Learning from Our Wrong Turn
Why American counterinsurgency has proved to be unworkable.

Colonel Gian Gentile


Bing West

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.