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Counterinsurgency: A New Manual

Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2006

The Army's much anticipated new counterinsurgency manual (pdf)has been released to the public (see the military's news release here (pdf). And pundits and armchair military strategists are wasting no time weighing in.

But most of the commentary has been outside the mainstream media. The only op-ed on the subject we've seen in a major newspaper is Ralph Peters' column in today's New York Post. And it was certainly among the strangest takes we've seen. Peters reviews the new manual like it's a political tract, casting its formulation as a battle between those who want to coddle terrorists and those who want to kill them. This passage was particularly strange:

While the sometimes-you-just-have-to-fight realists are in the ascendant at last, the military's academic side still has too much influence. You see it plainly in the illustrative vignettes chosen to accompany the text: They emphasize soft power (doesn't work - sorry) over the need to kill implacable murderers to provide security for the innocent.

The blanket assertion that soft power "doesn't work" is ridiculous. While insurgents use military tactics, their aims are almost always psychological, targeting the minds and morale of local populations. Thus it's absolutely nuts to dismiss out of hand soft power tactics that are aimed at draining an insurgency's local support, such as building schools to gain allies among the local populace or using propaganda operations to stigmatize insurgents.

Peters' statement is particularly incoherent given that later on in the column he complains that the document "ignores the role of the media" in shaping outcomes. What else is the media but an element of "soft power"?

For a more informed take on those who edited the manual, which Peters seems to dismiss as loathsome "academics," see this Counterterrorism Blog post.

For a good backgrounder on the manual, complete with links to many related news articles, see the Council on Foreign Relations' analysis by Eben Kaplan.

One of the articles linked in that analysis, which we also recommend highly, is George Packer's recent article in the New Yorker about State Department counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen. You won't find Kilcullen dismissing soft power.

Elsewhere, Steven Aftergood says the manual has been flying off the shelf, having been downloaded from the Federation of American Scientists' Web site more than 250,000 times since it was posted there Friday morning.