their New American Century). Amazingly, neocons were still writing that a Third generation force can prevail in counterinsurgency as late as the first two weeks of the recent conflict in Lebanon – but, oddly, not since.

    The Bush cold warriors and the neocons deliberately threw out every doctrine of counterinsurgency and imposed their beliefs on the military – with unfortunate and entirely forseeable results. They then persisted for years in not learning from the mistakes they wouldn’t admit they made ( in some cases even to the present day). Their lack of mental discipline and responsibility to the American public in not reality-checking their pet theories should be blamed, not apologized for.

    Regards, C

    P.S. john – if you have an ounce of sense and any opportunity you don’t get into a war of choice until you have the army you want. Even the madman Hitler knew that! Iraq could have waited a couple of years, if it was really necessary at all (which I dispute deeply). How different could it have been if Afghanistan had been done with all of the troops and resources we had, then a build up of the needed forces had been made and all the counterinsurgency lessons had been relearned before applying them to Iraq?

  3. Tim says:

    How many F-22 Raptors does it take to defeat a Somali warlord? How many DD(X) destroyers? There is no doubt that the US military knows how to fight unconventional wars, but their love (and the love of Congressional funders) is for the big-ticket, gee-whiz items that are perfectly suited for taking on the Soviet Union but not so good for engaging and killing the guy wearing rope sandals carrying an RPG. The funds needed to train and field a plausable counter-insurgency force get tied up in building hardware.

  4. Cernig,

    I’m not sure I get your Hitler reference. Hitler planned for the war to start in 1945-47, not 1939. So he very much started the war with the army he had, not the one he wanted. Yes it was the UK and French who declared war, but I hope you can see that Hitler pushed the issue.

    You also don’t discuss the point I was making when I made that point. Clinton cut about twice as many troops as we have in Iraq. So talking about how many troops we have vs need is interesting, but recognizing that we went to war with an army that had just suffered major cuts is also relevant.

    As far as Afghanistan, do you remember those times. We had a strong urge to “do something”. The NYT was warning of the coming quagmire while pointing out that Afghanistan was the rock that the Soviet and British empires dashed themselves on. Could we win at any cost? How easily would it have been for us to be at the same place as the Russians taking huge body counts and showing no progress. Our success in Afghanistan is a miracle. But 2500 years of history tells us that you are never going to conquer Afghanistan much more thoroughly than it has been. You look at our casualty rate, amount of territory controlled, etc compared to the British or Soviet empires forays into the country and you can see that we have an unprecedented success for the country.

    As far as Iraq goes, we may just have to agree to disagree on that. The administration, the pentagon and congress all disagreed with you at the time.

    I think you and Tim are both guilty of trying to fight the next war like the last war. Is the ABM the optimal counter insurgency weapon? No, its not even a somewhat reasonable weapon. But if Clinton hadn’t hamstrung the project for his two terms, we would have a different set of cards at the table for dealing with NK and Iran. Are the DD(X) and F-22 perfect for counter insurgency? No, though certainly closer than the ABM. But they are good for military options against China or Iran. Your focus on only the current problem and lack of awareness of other threats tell me you are not a rational voice in the debate.

  5. Cernig says:

    Gee, thanks john. Tell me, when you say

    Your focus on only the current problem and lack of awareness of other threats tell me you are not a rational voice in the debate.

    On a thread where James’ post only talks about the current problem – do you include HIM in that critique as well? Or are you doing the old switcheroo where you argue that the few words I and James have presented here are our entire opinions on the other threats? They aren’t and maybe sometime I will have the opportunity to explain mine.

    The Hitler reference – even when forced into major war early, Hitler took massive steps to upgrade the German military before hostilities began because he knew they were coming. That those steps would have been more advanced given a few more years hardly invalidates my point.

    Regards, C

  6. cernig,

    James posted on a new manual and raises the reasonable question of if this is a file and forget manual or will realy be a part of the whole. I didn’t get any sense that James was arguing that the only thing the US military should be looking at is counterinsurgency war.

    You on the other hand specifically complain about focus being put on other projects (ABM, DDX, etc.). So I think the critic that you are only focusing on one aspect is apt in a way not applicable to James.

    I still don’t get your Hitler argument.
    First you argue, “if you have an ounce of sense and any opportunity you don’t get into a war of choice until you have the army you want. Even the madman Hitler knew that!”
    I point out that Hitler got into WWII before he planned to without the entire army he intended.

    Your response is “even when forced into major war early, Hitler took massive steps to upgrade the German military before hostilities began because he knew they were coming. ”
    So now you are acknowledging that Hitler was forced into the war early, which is in direct contradiction to your original argument that “even the madman Hitler knew that”.

    And the entire Hitler argument was sparked I believe by my pointing out that the question of sufficient troops would have a very different set of paramaters if Clinton hadn’t ignored the earlier AQ attacks (WTC ’93, Khobi towers, USS Cole, averted asian plane attacks, embassy bombings, etc) and if he didn’t have the sense or will to fight, at least not reduce the means to fight for those who did. So to your original “ounce of sense” argument, what shows even less sense in going to war with the army you have than the one you want? Could it be ignoring the war and reducing your troops in the face of the war?