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Counterinsurgency: How a 2006 Manual Influenced Our Military

By Dr. Kelly C. Jordan
Faculty Member, Military Studies and National Security Studies

In 2006, the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps jointly published an influential manual about insurgency and counterinsurgency. This manual is known to the Army as Field Manual No. 3-24 and to the Marine Corps as Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5.

Despite the increasing prevalence, well-known complexity, and likelihood of counterinsurgency as a security threat, John Nagl, one of the manual’s primary authors, observed that “in 2003 most Army officers knew more about the U.S. Civil War than they did about counterinsurgency.” The attack of 9/11 and the U.S. military actions that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq inspired substantial efforts to rectify this deficiency in the military and inspired the publication of the manual.

The population-centric approach to counterinsurgency embraced by the manual was a stark departure from the American tradition of relying on the “shock and awe” approach of using overwhelming and decisive offensive force to destroy enemy forces, as expressed in the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine. It is not surprising that the contents of the manual generated interest both inside and outside of the military, not all of which was either positive or supportive.

In perhaps no area was this new approach more apparent than in the 2006 manual’s first chapter, written primarily by retired U.S. Army officer and historian Dr. Conrad Crane. Presenting a treatment of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies that is intentionally cerebral and remarkably learned, the first chapter of the manual represents some of the most thoughtful recent scholarship produced anywhere in the military and/or academia.

This approach is most unusual for a military field manual. It represents a premier contribution to the scholarly literature related to insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, which is why it merits attention.

Crane’s Treatment of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the Manual

According to Crane, “Insurgency and counterinsurgency…are complex subsets of warfare” and “are included within a broad category of conflict known as irregular warfare.” Bred in and by power vacuums, insurgencies and the efforts to counter them are typically a form of internal war that have been part of warfare since its very beginning. However, it has only been since World War II that some realized that insurgency could be a “decisive form of warfare” in its own right.

Crane also notes that “Political power is the central issue” of all insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, and “the primary struggle in an internal war is to mobilize people in a struggle for political control and legitimacy.” In this type of conflict, “insurgents and counterinsurgents seek to mobilize popular support for their cause” and sustain it, while also doing everything possible to “discourage support for their adversaries.”

In such a situation, Crane says that both sides use all available means to prevail. For example:

  • For insurgents, this effort includes using political, military, economic, social, informational and infrastructure tools to overthrow the existing authority.
  • Counterinsurgents, by contrast, use all instruments of national power. For instance, leaders use diplomatic, informational, military, economic, financial, intelligence, legal and law enforcement systems to sustain the current or newly created government.

Crane adds that insurgencies and counterinsurgencies involve “a contest of resource mobilization and force deployment.” He notes that that counterinsurgencies are “manpower intensive,” “the size of the force needed to defeat an insurgency depends on the situation” and “no predetermined fixed ratio of friendly troops to enemy combatants ensures success.” He adds, “A better force requirement gauge is troop density, the ratio of security forces (including the host nation’s military and police forces as well as foreign counterinsurgents) to inhabitants.”

In addition to its high level of uncertainty, this type of conflict is anything but fair, and many of its “rules” favor insurgents. The manual notes that insurgents can and do seize the initiative through their actions of violence, propaganda, making exorbitant promises, and subversion, pointing out and exploiting government shortcomings (many of which have been caused or aggravated by the insurgency itself). In response, counterinsurgents undertake offensive and defensive operations to regain the initiative and create a secure environment.

According to Crane, “Warfare in the 21st century retains many of the characteristics it has exhibited since ancient times.” The terrorist and guerilla practices of conducting insurgency, along with the predictable and heavy-handed methods of trying to suppress opponents, have been “among the most common approaches to warfare throughout history.”

As the manual also points out, “20th century events transformed the purpose and character of most insurgencies.” Crane noted that insurgencies evolved from their 19th century roots as “local movements to sustain the status quo” into their mid-20th century counterparts that became “national and transnational revolutionary movements.” Regardless of the era, however, “insurgents aim to force political change.”

The manual also contends that a new kind of insurgency has emerged in today’s environment. It “seeks to impose revolutionary change worldwide” through the use of “terrorism, subversion, propaganda and open warfare,” which is “augmented by the precision munitions of extremists.” Crane further notes that “Interconnectedness and information technology are new aspects of this contemporary wave of insurgencies.”

Other observations include:

  • “Defeating such enemies requires a global, strategic response…that addresses the array of linked resources and conflicts that sustain these movements while tactically addressing the local grievances that feed them.”
  • “Gaining and retaining the initiative requires counterinsurgents to address the insurgency’s causes through stability operations.”
  • The task of counterinsurgents today is “helping friendly forces reestablish political order and legitimacy where these conditions may no longer exist.”

Aspects of Insurgency

The manual also provides an interesting overview of insurgency. It says that current joint doctrine “defines insurgency as an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict.” 

The manual goes on to describe insurgency as “an organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power, or other political authority while increasing insurgent control.”While both insurgency and counterinsurgency are both considered to be aspects of revolutionary war and internal warfare, the manual points out that an insurgency is distinctly different from counterinsurgency.

The manual observes that an insurgency’s center of gravity is usually the insurgents’ ability to generate and sustain popular support or at least acquiescence and tolerance, which often has the greatest impact on an insurgency’s long-term effectiveness. This support or tolerance is often created through the use of violent coercion and intimidation of citizens. They are forced to either tolerate insurgents or offer them material support, even if they do not support the insurgents’ cause.

In addition, the manual notes that “Insurgents employ deep-seated, strategic causes as well as temporary, local ones,” and insurgency leaders “often use a bait-and switch approach” in their “efforts to attract and retain support.” According to the manual, these leaders “will do anything to preserve their greatest advantage, the ability to hide among the people” and “These amoral and often barbaric enemies survive by their wits, constantly adapting to the situation.”

Aspects of Counterinsurgency

The manual also includes a discussion of counterinsurgency. According to the manual, counterinsurgency is the “military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat an insurgency.” 

Chapter 6 of the manual notes that “Success in counterinsurgency operations requires establishing a legitimate government supported by the people and able to address the fundamental causes that insurgents use to gain support. Achieving these goals requires the host nation to defeat insurgents or render them irrelevant, uphold the rule of law, and provide a basic level of essential services and security for the populace. Key to all of these tasks is developing an effective host-nation security force.”

The manual goes on to say that “The political issues at stake are often rooted in culture, ideology, societal tensions, and injustice,” requiring solutions including kinetic and non-kinetic actions conducted by military, non-military, and civilian agencies. Since the complex problems encountered during counterinsurgency operations can be so difficult to understand initially, many counterinsurgency operations progress iteratively to gain a better understanding of the problem and appreciation of the situation, and the goals emerge only after the operations have begun. This progression means that “counterinsurgents usually have a combination of defined and emerging goals” at any given time.

Chapter 5 of the manual adds that “successful counterinsurgents support or develop local institutions with legitimacy and the ability to provide basic services, economic opportunity, public order, and security.” Counterinsurgency leaders combine “offensive, defensive, and stability operations to achieve the stable and secure environments needed for effective governance, essential services, and economic development.”

According to the manual, “These efforts purposefully attack the basis for the insurgency rather than just its fighters and comprehensively address the host nation’s core problems. Host-nation leaders must be purposefully engaged in this effort and ultimately must take lead responsibility for it.”

Historical Principles for Counterinsurgency

The manual goes into considerable detail to describe the historical principles behind counterinsurgency. The manual makes the points that:

  • Legitimacy is the main objective of counterinsurgents.
  • A unityof effort among counterinsurgents at every level is essential.
  • Political factors are primary in counterinsurgency operations.
  • Counterinsurgents must understand the population’s social and cultural environment.
  • Good intelligence drives counterinsurgents’ operations. 
  • Insurgents must be isolated from their cause and support. 
  • Security under the rule of law is essential for internal security and to prevent disorder from spreading. 
  • Counterinsurgents should prepare for a long-term commitment. 

The manual notes that “Military actions can address the symptoms of a loss of legitimacy,” but “success in the form of a durable peace requires restoring legitimacy, which, in turn, requires the use of all instruments of national power.” It also observes that counterinsurgency “efforts cannot achieve lasting success without the host nation government achieving legitimacy.”

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Contemporary Imperatives of Counterinsurgency

Another section of the manual includes advice for counterinsurgency leaders. The manual describes the contemporary imperatives of counterinsurgency efforts, such as:

  • Managing information and expectations for local residents, friendly military forces, and the international community
  • Using the appropriate level of force suitable for defeating insurgents
  • Learning and adapt to situations
  • Empowering the lowest levels of military forces to make decisions and carry out their leaders’ mission
  • Supporting the host nation so that it can eventually function on its own

As a way to highlight the uncertain, unpredictable, nonlinear, and at times illogical aspects of insurgencies and attempts to counter them, Crane introduced nine paradoxes of counterinsurgency operations, intended to get readers to think differently about conflicts. These nine paradoxes are:

  • Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.
  • Sometimes when the more force is used, the less effective it is, 
  • The more successful the counterinsurgency is, the less force can be used and the more risk must be accepted. 
  • Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction. 
  • Some of the best weapons for counterinsurgents do not shoot. 
  • The host nation doing something tolerably is normally better than us doing it well. 
  • If a tactic works this week, it might not work next week; if it works in this province, it might not work in the next. 
  • Tactical success guarantees nothing.
  • Many important decisions are not made by generals. 

Overall, the manual characterizes counterinsurgency as “an extremely complex form of warfare” that at its core is, “a struggle for the population’s support.” Accordingly, the manual concludes that “the protection, welfare, and support of the people are vital to success,” since “popular support allows counterinsurgents to develop the intelligence necessary to identify and defeat insurgents” hiding among the populace.

The hallmarks of successful counterinsurgencies are the ability to continuously assess the operational environment and apply appropriate techniques when they are needed. This work will ensure that the focus remains on the essential task of gaining and maintaining popular support so vital to the success of counterinsurgency efforts.

The manual acknowledges that carrying out this work presents a “formidable challenge” that will likely be unfairly biased against the counterinsurgents in ways that are as exasperating as they are unfair. Nevertheless, achieving success in counterinsurgencies “requires synchronizing the efforts of many nonmilitary and host nation agencies in a comprehensive approach.” This approach also demands adopting a learning mindset that is amenable to constant monitoring, refinement and adaptation to accomplish its essential task of protecting a population at all costs.

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Counterinsurgency Is Unpredictable and Success Is Not Guaranteed

One particularly poignant observation about counterinsurgency was made by Sarah Sewell, an influential civilian involved in drafting this manual. She noted that counterinsurgency “is a gamble unlike any other decision to wage war” because of its uncertainty, unpredictability, and changing political winds. It is not a “plug and play” capability that works equally well in a United Nations peacekeeping operation and as phase IV of an invasion to impose change to a regime.

 As both the manual and Sewell’s comment makes clear, success in counterinsurgency demands our closest attention and best intellectual efforts. But at the same time, it is essential to realize that counterinsurgency, perhaps more than any other type of warfare, is susceptible to the greatest paradox of war: following the principles and imperatives of counterinsurgency efforts does not guarantee success.

Dr. Kelly C. Jordan is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, and he is currently a full-time professor of military studies and national security studies. Dr. Jordan received his B.A. from the Virginia Military Institute, graduating with academic distinction and as a Distinguished Military Graduate. He holds a M.A. and a Ph.D. in military history from The Ohio State University and is also a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. As an academic, Dr. Jordan is an award-winning professor who has served on the faculties of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the United States Army Command and General Staff College, the United States Naval War College, and the University of Notre Dame. As a scholar, he is the author of numerous military history and leadership studies publications.

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