Thanks to my colleague Joel Sokolsky for pointing my toward this. I’m happy to see this critique of American counter-insurgency. It is cogent, well researched, and reinforces some of my prejudices. Colonel Gian Gentile is a US Army Officer who teaches at West Point and served in Iraq in 2006, before the vaunted surge. He sees a common pattern in the search for a better way of counter-insurgent warfare, and describes the problem as one of constructing a convenient narrative. He stops short of articulating the obvious conclusion: there is no place for expeditionary counterinsurgency or nation building at gunpoint. As in peacekeeping, third party intervention with consent and legitimacy or a negotiated settlement are the only plausible alternatives to a win-at-all costs war. A decade after the fall of Saigon, American companies were investing in Vietnam again, so were the Communists really that bad?
While he was in Iraq, Gentile was asked to review and comment on the new FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency. I think it was reflecting on his own experience, and the dead-end repetitions of American COIN thinking (building on Galula’s story of French success against Algeria’s insurgents), that spurred him to write this critical history, drawing on both primary and secondary sources. There is no shortage of critiques of COIN and its ilk. Roberto Gonzalez (2009) American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and the Human Terrain, and the Network of Concerned Anthropologists’ (2009) edited collection, The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual attack COIN as both unethical and ineffective, rather like the argument against torture. They are shrill voices that make sense to me, but ring hollow on most soldier’s ears. But this is a more ambitious critique of the whole counterinsurgency concept, well grounded in the military history that spawned it, and written by a combat veteran professor in a military academy – surely someone to take seriously. Gentler COIN based on hearts and minds and kindergarten construction is a dangerous myth.
In the introduction and first chapter he describes the construction of the COIN narrative – an important contribution that makes sense of a lot of the rhetoric and punditry surrounding American wars, including the Washington commentators Bacevich excoriates (see Breach of Trust). The narrative arc is this: a difficult war with a tenacious enemy is deadlocked because of conventional soldiers who don’t “get it”; then a new leader arrives and turns from conventional soldiering to winning hearts and minds, protecting the population, and building the nation. The new and better way leads to a win, as it did in Malaya, the acme of COIN. Gentile puts a match to this fallacy.
To begin with, the narrative arc is founded on the “success” of Malaya, Templar as the white knight, with his predecessor Briggs as the failure. Gentile says this is wrong. Templar’s success built on the Briggs plan, which was already reducing violence not through hearts and minds but through successful population control measures and food restrictions–hardheaded and heartless–combined with hunt-and-kill. Of course, it would have taken an effort to lose Malaya, with a small and isolated Communist Party and a supportive Malay majority. There was no dramatic turn-around or shift in tactics, just steady policing and a turn-over to the majority as soon as possible.
Gentile describes Vietnam as the first “better war” that wasn’t. A far cry from Malaya, Vietnam was probably unwinnable but the COIN narrative arc suggests it was almost won: bad conventional Westmoreland was dropping the ball, then good COIN Abrams orchestrated a dramatic turn-around with a successful departure, paralleling the Briggs-Templar story, and equally fallacious. The same arc played out in Iraq with Casey-Petraeus, and Afghanistan with McKierney-McChrystal, according to Gentile. Each cycle of the narrative comforts us about the efficacy of COIN, when properly applied by the right dynamic leader. Of course, the dynamic leaders each had a role in portraying their innovative success.
As he dissects Malaya, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Gentile shows that there was no seismic shift of tactics between the paired generals. There was no dramatic insight from the new COIN manual, which actually contains much less novelty than one might imagine from the accompanying hype. In Vietnam, an American army allied to a corrupt government without legitimacy faced a tenacious insurgency with local and international support, permeable borders and sanctuaries. Manwaring and Fishel and the Small Wars Operations Research Division (SWORD) got that right with Delphic studies in the 1980s; “legitimacy” is the master max-factor, but Gentile doesn’t give them much credit for this. In Iraq, an American army of occupation was caught in a sectarian civil war, for which the COIN prescription was inappropriate. Rather than a triumphant surge led by Petraeus and FM 3-24, Gentile attributes the decline in violence to the Sunni awakening, Al Qaeda running afoul of local interests, and declining Shia militia violence, none of which was attributable to the surge. Gentile points to declining violence a year before Petraeus arrived, and documents many cases of competent officers doing COIN “by the book” before FM 3-24 arrived. He seems particularly sympathetic to General Casey, clearly the fall guy for the triumphal COIN narrative. One does wonder how big a role the politics of generals plays in the persistence of COIN. His final word is that “…American strategy has failed in Afghabnistan (and Iraq) because it was founded on an illusion – that American-style counterinsurgency could win Muslim hearts and minds at gunpoint and create viable nation-states on the Western model virtually from scratch in a short time…the belief that counterinsurgency works persists like a vampire among the living.”
Like Bacevich’s Breach of Trust, this is part of the growing corpus of insider’s work critical of American application of military power. It still remains, however, to demonstrate a better way of understanding and managing wars that threaten stability and interests. How to maintain peace, order and good government at a global level?
David Last, 25 January, 2014