Powell, AirLand Battle, and the Problem of Politics

The US military’s current doctrinal revolution has received generous praise from journalists and policy analysts. From the now iconic Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual to the FM 3-0 Operations and FM 3.07 Stability Operations, it would seem that a golden age of doctrine has dawned. The spur for this doctrinal shift was the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as a global struggle with terrorism. To go back even further, most conflicts the US has been involved in since the late 80s have been stability operations conducted in in concert with other powers.

This media narrative, to some degree, underrates the level of dissent this doctrinal revolution provoked in some quarters of the military and the defense policy establishment. Prominent military intellectuals derided the new COIN manual, and there has been significant debate over the new irregular war-focused direction. To understand the nature of this debate, it’s worth looking back at the role that Vietnam had on US debates over grand strategy and military policy.

The lesson that many defense policymakers took from the divisive conflict’s amorphous objectives was that the Kennedy-era experiment in “special warfare” had to be strangled in its crib. This was more than just a reactionary return to the “big Army”–it was also, to some extent, a strike against the improper civilian guidance that had such tragic results in Vietnam. The “Powell Doctrine” and its more fully fleshed out Weinburger rules were an attempt to constrain the executive branch from deploying US forces into a non-European land war–as the conditions for US entry were too stringent to be met in the vast majority of cases. This, along with the purging of COIN doctrine, was the response to Vietnam—-although “special warfare” did continue in the form of foreign internal defense (FID) assistance to Latin American and African nations embroiled in Soviet-backed insurgencies.

While most describe this period in somewhat negative terms (especially in light of the brutal counterinsurgency learning curve in Iraq and Afghanistan), it did allow the military to recover from Vietnam and gave it space to develop AirLand Battle doctrine and Maneuver Warfare. The fruits of this resting period were evident in Desert Storm. The problem was that Desert Storm was an anomaly–most conflicts the US was involved in since Vietnam were stability missions. From Haiti to Iraq, the US found itself in those pesky “little wars” that the Powell and Weinburger rules were explicitly designed to prevent. And it seems, for the moment, that these “little wars” will continue to pose a challenge for international security and the exercise of American power.

The critique of counterinsurgency that Andrew Bacevich provides is in some ways a restatement of the Powell and Weinburger rules. It is fundamentally rooted in a suspicion of overseas adventures, strategically adrift civilians, and large-scale societal engineering carried out by the military.

If the US should fail in Afghanistan or turn inward as a result of the economic crisis, it is worth wondering whether the same process of purging institutional COIN knowledge and revamping of conventional war will repeat itself. This seems unlikely, as counterinsurgency has been made a very real part of doctrine and many of those responsible for drafting and advocating on behalf of that doctrine are now in high-level think tank positions.


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