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How to Fight an Insurgency

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
December 19, 2006

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Though President Bush delayed announcement of his new approach to Iraq until after the New Year, the Army and Marines Corps unveiled their long-awaited Counterinsurgency Manual just in time for Christmas. The 282-page document draws on the lessons of the current “low intensity” conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq to provide the first major update on U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine in twenty years, though an interim manual was released two years ago. Among the guidelines likely to raise eyebrows: “Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation builders as well as warriors.”

The manual finds fault (LAT) with some of the tactics the United States employed in fighting Iraq’s insurgents. For instance, says the manual, troops deployed in Iraq live in large bases, reinforcing the impression of an occupying power. CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot recently bemoaned the extravagance of U.S. bases in war zones, pointing out, “Our enemies aren’t drinking lattes.” Furthermore, the manual says U.S. forces have focused too intently on capturing or killing enemies, when their time could be better spent training Iraqi military and police to take on that task. The recent Iraq Study Group report calls for renewed training efforts, and a recent Backgrounder examines how that might be done. Yet the manual’s principal editor, Dr. Conrad Crane, tell the Army Times that the new doctrine should hold few surprises: “The way we’re fighting already reflects this document. This is not going to be new to troops in the field.”

The new counterinsurgency doctrine also offers advice on dealing with information-age insurgents who, much like modern terrorists, use the Internet to recruit and transfer information (ABC News). The propaganda element of counterinsurgency is what concerns State Department strategist David Kilcullen most. He recently told the New Yorker that the “war on terrorism” is “fundamentally an information fight. The enemy gets that and we don’t.” Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, too, emphasized this point, telling a CFR audience earlier this year, “The U.S. government still functions as a five and dime store in an eBay world.”

Technological wrinkles aside, many counterinsurgency principles carry over from previous versions of the manual. In fact, the Marines Small Wars Manual, published in 1940, remains a touchstone for counterinsurgency strategists. Nevertheless, modern insurgencies differ from their predecessors, and require updated strategies, which Kilcullen dubs “Counterinsurgency Redux” (PDF).

Critics of the new doctrine include New York Post columnist Ralph Peters, a former military intelligence officer who called earlier editions of the document too soft. “We’re back to struggling to win hearts and minds that can’t be won,” he writes. “In war, you don’t get points for good manners. It’s about winning.”

Winning small wars was the forte of the U.S. military for decades, a history Boot traced in his 2003 book The Savage Wars of Peace. For more contemporary context, Military Review released a special counterinsurgency edition (PDF) offering a raft of recent articles on the subject. 

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