Looking Back on Looking Forward: The Lead Author Reflects on FM 3-24

For the 10-year anniversary of the FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency doctrine, Ultima Ratio will publish a series of articles dealing with the following topics: the foundations of this doctrine, its impact on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and French interpretation of it.

By Conrad Crane

It was at this time in November 11 years ago that I received the phone call from Fort Leavenworth that launched my adventure with counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine and Field Manual 3-24. Though my West Point classmate Dave Petraeus apologized for “adding a huge rock to my rucksack” by asking me to head the writing effort for the new publication, I really had no accurate concept of what I was getting into. The new doctrine was an important part of a much larger effort, within the American Army and Marine Corps, to create learning organizations more attuned to the requirements of modern war.

FM 3-24

The next 11 months were filled with much frenzied activity. LTG Petraeus initially envisioned a combined effort with the Marine Corps and British Army. The British did not have the capability to keep up with his ambitious writing timeline, but the Marines were actually ahead of the US Army in irregular warfare thought. In December I engaged with their doctrine writers at Quantico and met with their Army counterparts at Fort Leavenworth. The joint Army/Marine team, including some civilian academics, produced a first draft of the manual by January 2006, and we were ready for a full vetting of the emerging counterinsurgency concepts at a conference at Fort Leavenworth in February. The initial plan was to gather 30 outside experts for that workshop, but so many people wanted to attend that we ended up with over 150, an international cast that included leading thinkers in the field from academia, the media, retired military, think tanks, and even the human rights community. That two day event and the following weeks of input from attendees generated many changes in the doctrine, and another draft came out in May, which underwent another dissection by the writing team before the coordinating draft was sent out to the Army and Marine Corps in June. We got over 4000 comments back from the field. Despite attempts by the writers to produce a document generic to any possible counterinsurgency situation, the influence of those critiques and the senior officers who provided a final review shaped the doctrine very much for Iraq.

There were a number of final hurdles to clear before final publication. The Military Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca did not like our treatment of human intelligence and was uncomfortable with the new socio-cultural information requirements we described, so a separate meeting was required to iron out those differences. The Air Force was not happy with the appendix on airpower. Eventually some of their complaints were addressed, but the manual remained an Army/Marine Corps publication reflecting those service perspectives. Pundit Ralph Peters launched a diatribe that the manual was too soft, and he was brought to Fort Leavenworth to debate his points with John Nagl. Peters was temporarily mollified when a few more sentences emphasizing dealing violently with implacable foes were added. We also had to fend off attempts by some senior officers to insert “pet rocks” into our work.

When the final product came out in December 2006, it was met with great acclaim. I was rather naïve about its importance in the information war at the time, but the document helped persuade Congress, the American public, the military, and our enemies that we had finally figured out how to conduct this kind of war. Two million copies were downloaded from the web during the first month it was released. I was named one of Newsweek’s “People to Watch” in 2007. I started to rack up my frequent flyer miles, eventually being invited to many venues in Europe, Asia, and Africa to consult on COIN. FM 3-24 was republished with a terrific commentary by Sarah Sewall by the University of Chicago Press and became a textbook in major universities.

But there were many critics, also, besides Peters. Edward Luttwak called the new doctrine “military malpractice,” arguing that instead we needed to conduct COIN like the Romans or Nazis, terrorizing the people to fear us more than the insurgents. Bing West thought Soldiers and Marines should never be nation-builders. MG Charles Dunlap of the Air Force thought the manual ignored the decisive effects of airpower. Jeffrey Record opined that since American society and the political system could not focus long term, and the military was really not interested in irregular warfare, the United States was always fated to fail at COIN and should therefore avoid it. The most successful dissent came from COL Gian Gentile, who argued that politicians were going to be enticed to conduct too-expensive and ultimately unsuccessful counterinsurgency operations that would degrade the much more important conventional war-fighting skills of the military.

There are some nagging myths about the doctrine that continue to persist. While it does emphasize protecting the population, there is plenty of mention about the importance of killing or capturing armed foes. Most bothersome are labels that it is “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency. The writing team was well aware of the intellectual baggage attached to that term, and that there are other parts of the anatomy that often must be grabbed to influence behavior. We tried to combine aspects of all approaches to COIN, including more coercive “carrots and sticks” methods.  Though an oversimplification, COIN must normally start with a “carrots and sticks” approach to modify behavior, with hope that “hearts and minds” type activities might modify attitudes over the long run. The writers did not believe we had to spend a lot of time on kinetic actions covered so well in other doctrine, so there does tend to be more detail on non-kinetic activities.  Another strawman often used to condemn the manual is that it is based on the writings of David Galula and the French experience in Algeria. Most of the writers had never read Galula until well into the project. Of all the theorists of his era, however, his structure for COIN most closely matched the lines of effort or operation we developed for our campaign design. But we did not fully realize that until we were almost done. And of all the possible examples of COIN we could have drawn on for inspiration, with the ongoing outcry over the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Algeria was at the bottom of the list. We did eventually highlight it as an historical vignette in the manual, but just to point out the considerable dangers of resorting to torture and losing moral legitimacy.

We did get some important things wrong. Since we are always fighting “away games,” we assumed that the interests of the leaders of the supported nation would be the same as ours. That is a tenet that had to be “unlearned” in Iraq and Afghanistan. We emphasized disaggregating enemies, we needed to make the same point about our “friends.” We did not have time to develop adequate alternatives to resource-intensive “Clear-Hold-Build.” My last paradox of COIN, originally that “Most important decisions are not made by generals,” which was changed by the generals to “Many important decisions are not made by generals,” should probably have been “The most important decisions are made by politicians and voters.” The dilemma was best stated to me by MG Mike Barbero, the MNF-I J-3 in Iraq, when he questioned whether our problems in that country were a result of the wrong form of government or the wrong people in it. The military had no say in either of those outcomes in either Iraq or Afghanistan, yet ultimate success hinges on them.  Perhaps the most serious flaw in the production of FM 3-24 was that the process was upside down. Ideally the nation should start with a coherent National Security Strategy, which in turn drives National Military Strategy, which then shapes joint doctrine from which service doctrine derives. With FM 3-24 the dynamics worked backwards. Innovative service doctrine drove everything else. Arguably FM 3-24 filled a vacuum in national security strategy. It was never intended to do that.

But the new Field Manual 3-24 published in 2014, and Joint Publication 3-24 from 2013, are fine improvements on our original effort, fixing most deficiencies, though the revised publications are written for a force experienced with COIN and not for one relearning it. For Soldiers or policy makers, or even nations, just beginning to grapple with the intricacies of counterinsurgency, there is no better place to start than with the 2006 manual. And for those who believe that we will all be able to avoid COIN in the future, let me caution you that history warns us about such pronouncement. We have never been able to never do this again.

PhotoDr. Conrad C. Crane is currently Chief of Historical Services for the Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle Barracks. For the previous ten years, he was Director of the US Army Military History Institute. Before accepting that position, Dr. Crane served with the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College from September 2000 to January 2003, where he held the General Douglas MacArthur Chair of Research. He also has held the General Hoyt S. Vandenberg Chair of Aerospace Studies at the War College. He joined SSI after his retirement from active military service, a 26-year military career that concluded with 9 years as Professor of History at the U.S. Military Academy. He holds a B.S. from USMA and an M.A. and Ph.D from Stanford University. He is also a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the U.S. Army War College. He has authored or edited books and monographs on the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and has written and lectured widely on airpower and landpower issues. Before leaving SSI he coauthored a prewar study on Reconstructing Iraq that influenced Army planners and has attracted much attention from the media. He was the lead author for the ground breaking Army-USMC counterinsurgency manual which was released in December, 2006. For that effort he was named one of NEWSWEEK’s people to watch in 2007. He visited Iraq in November 2007 at General Petraeus’ request to evaluate the new doctrine in action. In November 2008, he was named the international Archivist of the Year by the Scone Foundation.

Source: SSI 


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