http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/Repository/Materials/COIN-FM3-24.pdfI was asked to prepare a short review of the US Army/Marine Corps COIN Manual (FM 3-24) for a professor over at the National War College. The manual is a must read (or must skim) for those who want to understand how the US Army intends to fight current and future counter-insurgencies. Many critics have called it too academic and ‘lovey-dovey’, and while it does try to come up with an intelligent framework for conceiving COIN operations, the manual does tend to place too little emphasis on military force.
FM 3-24 can be read here.
U.S. Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24 / MCWP 3-33.5)
Headquarters, Department of the Army, 282 pp.
FM 3-24, the counterinsurgency (COIN) manual written by Gen. David Petraeus’ team, fills an operational and intellectual void in the American military. Following the defeat in Vietnam, writes COIN expert John Nagl, “we purged ourselves of everything that had to do with irregular warfare or insurgency, because it had to do with how we lost that war. In hindsight, that was a bad decision.” (1)
It was a bad decision because the United States became engaged in complicated counter-insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. FM 3-24 would have been a timely addition to military doctrine before the current conflicts, but contemporary American engagements made the work especially urgent. As the foreword states: “With our Soldiers and Marines fighting insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is essential that we give them a manual that provides principles and guidelines for counterinsurgency operations.”
This review explores central ideas in FM 3-24, evaluates their treatment within the manual, and examines how they are understood by junior commanders on the ground.
FM 3-24 puts Information Operations (IO) at the forefront of COIN. “By shaping the information environment, IO make significant contributions to setting conditions for the success of all other LLOs [Logical Lines of Operation]”(5-19). This comes from the authors’ understanding of the reasons behind the Awakening in Iraq. The change in Sunni attitudes toward their situation in Iraq was the primary factor in creating the conditions that enabled the Awakening. A driving cause of the new Sunni outlook was a marked change in the information/media environment. The Al-Zawra network began reporting on Al-Qaeda’s cultural overreach, and Al-Arabiyya launched the program “Deathmakers”, aimed at de-legitimizing Al-Qaeda. (2) American success in manipulating the media environment affected American strategy and the primacy of IO in FM 3-24.
IO are not as easy as the manual suggests. Lt. E, serving in Samarra, thinks that IO are “only as important as the area you are in. Most of our stuff is bull, i.e, handing out toys, ‘join the police’ flyers. Sadly, most of the places I have been were not very receptive to anything we wanted to do.” (3) In another officer’s opinion, “We’re terrible at this. We had an incident where we got new garbage trucks for the neighborhood but the Muj claimed credit and got away with it.”(4) IO take time, creativity, and especially resources on the part of the local COIN commander.
FM 3-24 argues that “many important decisions are not made by generals”(1-157). Junior officers and NCOs make decisions with strategic consequences. This idea should be developed further in the manual. Nearly all insurgents in Iraq fight for largely local reasons, creating a decentralized insurgency. Junior commanders need autonomy, especially budgetary autonomy, to rebuild schools and mosques. “Our commander told us that if he gets the funding, he’s going to pay a hundred fifty young men in the village to guard parking lots in town,” says Specialist F. (5) Junior commanders meet with the populace every day, and local leaders will approach them if there is a problem. A concerted effort to keep junior commanders in the same sector for extended periods increases the trust between them and local leaders.
A major, often daunting, obstacle in Iraq and other insurgencies is the cultural chasm between the West and the locals. FM 3-24 does address the cultural issue, advising that “counterinsurgents…should strive to avoid imposing their ideals of normalcy on a foreign cultural problem”(1-80). Culture is so crucial that it demands more attention in FM 3-24, especially the problems that arise when engaging an honor/shame society. In these societies, found across most of the Muslim world, honor is based on power and prestige. Weakness is dishonorable, and those who are weak invite aggression against themselves. When the U.S. shows weakness, it increases the likelihood it will be attacked. “The people will respect you if they know you are not playing around,” says Lt. E., “and a lot of that comes back to how you conduct yourselves with them. And especially in Arab culture, perceived weakness hurts you. To a certain extent the people do not respect us because they know we won’t execute or torture.” (6)
Any Westerner who has commanded Arab troops knows the challenge honor/shame culture poses when trying to train local forces. “I spent three months doing this in 2004 on a transition team” says Lt. E. “Horrible. Killed any motivation I ever had.” (7)
Some officers are pessimistic about the extent to which American soldiers can address the cultural gap. In Lt. E’s opinion, one needs to acculturate “just enough to understand customs, like not making faux pas against Allah, and social mores that help, like understanding that in Arab culture there is nothing wrong with lying to your face, literally.”(8) Capt. H concurs: “You should have some understanding, but you’ll never really understand them and they’ll never understand us. Better to provide security.” (9)This is a complicated and crucial subject that the manual has addressed in a basic way, but should have given it greater prominence.
As the military integrates FM 3-24, there are two considerations planners should keep in mind. The first is that the military must retain its conventional capabilities even if it handles exclusively insurgencies for the next decade. America can learn from Israel’s mistaken belief that the IDF should become a force largely designed to face the Palestinian threat. Israel learned the folly of her ways in the Second Lebanon War.
It is also crucial that the other actors mentioned in the manual, such as the CIA and private contractors, adopt the manual as well. It does America no good if most soldiers use force sparingly and properly if, hypothetically, the CIA abuses prisoners and contractors provoke heavy firefights.
FM 3-24 is a timely document that brings American military means closer to her political ends. It is a product of, and limited by, the American experience in Iraq, and its true effectiveness can only be measured once it is applied to other insurgencies.
1- Clifford D. May, “COIN is not Small Change,” National Review Online 4 October 2007
2- Mark Lynch, “Rethinking Iraq’s Awakening”, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., 23 October 2008.
3-Lt. E, personal interview, 31 October 2008.
4-Capt. H., personal interview, 3 November 2008.
5-Specialist F., personal interview, 2 November 2008.
6-Lt. E, interview.
9-Capt. H, interview.