Next month, the Army and Marine Corps will unveil a revised counterinsurgency manual scheduled which incorporates lessons learned in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Thomas Barnett, author of two best-selling books on military strategy, summarizes its core principles:
1) The more you protect your force, the less secure you are (If military forces stay locked up in compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared and cede the initiative to insurgents.)
2) The more force used, the less effective it is (Using substantial force increases the risk of collateral damage and mistakes, and increases the opportunity for insurgent propaganda.)
3) The more successful counterinsurgency is, the less force that can be used and the more risk that must be accepted (As the level of insurgent violence drops, the military must be used less, with stricter rules of engagement, and the police force used more.)
4) Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction (Often an insurgent carries out a terrorist act or guerrilla raid with the primary purpose of causing a reaction that can then be exploited.)
5) The best weapons for counterinsurgency do not shoot (Often dollars and ballots have more impact than bombs and bullets.)
6) The host nation's doing something tolerably is better than our doing it well (Long-term success requires the establishment of viable indigenous leaders and institutions that can carry on without significant American support.)
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 (Insurgents quickly adapt to successful counterinsurgency practices. The more effective a tactic is, the faster it becomes out of date.)
8) Tactical success guarantees nothing (Military actions by themselves cannot achieve success.)
9) Most of the important decisions are not made by generals (Successful counterinsurgency relies on the competence and judgment of soldiers and marines on all levels.)
Every second lieutenant commissioned into the Army or Marine Corps in recent decades has been exposed to these concepts, much less the War College graduates comprising the military's senior ranks.
As I wrote in these pages last December, 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.
Washington Monthly writer Kevin Drum, an opponent of the war who nonetheless would like to see us win, asks several 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?
His 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 that we are fighting an insurgency using mostly Infantry and Armor forces.
New York Times defense correspondent Michael Gordon quotes 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: "Basically, after Vietnam, the general attitude of the American military was that we don't want to fight that kind of war again. The Army's idea was to fight the big war against the Russians and ignore these other things." Moreover, they presumed that a force that could beat the Soviet Army could surely handle a ragtag band of guerrillas.
This mindset was compounded with the post-Cold War drawdown in the 1990s. Despite it being clear to most analysts of military affairs that the model mission would look more like Operation Restore Hope in Somalia than a grand armor war with the Soviets, the generals dismissed the former as "Operations Other than War" (OOTWa) and continued to press for more nuclear subs, supersonic fighter jets, heavy artillery, and other high tech systems conceived for a war that was now incredibly unlikely.
The Army, especially, has a long historical memory. Too many times in its history, it has been sent off to fight wars with an undermanned, under-equipped, under-trained force. It was not willing to risk having that happen again by devoting its suddenly scarce resources to missions outside its core vision of itself—like OOTWa, stability operations, or whatever buzzword was currently fashionable—at the cost of the tools needed to fight a theoretical 900 pound gorilla like a suddenly potent China.
Fortunately, the combination of battalion commanders that have grown up mostly during the post-Cold War, the harsh lessons identified* in Iraq, and coffers overflowing with money has at least temporarily created an opportunity for a cultural change. The Army and Marine Corps will continue to get better at counterinsurgency. More billets will be allocated to Arab translators and fewer to tank gunners, at least for a while.
Whether these changes will stick after our withdrawal from Iraq is another matter entirely. If history is any indication, sadly, they will not.
James H. Joyner, Jr., Ph.D. writes about public policy issues at Outside the Beltway. He is a former Army officer and combat veteran of Desert Storm.
*An old joke in military circles says there are no "lessons learned," only "lessons identified," otherwise we wouldn't have to keep "learning" them again.