Counterinsurgency by the Book
The lessons of a new Army Field Manual.
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.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus by Joshua Hutcheson/Getty Images.