February 1, 2007  

Progress and peril

New counterinsurgency manual cheats on the history exam

The final version of Army FM 3-24, “Counterinsurgency,” (MCWP 3-33.5 for the Marine Corps) deserves applause for coming a long way fast. The Sept. 21 draft was a jumble of platitudes and a prescription for continued failure. After key leaders in the Marines and Army realized how badly the doctrine had gone off track, earnest debate and long days spent rewriting and editing the document resulted in a useful manual that begins to come to grips with the actual challenges facing us, instead of simply repeating the failed recommendations of the last century’s counterinsurgency (COIN) “experts.”

The manual now admits the existence of religious zealots and ethnic demagogues — salient insurgent types the previous draft ignored — and accepts that some enemies are irreconcilable and must be killed. It states bluntly that “old, strongly held beliefs define the identities of the most dangerous combatants in these new internal wars.” The draft field manual’s most-foolish claims, exemplified by its “paradoxes of counterinsurgency,” have been qualified and the text now stresses the importance in many COIN operations of a “high ratio of security forces to the protected population.” If only more of our military leaders had stressed that point to their civilian superiors four years ago.

Yet, FM 3-24 still doesn’t swing open the door to the future of COIN warfare; at best it’s a hinge between the failed dogmas of the 20th century — myths embraced by soldiers and civilians alike — and a growing sense that the reality on the ground in Iraq and elsewhere contradicts the theories we were fed. This document isn’t meant as definitive doctrine but as a stopgap. Responsible leaders in the Marines and Army recognize the need for an ongoing process to continually improve our COIN doctrine. The manual will help officers think more incisively about the problems facing them, but many of the solutions it offers, nonetheless, are outdated and dubious — when not foolhardy.

It isn’t just our armed forces that are in a period of transition, but also our entire civilization, including both the vanguard English-speaking nations and reluctant Europe. The half-century between the resurrection of Germany as a federal republic and Sept. 11, 2001, might well be labeled “The Age of Frivolity” by future historians. Despite the dangers of the Cold War era, the breathtaking expansion of American wealth and power led our population into a sense of detachment from the travails and dangers that never stopped afflicting much of the globe. Despite intermittent recessions and a series of distant wars, the party never ended: Life just kept getting better for Americans.

For Europeans, the internal discipline as well as the external protection provided by America’s presence and power permitted not only an unprecedented spread of wealth across social class lines, but also nurtured a blithe attitude toward both distant troubles and the suffering of neighbors behind the Iron Curtain. Europe became a continent of Marie Antoinettes.

Then came Sept. 11. Americans sensed at once that a profound break had occurred between a confident, easy past and a painful re-immersion in the world. Marx, not God, is dead, and old enemies have been re-inherited. Europe lags in grasping that the Age of Frivolity is over (and will resist facing the grave new world as long as possible), but reality will carve its initials in Europe’s flesh soon enough.

The legacy of that Age of Frivolity persists, however, in our own military circles. Despite repeated failures and graphic casualties, military alchemy refuses to yield to science, and comfortable prejudices continue to stave off the acceptance of chilling facts. During the strategic stalemate of the Cold War, we suffered a unique affliction: Theorists with little or no military experience flourished, propounding visions of how war should be waged that were so disconnected from reality they resembled unicorn sightings. To its shame, our military establishment embraced one madcap theory after another — especially those that promised easy victories through a “revolution in military affairs” or COIN models “proving” that a bottle of Coke and a smile would win over the poor, benighted natives.

The reality of Somalia and the Balkans, Afghanistan and now, above all, Iraq, has made inroads against the fantasies of bloodless war and the deadly absurdity that “all men want peace.” But the last holdouts among the peace-through-palaver zealots include military intellectuals suffocating our service-college faculties, men so obsessed with defending their theses that they never stop to ask themselves why their COIN templates haven’t worked anywhere we’ve tried them.

The possibility that their prescriptions for COIN operations might be wrong never seems to occur to the Ph.D. gang. Their response to disaster is always, “We’ve got to try harder.” Faced with our strategic and operational failures in Iraq, our theorists cling to a few transitory tactical successes as evidence that their constructs can work, if only, if only, if only we keep reinforcing failure. Confronted with the ultimate collapse of those few tactical successes, they argue that our efforts needed more time, or better funding, or more troops. They justify our casualties with platitudes and miss the fundamental point: We will never operate under perfect conditions. We will always lack something, whether it’s time, resources or even a clearly defined mission. The test of a military doctrine’s validity is its effectiveness under imperfect conditions. Any doctrine that requires every star to be in perfect alignment is destined to fail.

The doctrine espoused by the new COIN manual lies between a failed past and a threatening future. The introduction and key chapters now say many of the right things, but they also retain far too many contradictory passages (compromise is the enemy of clarity and utility). Perhaps the gravest omission is the failure to analyze the “combatant” role of the global media, which can determine the outcome of battles, campaigns and entire wars in the post-modern era. Military leaders admit that they found the issue too politically sensitive and complex to address at this stage of the doctrine’s development; nonetheless, any COIN strategy that fails to plan for the media’s inherent hostility to any American endeavor sets itself up for unnecessary failures. The insurgents are our open enemies, but many elements within the world’s media are their conscious or unwitting allies. Until we force the media to admit its role in shaping outcomes, we will continue to grant our opponents a huge strategic advantage.

Other deficiencies range from the continued insistence that all insurgencies have political goals, even though religion-fueled movements view politics as a means, not an end, to the assumption that all insurgencies focus on the overthrow of a government — this despite the apocalyptic nihilism and transcendental objectives of the Islamist movement. Political grievances sometimes may be satisfied, but the ambitions of a god tend to be insatiable. The manual stresses correctly that “learn and adapt” is an imperative, yet clings to failed Vietnam-era theories of how insurgencies must be understood and treated. Consequently, there’s a fatal assumption that all foreign populations ultimately want what we want and can be cajoled into supporting us in their own interests. Yet, a crucial lesson from Iraq is that not all foreign populations identify with our vision for their future.

Although the manual correctly stresses the importance of cultural awareness, it fails to warn that an overemphasis on cultural sensitivity — sloppy pandering of the sort we’ve seen in Iraq — plays into a cunning enemy’s hands by allowing him to set the terms of the struggle. For example, our well-intentioned, naive decision to stay out of mosques guaranteed that mosques would become terrorist refuges and insurgent arms depots. Instead, we needed to put the onus on our enemies for any violations of holy precincts. Cultural knowledge certainly gives us an advantage — but not if you carry your sensitivity beyond the bounds of common sense and lose sight of the mission.

The Army and Marines will work through these weaknesses in time. As midgrade and junior officers discover for themselves that the traditional COIN wisdom is often dead wrong, our doctrine will improve. The immediate problem is that many nation-building techniques appear to work in the short-term, because they function as bribes, but collapse over time — the commander returns from his one-year tour convinced that he’s made progress in City X, only to learn that his illusions merely gave the enemy breathing space. To make progress in environments such as Iraq, commanders have to unlearn most of what they’ve been told about counterinsurgency operations.

bad history

Returning veterans are going to have an increasingly tough time with the schoolhouse Army, that tribal refuge of our intellectual Taliban (the Marines are quicker to grasp changed realities). The most troubling indication of how difficult it’s going to be to convince the officers, active duty and retired, with too much formal education and too little common sense that their beloved theories don’t work lies in the treacherously selective and unscrupulous use of historical examples in the new COIN manual.

Even though the doctrine now admits the necessity of killing at least some of our most fervent opponents while accepting the validity of religion and ethnicity as motivating factors, the authors of the manual ignored the massive body of historical evidence that contradicts their claims in favor of a handful of unique cases that appear to buttress their theories. Bluntly put, the manual lies about history.

The doctrine’s authors keep propping the same worn-out hookers up on the barstools: Malaya and CORDS — the Civil Operations and Rural Development Support program in Vietnam — are treated as the definitive examples of COIN warfare, even though they’re anomalies from a specific historical juncture (and the latter was, of course, a failure). Other successful COIN operations from the same period go ignored, because the lessons they offer contradict the hearts-and-minds dogmas the drafters treasure. In Kenya, the British destroyed the Mau Mau insurgency — through a combination of hanging courts, concentration camps and determined military operations — but you won’t read about that in the new COIN manual. Because they were bloody and messy, more recent COIN successes in Central America are glossed over, too. Algeria is treated selectively, yet the ferocious French military approach won the Battle of Algiers; a war-weary nation quit because successful military techniques were applied too late. (A key lesson is that, while COIN operations may require years of presence, time cannot be squandered.) Nor does Jordan’s savage — and successful — repression of Palestinian unrest merit a mention here. The doctrine writers shun any examples that contradict their politically correct biases.

Reading the manual, it’s hard to tell whether the drafters just don’t know much history or intentionally rewrote history in the best Stalinist (and American-academic) tradition. Many of the claims made about the historical track record of insurgencies are absurd, and the speciousness of the examples cited reminds one of a quack doctor who, faced with the death of 98 patients, trumpets the miraculous survival of two as proof that his treatment works.

Consider the manual’s claim that “killing insurgents — while necessary, especially with regard to extremists — by itself cannot defeat an insurgency.” Oh, really? Over the past 3,000 years, insurgencies overwhelmingly have been put down thoroughly by killing insurgents. The teething-ring nonsense that insurgencies don’t have military solutions defies history — it’s campus and think-tank nonsense. Certainly, the military will fail if it isn’t used resolutely, but even in our own national history, insurgencies and insurrections have been defeated only with military force, from the Whiskey Rebellion, through a long succession of Indian wars, our Civil War, the Boxer Rebellion, the Moro insurrection, any number of “banana wars” and right down to the 2001 destruction of the Taliban regime.

Critics might respond that some of these military solutions didn’t last — but they consistently proved more sturdy than negotiated treaties. We have to accept that there are few permanent solutions in history — those who take a long view recognize that counterinsurgency operations often are about buying time or shifting a regional equation, not achieving ideal end states. But the record is clear that military responses historically have achieved the most durable successes. Our reluctance to face overwhelming amounts of historical evidence is a holdover from that Age of Frivolity, when we could afford to believe comforting nonsense.

Unfortunately, the manual’s misleading use of history goes much further. Consider the statement that “Insurgencies and counterinsurgencies have been common throughout history, but especially since the beginning of the 20th century.” That would be news to the Roman legions serving from Britain and Gaul, down along the Danube frontier, on to Asia Minor and Palestine, and back to northern Africa (and that doesn’t include the slave revolts). There are literally thousands of examples of insurgencies crushed definitively by military force over the millennia, from the revolt of the Zealots in Palestine to the insurrection of the Zanj in Basra, from various Celtic risings down to Nestor Makhno’s guerrilla warfare in Soviet Ukraine.

The myopic claim that insurgencies became increasingly numerous in the past century even ignores the other great — and frequent — insurgencies of the Age of Ideology (circa 1789 to 1991). What about the multiple insurgencies that swept Latin America, ultimately driving out the Spaniards? What about the near-endless succession of insurrections and civil wars that ravaged so much of Latin America thereafter — not least tragic Mexico, whose revolution of 1910 remains the greatest unstudied example of multi-sided insurgency warfare of the last century?

What about the thousands of years of popular insurgencies in China?

That list still ignores the multiple revolutions and insurgencies of 1848 in Europe, as well as the repeated freedom struggles of the Poles, Balkan insurgencies against Turkish rule, tribal insurgencies throughout Africa, multiple uprisings against British rule on the Northwest Frontier, the Mahdist revolt, the Boer uprisings, and on and on. For the serious student of COIN operations, the historical examples are inexhaustible.

Twentieth-century insurgencies that arose in the recession of empires were a mere subset of a subset of history’s countless insurgencies. But the common thread running through the sampling above is that those confronted by adequate military forces resolutely employed failed, while insurrections against irresolute foreign rulers or weak domestic governments often succeeded.

Even the rare examples of pre-20th-century insurgencies cited in the text are misinterpreted. Although it’s true that the “Spanish uprising against Napoleon … sapped French strength and contributed significantly to Napoleon’s defeat,” that Spanish ulcer never healed because British expeditionary forces kept ripping it open; indeed, Britian’s policy of supporting anti-French interest groups on the Iberian Peninsula resembles the support Iran and Syria provide to Iraqi insurgents today — while the Iranians and Syrians have not deployed military formations in Iraq, they have provided arms, funds, training and, above all, encouragement. Without foreign backing, the Spanish uprisings against Napoleon’s forces would have failed (as did the anti-French insurgency in the Tirol and partisan-warfare efforts elsewhere in the German-speaking lands). The operative lesson isn’t about people-power but about its exploitation by third parties.

Bad medicine

Determined to prove that, in the end, all insurgencies really are the same, the manual offers maxims and prescriptions for global application, contradicting its own claim that all insurgencies have their own unique characteristics that demand a grasp of their cultural contexts. As a result, the drafters muddle together conservative and revolutionary insurgencies, blur religious, ethnic and political uprisings into a single mass, and confuse struggles to preserve traditions with those that re-invent traditions (as al-Qaida has done). Yet, the medicine for one type of insurgency can be deadly in another. The authors just don’t seem to believe that insurgencies really come in different flavors but were forced to sprinkle on some rhetorical toppings to that effect at the last minute.

The default position of the manual is still the Maoist model, with sound bites from T.E. Lawrence tossed in. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, then inadequate historical perspective is deadly. Although acknowledging the progress that has been made from the last draft to the final document, one reads this manual asking how many dead American soldiers and Marines it will take before our doctrine writers stop insisting that black is really white, that north is south, that peace is the natural state of mankind and that foreign populations enduring violent insurgencies just need a bowl of Cheerios.

We need to stop defending the old intellectual order. It’s immoral to throw away the lives of our troops in repeated attempts to validate somebody’s doctoral thesis. It’s time to look honestly at the historical record, to stop saying and writing things we think will make everybody else happy and to tell the truth about COIN warfare.

The great truth missing in FM 3-24 is that military solutions traditionally have been the only effective tools in defeating insurgencies. To be effective, the military must be used with resolve and boldness — but no other model has a history of consistent success. The implications are obvious: Other branches of government may be of some assistance (or, depending on the circumstances, an impediment) to COIN operations, and our endeavors may range from the limited involvement of special operations forces to massive deployments, but if our nation’s leaders are unwilling to accept that violence is the currency that pays the serious bills, the insurgents win. After all of the grand academic theories have collapsed, COIN warfare is a fight to the death.

Ralph Peters is a retired Army intelligence officer and the author, most recently, of “Never Quit The Fight.”