Insurgent thoughts

fm3-24When the US Army and Marine Corps issued their revised Field Manual 3-24 on Counterinsurgency in December 2006 there was an extraordinary public fanfare: a round of high-profile media appearances by some of its architects (you can watch John Nagl with Jon Stewart here) and, even though you could download the Manual for free – there were two million downloads in the first two months – the University of Chicago Press rushed out a paperback edition that hit the best-seller lists.  This was all to advertise counterinsurgency as what David Petraeus called ‘the graduate level of war’ and to inaugurate what I called, in ‘The rush to the intimate’ (DOWNLOADS tab), the US military’s ‘cultural turn’.  And as the media campaign made clear, it was also about the production of a public that would rally behind the new strategy to be put to work in Iraq.  The message was that the military had put the horrors of Abu Ghraib behind it – which were in any case artfully blamed on ‘rotten apples’ rather than the political-military manufacturers of the barrel that contained them – and was now marching beneath the banner of a kinder, gentler and above all smarter war (see my summary slide below).

COIN doctrine 2006

The new doctrine, first field-tested in Iraq and then applied to operations in Afghanistan, was not without its critics, both inside and outside the military.  Insiders complained that this was all smoke and mirrors – or more accurately, perhaps, too many mirrors and not enough smoke – because it was a distraction from the ‘real’ (the implication was, I think, ‘manly’) business of war-fighting, while outsiders objected to its weaponisation of culture and to the biopolitical project that it sought to advance.

FM 3-24 2014The debate grumbled on, and many insiders insisted that COIN was dead and buried, interred in the killing fields of Afghanistan.  But a revised version of the doctrine has now been issued.  It was trailed by the Joint Publication 3-24 on Counterinsurgency last December (issued by the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and – interestingly – the Coastguard Service), which you can download here (for an early review, see Robert Lamb and Brooke Shawn‘s ‘Is revised COIN manual backed by political will? here).  But the new Field Manual has been comprehensively re-written and even re-titled: Insurgencies and countering insurgencies, which you can download here.

I’m going to work my way through it in the next week or so – I can hardly complete The everywhere war without doing so – and I’ll post a commentary in due course, but it’s worth setting out its structure now:


1: Understanding the strategic context

2: Understanding an operational environment

3: Culture


4: Insurgency prerequisites and fundamentals

5: Insurgency threat characteristics


6: Mission command and control

7: Planning for counterinsurgencies

8: Intelligence

9: Direct approaches to counter an insurgency

10: Indirect methods for countering insurgencies

11: Working with host-nation forces

12: Assessments

13: Legal considerations

I’m still interested in how the revision treats ‘culture’, of course, but I’m also keenly interested in the discussion of ‘intrastate war’ and insurgency, the direct incorporation of air power (which was relegated to an appendix in the previous edition), the attention paid to intelligence in it multiple guises, the role of biometrics (biopolitics again!) – and in that remarkable last chapter.  One of the central diagnostics of later modern war, in my view at any rate, is its reflexivity.  You can see that in the discussions of assessment and reassessment in the new FM 3-24 (Ch 12 in particular), but attention to metrics and ‘lessons learned’ is hardly novel even if the means of monitoring have changed.  What I have in (closer) mind is a preoccupation with the public reception of military operations and military violence – which involves a distinctive emphasis on its intellectual provenance (‘the graduate level of war’ again),  on media strategies (‘strategic communications’), and on the provision of a legal armature that works to inform and legitimate its operations (hence that last chapter).

I’m sure the new manual will be the subject of intense discussion over at the always provocative and thoroughly indispensable Small Wars Journal (see, for example, Bing West‘s opening salvo here and David Maxwell‘s more measured critique here), and elsewhere too, but I doubt that it will attract the public fanfare FM 3-24 received in 2006-7.  We’ll see.