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On a smarter approach to combating terrorism

Samantha Power had a lengthy essay in yesterday's New York Times Book Review. One of the highlights is how she calls the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual a leading reference for a revised 21st Century approach to fighting terrorism.

When the terrorists struck on 9/11, the United States military was singularly unprepared to deal with them. One reflection of the Pentagon’s mind-set at the time was the fact that the Army counterinsurgency manual had not been updated since 1986 and the Marine Corps guide had not been revised since 1980.

This lack of preparedness showed. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the armed forces did not have the appropriate intelligence, linguistic capabilities, weapons, equipment, force structures, civil affairs know-how or capacity to train security forces in other countries. “It is not unfair to say that in 2003 most Army officers knew more about the U.S. Civil War than they did about counterinsurgency,” Lt. Col. John A. Nagl writes in the foreword to the University of Chicago edition. But while the Bush administration dug in, refusing to admit how ill-suited its premises were to the new century, American military officers revised their old doctrines on the fly.

. . . .

The fundamental premise of the manual is that the key to successful counterinsurgency is protecting civilians. The manual notes: “An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more insurgents.” It suggests that force size be calculated in relation not to the enemy, but to inhabitants (a minimum of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents). It emphasizes the necessity of coordination with beefed-up civilian agencies, which are needed to take on reconstruction and development tasks.

The most counterintuitive, as well as the most politically difficult, premise of the manual is that the American military must assume greater risk in order to gather much-needed intelligence and, in the end, achieve greater safety. The emphasis of the 1990s on force protection is overturned by the assertion of several breathtaking paradoxes: “Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.” “Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is.” “Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.” Sarah Sewall, a former Pentagon official who teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (and a close colleague of mine), has contributed an introduction that should be required reading for anybody who wants to understand the huge demands effective counterinsurgency will place on the military and the voting public. “Those who fail to see the manual as radical probably don’t understand it,” she writes, “or at least what it’s up against.”

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