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

Colonel Gian Gentile


Bing West

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.