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Continuing the Fight

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Continuing the Fight: How New Joint Doctrine Advances the Counterinsurgency Debate

Bernard Carreau

In December 2013, Mark Stout posted an op-ed at War on the Rocks calling for a reinvigorated debate on counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. According to Dr. Stout, that debate is necessary to ensure the lessons of post-9/11 operations are not lost and that we reach a consensus about what works, when, and why. The Joint Staff has obliged by providing fodder for that debate with the release of a new version of the joint COIN doctrine, JP 3-24. As guidance for COIN at the operational level in both large footprint operations like Iraq and Afghanistan, and small footprint or “foreign internal defense” contexts like Colombia, the Philippines, or Mali, it will have relevance well beyond 2014. And while certainly not perfect, the new JP 3-24 does seek to advance the conversation by:

  1. Addressing the key criticisms of the 2006 Field Manual and 2009 joint doctrine;
  2. Incorporating relevant research and lessons from a broader array of counterinsurgency and related operations; 
  3. Reflecting lessons from the last 13 years of U.S. and allied operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

At the request of the Joint Staff J7, NDU’s Center for Complex Operations (CCO) worked with the Army, the Marine Corps, and the rest of the Joint Doctrine Development Community to identify and incorporate key insights on COIN from practitioners across the interagency, academics, and policymakers. These efforts resulted in a number of key issues being reframed to better reflect the state of the art in COIN. From a long list of changes, CCO believes the following five are particularly worth highlighting:

  1. Understanding the Insurgency in Context.  JP 3-24 offers a new way to think about when and how insurgencies emerge. Reflecting research on the political economy of civil conflict, the evolution of the “greed or grievance” debate, and insights on mobilization from insurgencies dating back to the Peninsular War, the new doctrine sets aside Che Guevara’s “prerequisites” in favor of a framework built around three interdependent root causes: opportunity, motive, and means. In this account, grievances alone are not enough to cause insurgency – they are a necessary but insufficient component of “motive” (see chart below). Rather, savvy leaders weave grievances, social identities, and ideologies into a compelling narrative that convinces portions of the population that violent rebellion is just, necessary to protect their interests, and likely to succeed. The JP also highlights that the adversary can only really be understood in its socio-political context. Insurgencies are generally coalitions of communities, groups, and individuals with very different agendas – what the authors of the Field Manual called “mosaics.” The agendas, allegiances, and even identities of these actors evolve over the course of the conflict, both responding to and driving changes in the operational environment. Crafting an approach to exploit that variation and shape dynamics in the counterinsurgent’s favor requires understanding not only how insurgents think, but how local communities; political, economic, and religious leaders; government officials; and a variety of national and transnational actors all perceive the conflict and their stakes in it. The new JP moves away from an adversary-focused understanding of the operational environment to a more fulsome understanding of all these relevant actors.
  1. Local Perceptions not Hearts and Minds. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been widely criticized for applying Western assumptions about the structure and role of government without taking local realities into account. Reconstruction efforts have also come under fire for often having a dubious rationale and questionable impact. Grievances matter, but not in the way that U.S efforts have typically assumed. The new JP 3-24 emphasizes that efforts to improve governance and deliver services must be carefully tailored to the local context and narrowly focused on meeting the expectations of the population, rather than Western preconceptions. Counterinsurgents should keep in mind that it will typically be impossible to fully address grievances in the midst of active conflict. However, the credibility of commitments to resolve grievances over time will be judged largely on how counterinsurgents behave in the near term. COIN efforts should focus on providing predictable and tolerable conditions for the population, leaving long-term development until there is sufficient security.
  1. The Primacy of Politics. While the 2006 Field Manual was explicit about the primacy of politics in counterinsurgency, the 2013 Joint Publication expands on this point. It more clearly emphasizes that the political impact of counterinsurgent actions is largely determined by how insurgents and the population interpret them. Consequently, it is not just the outcome of COIN operations that matter, but how they are achieved. The JP also stresses that since most insurgencies end with some degree of political compromise, aggressive operations against insurgent networks should be designed to complement, but not eclipse, efforts to find a political accommodation.
  1. The Importance of Narrative for Counterinsurgents. Both the Field Manual and 2009 edition of the JP presented the concept of narratives solely in terms of insurgent propaganda and counterinsurgent information operations (IO). In contrast, the new JP 3-24 presents narratives as much more than a matter of messaging: rather, they are combinations of mutually supporting words and actions that invoke culturally resonant symbols to shape perceptions.  The new doctrine calls on counterinsurgents to consider narrative more than an IO challenge, and to craft a COIN narrative that operationalizes the concept of “propaganda of the deed” to influence the behavior of relevant actors towards the desired end state. The narrative should help COIN forces employ the full range of lethal and non-lethal tools in ways that are consistent with the overarching political strategy. By helping guide how counterinsurgents address tactical challenges, the COIN narrative can help ensure that actions have a positive impact beyond their immediate tangible effects.
  1. The US as a Third Party Counterinsurgent. Previous U.S. COIN doctrine has been criticized for assuming that the Host Nation government shares U.S. interests and is committed to regaining the support of its population through good governance. In reality, the U.S. often finds its efforts frustrated by regimes unwilling to institute reforms that would threaten the interests of ruling elites. Moreover, U.S. involvement can create perverse incentives and distort the relationship between the Host Nation government and its people, undermining the very sovereignty and legitimacy the U.S. is trying to support. The new JP 3-24 highlights how these challenges manifest themselves in large and small footprint COIN operations, respectively, and calls on U.S. forces to analyze the Host Nation government as rigorously as the insurgent group(s); assess the risks of different approaches; and deliberately shape U.S. engagement with the HN to minimize the unintended consequences of U.S. actions and encourage the necessary reforms.

As operational level doctrine, the new Joint Publication does not fully address the broader strategic challenges associated with the decision to launch a COIN effort. However, it does highlight the critical importance of the strategic context to whether COIN at the operational and tactical level has a realistic chance of delivering the desired policy outcomes. In particular, it stresses that COIN efforts can only ever be as good as the political strategy they support, and that operational level commanders should be frank with their military and civilian superiors if strategic assumptions do not match up with reality on the ground.

The new JP 3-24 is not the final word on COIN, and is unlikely to satisfy the most entrenched opponents of the concept. Moreover, crafting joint doctrine is an exercise in consensus-building across the Services, the Combatant Commands, and the offices of the Joint Staff itself.  Many hands guided the pen at different stages of the process, making it challenging for all involved to achieve coherence, completeness, and flow in the final product. However, we believe the new JP goes some way towards answering Dr. Stout’s clarion call by offering a version of COIN doctrine that depends less on Walt Rostow’s “modernization theory” than on a nuanced and realistic assessment of each conflict on its own terms. In doing so, the new doctrine builds on the strengths of FM 3-24 and the previous JP while moving the debate forward. Ultimately the doctrine will be judged on whether it helps the U.S. and its allies understand insurgencies and the most effective ways to counter them – a challenge that shows no sign of flagging.

About the Author(s)

Bernard Carreau is the Deputy Director of the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University in Washington. He established and currently supervises a lessons learned program focusing on the analysis of U.S. joint, interagency, combined, and multinational approaches to irregular warfare, stabilization, and security cooperation, with a particular focus on civil-military cooperation within the U.S. government. Mr. Carreau was an advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Washington and Baghdad on trade and investment matters and private sector development. He is a former deputy assistant secretary of Commerce, where he had many years of experience in international trade negotiations, trade law and regulation, and business development and advocacy.


Last sentence of the referenced Paragraph 2 entitled "Local Perceptions not Hearts and Minds:"

"COIN efforts should focus on providing predictable and tolerable conditions for the population, leaving long-term development until there is sufficient security."

Note that "long-term development" (here I would suggest along modern western political, economic and social lines) remains the overriding goal and objective of our activities.

Now, however, we have decided that it may not smart to try to do this -- as we have in the recent past -- in the midst of a counterinsurgency effort.

Why? Because we know now that the population often cannot be "won" or pacified -- but indeed can be "lost" and made more militant and resistant -- when we attempt to achieve our state and societal transformation goals in a weakened state, to wit: during an on-going conflict.

So now we have decided that the much smarter way to achieve our goals (the transformation of the outlying state and society along modern western political, economic and social lines) is to first establish/re-establish security within the country -- herein using the way of life and way of governance that is more familiar to and therefore more acceptable of the population.

Once this has been accomplished, however, and sufficiently trained, armed and capable military, police and intelligence forces put in place (to deal more effectively with those who would resist "development" along modern western political, economic and social lines), only then do we move out smartly -- via other ways and other means -- to alter, in ways that better serve our interests, the way of life and the way of governance of the subject state and society.

Thus, should we say that the above description, in general, represents (a) what we have learned re: our recent counterinsurgency activities and (b) the essence of what the new JP 3-24 explains and brings to the table?