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The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars

The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars by David H. Ucko. Georgetown University Press, 2009, 268 pp.

On 19 August 2010, newspaper headlines heralded the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq as members of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, crossed the border into Kuwait. With cessation of hostilities in a politically controversial conflict, many are now ready to forget the past and focus once again on preparing for major conventional campaigns. The danger faced in doing this is relegating experience in Iraq to the history books rather than institutionalizing the lessons learned. In The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars, David Ucko seeks to answer the question, “Will counterinsurgency again be pushed off the table, leaving the military just as unprepared for these contingencies as it was when it invaded Iraq in 2003?” (p. 177). As Iraq proved, wars may begin on our terms with the advantage squarely in our favor; however, they may quickly shift as the enemy forces us to fight on its terms through the use of asymmetric means.

David Ucko, a Transatlantic Fellow at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) in Berlin, focuses his research on the theory and practice of counterinsurgency and stability operations. In the field of counterinsurgency studies, where names such as Galula, Nagl, and Kilcullen are notable, David Ucko deserves to join them as an up-and-coming counterinsurgency strategist. In this book, the author examines the history of US operations in irregular conflicts, identifies the military’s failure to institutionalize the lessons learned, and offers in-depth analysis of the development of counterinsurgency strategy in the years following 9/11. The author’s intent is not simply a review of recent history but an assessment of the US military’s transition to a new environment in which “unforeseen strategic and operational challenges” cloud our paradigm of future conflict (p. 4).

Ucko begins with an assessment of the traditional US military mindset, focused primarily on preparing for major conventional campaigns with little emphasis on lesser conflicts. He points out that the US military generally adapts to counterinsurgency operations while engaged in them, but once conflict subsides, it quickly abandons the lessons learned and reverts to a focus on high-intensity conflict. It is this cyclical trend and absence of “anticipation, adaptation, and learning” that Ucko refers to as the “counterinsurgency syndrome” (pp. 27, 44). To support his thesis, the author offers a historical look at previous US counterinsurgency strategies carried forward to the development of FM 3-24 and Operation Fardh al-Qanoon in Iraq. Ucko identifies three main reasons that impede the US military’s ability to institutionalize counterinsurgency strategy and doctrine. First is a lack of conceptual clarity on the unique characteristics of counterinsurgency operations; second is engagement frontloaded with assumptions about the exact use of force; and finally, an offense-oriented and conventionally focused culture within the US military (p. 45). Ucko sums up his argument best with his statement that “Throughout its history, it has been an axiom of the U.S. military that it does not sacrifice in any significant way the pursuit of conventional primacy for the sake of ‘lesser’ tasks” (p. 3). To overcome this tendency, Ucko argues that the US military must clearly define counterinsurgency, prioritize these operations among the mission sets for which the military prepares, and develop the capability to conduct these operations not just through doctrinal change but through organizational structures and investment initiatives (p. 23).

Ucko uses historical examples to support his thesis that the US military has a perennial problem with clearly defining counterinsurgency. By analyzing postwar operations in Iraq in 2003, he demonstrates how its counterterrorism strategy was enemy-centric, often fomenting anger through its offensive operations. To avoid such a trap, Ucko argues that a clear understanding of counterinsurgency must exist before undertaking such operations. Counterinsurgency campaigns feature “three specific characteristics: a non-permissive operational environment; an underlying state-building process; and military operations conducted by foreign ground troops in the midst of a civilian population” (p. 22). Each of these characteristics presents unique problems that cannot be addressed by further applications of power or technology, but by a clear strategy that focuses on the key to success—securing the population.

In Iraq between 2003 and 2005, the US military became increasingly frustrated as the insurgency slipped out of control. Recognizing that a change in strategy was required, it shifted from combat application to a political endeavor that relied heavily on a strong civil-military relationship (p. 79). Additionally, combat operations themselves shifted to an indirect approach, whereby “the employment of surrogates” within a given state was used to conduct operations (p. 91). The main problems with this approach are twofold. First, a reliance on civilian counterparts in a nonpermissive environment typically results in failure without direct military involvement. Secondly, reliance on surrogates to conduct operations fails when those forces are either unwilling or incapable of successfully conducting operations (p. 91).

Ucko’s final point is that learning is not truly institutionalized until money is invested in initiatives that improve the combat capability of the US military in counterinsurgency campaigns. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated when announcing the release of the 2008 NDS, “The danger is not that modernization will be sacrificed to fund asymmetric capabilities, but rather that in the future we will again neglect the latter” (p. 141).

Throughout The New Counterinsurgency Era, Ucko presents a clear argument with detailed analysis to support his thesis that the US military must institutionalize lessons learned from our most recent campaigns. Leaders throughout the Air Force would benefit greatly from review of counterinsurgency doctrine and lessons learned that are clearly presented in this book. Most importantly, this work emphasizes that lessons are not truly learned until they are actually applied. May we not neglect the price exacted in American blood and treasure as we move from our current conflicts and focus on the future.

Maj Ryan Messer, USAF


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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