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.