The Army Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, provided a much-needed course change for American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan by focusing the attention of commanders on factors that are not traditionally the concern of the American military. While many commanders had already recognized that conventional tactics were ill-matched to dealing with insurgencies and had adapted accordingly, others were still fighting the insurgents on an ad hoc and counterproductive manner in 2006. The “Neo-Classical” framework that underpins the FM 3-24, however, is based on political science about the revolutionary insurgencies of the Cold War. This “classical” school of Cold War–era counterinsurgency focused on defeating communist and anti-colonial insurgencies by strengthening weak governments that are seen by a critical mass of people in the host nation as illegitimate.
In line with Maj. Jon Bate’s exhortation to get the military and social scientists back together, it is useful to look at the political theory that underlies the FM 3-24. Why are people fighting in the first place? What’s the deeper problem that we, the counterinsurgents, have to solve? Is the problem really the same as it was during the Cold War? I argue that, in many situations, the COIN framework might not be sufficiently complete or appropriate to the ethnically based intrastate conflicts that have been prevalent since the end of the Cold War, in which case a different approach is needed.