Academic journal article Parameters

A Strategy of Tactics: Population-Centric COIN and the Army

Academic journal article Parameters

A Strategy of Tactics: Population-Centric COIN and the Army

Article excerpt

Population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) has become the American Army's new way of war. The principles and ideas that emerged out of the Army's counterinsurgency field manual (FM), FM 3-24, published in late 2006, have become transcendent. The field manual has moved beyond simple Army doctrine for countering insurgencies to become the defining characteristic of the Army's new way of war. In the American Army today, everyone is a counterinsurgent. It is easy to find examples of FM 3-24's permeating effect in other Army doctrinal manuals such as FM 3-0, Operations, and FM 3-07, Stability Operations. Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, IV, the American Army general charged with writing the Army's doctrine, recently stated:

   The future is not one of major battles and engagements fought by
   armies on battlefields devoid of population; instead, the course of
   conflict will be decided by forces operating among the people of
   the world. Here, the margin of victory will be measured in far
   different terms than the wars of our past. The allegiance, trust,
   and confidence of populations will be the final arbiters of
   success. (1)

The idea of populations as the prize in war, that they are the focus, is drawn directly from the pages of FM 3-24. (2)

In a sense, population-centric counterinsurgency has perverted a better way of American war which has primarily been one of improvisation and practicality. Over the course of American history there have been strategic shifts in terms of the threats and enemies that the United States had faced. With each of these shifts came a different approach, or way, to fighting wars or preparing for them in peacetime. For example, in the American Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant carried out a strategy of exhausting the southern armies through large-scale combat. A quarter of a century later in the Philippines, the American Army improvised and adapted to fight and ultimately defeat an insurgency against the US colonial government. As historian Brian Linn has shown in criticism of Russell Weigley's classic The American Way of War, the US military's approach has not been an ideological one of only wanting to fight wars consisting of big battles. A close reading of Linn's work shows that the true American way of war has been one of adaptation and flexibility, and not a rigid ideological attachment to seeking out the next Napoleonic battle of Austerlitz. (3)

Regrettably, the American Army's new way of war, otherwise called population-centric counterinsurgency, has become the only operational tool in the Army's repertoire to deal with problems of insurgency and instability throughout the world. Population-centric COIN may be a reasonable operational method to use in certain circumstances, but it is not a strategy. There are flaws and limitations that need to be exposed and considered.

A Military Methodology

Population-centric counterinsurgency is a military operation, a method, nothing more and nothing less. Its ideas and rules of tactics and operations should be familiar to anyone who has studied or thought about various approaches to COIN. They are:

* Populations are always the focus, the center of gravity, and they have to be protected.

* The enemy insurgent as a rule cannot be as important or given the same level of emphasis as the population.

* Population-centric COIN requires patience on the part of the American people.

* It demands a certain tactical approach of dispersion into small outposts to live amongst the people to win their hearts and minds; this has become the concept of clear, hold, and build.

* Population-centric counterinsurgency equals nation-building, and it requires a major investment in time to be successful.

* Its historical model of success is the British in Malaya.

* Its supreme historical failure is the United States' involvement in Vietnam. …

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