Best Defense

Gentile: If we listen to A.A. Cohen and J. Nagl, we’ll wind up involved in Syria

By Gian Gentile Best Defense guest respondent A few comments in response to A.A. Cohen’s summary and evaluation of the debate between John Nagl and I at Grinnell College in April. First, I appreciate Cohen taking the time to publish his comments, even though I disagree with much of what he says. Cohen, in his ...


By Gian Gentile

Best Defense guest respondent

A few comments in response to A.A. Cohen’s summary and evaluation of the debate between John Nagl and I at Grinnell College in April. First, I appreciate Cohen taking the time to publish his comments, even though I disagree with much of what he says.

Cohen, in his summary of the debate, assumes — wrongly, as my forthcoming book (Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency, July 2013) will argue based on primary evidence — that there was a significant operational shift between the surge and what came before, and more importantly, that there were significant differences in the generalship of Casey and Petraeus. Cohen offers up the stock critique of Casey that suggests Casey was drawing down and heading for the door in Iraq by the end of 2006. Not true, and the primary evidence — for example, documents of strategic planning and guidance by Casey — shows that he was asking for additional brigades and that he saw a significant American presence in Iraq well through 2008 and beyond. Casey fully realized in early 2007 that before transition could resume, the Iraqi people needed to be "protected" and the violence produced by the sectarian civil war had to be checked. And for Casey, U.S. forces would continue to play a key role in checking the violence and in "protecting" the Iraqi people. Before Cohen rushes to judgment on this matter I would ask of him that he at least has a look at my book when it comes out in July, and then base his assessment on the argument that I make in it and the evidence that I marshal to support it. Unfortunately, the stock critique of Casey ultimately rests on faulty assumptions.

Cohen seems to suggest in his summary of the debate that I argued against maintaining the "capability" to do counterinsurgency operations in the future. I have never said or suggested that the U.S. Army should not have the "capability" to do counterinsurgency operations. What I have argued is that the most important capability the U.S. Army needs is to do combined, all-arms operations within a joint force, and this should be its priority. If the U.S. Army can perform the essential function of all-arms fighting, then it can easily shift in the direction to do counterinsurgency. But by building an army in the opposite way and having one that is optimized for COIN, then shifting to high end operations becomes much more difficult and costly in blood and treasure. Remember what Matthew Ridgway said after the Korean War: "the primary purpose of an army [is] to be ready to fight effectively at all times…"

In the concluding paragraph of Cohen’s piece, he posits this about my arguments and the future of counterinsurgency:

…history indicates that engaging in counterinsurgency warfare is seldom a predetermined choice.

Oh no, good strategy is buried in the ground and dead with this kind of straight-jacketed thinking. Cohen dooms us to fight counterinsurgency wars in the future simply because they have been fought in the past, and even if good strategy says it makes no sense to fight them. Nagl, in the debate and in other published pieces, likes to proffer the term "unsatisfying wars" to describe counterinsurgency warfare. But I ask, if Augustine was right that the object of war is to produce a "glorious peace," and if a "satisfying" war does that (e.g., the United States in World War II or the American Civil War), then why would a state fight a war in the first place if it is "unsatisfying"? Isn’t starting an "unsatisfying war" or continuing one with huge amounts of blood and treasure strategic incompetence of the first order?

The thinking of John Nagl and A.A. Cohen is reflective of military institutions that fight wars and become so enamored with operational frameworks that they cannot see their way to a higher position of strategy, and then objectively critique whether or not the type of operations employed by strategy are worth the investment spent to achieve policy aims. Instead, the best logic that Nagl and Cohen can offer is that these wars are "unsatisfying" and therefore we are forced to walk this "predetermined" path to fight them. So the tutoring that a "naysayer" like me receives is to get over it and accept the notion that the strategic "choice" has already been made.

As the last 11 years of American war in Afghanistan make clear, the United States has failed utterly at strategy since from the very start the core policy aim (as affirmed over and over again by U.S. presidents, cabinet members, and senior military officers) has been the destruction of al Qaeda. In order to achieve this very limited core policy aim, U.S. strategy has sought to employ a maximalist operational method of armed nation building, or in other words, counterinsurgency. The costs have been enormous for both the United States and Afghanistan, and the results are dubious at best. Has Afghanistan been an "unsatisfying" war for the United States? You bet, but I will be darned if I accept John Nagl’s and A.A Cohen’s premise that we are "predetermined" to fight more of them in the future simply because we have done so in the past.

Maybe we should when vital American interests dictate, but operational choice based on vital American interests and not predetermined operational action should be the hallmark of future American strategy. If we don’t come off of this predetermined path as paved with signposts by Nagl and Cohen, Damascus is the next stop for American arms.

The author is a serving U.S. Army colonel. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
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