Army Must Embrace Unconventional Fight

By Gavrilis, James A. | National Defense, August 2007 | Go to article overview

Army Must Embrace Unconventional Fight


Gavrilis, James A., National Defense


The U.S. military campaign ill Iraq ha, raised difficult and thought-provoking questions about the future or the Army as a counterinsurgency force.

Many observers are confused because conventional weapons and tactics are used in Iraq. And they wonder whether the Army's recent efforts to adopt unconventional tactics will lead to a permanent shift in the way leaders think about and plan for conflicts in the future.

To be sure, even a major unconventional campaign such as Iraq can have major conventional operations as part of it. In war the two are not mutually exclusive. The trick is finding the right mix.

But executing conventional tactics in a combat zone under the guise of counterinsurgency does not make it counterinsurgency. Likewise, executing counter-guerrilla operations within a conventional campaign plan does not make the campaign a counterinsurgency.

There is more to counterinsurgency than counter guerrilla operations, search and destroy missions, and detention operations. Adjusting tactics is not enough.

It has been widely acknowledged that, in the future, civil wars, insurgency, lawlessness, subversion and sabotage will be more prevalent than large force-on-force engagements. Weak and failed states will be the source of instability, and will require more nation building. Consequently, there should be an expectation of permanent counterinsurgency capability in the conventional Army as well as regular interaction with the special forces community.

Although the Army has made remarkable and commendable adjustments to accomplish the counterinsurgency missions, it must go further.

Counterinsurgency demands close relationships and effective communications with the locals. Yet the military has not had resounding successes integrating public information activities with operations or countering the vast amount of insurgent propaganda.

The military services in Iraq have not yet applied a counterinsurgency strategy uniformly. Application varies from sector to sector, and from rotation to rotation, even in the same sector. It depends on the individual commander, and how much he accepts or understands or desires to apply counterinsurgency principles and guidance. This inconsistency can be destabilizing and self-defeating, and limits the depth of relationships with locals.

Last year the Army published a new counterinsurgency field manual. But is it understood by the commanders in the field? Is the document just another field manual on the shelf, or is the Army changing its character to be able to win these kind of wars? Will counterinsurgency tasks be permanently placed on unit mission essential task lists?

Reconstruction efforts are slow and weak. More care and deliberation are needed to select the right people with the right expertise and the right level of authority for this job. In Vietnam, the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development and Support (CORDS) program was much larger and deeper. It had a wider distribution across the country, and it had a much higher level of authority in the command structure. Today we are still hard at work getting unity of effort, and far from unity of command.

The embedded advisor teams and the provincial reconstruction teams are two counterinsurgency tactical elements that are having a strategic impact in Iraq. The Army should institutionalize these into permanent organizations.

Traditionally, the Army has confined itself to security aspects of nation building, and that generally works in peacetime. But it is less useful in the current counterinsurgency, which requires military forces to also do political, economic and information operations.

U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan know this, and are doing a greater range of activities, but the larger understanding has not yet been codified.

One of the obstacles to institutionalizing counterinsurgency is that there is a tradition in the military that views counterinsurgency as not really warfare and a distraction from real, conventional, warfare. …

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