Small Wars Journal

Preparing For Future Conflicts: Refining Conventional and Counterinsurgency Doctrine 

Fri, 04/01/2022 - 7:01am


Preparing For Future Conflicts: Refining Conventional and Counterinsurgency Doctrine 

By Todd Moulton

United States (US) military history indicates the U.S. will more likely perform actions against irregular forces vice large-scale combat operations, denoting the necessity for the services to maintain fundamental knowledge of counterinsurgency tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). Although the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) shifted the military’s focus to strategic competition, the armed forces should not forget the lessons the services learned from its counterinsurgency missions during the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). U.S. military doctrine retains the essential elements to plan and execute successful operations against conventional and irregular opponents. However, the military should not solely concentrate on conventional aspects of warfare and leave the publications from the past two decades “on the shelf” to become obsolete. The ever-changing character of conventional war and insurgencies puts an emphasis on the need for the military to utilize and continuously adapt operational art and refine doctrine to defeat the morphing enemy.

Warfare is not a monolithic concept, and conventional and insurgent conflicts hold similar and differing underlying principles. Although Clausewitz’s classical notion of war as the continuation of policy by other means underpins most US military doctrine, Clausewitz’s postulations do not always eloquently apply to insurgencies. Politics may play a part in an insurgency, but politics is a single attribute of an insurgency’s overall effort. Since Mao Zedong’s Protracted War, various authors and military practitioners examined and identified the vital tenets to sustain or defeat an insurgency. Aspects from these writings found their way into U.S. military doctrine to offer multifaceted avenues to plan for and conduct operations within the irregular warfare paradigm. The U.S. military has combined the necessary components from Clausewitz and 20th Century insurgency pundits to formulate encompassing doctrine.

Ends (victory), ways (tactics), and means (resources) buttress the strategy of traditional and insurgent warfare. The removal of one of these components typically results in weakening a warring participant’s strategy. Furthermore, reliance on these principles enables a combatant to identify an opponent’s center(s) of gravity (COG) and then attack the COG(s) in any type of warfare. Conventional and counterinsurgency doctrine encompass the aforementioned principles with other doctrinal elements, which further facilitates planners, enablers, and operators’ ability to examine COGs and categorize critical vulnerabilities, capabilities, and requirements. The pillars of joint operations and planning established in joint publications can serve as frameworks to simultaneously conduct conventional and irregular warfare. The Army and Marine Corps’ codification of its GWOT lessons in Field Manual 3-24 (FM 3-24), Counterinsurgency and FM 3-24’s evolution into Joint Publication (JP) 3-24, Counterinsurgency places the joint force in a much better position to counter future insurgencies than the military found itself following Vietnam.

A difference between standard military operations and counterinsurgencies are the TTPs employed by standing militaries to assault an insurgency’s COG(s). During counterinsurgency campaigns, the armed forces needs to acclimate the military’s TTPs to defeat unique aspects inherent to insurgencies. The Vietnam War demonstrated that conventional TTPs cannot effectively destroy insurgencies. Although the U.S. military defeated the North Vietnamese Army in large-scale engagements, these tactical victories were mostly irrelevant. These US successes did not complement U.S. counterinsurgency campaigns that sought to pacify the Vietnamese people. The U.S. enacted the Civil Operations and Rural Development Support Program (CORDS), which used a whole-of-government approach to engage the insurgency, engender local and regional stability, and win over the population. However, CORDS and the conventional military often worked in parallel and did not combine their efforts to fulfill the overarching U.S. strategy. CORDS was successful by centering on the Vietnamese people and ensuring the government met the population’s basic needs. Still, the coordinated counter-insurgency operations only produced isolated pockets of stability throughout Vietnam, demonstrating the era’s ineffectiveness in military thinking. Moreover, the US military distanced itself from irregular warfare in the aftermath of Vietnam, which left the armed forces ill-prepared for its interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq following September 11, 2001.   

In the months following September 11, 2001, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) exercised an unconventional campaign against the Taliban, which employed U.S. special operations forces (SOF), embedded with local Afghan fighters, and assisted by conventional units, culminating in Operation Anaconda. Although the campaign utilized SOF TTPs, CENTCOM founded its planning and operations in JP 3-0, Joint Operations, JP 5-0, Joint Planning, and FM 100-5, Operations. CENTCOM’s hybrid use of conventional planning and unconventional execution demonstrated doctrine’s flexibility and adaptability to the changing military environment. CENTCOM delineated a simple command and control construct to conduct planning and perform operations, but the ground and air elements deviated from doctrine. In combination with other mistakes, the doctrinal departure resulted in numerous deaths during Operation Anaconda. Even with setbacks, U.S. forces dismantled the Taliban within three months, demonstrating doctrine’s elasticity to inform planning and operations in the evolving military domain. However, the U.S. military did not foresee the potential for an Afghan insurgency after the Taliban’s fall and did not have collated counterinsurgency TTPs to prevent or mollify insurgencies. After the initial military successes in Afghanistan, the U.S. was not prepared to conduct counterinsurgency operations due to the military’s suppression of the lessons it observed during Vietnam and the absence of any codified counterinsurgency doctrine.

As the US decimated Taliban conventional capabilities by December 2001, a mixture of Taliban and other insurgent group forces arose from the ashes to begin an increasingly violent insurgency to overthrow the Afghan government and push out U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces. However, the U.S. and NATO components focused on counterterrorism operations, emphasizing rooting out remaining Taliban and Al-Qaeda elements. Until 2004, unit commanders could not state that their units were conducting counterinsurgency missions due to a lack of the term in U.S. strategic guidance and an “enemy-centric” campaign plan. The “raid strategy” isolated the coalition conventional forces from the Afghan population and traditional counterinsurgency tenets. The military relied on misplaced combat TTPs as the military had not evolved counterinsurgency doctrine since Vietnam and did not provide counterinsurgency training to deploying service personnel.

 In 2003, coalition forces shifted to the military’s counterterrorist strategy to a more classical counterinsurgency approach, which emphasized protecting the population. Over the next two years, the coalition’s concentration on the Afghan population yielded positive results as the population convened the loya Jirga and over eight million people voted in the presidential election. The US military codified its counterinsurgency doctrine with the lessons the services observed from the previous five years with the 2006 Army and Marine Corps’ FM 3-24. However, as NATO took over counterinsurgency operations, the organization moved away from FM 3-24 principles and reverted to the earlier “enemy centric” strategy from 2002-2003 that re-marginalized the population and emboldened the Taliban. The U.S. military made similar counterinsurgency mistakes in Operation Iraqi Freedom’s (OIF) opening stages.  

The planning for OIF fixated on major combat operations and rested on lessons taken from the first Gulf War and in many cases was an extension of the early 1990s conflict. Much like Desert Storm, U.S. and coalition forces applied a powerful aerial bombardment during OIF’s initial stages to fix enemy positions or neutralize the forces before they could move into position. Moreover, SOF personnel replicated their role in Desert Storm and searched for airfields where Iraq could launch SCUD missiles, along with other mission sets. The joint force performed a combined-arms campaign on Saddam’s vaunted and loyal Republican Guard, which it derived from American military doctrine formulated over the previous thirty years. The U.S. and its coalition partners bypassed most major Iraqi cities in the military’s race to remove Saddam Hussein’s government in Baghdad to avoid getting embroiled in urban warfare or face irregular forces. OIF’s opening drive to Baghdad was a joint and integrated campaign. OIF also demonstrated the military utilized JP 3-0 and 5-0 to plan and conduct conventional operations and displayed doctrine’s agility and plasticity to frequent shifts in policy and conditions on the ground. Though OIF planning and execution brushed aside Hussein’s regular forces within three weeks, the military’s lack of post-war planning, anticipation of an insurgency, and counterinsurgency TTPs to mitigate irregular warfare foreboded the military’s tenuous eight years in Iraq.      

The military planners preparing for the Iraq invasion did not expect an insurgency nor the widespread civil chaos that engulfed Iraq after Baghdad’s fall. Their omission to expect counterinsurgency operations demonstrated the armed forces’ engrained disdain to plan for military operations other than conventional war. Furthermore, the military’s resistance to learn from its previous counterinsurgency campaigns put service members at a disadvantage as guerrilla groups and terrorist groups often reviewed their historical mistakes to make their factions and its ideologies more resilient. The U.S. military remained offensively minded during operations and replicated its Afghanistan “enemy-centric” approach to neutralize the Iraqi insurgency. This mentality was antithetical to traditional counterinsurgency doctrine, which focuses on ensuring the population’s security and shifting their loyalty away from guerillas philosophies. The conventional military mindset of attriting the enemy contributed to Iraq’s deteriorating security environment. A shift in counterinsurgency TTPs did not occur until General David Petraeus took command of military forces in Iraq in 2007 when the general decided to “secure” the Iraqi population. General Petraeus employed a proactive strategy of engaging Iraqi leaders at every level and the local populations, while concurrently rooting out insurgents. General Petraeus and Lieutenant General James Amos codified many of their TTPs in FM 3-24, which became the primary counterinsurgency document to pacify the Iraqis and quell the terrorists and insurgents. General Petraeus and Amos placed an overwhelming emphasis on protecting the Iraqi population and restoring basic necessities, which departed from Clausewitz’s emphasis on a nation’s “holy trinity.”

While Clausewitz maintains that a country’s government, people, and military are the basis to conduct operations, insurgencies and counterinsurgencies tend to focus on the population and gaining the people’s support for their cause. Moreover, where Clausewitz concentrates on politics as the driving factor of war, most insurgencies consider politics as one facet that propels their effort. Insurgencies also fulfill economic and psychological necessities for their followers, which provide an economic livelihood for their members and a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. The Taliban illustrates this confluence of factors which motivates people to join insurgencies. The Taliban’s policy to unseat the corrupt Afghan government and remove U.S. forces resulted in loyalty to the cause. Moreover, the insurgency also met basic human wants that these persons did not think they could get from participating in the country’s former governmental system. Although insurgencies differ from conventional wars, operational art and joint planning provide the necessary methods to defeat unconventional enemies. Moreover, the American military’s twenty year counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan well informed JP 3-0 and JP 3-24.

Operational art remains crucial in conventional and counterinsurgency warfare. JP 3-0 and JP 3-24 house the basic principles to conduct conventional and irregular warfare. They further illustrate the methods military planners can use to adapt the fundamental philosophies of the “American way of war,” which emphasize attrition, to engage an insurgency. American military planners adapted JP 3-0 and JP 3-24 with lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan to manage counterinsurgency operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). U.S. forces utilized operational art to re-examine and refine conventional and counterinsurgency TTPs to successfully engage ISIS. Operational art and the “American way of war” are malleable concepts, grounded in joint doctrine, which the military can apply to any type of situation. Insurgencies are a type of warfare; therefore, they do not need a special set of basic operational principles to engage them. However, the U.S. military should incorporate counterinsurgency lessons observed from France’s Sahel counterinsurgency efforts in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, where Paris attempted to stabilize the region against jihadist threats, while building host nation operational capabilities. Moreover the U.S. could examine any insurgency TTPs Ukrainian citizens employ against the Russians in occupied areas and develop methods to counter such TTPs. Events in the Sahel and Ukraine offer the U.S. military an opportunity to ensure American counterinsurgency doctrine does not fall into irrelevance.

The U.S.’s evacuation from Afghanistan likely marks the end of Washington’s participation in counterinsurgency operations until world events thrust the U.S. back into irregular warfare. The U.S.’s absence from active counterinsurgency operations should not preclude the military from observing and assimilating lessons from foreign military counterinsurgency campaigns. France’s experience in the Sahel over the past nine years may yield counterinsurgency TTPs the U.S. could incorporate into JP 3-24, further evolving the doctrine. Paris’ experience fighting insurgents offers unique takeaways the U.S. military could learn from should the armed forces find itself in an analogous situation. Another event that may assist in refining JP 3-24 is the brewing Ukrainian insurgency. As the Ukraine-Russia conflict resolves itself, the U.S. could interview individuals participating in partisan actions to better comprehend original or legacy motivations inspiring their actions against Russia. Insights from Ukrainian citizens could inform JP 3-24 and maintain the doctrine’s relevance.                          

Warfare is multidimensional and includes conventional and insurgency warfare. Although conventional and insurgent warfare contain many similarities, their primary impetus is different. While Clausewitz sees politics driving traditional warfare, insurgencies view politics as only one element within their strategies. Insurgencies focus on the population to drive support to their causes through policy and meeting the basic needs of their followers. Though the primary drivers for conventional and insurgent warfare are different, the military can adapt operational art to engage and defeat insurgencies. Moreover, military doctrine, notably JP 3-0 and JP 3-24, house the necessary components to effectively engage and defeat insurgencies. U.S. foreign policy, national security strategy, and national defense strategy should not neglect the need for the U.S. military to remain attentive to advancing its counterinsurgency doctrine as history demonstrates the U.S. armed forces will inevitably perform operations against amorphous irregular combatants.    



About the Author(s)

Todd Moulton is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy and an intelligence planner at U.S. Second Fleet. He is also an Information Warfare (IW) Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI). He is a graduate of the Air University, National Intelligence University, Seton Hall University, and University of Michigan.