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Some of the Best Weapons for Counterinsurgents Do Not Shoot

Authored by Eric T. Olson. | October 2010

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If the U.S. Army's current experience in ongoing overseas operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan are any indication, reconstruction has become an integral part of the American way of war. And judging from the disappointing results of reconstruction efforts in these operations, measured mostly in terms of the effect that such efforts have had on the course of these wars, there is much lacking in the Army's understanding of reconstruction itself and the role that it will likely play in all future operations, especially in counterinsurgencies (COIN).

Reconstruction is defined in current Army doctrine as "the process of rebuilding degraded, damaged, or destroyed political, socioeconomic, and physical infrastructure of a country or territory to create the foundation for long-term development." The term itself has been used in the recounting of the history of U.S. warfare for quite some time, most notably first applied to the period of rebuilding after the Civil War. The Marshall Plan and associated activities that took place in Europe and Japan in the wake of World War II represent reconstruction's finest hour.

But it is only recently that reconstruction has been viewed as an integral part of operations that are under way as opposed to some sort of post-conflict or post-crisis activity. During the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, Brigadier General James F. Smith used the term "benevolent assimilation" to describe his approach to winning over the population as he battled rebel forces in the subdistrict of Negros. His view was that securing the population and taking action to establish good governance and stability and address the pressing basic needs of the people were perhaps more important than combat operations against the insurgents with whom his forces were engaged. But despite the demonstrated success of this approach in America's "small wars" of the 20th century, embracing reconstruction as an essential part of warfare has been the exception as opposed to the rule. Often decried as "nation building," reconstruction more often than not has been viewed as an activity to be avoided -- a mission that would undermine the primary role of U.S. forces as "warfighters."

Recently published doctrine for U.S. forces sends the strong signal that the U.S. Army is unequivocally in the business of nation-building if we are to prosecute successful COIN campaigns. Field Manual (FM) 3-0, Operations, includes a discussion of reconstruction as inextricably linked to counterinsurgency -- a form of irregular warfare that is one of the manual's operational themes. In Field Manual (FM) 3-07, Stability Operations, the term reconstruction is defined for the first time ever in U.S. Army doctrine and discussed extensively throughout the manual. But it is in Field Manual (FM) 3-24, Counterinsurgency, that the importance, if not preeminence, of reconstruction is most clearly stated, captured explicitly in the observation in the manual that "some of the best weapons for counterinsurgents do not shoot."1

That said, descriptions of reconstruction in Army doctrine fall short on several counts. First, there is still some conceptual confusion in the definition of reconstruction and its further specification that the new doctrine presumably was meant to clear up. The treatment of reconstruction in the manuals includes discussion of an overwhelming number of tasks and, raises questions about prioritization and responsibilities for their accomplishment. Most critically, none of the manuals includes a description of a concept of reconstruction, thereby leaving a void for commanders in the field who are seeking guidelines for the integration of reconstruction with other activities that are associated with COIN.

Working from the assumption that some of the shortcomings of Army doctrine are being compensated for by practitioners in current operations, a simple tabletop exercise was conducted in the Spring of 2009 to examine how reconstruction is presently being executed as part of COIN. Participants were solicited based on their knowledge of and experience in the key agencies involved in past and likely future reconstruction operations. To generate feedback from player agencies, a base scenario was designed that described conditions in a nation typical of those found by U.S. forces in recent and ongoing overseas operations, and which are likely to be similar to those that will be encountered during future operations. The results of the exercise demonstrate that there is little disagreement among the key players in reconstruction operations about what the critical tasks are or even how to prioritize them, but that there is a need for some articulation of how to organize and coordinate reconstruction operations beyond what exists now in doctrine or applicable governmental directives.

Establishing an agreed upon framework for reconstruction in COIN which is accepted by the participating agencies will go a long way toward addressing the shortcomings, conceptual confusion, and missing clarity that has characterized such efforts to date. A concept of reconstruction that is constructed along the same lines as other operational concepts that are prevalent in Army doctrine would provide such a frame?work. Such an operational concept might include as components a statement of the purpose of reconstruction, a description of its essential elements, a general sequence and scheme of reconstruction activities, and guidelines for assigning responsibilities and assessment of a reconstruction effort.

Once such a framework is in place and the role of key players is more clearly established, it will be important for the Army to look for ways to make reconstruction a more effective component of its counterinsurgency operations--both to increase the likelihood of successful campaigns and to reduce some of the toll that counterinsurgency campaigns are taking on our servicemen and women.

There are some fundamental reforms that must be considered that could add significantly to Army capabilities to conduct reconstruction. Some of these involve interagency reforms, the most important being a shared understanding of a reconstruction concept across agencies, roles and responsibilities that are more appropriately assigned to and accepted by them, and an enhanced operational focus in those agencies which are instrumental to reconstruction that would allow them to deploy in greater numbers earlier on in a campaign. But the Army as a key player in reconstruction as part of COIN, must reexamine its capabilities to participate in a broad interagency effort, or to act alone when that seems appropriate or necessary.

Some areas that will need to be addressed are the current approach to training and otherwise preparing for reconstruction in counterinsurgency operations, the adequacy of capabilities that are currently resident in Army units to execute key reconstruction, and the Army's current ability and approach to setting conditions for the success of its interagency partners.

Even under the best circumstances, reconstruction in COIN is a difficult endeavor. The most critical tasks are numerous and complex. Many participating agencies must undertake missions that fall well out of their existing core competencies or operate in environments that are completely unfamiliar to them. The involvement of multiple agencies which are not accustomed to working together makes coordination difficult. And all this must take place in an environment where an armed, violent foe understands the disadvantage to him of a successful reconstruction effort and is determined to go to almost any length to resist progress or destroy what has been accomplished.

In an assessment of an ongoing counterinsurgency operation, General David H. Petraeus observed that "hard is not hopeless."2 Extending this logic, it can be said that reconstruction in COIN is hard, but it becomes less hopeless if the counterinsurgent understands what needs to be accomplished and to what end, and he has a plan and can mount a coordinated effort to execute that plan. If so executed, reconstruction can indeed become one of the array of key weapons that do not shoot available to the counterinsurgent.

But even as a weapon that does not shoot, reconstruction can end up being dangerous to the hunter as well as the hunted. The counterinsurgent's ultimate objectives are a manageable security environment and strong national institutions that have the confidence and the support of the people. A coordinated, skillfully executed reconstruction program is essential to those ends. But reconstruction that is mismanaged, bungled, and obviously ineffectual not only represents a lost opportunity to advance the cause; it also may well put a weapon in the hands of the insurgent.


1.   Field Manual (FM) 3-24/Marine Corps Warfighting Publication(MCWP) 3-33.5, Counterinsurgency, Washington, DC: Department of the Army, para. 1-153.

2.  See for example, General David Petraeus, quoted by Josh Partlow in "Path in Iraq Hard But Not Hopeless, US General Says," The Washington Post, February 11, 2007.