The centerpiece of the Army’s operational doctrine is no longer FM 3-0, “Operations,” it is FM 3-24, “Counterinsurgency.” The full implications of this shift are, as yet, unknown, but the conventional wisdom that the era of battles and wars of decision — as Clausewitz described them in “On War” — is a thing of the past seems to have prevailed.
For the moment, the application of counterinsurgency practices embodied in FM 3-24 are being touted as bringing about substantial security progress during the “surge.” However, we may be misreading or seeing too much in the events of the past few months in Iraq, and building a counterinsurgency-only Army that puts our ability to address non-COIN contingencies at risk. Maj. Chris Rogers raises important points that deserve serious consideration.
From 1976-1982, more than 110 articles written for military magazines and journals fundamentally questioned the emerging operational doctrine that would become known as AirLand Battle. Today, however, by my count, there have been no more than five or six articles over the past three years that deeply challenge FM 3-24 (including its early drafts) and the fact that it has become our Army’s overall operational doctrine.
My basic argument in “Eating soup with a spoon” was that the theoretical premise of the manual embodied in Chapter One’s various paradoxes, specifically two emblematic ones, removed the essence of war — fighting — from its pages. This was largely an impressionistic view of the manual based on my personal experience in western Baghdad as a tactical battalion commander in 2006. Rogers has a different impression of the manual based on his experience in Baghdad in 2007. He claims that I argued that a fighting spirit has left our Army and our soldiers, which I absolutely did not and never would do.
However, his critique of my article does present the popular case for focusing narrowly on counterinsurgency to the point where, I fear, it may cloud our ability to see things as they actually are and then devise plans and military policy for a future that may not exist. It is as if our COIN doctrine, with all of its seductive simplicity, operates like a secret recipe: “do this, and then this, and at the right moment add this and ... you win,” as scholar Michael Vlahos shrewdly noted in a recent issue of Military Review.
The belief that COIN doctrine and its application in places such as Baghdad has reduced levels of violence since last summer is widespread and, to be sure, it has played a role. Still, a number of other factors in a complex country such as Iraq with a population of 25 million, including the decision to ally with our former enemies (e.g., the non-al-Qaida Sunni insurgents), the pause in activities by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al Mahdi, and the separation of rival factions in Baghdad stemming from sectarian cleansing in 2006-2007, have all arguably played an even bigger role. Our leaders and soldiers have seized these opportunities — embracing FM 3-24’s mantra to “learn and adapt” — but, in the absence of these other emerging conditions, levels of violence very likely would have remained high or even higher in the face of additional troops and new counterinsurgency methods.
Yet, the predisposition to focus exclusively on ourselves and our doctrine leads us potentially to violate the guidance of one of the oldest philosophers of war, Sun Tzu, to know oneself and the enemy and the environment, too. Our doctrine directs us to believe that in a counterinsurgency war, the people are the center of gravity. In this theory, the enemy is removed from the essence of war and placed at the fringes. Then, within this so-called war devoid of an enemy, applied scientific processes align the people to their government. Because the enemy is removed as the central element in war, the element of friction in war is gone, too. With the recent lowering of violence in Iraq, we assume that counterinsurgency doctrine applied by competent military outfits has reduced and almost removed the enemy from the equation in Baghdad. It is very possible, however, that the enemy has removed himself temporarily and is waiting for the opportunity to renew the fight when he feels ready.
This is obviously an explanation that many in and out of uniform will not want to hear because it appears to downplay our sacrifices in blood and treasure and the practical effects of applied counterinsurgency doctrine in Baghdad. But it is, nonetheless, an explanation that must not be disregarded. It needs to be considered in a measured way as we look to future policy in Iraq, as well as the Army’s ability to carry out COIN and non-COIN operations elsewhere.
In a conflict such as the one in Iraq, there is no certainty. As Georgetown University scholar Colin Kahl warns in his recent review of FM 3-24, overconfidence in ourselves and in the manual’s validity may tempt us, and others, to take us down this road more often in the future. There might be certain roads, however, on which we should not be traveling, even if we have plenty of soup to eat for sustenance and cocksureness.