Coin’s rough past, present and future

By Carlo Valle.

When the FM3-24 doctrine was adopted and implemented, I was still a reservist.  I did not fully grasp what this doctrine entailed until my second deployment to Iraq in 2008, during the final months of the so-called ‘Troop Surge’. I realized upon my arrival in Bagdad that my experience would be different from that of soldiers previously stationed in Iraq who had lived in large cushy military cities (FOBs). Because the FM 3-24 doctrine called for a renewed way of fighting insurgency in Iraq, troops were thereafter required to be posted within cities to provide security to the local population, rather than conduct raids on suspected insurgents from faraway FOBs. In this new environment, smaller outposts had to be established inside of neighborhoods. I was sent to the “Callahan” combat outposts situated in the Al-Sha’ab Shiite neighborhood.

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FM3-24: a first hand experience in Bagdad

COP “Callahan” was miserable. It felt like living inside a brick-oven…as of 7 A.M. Everyone hated living there, but our presence delivered results. Our COB’s immediate surroundings were safe and residents trusted us enough to inform us when they saw suspected insurgents. This was my home for over 9 months. Even 8 years after my departure, I can still distinctly remember that place’s heat and misery. Fellow American veterans deployed around the world and I consider the FM 3-24 to be something more than some abstract doctrine. To us, FM 3-24 was a matter of life and death, of victory and defeat. However, we wonder what will come of it in the future?

COP Callahan. Photo by the author.

COP Callahan. Photo by the author.

10 years have passed since the FM 3-24 Counter Insurgency (COIN) Manual was released in the United States.  At that time, the new doctrine seemed promising. In 2007, the Surge – elaborated according to the manual’s principles – was an important turning-point in the Iraq war. The doctrine called for U.S. forces to address the population’s grievances (security, corruption and unemployment) by uniting all international and U.S. agencies’ efforts in Iraq. Force alone was no longer considered the mean to reach desired results. Rather, the doctrine required the military to pursue the following efforts:

  • establish civil security;
  • establish civil control;
  • support Host Nation forces;
  • support to governance;
  • restore essential services;
  • support economic and infrastructure development, and
  • conduct information engagement.[1]

My unit, “Destroyer” company, 1st Battalion, 68th Armored Regiment (3BCT-4ID) assimilated all of these efforts. From that point on, succeeding in Baghdad was dependent upon the establishment of a series of small bases, such as the COP in Callahan. Each of them facilitated constant overwatch, and enhanced the US forces’ ability to protect the population and react to threats. The situation in Al-Sha’ab was both sensitive and stable. Al-Sha’ab was a middle-class neighborhood located next to Sadr City, which is a sprawling Shiite slum and a stronghold for the anti-American cleric, Moqtada Al-Sadr. By uniting our efforts, we offered support to the neighborhood mayor, the Sons of Iraq militia and local police forces.

Destroyer Company 1-68AR

Destroyer Company 1-68AR

In order to reach our set goals, we frequently patrolled through the neighborhood. These foot and mounted patrols served a dual purpose. On the one hand, they prevented insurgents from moving around freely and ensured that those from Sadr City did not emplace explosively formed penetrators (EFPs). On the other hand, patrols gave our armed forces a visible presence in the area, which made inhabitants feel safer. A platoon comprised of 4 Humvees and 20 men patrolled the area of operations for a duration of 4 to 6 hours, at any given time. Another platoon, stationed at Al-Sha’ab police station, conducted foot patrols with squads of 14 men. Moreover, in Baghdad, the U.S. military built a vast network of walls to separate distinct sectarian neighborhoods from one another. This also helped funnel both civilian vehicles and pedestrian traffic as they crossed checkpoints, which were manned by members of the Iraqi national police or Sons of Iraq militia. If, prior to this initiative, insurgents were like Mao Zedong’s ‘fish’ in a ‘sea of people,’ then the walls turned Baghdad into a maze of interconnected aquariums that helped reduce the movement of weapons.

Al-Sha’ab’s stability largely depended upon the Sons of Iraq militia’s cooperation with U.S. forces. Even though the group was corrupt, our cooperation with them was was key to our success in the area of operation. The militia was made up of unemployed young men, of which some were suspected of being part of insurgent groups. As the members of the militia collected paychecks from the local police station on a bi-weekly basis, we could both keep an eye on all militiamen as well as better surveil and apprehend those suspected of being part of insurgent movements. For example, cnce, a corrupt militiaman was suspected of helping insurgent activity. Consequently, U.S. forces organized a midnight raid to capture him. This task required the mobilization of an entire company, a Special Forces team and a drone providing surveillance. They did not find the suspect, but he was apprehended the following morning at the local police station when he came to pick up his paycheck.

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In order to better understand the community’s needs, we organized weekly meetings with local elders and the mayor to discuss infrastructure problems, unemployment and civic events, such as the elections. These initiatives helped us build a substantial relationship with them. They also gave the company commander an opportunity to address issues such as the detention of suspects or the discovery of EFPs. By establishing direct contact with the community, we improved our approach to the detention and questioning of suspects. We conducted “soft-knock” missions, whereby a platoon detained a suspect after knocking at his door (rather than breaking into his home) and asking the suspect’s family to wait in an adjacent room while soldiers searched the house. When a suspect was taken into custody, he usually was released within 48 hours and given a financial compensation to make up for the days of work he would have missed. These practices help build positive relationships with the community and enhanced our cooperation with locals.

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From an enlisted soldier’s point of view, these measures differed greatly from traditional approaches to war. Indeed, after the implementation of the FM3-24 doctrine, we knocked on Iraqis’ doors rather than breaking into their homes; and we armed and paid former insurgents rather than locking up. The doctrine’s population-centric approach was well-suited for the area of operations. In this context, communities benefited more from cooperation than they did from insurgency. However, this was only the beginning of  the FM 3-24 doctrine.  Despite its positive impact in Iraq, its long-term effects are still uncertain.

An uncertain future   

Although the FM3-24 doctrine was a revolutionary idea compared to the traditional Amercan warfare culture , it was neither universally accepted, nor universally applicable. The debate between population-centric vs. enemy-centric COIN strategies arouse as the doctrine failed to deliver similar results in Afghanistan to those achieved in Iraq. Many soldiers and commanders blamed the doctrine (or McChrystal’s execution of it) for the Taliban’s reemergence and the uptick in American losses. Others defended the doctrine and blamed their commanders for failing to adhere to it. The ongoing lack of consensus among partners in Afghanistan was also problematic.

Although many considered the FM3-24 doctrine to be successful in Iraq, American frustration arouse from commanders  arguing over their commitment to the population-centric approach. This led to a critical debate among strategy thinkers, who argued in favor of either a population-centric strategy or an enemy-centric one. B.A. Friedman concluded that the problem stemmed from both parties’ one-sided views as they ignored the Clauswitzian concept of “trinity.” Ultimately, these debates highlights the extent to which armed forces should strike the right balance between focusing on the population and the enemy, when targeting their efforts. However, despite these debates, no one has agreed upon a universal approach to successfully conduct COIN operations.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely the United States will solve the intractable Afghanistan conflict anytime soon, nor will they easily conduct any future COIN operations. History shows that the United States’ experience with COIN wars has been cyclical: although Americans claim to have learned from their experience, they have often repeated their mistakes. The intelligence historian, Mark Stout, has urged historians to study past COIN operations by focusing less on the military components of the latter, and more on the role of local political participants. From the perspective of a soldier in Bagdad, I value this argument. Further research on the implementation of the FM3-24 in the area I was allocated to, would benefit the U.S. military on a whole. Research would enable us to determine which actor was most influential in stabilizing the region, whether it be the U.S. military or the Iraq militia. It would also offer officials a valuable perspective on the successes and failures of U.S. forces’ strategies and the impact of changing attitudes towards the local population. David Ucko warns that should the American military decide to bury the COIN doctrine (and their heads in the sand, for that matter), insurgencies will not disappear along with it.

Besides in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States military have always been reluctant to participating in COIN operations. After the Vietnam war, Army leaders were focused on fighting a potential Third World War. Today, the scars of the War on Terror and return of high-end conflicts have isolated counterinsurgency wars from the U.S. military agenda. Indeed, 10 years after FM 3-24 was released, the United States military has not devoted any time to understanding the doctrine’s mixed-legacy. Russia and the “Guerrilla-irregular-asymmetrical-hybrid-grey-zone-fourth-generation-warfare” scare in Ukraine in 2014 has shifted focus away from COIN to a threat the U.S. Army has always dreamt of fighting since the 1950s. In reaction to this threat, NATO states have both boosted their conventional arsenals and undertaken large-scale military exercises. These measures are certainly necessary and long overdue. However, there is a risk that excessively focusing on a conflict with very little probability of it happening will hamper the U.S.’ ability to respond to insurgencies.

Because insurgencies will continue to break out throughout the world, the U.S., NATO militaries and partner states should heed David Ucko’s recommendations and continue studying past COIN conflicts to prevent future debacles. With Donald Trump’s recent election, the United States may revert to isolationism, and thus, be reluctant to intervene in future COIN operations. , it is unlikely the FM 3-24 doctrine will survive the next administration.


[1] FM 3-24, xi.

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