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Gentile: How I would revise the Army’s counterinsurgency manual

Gentile: How I would revise the Army’s counterinsurgency manual

The column below is from an e-conversation I’ve been tracking. I am of course running it with Colonel Gentile’s permission.

By the way, for those compiling information on how to revise the COIN manual: My friend Quang X. Pham points out in the epilogue to the paperback edition of his fine memoir (268) that of his one of the major omissions in the Army/Marine counterinsurgency manual is that there is almost no discussion of mistakes the Americans committed in dealing with their South Vietnamese allies. He thinks the Americans tried to do too much, and so undercut the initiative of South Vietnamese commanders. (It looks like old Karzai agrees with Quang, too.)

As Andrew Exum has pointed out, the whole issue of the U.S. relationship with the host country is fraught, especially because the desired outcome is different from the colonial goals of the countries on whose COIN experience the U.S. military has drawn most from, Britain and France of the 1950s and 1960s. The British and French were fighting to stay. We are fighting to leave, albeit leaving behind a friendly government, which I am not sure is possible, especially in the Mideast, if that government is to last.

By Gian Gentile
Best Defense counterininsurgency critic

In general terms I would deconstruct the manual as it is now and break the singular link that it has with a certain theory of state building (known as population centric COIN). Once broken up I would then rewrite the doctrine from the ground up with three general parts: 1) would be a counterinsurgency approach centered on post-conflict reconstruction; 2) would be a counterinsurgency approach centered around military action to attack insurgent sources of military power (sometimes referred to as counter-terror or CT), but not linked to an endstate of a rebuilt or newly built nation state; 3) would be a counterinsurgency approach — perhaps call it COIN light — that would focus largely on Special Forces with some limited conventional army support conducting Foreign Internal Defense (FID).

The trick with this revised manual would be to present doctrinal alternatives for the U.S. Army when it goes about the countering of insurgencies and conducting stability operations with teeth. The trifecta trick would be to treat these three methods of countering insurgencies as operationally equal; that is to say, we would move away from the dogmatic belief currently held that anytime an insurgency is fought it must be of the population centric (FM 3-24, aka state building) persuasion, and that methods of CT and FID are subsumed within it and hence are seen as “lesser” operations. To reemphasize the key here is operational equality of the respective three.

Lastly, with regard to part one and the countering of an insurgency through post-conflict reconstruction which would invariably have the quality of state building to it, I would completely demolish the theory of population centric, hearts and minds COIN that FM 3-24 is currently built on, and update that part of the manual with much more current social science theory and better uses of history. Example is the really quite simplistic chart in FM 3-24 that depicts the population of “ANY” insurgency as 10% hardcore insurgents, 10% on the government’s side, and the remaining 80% of the population malleable and shapeable and just waiting to have their hearts and minds won over by the counterinsurgent force. That kind of conception of populations in insurgency has not proven itself in history, nor do I think in current practice. After returning from west Baghdad in late 2006 as a Cavalry Squadron commander and witnessing firsthand Iraq’s viscous and bloody sectarian civil war, when I first saw that FM 3-24 diagram I said to myself “shoot, only one line in it should be drawn across the middle with Shia on the top and Sunni on the bottom.” The point here is to emphasize the limits of winning hearts and minds of a population at the barrel of a gun and to create a better, more sophisticated understanding of populations and societal motivation and actions in insurgencies and civil wars.

Next step after 3-24 is deconstructed and rewritten would be the much more difficult task of delinking the FM 3-24 style of counterinsurgency as it exists today, with its broader permeating effects not only on the Army, but on the greater defense and policy establishment as well.

The writer is a serving U.S. Army colonel who has done two runs in Iraq in 2003 and 2006. Currently, he is a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The ideas presented here are his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense.