Think Again: Counterinsurgency

Why the U.S. Army's focus on nation-building at the expense of warfighting is misguided and dangerous.

Yuri CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Yuri CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Yuri CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. military is still too focused on conventional warfare.

The U.S. military is still too focused on conventional warfare.

Absolutely not. In fact, over the past six-plus years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army has become a counterinsurgency-only force. The notion that there are still some conventional-minded bogeymen lurking in the shadows and waiting for the chance to take the Army back to the 1980s so that it can prepare to fight the Soviets in the Fulda Gap is a chimera.

There are understandable reasons why the Army has become so focused on counterinsurgency: The operational demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demand it. Counterinsurgency expert John Nagl is thus correct when he calls for winning the wars we are in now. Currently, when Army combat brigades go to any of the national training centers for preparation for deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq, they primarily train on counterinsurgency operations.

Yet the Army has allowed its understandable operational focus on counterinsurgency to dominate its current intellectual climate. Three Army colonels, all former combat brigade commanders in Iraq, warned Army Chief of Staff General George Casey last year that field artillery, because of its recent focus on counterinsurgency operations, had lost its traditional warfighting skills and had become a dead branch walking.

The group of counterinsurgency experts within the Army and other parts of the greater U.S. defense establishment, moreover, has narrowly selected and employed a certain, situational form of counterinsurgency operations called the population centric approach. It’s really nothing more than a rehash of the counter-Maoist approaches of the 1960s formulated by Sir Robert Thompson, a British officer in Malaya, and David Galula, a French officer in Algeria. This narrow approach — known in the current military vernacular as clear, hold, and build — dominates the Army so much that it permeates the service’s professional journals. Now, whenever a problem of instability or insurgency presents itself, it’s the only approach that seems to be considered, yet different situations might call for different methods. In this sense, the Army has become dogmatic.

Small wars are the wars of the future.

Perhaps. But for the Army, the term small wars has become synonymous with nation-building. The future of war certainly holds more than that.

Indeed, the dustbin of history is full of mistaken predictions about the future nature of war. An aide to Josef Stalin told the Russian dictator in 1939 that mechanized warfare was not the wave of the future. German armored columns proved that prediction utterly wrong when they came sweeping across the Russian steppes in the summer 1941. Between World War I and World War II, the British saw the future of conflict more in terms of policing their empire rather than major battles fought between land armies. Their muddled thinking led, at least in part, to the near-disaster for the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940 and its fortunate evacuation from Dunkirk.

More recently, the Israeli Army that stumbled its way into south Lebanon in 2006 received a sharp response by Hezbollah fighters who operated like-small unit infantry. One of the reasons for the Israeli Army’s poor performance (as shown by analysts like Mat Matthews and Avi Kober) was their heavy focus on counterinsurgency operations in the Palestinian territories for the six preceding years.

It is true that the future may not necessarily be centered on state-on-state warfare. But future wars will involve fighting terrorists, insurgents, and possible hostile states, or combinations thereof, even if they also involve softer tasks. The Army must organize itself around the principle of fighting with the knowledge that if called on, it can easily shift to nation-building and counterinsurgency, as it has done in Iraq. But doing the opposite — building an Army that is great at building schools and negotiating with tribal sheikhs but is unprepared to fight at the higher end of the conflict spectrum — will only ensure that most of the blood and guts will be ours.

The surge worked in Iraq.

Not quite. It depends how you define surge. If the surge is defined as follows, then yes, it worked: 1) a set of key decisions on the part of senior U.S. leaders in Iraq to ally with Sunni insurgents to fight al Qaeda; 2) Shiite militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr’s decision to stand down in summer 2007; 3) the fact that many areas of Iraq, especially Baghdad, had already become ethnically cleansed by the time the surge started; 4) the addition of an additional five combat brigades, which sent a message to Sunni insurgents and Sadr’s militia that the United States did not intend to depart in the near future.

However, the notion that the additional five brigades practicing new counterinsurgency methods under inspired leadership was the primary causative factor that lowered violence is not supported by the operational record. As early as the fall of 2003, prior to the surge, most Army and Marine units were already conducting best practices in counterinsurgency operations, according to a recent and authoritative history of the Iraq war by the Army’s own Combat Studies Institute.

Yes, General Petraeus and the surge did give coherence to these practices with the introduction of the Army’s new counterinsurgency doctrine, Field Manual 23-4. However, that coherence was not decisive and would not have made an appreciable difference without the other critical conditions in place. It was those conditions, followed by the additional troops, that led to the reduction in violence, not the other way around.

General Petraeus is a military genius.

Time will tell. General Petraeus has worked against long odds and proven himself to be a forward-looking thinker. But evaluating generalship in counterinsurgency warfare is a murky matter, unlike in conventional war, where at least at the fighting level a general’s performance is readily knowable. In World War II in North Africa, for instance, U.S. General Lloyd Fredendall was relieved shortly his Army’s dismal performance at Kasserine Pass, which resulted in great losses of men and equipment and a clear tactical defeat. In most cases of evaluating generalship in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, it is simply too early to tell. Objective histories of generals’ performance have yet to be written.

One should further show caution when proclaiming this or that U.S. general in Iraq to be a genius and the next Ulysses S. Grant or, conversely, another general to be a consummate failure. In the years after the American Civil War, Grant received mixed reviews by historians for his battlefield performance. It wasn’t until relatively recently that historians and most other Americans have come to see him — correctly — as one of the best. And, ironically and interestingly, General William C Westmoreland in 1965 was Time Magazine’s man of the year. Nowadays, Westmoreland has come to be seen as the symbol for American failure in Vietnam. And his replacement, General Creighton Abrams, who is currently seen by misinformed counterinsurgency pundits as one of the greatest counterinsurgency generals ever, was actually considered for relief in 1971 by President Nixon.

The military should embrace nation-building.

If those are the orders. The U.S. military should do what it is told to do by its civilian masters. If the mission is building an Afghan nation from scratch where none existed before — as the counterinsurgency experts would have it — then we in the rest of the military must figure out how to do it.

The danger, however, is that the military has shown a tendency in Afghanistan to replace sound, resourced strategy informed by a realistic assessment of what is feasible with clever counterinsurgency tactics and methods, based on a wrong-headed view that those same tactics and methods worked in Iraq. This, tragically, is a recipe for long-term nation-building in Afghanistan but without the resources needed to succeed. Does anybody really think that Afghanistan, a ravaged, ethnically divided country of 25 million with 72 percent illiteracy and little history of centralized rule, can be turned into a real state any time soon, on a budget that US. taxpayers can support?

There is an opportunity now for change in the Army. The future security environment demands it. But we should not view the past seven years of counterinsurgency warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq as prologue. Nor should we view the surge of troops in Iraq as the template for future action. If we do, then we tempt the fate of many past states and their militaries that thought that they had become smarter than war and had divined its future, only to find out they were wrong after squandering much blood and treasure.

Gian P. Gentile is an active Army colonel and served in Iraq in 2003 and 2006. He currently runs the Military History Program at West Point. The views in this article are his own and not necessarily those of the Department of Defense.

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