The Army is updating the counterinsurgency field manual developed by Gen. David Petraeus that has served as the basis for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The current version of the field manual incorporates lessons learned from Western nations’ experiences with colonial insurgencies and outlines tactics such as placing troops among the local population and building stable government to win hearts and minds rather than prioritizing killing and capturing enemy fighters.
The new 200-page version of the document, which is under review and likely to be released later this year, takes account of lessons learned over the past six years in Afghanistan, according to Clint Ancker, director of the Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
A large number of experts, including academics and active-duty and retired veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, provided input for the rewrite, which is a joint Army and Marine Corps project, Ancker said.
Specific details of the updated field manual are being kept under wraps until it is released, but Ancker said the Afghan lessons would be an important part of it.
“One of the things that have become apparent is that the operations in Afghanistan have some big differences (from Iraq),” he said. “Afghanistan is a different environment and a different enemy and there are different approaches on both sides.”
Those writing the new manual have tried to capture those differences and create a knowledge base so that lessons don’t need to be relearned in a future conflict, Ancker said.
“The physical terrain (in Afghanistan) is very different than what you would find in Iraq,” he said. “There is a very different kind of enemy and a lot more operations outside population centers. There are a lot of fights taking place in Afghanistan that are not necessarily urban fights. That causes different TTPs (techniques, tactics and procedures) to be employed with combined arms.”
Many of the ideas in the field manual are not new. In his 1966 book, “Defeating Communist Insurgency: Experiences from Malaya and Vietnam,” British counterinsurgency expert Sir Robert Thompson stressed the value of establishing stable government to overcome communist guerrillas without resorting to a costly general war.
Military force alone cannot achieve the goal of a counterinsurgency campaign — to stand up and maintain a stable government — and it can actually make it harder by harming the population and cutting off “contact between the government and the people,” Thompson wrote.
The U.S. Army’s first counterinsurgency field manuals were produced during the Vietnam War but weren’t studied widely after the conflict ended because military leaders were focused on the threat of conventional war in Europe, Ancker said.
“After Vietnam, we didn’t capture things that worked and circumstances where they worked, so we had a starting place from which to adjust,” he said. “We didn’t educate the officer corps about what we did have available.”
Low-intensity conflict didn’t get much emphasis until Iraq became an insurgency, he said.
Petraeus oversaw the publication of the current version of the field manual in 2006 before he took over as commander of U.S. Central Command and later as the head of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
In 2003, Petraeus — then the commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Northern Iraq — stood out among U.S. military leaders there for his use of counterinsurgency tactics, such as standing up Iraqi security forces, holding local elections and facilitating economic projects.
When he returned to command Multinational Force Iraq in 2007, he applied the tactics throughout the country and is widely credited with averting a civil war.
The counterinsurgency field manual that Petraeus helped shape as commander of the Army’s Combined Arms Center in 2006 set out a specific approach to countering an insurgency, Ancker said.
Robert Jones, a retired Army Special Forces colonel and an adviser to the U.S. Special Operations Command who attended a conference of experts involved in the latest field manual rewrite, said the version produced under Petraeus provided an overarching view of counterinsurgency at a time when such a perspective was needed.
However, the document doesn’t fill the traditional mission of a field manual, which should be to focus on tactical operations at brigade level and below, he said.
“It did not … work well to guide the day-to-day tactical actions of the Army brigades and Marine regiments sent into the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.
The new field manual will describe efforts that were tried out in Iraq and Afghanistan without having a specific approach for future conflicts, Ancker said
“If something works and it is working consistently … the enemy … will work hard to defeat it, so you need to have a range of approaches that allow you to change on a regular basis,” he said, adding that commanders will be encouraged to develop new solutions if conventional counterinsurgency approaches to a problem aren’t suitable.
David Johnson, a former Army lieutenant colonel who is executive director of the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington, said the current version of the field manual helped shift the Army’s focus from conventional operations to small wars and irregular conflict but that it’s due for an update.
“We are still learning not to apply false analogies and treat each environment according to its physical, political, social and economic differences,” he said.
The goal of those producing the new manual is to define insurgency in terms of what Army and Marine brigades and regiments do and to capture tactical lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, Jones said. However, he said he and others have expressed concerns that the larger view of counterinsurgency included in the current manual needs to be incorporated in some other document if it’s dropped from the rewrite.
It appears the new manual will retain the heavy bias of the Petraeus version on the experience of Western nations in the colonial sphere, he said.
“The new document shows no indication of shedding that particular bias, and instead seeks to add the additional bias of very tactical lessons from our experiences in support of a larger war on terrorism,” Jones said.
Insurgencies can range from a revolution, such as the one in Syria, to separatist movements, such as the Kurds in Iraq, to a resistance, like the one being waged by the largely apolitical people of Afghanistan to the large foreign military presence in their country, he said.
Distinctions need to be made to find the clearest solutions to a particular insurgency, he said.
“When success without strategic understanding for how or why that success occurred led us to simply transplant the entire program to a very different situation in Afghanistan, it met with predictable results.”