The Evolution and Importance of Army/Marine Corps Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency
by Lt. Colonel John A. Nagl
Although there were lonely voices arguing that the Army needed to focus on counterinsurgency in the wake of the Cold War—Dan Bolger, Eliot Cohen, and Steve Metz chief among them—the sad fact is that when an insurgency began in Iraq in the late summer of 2003, the Army was unprepared to fight it. The American Army of 2003 was organized, designed, trained, and equipped to defeat another conventional army; indeed, it had no peer in that arena. It was, however, unprepared for an enemy who understood that it could not hope to defeat the U.S. Army on a conventional battlefield, and who therefore chose to wage war against America from the shadows.
The story of how the Army found itself less than ready to fight an insurgency goes back to the Army’s unwillingness to internalize and build upon the lessons of Vietnam. Chief of Staff of the Army General Peter Schoomaker has written that in Vietnam, “The U.S. Army, predisposed to fight a conventional enemy that fought using conventional tactics, overpowered innovative ideas from within the Army and from outside it. As a result, the U.S. Army was not as effective at learning as it should have been, and its failures in Vietnam had grave implications for both the Army and the nation.” Former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army General Jack Keane concurs, recently noting that in Iraq, “We put an Army on the battlefield that I had been a part of for 37 years. It doesn’t have any doctrine, nor was it educated and trained, to deal with an insurgency . . . After the Vietnam War, we purged ourselves of everything that had to do with irregular warfare or insurgency, because it had to do with how we lost that war. In hindsight, that was a bad decision.”
The Evolution of Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency
Doctrine is “the concise expression of how Army forces contribute to unified action in campaigns, major operations, battles, and engagements. . . . Army doctrine provides a common language and a common understanding of how Army forces conduct operations.” Doctrine is thus enormously important to the United States Army; it codifies both how the institution thinks about its role in the world and how it accomplishes that role on the battlefield. Doctrine drives decisions on how the Army should be organized (large heavy divisions or small military transition teams to embed in local security forces), what missions it should train to accomplish (conventional combat or counterinsurgency, or some balance between those two kinds of warfare), and what equipment it needs (heavy tanks supported by unarmored trucks for a conventional battlefield with front lines, or light armored vehicles to fight an insurgent enemy).
Although there are many reasons why the Army was unprepared for the insurgency in Iraq, among the most important was the lack of current counterinsurgency doctrine when the war began. When the Iraqi insurgency emerged the Army had not published a field manual on the subject of counterinsurgency for more than twenty years, since the wake of the El Salvador campaign. The Army therefore did not have all of the equipment it needed to protect its soldiers against the time-honored insurgent tactic of roadside bombs. It had not trained its soldiers that the key to success in counterinsurgency is protecting the population, nor had it empowered them with all of the political, diplomatic, and linguistic skills they needed to accomplish that objective. The Army did not even have a common understanding of the problems inherent in any counterinsurgency campaign, as it had not studied such battles, digested their lessons, and debated ways to achieve success in counterinsurgency campaigns. It is not unfair to say that in 2003 most Army officers knew more about the U.S. Civil War than they did about counterinsurgency.
Belatedly recognizing the problem as the insurgency in Iraq developed, the Army hurriedly set out to remedy the situation. The Doctrine Division of the Combined Arms Center (CAC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, produced an interim Counterinsurgency Field Manual on October 1, 2004, designated Field Manual (Interim) 3-07.22. Work on a replacement manual began immediately but did not catch fire until October 2005, when Lieutenant General David Petraeus returned from his second tour in Iraq to assume command of CAC and take responsibility for all doctrinal development in the United States Army.
Petraeus is an atypical general officer, holding a doctorate in international relations from Princeton University in addition to his Airborne Ranger qualifications. He commanded the 101st Airborne Division in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, taking responsibility for governing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, with a firm but open hand. Petraeus focused on the economic and political development of his sector of Iraq, inspiring his command with the question, “What have you done for the people of Iraq today?” He worked to build Iraqi security forces able to provide security to the people of the region and quickly earned the sobriquet Malik Daoud (King David) from the people of Mosul.
Petraeus’s skill in counterinsurgency soon led to a promotion. In June 2004, just a few months after his return from Iraq with the 101st, he became a Lieutenant General with responsibility for the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq. Petraeus threw himself into the effort to create Iraqi Security Forces for the next fifteen months, and was then assigned to command CAC and Fort Leavenworth—not so much to catch his breath as to drive change in the Army to make it more effective in counterinsurgency. He focused on the Army’s extensive education systems, making training officers about counterinsurgency his top priority. Petraeus also built a strong relationship with his Marine Corps counterpart, Lieutenant General James Mattis, who had commanded the 1st Marine Division during the initial assault on Baghdad and later during a tour in Al Anbar province in 2004. Mattis made his Division’s motto “No better friend, no worse enemy—First Do No Harm.” The two generals established an impressive rapport based on their shared understanding of the conduct of counterinsurgency and of the urgent need to reform their services to make them more capable of conducting this most difficult kind of war.
To take lead on perhaps the most important driver of intellectual change for the Army and Marine Corps—a complete rewrite of the interim Counterinsurgency Field Manual—Petraeus turned to his West Point classmate Conrad Crane. Crane, a retired lieutenant colonel with a doctorate in history from Stanford University, called on the expertise of both academics and Army and Marine Corps veterans of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. He took advantage of an Information Operations conference at Fort Leavenworth in December 2005 to pull together the core writing team and outline both the manual as a whole and the principles, imperatives, and paradoxes of counterinsurgency that would frame it. Chapter authors were selected, given their marching orders, and threatened with grievous physical injury if they did not produce drafts in short order. All survived, and a draft version of the Field Manual in your hands was produced in just two months.
The tight timeline was driven by an unprecedented vetting session of the draft manual held at Leavenworth in mid-February 2006. This conference, which brought together journalists, human rights advocates, academics, and practitioners of counterinsurgency, thoroughly revised the manual and dramatically improved it. Some military officers questioned the utility of the representatives from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) and the media, but they proved to be the most insightful of commentators. James Fallows, of the Atlantic Monthly, commented at the end of the conference that he had never seen such an open transfer of ideas in any institution, and stated that the nation would be better for more such exchanges.
Then began a summer of revisions that bled over into a fall of revisions as nearly every word in the manual was argued over by the military, by academics, by politicians, and by the press, which pounced upon a leaked early draft that was posted on the Internet. The final version was sharper than the initial draft, finding a balance between the discriminate targeting of irreconcilable insurgents and the persuasion of less committed enemies to give up the fight with the political, economic, and informational elements of power. It benefited greatly from the revisions of far too many dedicated public servants to cite here, most of whom took on the task after duty hours out of a desire to help the Army and Marine Corps adapt to the pressing demands of waging counterinsurgency more effectively. Among them was Lieutenant General James Amos, who picked up the torch of leading change for the Marine Corps when Mattis left Quantico to take command of the I Marine Expeditionary Force.
The finished book was released on December 15, 2006, to an extraordinary international media outcry; Conrad Crane was featured in Newsweek as a “Man to Watch” for his contribution to the intellectual development of the Army and Marine Corps. The field manual was widely reviewed, including by several Jihadi Web sites; copies have been found in Taliban training camps in Pakistan. It was downloaded more than 1.5 million times in the first month after its posting to the Fort Leavenworth and Marine Corps Web sites.
Impact of the Doctrine
Perhaps no doctrinal manual in the history of the Army has been so eagerly anticipated and so well received as Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency. It is designed both to help the Army and Marine Corps prepare for the next counterinsurgency campaign and to make substantive contributions to the national efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The most important contribution of the manual is likely to be its role as a catalyst in the process of making the Army and Marine Corps more effective learning organizations that are better able to adapt to the rapidly changing nature of modern counterinsurgency campaigns. The most notable section of the manual is probably the Zen-like “Paradoxes of Counterinsurgency” in the first Chapter on page 47. These capture the often counterintuitive nature of counterinsurgency. The nine maxims turn conventional military thinking on its head, highlighting the extent of the change required for a conventional military force to adapt itself to the demands of counterinsurgency.
The field manual emphasizes the primary role of traditionally non-military activities and the decisive role of other agencies and organizations in achieving success in counterinsurgency in Chapter 2, “Unity of Effort.” In Chapter 3, “Intelligence,” the field manual shows it understands that, while firepower is the determinant of success in conventional warfare, the key to victory in counterinsurgency is intelligence on the location and identity of the insurgent enemy derived from a supportive population; one of the Principles of Counterinsurgency is that “Intelligence Drives Operations.” The Appendix on “Social Network Analysis” helps drive the Army’s intelligence system away from a focus on analysis of conventional enemy units toward a personality-based understanding of the networks of super-empowered individuals that comprise the most dangerous enemies the United States confronts today.
The Field Manual introduces new doctrinal constructs including Operational Design in Chapter 4 and Logical Lines of Operation in Chapter 5. Operational Design, a gift from the Marine Corps members of the writing team, focuses on identifying the unique array of enemies and problems that generate a contemporary insurgency, and the adaptation of operational art to meet those challenges. The Operations Chapter promulgates multiple lines of operation—examples are Combat Operations, Building Host Nation Security Forces, Essential Services, Good Governance, Economic Development, Information Operations—that must be conducted simultaneously to achieve the objectives of the Campaign Plan. Chapter 6 focuses attention on the need to build and develop the host-nation security forces that ultimately will win or lose counterinsurgency campaigns; third-nation forces can only hold the ring and set the conditions for success of local forces. The manual also recognizes in Chapter 7 the unique leadership challenges inherent in any war without front lines and against an enemy who hides among the sea of the people, and then prescribes solutions to the logistic problems of counterinsurgency campaigns in Chapter 8.
The “Guide to Action,” based on an influential Military Review article by the Australian counterinsurgent Dr. David Kilcullen, provides tips and guidelines for the sergeants and young officers who will have to implement the precepts of counterinsurgency on the mean streets of distant lands. The manual concludes with an annotated bibliography listing both classic counterinsurgency texts and more modern works more directly applicable to the Global War on Terror. The inclusion of a bibliography of non-military texts—to this author’s knowledge, the first ever printed in an Army doctrinal manual—is key evidence of the Army’s acceptance of the need to “Learn and Adapt” to succeed in modern counterinsurgency operations.
The Long Road Ahead
Population security is the first requirement of success in counterinsurgency, but it is not sufficient. Economic development, good governance, and the provision of essential services, all occurring within a matrix of effective information operations, must all improve simultaneously and steadily over a long period of time if America’s determined insurgent enemies are to be defeated. All elements of the United States government—and those of her allies in this Long War that has been well described as a “Global Counterinsurgency” campaign—must be integrated into the effort to build stable and secure societies that can secure their own borders and do not provide safe haven for terrorists. Recognizing this fact—a recognition spurred by the development of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual—the Department of State hosted an interagency counterinsurgency conference in Washington, D.C., in September 2006. That conference in turn built a consensus behind the need for an interagency counterinsurgency manual. It promises to result in significant changes to the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the other agencies of the U.S. government that have such an important role to play in stabilizing troubled countries around the globe.
Of the many books that were influential in the writing of Field Manual 3-24, perhaps none was as important as David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Galula, a French Army officer who drew many valuable lessons from his service in France’s unsuccessful campaign against Algerian insurgents, was a strong advocate of counterinsurgency doctrine. He wrote, “If the individual members of the organizations were of the same mind, if every organization worked according to a standard pattern, the problem would be solved. Is this not precisely what a coherent, well-understood, and accepted doctrine would tend to achieve?”
Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl was a member of the writing team that produced Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency. He led a tank platoon in Operation Desert Storm and served as the Operations Officer of Task Force 1-34 Armor in Khalidiyah, Iraq, from September 2003 through September 2004. Nagl is the author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (University of Chicago Press, 2005). These opinions are his own.