The application of FM 3-24 principles and success in COIN

Staying up lat-ish last night to watch Torchwood: Miracle Day when I knew I had a 0300 start this morning was probably not the best idea I ever had but, like many, things, it seemed like a good idea at the time and I know that if I record something I only rarely go back and actually watch it…

It’s still very dark outside and the webcast from the COIN Center at Fort Leavenworth has just ended…the topic for discussion this morning related to principles identified in the RAND study Victory Has A Thousand Fathers and their application to FM 3-24, specifically from the perspective of what an updated FM 3-24 might include.

I really don’t like Victory Has A Thousand Fathers – the idea is good: to study historical COIN campaigns and determine what truisms or principles can be derived from those campaigns.  This, I believe, is a necessary and long overdue step in the development of useful doctrine for the contemporary environment as for too long there have only really been two dominant schools of thought in this area:

  • The false prophets of Malaya who fail to truly understand that campaign and whom only glean the most superficial principles from it, namely a misapplied emphasis on ‘hearts and minds’, and who ignore the context in which that philosophy was applied and how it was applied.
  • The COINdinsta who forget that FM 3-24 was a seminal, timely and truly useful publication – for the situation that the US faced in Iraq, in 2006 and 2006. It has limited applicability as writ for dogmatic application in other campaigns.

Although I agree with the findings of Victory Has A Thousand Fathers as briefed this morning, they are weakened by the paper’s overly narrow and selective focus:

  • The scope of the study is restricted to only 1978-2008, omitting the post-WW2  ‘golden age’ of counter-insurgency and many other critical campaigns of thus nature. While there would have been a need perhaps to keep the initial sample size to a manageable number, this arbitrary period omits a large proportion of relevant campaigns.
  • The list of COIN campaigns 1978-2008 is somewhat limited: missing are any of the campaigns fought in Southern Africa in this period, as are those from the Middle East including Israel v Palestinians, and Iraq v Kurds;  East Timor is not listed, nor is the campaign in Southern Thailand – while it is flawed in other ways, at least both of these campaigns appear in David Kilcullen’s The Accidental Guerrilla.
  • Kiwis and Australians will be surprised to see that Papua New Guinea 1988-1998 which must be the Bougainville campaign is listed as ‘red’ i.e. a failure for the host nation government. The island of Bougainville is still very much part of PNG and that the world has heard little from that part of the world since the withdrawal of the monitoring force in 2002, is a testament to the effectiveness of that force 1998-2002.

The principles for COIN derived from Victory Has A Thousand Fathers were on slides that I missed during the discussion (too slow with the screen grabs) so I’ll cover those in a couple of days once they are posted on the COIN Centre events page.  What follows are some of the other insights from this morning.

There is a case for the use of force in Irregular Warfare but first, let’s stop calling this COIN. As we know, COIN is a very specific and very narrow slice of the broader realm of IW: the continuing abuse of the term ‘COIN’ to describe operations in the contemporary operating environment unhelpfully muddies the waters. Specifically. these slides discuss the repressive use of force but we need to consider this just as much as we have to consider the other side of the pendulum that it’s all about being nice to everybody.

One of the most refreshing things about FM 3-24 during our review of COIN doctrine in 2007-08 was that it acknowledged the need for use of force within a campaign, a most realistic diversion from other nations’ COIN doctrine which was based upon either experience in peace-support operations (whole different ballgame), super-localised internal issues (go Northern Ireland!), or Malaya (myth city). If there was no potential for the application of force, then the military is not needed i.e. the military is not a cheap labour force, nor an easy substitute for the other government agencies and non-government organisations that should be there.

While FM 3-24 does have a strong population-centric element, it was written for a specific campaign (Iraq) in a specific period (2005-6). That notwithstanding, the population-centric elements are well-balanced with other key principles and truisms for irregular warfare and I think that many critics only cherry-pick thos easpects they want in order to criticise and few if any consider the publication as a whole.

This is the Hierarchy of Assessment referred in the last two points:

In simple terms, it all comes down to national interests linked to campaign objectives and being able to measure the same; and at the tactical level, specifically, as recommended below,  link development objectives to those campaign objectives and national objectives i.e. no more AID for its own sake. This just creates legacy dependency issues.

One of the questions asked this morning was “…I’ve recently returned from RC-S .  Agree with HNG but it does not to have a national flair to it.  If a specific district enforces the govt rep there, the HNG should be deemed endorsed…” This is the real rub in Afghanistan where the role and legitimacy of central government are in an entirely different context to that of Iraq. Shifting the emphasis for effective government from a central to a district government focus can produce strong district/regional government but usually at the expense of the central government. But then as we discussed in the opening day of the IW Summit in May, a ‘horses for courses’ approach to Afghanistan might find that a federalist system of strong provinces and weak central government might be the best for Afghanistan – after all, it seems to have worked OK for the last two millennia…

As the US Army and USMC gear up to update FM 3-24, the time is ripe for some robust discussion on the content of its next iteration. Most definitely the sections of air and maritime power need to be expanded and updated. The forum for thoughts on this topic is at the COIN Centre Blog….

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