War Stories

Counterinsurgency by the Book

The lessons of a new Army Field Manual.

Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus

Two messages flutter between the lines of the U.S. Army’s new field manual on counterinsurgency wars, its first document on the subject in 20 years.

One is that Pentagon planning for the Iraq war’s aftermath was at least as crass, inattentive to the lessons of history, and contrary to basic political and military principles as the war’s harshest critics have charged.

The other is that as a nation we may simply be ill-suited to fight these kinds of wars.

The field manual’s chief authors—Lt. Gen. David Petraeus and retired Col. Conrad Crane—would never make these points explicitly. When Petraeus was commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, he combined combat power and community-building more astutely than any other officer. Crane, director of the Army’s Military History Institute, is one of the leading scholars of “irregular warfare.” They both support the war’s aims. And they outline their new doctrine—or, rather, their revival of a very old doctrine—very thoughtfully and thoroughly.

Yet the undertone of this 241-page guidebook—not yet publicly released, but obtained by Steven Aftergood and posted this week on his Secrecy News Web site—is one of grim caution.

Counterinsurgency involves rebuilding a society, keeping the population safe, boosting the local government’s legitimacy, training a national army, and fighting off insurgents who are trying to topple the government—all at the same time.

As the manual puts it, “The insurgent succeeds by sowing chaos and disorder anywhere; the government fails unless it maintains order everywhere.”

From first page to last, the authors stress that these kinds of wars are “protracted by nature.” They require “firm political will and extreme patience,” “considerable expenditure of time and resources,” and a very large deployment of troops ready to greet “hand shakes or hand grenades” without mistaking one for the other.

“Successful … operations require Soldiers and Marines at every echelon to possess the following,” the authors write. (Emphasis added.) They then list a daunting set of traits: “A clear, nuanced, and empathetic appreciation of the essential nature of the conflict. … An understanding of the motivation, strengths, and weaknesses of the insurgent,” as well as rudimentary knowledge of the local culture, behavioral norms, and leadership structures. In addition, there must be “adaptive, self-aware, and intelligent leaders.”

Meanwhile, a single high-profile infraction can undo 100 successes. “Lose moral legitimacy, lose the war,” the authors warn, pointedly noting that the French lost Algeria in part because their commanders condoned torture.

Two big questions emerge, without wading into the manual’s tactical details. First, can American armed forces maintain such exacting standards over a long, hazy conflict? The all-volunteer U.S. military is full of extraordinarily smart, dedicated, and disciplined men and women. But the Army has also been lowering standards lately to meet recruitment targets.

Second, can American citizens and politicians maintain a long-term commitment to civil and insurgent wars at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and possibly thousands of lives, not just in Iraq or Afghanistan but anywhere? The question here isn’t whether we should, but whether we can—whether the political system, with its competing demands and risk-averse tendencies, is capable of it.

The panel of officers and experts that put together the field manual had no mandate to address such political questions. But one consultant on the project (who spoke on condition of anonymity) told me, “If we did, we would have probably put in some caveat like: ‘If the nation and its leaders are not prepared for the long hard fight that counterinsurgency entails, they should not begin it in the first place.’ “

Certainly, one cause of the missteps in Iraq was that top U.S. officials failed to foresee that after Saddam Hussein fell, they might find themselves battling an insurgency. As recently as last November, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was still refusing to call the enemy “insurgents.” The term, he said at a press conference, “gives them a greater legitimacy than they seem to merit.”

The manual at one point lists some practices that have proved successful and unsuccessful in past counterinsurgency campaigns. Though the authors don’t say so, the list came from a memo written in November 2004 by Kalev Sepp, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who at the time was advising Gen. George W. Casey Jr., commander of Multinational Forces-Iraq.

It must have been obvious when he wrote it that U.S. forces had committed at least half of the “unsuccessful practices,” among them: “Place priority on killing and capturing the enemy, not on engaging the population; … Concentrate military forces in large bases for protection; … Focus special operations forces primarily on raiding”; and “Ignore peacetime government processes, including legal procedures.”

The manual cites other longstanding principles of counterinsurgency that U.S. planners and commanders violated, especially in the crucial early phases:

  • “The More Force Used, the Less Effective It Is.”
  • “An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if the collateral damage or the creation of blood feuds leads to the recruitment of fifty more.”
  • “Only attack insurgents when they get in the way. Try not to be distracted or forced into a series of reactive moves by a desire to kill or capture them. Provoking combat usually plays into the enemy’s hands.”
  • “A defection is better than a surrender, a surrender better than a capture, and a capture better than a kill.”

One page of the manual summarizes Napoleon’s occupation of Spain in 1808:

Conditioned by the decisive victories at Austerlitz and Jena, Napoleon believed the conquest of Spain would be little more than a “military promenade.” [He achieved] a rapid conventional military victory over Spain’s armies but ignored the immediate requirement to provide a stable and secure environment for the people. … The French failed to analyze the history, culture, and motivations of the Spanish people, or to seriously consider their potential to support or hinder the achievement of French political objectives. Napoleon’s cultural miscalculation resulted in a protracted struggle that lasted nearly six years and ultimately required approximately three-fifths of the French Empire’s total armed strength.

The authors don’t mention it, but no reader could miss the parallel to Rumsfeld and Iraq.

A debate has been raging in some circles over whether the war’s disasters were avoidable or inevitable. Would a smarter U.S. strategy have produced a more stable Iraq? Or were the long-suppressed sectarian feuds destined to gush forth like a geyser, no matter how we tried to control them, once Saddam was blown from his throne?

A better question provoked by this new Army Field Manual: Should we follow the authors’ advice in the hope of waging a better counterinsurgency the next time around? Or should we give up these sorts of wars as futile and—do what instead?

A version of this piece appears in the Sunday Outlook section of the Washington Post.