Modernizing U.S. Counterinsurgency Practice: Rethinking Risk and Developing a National Strategy

By Sewall, Sarah | Military Review, September/October 2006 | Go to article overview

Modernizing U.S. Counterinsurgency Practice: Rethinking Risk and Developing a National Strategy


Sewall, Sarah, Military Review


While the updating of U.S. Army counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine is long overdue, its imminent arrival is cause for celebration. The reality, however, is that the military doctrine won't fully address two challenges that remain critical for its ultimate success. One-altering approaches to risk-confronts an inhospitable politico-military culture and institutional history. The other key issue-the need for all components of the U.S. Government (USG) to develop shared assumptions and expectations in COIN-is above the pay grade of military doctrine. If the United States expects to be engaged in COIN in the future-and some would argue that the Long War is essentially countering a global insurgency-it had best address these issues rather than assume that forthcoming military doctrine resolves them.

I. Military Doctrine Review

In February 2006, an odd fraternity of experts diligently combed through a revision of Field Manual-Interim 3-07.22, Counterinsurgency Operations. It was an unusual crowd of veterans of Vietnam and El Salvador, representatives of human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations, academic experts, civilian agency representatives, journalists, and active duty U.S. and foreign military. At the behest of Lieutenant General David Petraeus, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, the assembly sought to make decades-old Army and Marine Corps doctrine freshly applicable to the contemporary insurgencies. The doctrine needed obvious updating to account for modern technologies, military capabilities, and operational concepts; to create a new breed of forces equipped to engage a global terrorist network; and to better address modern political and normative realities.

Perhaps more critically, the doctrinal update required reckoning with the enduring truths and dilemmas facing any counterinsurgency. These reflect lessons from prior British, French, and other foreign-power operations as well as from America's war in Vietnam. Ironically, perhaps, it is these persistent truths about COIN that pose the greater challenge for U.S. forces. Two points in particular stand out. The first is the counterintuitive need to accept greater physical risks to personnel in order to achieve political and military objectives. This is a particular challenge for the American military, which, as Russell Weigley showed, has spent decades developing a style of warfare that institutionally minimized those risks. The second point is the need for an integrated government strategy in an era when the military is often both the first tool and last resort of U.S. policy and many intra-government efforts fall short of the mark.

Breaking the conventional paradigm. For decades, the U.S. Army in particular had discounted the need to prepare for counterinsurgency-a messy, hydra-headed conflict that can, by its very nature, only be won incrementally. One reason for ignoring the challenge was that, as Vietnam so painfully underscored, COIN is hard to do well. A related but deeper factor is that effective counterinsurgency efforts confront core American predilections. American culture and U.S. military doctrine prefer a technological solution and the overwhelmingly decisive blow. Americans have a penchant for black-and-white clarity and have historically shown little patience for complexity and extended commitment. We Americans also like to win on our own terms. And, with the major exception of Vietnam, the United States has been remarkably successful in modern warfare.

Accordingly, much of the U.S. military's post-Vietnam efforts focused on neat, linear, and decisive concepts of warfare. Taking refuge in the Powell Doctrine, the armed forces prepared to fight and win conventional conflicts. Large massed formations, heavier weapons employed at increasing distances, and overwhelming force at the strategic and tactical level were the hallmarks of U.S. planning. Unconventional war, if it reared its head, was relegated to the subculture of U. …

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