The misconceptions and disinformation that have birthed and fueled America’s wars are well-documented, but the calamitous doctrine used is seldom examined. The United States’ reliance on counterinsurgency (COIN) is a failed policy seen firsthand by Col. Gian Gentile, a combat battalion commander in the Iraq War, and he has published a new book that aims to destroy the persistent myths of conflict. Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency should be required reading for anyone who still has visions of a US “victory” emerging from the Middle East.
Michael Arria for Truthout: Let’s start by talking about the origins of COIN. When does the doctrine emerge, and why?
Counterinsurgency has been around for a long, long time. However, prior to the end of World War II it often was called other things, like guerilla war or small war. The Romans did a form of counterinsurgency in repressing rebellions in their empire, so too did Henry V as his army was harassed by angry French civilians in the days leading up to Agincourt. But modern counterinsurgency, especially being labeled formally as such, really emerged at the end of World War II with the decline of European empires and the rise of nationalist movements like in Vietnam. In fact, American counterinsurgency as codified in the Army’s Field Manual 3-24 made famous by Gen. [David] Petraeus and the Surge, is really nothing more than a rehash of the counterinsurgency doctrines developed by the Americans, British and French during the Cold War. It aims to defeat an insurgency in a foreign land by providing infrastructure, governance, security, local security forces and economic improvement to the host population. The idea behind American counterinsurgency is that once these are provided, the counterinsurgent force will then win the trust and allegiance of the local population, which then will allow for the separation of the people from the insurgents. This at least is the theory behind American COIN; unfortunately, in practice by a foreign occupying power, it simply does not work.
In his dissertation, written in 1987, Petraeus wrote that, “The legacy is Vietnam is unlikely to soon recede as an important influence on America’s senior military.” A couple decades later, he is creating the COIN Center. What is the story behind many supposed “lessons of Vietnam” being discarded by the US military?
Many counterinsurgency experts have misinterpreted the Vietnam War. For example, Andrew Krepinevich, in his widely read book The Army and Vietnam, believes that the US lost the war in Vietnam because its army was stuck in a conventional-war mindset and couldn’t break free to a better way of fighting the war by focusing on pacification and winning hearts and minds. Poppycock; there was no better war to be had in Vietnam, and the reason the United States lost it was not because of a mindlessly stupid army that couldn’t figure out how to do COIN correctly combined with monster generals like William C. Westmoreland. No, the United States lost the war because it failed at strategy, and strategy should have discerned that the war was unwinnable based on a moral and material price the American people were willing to pay. But this fundamental truth about America’s loss in Vietnam was buried in the years after the war by a bevy of misinformed experts and soldiers who believed that the war could have been won if the Army had only fought it differently. Then Iraq rolled around 40 years later, and the choir of COIN experts started singing the same sad song again. The problem with these “lessons” is that they divert attention away from the underlying motives, policies and strategies of American intervention toward the mechanics – or tactics – of doing them.
Many Americans feel that the reasons behind a continued presence in Afghanistan have never been articulated in any definitive way. How do you perceive the Obama administration’s current goals in Afghanistan and where do you see this going in the coming years?
The United States has failed at strategy in Afghanistan. Since early 2002, the United States has suffered over 2,000 Americans killed, with many more seriously wounded. Thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed. The United States has spent close to $1 trillion trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, functioning state. With these costs, what has the United States achieved? The place is more violent today than it was at the height of the Afghan Surge of troops under Stanley McChrystal in 2009; the government is one of the most corrupt in the world, and the ability of the Afghan security forces is dubious at best. Would Afghanistan have been any worse if the US had left after toppling the Taliban and crushing al Qaeda by early 2002? This question becomes more pointed when one considers the fact that the US had by and large accomplished its core political objective in Afghanistan – the destruction of al-Qaeda – by early 2002. This is why American strategy has failed.
In 2008 you wrote a polarizing piece for World Politics Review called, “Misreading the Surge,” in which you detected an undeserved amount of optimism for the military’s tactics. Years later, how do you think the celebration of The Surge impacted our policy in Iraq and beyond?
For sure it did. It is entirely possible that if President [George W.] Bush had never appointed Gen. Petraeus as commander in Iraq, but had kept Gen. [George] Casey in command, violence would have declined in the same way that it actually did by the end of 2007. This conclusion is based on extending the trajectory of the conditions that were already developing – the Sunni Awakening and the climax of sectarian violence in December 2006. Because Casey was not advocating a quick withdrawal from Iraq and because the operational framework for the military in Iraq before 2007 was and continued to be counterinsurgency, it is certainly possible that the level of violence would have fallen in the same way as it did after the actual Petraeus Surge. Extending this hypothetical to Afghanistan, it is also entirely possible that without the surge triumph narrative constructed around Petraeus’ surge and the mythical belief that COIN worked in Iraq, the discussions surrounding “Surge II” in the Hindu Kush in 2009 might have been tempered by focusing on other, more limited options. Had these options been seriously presented to President Obama in fall 2009 by his military, a different course of action might have been taken. But the reality was that in 2008 and 2009, the surge triumph narrative arrived in full force, dominated thinking on what had happened in Iraq, and convinced key policy makers and military planners that something similar could be applied in Afghanistan.
There is a growing chorus, from a variety of political camps, calling for an American response to the chaos in Syria. What do you make of the analysis you have heard from some in the west, and does it trouble you?
In my personal view, to be sure the United States has interests in what happens in Syria. But I do not believe that those interests are vital, nor do I believe that the United States needs to apply military force to get after the interests that it does have in Syria. The situation there is complex, and there is no clear moral choice for the United States to throw its weight on one side or the other. Moreover, if we have learned anything from Iraq and Afghanistan, it should be that it is quite easy to get involved in a civil war in a foreign land but quite another thing to get out of it. Wars of all type have a momentum all their own, and they become very difficult to end.