Small Wars Journal

Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies

Tue, 05/06/2014 - 8:42am

Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies: 21st Century Doctrine for an Ancient Way of War

Crispin Burke

No military field manual has been as widely read, reviewed—and subsequently criticized—as FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency, released at the dawning of the Iraq Surge in December, 2006.

Military doctrine is often a product of its time, and nowhere has this been more true than in the US military’s approach to counterinsurgency.  In the 1980s, the US military had eschewed manpower-intensive counterinsurgency campaigns; its “counter-guerrilla” field manual, FM 90-8, is focused on small-unit tactics and Foreign Internal Defense, reflecting America’s limited involvement during the Salvadoran Civil War.  That would radically change twenty years later, as the US military began to revise the manual amidst the mounting chaos in Iraq.  Featuring the input of journalists, human rights advocates, and Non-Governmental Officials, Counterinsurgency reflected many of the hard-learned lessons gained after five years of bloody fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, the manual was not without its blemishes.  Some pointed out that it didn’t focus enough on killing the enemy; others that it was light on tactics.  Now, seven years later, the Pentagon has corrected many of those flaws with Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies--a 21st Century guide to fighting one of the most ancient ways of war.

50 Shades of Insurgency

The 1986 “counter-guerilla” manual was penned with Maoist-style rebellions in Malaysia, Vietnam, and El Salvador in mind, as the United States and the Soviet Union vied for power in the Third World in various “brushfire wars”.   Even the Pentagon underwent its first revision to counterinsurgency doctrine nearly a generation, it drew heavily from several historical case studies, but few were as prevalent as those of the British in Malaysia (John Nagl’s “Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife”), the French in Algeria (David Galula), and, to a lesser extent, the Arab Revolt of 1916 (T.E. Lawrence).  (The military’s myopic focus on relatively simple, Maoist-style insurgencies was a drawback identified even before the manual went to press.) 

It’s notable, then, that Galula, Lawrence, and the Malay Emergency are virtually absent in FM 3-24’s latest incarnation.  Instead, we see a manual reflecting the wicked complexity of Iraq and Afghanistan, where US troops found themselves squaring off against multiple insurgent networks, foreign terrorist organizations, sectarian militias, criminal gangs, and, as always, opportunists bent on exploiting the chaos for their own personal profit.  Military strategists tried to capture the complexity with terms such as “hybrid war”, often referring to it as a new style of warfare.  Yet, complex insurgencies have generally been the rule, rather than the exception.  Even “textbook” Maoist insurgencies, such as Vietnam, often involved a vexing cast of characters, including both regular and irregular forces. 

Moreover, the latest edition recognizes that intra-state conflict takes many forms—revolutions, rebellions, coup d’états, insurgencies, and civil wars.  Indeed, irregular warfare is one of the most ubiquitous forms of conflict, and its various forms are painfully apparent in (several) hotspots throughout the globe today.

Massive Campaigns are out (for now), Security Cooperation is in

2006’s Counterinsurgency was written with an eye towards Iraq; on the eve of the manual’s publication, the US was in the process of committing over 170,000 service members to contain that nation’s ever-mounting violence. 

Today, however, a war-weary nation is looking to tackle its security threats without the need for massive troop commitments.  That’s why Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies is geared towards fighting insurgencies the way we’d prefer to, while still acknowledging the historical reality that the US often finds itself drawn into conflicts not of its own choosing. 

It’s a safe bet the US military will be countering insurgencies for the foreseeable future—the style of warfare is omnipresent, and will surely threaten our interests or our allies eventually.  That said, the Pentagon feels it can better align ends, ways, and means by adopting a more limited “indirect” approach to counterinsurgency.  Indeed, as the manual states regarding counterinsurgency campaigns, “the best case scenario is when the host nation has the capability to defeat an insurgency and the US plays only a supporting role[i].” 

Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies drastically departs from its predecessor, dedicating just as much space to “indirect” counterinsurgency and security force assistance than to the “direct” method.  Indeed, with the tremendous costs of Iraq and Afghanistan in mind, American decision makers would do best to consider tackling insurgencies before they start—that is to say, empowering our partner nations to address mutual security concerns before they conflagrate into full-blown insurgencies.    

Nevertheless the Pentagon is painfully aware it may once again find itself the lead agency in countering a foreign insurgency.  Yet the writers make it clear that the host nation is ultimately responsible for victory—the United States can only enable a nation to do so. 

Solve the Root Cause

Today’s doctrine begrudgingly alludes to the billions of taxpayer dollars often squandered on futile reconstruction efforts.  Instead, the authors insist that counterinsurgents not lavishly bestow aid projects on the local population, but rather address the root causes of insurgency.  As the authors claim, “deprivation that is not considered unjust is much less destabilizing than relative prosperity that is considered unjust[ii]

Yet, though seemingly simple on paper, identifying the root causes of insurgency is a vexing challenge, requiring detailed study into local and national dynamics.  The 2014 manual provides some hints and broad historical trends, but it will no means give counterinsurgents all the advice they need to focus their efforts on eradicating insurgents.

A Long-Needed Update

Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies begins by noting that “counterinsurgency is not a substitute for strategy”, addressing a long-standing criticism of its 2006 predecessor.  Yet, that book—for all its flaws—was the right book at the right time.  Nevertheless, as the United States moves away from Iraq and Afghanistan and into an uncertain future, military planners need the right advice for countering the chronic problem of insurgency with just the right resources.  Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies is just that guide.

End Notes

[i] FM 3-24, “Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies”.  28 April 2014.  Para 1-22.

[ii] Ibid, para 4-16


About the Author(s)

Crispin Burke is a military officer who has written on topics ranging from counterinsurgency to cybersecurity. He can be found on Twitter at @CrispinBurke.