The New Counterinsurgency Era:
Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars
Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2009
Confronting insurgent violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has recognized the need to “re-learn” counterinsurgency. But how has the Department of Defense with its mixed efforts responded to this new strategic environment? Has it learned anything from past failures?
In The New Counterinsurgency Era, David Ucko examines DoD’s institutional obstacles and initially slow response to a changing strategic reality. Ucko also suggests how the military can better prepare for the unique challenges of modern warfare, where it is charged with everything from providing security to supporting reconstruction to establishing basic governance—all while stabilizing conquered territory and engaging with local populations. After briefly surveying the history of American counterinsurgency operations, Ucko focuses on measures the military has taken since 2001 to relearn old lessons about counterinsurgency, to improve its ability to conduct stability operations, to change the institutional bias against counterinsurgency, and to account for successes gained from the learning process. Given the effectiveness of insurgent tactics, the frequency of operations aimed at building local capacity, and the danger of ungoverned spaces acting as havens for hostile groups, the military must acquire new skills to confront irregular threats in future wars. Ucko clearly shows that the opportunity to come to grips with counterinsurgency is matched in magnitude only by the cost of failing to do so.
“This is an important book for anyone interested in the U.S. military’s effort to learn from contemporary conflict and adapt to the demands of counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq. Ucko’s thorough research and incisive analysis have produced one of the most valuable books on military affairs to appear in recent years.” —H. R. McMaster, brigadier general, U.S. Army and author of Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam
“This is hot-off-the-press history, an essential look at how the Pentagon has–and has not–changed in response to the Iraq war.” —Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco and The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-08
“Perhaps the most important attribute of a successful armed force is the ability to adapt rapidly during war. David Ucko describes how the U.S. Army and Marine Corps adapted to insurgency and, more importantly, why and whether those adaptations are likely to stick. This is required reading for those guiding the future of the Armed Forces.”—Thomas X. Hammes, colonel, United States Marine Corps (Ret.) and author of The Sling and the Stone: On War in the Twenty-First Century
“David Ucko’s book is a very instructional addition to the literature on American counterinsurgency. His clear and informed depiction of the institutional obstacles to deep and enduring reform comes at a critical time. A failure to heed his analysis and admonitions could again result in intellectual amnesia and unnecessary and tragic losses in blood and treasure in a future insurgency.”—Bard E. O’Neill, author of Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse
“An insightful and objective evaluation of the Pentagon’s halting progress towards a true transformation. Facing an insidious global insurgency, today’s military is at a crossroads as it adapts from a myopic focus on the kinds of wars it prefers to those that we ignore at our peril. Required reading for serious professionals and students of national security policy.”—Frank Hoffman, senior fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute
“David Ucko has taken on one of the most important and perplexing dilemmas in contemporary American defense policy and has created a pioneering work. Reflecting a sound grounding in history and a mastery of official policy and doctrine, Ucko places the counterinsurgency debate within its larger strategic context. Both scholars and strategists will find this book provocative and informative. All will benefit from reading it.”—Steven Metz, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College
“The U.S. military that invaded Iraq in 2003 was neither designed nor trained for counterinsurgency. Its experience of adapting to these new requirements offers a crucial source of potential insight for students of organizational change, irregular warfare, strategy, and defense policy. David Ucko presents the history of this process of adaptation with skill and analytical acuity.”—Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy, Council on Foreign Relations
“David Ucko has written a provocative and thorough, and sometimes troubling, study about how the American military has learned and adapted in the cauldron of contemporary conflict. That capability will be an essential attribute for any organization hoping to deal with the dangerous, complex, and often irregular challenges in the current and future security environment.”—Conrad C. Crane, U.S. Army Military History Institute, and lead author of Field Manual 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5
“The New Counterinsurgency Era is a valuable resource for military leaders as well as academics who wish to understand the true forces of military change. It is a warning to both sides of the debate that the battle for the future of the American military is not over.”—Janine Davidson, George Mason University
“David Ucko’s The New Counterinsurgency Era will make a major contribution to the ongoing debate about such operations and about American military culture. Readers interested in this subject will find this to be an invaluable source and future historians of the Iraq War will no doubt look to it too.”—Michael P. Noonan, managing director, Program on National Security, Foreign Policy Research Institute and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran
“This is a timely book on an exceedingly important and controversial topic . . . The argument is persuasive . . . the author’s conclusions are sound and his predictions and prescriptions are reasonable.”—Anthony James Joes, St. Joseph’s University, and author of Urban Guerrilla Warfare, Resisting Rebellion: The History and Politics of Counterinsurgency, America and Guerrilla Warfare
“David Ucko’s excellent portrayal of the U.S. military’s repeated learning and unlearning of counterinsurgency is a stark reminder that even today there is no guarantee that the U.S. military will remember what it has learned in Afghanistan and Iraq.”—Heather Peterson, project associate, RAND Corporation
“Ucko’s book is an impressive effort, and an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to understand the halting, ambivalent and, as Ucko wisely notes, quite reversible evolution of the US military”.
Jonathan Stevenson, Survival, 51:6 (2009), 234-235
“’The New Counterinsurgency Era’ is a dense, scholarly and useful work on how the American military adapted to counterinsurgency during the Iraq war, both on the ground and in the classrooms of Fort Leavenworth.”
Eliot Cohen, ‘Obama’s COIN Toss’, Washington Post, 6 Dec. 2009, B01
“David Ucko hasn’t written a history of counterinsurgency–we’ve seen plenty of those over the past decade–but penned a remarkable study of doctrinal innovation in the Pentagon, specifically in the Army, when it comes to counterinsurgency”.
Paul McLeary, “Fog of War”, Defense Technology International, 4:1 (1 Jan. 2010), 103
“Ucko shows his strong command over the events in Iraq as they transpired, the reaction those events produced in Washington and the subsequent doctrinal changes that resulted…The book may indeed come to serve as a place marker at this critical juncture in American military history”.
Richard Bennet, International Affairs, 86:1 (2010), 264-265
“Ucko has made an important contribution to our understanding of COIN and the way institutions do and do not learn. The book will interest a wide range of security scholars and most certainly any students of COIN”.
Nori Katagiri, Terrorism and Political Violence, 22:2 (2010), 320-322
“Ucko’s meticulously constructed history of the period and the issues raised in this book clearly reopen avenues of research for scholars and military professionals seeking to test the theories of Downie, Posen, Avant, Rosen and others in exploring the sources of military learning and innovation. One hopes that Ucko’s work ushers in a new and invigorated debate between scholars and military professionals alike on the profoundly important issues raised in this book”.
James Russell, Defence Studies, 10:1-2 (2010), 300-303.
“Ucko goes into great depth regarding how the DoD – and in particular the U.S. Army and Marines – relearned the lessons of Vietnam and other counterinsurgencies by adjusting technology, doctrine, force structure, and culture and education of personnel. Yet, as Ucko expertly reveals, there continues to be ambivalence within the DoD toward counterinsurgency”.
Andra M. Lopez, in Political Science Quarterly, 125:2 (2010), 347-348
“David Ucko’s The New Counterinsurgency Era, is a deceptive work. Its restrained, almost flat tone conceals a vigorous attack on the US Department of Defense”.
Aaron Karp, in Contemporary Security Policy, 31:2 (August 2010), 374-378 (pdf)
“The issues he raises have far wider implications for defence and strategy than effective stability operations. Despite being drafted two year ago, Ucko’s book remains relevant to today’s discussions surrounding the security and defence reviews, both here and in the US”.
Col Alexander Alderson, MBE, in RUSI Journal, 155:5 (October 2010).
“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”.
Maj. Ryan Messer, USAF, for Air Force Research Institute, 17 November 2010.
“One of the key strengths of Ucko’s book lies in the detail with which he maps out… what he terms ‘innovation under fire’… and provides a clear account of its intellectual drivers. Developments on the ground in Iraq will inform assessments of the success of the counterinsurgency campaign there over the medium term, but… Ucko’s central argument has an importance that goes beyond current campaigns”.
Professor Mark Phythian, in Perspectives on Politics, December 2010).
“Ucko’s book perfectly captures the central paradox in contemporary defense policymaking. According to Ucko, in spite of almost a decade of irregular warfighting against various insurgent and terrorist actors, ‘corporate level’ DOD remains reluctant to institutionalize armed stabilization and extended counterinsurgency (COIN) at the expense of or in addition to preparation for more conventional conflicts”.
Professor Nathan Freier, in Parameters, 41:2 (Summer 2011).
Presentation on ‘The Future of Counterinsurgency’ and ‘Why (Some) Counterinsurgencies Fail’ – University of South Carolina – 13-15 October 2011
University of South Carolina hosted a conference on ‘War by Another Means: Perspectives on Insurgency‘ from 13-15 October 2011. They kindly invited me to partake in a round-table discussion together with Maj.-Gen. David Blackledge, Douglas Porch and Erin Simpson to discuss the future of counterinsurgency. I also participated in a panel on ‘Why Insurgencies Work‘, together with Jeffrey Record. All of the videos from the conference can be found on the conference site, here. My own contributions are linked to below:
Presentation on U.S. Doctrine for Counterinsurgency – Naval War College – November 18, 2009
The Naval War College (NWC) has posted the videos from the conference ‘Irregular Warfare: Nasty, Brutish but not Short’, held at Newport, RI, in September 2009. All of the panels are now available on here. You can view my own presentation on U.S. military doctrine for counterinsurgency by clicking the video below:
Book Club: A Special Abu Muqawama Interview with David Ucko
Abu Muqawama – November 6, 2009 – “In contrast, one of the more consequential arguments against counterinsurgency concerns balance and the need for the U.S. military to master the full spectrum of operations. Counterinsurgency places specific and extremely challenging demands on the force: not only to provide civil control and civil security, but to restore essential services, provide support to governance, as well as aid economic and infrastructural development. Can the capability to do this be developed within the force without seriously undermining its ability to conduct combined arms manoeuvre and other aspect of conventional war-fighting? The Army wants its soldiers to be adaptive, but can we expect a soldier to be both a war-fighter as well as the jack-of-all-trades called for in stability operations? Is it a fair requirement and, as important, can it at all be avoided?”
IA-Forum Interview: David Ucko
International Affairs Forum – September, 2009 – “On the notion that learning counterinsurgency is learning to fight the last war, I think a realistic outlook on trends such as urbanization shows that, whenever you have an expeditionary force being deployed, they will operate in cities and foreign cultures and foreign languages, facing enemies that would be really foolish to confront the U.S. military in a conventional manner and will instead resort to the same types of tactics we see in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of this points to a future of operations that may not be necessarily counterinsurgency operations per se, but that will call for very similar skill sets and capabilities and that’s why I think the learning of counterinsurgency is really just the learning of how to conduct modern wars.”
RAND Analyst Says Pentagon Needs to ‘Institutionalize’ CI Doctrine
CQ HOMELAND SECURITY – September 11, 2009 – “Every 20-30 years, the United States squanders the ‘hard-learned lessons’ of previous wars where the enemy used unconventional tactics because of a failure to ‘institutionalize’ those lessons, said David Ucko, a fellow at the RAND Corp. and author of ‘The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars.’”
Levin Does Not Plan To Legislate Quickening Expansion of Afghan Security Forces
CQ HOMELAND SECURITY – September 11, 2009 – “David Ucko, a fellow at the RAND Corp., said sending more troops in and of itself would not be enough; the United States needs to ‘have a clear understanding of what the troops need to do.’”
Fighting Today’s Insurgencies
Georgetown University Press News Release – July 23, 2009 – “With a Department of Defense that failed to implement effective institutional change based on the lessons learned in Vietnam, what are the chances that these lessons relearned today will finally influence the direction of the Pentagon’s policy and procedure?”
Misplaced Military Priorities
Andrew Exum, The Guardian: Comment Is Free – April 16, 2008 – “A recent paper by David Ucko argues that – almost seven years after 9/11 – defence spending priorities are still overwhelmingly weighted toward conventional, high-tech weapons systems that anticipate a future threat from China more than they do the very real and current threat posed by insurgent groups.”
David Ucko on Learning Counterinsurgency
Abu Muqawama Blog – March 24, 2008 – “Everyone has been talking up David Ucko’s new article in Orbis — Innovation or Inertia: The U.S. Military and the Learning of Counterinsurgency. Michael Noonan, Frank Hoffman, and the Insurgency Research Group have all recommended it. On the Small Wars Journal blog, Hoffman had this to say…”
An Outsider’s Perspective
Frank Hoffman, Small Wars Journal – March 24, 2008 – “I think the SWJ community will benefit from the attached essay by Dr. David Ucko, who recently completed his doctoral work at King’s College London. This well-crafted essay has just been published by Orbis, the policy journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. It’s an objective assessment of where the United States stands in our adaptation to counterinsurgency and irregular warfare, from an outsider’s perspective.”