Counterinsurgency for Foxes

The Pentagon's new COIN manual doesn't offer a big, bold vision for fighting wars -- and that's a very good thing. 

When the U.S. Army and Marine Corps released Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency in December 2006, they probably did not expect that it would be downloaded more than a million times within a month, turned into a widely reviewed book, and featured on The Daily Show. But in the context of U.S. forces mired in Iraq, the military handbook expressed a big idea, a new paradigm that promised to revive American fortunes: counterinsurgency strategy focused on winning over populations.

Now, almost eight years later, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have issued a revised edition of the famous field manual. The sequel, released last week, is unlikely to catapult to the top of the bestseller lists, but the changes between the two editions are important, as they say a great deal about the changes in the military's approach to war.

After 13 years of conflict in Afghanistan and with an American public weary of intensive military interventions, the new manual announces no new, bold, singular idea. Rather, it embraces diversity: the importance of context and the variety of available tools involved in preventing, mitigating, and confronting disorder around the world.

The change in emphasis is immediately evident from the title. Gone is the word "counterinsurgency." Now the manual declares its subject to be Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies. The subtle shift suggests not only that insurgencies can come in many forms (the manual distinguishes between rebellions, revolutions, civil wars, coup d'états, and transnational and global insurgencies), but also that actions to counter insurgencies are equally rich in variety. Indeed, much of the new edition focuses on going beyond the nation-building approach to counterinsurgency associated with General David Petraeus and the Iraq surge.

In this vein, a particularly important new chapter focuses on "indirect methods for countering insurgencies." Here, the drafters of the manual seek to remind readers that the United States has many tools in its toolbox, and that grand-scale military intervention isn't the only option -- or even the best one. Readers are pushed to think about whether engaging young people, through education and youth programs, can help prevent crises in the first place. They are urged to consider how the United States can provide civilian and military expertise (short of intervention) to help other countries deal with their own insurgencies. They are reminded that negotiations and diplomacy might be effective in achieving U.S. core interests in some situations, and that the United States has powerful economic tools to combat financing of terrorists. And perhaps most importantly, readers are asked to confront the truth that many insurgencies end not with outright victory or defeat, but with reconciliation and reintegration of opposing sides.

Of course, with so many tools in the toolbox, the trick is knowing when to use each one. The manual wisely does not prescribe universally applicable rules in advance. "Successful conduct of counterinsurgency operations," it declares in language at once obvious and surprising (for a military manual), "depends on thoroughly understanding the society and culture within which they are being conducted." American forces are urged to gain cultural understanding, language skills, and knowledge of the formal political system and of informal sources of political power. So important are these skills that "culture" has been given its own chapter; cultural issues were previously embedded into the chapter on intelligence operations. While perhaps obvious to anthropologists, the manual also reminds soldiers and Marines that culture influences how people interpret events and actions. Thus, "[i]f Soldiers and Marines assume that the local population will perceive actions the way that they do, they are likely to misjudge their reactions." Instead, soldiers and Marines should look "at the problem from the population's perspective."

This isn't a Sherlockian insight, to be sure -- and those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have likely learned from experience -- but how often have American policymakers taken it seriously?

Not only must counterinsurgents embrace the various tools for countering insurgencies and understand the cultural context of their environments, but they must adapt over time. With a new chapter on "assessments," the manual elevates the Army and Marine Corps' commitment to data collection, continuous learning, and adaptation. The manual emphasizes the importance of qualitative and quantitative data on the efficacy of operations, it urges commanders to constantly question their underlying assumptions, and it notes the difference between measuring performance (one's activities) and effectiveness (the outcomes of those activities). The chapter isn't quite "moneyball for the military," but the focus on data collection and analytics would certainly make Billy Beane smile.

To be sure, careful readers of the 2006 Counterinsurgency Field Manual would have understood many of these lessons already. That edition did reference continuous learning, cultural awareness, and a variety of tools, and its underlying philosophy was pluralistic and pragmatic. Indeed, one of its most famous aphorisms was that "if a tactic works this week, it might not work next week; if it works in this province, it might not work in the next." But in the public imagination and in the policy conversation, these lessons were too often submerged in the context of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Counterinsurgency" came to mean a specific form of nation-building: win-the-population operations that did not necessarily differ from village to village, that didn't take full account of the context. Critics even argued that "counterinsurgency" had become an "intellectual straitjacket" that was preventing policymakers and military leaders from considering all the available options.

The new manual takes the critique seriously and makes points once understated more explicit. It notes that "counterinsurgency is not a substitute for strategy." Rather, "[t]he strategy to counter an insurgency is determined by the ends the U.S. wishes to achieve, the ways it wishes to achieve those ends, and the resources or means it uses to enable those ways."

There is a saying attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." The drafters of the new manual have embraced the fox. And this is perhaps the most important lesson of the new manual. The hedgehog's mindset is indifferent to context, misses the diversity of tools we have at our disposal, and is insensitive to evidence of (in)effectiveness. When countering insurgencies or making foreign policy more generally, a smart strategy requires foxes.



Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Modi

Does India’s new prime minister actually have a foreign policy?

Narendra Modi is set to be India's next prime minister after an election won conclusively by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The combative chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, he has often been written off as a novice on foreign affairs. Commentators in India and abroad have dismissed him as having "little foreign policy experience," and consider him unlikely to change the "broad contours of Indian foreign policy" -- which have traditionally involved steady, balanced relations with several partners. Others paint him as a "hardliner," given his right-wing base, or have generously over-interpreted portions of his party's election manifesto that have implied changes to India's nuclear posture.

Yet few actually listen to what Modi himself has said about his foreign policy. He has delivered at least three speeches dedicated to international affairs and security since having been anointed his party's prime ministerial candidate in September, and discussed the subject in several interviews. But this has been largely ignored by New Delhi's cognoscenti. (For his part, Modi dismissed much of the speculation about his foreign policy as anuman, or conjecture.) 

So what has Modi actually said? He has repeatedly stated that foreign policy begins at home. National security, he said in his first speech in September as the BJP's official prime ministerial candidate, requires a "strong, patriotic government in Delhi," while instability arises from "a lack of our capacity to understand and accept the viewpoint of the other." He has described "stagnancy" as the biggest problem facing the country. "I believe a strong economy is the driver of an effective foreign policy...we have to put our own house in order so that the world is attracted to us," he said in a speech on India and the world in October. "The current dysfunction in Delhi has prevented even much-needed military modernization and [the] upgradation [sic] of India's defense infrastructure."

But far from resorting to isolationism, Modi acknowledges the realities of a globalized world. "We are not living in 18th or 19th century. We are living in the 21st century," he said in an interview, adding that commercial interests now are important shapers of India's foreign policy. On several occasions, both in prepared remarks and in off-the-cuff responses, Modi has used the Sanskrit phrase vasudaiva kutumbakam ("the world is a family"), and has stated that "India can offer a lot to the world." In particular, he has referred to India's historical ability to create "institutions and intellectual property," recalling ancient centers of learning such as Nalanda and Takshashila.

The considerations of a globalizing world -- rather than any personal animosity he may feel about the U.S. government's controversial revocation of his visa under an obscure law on religious freedom -- have informed his recent public statements, including those concerning relations with Washington. "What happened with Modi does not affect the policies of the country," he said in an April interview. He has also, rather remarkably, refrained from speaking negatively about U.S. surveillance activities, even when given the opportunity to do so recently by an interviewer. More significantly, he has criticized some of the previous Indian government's economic policies that have adversely influenced relations with Washington, and described as a "breach of trust" New Delhi's retroactive tax on Vodafone. "It's not as if people from other countries don't like India, that they don't want to invest here," he said in April. But if "the constant policy changes by the government" could be stabilized, he said, that would increase confidence.

The twin objectives of national security and deeper commercial links are reflected in Modi's recent statements on Pakistan and China, two countries with which India has longstanding territorial disputes. On Pakistan, Modi has said that it is "better to keep good relations," while adding that to hold talks with Islamabad, "the blasts and gunfire first have to stop." In 2013, he called on India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh to wage war on "poverty, illiteracy, and superstition," and urged Pakistan to "abandon its anti-India politics and become a friendly country." 

Similarly, while much has been made of Modi's willingness to do business with China, he has stressed that there should "not be any compromise on India's interest." Referencing a recent book by his colleague Arun Shourie, Modi said that "India is making a mockery of itself with its limited and timid approach" to China. And speaking in February in Arunachal Pradesh -- a state that Beijing claims -- Modi said that "China should give up its expansionist attitude and adopt a developmental mindset." Regarding both Pakistan and China, Modi has spoken highly of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's ability to balance shakti and shanti (strength and peace).

Two other countries have featured prominently in Modi's actions in Gujarat, although less in his public statements since he began campaigning for prime minister. One is Japan, a rare bright spot in India's foreign relations over the past couple of years. Modi met with Japan's current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, on visits to Tokyo in 2007 -- during Abe's previous prime ministerial tenure -- and again in 2012, when Abe was in the opposition. He has spoken of trying to emulate Japan's high-speed rail network so as to bring India's enormous railway system into the 21st century, and Japanese companies are among the largest investors in Gujarat.

In addition, Modi has expressed his admiration for Israel, a state no sitting Indian prime minister has ever been to, but which he visited in 2006 for a bilateral summit on agricultural cooperation. Modi often speaks of India learning from Israeli best practices in modernizing its massive agricultural sector. He has also discussed cooperation with Israeli diplomats on areas including renewable energy, pharmaceuticals, and water use, among others. 

But Modi's views have not been restricted to trade and investment, technological cooperation, and border security. Since nuclear weapons have traditionally proved a litmus test of every Indian prime minister's national security credentials, Modi's views on this matter carry weight. In his October speech, he praised Vajpayee's decision to green light India's nuclear tests despite international pressure, but also lauded the former prime minister's commitment to a "no first use" nuclear doctrine. After rumors swirled that a BJP government might revisit that tenet, Modi reiterated in April that "‘no first use' is a very good initiative of [Vajpayee] and there is no compromise on this. We are very clear on this." Nuclear proliferation is not the only multilateral issue on which he has opined. He has proposed, for example, the creation of a G8/G20-type grouping to cooperate on solar energy technologies in order to address the "big challenge" of global warming.

As in any democratic process, statements made during what Modi has described as the "fever" of an election campaign may not translate directly into policy. Despite an impressive mandate, he will have to work with an established bureaucracy and political partners in India and abroad. But India's next leader certainly has spelled out how he wants to project himself as a global leader. With his overwhelming electoral victory, the world would do well to take notice. 

Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images