Counterinsurgency for Foxes

The Pentagon's new COIN manual doesn't offer a big, bold vision for fighting wars -- and that's a very good thing. 


When the U.S. Army and Marine Corps released Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency in December 2006, they probably did not expect that it would be downloaded more than a million times within a month, turned into a widely reviewed book, and featured on The Daily Show. But in the context of U.S. forces mired in Iraq, the military handbook expressed a big idea, a new paradigm that promised to revive American fortunes: counterinsurgency strategy focused on winning over populations.

Now, almost eight years later, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have issued a revised edition of the famous field manual. The sequel, released last week, is unlikely to catapult to the top of the bestseller lists, but the changes between the two editions are important, as they say a great deal about the changes in the military’s approach to war.

After 13 years of conflict in Afghanistan and with an American public weary of intensive military interventions, the new manual announces no new, bold, singular idea. Rather, it embraces diversity: the importance of context and the variety of available tools involved in preventing, mitigating, and confronting disorder around the world.

The change in emphasis is immediately evident from the title. Gone is the word "counterinsurgency." Now the manual declares its subject to be Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies. The subtle shift suggests not only that insurgencies can come in many forms (the manual distinguishes between rebellions, revolutions, civil wars, coup d’états, and transnational and global insurgencies), but also that actions to counter insurgencies are equally rich in variety. Indeed, much of the new edition focuses on going beyond the nation-building approach to counterinsurgency associated with General David Petraeus and the Iraq surge.

In this vein, a particularly important new chapter focuses on "indirect methods for countering insurgencies." Here, the drafters of the manual seek to remind readers that the United States has many tools in its toolbox, and that grand-scale military intervention isn’t the only option — or even the best one. Readers are pushed to think about whether engaging young people, through education and youth programs, can help prevent crises in the first place. They are urged to consider how the United States can provide civilian and military expertise (short of intervention) to help other countries deal with their own insurgencies. They are reminded that negotiations and diplomacy might be effective in achieving U.S. core interests in some situations, and that the United States has powerful economic tools to combat financing of terrorists. And perhaps most importantly, readers are asked to confront the truth that many insurgencies end not with outright victory or defeat, but with reconciliation and reintegration of opposing sides.

Of course, with so many tools in the toolbox, the trick is knowing when to use each one. The manual wisely does not prescribe universally applicable rules in advance. "Successful conduct of counterinsurgency operations," it declares in language at once obvious and surprising (for a military manual), "depends on thoroughly understanding the society and culture within which they are being conducted." American forces are urged to gain cultural understanding, language skills, and knowledge of the formal political system and of informal sources of political power. So important are these skills that "culture" has been given its own chapter; cultural issues were previously embedded into the chapter on intelligence operations. While perhaps obvious to anthropologists, the manual also reminds soldiers and Marines that culture influences how people interpret events and actions. Thus, "[i]f Soldiers and Marines assume that the local population will perceive actions the way that they do, they are likely to misjudge their reactions." Instead, soldiers and Marines should look "at the problem from the population’s perspective."

This isn’t a Sherlockian insight, to be sure — and those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have likely learned from experience — but how often have American policymakers taken it seriously?

Not only must counterinsurgents embrace the various tools for countering insurgencies and understand the cultural context of their environments, but they must adapt over time. With a new chapter on "assessments," the manual elevates the Army and Marine Corps’ commitment to data collection, continuous learning, and adaptation. The manual emphasizes the importance of qualitative and quantitative data on the efficacy of operations, it urges commanders to constantly question their underlying assumptions, and it notes the difference between measuring performance (one’s activities) and effectiveness (the outcomes of those activities). The chapter isn’t quite "moneyball for the military," but the focus on data collection and analytics would certainly make Billy Beane smile.

To be sure, careful readers of the 2006 Counterinsurgency Field Manual would have understood many of these lessons already. That edition did reference continuous learning, cultural awareness, and a variety of tools, and its underlying philosophy was pluralistic and pragmatic. Indeed, one of its most famous aphorisms was that "if a tactic works this week, it might not work next week; if it works in this province, it might not work in the next." But in the public imagination and in the policy conversation, these lessons were too often submerged in the context of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Counterinsurgency" came to mean a specific form of nation-building: win-the-population operations that did not necessarily differ from village to village, that didn’t take full account of the context. Critics even argued that "counterinsurgency" had become an "intellectual straitjacket" that was preventing policymakers and military leaders from considering all the available options.

The new manual takes the critique seriously and makes points once understated more explicit. It notes that "counterinsurgency is not a substitute for strategy." Rather, "[t]he strategy to counter an insurgency is determined by the ends the U.S. wishes to achieve, the ways it wishes to achieve those ends, and the resources or means it uses to enable those ways."

There is a saying attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." The drafters of the new manual have embraced the fox. And this is perhaps the most important lesson of the new manual. The hedgehog’s mindset is indifferent to context, misses the diversity of tools we have at our disposal, and is insensitive to evidence of (in)effectiveness. When countering insurgencies or making foreign policy more generally, a smart strategy requires foxes.

<p> Ganesh Sitaraman is an assistant professor of law at Vanderbilt Law School, and the author of The Counterinsurgent's Constitution: Law in the Age of Small Wars (Oxford 2012). </p>