Perspectives on Politics, one of the flagship journals of the American Political Science Association, has just published a fascinating roundtable discussion of the U.S. Army/Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24). I will try to balance my hopes that the APSA wants public exposure for the symposium with potential copyright issues and post some excerpts, and suggest that all interested should get to a library and read the whole thing.
First, the introduction by book review editor Jeffrey Isaac:
if the manual is a timely document, it is also continuous with a long and venerable political science tradition. From Machiavelli's The Prince to Antonio Gramsci's “The Modern Prince,” from Lenin's The State and Revolution to Samuel P. Huntington's Political Order in Changing Societies, writers seeking a “science of politics” have argued not simply about how to understand the dynamics of rebellion and the mechanisms of state power but about the desirability of different ways of mobilizing and channeling rebellion and of incorporating it within stable political structures. “Counterinsurgency” is thus both a topic of theorizing and a form of praxis, whether its practitioners be the Red Army in postrevolutionary Russia or the U.S. Army in Guatemala, Vietnam, or contemporary Afghanistan and Iraq. The revised manual thus presents an excellent occasion to reflect on current events and on broader theoretical issues.
Stephen Biddle (Council on Foreign Relations):
The manual's defenders have mostly gotten the better of these arguments to date. The manual was vetted in advance before an extraordinary range of potential critics and other interested parties, and its authors clearly profited from this process. The result is a remarkably thoughtful response to a vexing military problem, and one worthy of the widespread attention it has received both within and beyond the military.
It is not perfect, however. In particular, it makes assumptions about the nature of insurgency and the relationship between the United States and the host government that are sometimes sound but sometimes not. Yet these assumptions shape much of the manual's prescriptions. Where a war fits the presumption, these prescriptions are sound, but elsewhere the manual could easily lead to serious strategic error. In fact, Iraq is among the cases that fit the manual's assumptions poorly—which has led actual U.S. strategy in Iraq to diverge from the manual's prescriptions in ways that are not always fully appreciated in the public debate.
The chief error of omission is the absence of any discussion of coercive bargaining with the host. There is much instruction in the manual on capacity building in the host state—of creating improved systems for delivering government services. But what if an ethnic or sectarian faction in control of the government views provision of services to rival groups as enabling their enemies? To create a more efficient bureaucracy under such leadership can simply be to create more proficient sectarians with a stronger technical capacity to direct services to their followers and more systematically deny them to their rivals. What if a host government beholden to a land-owning plutocracy sees U.S.-favored COIN reforms as the end of a system of privilege that they value more than peace or stability? To assign U.S. mentors to government ministries or military commands will hardly persuade lifelong plutocrats to embrace equal opportunity for all. For such regimes, persuasion is insufficient, and ostensibly apolitical capacity building can actually make things worse. If host-government legitimacy in U.S. terms is the only route to success in such wars, then far more forceful coercive leverage will be needed. Yet the manual says nothing about how this should be done—or how its employment would affect the conduct of the tasks it does describe: The details of everything from joint combat operations to intelligence gathering to interagency coordination would surely differ as a function of the mix of coercion and cooperation between the United States and its host.
The chief error of commission is the manual's treatment of host nation security force development (especially Chapter 6). Rapid buildup of indigenous security forces makes much sense in ideological wars. In identity wars, however, it can easily exacerbate the internal security dilemma that often fuels the violence. If a major ethnic or sectarian group sees the government as a tool of its rivals, for the United States to strengthen the government military is to increase the others' perceived threat, which will often stimulate greater mobilization of the rivals' population and harsher resistance from them in wars that are often seen as existential by the parties. The manual acknowledges this problem in passing, and suggests overcoming it by raising communally mixed security forces. In an identity war, however, mixed forces are subject to serious effectiveness challenges due to the same communal distrust that affects the larger society. Nor is it clear that nominally mixed forces under rivals' command will be trusted by threatened communities, especially where the threatened group is a minority of both the population and the military.
The manual's assumption of interest alignment with the host, and its emphasis on indigenous security forces, have been much more problematic, however. The predominantly Shiite Maliki government has consistently resisted U.S. pressure to compromise with its Sunni rivals. And in spite of more than three years of trying, the United States has not yet produced an Iraqi security force that can consistently defend the interests of all Iraqis. These problems have led to some significant divergences between actual U.S. strategy in Iraq and the approach embodied in the manual.
In particular, the “surge” strategy adopted in early 2007 represented a deliberate movement away from reliance on Iraqi forces to counter the insurgency. Whereas U.S. policy in 2006 put the primary U.S. emphasis on preparation for a transition to Iraqi responsibility for the war, the policy in 2007 assigned U.S. troops a primary mission of providing direct security to Iraqi civilians.
In addition, the rapid growth of local negotiated cease-fires between American commanders and Iraqi insurgent factions in the field has increasingly posed an alternative to reform of the Iraqi national government in Baghdad as a means of stabilizing the country. As of this writing, more than 80,000 Iraqis have joined over a hundred “Awakening Councils” or “Concerned Local Citizen” (CLC) groups in observing local cease-fires across much of central and western Iraq. This extraordinary spread of negotiated deals is largely responsible for the recent reduction in violence: Whereas earlier U.S. offensives had merely induced insurgents to move elsewhere, destabilizing new areas while securing old ones, now many of the insurgents have remained in place but have stood down in voluntary cease-fires, preventing a mere movement of violence from one part of the country to another. The United States would like the Maliki government to embrace this movement and incorporate its members into the official Iraqi Security Forces, and eventually it may. But for now, the government is resisting such entreaties, and hence the CLC cease-fire movement remains largely extragovernmental and independent.
Nor is the CLC phenomenon that has been so instrumental in the current reduction of violence chiefly a product of the hearts-and-minds logic at the root of the manual. The availability of more U.S. troops to provide population defense was certainly important, and this emphasis on population security is clearly consistent with the manual's prescriptions. But the surge was far too small to secure all of threatened Iraq in itself, and cannot in itself account for the growth in negotiated cease-fires. At least as central to the latter was a dramatic change in Sunnis' perceived military prospects following their defeat in the wave of sectarian violence after the February 2006 bombing of the Askariya Mosque. Prior to this, Sunnis believed that they would win an unconstrained civil war with Shiites, but their inability to prevent Shiite militias from evicting them from much of Baghdad in the 2006 fighting has now made it clear to Sunni insurgents that the military balance vis-à-vis the Shiites is against them. Combined with the needless brutality of their erstwhile Al Qaeda allies toward fellow Sunnis, and Al Qaeda's interference with traditional Sunni smuggling routes in western Iraq, the strategic interest calculus of the Sunni insurgency thus underwent a sea change in late 2006 and early 2007, leading most Sunnis to conclude that self-interest lay in abandoning Al Qaeda for a negotiated accommodation under American protection while they could still get it. If this condition holds, it will prove a very favorable development. But it hardly represents the winning of Sunni hearts and minds by the Shiite government through the provision of services and government security. On the contrary, most CLCs provide their own security from continuing fear and distrust of their fellow Iraqis in the government security forces.
Stathis Kalyvas (Yale University):
What are the main precepts of the theory of counterinsurgency championed by the manual? On the military front, the goal is to identify and eliminate key local insurgents while establishing effective population control so as to sever the relation between the insurgents and the population they claim to represent. Once this has been achieved, political objectives kick in; they boil down to political reforms that render government more efficient and responsive, hence, more “legitimate.” In short, this is a strategy of competitive state building combining targeted, selective violence and population control, on the one hand, with the dissemination of a credible mass ideology, the creation of modern state structures, the imposition of the rule of law, and the spurring of economic development, on the other.
In practice, however, the theoretical “primacy of the political” has proved elusive in most cases; winning “hearts and minds” and promoting economic development and political reform often takes the back seat to the application of violence and the establishment of control.
the authors not only ignore recent political science research but contradict a great deal of it: It is squarely located within the “grievance” line of thinking, which has been shunned by many researchers who have privileged, instead, “greed” interpretations. Indeed, the manual associates insurgencies with mass mobilization and asks counterinsurgents to address popular grievances. Clearly, the theory of counterinsurgency that informs the manual speaks to theories of insurgency that have much more in common with the older literature on revolutions (from Mao Zedong to Eric Wolf and Barrington Moore) than with recent political science research.
What kind of social and political theory informs its theory of counterinsurgency? It is possible to pinpoint two key elements. First, it is informed by a constructivist understanding of identities as malleable (or at least of individual behavior as relatively independent of identities). Second, it is characterized by a misperception of the battlegrounds of insurgency that leads to confusion between the objectives of intervention and its methods.
It is not surprising that an “on-the-ground” policy manual adopts a hard, voluntaristic stance and fails to acknowledge or theorize any structural limitations. The manual views human societies as being divided by fundamentally weak cleavages: An active minority supports the government while a passive minority opposes it. The counterinsurgent's goal is to bolster the former and neutralize the latter, while influencing the mass in the middle. Identities can be changed, or at the very least behaviors can be delinked from identities, hence, its constructivism. The manual does not seem to entertain the idea that some identities (say ethnic or religious ones) maybe so hardwired as to preclude reconstruction or reshaping; and while it does recognizes that in the age of nationalism there is little love or patience for foreign intervention or occupation, it brushes such considerations aside. I think that this may be less of a problem than many political scientists would acknowledge, for there is considerable evidence that “ethnic defection,” the collaboration of ethnic minority members with the government rather than with ethnic minority insurgents, is much more common than generally acknowledged (Kalyvas forthcoming). Nevertheless the variable modalities of ethnic defection ought to be studied and theorized, rather than thrown in the fuzzy basket of “cultural specificities” that can be understood only by astute observers or practioners on the ground.
The second element of the political and social theory underpinning the manual is more problematic, however. By adopting the peoples' war model, it misperceives the insurgent battlegrounds as places where the population interacts directly with either governments or insurgents (a problem, by the way, common to both the counterinsurgency and the revolutions literature of the 1960s). Sever the link with the insurgents, the thinking goes, and the population will have no choice but to turn to the government. The fallacy here is obvious: In many “traditional” societies, the population is organized along several layers of local and regional networks; its interaction with both incumbents and insurgents is mediated by local and regional elites (Kalyvas 2006; Scott 1977). Goals may often be achieved (or impeded) via interactions and political deals with these elites. It is clear to me that such deals explain a large part of the “success” of the recent “surge” in Iraq, where former Sunni insurgents “switched sides” only after their traditional leaders negotiated local deals with the U.S. military; and they did so in a context characterized by the clash between Shiite and Sunni political factions.
Wendy Brown (political theorist from UC Berkeley):
If the manual can be reduced to a single didactic point, it is that successful wars against insurgents involve erudite and careful mobilization of every element of the society in which they are being waged. These wars will be won through a new and total kind of governance, one that emanates from the military but reaches to security and stability for civilian life, formal and informal economies, structures of authority, patron–client relationships, political participation, culture, law, identity, social structure, material needs, ethnic and linguistic subdivisions, and more (pp. 81–99). So the COIN military not only must coordinate closely with other agents of regime change, including in the host nation, but must itself apprehend and manipulate every aspect of a society if it is to bend the society to its cause rather than to the insurgent one.
The boundary breakdowns and erasure of settled jurisdictions articulated and advocated throughout the volume, however, are also at the heart of a set of contemporary problems for counterinsurgency that the manual cannot address or solve. What happens when the military is no longer in charge of the wars it wages because the wars themselves are outsourced to private contractors, and when an occupier is no longer in charge of its occupation because the resources and enterprises of the occupied country have been sold off to the highest bidders in the world market? These are the problems signified today by proper nouns like Blackwater, Halliburton, Abu-Ghraib, and J. Paul Bremer. While the new manual clearly represents a serious effort at securing American hegemony through stabilizing and transforming rather than simply sacking the regions targeted as critical to this hegemony, insurgents are often the least of the forces exceeding the military's control. There are more than 180,000 private security employees in Iraq, substantially more than the total number of U.S. troops even after the spring 2007 surge. The deadly Blackwater shooting spree of September 2007 revealed the extent to which these private security forces are not only beyond the pale of American military command but also beyond the pale of law, any law. As nonmilitary personnel, they are not subject to the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice and, if fired, could not be court-marshaled in any event. Operating as combatants outside the boundaries of the United States, they are not subject to American constitutional law. International law would be awkwardly and ineffectively summoned in a context in which international justice instruments have been spurned from the outset.
So the manual represents something of a tragic irony, in which the American military has grasped the importance of conducting counterinsurgency on all fronts and with a transformed military culture at the very moment that it is neither capable of controlling most of these other fronts nor in charge of outsourced military operations. The deliberate facilitation of capital's superordination in the new Iraq radically undermines the possibility of coordinating and controlling the elements of counterinsurgency identified as critical in the manual. Similarly, even as the manual repeatedly stresses the importance of unity of effort in counterinsurgency struggles (Chapter 2 is wholly concerned with this), such unity is rendered impossible by the ubiquitousness of privatized security forces, privatized resources, privatized infrastructure building and rebuilding, privatized industry, and privatized prisons and water supplies. How is unified and coordinated effort to be expected among agents produced and governed by a neoliberal rationality whose ruling principle is lack of regulation, restriction, or control by anything outside the private enterprise? And what motivation could there be for investors and contractors involved in these operations to organize their efforts around any end other than profitability, an end that might well collide with “successful” counterinsurgency? It is hard to know why the private enterprises lured to Iraq specifically to sustain an occupation would aim to conclude that occupation. It is even harder to know why any of the foreign capital that flooded post-Saddam Iraq would become invested in national sovereignty and substantive democracy there.
Lt. Col Douglas Ollivant (PhD from Indiana University, National Security Council):
There exists a very real possibility of a downside resulting from this publication, however. There is something just a bit troubling about a manual devoted to counterinsurgency appearing in isolation from the broader theory of war. Arguably, counterinsurgency is but one of several types of what has variously been called “small wars,” “stability operations,” “peace operations,” “low-intensity conflicts,” or (most recently) “war amongst the people.” FM 3-24 does admit that “insurgency and COIN are included within a broad category of conflict known as irregular warfare” (p. 2). However, it then moves cheerfully along, without concern for what other phenomena might be included in this broad category, how they might differ from counterinsurgency, how they might be similar, how these might be distinguished, and—most importantly—what said distinctions might imply in terms of approach: the use of force and the utility of softer forms of power.
For the reader (let alone the practitioner), the absence of a larger framework of warfare tends to pull all instances of irregular war into the counterinsurgency model. In a remarkably short period of time, counterinsurgency has become the new Kuhnian paradigm, or normal science, for nonkinetic (or limited-kinetic) warfare. However, it is far from obvious that this framework truly captures the dynamics that are occurring in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. In regions of the world that lack mature, recognized political institutions, it is not self-evident that the government that happens to have a hold on power at the moment is one that it is in the national interest of the United States to support. To be flippant, we have been down this road before, and we know where it takes us—names like Anastasio Somoza, Fulgencio Batista, and the Shah of Iran should all come to mind. The true danger is that COIN doctrine will dominate all forms of “war amongst the peoples” and, in the process, fail to incorporate nuanced differences and lessons learned from other types of limited warfare.
In the absence of a larger context in which counterinsurgency is posed as one possible variety of “war amongst the people,” a context in which peace enforcement, peacekeeping, nation building, and other paradigms also compete as frameworks for action, it is quite possible that the default position of counterinsurgency—which is, when boiled down, to build up the existing central government at all costs—will achieve a hegemonic hold on the military imagination and push out alternative conceptions of the challenges likely to be encountered on future battlefields. This would be a very subtle snare, but it would do little good to replace one inadequate conception of warfare with another.
This rhetorical sleight of hand, which equates counterinsurgency with all small wars, flies in the face of facts on the ground. While it is still controversial to say so, the Iraq War itself may no longer be best described as an insurgency, as the bulk of the insurgents—the nationalist Sunnis—are now realigning themselves with the American forces in Iraq against the nihilistic-Islamist terrorist Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). With the Sunni nationalists at least temporarily allied and AQI deprived of its sanctuary among the Sunni population, just who are the insurgents in Iraq against whom a counterinsurgency might be conducted? This is not to say that Iraq does not remain an extremely difficult and lethal problem. However, a situation best characterized, in General David Petraeus's words, as a “competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources” is not exactly an insurgency.
There's much more in this rich and provocative set of essays - probably something with which readers of every taste and persuasion can violently disagree.