Be honest: Who actually read FM 3-24?

Photo courtesy US Army on Flickr

Two years ago, the COINdinistas seemed on top of the world.  That is, until the Surge in Afghanistan.

Since then, the COINdinistas’ lead detractors, the COINtras, have grown more numerous and more vociferous.  Leading COINtras, such as US Army Colonel Gian Gentile, have become more critical of what they call the Iraq War’s “popular narrative“:  that US troops, armed with a new “counterinsurgency strategy”, pulled Iraq’s warring factions back from the abyss of ever-increasing violence.  Rather, assert the COINtras, a myriad of factors, such as the stand-down of the Mahdi Army, ethnic segregation in Baghdad, and the payoff of Sunni insurgents, contributed more to the decline in violence than the Surge itself.

The past year has done little to bolster the COINdinistas’ cause.  General David Petraeus, the lead architect of counterinsurgency theory, has ramped up airstrikes and night raids, and has even begun to re-institute body counts as a measure of effectiveness.  Last week, a UN report undercut US claims of success, pointing out that civilian deaths in Afghanistan increased twenty percent in the last year alone, with the ten-year campaign displacing over 400,000 Afghans.  And let’s not forget a recent scandal involving a beloved counterinsurgency text, “Three Cups of Tea“, which, to this day, still features in some military organizations’ recommended reading lists.

All this has led some to proclaim the “death of COIN“, and others to muse how to save the COIN baby from the bathwater.  In light of all the COIN resentment, noted COINtra Carl Prine has even quipped, “Everyone is Gian Gentile now“.

But is all the criticism deserved? Let’s take a look.

Counter-insurgency?  Stability ops?  Civil war?

We often categorize the war in Iraq as a counterinsurgency campaign, though the moniker is grossly oversimplified.  Even the most ardent COINdinistas wouldn’t categorize the Iraq War as such. FM 3-24, the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and Joint Publication 1-02 define insurgency as an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict.  But though insurgent groups in Iraq may have directed attacks against the Iraqi government and US forces, few groups, not even al-Qaeda in Iraq, had any serious desire or capacity to actually govern.

Instead, COINdinistas, such as former Australian Army officer Dr. David Kilcullen, have described the conflicts as “hybrid”:  a stability operation aimed at combating insurgency, terrorism, and civil war.   In fact, there was no one insurgent “group”.  Even before the vaunted Surge, most knew that the US was at odds with multiple insurgencies.

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the nature of the Iraq War varied by province.  Areas such as Anbar and Tal’Afar generally fit what has been termed the “popular narrative”:  counterinsurgency tactics, and partnership with local power brokers, gradually turned the tide against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Baghdad, however, fits the COINtra’s narrative.  Around the same time as the “Anbar Awakening”, Motaqua al-Sadr stood down his Mahdi Army, a Shia militia responsible for massive ethnic cleansing in Baghdad.  Moreover, by mid-2007, when the US-led Surge was underway, a campaign of ethnic cleansing in areas of Baghdad had generally run its course, with Shia and Sunni neighborhoods generally segregating.

In fairness, many–such as Washington Post correspondent Robert Woodward, author of an extensive book on the Surge–credit all these developments to the precipitous drop in violence in mid-2007.  Most serious critics only disagree on the degree to which these elements contributed to improved security.

 Counterinsurgency was never a strategy.

Though the phrase “counterinsurgency strategy” is often banded about, it’s a misnomer.  Counterinsurgency, as practiced in Iraq, was a bottom-up tactical innovation which arose in the midst of strategic ineptitude.  But it was never a strategy.  Or so we thought.

Dr. John Nagl, a retired US Army officer and President of the Center for a New American Security, explained in his doctoral thesis that the US Army failed in Vietnam because it applied conventional warfighting techniques to an insurgency.  Nagl claimed that the US Army, trained and equipped for fighting major conventional battles, viewed the war in Vietnam in conventional terms.  To paraphrase Nagl’s oft-quoted analogy, when all you have is a hammer, all the world’s problems look like nails.

But by early 2009, COIN had become the hammer; Afghanistan was a suitable nail.

But while counterinsurgency has its merits at the tactical level, it fell short in Afghanistan:  FM 3-24 never accounted for, say, Pakistani mendacity, egregious mission creep, and a host nation government best described as a “kleptocracy“.

Suffice to say, virtually any tactical doctrine–be it network-centric warfare, blitzkrieg, strategic raiding–is useless if it isn’t linked to national strategic objectives.

COIN isn’t about loving your enemy.

Counterinsurgency is about winning hearts and minds, right?  Of course, it’s in the field manual!  

Look through the counterinsurgency field manual and try to find the term “hearts and minds“.  Give up?  It’s used twice:  flip to Appendix A, paragraph A-26:

Once the unit settles into the AO, its next task is to build trusted networks. This is the true meaning of the phrase “hearts and minds,” which comprises two separate components. “Hearts” means persuading people that their best interests are served by COIN success. “Minds” means convincing them that the force can protect them and that resisting it is pointless. Note that neither concerns whether people like Soldiers and Marines. Calculated self-interest, not emotion, is what counts. Over time, successful trusted networks grow like roots into the populace. They displace enemy networks, which forces enemies into the open, letting military forces seize the initiative and destroy the insurgents.

Wait, you mean COINdinistas believe that people are motivated by self-interest?

The “Hearts and Minds” is a little more Machiavellian than you might think.  Even FM 3-24 admits, “Achieving [long-term success] requires the government to elimitate as many causes of insurgency as feasible.  This can include eliminating those extremists whose beliefs prevent them from ever reconciling with the government“.  Even those who claim to refute the central tenets of FM 3-24 seem to agree with the claim that, “over time, counterinsurgents aim to enable a country or regime to provide the security and rule of law that allow establishment of social services and growth of economic activity“.  (By the way, all these quotes come from the first page and a half of FM 3-24.  God only knows what you might learn from reading the whole book)

The Machiavellian approach, as opposed to the stereotypical “hearts and minds” approach, can be best summarized by a quote from Alex Horton, author of the blog “Army of Dude“:

The only thing more impressive than the Shiite IA’s ability to beat the hell out of Sunni civilians is their inability to do anything on their own accord. They simply cannot conduct patrols without us, but 1920 reigns freely in the neighborhoods they operate in. In a few months they are confident in their ability to combat Al Qaeda with minimal help from us, and the IA refuses to do a thirty minute patrol alone. And we still refuse to take off the training wheels.

For now, our relationship with 1920 is one of mutual distrust and hatred, a sign of the times. A conversation between a member of my platoon and a 1920 source was rife with foreboding on the future of this partnership, and of the war to come.

“Do you want to kill me?” asked the soldier.

“Yes,” replied the source, coldly and without emotion. “But not today.”

The world’s leading COINdinista, General David Petraeus, the man who oversaw the composition of FM 3-24, would agree.  From a 2007 interview with Noah Shachtman of Wired Magazine:

What about all the cultural understanding, I [Noah Shachtman] ask him. What about nation-building? What about your counterinsurgency manual?

“Well,” Petraeus says, “it doesn’t say that the best weapons don’t shoot. It says sometimes the best weapons don’t shoot. Sometimes the best weapons do shoot.” A war like Iraq is a mix, he adds: In one part of the country, the military is reinforcing the society, building things; in another, it’s breaking them — waging “major combat operations” that aren’t all that different from what might have gone down in 2003.

US forces rarely understand their own doctrine.

Just because something’s in a doctrine manual doesn’t mean that US forces are bound by it.  Just witness the Army Capstone Concept’s emphasis on empowering subordinates and encouraging risk-taking, and contrast it with the the Army’s reflector belt fetish, and refusal to allow soldiers to travel 100 miles without a risk assessment.

Commanders, in an attempt to placate their bosses, often place restrictions on orders passed down the chain of command.  Though General Stanley McChrystal might have been reluctant to accept civilian casualties, commanders warped his guidance beyond belief, ordering troops to patrol in areas they didn’t expect to encounter the enemy.

This wasn’t a failure of counterinsurgency; it was a failure in leadership.

You can’t expect troops to understand a complex and nuanced topic without reading the entire source.  As such, troops pick and choose the occasional line from FM 3-24 as judiciously as the German General Staff cherry-picked lines from Clausewitz, or as the Westboro Baptist Church selects lines from the Bible.

Think I’m exaggerating?  At a US Army Combat Training Center, an informal poll of Observer-Controllers, many of whom had just returned from counterinsurgency conflicts and had advised units of counterinsurgency tactics, only twenty percent admitted to reading FM 3-24.

Perhaps the problem with counterinsurgency lies with us, not with the doctrine?

The debate’s become too personal.

According to a series of recent blog posts, relying on primary sources, President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger seriously considered relieving MAC-V Commander General Creighton Abrams due to his drinking habits.

We’re right to be suspicious of hagiographies, and Abrams has been the subject of many.  But revealing his drinking problem adds about as much to the discourse as revalations that General MacArthur assigned then-Major Dwight D. Eisenhower to hide his 16-year old Filipino mistress from the press.  (I can only imagine the Google hits I’ll get from this)

Certainly we’re not forgetting that one of the greatest rebellion-crushers of all time had a penchant for the bottle; or that President Nixon was quite the boozer himself.  (And let’s not forget that President Nixon was nearly relieved of his presidency by the American people)

(But please, while you’re busy discussing General Abrams’ drinking habits, I’ll be getting totally crunk over at the Great Satan’s Girlfriend)

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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10 Responses to Be honest: Who actually read FM 3-24?

  1. Carl Prine says:

    I’m not a “COINtra,” although I’ll cop to inventing the term.

    My beef with FM 3-24 is that it’s a Maoist cartoon that doesn’t reflect the wars we actually fight in the 21st century and believe it should be rewritten to reflect best practices learned from the ground up and not as an a priori recitation of timeless truths, something Nagl has a tendency to do.

    There are many very good things about the manual. The best section is the part on intelligence in small wars. I’m not sure it could be written any better.

    From a purely historical standpoint, it’s very important to consider whether the MACV commander had a substance abuse problem so severe that for nearly two years Nixon and others sought to get rid of him. This is something historians must think about.

    The point of my blog wasn’t to disparage a dead man but rather to ask a salient question about why his biographers never thought it important enough to consider. Surely they had heard about this.

    Even if you don’t believe it’s relevant for historians it most certainly is for biographers.

    • Starbuck says:

      Agreed on the Maoist aspect. I always found it a little curious that we used the term “counter-insurgency” to describe Iraq, even though it was a gross oversimplification. (Really? AQI seeks to undermine and overthrow the Iraqi government?)

      Part of my frustration with the Army’s adoption of COIN is its overly-cartoonish interpretation of it.

      • Carl Prine says:

        The other point is that when strategists joke that “Everyone is Gian Gentile now,” what they’re suggesting is that Clausewitzian logic has been restored to strategy and grand strategy calculations.

        Gentile, Colin Gray, David Betz, Thomas Rid, et al, have been saying for some time that certain elements in the U.S. military seemed to put the cart filled with operational arts and tactics before the horses of strategy and grand strategy.

        There was an assumption that FM 3-24 and related doctrinal texts created a process that, when properly applied, would lead to the outcomes we desired without the messy stuff of politics intruding.

        Partly this is because of the check-a-box culture in the military, partly because that’s how “COIN” was sold to the American people (as Douglas Porch would point out, this was similar to French efforts in the 19th and 20th centuries, too), partly because some people seemed to actually believe in this insanity (which perhaps culminated in the government-in-a-box idiocy of Marjah).

        But that’s not strategy. Strategy involves the means, ways and ends of matching tactics and operations to foreign policy goals. It includes hard choices about time, treasure and blood. It involves determining not only the nature of a war, but also how to measure success and failure in it.

        What Doug Ollivant, Nir Rosen and others have been showing us is that many of our tactical and operational innovations weren’t all that helpful in the so-called “Surge,” that the complexity of the conflict meant far different sorts of causation for the relative pacification, and those lessons should be included in a rewrite of FM 3-24.

  2. LT B. says:

    I can’t agree more! The misunderstanding of “hearts and minds” was especially obvious during my rotation at JRTC. The most important missions from the BDE’s POV: opening a clinic, and installing a water purification point. Nothing about security, population control, and etc.

  3. Paul Graf says:

    My overwhelming reaction when I read FM 3-24 (and yes, this civilian read the whole thing voluntarily — which probably says something about my mental state) was that it took a large number of pages to say, actually, very little. “Cartoonish” is a good word — it demands a Cliff’s Notes version, or maybe one of those commercial outlines that were so popular when I was in law school.

    The second thing that struck me was how little attention was paid to host nation governance. To a large degree, this is the single greatest problem that nations faced with insurgencies have: the government is weak, remote, non-responsive, over-centralized, predatory, kleptocratic and capricious. It takes from all, gives back to some and either ignores or persecutes everyone else. We need to recognize that this is fundamentally a military problem — no other agency of government has the manpower to deal with it — and address how to deal with the governments we are likely to find in host nations. The manual didn’t do that.

    I was also surprised to see that it didn’t address the issue of insurgency from the perspective of the host nation population, particularly since it is billed as a “population-centric” doctrine. It should recognize and deal with the notion that everywhere the military ends up, it is going to be the outsider (i.e., the occupier), with all the negative baggage that the term carries with it. People are probably going to resent us. And walking in assuming that we’re going to be their savior probably isn’t going to sit well with them. Of course the population is going to be neutral to hostile. To go in there and offer goodies so they’ll support us is extremely simplistic and pretty insulting to the local population. It also says little of consequence about the influence of local sociological conditions — religious identity, tribal and clan politics, local economics, etc.

    I could go on, but it would all be in the same vein. The bottom line for me was that if this was really the way we were going to fight, we were in trouble.

    Then I started learning about the rules of engagement. To this Vietnam vet, they sounded crazy. A guy is shooting at you but as soon as he puts down his weapon you can’t shoot him? Does not compute. If there’s any small possibility that there might be a civilian in a building you can’t drop a mortar round on it? Hmmm. The handcuffs on air and indirect fire support would have gotten me killed many times over in my war. And the worst part of this (at least in Afghanistan) was that every time something truly unfortunate happened, the rules were tightened. Did that have an effect on the loyalty and trust of the locals? From what I can tell from half a world away, the answer seems to be “no.”

    So, should the whole doctrine be scrapped? I don’t think so and, at least from my reading, most of the COINtras don’t think so either. It needs to be seriously reworked instead. Then, it needs to be put in the military quiver with all the other arrows to pull out at the proper time and in the proper circumstances.

    As to the “personal” comment at the end of your piece, Starbuck, I agree. The question isn’t what kind of a drunk Gen. Abrams was but what kind of a soldier he was — and he, like Gen. Westmoreland , was a good soldier with an outstanding record who was given a thankless and impossible job. That’s all that needs to be said about the man.

    • Carl Prine says:

      To a biographer writing a 300-page tome about Abrams, one might suggest that possible substance abuse problems that led his Commander-in-Chief, Secretary of Defense and the entire NSC to urge scrapping him, that trifle might be a tad bit important.

      If the entire point is the unempirical assumption that someone is a “good soldier,” then why write a biography about him at all? We could put that aphorism on a bumper sticker and hand it out to military historians and be done with the nettlesome problem of writing critically about any complex person who wore the uniform.

  4. gian p gentile says:


    If Abrams’s drinking problem was so severe that it affected his performance as an operational commander, then it is significant. It is a completely different case with MacArthur and his little girly friend, so too would it be different with John Paul Vann who had a dysfunctional family life in the states combined with a bevy of young Vietnamese mistresses; yet in both cases their personal lives did not affect what they did in terms of performance. With Abrams and his drinking problem this is different. What if it was so bad that by early afternoon he was holed up in his hooch drinking? Surely it was significant enough that his commander and chief noticed it along with other important figures as well too.

    These sorts of things–his problem with drinking and the fact that his political masters seriously considered relieving him because of his performance and his inability to prosecute the war in the way they wanted it–warrant historical discussion and debate. Unfortunately because Abrams became the salve for the American Army after the war and its loss, and because he has been undeservedly elevated to sainthood, we have not had this important and critical look at the man and his generalship.


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  6. Richard Steven Hack says:

    Here’s the bottom line on “COIN”: It cannot be done by foreign occupation forces.

    That is impossible.

    It can ONLY be done by forces indigenous to the population under attack by and generating the insurgency. It requires forces which understand the language and the culture of the society. It requires forces which have CREDIBILITY with the indigenous population and those forces must derive that credibility from the government they are supporting. If the government has no credibility, the forces have no credibility.

    It also requires a minimum of one platoon per neighborhood: a platoon that speaks the language, knows the culture and embeds in the neighborhood so that it is sensitive to the insurgent forces in the vicinity.

    NONE of this applies to US forces deployed ANYWHERE outside the continental United States.

    Bottom line: COIN is an impossibility for US forces – or any non-native forces. This has pretty much been proven by every single insurgent conflict in history. Which fact was utterly ignored by this sycophant Petraeus and the rest of the Mickey Mouse generals in the Pentagon.

    “If there’s any small possibility that there might be a civilian in a building you can’t drop a mortar round on it? Hmmm. The handcuffs on air and indirect fire support would have gotten me killed many times over in my war. ”

    It’s called “avoiding war crimes.” No, you don’t kill civilians in war. And if you can’t handle that, then get out of the military because you’re too cowardly to engage the enemy face to face – or in some more intelligent manner which gives you the advantage without subjecting civilians to threat.

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