Is Revised COIN Manual Backed by Political Will?

As 2013 came to a close, the United States military published the long-awaited revision to its counterinsurgency (COIN) manual, known as Field Manual (FM) 3-24 when it was published in 2006. The new manual, called Joint Publication (JP) 3-24, updates the joint doctrine based on FM 3-24 and gives a preview to the updated FM 3-24 that is expected out this spring.

We had a mixed view of the 2006 approach, both on its own terms and as it was later applied in Afghanistan. FM 3-24 offered reasonable advice for dealing with populations and governance at the subnational level, despite some shortcomings. But at the strategic level, it made important assumptions about the dynamics of legitimacy and governance in host nations that were fundamentally flawed. The revised manual makes some important improvements, but not enough.

In our 2012 report, Political Governance and Strategy in Afghanistan (which we were gratified to find excerpted so extensively in the new COIN manual), we argued that improving the host-nation’s capacity to deliver services to populations will not necessarily make the government more legitimate—the key strategic objective of COIN. Building government legitimacy requires at least as much attention to politics as it does to capacity. Legitimacy will be fruitless as a strategic objective if key officials in government are uninterested in being seen as legitimate to certain populations, if they do not believe legitimacy is the issue at stake, or if the government is simply too fragmented and unpredictable to carry out legitimizing reforms.

But the biggest problem with the FM 3-24 COIN doctrine was its failure to recognize that the ambitious societal and institutional transformations it seemed to require cannot be accomplished in any time frame shorter than decades or generations. As we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, that level of effort far exceeds what the American public and political leaders are willing to contribute to a mission that can be construed as fixing another country’s problems.

Improvements in COIN Doctrine

Some of these problems are acknowledged in the revised COIN manual. To its credit, JP 3-24 adopts a far more realistic approach to reforming governance institutions than FM 3-24 did. For example, the revised manual is explicit that aiming to put in place Western-style governance structures and large-scale infrastructure might not be appropriate in many contexts. It acknowledges that governance and service delivery decisions should be made according to local expectations, local conditions, and absorptive capacity.

The importance and associated challenges of encouraging host nations to undertake the reforms needed to counter an insurgency are also front and center.

And legitimacy is treated, usefully, much less ambitiously than before. It uses language drawn from research suggesting that avoiding illegitimacy or fostering a predictable, tolerable living environment might be a more realistic approach than aiming for positive legitimacy of the host-nation government.

These are important developments.

Five Strategic Shortcomings

But JP 3-24 still falls short in a few important ways.

First, it overestimates U.S. influence with host-nation leaders and power brokers. This ambition is most apparent in its emphasis on the need to provide incentives to the host nation government to undertake needed reforms. While acknowledging that many host-nation elites have incentives to engage in corrupt and predatory behavior, the manual offers few tips for influencing them beyond “cajole or coerce [host nation] government and entrenched elites to recognize the legitimacy of . . . grievances and address them.” If the elites believe they are better off taking advantage of instability or doubt the United States is willing to remain engaged for the long haul, attempts to “cajole or coerce” will likely be ineffective.

Second, JP 3-24 overestimates the willingness of U.S. political leaders to insist on whole-of-government coordination and of bureaucratic leaders to give up existing decision-making privileges. Both would be needed to operationalize COIN doctrine. There have been real improvements in interagency coordination and collaboration the past 10 years, but not to the level demanded in the COIN manual.

Third, it underplays the importance of actors outside of the United States to successfully implement a complex COIN campaign. Aside from other countries acting on a bilateral basis—some of which might be supporting the insurgents—a number of other organizations are active in such conflicts, including the United Nations, regional security organizations, and a whole host of nongovernmental organizations, not all of which will agree with the United States on objectives and strategy.

Fourth, it does recognize that any U.S. COIN strategy should be designed to support the host-nation’s strategy, but that recognition assumes that the host-nation actually has a COIN strategy based on an overall assessment of the conflict that is similar to the U.S. assessment. It is silent on how to proceed if host-nation leaders do not believe they are fighting an insurgency. Hamid Karzai, for example, seems to believe he is fighting a proxy war started by Pakistan, not a contest over domestic legitimacy. It does not account for the possibility that even a leader who does believe he is fighting an insurgency might not agree with COIN precepts but might, nevertheless, offer a “host-nation” strategy designed to say what U.S. leaders want to hear—quoting, for example, from the COIN manual—as a way of guaranteeing that U.S. power will be on their side.

Finally, while rightly acknowledging the need to identify and address the root causes of the insurgency, the revised manual underestimates the amount of time and resources it takes to sustainably redress long-standing grievances. This is not simply a matter of establishing new processes to give marginalized communities better representation and services. It requires changing society-wide patterns of intercommunal and state-society relations. The 2011 World Development Report clearly articulates that addressing the root causes of conflict is a decades- or generations-long process.

Right-Sizing COIN

That final point merits serious attention. The COIN manual significantly overestimates the political will that exists in the United States to engage in costly military and civilian operations abroad for a decade or longer. Questions need to be asked about potential negative consequences of adopting a doctrine that would require consistent, high-level support across multiple changes in presidential administrations. What can be done to enable U.S. leaders to invest the political capital needed to make the case for sustained involvement in foreign conflicts? For what types of conflict and campaigns could such a case be supported in American politics?

In the absence of some dramatic event in world politics, it is unlikely that the United States will find itself in a position to use JP 3-24 after its involvement with Afghanistan diminishes at the end of the year. The American public is too tired of foreign adventures to provide political support or cover for any large-scale COIN campaign. And too many political and even military leaders have lost confidence in the COIN approach. Responses to foreign internal conflicts are likely to be much more surgical than the COIN approach.

It would be useful if civilian capacities for conflict diplomacy, prevention, and mitigation could be significantly expanded and better supported to reduce the demand for military intervention in the first place. As has been demonstrated repeatedly, the demand for a civilian capacity to deal with foreign crises has always been high and largely unmet. Improving diplomacy, development, trade, and private-sector engagement in places where vulnerable populations are at risk would reduce at least some of the likely need and demand for military intervention. It would be far better to send capable, fully supported civilians to help governments build more constructive relationships with their marginalized populations before violence escalates into a vicious cycle than to send COIN forces to attempt to do the same in the middle of a war whose complicated politics we will never fully understand.

Nonetheless, conflicts will continue to break out and the United States will continue to be under frequent pressure to intervene in them. It is possible one day that it will find itself again in need of guidance for supporting a counterinsurgency on the ground.

Before that day comes, one of two things will need to happen. Either U.S. political leaders and the foreign policy community will need to better articulate to the American people why it is necessary to support, contribute, and sacrifice for large-scale, long-term operations to respond to conflicts in other countries and put in place the institutions needed to carry them out successfully. Or the writers of U.S. military doctrine will need to revise the COIN manual’s ambitions down to a level more in line with what the record to date shows Americans are willing to offer in time, lives, and resources.

Robert D. Lamb is director and senior fellow of the Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation (C3) at CSIS. Brooke Shawn works for the United Nations in Somalia and is a former visiting scholar at CSIS; her views do not represent the views of the UN.

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Robert D. Lamb and Brooke Shawn