Magazine article In These Times

Counterinsurgency 101

Magazine article In These Times

Counterinsurgency 101

Article excerpt

A SOLDIER IN BAGHDAD, IN town for the "surge" and wondering whether things really are as bad as they seem, might want to read FM 3-24, the U.S. military's Counterinsurgency Field Manual, released last December. On Page 1-29, our soldier will find a handy table-"Successful and unsuccessful counterinsurgency operational practices"-that outlines the Dos and the Don'ts. (See sidebar.)

In which column would one place the major decisions of the Bush administration? The dissolution of the Iraqi army, the de-Baathification of the civil service, the failure to guard important historic and cultural sites, the granting of reconstruction contracts to American firms, and the long-term neglect of legal due process-all correspond to the advice on the "Don't" side of the chart. And that's not accounting for atrocities like those in Falluja, Haditha or Abu Ghraib. The "Dos" column, on the other hand, reads like a list of what the United States has failed to do: meeting the population's needs, expanding secure areas, politically isolating the insurgents, training and equipping Iraqi forces, securing the borders and so on.

If this table serves as a pocket-sized score card, the 280-page manual is a full-bodied treatise on the subject. This is the first new counterinsurgency field manual to appear in 20 years, and as such, it serves as a tacit admission that the American strategy in Iraq is simply not working. The manual's perspective takes on additional significance since its chief author, Gen. David Petraeus, has just taken over as the top commander in the war.

Petraeus, who wrote his dissertation at Princeton on the military lessons of the Vietnam War, distinguished himself in Mosul with his hearts-and-minds approach. Shortly after the 2003 invasion, he used the 101st Airborne to establish an overwhelming presence in the city, then promptly instituted foot patrols, held local elections and distributed money for reconstruction. At the years end, Mosul was one of the few pacified areas. But Petraeus' approach ran counter to Rumsfeld's. At the beginning of 2004, Rumsfeld replaced the Airborne with a Stryker force one-fourth as large. The Stryker Brigade halted the foot patrols and the local government's efforts. Within a few weeks, Mosul was in chaos. The question facing Petraeus now is whether that process can be reversed-three years later, on a much larger scale, and with a budding civil war. It's a tough test for the theory set out in his handbook.

Written primarily for "leaders and planners at the battalion level and above," FM 3-24 sets doctrine for the Army, Marine Corps, Army Reserve and National Guard. It addresses practical, organizational and theoretical dimensions of low-intensity conflict, starting with general principles and then focusing on specific operations. Hence, it begins with a detailed analysis of the nature of insurgencies, which is then followed by chapters on the integration of civilian and military activities, the use of intelligence, the design, execution and sustainment of operations, developing local government forces and ethical constraints.

According to FM 3-24 the ultimate aims of a counterinsurgency program are political-winning legitimacy for the government and undermining the claims of the rebels. Strategically speaking, it is as important to meet the population's needs as to hunt down the enemy. A counterinsurgency program is, as the manual puts it, "armed social work."

But mounting a successful counterinsurgency is a dangerous balancing act. Any sign of weakness benefits the insurgents, who will exploit the atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity in their efforts to discredit the government. But if the military is overbearing and oppressive, the insurgents can use public resentment and sincere grievances to gain support and justify violence. It is not enough to win the battles if the government loses the backing of the population in the process.

FM 3-24 does a good job conveying this complexity. …

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