War Stories

Fighting Insurgents, By the Book

By Fred Kaplan
Sunday, July 9, 2006

Two messages flutter between the lines of the Army's new field manual on counterinsurgency wars, its first document on the subject in 20 years.

One is that Pentagon planning for the Iraq war's aftermath was at least as crass, inattentive to the lessons of history, and contrary to basic political and military principles as the war's harshest critics have charged.

The other is that as a nation we may simply be ill-suited to fighting these kinds of wars.

The field manual's chief authors -- Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus and retired Lt. Col. Conrad C. Crane -- would never make these points explicitly. When Petraeus was commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, he combined combat power and community-building more astutely than any other officer. Crane, director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute, is one of the leading scholars of "irregular warfare." They both support the war's aims. And they outline their new doctrine -- or, rather, their revival of a very old doctrine -- thoughtfully and thoroughly.

Yet the undertone of this 241-page guidebook -- not yet publicly released, but obtained by Steven Aftergood and posted last week on Secrecy News , his online newsletter -- is one of grim caution.

Counterinsurgency involves rebuilding a society, keeping the population safe, boosting the local government's legitimacy, training a national army and fighting off insurgents who are trying to topple the government -- all at the same time. As the manual puts it, "The insurgent succeeds by sowing chaos and disorder anywhere; the government fails unless it maintains order everywhere."

From the first page to the last, the authors stress that these kinds of wars are "protracted by nature." They require "firm political will and extreme patience," "considerable expenditure of time and resources," and a large deployment of troops ready to greet "hand shakes or hand grenades" without mistaking one for the other.

"Successful . . . operations require Soldiers and Marines at every echelon to possess the following," the authors write. They then list a daunting set of traits: "A clear, nuanced, and empathetic appreciation of the essential nature of the conflict. . . . An understanding of the motivation, strengths, and weaknesses of the insurgent," as well as rudimentary knowledge of the local culture, behavioral norms and leadership structures. In addition, there must be "adaptive, self-aware, and intelligent leaders."

Meanwhile, one high-profile infraction can undo 100 successes. "Lose moral legitimacy, lose the war," the authors warn, noting that the French lost Algeria in part because their commanders condoned torture.

Two big questions emerge: First, can American armed forces maintain such exacting standards over a long, hazy conflict? The all-volunteer U.S. military is full of extraordinarily smart, dedicated and disciplined troops. But there are sluggards, too, and the Army has also been lowering standards lately to meet recruitment targets.

Second, can Americans maintain a long-term commitment to civil or insurgent wars at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and perhaps thousands of lives? The issue isn't whether we should, but whether we can -- whether the political system, with its competing demands and aversion to risk, is capable of it.

The panel of officers and experts that put together the manual had no mandate to address such questions. But one consultant on the project who spoke on the condition of anonymity told me, "If we did, we would have probably put in some caveat like: 'If the nation and its leaders are not prepared for the long, hard fight that counterinsurgency entails, they should not begin it in the first place.' "

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