The Counterinsurgency Paradigm Shift


It has been a challenging year for the Department of Defense. For more than a decade, Operation Iraqi Freedom and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan highlighted the need for a modern military to be able to operate in complex human terrain. But even as the military continued to fight in Afghanistan, it also faced the budgetary uncertainties of sequestration. In this fiscally constrained environment, even given current events, counterinsurgency may return to a low priority. The DoD has reached a decision point; it is undergoing a paradigm shift, deciding what its capabilities will be in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military will either resource the training required to be capable of conducting counterinsurgencies, or focus almost exclusively on conventional operations. Given today’s operational environment, the military must retain and improve upon the counterinsurgency lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. If not, the United States will not have the competencies needed to accomplish its policy objectives.

Paradigm Shifts

Thomas Kuhn published “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” in 1962. In it, he described how intellectual communities change their worldview, or shift paradigms. Kuhn traces the notion of paradigm through five phases. The first phase is pre-paradigm, when there is no broadly accepted set of assumptions for inquiry and dialogue. The second phase is normal science, when participants collect, view, and resolve evidence using a common set of assumptions and methods. The third phase is the crisis, when evidence emerges that cannot be resolved using the paradigm that served during the second phase. During phase four, the revolution, members of the intellectual community challenge and replace existing assumptions and methods. They then reexamine both the new evidence that caused the old paradigm to fail and old evidence, generating new results. Phase five is the post-revolution phase, when the intellectual community accepts the new paradigm and returns to normal science. Eventually the cycle repeats.

The Military’s Paradigm Shift

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were phase three events. After initial victories, the military was unable to defeat insurgencies using its existing paradigm. That paradigm allowed for military operations other than war, but it did not prepare for a population-centric, whole of government approach partnered with host nation governments. The development of counterinsurgency doctrine and practices by deployed units and the Combined Arms Center began phase four. The military is still in phase four, deciding which assumptions and methods to use while examining the results of counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The military is not ignoring counterinsurgency theory or practice — the DoD recently published JP 3-24 and is currently executing a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. But as the United States undergoes a paradigm shift about the requirements of warfare in the 21st century, and attempts to improve its conventional proficiency, it must decide how much emphasis preparing for counterinsurgencies requires.

The Need for Counterinsurgency Capabilities

Global trends are transforming the world into a pressure cooker. The democratization of technology and information is delivering power previously associated with state actors into the hands of non-state actors. This increases the offensive capabilities of small, unpredictable groups faster than it increases the defensive abilities of states — the disruptive power of hackers and the nearly published method to cheaply weaponize H5N1 avian flu are among the most notable manifestations of this shift.

Numerous violent non-state actors are ready to take advantage of those shifts: Al-Qaeda and myriad other groups remain active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as do its affiliates in North Africa, Yemen, and elsewhere; Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia continue to engage their adversaries in pitched battle; and the Islamic State has grown at a frightening pace in Syria and Iraq. More radical groups will emerge. The dual pressures of rapid urbanization and population growth in the developing world have created dense urban populations competing for limited resources while exposed to radical ideology.

Globalization has enhanced the interdependence of states on one another. Because of this, American actions can increasingly affect — or be perceived to affect — the populations of other countries. Given the probable radicalization of segments of urban populations, and the increased potential to link problems to other states’ actions, new variations on the Far Enemy ideology are likely to emerge and find a breeding ground in urban areas. These radical groups will be more likely than previous generations to have access to cheap weapons that are difficult to defend against, including bioweapons like weaponized H5N1, various forms of cyberwarfare, and precision drone strike capabilities.

When non-state actors affect the United States, effective action by local governments to suppress the non-state actor will render direct action by the U.S. military unnecessary. But if the host nation is either unwilling or unable to act, the United States will likely need to enter another conflict where counterinsurgency will become a necessary operational method if it wants to accomplish its policy goals. While this does not mean the United States will repeatedly enter counterinsurgencies, it does mean it should be ready to do so.

The Appeal of Combined Arms Maneuver

Despite the current operational environment, the military may revert to focusing on combined arms maneuver. After Vietnam, the Army purged itself of counterinsurgency doctrine and focused on the Fulda Gap as the scenario on which it based its preparations and training. It focused on conventional operations partially because of the very real threat of a land war with the Soviet Union, but it also neglected counterinsurgency because of a reluctance to repeat the traumatic experiences of Vietnam. Senior leaders felt that during Vietnam “the Army had lost a generation’s worth of technical modernization while gaining a generation’s worth of nearly irrelevant combat experience,” and “the best thing we can do is forget it.”

The DoD’s curtailment of counterinsurgency was not unique to the post-Vietnam era. For a variety of political and economic reasons, the military focused on the acquisition of weapons designed for conventional wars even while conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan emphasized expensive counterinsurgency methods; Secretary Gates explained in his memoirs the huge amount of effort required to divert resources away from weapons acquisition to the requirements of the ongoing wars.

Also similar to the post-Vietnam era, the American population is tired of protracted conflicts. Over time, support for Iraq and Afghanistan diminished so much that most Americans believed invading either country was a mistake. In 2003, most of the population supported invading Iraq because its government was believed to have WMDs, but did not support military action in 2012 when Syria actually used them. Not supporting new wars adds to the sentiment inside the DoD that training for “messy and slow” counterinsurgencies should not be a resourcing priority compared to potentially shorter conventional wars that end with clearer results.

Guiding the military through a paradigm shift is not as simple as deciding what challenges the United States will face and then allocating resources accordingly. The restrictions produced by sequestration influence the entire process. In an environment of sharp budget cuts and Russian and Chinese aggression, focusing solely on combined arms maneuver to prevent another Task Force Smith seems reasonable.

How the Military Might Inadequately Resource Counterinsurgency

It is unlikely the military will return to a paradigm that focuses on state actors as strongly as it did during the 1990s. That approach failed very publically in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is more likely the DoD will acknowledge the importance of counterinsurgency, but not provide enough training or resources to produce an effective force. Even if leaders acknowledge the need to prepare for counterinsurgencies, if they do not resource effective training and innovation many of the hard won lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be available during future conflicts.

The military could also attempt to rewrite or reinterpret doctrine in a manner that incorrectly minimizes the requirements of counterinsurgency. One popular idea in the 1990s and early 2000s was to let conventional units focus on combined arms maneuver while relying on Special Operations Forces to conduct foreign internal defense. This method has a great deal of value, but failing to prepare conventional units for challenges that would require a whole of government approach, large-scale deployments, and building host nation government legitimacy would be a mistake. Special Operations Forces cannot solve every problem, particularly in states undergoing a systemic collapse that requires a large ground presence. Even if the military does not pursue this paradigm in written doctrine, directing conventional units to train solely for combined arms maneuver while Special Forces train for foreign internal defense will still prevent conventional units from being proficient counterinsurgents.

The Consequences of the Wrong Paradigm

If the military does not act in accordance with and continue to improve upon the lessons learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, it will limit its competency. Understanding where the military lacks capability, its senior leaders will be reluctant to recommend action in situations that destabilize existing governments, or where target discrimination is difficult. While hesitation to use force is not necessarily a bad thing, it should be from strategic caution, not an inability to resolve population-centric challenges. Hesitancy to act will translate into a loss of deterrence, as enemies abroad act under the belief that America will only use limited, indecisive air strikes. Unwillingness to act in the 1990s gave Iraqi, Serbian, and Hutu leaders free reign to violate international law and commit genocide. More recently, Bashar Al Assad used chemical weapons even after the American government clearly stated its red line.

But if the military puts enough focus on counterinsurgency, political leaders will have a broader array of tools to solve foreign policy dilemmas. This is not to say the military should be confident that force can solve every problem, or resolve every situation without an unreasonable price. But if undertaking a counterinsurgency campaign is unwise, it should be the particular details of the situation that makes it so, not a decision to wish away ugly problems by not preparing for them.

Requirements for a Counterinsurgency Capability

If the United States is going to succeed in future counterinsurgencies, it needs leaders able to understand and rapidly adapt to complex human terrain. To do so, they need doctrine that provides the framework to understand their environment, the rigorous education to apply it, a force capable of rapidly adapting to the many varied environments in the world, and formal relationships inside the U.S. government to leverage the assets required for a whole of government approach.

Most of the required systems already exist, and just need effective organization. The DoD was able to develop innovative doctrine for high intensity conflict during the Cold War by both fostering innovative thinkers and using Combat Training Center rotations to test ideas. While the CTCs are shifting to direct action rotations, they can still test counterinsurgency doctrine. The military has a well-structured ongoing education program for both commissioned and non-commissioned officers. These schools need to dedicate significant time to counterinsurgency doctrine and practice for leaders at every level. The DoD discovered how to rapidly adapt during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. If it receives adequate funds and resources, the Defense Language Institute and online resources can provide language and culture training. The DoD can also duplicate the rapid fielding initiative that surged MRAPs for other new technology. Rather than waiting to identify a deficit, then scrambling to develop a system to fill it, the DoD should have a preexisting system to identify conflict specific training and technology shortcomings, then quickly produce and implement them. The military and State Department already have formal and informal relationships, but the country’s ability to conduct counterinsurgencies will improve if the State Department is prepared to provide well-trained and regionally experienced Foreign Service officers to lead alongside their military counterparts.

The U.S. military has a historic tendency to assume that it can ignore counterinsurgencies, attempting to choose the type of war in which it will fight. But actors outside the United States create situations calling for counterinsurgency campaigns, not domestic opinion or the military’s desire to pick conflicts that play to American strengths. During the ongoing paradigm shift, leaders need to ensure the ability to wage counterinsurgencies remains a sufficiently high priority for doctrinal innovation, training, and procurement to remain part of the balanced set of capabilities necessary to succeed. If not, the United States will be unprepared for the conflicts of the 21st century.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army


CPT Justin Lynch is a graduate of the United States Military Academy. He has served as a platoon leader in Afghanistan, a company executive officer in Iraq, and a company commander. He is currently a training officer at the Northern Warfare Training Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army or government.

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