Sam Noumoff*


Confronted, as it was with the post invasion Iraq insurgency, which the U.S. and its accomplices in the “Coalition of the Willing” were utterly unprepared for, the U.S. military set out to develop a new strategic doctrine of counterinsurgency designed to meet the challenge. The architect of this new approach was General David Petraeus and the result was US Army Field Manual 3-24. As the approach has become the guiding force behind the current NATO strategy in Afghanistan it warrants very careful analysis.


The central issues are, what is the guiding concept, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the doctrine, have the lessons from the history of modern insurgency/counter insurgency been properly absorbed, and is it appropriate to Afghanistan, or for that matter any other modern insurgency movement?


The key operational concept of FM 3-24 is gaining and maintaining government legitimacy, with the control of major population centers fundamental to this task, as is the concentration of military forces on large bases to reduce vulnerability. Subsequently one moves out of these centers beginning with areas of the  weakest enemy control before moving against their strongholds. As areas are secured, services are then provided. Security must be in place as the prerequisite to initiating any social service, otherwise known as the “clear-Hold-Build: approach.


No document of this nature can be totally bereft of any positive features, To its credit the Manual does reflect some sensitivity, at least at the theoretical level. Popular grievances should be understood (bad governance and abusive security force) and addressed to separate the population from the insurgency, prisoners should be treated professionally and their treatment advertized, corrupt officials must be removed, develop a narrative of nationalism aimed at alienating the local population from the foreign insurgent fighters, local culture should be respected and units should eat and sleep with the locals. It is further recognized that military action can only be productive when political consequences are factored into the operations and that all foreign armies are seen as occupiers and risk delegitimizing the government.


Even if the basic strategy of strategic population centers is accurate, which I doubt as it is all too reminiscent  of the failed policy of strategic hamlets during the Viet Nam war, each one of the above points has been violated during the actual conduct of the Afghan campaign; prisoners are brutalized, upwards of 32,000 civilians have become collateral damage many through drone attacks, corruption remains rampant, the nationalist narrative has become  a recruiting tool for the insurgency as NATO forces continue to be considered a foreign occupying  army further delegitimizing the Karzai government. The fundamental flaw in the strategy, however, remains its core concept of concentrating   in the urban centers and pushing out. Any serious analysis of the success of the both the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions could not help but conclude that successfully mobilizing the non-urban population is the key to eviscerating the cities. Aerial resupply can not last forever. The U.S. military reminds blind to this historic lesson, insisting that it won all the battles of the Viet Nam war, except the final one, while for China there is a total failure to grasp the parallels between President Karzai and Generalissimo Chiang. By the time the urban administration decides to push out the rest of the country is under insurgent control. The recent success of the Sinhalese army over the Tamils fits neither the Petraeus doctrine nor the realities of Afghanistan.     


In the final analysis war weariness of the uncommitted, a conviction of as to which side is responsible for continued combat and a sense of who will be victorious determines the final outcome. The Petraeus strategy is withering on the vine of the valleys and mountains of Afghanistan to its ultimate atrophy.


Subsequent to the publication of the Field Manual, The Center for a New American Security based in Washington publishes a report  in January 2010 by the U. S. Army’s chief of Intelligence in Afghanistan, Major General Michael T. Flynn and two colleagues titled: Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan. Even a superficial knowledge of the elliptical language employed in reports written by military officers would lead the reader to the conclusion that this is a blistering attack on leadership in the theatre of operations. Commanders, the report argues, have fallen into the trap of pursuing an “anti-insurgency” policy rather than a “counter insurgency” one. Too much concern for the enemy and insufficient attention on the population one is supposed to protect resulting in focusing on reaction to enemy operations and ignores an understanding of the heart of the insurgency. What is the difference? The former is driven by the capture or kill the enemy, and locate and disarm IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) syndrome and fails to recognize that victory is defined by convincing the population rather than killing the enemy. This is especially true on the border area with Pakistan, to paraphrase, the more you kill them the more they multiply especially with “revenge prone Pashtuns”. Of course the capture-kill policy is essential but not decisive. An anthropologist was hired by the CIA to help untangle the web. Rob Johnston, who concluded that the intelligence community was so obsessed with security that they neglected their mission effectiveness. All of this is compounded by incompetent intelligence officers who are permitted to hang around, and a derisive overuse of “power point” presentations in trying to integrate information resulting in the absence of a coherent narrative. To solve this problem the suggestion was made to hire journalists who are the victims of downsizing by US newspapers to clearly write up what is required.


What is Flynn’s prescription? First and foremost is mapping a leveraging strategy to garner popular support thereby marginalizing the insurgency. One example cited was to support local elders in a community against young Talibs and their accompanying mullahs; reinforce the existing order against those who challenge it. One must change the cultural and human attitudes. Pursuant to this, one must identify local power holders, landlords, religious leaders, social relations and become sensitive to land and tribal disputes. Intelligence must be gathered and collated in a new and systematic and accessible way in order to the have the command structure right up the President able to access accurate information. While the Flynn proposal may do much to focus the apparent chaos, it appears to me as if he is replacing one organism with a slightly better one, but both fail to meet the test on the ground. His ultimate target is to develop a ratio of one soldier/police-person for every 50 inhabitants of the population or an organized and loyal armed instrument of the state numbering 560,000. There is little evidence that this is remotely attainable.


While Mao and Ho remain in their glass sarcophagii in Beijing and Hanoi respectively, I suspect, if one looks carefully, a smile can barely be seen. 


*(Sam Noumoff served fifty years ago as a Private First Class in the 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment, noted in the Manual for its work in Tal Afar Iraq, and previously known for its role in the annihilation of Amer-Indians in the 19th Century. In addition he served as the Director of the Centre for Developing Area Studies and Centre for East Asian Studies, McGill University, Montreal from where he retired in 1995.

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