Shift in US Counter-Insurgency Doctrine


This article was published by A World to Win News Service. The original title is “The Shelving of a Reactionary Military Doctrine.”

11 May 2009. There are increasing signs of a relatively major shift in U.S. military strategy, especially in regard to counterinsurgency.

The clearest is U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates’ recent announcement of the features of a new Pentagon budget that includes cuts in spending on heavy and high tech weapons. While visiting troops in Afghanistan, Gates explained that while half his proposed budget would remain committed to preparing for conventional war against another major power, 40 percent would be weapons that can be used on both conventional and counter-insurgency conflicts, and 10 percent to specialized weapons and other tools useful in counter-insurgency alone. (International Herald Tribune, 11 May 2009)

Gates’ proposed budget emphasizes smaller-scale and more agile weapons and equipment and a reduction in spending for missiles, military satellites, navy vessels and similar items. Particularly noteworthy were  “Gates’ proposed cutbacks in the F-22, the advanced stealth fighter jet that critics call a relic of the cold war, as well as his trimming of the Army’s $160 billion modernization project, called the Future Combat Systems.” (The New York Times, 7 April 2009)

This shift is more significant than just the kind of adjustments to be expected with a change of presidents and other top officials. It is also more than a change in military spending or even of strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan alone. It reflects a change in the kind of wars that the U.S. imperialists expect to wage in the near future and at the same time a summation of the experience of the last few decades. It amounts to a rethinking and reorientation of the American military line.

For a long time Washington believed that its military might would allow it to crush insurgencies in the oppressed countries easily and cheaply, in military and political terms. But after some early victories this approach failed at the very on-set of its first serious test, in Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars that turned out to be considerably more difficult than expected. This does not mean that U.S. imperialism has suffered irreversible defeats in these two wars, or that it has not gained anything in terms of the political goals it sought to achieve through fighting. After all, they did bring down two governments whose existence they could not tolerate, demonstrated their unmatched military power and their determination to control the “Greater Middle East”, and asserted their supremacy over allies and rivals alike. But they have not, so far, been able to achieve the political goals they set for themselves in the first place – the ability to politically and economically transform the region as a central platform for American global hegemony – and the military and political cost has been far higher than they expected.

Several years ago, in the face of longer and more intense wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and increasing doubts about whether the U.S. could achieve its military and political objectives, debate broke out within the U.S. ruling class, with a growing chorus of voices declaring the situation intolerable and demanding a new approach. In the last couple of years since Gates was appointed as Defence Secretary there have been rather major changes in the U.S. military strategies in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact the changes in military doctrine came after a chaotic period within the U.S. ruling class, the government and in particular the Pentagon, which resulted in the dismissal of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his replacement by Gates.

Some background

To better understand the military doctrine U.S. imperialism developed over the last three and a half decades, first we need to briefly review some of the historical background.

The U.S. ruling class has been seeking to overcome the political consequences of its humiliation ever since its defeat in the Vietnam war. It is also true that starting around that time, and playing a role in the U.S. decision to accept the fact that it could not continue trying to win that war, there was a sharp change in the world situation. After a long period in which U.S. military efforts had been focused on waging wars and other military adventures to control third world countries, the rivalry between the U.S.-led bloc of imperialists and the rival bloc led by the Soviet social-imperialists (socialist in words, capitalist and imperialist in reality) and the possibility of a world war to determine which would enjoy global hegemony came to occupy the centre stage. These two factors intertwined in the later 1970s and ’80s. The Soviets were waiting, hoping and working to take advantage of any mistake or failure on the part of the US-led bloc. This made the U.S. even more cautious about risky adventures in the form of direct intervention, although it did launch two risk-free invasions, perhaps to “get over the Vietnam syndrome” as well as for other political purposes, one to crush the tiny Caribbean country of Grenada (allegedly a potential bridgehead for Soviet advances in the U.S.’s Latin American “sphere of influence”) and the other in Panama, a country without an army.

During the Cold War period there was little real debate within the U.S. ruling class about military strategy. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, there was still a consensus – that the weaponry and style of war-fighting developed during the previous decades could be the basis for American hegemony in the new world situation.

There was general agreement on a military doctrine based on even greater reliance on high-technology weapons and avoiding close fighting with the adversary, using American military and technological superiority to fight from a distance, and to use more automatic and remote-controlled weapons to reduce the need for soldiers in the field. They believed that would allow them to avoid ambushes, booby traps and surprise attacks on their weak points, and thus reduce their losses. They believed they could annihilate or nearly annihilate their enemies through swift and brief campaigns using air power and long distance artillery. To implement that strategy and the corresponding tactics, they constantly sought to update their weapons and increase the speed of their blitzkrieg (lightening war), which meant reliance on the air force and heavy air bombardment of villages and regions and indiscriminate killing of civilians. This also meant employing much smaller numbers of troops, and thus the end of conscription in the U.S.

These ideas could be considered to be based on the military lessons that the U.S. imperialists drew from their defeat in Vietnam and Indochina as a whole. Nevertheless it is important to consider two other factors that might have strengthened such an approach. First, the Cold War arms race and the huge investment in the most advanced military technology had produced new generations of high technology weapons. Secondly, their effectiveness seemed to be confirmed by the easy victory that the U.S. and its allies won in the first Iraq war in January 1991, essentially through weeks of continuous aerial bombardment and later artillery. Thousands of Iraqis, including civilians, were killed and parts of the country destroyed, but the offensive paralysed Saddam Hussein’s army and caused its surrender without serious military losses on the U.S. side. The ease with which the U.S.-led imperialists imposed their will on Serbia through air power also wetted their appetite.

The invention of “smart” (pre-programmed, self-navigating) missiles symbolises that approach. They used these missiles in the first Iraq-war.  In some cases these missiles found their way into supposedly safe shelters where families had taken refuge, killing and wounding civilians by the hundreds. They also were used in Afghanistan at the beginning of the war. Missile-mounted cameras and the resulting videos shown on TV screens gave the terrifying impression that these missiles could find their way into the smallest mountain caves and holes where insurgents hide and kill the last few “terrorists” remaining on the earth.

But that didn’t happen. Victory eluded them.

Rumsfeld and the setback at the very beginning

Rumsfeld seems to have been a particularly fanatical advocate of the new U.S. doctrine, although the approach had been forged and adopted through a collective process and cannot be attributed to him alone. He wanted to push this approach to its limits. His plans on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq were so extreme in this regard that they astonished even some senior American military commanders. He believed with the sophisticated and high-tech military equipment and the kind of military superiority the U.S. had, they alone, without the help and cooperation of their Western allies, could wage several wars simultaneously, and win them all, and that they needed only several tens of thousands of troops to occupy and hold all of Iraq. This became a hot issue and provoked opposition from some military officials. For example, the retired General Eric Shinseki was reviled by the George W. Bush administration for saying publicly on the eve of the Iraq war that far more troops would be needed than had been committed by the Pentagon under Rumsfeld. (President Barack Obama brought Shinseki, who turned out to be right, into his government.) Anthony Zinni, who led the U.S. Armed Forces Central Command in the 1990s, was another retired general who called for Rumsfeld to step down.

After more than three years, the war in Iraq was going so badly for the U.S. that finally the Bush administration came under pressure from various powerful representatives of the ruling class on this issue. This reached a climax in late 2006 with the Iraq Study Group, better known as the Baker-Hamilton commission, named after the Congressional leaders from the two main American political parties who co-chaired it, James Baker, Defence Secretary under Bush the father, and Lee Hamilton from the Democratic Party. The report they produced criticised the Bush administration’s approach to the Iraq war and demanded substantial changes in policy and approach. At the same time the situation in Afghanistan was increasingly out of U.S. control.

Gates was a prominent member of the Baker-Hamilton commission, and within weeks of its report, Bush appointed him to replace Rumsfeld. The dismissal of Rumsfeld represented a recognition that this doctrine based on the hope for a quick victory with a minimum involvement of troops had failed in Iraq and Afghanistan and was not viable in general.

In various speeches since taking office, Gates has revealed his differences in approach. For instance, in a major address last September, he gave this scathing criticism: ”When it comes to procurement, for the better part of five decades, the trend has gone toward lower numbers as technology gains have made each system more capable. In recent years, these platforms have grown ever more baroque, have become ever more costly, are taking longer to build, and are being fielded in ever-dwindling quantities. Given that resources are not unlimited, the dynamic of exchanging numbers for capability is perhaps reaching a point of diminishing returns.”

What’s needed, he argued, is a “balanced strategy”: “Be modest about what military force can accomplish, and what technology can accomplish. The advances in precision, sensor information and satellite technology have led to extraordinary gains in what the U.S. military can do,” he said. “But also never neglect the psychological, cultural, political and human dimensions of warfare, which is inevitably tragic, inefficient and uncertain.”  (International Herald Tribune, 30 September 2008)

The same newspaper article comments, “Before his departure in late 2006 as Defence Secretary, Rumsfeld, with the endorsement of President George W. Bush, championed a view that transformational war-fighting techniques – including new generations of precision weapons, radar-evading jets and advanced intelligence  – would render warfare faster and cleaner.”

This comment makes no secret of the fact that the target of Gates’ speech was Rumsfeld and the military doctrine he had advocated. This speech was given while Bush was still president, and when Obama replaced him, Gates became the only cabinet member from the outgoing government to be reappointed in the new one. The speech and its timing before the presidential election indicated U.S. imperialism was going to press ahead with what were now considered necessary changes in military strategy no matter who became president.

In an article called  “A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming The Pentagon For A New Age” published in Foreign Affairs (January 2009), Gates further sketches out the framework of the new Pentagon military doctrine, and at the same time tries to win over those within the ruling class still not convinced.

First of all, he warns them about the consequences of the failure in Iraq and Afghanistan: “To be blunt, to fail – or to be seen to fail – in either Iraq or Afghanistan would be a disastrous blow to U.S. credibility, both among friends and allies and among potential adversaries.”

After that, while affirming that the U.S. should retain its “nuclear stewardship” (a polite way to call America’s criminal refusal to renounce the “first use” of its enormous nuclear superiority to bully rival powers and other opponents), he criticises one-sidedness in investing in heavy weaponry and high technology:

“A given ship or aircraft, no matter how capable or well equipped, can be in only one place at one time.  For decades, meanwhile, the prevailing view has been that weapons and units designed for the so-called high end could also be used for the low end. [By high end, he means inter-imperialist global war, and by low end irregular and unconventional wars.] And to some extent that has been true: Strategic bombers designed to obliterate cities have been used as close air support for riflemen on horseback. M-1 tanks originally designed to plug the Fulda Gap [in Germany] during a Soviet attack on Western Europe routed Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah and Najaf. Billion-dollar ships are employed to track pirates and deliver humanitarian aid.”

Then he concludes that given the types of situation the U.S. is likely to face – which doubtlessly means in Iraq and Afghanistan and other insurgencies particularly in oppressed countries: “The time has come to consider whether the specialized, often relatively low-tech equipment well suited for stability and counterinsurgency missions is also needed.”

Gates knows what he’s talking about when it comes to insurgencies and irregular warfare: as a CIA official under every American president since Ronald Reagan, he played a leading role in the U.S. covert war using locally-recruited death squads called the Contras against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and later was in charge of working through the Pakistani ISI (military intelligence) to arm, train and fund the Islamic fundamentalist insurgency fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.


This shift in military doctrine does not mean less armed power, any more than it means less military aggression. Up until now its application has meant the so-called “surge” of 50,000 additional American troops to Iraq under Bush and another surge of 30,000 (or more) to Afghanistan under Obama, along with plenty of new war technology (such as increased use of attack drones). It means, as Gates put it, “balance”.

More than one U.S. military expert has commented that for all of the advantages of its heavy weaponry, which the U.S. does not intend to give up, there are also inherent “hi tech/low tech” disadvantages that have to be addressed and solved. For instance, cumbersome naval destroyers that take forever just to turn around are not always the most effective means of confronting pirate skiffs filled with “untrained teenagers with heavy weapons”, as Gates put it, off the coast of Somalia. (AFP, 13 April)  Or, to take another example, these same destroyers would reveal weaknesses as well as strengths if faced with the small speedboats armed with high explosives that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has stationed in coves all along the country’s Gulf coastline.

Thus, the least that can be said is that the Gates doctrine is designed to make American military intervention more practical, and therefore likely to enable more of it.

Further, while these developments show that imperialist military strategists can draw lessons from their defeats and setbacks, there are factors they cannot turn to their advantage and have to seek a way around. The reactionary forces have to rely more on weapons than on people in their wars because they simply cannot rely on the masses; their interests not only do not correspond to the interest of the people but are also completely in contradiction with the interests of the people. This is even more evident when they invade a country and want to fight the people whose country has been occupied, which is clearly the case in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is true that in Iraq, American military leaders (of the school now grouped under Obama) have had some success in taking advantage of the reactionary nature of the religious fundamentalist forces and dividing the opposition to the occupation. As a life-long specialist expert in the manipulation and use of local reactionary forces, Gates, like Obama’s chief general David Petraeus (another prominent late-Bush administration figure), can be expected to continue efforts in this direction in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But fundamentally, whatever political manoeuvres and efforts to build pro-occupation coalitions they carry out in such countries, the constant factor and irreplaceable pillar of their strategy is to beat the people into submission.

The imperialists’ other problem is the people they need to beat other peoples into submission. There’s a reason why reactionaries rely on weapons rather than people: objectively, what humanity needs is liberation from these imperialists and their ilk. When they are forced to use human beings to wield their weapons, they rely on people’s ignorance and other forms of blindness and can only fear any sparks of consciousness among their soldiers and the people in the imperialist countries.

The nature of a military doctrine, no matter how genuinely clever, is ultimately determined by its purpose. That cannot be changed by a change of president or defence secretary, but only by a change in the economic and social system they represent.

The “Vietnam syndrome” that Rumsfeld tried to deal with represented something real: the U.S suffered defeats in revolutionary wars, indirectly in China and directly in Korea and especially Vietnam. The Indochina war had real consequences for American society that continue to haunt the U.S. ruling class. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan to date, in those wars the strategic strengths of the people were brought into play and all the U.S.’s hardware could not fully make up for the imperialists’ strategic weaknesses. If Gates is going to replace the Rumsfeld doctrine of “air power plus armour” with “air power plus armour plus infantry plus Special Forces and CIA”, the world has seen that before.

The Rumsfeld doctrine was not irrational. No one would ever accuse him of humanitarian motives in seeking to avoid American casualties – this approach took into account the political difficulties and potential political cost of sending young Americans to fight and die. Ironically, Obama is in a far better position politically than Bush was, especially in his later years in office, to get young Americans, especially minorities, to join the U.S. armed forces, and to get the kind of popular tolerance at home without which prolonged wars of aggression are hard to fight.

But will that be enough?

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