A Few Questions for Colonel Paul Yingling on Failures in Generalship.
by Colonel Gian P Gentile
In the Spring of 2007 you penned a timely and important critique of American Army generalship. In your essay, “A Failure in Generalship,” that was published in Armed Forces Journal, you argued cogently that American generals had failed in Iraq because they had been unable to defeat--using superior American military might--a ragtag batch of Iraqi insurgents. In the essay you referenced a previous American counterinsurgency war in Vietnam and noted that that war was fought poorly because its generals were too focused on firepower and not on the proper methods of counterinsurgency. You suggested that there was a better way to fight the war in Vietnam yet the Army and its generals were unable to grasp it. And with Iraq your frustration in the article seemed to be that most senior Army generals between 2003 and 2006 had not figured out better tactical and operational methods of counterinsurgency to end the violence and put Iraq on the track to peace. In short, in Vietnam and Iraq Army generals failed because they were unable to put together campaigns within an overall effective operational framework to achieve policy ends.
In light of your 2007 article can we make the same critique of Army generalship in Afghanistan today?
In another month it will be nearly two years since the Surge in Afghanistan started under General Stanley McChrystal who put into place, at least rhetorically and formally, a counterinsurgency campaign modeled on General David Petraeus’s Surge of Troops in Iraq which relied heavily on the army’s new counterinsurgency doctrine, Field Manual 3-24. Then after only a short while in command McChrystal was relieved and the general touted as having “saved Iraq from a desperate situation,” General Petraeus, replaced him. For two years now we have been doing counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and arguably one could place the start of Coin in Afghanistan as early as 2004. Yet with all of these years of billions and billions spent and buckets of blood spilled, what has it gotten us in terms of strategic and political ends?
Senior generals are supposed to set priorities, build military campaigns and operational frameworks and align other sources of national power to achieve political ends with the least cost in blood and treasure. This, in essence, is strategy. In Afghanistan how well has American generalship performed at strategy?
In 2006 eminent American historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., reflected on America’s Vietnam War through the prism of the current American war being fought at the time in Iraq. He observed that:
Sometimes, when I am particularly depressed, I ascribe our behavior to stupidity —the stupidity of our leadership, the stupidity of our culture. Thirty years ago we suffered military defeat—fighting an unwinnable war against a country about which we knew nothing and in which we had no vital interests at stake. Vietnam was bad enough, but to repeat the same experiment thirty years later in Iraq is a strong argument for a case of national stupidity.
Perhaps you see it differently, but the failure that I see in American generalship in both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (with precedence in Vietnam) is the idea that tactical and operational excellence through a certain brand of counterinsurgency (or any other form of tactical innovation) can rescue wars that ultimately are failures of strategy, or as Schlesinger more harshly puts it “national stupidity.”
In light of how you respond to these questions might you consider writing “A Failure of Generalship, Version 2” for Afghanistan?
If not, might you spell out the differences between what you saw as the failure of American generalship in Iraq from 2003-2006 with the past two years plus in Afghanistan. In other words, how has American generalship been a failure in Iraq and not in Afghanistan?