The Other Side of the COIN

In today's Wall Street Journal, Yochi Dreazen profiles Lt. Col. Gian Gentile, an Iraq veteran and West Point history professor who is waging an intellectual counter-counterinsurgency inside the Army.

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.

By Phillip Carter |  April 7, 2008; 12:59 PM ET  | Category:  Counterinsurgency
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Perhaps our military should be trained for both conventional warfare and counterinsurgency warfare. However, it seems over the last several conflicts the American military has been involved in, non-conventional warfare has been the prevailing tactic against American forces. Perhaps non-conventional warfare is becoming the new conventional warfare. Few enemy forces around the world are capable of prevailing against American forces in a purely conventional manner. Insurgent tactics have proven multiple times throughout history to be the most effective, least risk, and lowest cost method of prevailing over a much stronger force.

Posted by: Taurean | April 7, 2008 1:29 PM

It seems apparent that our very success in the "Conventional Warfare" category has forced our foes to adopt insurgent tactics. We should not be surprised that our opponents choose not to face-off against us in a conventional battle that they would surely lose.

Posted by: Neville Sarkari MD | April 7, 2008 2:06 PM

A major problem with modern war is that it is not supposed to hurt non-combatants or break things. Compare this with Sherman's philosophy while marching through Georgia at the end of the Civil War. Burn the houses, destroy the food, bring the pain and suffering to the supporting civilian population as well as the soliders.
In a war with insurgents and non-identifiable combatants, this approach makes even more sense. Innocents will suffer, that is part of the cost of war. No amount of targetted smart bombs can change that, and have a successful outcome.

Posted by: dmoreland | April 7, 2008 2:09 PM

Perhaps war is our only tool and all problems look like military problems. Even thinking about a war with China is just plain stupid. And continuing the war in Iraq is a waste of people and resources, not to mention immoral.

A Peace Corp would be better suited than a military corp in Iraq. Diplomacy is a more sane way to live with the rest of the world and the military should be resorted to only as a LAST resort.

Posted by: Calvin Clowes | April 7, 2008 2:19 PM

For the foreseeable future,the US Military will be fighting small insurgent type wars.The world has learn from the Gulf Wars that no army today can match the firepower of the US Military. Much research has gone into high-tech weapons to limit collateral damage in urban areas.Still the best weapon in the US arsenal is the foot soldier.There are two ways to fight an insurgency. One is to use the sledgehammer approach and blast everything to bits or using ground troops to root out insurgents in urban areas.The political fallout from either approach favors the insurgency.The US has to very careful in the future about choosing the next war to engaged in.

Posted by: john a schulli | April 7, 2008 2:28 PM

How this man got to this conclusion is defies any logic or reason. The U.S. military has the means to obliterate whole nations from hundreds of miles away. We can send a bomb down a chimney or through a peep hole.

We all saw the evidence of this. So why would this man try to convince anyone of the opposite? The only answer that I can come up with is to stir the pot and bring up more things to talk about other than just winning this war. He is trying to distract us from meaningful discussion and action.

Posted by: Vladimir Val Cymbal | April 7, 2008 2:36 PM

Winston Churchill, in one of his most stirring speeches in World War II said, "we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,". In other words, if Hitler invaded Britain the response would be an insurgency. When Hitler invaded and defeated France but the French Resistance still maintained an insurgency. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan the Afghans fought an insurgency. The possibility that the Iraqis might do so appears to have been beyond the comprehension of the planners in the Pentagon.

Counterinsurgency may be inimical to the American way of war but the Pentagon must have a clear idea where the American way of war might be fought these days. For example, it is difficult to understand should the enemy be China where the initial build-up of the US forces would be an assuming that China was defeated the size of the occupying force that would be necessary. It is equally difficult to comprehend that should the Chinese wish to attack America where their build-up would be located and how many Chinese would be necessary to occupy the whole country satisfactorily.

As warfare is only lawful either in self defence or in support of a United Nations resolution and a large-scale attack on the United States or its allies seems unlikely the US Army had better be prepared deal with relatively small-scale operations in areas where a proportion of the population is hostile.

Posted by: Chrisle | April 7, 2008 2:40 PM

Both Petraeus and this administration assume that the American public will financially support a counterinsurgency that lasts a decade or more at $200 billion a year. But this war was never sold that way.

It would be a losing political strategy for anyone to come forward now and say that we need to fund both a decades-long counterinsurgency capability, as well as a strong conventional force structure with the Bush tax structure, while ignoring problems here at home. Neither the economy nor our military readiness can support the two simultaneously, so these types of debates take place in an unrealistic vacuum.

Posted by: Steve Soto | April 7, 2008 3:02 PM

The Vietnam "War" was over only 35 years ago. This article says nothing new. Have our military leaders and politicians simply forgotten about or intentionally ignored the lessons of Vietnam? In Iraq, like Vietnam, we tried, unsuccessfully, to use overwhelming military force and technology to defeat an insurgency. The key to fighting a war is to know what kind of war in which you are engaged. Compare success in Bosnia/Kosivo to failure in Iraq.

Posted by: Rick Lesch | April 7, 2008 3:16 PM

I think our war strategy is all wrong. Let me recount what happened in 1945 in a medieval town in Alsace, Ammerschwier. The mayor of the town walked out with the white flag to greet the approaching American troup. The lieutenant led the tank into the town, followed by the walking soldiers. Suddenly a hidden sniper shot and killed the American lieutenant, the troup retreated, and the seargent called for air support. The town was reduced to dust in flames. There was no more sniper fire after that. Now that would be the winning strategy in Iraq, not this painful block by block patrolling through the EID's that the whole civilian population around knows about and says nothing about.
Marc Jeric

Posted by: Marc Jeric | April 7, 2008 3:16 PM

We can argue military tactics all day and night. Until and unless we restore our economic power, we cannot afford to continue as the worlds only superpower. China's major threat is economical...they hold trillions of dollars of our debt. If they ever dumped them we couldn't fund a counterinsurgency campaign in Wisconsin much less anywhere in the middle east. There's some issues of national and global priority that must be taken on. We cannot continue to suffer the paralysis of analysis on single issues.

Posted by: Paul Sacilotto | April 7, 2008 3:28 PM

Is it not possible that everyone is correct? I would respectfully disagree only with the commentators that presume America is always in a position to choose whether or not to go to war. It is not always politely enquired if we would prefer negogiations and meaningful dialogue. We are not generally invited to sit down and talk things over. Were we to sit down in the ashes of the Twin Towers and demand an explanation? A war came to America uninvited out of the sky and the general population had no idea why. They were bewildered and terrorized. That is what terrorists do, they terrorize civilians. The more vulnerable and helpless the better. We howled with fear and indignation and demanded that somebody
do something. Somebody did. We followed the terrorists to the Middle East and there we are fighting a war their way. Americans do not approve of wars in which anyone gets killed. Spectacular, sterile airstrikes on disposable targets are the order of the day. Dear Generals, it matters not what battle mode is employed. Traditional WW11 or guerilla Vietnam. It will not be tolerated if there is visible collateral. War by definition always has two sides. Many times the other side fires the shot heard round the world and knocks off America's white hat. That is why we have an army. The brave ones that fight and die no matter the battle plan because America howled.

Posted by: greta shefersI | April 7, 2008 3:36 PM

It was ever so. We have been compared to Rome, favorably and unfavorably, as the only superpower. However, at this rate we will not last 1000 years. When Rome was faced with an insurgency they adopted the ruthless strategy of scorched earth. This they applied, like Ceasar in Gaul, or the total defeat and deportation in Judea. If we examine the world today, especially the parts in opposition to the West, we see that the borders of the old Roman empire, especially in the East as the trouble spots.
If we are to win, rubble diplomacy needs to be applied. We cannot continue to sacrifice our soldiers to win limited political objectives.
Make it plain to the Taliban, the Iranians, the Russians etc. Accept our peace, "Nova Pax Romana" or accept our emnity and lack of access to our success. We may have to tighten our belts in the short run, but we won't have to loose in the long run.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 7, 2008 3:37 PM

Pentagon planners did not fire the entire Iraqi army. Poor vision by Rumsfeld and Bremer contributed to that. The idea that shock and awe would prevail didn't take into account what the military warned Rumsfeld about and that was, we can win the initial war, but we do not have enough infantry to control the country. So the Secretary of the Army and the Army Chief of Staff get fired, Rumsfelds war, the rest is history.
The military has to be diversified and able to fight a broad spectrum of hostilities. It may have downsized prematurely, but when aviation warfare experts try redesign the Army, you get what you deserve. Clintons cabinet was anti military and Bush's was anti common sense.

Posted by: Andy G | April 7, 2008 3:54 PM

I am surprised that so little attention is being devoted to the humanitarian, political and diplomatic dimensions of the challenges facing the United States during this century.
The chance that the U.S. will continue to exercise successful, unchallenged, global military dominance during the decades ahead without a fundamental change in its geostratregic posture and commitments is slight to nonexistent.
Common sense and current realities suggest that we need more diplomats, more realistic objectives and vastly more intelligent and experienced leadership.
I might also note that common sense and reality suggest that we need to devote far less emphasis to resolving political and humanitarian problems with the military.
In any event, dismantling the U.S. empire will help immensely.

Posted by: Robert L. Terrell | April 7, 2008 4:12 PM

Someone get him some Krepinevich and Komer, quick... except he's read them already, I'm sure.

Plenty more insurgencies where this one came from, I suspect....

Posted by: Ken | April 7, 2008 4:14 PM

My wife is always telling me to "pick my battles". We clearly have not done a very good job of this in the last twenty years. The counterinsurgency strategy was a response to the demands of civilian leaders who ad hoc'd their way into a quagmire. When the next bunch of civilian leaders asks the next bunch of generals to come up with a plan to defeat modern, well trained, large militaries on two fronts, the Pentagon will come up with another strategy. And of course the Three Star will be hailed as a visionary and the team of juniors will a few attaboys.

Historically, there is really nothing new under the sun here. Our civilian leaders have no idea about what they are truly asking our military institutions to do. They have proven expert, however, in culling our most intelligent officers from the ranks and leaving them to rot with the cabbages. We are in decline. Rome is dead. Long live Rome!

We simply cannot fight a counterinsurgency with conventional forces and win the peace. Someone cite ONE example. Please.

Posted by: Jay Schneider | April 7, 2008 4:40 PM

The sand pile won't look any different when we leave (sooner or later). When will our leaders understand, it is the Iraqi's peace to win. It is not ours to win, never has been and never will be. We never should have entered Iraq and we should stay either. We've given them the chance to succeed. They've taken our best and squandered it. The more we give, the more they'll take. Enough is enough. Don't think for a minute that I'm going to send the next 4 generations of my children to fight in a litter box.

Posted by: James Vineyard | April 7, 2008 4:58 PM

In Vietnam we failed to counter or even comprehend the three phased form of warfare that Gen Giap defined in his People's War, People's Army. Instead we ( our commanders ) elected to fight the conventional BIG ONE. While the British trained and fought conventional and also unconventional warfare=counterinsurgency neither we nor the French learned from their experience. Only U.S. Marines employed CAP and basic population and resources control very effectively. But Giap shifted his units into conventional high gear at Khe Sanh and that was the last of a "both ways" type of warfare for us. Suffice it to say the Shock and Awe club had it right when "Queen of Battle" conventional units of Saddam were dumb enough to take us on...but like Vietnam we had no strategy or capacity to quickly shift gears when it became obvious we confronted ANOTHER insurgency. We learned zero from Vietnam and Giap's phasing. But both forms of warfare will and must exist in future and our gear-shifting warfare is a must! We can have it both ways.

Posted by: Bob Fischer | April 7, 2008 5:31 PM

Oh, Come now. All this military intelligence gibberish and jargon give credence to the notion that "intelligence" and "military" are oxymoronic. This is gaming theory at its extreme and only justifies the perpetuation of a retro Warfare State. Who are all these enemies these "brilliant" gamers keep imagining are at our doorsteps ? They ought to do comic books and videos. Mindless but entertaining.

Posted by: Mihalovitch | April 7, 2008 5:31 PM

It is tragic-comic that US - a nation of some 350 mill. people - expects to remain a dominant power eternally. Just as ancient Rome US relies on tributes from abroad (now named: deficit trade balance). Furthermore: when 20-40 years ahead China and India - developing much faster than US - turn up to defend their equally "legitimate" interest in oil and minerals supply, then: will US military power be able to dominate or bomb them into submission?
A relevant answer to developing questions would be an international legal order - not a unilateral dominance, be it through "counter-insurgency" or through "conventional warfare", men running alongside tanks.

Posted by: Viggo Jonasen | April 7, 2008 5:35 PM


Posted by: mendocino beeno | April 7, 2008 5:42 PM

Incredulity at the Pentagon's ignorance or inability to see what several posters here cite as patently obvious is absurd.

These critics that say they won't send their kids to fight for the US in the middle east or fools like Mihalovitch above immediately discount the serious thinking and transformation our military has undergone in the past several decades.

Yes Vietnam was an insurgency as is Iraq now. So what? We're dealing with it. Yet the need for conventional forces against obvious foes (Iran/China and yes even N. Korea) remain valid. And as one observer noted, when you train for one, you lose your edge in the other.

If it were politically palatable, the way to resolve this, is to take a page from the Wehrmacht in the summer and fall of 1941 or Russian Field Marshall's Rossokovsky and ZuhKov's tactics in 1944. Ruthless men leading murderous troops. Magnificient leaders doing what had to be done. No endless think tank discussions needed.

Posted by: mewcomm | April 7, 2008 5:47 PM

The COIN paradigm correctly notes that it's the human terrain that is vital. Successful coin requires intimate knowledge of the human terrain.

This is extremely difficult in Iraq, given that we are occupying troops who know neither the language or history. It makes us dependent on locals, who manipulate us for their own purposes.

BrianX9 has rightly noted the differences between an insurgency and a resistance, but the brass seem to ignore it, even LtCol Gentile. Local knowledge is one. Another is counter-insurgency suggests the existence of a government generally regarded as legitimate. This is not the case in Iraq.

Read yesterday's article (warning: it's buried) on the lastest analysis out of the area and topic experts who supported the Iraq Study Group. Security and political stability in Iraq must be built from the bottom-up by Iraqis. The US has an important support mission, but only a limited combat mission. Ignoring that finding is going to keep us bleeding with little to show for it.

Over the last weeks the Iraq case has shifted from resistance towards civil war. Cheney has apparently decided to take sides against al Sadr. Neither COIN nor conventional war is going to be much use. Instead we're going to perhaps get the urban warfare some feared when we first invaded.

Posted by: LowHangingMissles | April 7, 2008 6:04 PM

One of the greatest errors in this so-called counter-insurgency war in Iraq has been the notion that leaving the militias armed, and rebuilding the Iraqi army was a thing to do. It will not succeed in the end, becuase all it is designed to do is to continue the animosities among the Iraqi factions. And, another primary error is in the U.S. having a totally professional, all volunteer military. No matter what type of war you call it, can't win under current so-called strategies, unless you are only interested in selling more and more weapons and creating a war world.

Posted by: Donald McMunn | April 7, 2008 6:20 PM

"given the threats and challenges we now face",

There is no end to that sort of reactionary thinking. Its a perception problem of perceived threat everywhere.

Unless you land has been truly invaded, you do not really understand the mind and motivation of liberation fighters. After all the millions killed in this manner, have we not learned that War is a self perpetuating scourge.

Interfering in a another nations affairs, is a serious criminal act, period. This very simple equation needs to be policed strictly at birth, internationally.

The UN properly organized, resourced and respected, should be the world's superpower and policeman, not the US. Any honest intelligent observer knows, that the US and Israel are currently committing war crimes, that is why my friends and I, are currently boycotting their goods and services.

As an Irish person who formerly had a high regard for those countries, it pains me but when I turn on my TV for the last 40 years, it pains me even more, to watch the daily slaughter of innocence and justice.

Shame on you apparently intelligent people, for supporting and tolerating, the mass slaughter of children women and men. The first victim of war is the truth and you have been brainwashed by a compliant corporate media. You are worse than the British ever were and that is saying something.

Its not rocket science, if we are honest with ourselves, we all know who is responsible for the butchery of innocent civilian populations, for the last 40 years. worldwide. In little over half a century the USA has been dropping Nuclear, chemical, and all sorts of ordinance consistently scores of countries world wide at the its present rate of progress there will be nothing left to bomb. The US armed Israel with nuclear weapons and then have the audacity to invade others, on the pretext of their weapons., when every dog on European streets knew Iraq did not possess such weapons.

The Roman empire, the British empire, etc, etc, etc, etc , etc, etc, all thought of themselves as world Superpowers, they were all legends in their own minds and they justified international butchery with the most hypocritical cant. Thats how you become a world 'superpower' but civilized nations do not participate in such criminal activity.

You have the arrogance to assume your culture is better than the rest, whether British, Nazi, Zionist or American and then you enlist religion to justify nauseating daily war crimes.

Before the invasion of Iraq the Americans got one thing right, "You are either with us or against us "
As global citizens, we all have a responsibility to resist, otherwise we are silently part of this international criminal activity.

The Boycott of all American and Israeli goods is a pacifist way, of resisting and ultimately it will be successful, its just a question of how long and how many more innocent lives will be lost, before this outdated scourge and disease of Imperialism is eradicated. Hundreds of journalists have been slaughtered trying to bring you the real story and truth of what is happening.

Bombing civilian areas with aircraft is a war crime. Executing prisoners of war is a war crime. Chemical warfare is a war crime.
The US and Israel are clearly guilty of these and many more war crimes. There are currently "1,197,469" Iraqi's most of them innocent children and women dead today from the illegal American led invasion of Iraq. There are 4,023 of its own soldiers dead.
There has been $509,210,323,024 of its own taxpayer's money used to finance these war crimes.

George Bush's presidency was funded by the wealthy international thieves of the oil companies. Though the war is being lost, they have made vast sums from this human misery. The armament industries, Haliburton, hundred of thousand paid dogs of war or mercenaries have made fortunes from the slaughter of innocence.
The powerful, only appear powerful because we are on our knees. Their illusionary superpower status is but an illusion. In this communication age, we have all the power we need, as global citizens to stop this butchery, in a peaceful boycott. Be an ethical shopper, do not finance war crimes. Pass this message on, NOW today !


Posted by: BrianClarkeNUJ | April 7, 2008 6:28 PM

So much more fun to be an insurgent than a counterinsurgent...

Posted by: TE Lawrence | April 7, 2008 6:33 PM

Whatever General Petraeus is waging in Iraq, it isn't the counterinsurgency that we learned in Viet nam. We have been fighting the Iraqi version of the Enclave Theory proposed for the U. S. in Viet nam and rejected, time after time. A real counterinsurgency effort means that troops have access to the local population's markets, celebrations, points of interest, and for the enterprising, to the courtable segment of the population that some adventurous GI's have always before found access to, so that they end up courting and marrying local girls, who come home to America and respond in a bewildering number of ways, from the very good (think of all the grand children of English, Scots, Irish, German, French, Italian... war brides in the country now) to the truly horrible (nuff sed).

Counter insurgency means you and a couple buddies can take soccer balls, or takraw baskets, or frisbies, or tetherballs, out into the outlying villes and show the kids how to use/playwith/compete with/ have fun with them. It means finding the bungalow where rice beer is being fermented and consumed, timing being everything because soon after it cools enough to swallow it begins to turn to methanol and become a threat to vision or life.

In Iraq it would mean that adventurous Roman Catholics would be attending Chaldean and Assyrian Uniate Churches.

Stalking through neighborhoods looking to be ambushed isn't counterinsurgency. Kicking in doors and rousting occupants isn't counterinsurgency. If your every step in country is in Combat Walk mode, you don't even have a counterinsurgency, and therefore can't be winning one.

What the Army and marines are doing in Iraq is the latest versions of Westmoreland's search and destroy patrols. Until Tet of '68, lots of people thought they were working very well, just like now.

Are the successors to the RR companies even now seeing the kind of communications that presage an Iraqi version of Tet?

The best sign we don't have a counterinsurgency? Name two or more Rev Dev/Civic Action Battalion size units dispersed through out Kurdistan. You can bet there are none south of the line of interdiction.

Posted by: | April 7, 2008 7:28 PM

"So much more fun to be an insurgent than a counterinsurgent... TE Lawrence "

No sir, when it comes to outrageous fun, a good civic action project, especially when you bring food, drinks, and perhaps a little entertainment, and steal ten tons of bagged cement from the First Cav, and get one of their rough terrain fork lifts to put it on your truck, and haul it off to the only Mental Hospital in country, prepared to use it to build something or other. Digging, lining, sanitizing wells, some fun. Building sanitary facilities, wash buildings, bathing rooms down hill and away from those wells to keep the wells from being contaminated, some fun. Doing Medical civic action, lotsa fun.

Having some kid put a law in your sternum, thereby really ruining your day, as you try to ambush him, no fun at all.

Better doing counterinsurgency than insurgency anytime.

Posted by: | April 7, 2008 7:43 PM

"So much more fun to be an insurgent than a counterinsurgent... TE Lawrence "

No sir, when it comes to outrageous fun, a good civic action project, especially when you bring food, drinks, and perhaps a little entertainment, and steal ten tons of bagged cement from the First Cav, and get one of their rough terrain fork lifts to put it on your truck, and haul it off to the only Mental Hospital in country, prepared to use it to build something or other. Digging, lining, sanitizing wells, some fun. Building sanitary facilities, wash buildings, bathing rooms down hill and away from those wells to keep the wells from being contaminated, some fun. Doing Medical civic action, lotsa fun.

Having some kid put a law in your sternum, thereby really ruining your day, as you try to ambush him, no fun at all.

Better doing counterinsurgency than insurgency anytime.

Posted by: | April 7, 2008 7:52 PM

The huge US advantage in employing digital warfighting to dominate the modern battlefield is unlikely to be matched in decades by any other nation. The US just out spends its mil rivals by factors. FY 2008 will see a full Mil budget over $850 Billion if one adds in ALL costs such as VA benefits & cost of borrowing the money.

The major threat to the US is not islamic "terrorism" per se but a new weapon system -- the IED --which allows small groups what ever their "beef" to project effective killing force towards much stronger mil forces. But, even more importantly is the ability to use the IED to project political force by using this weapon system against civilians. How can one expect groups to work effectively for reconciliation when IEDs planted by the hard liners kill scores of your group and the other group weekly.

DoD has spent upwards of $13 Billion seeking a method of defeating IED with poor results. We have stopped RF detonation in most frequencies, and forced the use of hard wires. But the killing machines continue against mil forces which worries us, but more significantly against would be participants in the political process blocking progress.

Posted by: | April 7, 2008 8:14 PM

In Vietnam and again in Iraq, our so-called leaders have committed Our Troops to perpetual engagement until Victory is achieved. Victory remains undefined. When the U.S. is determined to win a war then it should be all out war to the point of some stable situation that can be managed by a minimal residual U.S. force structure. If necessary, the U.S. obliterates opposition and installs a government that is wholly subordinate to U.S. interests and that reports directly to The President. This business of occupation until such time as the situation improves is a menace to our bodily fluids.

Posted by: BlueTwo1 | April 7, 2008 8:59 PM

It galls me to see one writer after another buying into America as a "superpower." You mean, like Rome? Athens? Napoleonic France? Hitler Germany? Perhaps like Alexander the Great. Alexander, incidentally, never "conquered the world." When he got to India, they swarmed his tired army like ants and he had to build ships to get out of there alive. Britain used to be a "superpower," too, and now it has only a few measley atom bombs. Excuse me? Keep on pushing the "superpower" nonsense, keep assuming that such power lasts forever. Then pick up a history book. I don't want my country to be a damned "superpower." I want it to be peaceable, diplomatic, generous, farsighted, tolerant, and wise. In other words, exactly opposite what we have now.

Posted by: Mike Havenar | April 7, 2008 9:15 PM

I have, for some time now, really begun to question the conventional lesson that Iraq has proven the limits of military power. I question this lesson b/c the mission in Iraq has been unprecedentedly limited. This limited mission is undoubtedly going to produce a limited result. As a previous comment pointed out, the modern warfare, of which Iraq is certainly one, is fought in a totally different way in which past wars have been fought. I would argue that, had Iraq been fought in a more traditional manner without modern combat constraints, the results would have been far more stunning and complete.

The rules of engagement (ROE) in Iraq are extremely constraining on our soldiers, limiting their ability to engage the enemy. Were they able to wage war as Sherman, Patton, and others have done, I am convinced the results would have been very different.

Posted by: Archimedes | April 7, 2008 9:50 PM

America defeated Iraq and Saddam with his pretorian guards in one week as also Taliban in afghanistan. But the enemy is fighting back just like afghans are doing by using the counter insurgency tactic against the most powerful army in the world.they have no other choice. But americans HAVE NO PATIENCE as a nation.You showed it in vietnam,afghanistan and now iraq. Also your politicians donot even have the courage to call a country which is the root cause of counter insurgency( pakistan) by name but always call it Afghanistan/pakistan border.
You need leaders who will face upto truth and tell it as it is.

Posted by: captainjohann | April 7, 2008 11:28 PM

The specious notion, that there had to be an insurgency in Iraq after the kinetic war ended, is easy to believe.

The insurgency grew from a lack of understanding at the political level of how to govern Iraq in the interim between the ending of the ground war and the establishment of an elected government. Failing to control the rioting (lack of troops), failing to control the Syrian and Iranian borders (lack of troops) coupled to a civilian leadership wholly ignorant of the human conditions in Iraq (disbanding the Iraqi military) or Saddams past genocides (against the Shi'as) combined to make a mixture that exploded.

The first insurgents were home-grown Iraqis, most former Ba'athist politicians and technocrats, and fired former Iraqi Army officers and enlisted, who joined forces to 1. Get Payback for loosing their livlihoods and 2. Attempt to drive the Americans out so they could regain power.

These forces joined with the Islamic outsiders who came in for different reasons, but found common cause against the US.

Had better military, but more importantly political planning presaged the invasion, the insurgency could have been greatly reduced if avoided entirely.

The COIN manual is designed to accomplish the most American of games, "Catch-up". (Sean Connery in Rising Sun). If people are interested in seeing how a deep-rooted insurgents can be morphed into compatriots, you must read about the Philipino General Magsaysay's "war" against the Huk's. He used foces, economics and diplomacy in measure, in order to transform the Huk's from insurgents to citizens.

This is what we're doing in Iraq now, and yes, it will take about 10-15 years.

Posted by: Mike Ceres | April 8, 2008 12:04 AM

I appreciate this blog post and the comments. I learned of this blog through Danger Room at Wired.

I feel the concerns of gentlemen like Gentile, above, and Admiral Fallon.


It appears to a non-warrior citizen like myself that COIN is the "conventional warfare of this century." I have also been gratified to see Gen. Petraeus and the contemporary COIN community emerge with what I intuit to be the correct doctrine in Iraq, with some provisos.

I appreciate the remarks of ceflynline above and would like to commend readers to the postings at regarding unemployment. Mr. Armstrong validated in a rigorous way what I have felt almost since the time of sanctions before the invasion. In 2006 joblessness is cited as a primary cause for Iraqi partisans of all stripes to take up arms.

A "shock and awe" economic development blitzkrieg might be the 21st century's revolutionary capstone to successful COIN doctrine. Although I was utterly against the administration in their decision to invade, I was willing to take a wait and see attitude. I was very willing to entertain the possible efficacy of the "Titans" with their free market credentials / infrastructure building rhetoric.

How stunning for events to unfold and realize that the "Private Sector Boys" didn't even have a real playbook for economic development, just some whacked out privateering initiatives on a gigantic scale. The scene on the ground appears to have quickly devolved into the "we can't build until we're secure" / "we can't secure until people have self esteem from a job" paradox.

Note to self, when I invade a country, whether for their own good or not, I must have my own version of the Powell doctrine for overwhelming economic development. Marshall plans after the fact don't cut it in the 21st century. Put twice as much planning in the civil affairs roll out as you put into the invasion. Give it a fancy name like Operation Golden Echo.

If we had taken the money we have spent on this occupation to date, (really, one tenth) and simply dropped it out of aircraft as gold bullion in 2001, especially in Kurdish and Shia regions, we would have achieved a better result than we have now. (I suggested this very idea in 2001.) Probably not a great result, but better than now, utterly disruptive of the regime, and much fewer lives lost. OK, enough bombast.

Glad to have access to this great information. Thanks!

Posted by: LizardEyes | April 8, 2008 12:21 AM

The COIN debate really comes down to this:

1) You lose a COIN campaign and it typically means you're losing a war on foreign soil. No biggie in the scheme of things - your home is safe.

2) You lose a conventional war you could lose the lot: country, land, people. Everything.

China is lurking on the horizon and is REALLY hoping the US alters its military to focus on COIN campaigns.

Keep up the good fight Lt Col Gian Gentile.

PS: Vietnam was only lost because the Allies didn't use ENOUGH power, ie - invade and destroy North Vietnam.

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Posted by: cherry pan | April 8, 2008 7:00 AM

Is it a fact that almost everywhere that America goes to defend something, that death and destruction follows and the lesions of the survivors include the infestation of American military forces?

Well, check it out after you sulk at this question.

Then consider the comment [below] of a poster who is generally representative of the American psyche:

"Counterinsurgency may be inimical to the American way of war but the Pentagon must have a clear idea where the American way of war might be fought these days."

The American way of life has become the American way of war. Its society is militarized and, as predicted in my "Chosen World - our war on Islam and our own freedoms" - Americans are already the next potential unlawful enemy combatants. The US asministration has laid the legal foundation for an internal dictatorship that goes even beyond the existng American gulags of rape, murder, bestiality and torture. [ep, that's factual.]

America is alreay an internal, domestic Gulag in waiting.

No Change can alter what Americans face and what they have become - unless its people bring thousands of its leaders and elites before War Crimes courts. Otherwise, the viral infection of its culture and its politics will overwhelm attempts at change.

The infection has already reached Canada. "The US Invasion of Canada and Its Absorption" contemplates the fate of such a Canada.

May the American people who want to purge its culture succeed but are they aware that re-arranging the faces in their legislatures does not meet the minimum criteria for core changes?

The American Way is endless war. Its jobs depend on this culture. How many Americans will vote against [military related] jobs? It is operated by corporate mobs who have gained control of your DNA and other bio-metrics as well as your health and financial records and who now can charge you for access to your own 'self' and profit from use of the digitalziation of its citizens. [The DNA BANK OF NES ZIONA]

America is truly become the USI, a deadly confection that does not represent its people.

Posted by: JOHN ISH ISHMAEL | April 8, 2008 10:21 AM

Given the huge sacrifice all our soldiers are making, could we at least give the female ones the common courtesy of including them in this effort. The term is "humanpower" not manpower - as every single soldier putting their life on the line for each of us every day is a human being. Let's not exclude any of them and let's remember as well, how very human and valuable each one of them is.

Posted by: vw2008 | April 8, 2008 12:46 PM

Armies HAVE to train for conventional warfare. That is their "bread-n-butter". The job of the army in a democracy is to act as a deterrent to an enemy. The leaders and the men in a volunteer professional army need to be just that - professionals.

Elected politicians and the diplomatic corps of a nation should ensure that the nation does not take unnecessary risk in fighting a war where there is a possibility of an insurgency.

Last and not the least, all insurgency should be solved by combination of diplomacy+police work+unantagonize the local population

Posted by: Wannabe_squadron_ldr | April 8, 2008 9:27 PM

Reading some of the commenters above (dmoreland, Marc Jeric, mewcomm, Archimedes), my head aches at how poorly the lessons of history have been learned by so many of us.

If you think that scorched earth tactics will win anything in this day and age, you are utterly deluded.

Imagine killing the people of an entire town after an insurgent attack in order to "send a message" in the manner of Caesar or Sherman. Even under this administration, you would be hard pressed to avoid a war crimes tribunal.

Posted by: Preston Broadus | April 11, 2008 5:10 PM

The root of the disagreement lies in a simple truth. Counter-insurgency is not a warfare but a holistic process--and there is no one process but processes. Burma has been very successful in its counter-insurgency campaign against Karen and Shan armies--the result is not pretty and certainly not sustainable.

A successful counter-insurgency process makes a very limited use of military power and focus on law-and-order institutions: police, justice, rule of law, economic development, and institutional stability. The role of the army is simply to prevent forces build-up and cordon up lawless area. Indeed, no sane person would encourage military interference in civilian affairs.

The U.K. learned the lesson the hard way in Ireland until they finally understood that using military forces in full combat gears was brewing antagonism, resentment, and rejection. They finally painted their trucks blue and stopped using armored vehicles for police patrols.

The U.S. obsession with military power--and unwillingness to admit its limitations--will be its demise. France has been through that process in Algeria. Its army won the counter-insurgency battle in the late 50's to turn over power to the "defeated" FLN a few years later. Iraq will align on Iran. Let's get over it and move on.

The principal purpose of this counter-insurgency hype is to buy time and allow the Bush administration to withdraw--from Washington--honorably, pass the bucks to their friends and the buck to the next administration.

The next ten years are going to be fascinating.
Charles Fournier

Posted by: Charles Fournier | April 29, 2008 2:14 PM

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