In This Review

The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual
The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual
By The U.S. Army and the Marine Corps
University of Chicago Press, 2007, 472 pp.
Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, From the American Revolution to Iraq
Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, From the American Revolution to Iraq
By William R. Polk
Harper Collins, 2007, 304 pp.

The invasion of Iraq began on March 19, 2003, and it took only three weeks for the U.S. military to defeat Saddam Hussein's army. But even during those heady days, there were ominous signs of things to come. "The enemy we're fighting is a bit different from the one we war-gamed against," Lieutenant General William Wallace, the army's V Corps commander, told The New York Times a week into the conflict. The first U.S. combat fatality was a marine shot at point-blank range by men driving a civilian pickup truck. The first suicide car bombing of a U.S. checkpoint occurred ten days into the war.

Soon after Saddam's regime fell, the occupation began to falter, and a virulent Sunni insurgency took hold. The U.S. military was caught flatfooted. The army and the Marine Corps had not substantially updated their counterinsurgency doctrine since the 1980s, choosing, in the wake of the Vietnam War, to "forget" counterinsurgency and focus instead on preparing for World War III. The blitzkrieg victory in the 1991 Gulf War reinforced this conventional bias, and deployments in Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans in the 1990s were denigrated as "military operations other than war."

An interim army counterinsurgency manual was released in October 2004, a year and a half after the start of the war, but it was an intellectually sterile document. Work on a much-needed revision did not begin until a year later, when two of the military's most respected commanders, Lieutenant Generals David Petraeus and James Mattis, took charge of the process. Petraeus, now the four-star commanding general of all U.S. forces in Iraq, was then the commander of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Mattis held a parallel position at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command in Quantico, Virginia. The writing team they assembled included many of the best and the brightest within the army and the Marine Corps; Conrad Crane, the director of the army's Military History Institute, was charged with supervising the effort. The writing process -- which included a February 2006 conference at Fort Leavenworth where outside counterinsurgency experts, human rights groups, and military journalists were brought together to comment on a working draft -- was unprecedented in its openness. On December 15, 2006, the new Counterinsurgency Field Manual was finally released, co-signed by Petraeus and Lieutenant General James Amos, who was brought on after Mattis took command of the I Marine Expeditionary Force.

The COIN FM, as the manual is known, was so widely cited and downloaded that the University of Chicago Press recently decided to republish it as a book. The new version adds a forward by Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, a member of the manual's writing team, who provides a useful history of its evolution, and an outstanding introductory essay on the "radical" nature of the document by Sarah Sewall, the director of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. The book has helped make counterinsurgency part of the zeitgeist. It has become a coffee-table staple in Washington, prompted a lengthy essay in The New York Times Book Review, and even led to an appearance by Nagl on Comedy Central's The Daily Show. In short, this is not your parents' military field manual.


Counterinsurgency refers to military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by governments or occupying forces to quell a rebellion. It is fundamentally a contest between insurgents and the government for control and the support of the population (with intervening outside powers sometimes attempting to tip the scales one way or the other). The COIN FM is not an academic document, but it is deeply informed by classical counterinsurgency theory, which emerged in response to the wave of wars of "national liberation" that followed World War II. Within that tradition, there are two competing schools of thought about the appropriate way to conduct counterinsurgency warfare: "hearts and minds" and "coercion." The COIN FM sides definitively with the former.

The manual embraces a model commonly referred to as "clear, hold, and build." It directs the military to support the "host nation" government in combating insurgents by "clearing" areas and then to transition to a law enforcement model to "hold" them. This, in turn, enables the implementation of political, social, and economic programs designed to reduce the appeal of the insurgency and "build" the government's legitimacy. The COIN FM argues that most active, passive, and potential supporters of an insurgency -- whether they are ideological, ethnic, or religious in character -- can be won over through the provision of security, since "citizens seek to ally with groups that can guarantee their safety." Providing basic services and enacting policies aimed at "address[ing] the legitimate grievances insurgents use to generate popular support" also help flip support from the guerrillas to the government. The population, rather than the insurgent movement, is the "center of gravity," and the military's "primary function in COIN is protecting that populace."

To be sure, some insurgents have to be killed and captured. But as the manual contends, "killing every insurgent is normally impossible." Force must be used with incredible restraint and discrimination and in strict compliance with the laws of war, or it "risks generating popular resentment, creating martyrs that motivate new recruits, and producing cycles of revenge."

Protecting and developing relationships with the population also allows counterinsurgents to derive "actionable" intelligence that is vital to efficiently targeting the rebellion. This requires that they live side by side with the people they are protecting, instead of hunkering down on outlying bases. Strategic success in the long term requires accepting more risk in the short term.

Such military action is only the first step. "While security is essential to setting the stage for overall progress," the manual states, "lasting victory comes from a vibrant economy, political participation, and restored hope." Here, it echoes the French counterinsurgency theorist David Galula's famous tenet that "military action is secondary to the political one, its primary purpose being to afford the political power enough freedom to work safely with the population." This means that the military must be prepared to support the efforts of U.S. civilian agencies, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and the host-nation government to rebuild critical infrastructure, provide essential services, promote economic development, and empower local and national political institutions. It also means, however, that when civilian entities are slow to arrive, lack sufficient resources, or are incapable of conducting these activities in dangerous environments, the military must be ready to pick up the slack. The military, in other words, is not only the primary protector of the population but also the nation builder of last resort.

Although the guidelines presented in the COIN FM are derived from research on dozens of twentieth-century counterinsurgency campaigns, it is difficult to know whether its template can work in all cases. Every insurgency has unique properties, and no counterinsurgency campaign has ever been conducted in exactly the way the manual describes. The purest example of the clear, hold, build model is the effective British effort during the Malayan Emergency (1948-60). The United States experimented with elements of this approach during the later stages of Vietnam, with some success, but too late to turn the tide. Still, overall, the COIN FM probably represents the single best distillation of current knowledge about irregular warfare.


The most powerful critique of the COIN FM's approach comes from the "coercion" school of thought on counterinsurgency, which sees legitimacy as an unattainable -- and wholly unnecessary -- goal. In the 1960s, the RAND analysts Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf argued that counterinsurgents should worry less about winning popular allegiance and more about raising the costs of supporting the insurgency. As Edward Luttwak put it in a recent essay, "The easy and reliable way of defeating all insurgencies everywhere" is to "out-terrorize the insurgents, so that fear of reprisals outweighs the desire to help the insurgents." In contrast to the COIN FM, the coercion school sees no need for conventional armies to remake themselves into kinder, gentler nation builders; instead, they can win by doing what they do best: employing overwhelming firepower to destroy the adversary and using armed coercion -- including harsh collective punishment -- to convince the population to shun the insurgents. "The teething-ring nonsense that insurgencies don't have military solutions defies history," the widely read military analyst Ralph Peters has written. "Historically, the common denominator of successful counterinsurgency operations is that only an uncompromising military approach works -- not winning hearts and minds nor a negotiated compromise." Ultimately, the thinking goes, military sticks are much more important than civilian carrots.

This position is alive and well in the debate over Iraq. Hawkish commentators contend that the United States' problems in Iraq are the result of overly restrictive rules of engagement and a hesitancy to "take the gloves off." Some have even derided the COIN FM as "malpractice" for allegedly applying the lessons of Vietnam under the guise of learning from Iraq. In particular, they object to its application of political models of nationalist and ideological struggle to contemporary insurgencies that are, they contend, essentially religious. Bing West, assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, argues, for example, that the approach endorsed by the COIN FM "does not apply to the root cause of the insurgency [in Iraq and elsewhere] -- a radical religion whose adherents are not susceptible to having their hearts and minds won over."

The proponents of the coercion school generate extraordinary heat but little light. Certainly, there are historical cases in which coercion has proved brutally effective. During the nineteenth century, for example, the U.S. Army used collective punishment on a genocidal scale to destroy the Native American "insurgents," and the United States combined similar techniques with what we would now call "civic-action programs" to defeat the Filipino insurrection after the Spanish-American War. But as William Polk describes in his new book, Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, From the American Revolution to Iraq, coercion has more often than not been ineffective -- or counterproductive. Even extraordinary levels of brutality have sometimes proved inadequate to crush determined insurgencies, as Polk's case study of the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia during World War II powerfully demonstrates. In other instances, namely, those of the British in Kenya and the French in Algeria, massacres of guerrilla supporters, the widespread use of concentration camps, and the frequent torture and execution of prisoners produced the appearance of victory only to give way to strategic defeat as opposition to colonial occupation grew at home and abroad. And for those who believe that harsher measures are required in campaigns against religiously driven fanatical insurgents, Polk notes that overwhelming and indiscriminate Soviet firepower in Afghanistan proved insufficient to defeat the Islamist rebels and instead generated global sympathy for their plight and attracted scores of foreign fighters to engage in jihad. Russian brutality in Chechnya and Serbian atrocities against Bosnian Muslims during the 1990s -- two conflicts not covered by Polk's study -- had similar effects.

The bare-knuckle approach seems singularly unsuited to twenty-first-century counterinsurgencies conducted by Western democracies. The immoral and illegal use of indiscriminate violence would require abandoning the very values Western militaries claim to protect, and it would be strategically disastrous. This is especially true of counterinsurgency campaigns, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, embedded within the so-called war on terror -- a global clash of ideas in which "victory" hinges on the United States' discrediting the tactics used by violent extremists and in which 24-7 satellite media and the Internet allow insurgents and terrorists to exploit incidents of "collateral damage" to create widespread sympathy for their cause. In this context, the COIN FM strikes exactly the right balance. It admits that some religious zealots "are unlikely to be reconciled" and "will most likely have to be killed or captured" but directs commanders to determine how to "eliminate extremists without alienating the populace."


When faced with a growing Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the immediate response of Pentagon officials and the U.S. military was denial. By the late summer and early fall of 2003, however, the reality signaled by daily attacks and a wave of massive bombings had finally sunk in. The military initially responded with a "search and destroy" approach to counterinsurgency, which fell uncomfortably, and dysfunctionally, between the extremes of hearts-and-minds and pure coercion. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, who led U.S. forces during the first year of the war, was both inept at and uninterested in counterinsurgency. Efforts to protect the Iraqi population were ad hoc, varied tremendously from unit to unit, and were underresourced; most units defined the requirements of counterinsurgency solely in terms of "the enemy" and deployed overwhelming conventional firepower to kill or capture a growing list of "former regime elements," "anti-Iraqi forces," "bad guys," and "terrorists." Although troops took steps to minimize the risks to Iraqi civilians, many innocent Iraqis were shot at U.S. checkpoints and alongside convoys; many others were caught in the crossfire during daily raids and major offensives in Fallujah, Najaf, Sadr City, and elsewhere. Detention centers swelled as thousands of military-aged men were arrested in indiscriminate sweeps of Sunni towns, and evidence of abusive interrogations -- most notably at Abu Ghraib -- surfaced with gruesome regularity.

Since insurgents almost immediately reinfiltrated areas left unprotected after U.S. raids and offensives, often murdering those Iraqis who had collaborated during these operations, U.S. efforts accomplished little in the way of security. At the same time, heavy-handed tactics were just harsh enough to trigger a cycle of revenge without being sufficient to rule through brute force alone. The early U.S. approach to counterinsurgency in Iraq was thus Goldilocks in reverse: not hot enough, not cold enough, just wrong.

As the self-defeating nature of U.S. operations became apparent, the mindset of the U.S. military began to change. Starting in 2004 and accelerating in 2005, training and education in counterinsurgency were revamped. In November 2005, the White House released its "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," proclaiming clear, hold, build to be the road map for success, and soon the effort to rewrite U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine was in full swing. On the ground, U.S. forces had become much better at clearing insurgent strongholds without destroying them and alienating the inhabitants. And in a handful of instances -- in Fallujah after the devastating November 2004 offensive, in Qaim and Tal Afar in late 2005, and in Ramadi in 2006 -- the entire clear, hold, build package was actually employed with positive results.

Yet despite these efforts, two countervailing factors stood in the way of effective counterinsurgency. First, beginning in 2004, there was an attempt to reduce the perception of occupation and enhance force protection by pulling U.S. troops out of smaller bases within Iraqi cities and consolidating them into larger forward operating bases in outlying areas. As a result, throughout 2005 and 2006, most U.S. forces remained hunkered down on large bases rather than nested within communities to provide local security. Second, because of insufficient troop levels, the "hold" portion was difficult to execute. Knowing that the administration was reluctant to send more troops and that pressure was building for withdrawal, General John Abizaid (the head of Central Command) and General George Casey (who had replaced Sanchez in 2004 as the overall commander in Iraq) crafted a strategy to rapidly give Iraqi army and police units the responsibility of providing local security in areas cleared by U.S. forces. Unfortunately, a combination of inadequate capabilities and sectarian bias meant that Iraq's fledgling security forces were not up to the task. The resulting security vacuum, especially in Baghdad, accelerated the action-reaction spiral between Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias -- tipping Iraq into an all-out sectarian war in the spring of 2006.

In January 2007, President George W. Bush reversed his long-standing aversion to sending additional troops to Iraq by announcing the "surge." Petraeus replaced Casey and set about using the 30,000 additional forces in Baghdad and surrounding areas to implement the strategy outlined in the field manual he had helped author. Soon U.S. units dispersed to smaller bases, where they were paired with Iraqi forces to provide security for the local populations.

If the U.S. military had gone into the Iraq war with this doctrine and enough troops, success might have been possible. Now it may simply be too little, too late. The current conflict landscape in Iraq has, in many respects, passed the COIN FM by. Coalition forces in Iraq are not only attempting to defeat a Sunni insurgency but also trying to police a fierce sectarian civil war, limit the spread of the intra-Shiite gangland violence in the south, prevent Kurdish separatist ambitions from creating an ethnic conflict in Kirkuk or prompting Turkish intervention, and contain the regional spillover from all these conflicts. Counterinsurgency is hard enough. Pile on these additional missions (which in many cases have contradictory requirements for success), stir in U.S. force levels that remain inadequate in most of the country, sprinkle on incapable and sectarian Iraqi security forces, and add a U.S. domestic political environment with zero support for a long-term commitment -- and you have a recipe for likely failure.


Whether or not the directives of the COIN FM succeed in Iraq, the general model it embraces probably represents the best of many bad approaches to counterinsurgency. But one should not confuse "best" with "easy." Even under ideal circumstances, the clear, hold, build paradigm is difficult to pull off. The oft-cited textbook case of the British counterinsurgency in Malaya in the 1950s in fact offers a cautionary lesson. The communist insurgents in Malaya were from a clearly distinguishable and unpopular ethnic Chinese minority and were fighting on a peninsula where it was relatively easy to isolate them. And it still took the British army a dozen years to win.

Future U.S. counterinsurgency campaigns are likely to occur in contexts where the COIN FM will be particularly difficult to implement. First, the evolving nature of insurgency within the broader "war on terror" -- in which loose cellular networks of fighters operate transnationally and in dense urban environments, exploiting modern communications technologies and virtual domains to coordinate activities and magnify the symbolic effect of attacks -- produces immense challenges for counterinsurgents, challenges the manual only scratches the surface of. Second, the most probable scenarios for large-scale U.S. interventions in the decades ahead are incursions into failed states or postconflict operations in the wake of forcible regime change. The military manpower requirements identified by the COIN FM (20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 civilians) may simply be too large in many of these cases. The humbling experiences of nation building during the 1990s and the postinvasion fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan also suggest that the degree of civil-military, multinational, and cross-sectoral planning, preparation, and coordination needed to succeed in these environments outstrips the current capacity of the U.S. government. Given the modest increases in U.S. ground forces and the utter failure of the administration and Congress to give adequate resources to civilian agencies, the ability of the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other civilian entities to contribute to counterinsurgency efforts will remain limited for the foreseeable future.

Furthermore, in many large-scale interventions, the U.S. military will be seen as a de facto or de jure occupying force, which poses extraordinary challenges for any counterinsurgency model rooted in promoting legitimacy. Polk contends that the common thread running through all insurgencies, "no matter how much they differ in form, duration, and intensity," is "opposition to foreigners." Although the cases from which Polk derives this conclusion are not fully representative, he provides ample proof that occupying armies -- foreign bodies that trigger nationalist anti-bodies -- find it excruciatingly difficult to use legitimacy to defeat local insurgents and then exit gracefully. In discussing the COIN FM, therefore, Polk concludes, "The single absolutely necessary ingredient in counterinsurgency is extremely unlikely ever to be available to foreigners." History should thus offer a warning to future U.S. administrations: framing an occupation as a "liberation" does not make it so, and counterinsurgency in this context will be very hard regardless of the doctrine employed.

Last but not least, even when the United States avoids large-scale intervention and instead supports the efforts of host-nation governments -- as it did in Central America during the 1980s and continues to do in Colombia, the Horn of Africa, and the Philippines today -- counterinsurgency still entails risks. A lower level of U.S. involvement typically implies less influence over the behavior of "partners," and so U.S. efforts may inadvertently empower governments that violate human rights and further alienate their people. Beyond compromising American values, such steps risk redirecting some of the insurgents' ire from the "near enemy" (their government) to the "far enemy" (the United States), a very dangerous scenario in a post-9/11 world.

U.S. leaders should therefore be wary of the potential moral hazard represented by the COIN FM: thinking they have figured out the journey, they may be tempted to go down the road more often. Given how difficult and costly counterinsurgency is, this would be a big mistake. But it would be an equally big mistake to embrace an "Iraq syndrome" that avoids preparing for counterinsurgency altogether, as the U.S. military did after Vietnam. As the COIN FM correctly observes, "The recent success of U.S. military forces in major combat operations undoubtedly will lead many future opponents to pursue asymmetric approaches." It is imperative for the United States to build the military and civilian capabilities necessary to conduct counterinsurgency effectively and morally -- even as policymakers try not to do it too often.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • COLIN H. KAHL is an Assistant Professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
  • More By Colin H. Kahl