Fighting the war against counterinsurgency

In this insightful polemic US army colonel and historian Gian Gentile argues that the US has learned the wrong lessons from military history.

Gian Gentile 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Gian Gentile 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
In 2005 Col. Gian Gentile was serving in southwestern Baghdad when the Samarra shrine, a holy site for Shi’ites, was blown up. Soon a civil war began to develop between rival insurgent militias.
“During those three weeks after the bombing, my squadron pinged back and forth from Sunni mosque to Sunni mosque under vicious attacks from roving Shi’ite militias.” In the year that followed, America began to adopt a new counterinsurgency strategy that many have credited with ending the violence there, and that has since been applied to Afghanistan.
In his unsparing work, Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counter-Insurgency, Gentile seeks to overturn what he sees as a growing myth about the defeat of the insurgents. Blending examples from his own command in Iraq with military history, this book lays out a clear thesis against the myth that there was a “silver bullet” for defeating the insurgents.
As an army colonel and the director of the military history program at West Point, America’s premier military academy, Gentile is excellently placed to write a critique like this.
THE LATEST principle of counterinsurgency adopted by the Americans in Iraq has been known in shorthand as COIN, military jargon for “counterinsurgency,” and it has numerous elements, one of the central ones being protection of civilians.
Counterinsurgency is the military term for conflicts involving conventional armed forces, such as armies, and attempts to suppress or control local rebellions.
It has been applied to such varied conflicts as Vietnam and the recent Iraq war. In the past 50 years many conflicts have involved well-organized modern states being forced to fight against militias, terrorist groups and similar movements that present military experts with unique challenges. Similar to Israel’s experience fighting Palestinians, the US has been engaged in long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that are considered typical counterinsurgency operations. How the military should apply its forces, in securing villages or working with locals versus seeking to kill as many of the enemy as possible, is the center of an ongoing debate.
“This new army doctrinal manual presented a simplistic set of actions to counter an insurgency that distorted what I had witnessed in 2006,” writes Gentile. The manual, which was rooted in the history of fighting insurgents in Malaya and Vietnam, was “a blend of some history, a lot of myth and suppositions about roads not taken.” The operational observations encourage commanders to do such things as “listen and adapt” and “live our values,” as well as “focus on the security of the population.”
What Gentile seeks to debunk is not so much the idea that the manual is flawed but the myth that Gen. David Petraeus “won” the Iraq war through a “surge,” which to Gentile is highly problematic.
He sees Petraeus as a “savvy” political social climber. The notion Gentile presents is that Petraeus and others in the limelight, such as Col. John Nagle, Samantha Power and Victor Davis Hanson, present a narrative arc that favors a simplistic story about insurgents being beaten in Iraq.
But as events since have shown, in Afghanistan the myth has been dulled, and Gentile hopes readers will finally put it to bed.
TO UNDERSTAND the problem with COIN, the author takes us back to Malaya.
The Malayan Emergency of 1948 to 1954 was a Communist insurgency against British colonial forces. In the end, the British defeated the Communists, who were concentrated among Malaysia’s Chinese minority.
“At their peak, the Malayan Communist fighters numbered no more than 7,500,” writes Gentile, adding that nonetheless, the defeat of this ragtag Communist insurgency has been used as a model of the correct way to defeat insurgencies elsewhere. Most infamously, many have argued that the Malayan model could have been applied to Vietnam, a war that saw the US confronting much larger forces and losing exponentially more men and material. For instance, only 470 British soldiers were killed in Malaya, whereas almost 60,000 Americans died in Vietnam.
Gentile questions the idea that these two wars have anything in common.
Other factors he highlights as reasons the British were successful in Malaya were large unit sweeps and the resettlement of 500,000 Chinese to prevent aid going to the insurgents. Could the US have resettled millions of people in Vietnam or Iraq? As the author notes, “the COIN narrative in its current form relies heavily on superficial interpretation of events, so it is with its use of Malaya.”
One of the main elements of the narrative is that a winning general has been a sort of godsend in each scenario.
In Malaya it was Gen. Gerald Templer and in Vietnam it was Gen. Creighton Abrams. In Iraq it was Petraeus. Each time, the narrative likes to see a clean break between one command that is losing and another that is winning, when in fact, writes Gentile, “the improvement in the overall situation had much more to do with the effects of Templer’s predecessors and the implementation of the Briggs [a former commander] plan.”
For Gentile, the lesson is clear: If the narrative of the “winning commander” is a fallacy, the whole doctrine is problematic.
THE AUTHOR seeks to show that a bad reading of history is encouraging a new history of the Iraq war, which is full of holes. “The idea that the surge turned the tide of war through a significant shift in operational method provided comfort and would act as a guidepost for the future,” he writes, going on, however, to point out that the “levels of sectarian violence [in Iraq] started to drop in December 2006, two months before the arrival of Petraeus and his purported change in strategy.”
His central agenda has to do with the future of Afghanistan. “There was a better strategy in Afghanistan to Americans and military leaders from the start. Our leaders could have discerned early the folly of trying to build Afghanistan into a modern state overnight and would have concluded that the core policy goal of destroying al-Qaida could have been done by much smaller force.”
The failure to draw the right conclusions, according to Gentile, is hampering the Americans, as evidenced by recent initiatives to negotiate with the Taliban. Gentile has been a Cassandra for a while, an outsider when Petraeus was the hero. However, perhaps his views are finally showing that it is important to poke holes in clear narratives that offer us a “better war.”