The Other Side of the COIN
Gentile, with whom I served at Fort Hood in 2000-2001, has an unusual background for an Army officer: He left high school early, enlisted in the Army, earned a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and later a doctorate from Stanford. He is also a "Jedi knight" - a graduate of the Army's elite School for Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. His sterling credentials as a soldier-scholar and combat veteran might have led to his inclusion in the cadre of soldier-intellectuals (led by Gen. David Petraeus and Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis) who have pushed the Army and Marine Corps in the direction of counterinsurgency. Instead, Gentile thinks this crowd has misread the lessons of Iraq and is pushing the military in the wrong direction.
According to the Journal:
He argues that Gen. Petraeus's counterinsurgency tactics are getting too much credit for the improved situation in Iraq. Moreover, he argues, concentrating on such an approach is eroding the military's ability to wage large-scale conventional wars.
"We've come up with this false narrative, this incorrect explanation of what is going on in Iraq," he says. "We've come to see counterinsurgency as the solution to every problem and we're losing the ability to wage any other kind of war."...
The gist of Col. Gentile's argument is that recent security gains in Iraq were caused by the cease-fire declared last year by Moqtada al-Sadr as well as the U.S. decision to enlist former Sunni militants in the fight against Islamist extremists. Col. Gentile notes that violence spiked after Mr. Sadr's militia briefly resumed fighting last month.
More fundamentally, Col. Gentile, 50 years old, worries that the military's embrace of counterinsurgency - limiting the use of heavy firepower and having soldiers focus on local governance - means it isn't prepared to fight a traditional war against potential foes such as Iran or China. He says the more time soldiers spend learning counterinsurgency, the less time they spend practicing combat techniques like fighting alongside tanks and other armored vehicles.
So who's right -- Gian Gentile or David Petraeus?
I think the answer is both. Many of Gian's criticisms hit the mark. At best, the counterinsurgency manual contains a set of best practices and tactics for use by platoons, companies, battalions and brigades. It does not comprise a strategy -- not for the military, and certainly not for the country. One of its greatest flaws is its overemphasis on military power; it succumbs to the old proverb that if you only have a hammer, all the world's problems look like nails. The thing is, there are limits to what force can accomplish, and military power is not the optimal tool for all settings, particularly counterinsurgency, which Petraeus and others acknowledge is 80 percent political.
I also agree with one of Gian's other critiques, echoed by others such as Air Force Maj. Gen. Charlie Dunlap, that counterinsurgency is inimical to the American way of war. Its manpower centrism disdains the technology and capital-centric strategies that are America's historic military strengths. It also requires national patience, because counterinsurgencies typically last a decade or longer, and progress cannot be measured easily through movement on a map or benchmarks of any kind. It remains unclear whether America has the political will or ability to wage a successful counterinsurgency campaign in the 21st Century.
But we may not have a choice. And this is where I agree with Petraeus and his acolytes, including Lt. Col. John Nagl. The emerging threats and conflicts of the 21st Century will increasingly present themselves as "hybrid wars" involving everything from disease outbreaks, conflicts over scarce resources (oil, water, food, minerals, etc.), and ethno-sectarian warfare. In this security environment, America likely will be called upon repeatedly to provide foreign aid, military assistance, and other military support, particularly during "Phase Zero," before the breakout of open hostilities. We can't assume these threats and conflicts away by saying they're peripheral to American interests and, therefore, we should not intervene. We also shouldn't focus our military exclusively on conventional combat operations and ignore the unique challenges posed by these kinds of wars -- particularly when the small wars are far more likely.
If America is going to be the world's superpower, then it likely needs a "full spectrum" force capable of doing it all. But that can't be built overnight, nor cheaply, and we still must be realistic about the limitations of such a military. In the near term, given the threats and challenges we now face, we should focus our military on counterinsurgency and small wars. But, as Gentile counsels, we should be careful to avoid overlearning the lessons of Iraq, or believing that we can engineer success through the sound application of counterinsurgency doctrine. As Clausewitz warned: War is the province of chance.
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