Paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division pull security outside a madrassa as Afghan soldiers search for weapons inside, on May 29, 2012.

Paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division pull security outside a madrassa as Afghan soldiers search for weapons inside, on May 29, 2012. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod

What the Army's New COIN Manual Is Missing

The latest incarnation of the military’s counterinsurgency manual underestimates the real challenges of relationships with host nations. By Walter Ladwig III

Incorporating the experience gained in Iraq and Afghanistan, the new edition of FM 3-24: Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies reorients American strategy towards supporting a host nation’s counterinsurgency efforts rather than intervening in a conflict directly.  This change recognizes both the prevailing political sentiment towards foreign interventions as well as an understanding of how the strengths of the United States can best be leveraged in internal conflict.

The new manual also addresses a critical error that plagued FM 3-24 (2006): the assumption that the U.S. and the local government it is supporting in counterinsurgency will share common goals, priorities, and interests in regard to counterinsurgency operations.  Instead, FM 3-24 (2014) recognizes that the interests of the host nation government will not necessarily align with those of the U.S. nor may they be willing to address the “root causes” of an insurgency.  Although the new COIN manual explicitly recognizes that it may be necessary to influence the partner government and shape its behavior, it significantly overestimates the ability of the United States to employ its tools of influence (financial inducements, moral suasion) to convince a local government to adopt the principals contained in FM 3-24.

For more than five decades, both scholars and embittered U.S. policymakers have identified America’s local ally—in particular their reluctance to adopt U.S. counterinsurgency advice—as the major impediment to success when intervening in counterinsurgency. Robert Keohane has gone as far as to describe the inability of the United States to the influence weaker allies it is attempting to save as “a cruel and ridiculous paradox.”  The history of American interventions during the Cold War suggests that changing a local government’s counterinsurgency behavior frequently requires a concerted effort to pressure and coerce the local ally, which runs counter to the new manual’s presumptions about the nature of the partnership between the United States and the local government it is attempting to assist.

Why should we presume or expect a contested relationship between these two parties?  It is almost axiomatic that a state beset by internal political violence will possess deep-seeded flaws for the very simple reason that highly effective, morally pristine governments rarely if ever provoke insurgencies.  Therefore indirect intervention will almost certainly involve supporting an inept, dishonest, or even oppressive regime while attempting to ameliorate the impact of those flaws.  The problem for the US is that not only do these shortcomings undermine the local partner’s counterinsurgency prowess, there is no guarantee that the host nation government will embrace U.S.-backed reforms to address these issues or adopt the kind of counterinsurgency strategy preferred by Washington.

A review of the major indirect interventions undertaken by the US during the Cold War—in the Philippines, early Vietnam, and El Salvador—suggest that Washington needs to be prepared for a clash of priorities with its local partner from the very outset of an intervention.  At the broadest level, the United States and its ally may share a common aim of defeating the local insurgency; however, the host nation government typically has competing priorities, such as maintaining power and continuing the domestic social and economic arrangements that benefit its core supporters.  Consequently, many of the standard reform prescriptions for counterinsurgency—reducing government corruption, ending patronage politics, rationalizing the military chain of command, engaging in economic reform, and so forth—can appear more threatening to a besieged regime and its supporters than the insurgency itself.

This is not to say that host nation elites are necessarily lazy, stupid or evil when they attempt to circumvent aspects of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy that might jeopardize the power structure of their regime, seek to “free ride” on American support or act in other ways that are harmful to American interests.  Instead, they should rightly be seen as strategic actors who will strive to achieve their own self interests as they see them.  In all likelihood these interests will not perfectly coincide with American interests nor will the understanding of the causes of the conflict—and therefore the preferred response—necessarily align.

If, as the as the 2009 U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide asserts, “any COIN campaign is only as good as the political strategy which the affected nation adopts,” generating sufficient leverage over a local partner to shape its behavior and policy choices is a central concern in any intervention.  Again, this is hardly a new phenomenon.  In his 1963 after action report, the senior adviser to the South Vietnamese I Corps, Col. Bryce Denno, warned that “the development of techniques and means to increase U.S. leverage in Vietnam is the single most important problem facing us there and it will be a fundamental problem in any future counterinsurgency effort in which we become involved.”

As a result, it is fairly surprising that in the chapter on indirect intervention the manual has so little to say on the nature of relations with the host nation government.  A number of scholarspolicy professionals, and analysts have identified the divergent interests of the United States and its clients—as well as the relative influence between the two parties—as the key explanation for the poor results of American efforts to assist counterinsurgency campaigns in Vietnam, El Salvador and elsewhere.

In the absence of sufficient leverage to shape the behavior of the local regime, aid and assistance can actually make the situation worse.  Former NSA Director William Odom has argued that U.S. military assistance saps the host nation’s motivation to defeat insurgents on their own or undertake the measures necessary to enhance their counterinsurgency prowess, while economic aid reduces an allied regime’s incentives for fiscal reforms which would grow and strengthen their wartime economy.  Armed with American aid and political support, local leaders may decide that the externally-fostered policy changes which the aid and support is intended to bring about are no longer needed.  To put it another way, if a superpower proclaims an intent to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe” on your behalf, why not let it?

In a worst case scenario, having committed itself to the partner’s success, the U.S. can find itself embroiled in what Hilton Root terms “the Commitment Trap”—a situation in which political leaders are afraid to withdraw their support from a small ally for fear of damaging the America’s credibility, yet simultaneously, due to the perceived strength of that commitment, are unable to influence the policies of that ally to prevent it from acting in a way that is harmful to America’s long-term interests.  For anyone who doubts reputational considerations weigh heavily on American policy makers, recall that on the cusp of full-scale American intervention, Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton argued in March 1965 that U.S. aims in Vietnam were: “70%—to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor).  20%—to keep SVN (and the adjacent territory) from Chinese hands.  10%—to permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life.”

If the discussion to this point has painted a rather gloomy picture about the prospects for indirect intervention in counterinsurgency, then I have done my job.  That being said, the United States has had some success in compelling a local ally to reform and adopt policy changes against its will, but it was not an easy process.  At a minimum, it required strict conditions on all economic and military aid from the outset of the intervention, a strong interagency commitment to the reform plan, and a realistic appreciation of how much change an external power could actually bring about.  Moreover it was a process in which policymakers could not shy away from a clash with the host nation government.

In arguably the most successful U.S. indirect intervention of the Cold War—the Philippines during the Huk Rebellion—reform came about more due to U.S. pressure than friendly persuasion.  The myth that Filipinos and Americans operated arm-in-arm like brothers which plagues official histories of the conflict has largely obscured the fact that the emergence of reformist leadership in Manila and the implementation of fundamental economic and political reforms targeting the insurgency’s “root causes” were the result of hard bargaining by the American patron and tough conditions on aid to its erstwhile ally, to coerce them when they were at their weakest.  Similarly, in El Salvador, the reforms and policy changes that were achieved came about when the U.S. laid down the law and actually enforced conditions on its aid.  When the White House circumvented conditionality, sought to bolster the confidence of the Salvadoran military, or influence them through unconditional aid, U.S. influence fell to zero.

There are some who might suggest that these kinds of high-level affairs of state are not the subject for a manual targeted at nineteen-year old soldiers and marines.  However, the various editions of FM 3-24 contains guidance that negatively affects American influence over a local government.  In the 2006 version, we are advised that “U.S. support can be critical to building public faith in [the host nation] government’s viability…Constant reaffirmations of commitment, backed by deeds, can overcome that perception and bolster faith in the steadfastness of U.S. support.”  The updated version tones down the language somewhat, but continues to argue that it is critical for the local population to be convinced of the staying power of the forces supporting the local government.  This is one of those cases where what is good for counterinsurgency is bad for American leverage over its partner.  As a range of scholars, including Samuel HuntingtonRobert Jervis and Michael Handelhave argued, the more the United States is perceived to be committed to the survival of a local regime, the greater latitude that government has to defy Washington’s wishes.

The need for this issue to be enshrined in doctrinal guidance is made necessary by the fact that it is often interagency and bureaucratic disputes that undermine a unified American approach to press a local ally for reform.  Early in the Kennedy administration’s involvement in Vietnam, it was the Department of Defense which strongly opposed conditioning aid to South Vietnam on economic and political reforms targeting the “root causes” of the conflict, in favor of bolstering the Diem regime and getting on with the war.  As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lyman Lemnitzer asked his colleagues in 1962, “Does the U.S. intend to take the necessary military action now to defeat the Viet Cong threat or do we intend to quibble for weeks and months over details of general policy, finances, Vietnamese Gov’t organization, etc., while Vietnam slowly but surely goes down the drain of Communism as North Vietnam and a large portion of Laos have gone to date?”

A similar policy split emerged in El Salvador where the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Robert “Blowtorch Bob” Komer, argued forcibly that tying military aid to human rights issues was akin to “fiddling while Rome burns.”  Although abuses by the security forces and murders by so-called “death squads” were a key factor driving support for the FMLN, he argued that forestalling an insurgent victory must take precedence over human rights issues “which means moving ahead on security assistance pronto…we can later use aid leverage to enhance human rights” once peace was restored. The persistent belief that DOD would support the Salvadoran military regardless of what it did and regardless of the threats to withhold aid issued by the U.S. Ambassador or the State Department harmed American leverage over San Salvador for much of the decade.

In both Vietnam and El Salvador, the institutional split sent mixed messages to the local government about the seriousness of American efforts to bring about reform and allowed the client government to play one agency off another.  Thus, in both cases U.S. influence and leverage over its local allies was minimal.  In contrast, the case of the Philippines noted above was characterized by a high degree of interagency consensus on the need to compel the Quirino government into reform via strict conditions on aid and the cultivation of a degree of ambiguity about the American commitment to the regime’s success.

Despite some important improvements in the new version of FM 3-24, the central problem of getting a local government to adopt the counterinsurgency approach you think they should remains.  In the last decade American strategic thinkers have spent a lot of time trying to divine the “key” to counterinsurgency.  However, as Benjamin Schwarz sagely warned “it is one thing to have the key; it is entirely a different matter to force another to use it to unlock a door through which he does not wish to enter.”

Dr. Walter C. Ladwig III is an Assistant Professor of International Relations in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.  His book, The Trouble with Allies in Counterinsurgency: U.S. Intervention in the Philippines, Vietnam and El Salvador, will be published by Cambridge University Press next year.

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