Army Updates Counterinsurgency Doctrine

05.21.14 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

“Without accurate and predictive intelligence, it is often better to not act than to act.”

That note of prudence and restraint recurs throughout the newly revised U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24 on “Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies” that was published this month.

The new manual replaces the celebrated 2006 edition of FM 3-24 (then simply entitled “Counterinsurgency”) associated with Gen. David Petraeus, who coordinated its development.  That earlier manual may have been the most popular and widely read U.S. military doctrinal publication ever released.

The new edition builds upon rather than rescinds its predecessor. Some of the changes are subtle, extending even to the definition of “insurgency.”

The 2006 edition defined insurgency as “An organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict.” In the new edition, insurgency now means “The organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region.” The reference to a government has been removed in the new definition, and insurgency is conceived as a tactic rather than a movement.

To a lay reader, the new Field Manual presents a becoming modesty about the utility of violent action, along with a sensitivity to the specifics of every conflict, and an alertness to ethical norms and legal requirements. A few excerpts:

“The conclusion of any counterinsurgency effort is primarily dependent on the host nation and the people who reside in that nation. Ultimately, every society has to provide solutions to its own problems. As such, one of the Army and Marine Corps’ primary roles in counterinsurgency is to enable the host nation.”

“The general rule for the use of force for the counterinsurgents is ‘do not create more enemies than you eliminate with your action’.”

“Effective counterinsurgency commanders tell the truth; they refuse to give projections; and they do not promise more than can be provided.”

“Although most well-led and well-trained U.S. military personnel perform their duties honorably and lawfully, some will commit various crimes, including violations of the law of war…. All reportable incidents committed by or against U.S. personnel, enemy persons, or any other individual must be reported promptly, investigated thoroughly, and, where appropriate, remedied by corrective action.”

Remarkably, the Army invited external input in 2011 from the public (or at least from “practitioners, scholars, and agency partners”) in the development of the revised Field Manual.

The new manual, like the previous one, has drawn criticism in some quarters for emphasizing the role of soft power at the expense of lethality and traditional warfighting.

“The 2014 FM hurtles down the wrong track,” wrote former Reagan defense official Bing West. “It offers no advice about resolve, cohesion, morale, ferocity, trust and victory…. If we cannot put our enemies six feet in the ground and infuse that same fierce, implacable, winning spirit into the host nation forces, friendly persuasion and development aid will be seen by our enemies as weakness and fecklessness,” he wrote in Small Wars Journal on May 14.

But perhaps the severest criticism of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine derives from actual record of counterinsurgency programs. The continuing violence and instability in Iraq and Afghanistan would seem to indicate that existing counterinsurgency doctrine is either misconceived or that, for whatever reason, it cannot be effectively implemented.