Learning from Our Wrong Turn

by Bing West
Why American counterinsurgency has proved to be unworkable.

A remarkable book has recently been published: Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency, by Colonel Gian Gentile, U.S. Army. Gentile, a professor at West Point, commanded a battalion in Iraq. In his fast-paced, intellectually challenging book, he argues that America’s strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan was unworkable from the start. Below are his responses to the basic questions I asked him.


BING WEST: In a few sentences, describe the counterinsurgency doctrine that our grunts were supposed to employ in Iraq and Afghanistan.

COLONEL GIAN GENTILE: American counterinsurgency, as codified in Marine/Army Field Manual 3-24, is armed nation building by a foreign occupying power. It aims to defeat an insurgency in a foreign land by providing to the host population things like infrastructure, governance, security, local security forces, and economic improvement. The idea is that once these things 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 is the theory, at least, behind American COIN; unfortunately, in practice it simply does not work.


WEST: On the ground, when you were a commander, what were the problems with that doctrine that you encountered?

GENTILE: FM 3-24 states unequivocally that “in any situation, whatever the cause, there will be” a small minority of a population that is strongly against the counterinsurgency and the supported government, and a small minority in favor, while the rest of the population will be a “neutral or passive majority” (often called “fence sitters”), who are just waiting to have their hearts and minds won over by the counterinsurgent force — as long as it follows the rules and precepts laid out in the doctrine of counterinsurgency. But when I read that doctrinal prescription upon returning from my year in West Baghdad in 2006, it did not match at all — not in any way — the complexity of the Iraqi sectarian civil war which my squadron and I had been caught in the middle of. In the population we confronted there were few fence sitters, only fences and a red line drawn right through the population — between Shiite and Sunni.


WEST: Was the problem that the troops did not understand nation building, or that there were fatal flaws in the doctrine?

GENTILE: The commonly used aphorism by counterinsurgency experts is that COIN is the “graduate level of war,” thus implying that it requires some special kind of skill set to be carried out correctly and that it should be led by enlightened savior generals such as David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. But the truth of the matter is that American counterinsurgency — armed nation building — at the tactical level of platoons, companies, battalions, and brigades is simply not that difficult. The difficulty of these wars, rather, rests at the levels of strategy and policy, and the American failure in Iraq and Afghanistan can best be explained from those angles. Unfortunately, the myth of the counterinsurgency narrative is that modern American counterinsurgency wars — Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan — could have been won if only the army had done counterinsurgency better under enlightened generals. Yet the truth about America’s failures in these wars has to do with weakness in other places.


WEST: Is the doctrine believed by those who served as battalion, company, and platoon commanders?

GENTILE: I think there was a period of time between 2007 and 2010 — mostly the years of the Surge under Petraeus and a year or two afterwards — when there was a belief by many folks in the army and Marines that counterinsurgency worked. This was certainly the driving force behind the relief from command in Afghanistan of Army general David McKiernan, who was replaced by another anointed savior general in Stanley McChrystal in spring 2009. But for the last two to three years, based on what is written on military blogs and in published articles by serving soldiers, I think there is a general sense that certain parts or aspects of COIN may have worked in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that, overall, when you pull it all together, it has not added up to any meaningful strategic or policy success. An honest look at what the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the U.S. in blood and treasure, and at the current state of affairs in those places, causes serious doubt that counterinsurgency has worked as an operational method to achieve policy aims at a reasonable cost.


WEST: So where do the Army and Marines go from here? What percentage should be structured for force-on-force warfighting versus unconventional (i.e., facing foes who do not wear uniforms and who blend in among the population)?

GENTILE: We should focus on our core function — which is to kill the enemies of the United States of America through all arms and joint operations. Our purpose is to do whatever we are told to do by our civilian masters. However, if we can’t fight effectively at all organizational levels then we cannot do any other missions we may be assigned. Contrary to what the COIN experts have espoused over the last five years, the most adaptable ground forces are those trained and optimized for high-end conventional warfare. If the Marines and Army can fight at that level effectively, they can easily step in other directions to do stability and peace-support operations and counterinsurgency. Over the past ten years, the Army has moved to having close to two thirds of its active-combat brigades as either light or motorized infantry, and only one third as heavy-combat brigades with tanks and infantry fighting vehicles – a wrongheaded trend in my view. To be sure there must be a reasonable mix of light and motorized infantry in the army, but we have gone too far in that direction and depleted the kinds of combat brigades needed to fight at the higher end of the conflict spectrum.


WEST: Why do you think American strategy has failed in Afghanistan?

GENTILE: British historian and strategist B. H. Liddell Hart said many years ago that the object of war is to produce a “better state of peace” at a reasonable cost in blood and treasure. If strategy approached in this way gets a state a passing grade, then the United States has failed miserably 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.


WEST: What should American strategy for national security look like in the future?

GENTILE: Good strategy is ultimately about making choices, setting priorities, and assigning resources of national power to achieve policy aims at the least cost in blood and treasure. Sometimes good strategy must discern that there are limits to what American power — especially military power — can accomplish in the world and, when necessary, demonstrate strategic restraint. A better American grand strategy for the future must jettison the flawed notion that America’s security interests can be achieved by carrying out lengthy military occupations of foreign lands and transforming their societies. When American vital interests in the world are threatened and the application of military force is deemed appropriate, the idea should be to go in quickly with decisive military force, accomplish important objectives, and then leave.

— A former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, Bing West has written five books about combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is working on his sixth book, about an embattled Marine platoon in Afghanistan and the role of courage.