Learning Under Fire!
November 21, 2011
It is incorrect to state that the American Army that rolled into Iraq in 2003 had no counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. Though there had been such a reaction against defeat in Southeast Asia that Army schools were directed to throw away their counterinsurgency files in the mid 1970s, interest had returned by the 1980s because of conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador. But doctrinal guidance was based upon an approach emphasizing only a small advisory footprint heavily dependent on Special Forces, preferring to avoid active or large-scale military intervention. The creation of a separate Special Operations Command in 1987 reinforced the lack of interest of American conventional forces in counterinsurgency. At the time of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 the capstone U.S. Army doctrinal manual, FM 3-0 Operations, devoted only one page to counterinsurgency, and the primary emphasis was on providing minimal support so hosts could solve their own problems.
By the summer of 2004, the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq convinced Army leadership that new counterinsurgency doctrine was needed. The Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate at Fort Leavenworth was given the mission to fill the gap quickly, and in October 2004 produced Field Manual (Interim) 3-07.22, Counterinsurgency Operations. The number indicated that the subject was seen as a subset of stability operations, and the interim designation meant that the publication would have to be replaced within two years. The 2004 manual was very tactically oriented and filled with specific tactics, techniques, and procedures for COIN.
The scheduled revision of that interim field manual became the catalyst for the creation of FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, in 2006. By the time FMI 3-07.22 came under review in late 2005, the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth had a new commander, LTG David Petraeus, fresh from his second tour in Iraq. He had a vision to use Fort Leavenworth as an "Engine of Change" to make the Army an improved learning organization, better equipped to fight irregular wars, as well as to handle any other assigned missions in an uncertain future. He expanded the Army's Lessons Learned programs to bring insights back from the field faster so they could be incorporated into education, training, and doctrine. He altered scenarios at collective training centers like Fort Irwin to better reflect the complex realities of warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq. He changed the curricula for officer training to emphasize learning and adapting in irregular environments. And he planned to use the new counterinsurgency doctrine, with a new FM number, as another driver for these changes.
LTG Petraeus gathered together a team of Army writers beginning in November 2005. But he wanted this to be more than just a U.S. Army product. He envisioned a joint and combined effort with the British and the U.S. Marine Corps. Unfortunately the overburdened British doctrine writers could not keep up with the project's ambitious timeline to be completed in a year, though they were consulted often and stayed connected. However, LTG James Mattis, in charge of U.S. Marine Corps Combat Development Command and responsible for their service doctrine, was in complete agreement with his Army counterpart, believing that new COIN doctrine was necessary and that future wars would require better learning military organizations. Mattis and Petraeus had served together in the Pentagon and Iraq, and had a terrific relationship. The creation of the new Army/Marine Corps COIN manual resulted from the fortuitous linkage of two soldier-scholars with similar backgrounds and interests who had been forged in the crucible of Iraq to change their respective services, and were given simultaneous assignments where they could make that happen.
Eventually the writing team agreed upon eight historically based Principles for COIN:
1. Legitimacy is the main objective
2. Unity of effort is essential.
3. Political factors are primary.
4. Counterinsurgents must understand the environment.
5. Intelligence drives operations.
6. Insurgents must be isolated from their cause and support.
7. Security under the Rule of Law is essential.
8. Counterinsurgents should prepare for a long-term commitment.
The focus on legitimacy as the key goal meant that the new doctrine would be population-centric and not enemy-centric. While killing and capturing foes was still important, long-term success would come from gaining and maintaining popular support. But the writers had a lot to learn about what legitimacy meant. Early drafts of the manual relied upon a definition that was based very much on Western liberal values of political participation. Later revisions recognized that other factors, such as security concerns or religious beliefs, could shape local definitions of legitimacy. Determining those local attitudes is integral to the fourth principle, which would also help produce a radically different approach to military intelligence gathering in the doctrine, utilizing much cultural anthropology.
The writing team also determined there were other Imperatives of COIN that could be discerned from observing contemporary conflicts. They eventually settled on five:
1. Manage information and expectations
2. Use the appropriate level of force
3. Learn and adapt
4. Empower the lowest levels
5. Support the host nation
The second imperative underwent the most revision, as there was debate about whether it should deal with "minimum" or "measured" force. Some of our allies have doctrine emphasizing the use of the minimum possible force at all times, but LTG Petraeus himself got involved in determining our final wording. The concept recognizes that there are times when a show of overwhelming force may be useful, even if minimum necessary force is the general rule. These imperatives also highlight the importance of decentralizing in a "mosaic war" that differs from town to town and province to province, of building local institutions to sustain victory, and of keeping popular expectations at a realistic level.
The manual also contains a part about "paradoxes" of COIN, designed to illustrate differences with conventional warfare. That section has been described as "zen-like" by both supporters and critics of the manual. The nine are:
1. Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.
2. Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is.
3. The more successful the counterinsurgency is, the less force can be used and the more risk must be accepted.
4. Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.
5. Some of the best weapons for counterinsurgents do not shoot.
6. The host nation doing something tolerably is normally better than us doing it well.
7. If a tactic works this week, it might not work next week; if it works in this province, it might not work in the next.
8. Tactical success guarantees nothing.
9. Many important decisions are not made by generals.
The section was heavily edited by senior officers in the final review, as they added many qualifiers to statements they thought were too dogmatic. For instance, the last paradox initially started with "Most." The intent of the section has always been to stimulate thought, not necessarily prescribe actions.
The last addition to the list of paradoxes was the third item, which is a condensed version of a lengthy presentation given to the writing team by Sarah Sewall, Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights. Her involvement was a result of another initiative by LTG Petraeus, to solicit broad commentary and contributions for the doctrine. Once the Army/Marine Corps writing team had its first solid draft completed, he convened a unique gathering at Fort Leavenworth to critique the product. He personally approved the guest list which included representatives from the CIA, USAID, and State Department; officers from other services and countries; leading academicians; veterans of past and current conflicts; and journalists. Sewall and her center co-sponsored the event, and she brought in a number of colleagues from the Human Rights community and non-governmental organizations. The conference featured open and no-holds-barred discussions, with very active participation from Sewall and LTG Petraeus, who sat up front. One opening presentation came from British Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster, reiterating the themes of his controversial Military Review article about American failures to adapt to the requirements of COIN in Iraq. After each chapter or appendix author from the writing team described their work, they were followed by a specially selected commentator instructed to be very critical. Then the floor was opened to comments by all attendees. Everyone was also instructed to submit post-conference comments via e-mail. The writers received hundreds of pages of new ideas, and the gathering generated significant changes in the field manual.
After the conference the structure and writing assignments for the manual were essentially finalized. This was a true team effort between Soldiers and Marines. Generally where one service had primary responsibility for a chapter, the other had a secondary reader assigned to review and comment. By the time the final draft was sent out to the field in June 2006 for comment, its contributors included well known experts such as Frank Hoffman, David Kilcullen, Richard Lacquement, Montgomery McFate, and John Nagl. But the final version that was published five years ago in December 2006 was also heavily affected by more than 4000 comments provided by Soldiers and Marines, and their experience in Afghanistan and Iraq was really the most important influence on the new doctrine. Those contemporary best practices, combined with historical insights and future visions, produced a new field manual for counterinsurgency that demonstrated the Army's (and Marine Corps') ability to learn under fire. It had an immediate impact in Afghanistan and Iraq.