I found myself talking with a rather prominent journalist in Washington the
other night. The subject was the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And COIN —
counterinsurgency imagined and inculcated as the new (Petraeus) Doctrine, the
new field manual, the new heroic battlefield narrative, made entirely so
because of the 2007-2008 Surge operations in Iraq.
It’s population-centric counterinsurgency that clears, holds and builds, while winning hearts and minds, turning local populations against the bad guys and building up civic institutions and the legitimacy of the central government. Certainly not new theory, but dusted off and tweaked by Gen. David Petraeus & Co. for the Army’s new field manual released in December 2006, dovetailing conveniently with the Surge plan crafted by the neoconservatives at the American Enterprise Institute (and ultimately appropriated by the Bush Administration) in the same month.
||So I won’t just shut-up and accept the Surge Narrative as it is given to us now, because I think that there are huge flaws to it that must be corrected so that we can get to a more balanced understanding of it, and the years that came before it ~ Gian Gentile, Small Wars Journal blog, Jan. 2009|
Today, it is the blueprint du jour for President Barack Obama’s inherited Long War, in fact, supporting it is a litmus test for one’s position and status in his national security apparatus.
So what? — the journalist seemed to suggest, looking incredulous that there was even a hint of drama here. The Surge was a success, how could there be anyone or anything to legitimately take on the bright lights of the COIN constellation now orbiting the President? Players like Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon and Kurt Campbell, the co-founder of their think tank, Center for a New American Security (now a greased-up policy feeder for the administration). He’s been nominated by Obama to become the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs.
As a reporter myself, I was a bit nonplussed. A quick Google search would
find that there is indeed an energetic debate — not only about the
aforementioned "COINdinistas," now shaping policy for "Af-Pak,"
but more importantly, about the validity of COIN and of the vaunted Surge
Hadn’t you heard of Gian Gentile?
He shook his head.
He’s active duty. He’s West Point, I pressed on. He’s at the
forefront of this pushback against COIN.
The journalist shook his head. He let me write down Gentile’s name.
Looking skeptical, he moved on.
It really shouldn’t be a surprise, that members of the elite news media — particularly the ones who don’t necessarily focus on a national security beat — fasten easily onto the conventional narrative and "move on" condescendingly, satisfied their knowledge is au courant and complete.
Army Colonel Gian Gentile just doesn’t fit into their equation, though
his name is known well enough, if only at the U.S Military Academy, military
journals, critical foreign policy webzines like Antiwar.com, and as a foil and
vexation for the COIN-centric blogs, the doctrine’s biggest promoters, like Small
Wars Journal and Abu
Muqawama (a moniker for Andrew Exum, Iraq war veteran and senior
fellow at Flournoy’s CNAS).
To the rest of the world, the mainstream media included, Col. Gentile is
kind of a ghost. Persistent and clever, sometimes noisome and everywhere. That
he might remain invisible to people inside-the-beltway is only a problem in
that information gatekeepers like the aforementioned journo, craft narratives
about the war — about future wars — without the consistent insight of the
contrary view. As consumers of the news — as Americans — we should demand
the whole scoop.
The scoop is that Gentile, a 51-year-old former cavalry squadron commander in Iraq, now director of the military history division at West Point, has been putting his job in the Army on the line everyday, doing interviews with people like me, questioning the emerging historical record on the War in Iraq, the Surge and COIN. He challenges the historical pretexts used to merchandise and sell COIN, particularly by chief operators like retired Lt. Col. John Nagl (formerly with Sec. Def. Donald Rumsfeld, now president of CNAS). He throws cold water on the inescapable panegyrics to Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno (see Tom Ricks, a senior fellow at CNAS and a Washington Post military correspondent).
He warns that under the current influence of these "crusaders"
(as tagged by Professor
Andrew Bacevich back in October 2008), the military is shifting
headlong and too far into COIN, bleeding the conventional force in favor of
what he fears is a institutionalized role of global security change agents,
nation-builders and cops.
He says the emperor has no clothes.
"I try to apply an historian’s sensibility to problems and in my
writing, to make arguments based on the evidence available," he tells
Antiwar.com. "When I got back from Iraq, there wasn’t much ‘otherwise
thinking’ going on. There wasn’t much questioning of the direction we were
heading. One can end up with this group think approach."
Gentile has written extensively about why the Petraeus Surge narrative has
become both a symbol and byproduct of group think, and is now seemingly
impenetrable thanks to a growing canon of after-action literature that place
the "success" of the operation squarely on clear, hold and build
— including of course, more boots on the ground.
"First of all, that didn’t happen in Iraq. But you pick up any
number of books," he said, "they basically accept the standard Iraq
War narrative." Which is, in short: before 2007, the Army didn’t
prepare or focus on counterinsurgency. The Army finally sees the light, and
wielding the updated counterinsurgency manual (FM
3-24) (co-written by Petraeus, with the aid of officers like Nagl),
leads five additional brigades "surging" into Baghdad and pursuing
new COIN principles in Al Qaeda strongholds. Violence is reduced to acceptable
levels, providing "space" for political reconciliation.
First of all, Gentile says, "it places too much emphasis on the role
of the additional brigades, armed — the narrative goes — with the new COIN
doctrine," said Gentile.
Aside from the sectarian cleansing in Baghdad — where the few remaining
Sunnis now live walled off, and in tiny urban enclaves — Gentile zeros in on
what he believes were the two critical events that made the real reduction in
violence happen. First, Muqtada al Sadr’s decision to stand down his rebel
forces in the summer of 2007. Second, the U.S Army’s decision to start
paying off some 90,000 Sunni militiamen and former insurgents to turn against
"In my opinion, the two necessary and controlling reasons for lowering
the violence in Baghdad in the second half of 2007 had little to do with the
increased number of U.S. combat brigades practicing so-called new
counterinsurgency tactics," Gentile said in an interview a
He hasn’t changed his mind. Instead, he’s spent the last 12 months
arguing his points, and taking quite a few personal hits along the way. Most
publicly, in Thomas Ricks’ much-celebrated, The Gamble: General David
Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008, the
author takes aim at Gentile by throwing into question his command in West
Baghdad in 2006 (indeed, Gentile has argued that the Army was already adapting
and practicing counterinsurgency methods on a general basis long before the
Petraeus Brain Trust moved in. Ricks’ book clearly disputes this).
"Certainly, I have received pushback from other forums, and other
media," Gentile says. "The Gamble, the way (Ricks) wrote
about me and my squadron in 2006, I think it was a direct pushback against me
for being critical of the counterinsurgency doctrine and the sort of triumphal
narrative that has emerged over the last year or so."
"Retired Army lieutenant colonel John Nagl, author of Learning to
Eat Soup with a Knife, is so cocksure of the efficacy of Army combat power
that he believes it will have the ability not only to dominate land warfare in
general but also to ‘change entire societies’… We are organizing
ourselves around the principle of nationbuilding rather than fighting. For
defense thinkers such as Nagl, that principle has turned into a synthetic
consensus. To repeat, how else can one explain his most profound and deeply
troubling statement that the Army, in the future, will have the capability to
‘change entire societies’? In this sense, the caricature of Nagl as a
‘crusader’ seems correct."
For his part, Nagl has not backed down. "We need the ability to kill
people and break things with our Army, absolutely. But we also need, in this
modern era, we need an Army that can protect people and build things. And what
we’re doing is looking for the right balance between those two," he
told PRI’s The World radio program earlier this month.
Velvety smooth, and hardly unpalatable to an American public with no more
appetite for blood and bombs, say critics, but it cannot perfume the stinky
reality that this is Bush Doctrine, with a few new liberal bells and whistles,
all over again.
"Gentile is one of the few officers with the guts and brains to tell
the truth at a time when the truth is very unpopular," says Ret. Army
Col. Douglas MacGregor, another dissident voice in the beltway wilderness.
Like Gentile, he struggled to be heard during the Bush years against the
preponderant neoconservative din. Today, it is the liberal interventionists,
mostly Clinton-era throwbacks with a taste for nation building from the Balkan
Wars. "Sadly, men like Gentile are currently in short supply."
Gentile became a commissioned officer through the ROTC program at UC
Berkeley in 1986, and received his masters and PhD from Stanford University
after three years in the field in Germany and Korea. While teaching at West
Point, where he says "academic freedom really does mean something,"
he frequently dusts it up on the milblogs, where he is alternately excoriated
and saluted, if not a bit patronized, even by his friends.
"Now here’s a question: Isn’t there anyone other than Gian Gentile
willing to take up the anti-COIN crusade? Where is everyone else? I want to
ask him that when he visits the 202 area code in the next few weeks,"
wrote Abu Muqawama, aka Exum, back in January.
But public sentiment may be shifting closer to Gentile and MacGregor, as
current events — foreign and domestic — threaten the durability of the
Surge success story and the open-ended military and civilian commitment
Obama’s policymakers are setting up for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"I don’t think the fundamental issues that have divided (Iraq) have
been resolved. I think what we have done over the last year is frozen those
issues in place, but we haven’t resolved them," Gentile charges.
"I think, what you are seeing with the increasing attacks today, are the
emergence of those differences again," he said. Pointing to recent
reports that the Sunni Awakening, now abandoned by the Americans to the
hostile Shia authority, are becoming restive, he said, "I think there may
be some cooperation there — some cooperation between Sunni and al Qaeda
Deny it they may, says Gentile, but today’s policymakers are promoting a
similar Surge strategy for Afghanistan (See congressional testimonies by Flournoy
and Chief Af-Pak envoy Holbrooke
this week: clear, hold and build, with more boots on the ground, more
civilian experts, more COIN). As an active duty officer, Gentile won’t
question current plans outright, but he left me with this:
"As soldiers, our role is to do whatever we are told to do by our
civilian masters. However, my experience is, that the idea of using military
force to change entire societies — to use John Nagl’s words — at the
barrel of a gun, is highly problematic and it is not as clean and as clear and
as sensible as I think our own COIN doctrine makes it seem to be," he
said. "I saw what it is like changing the entire society at the barrel of
a gun in Baghdad in 2006, it wasn’t as simple."
Gentile laughed when he thought of the ribbing he might get among the COIN-set, being interviewed by a site with the name "Antiwar." Ultimately, he doesn’t care. He is driven by a sincerity his detractors cannot touch, and a personal mission not to let current war doctrine go unchallenged. He might just have a ghost of a chance.