Debate on Counterinsurgency: Gentile vs. Nagl

Video of a Grinnell College counterinsurgency and the future of Afghanistan debate on 22 April between COL Gian Gentile and Dr. John Nagl:


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There are multiple conversations going on at the same time, confusing the issue:

1. What really happened in Iraq in terms of the sequence of events and causation of violence? What evidence should be used in order to determine causality. What evidence is pertinent?

2. How did the narrative of the drop in violence associated with the Surge affect military leadership at the time of the Afghan Strategic Review (2009) and how was that experience translated toward planning for that campaign?

3. The intellectual and historical basis for much of what has been written by the Coindinistas--post WWII modernization theory and the study of colonial small wars--is controversial within the American context. How does this controvery play out in "lessons learned"?

4. The tendency of the military to focus on the tactical level. The conversation about whether an army can "easily" switch from conventional tactics to counterinsurgency tactics is important, but in my opinion is far less important than understanding how to tie various tactics of whatever derivation into a larger campaign that can achieve political or core political objectives. This requires a better understanding of regional motivations of competing actors than is traditionally held by the military, again, in my admittedly outsider perspective.

Perhaps regionally aligned brigades may help but these would have to avoid the pitfalls of the various "COMS" which look at the world through the lens of military-to-military relationships within the particular "COM" world, so that in Afghanistan, the understanding of South Asia was interpreted through a Middle Eastern lens and based on the military's understanding of regional SA armies as potentially useful in operations within that context.

Thus, to clarify and bring focus to the issue(s):

Gentile has said: "Strategy should employ the resources of a state to achieve policy aims with the least amount of blood and treasure spent."

Nagl has said: "There is no reason to go to war except to achieve a better peace."

So, let's focus on (a) our policy aims re: (b) achieving a better peace.

Herein, let us say that our policy goals were to (1) better provide for the safety, security and prosperity of the American people by (2) transforming the states and societies of Iraq and Afghanistan (along modern western lines) and incorporating these states and societies into the global economy.

Now. How does one go about doing this -- in a manner that causes the least amount of blood and treasure to be spent?

Does COIN meet this requirement -- this standard -- this criteria?

Today Gentile and Nagl might both say "no."

Why? Because, via nation-building COIN, and as evidenced by Iraq and Afghanistan:

a. Too much blood and treasure had to be spent.

b. Over too long a period of time. While

c. Too little transformation and incorporation was achieved.

We wanted to enhance our security and prosperity by transforming and incorporating outlier and problem states and societies, and we thought that COIN might be a cheaper, quicker and easier way to do this, rather than:

a. All out war, total state and societal destruction and rebuilding, and occupation for many decades. Or

b. Waiting until these outlier/problem states and societies come to their senses and achieve transformation and incorporation via -- primarily -- their own ideas and efforts.

Based on our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, we had to re-think this idea that COIN (and such things as R2P?) might be a cheaper, easier and quicker method for achieving our policy aims (outlier/problem state and societal transformation and incorporation) and, thereby, achieving our vision of a better peace.

This re-thinking, I believe, explains our new move to "self-determination" (see item "b" immediately above).

Late to the game here. Will try my best not to rehash arguments already played out (or at least not make the same arguments - some will admittedly be very close:

First, I was somewhat disappointed at the level of the debate. Perhaps it was the forum, but it was not as much about COIN being dead as it was about two people talking past each other. Gentile was making a the argument that the current narrative about savior Generals will not hold up to the test of historical analysis and Nagl seemed to be arguing that counterinsurgencies will happen in the future and certain strategic aspects of our current method of COIN are applicable in most, if not all situations. Nagl was more on point to the question of whether COIN was dead (and so I agree with MovingForward’s comment that Nagl won), but the entire effort seems to have missed the point regarding whether COIN, as developed thus far in the 5-34, should continue to be a major component of the militaries strategic kitbag. Perhaps Gentile has already accepted the fact that turning back time (again) to an era of HIC only warfare is a bridge too far. Without a Soviet like force out there the next best argument is that if we train for HIC then we can do anything. And this is where I disagree.

High Intensity Conflict was certainly the bread and butter of the Army we like to remember – the Army of Civil War, Korea, and WWII. It is a different question as to whether it will be the bread and butter of the Army of the future. That was the argument I was hoping to see.
Without rehashing a debate that Bill, Carl and Major Rod had below, I am going to disagree completely with the idea that you can take an Army trained for HIC and adapt them to FM 5-34 COIN. It is improperly organized, trained, and resourced. It sees victory in terms of body counts. It mindset is that, in order to win, you must destroy the enemies ability to continue the fight. I don’t believe that mindset can be quickly adjusted to a completely different definition of how to win by supporting the population. Serve and protect rather than search and destroy. Soldiers are not machines you can reprogram. In order to go into battle they must dehumanize the enemy in order to justify killing another human being. They do this through broad stereotypes. COIN requires that you eliminate those stereotypes and only look at the actions of the individual. This is most clearly demonstrated by the rules of engagement which in normal HIC includes the uniform of the enemy but in COIN is defined by the actions of the insurgent. I think it is unreasonable to assume that you can switch between these two mindsets easily.

Part of the problems is that no one is defining COIN including the moderator.

It seems to me Dr. Nagl is talking about a certain vision of future conflict and how the American military should organize itself with an intellectual basis in post WWII modernization theory and the history of colonial small wars of the twentieth century.

COl. Gentile is arguing about a narrative within the military that understands Vietnam and the Surge in Iraq in one way, and has used that understanding in planning rather than a focus on key strategic objectives.

I posted a link to a short video by Luttwak in the Small Wars Council section on the rise of China. In the link, he talks about Chinese strategic culture and the difference between strategy and strategems.

It got me to thinking about the argument that the American Army should reorganize itself to fight "these wars we've been fighting", meaning the various stability operations and insurgencies and peace keeping operations and so on.

It seems to me that we are talking about clever strategems as opposed to a strategy which can best employ an Army even if you agree that the military will fight more messy land wars that we say we will never fight.

There are two intellectual "poison pills" within such a strategem for reorganization, IMO. I keep writing IMO because I'm still working on this and I'm not sure of my ideas.

The first has been said in many ways, but the expense will crowd out everything else. Labor being the most expensive and the long term disabilities associated with soldiers protecting populations (the IED as an insurgent strategy) will make the expense so great that there can be little money left over for anything else in eventuality, and, yes, that includes even if all sorts of boondoggles are cancelled. It's a growing sort of strategem to deal with the need to perform stability or other operations.

The second poison pill built into the argument is that an Army arranged on the principle of being able to fight small wars as a foundational concept means that it cannot be a learning institution. It will be the opposite, because we are built for one purpose and we are already being outlearned in some ways.

For discussion, anyway.

An interesting blogging heads:

Even taking the so called coindinistas at their word, the stated strategems will create the opposite effect because it is a strategem, not a strategy for the proper use of an Army.

Given Nagl's statement that the only reason to go to war is to achieve "a better peace," should we consider what "a better peace" might look like?

Herein, should we come to view the idea of "a better peace" not from:

a. Our viewpoint, to wit: the rule of law, good jobs, stability and good governance (democracy). Thus, the state and society re-configured so as to better fit into, better support and better benefit from global markets. (Herein, the state and society is essentially made to be more-open, more-accessable and more-useable to global market forces, international investors and to other global market players.)

But, rather,

b. From the perspective of the population concerned; a perspective which may find the people of certain locales having no desire to significantly subordinate and/or re-order their way of life and way of governance to meet the needs of the global economy.

Does " a better peace," and "COIN," become much easier, much cheaper and, accordingly, much more feasible if we simply make the adjustment noted at "b" above?

Or does this suggestion really warrant no serious consideration; this, given the fact that the United States and its allies are unlikely to view the idea of "a better peace" -- and/or "COIN" -- except from the standpoint noted at subparagraph "a" above?

(Be careful here. These are, after all and in my view, the central issues/problems that must be acknowledged, and addressed, in today's "sovereignty and self-determination" arguments.)

I think your a) and b) cases are based on imposed assumptions that may not stand up to critical examination. Just because people resist or object to invasion and occupation (people tend to do that) doesn't mean those same people are irretrievably opposed to modernity or to socioeconomic change.

Dayuhan and Bill M.

I think I can see your point. Herein, it may be helpful to look at another version of modernity.

Communism was certainly a modern phenomenon. And communism, in the 20th Century, certainly made a number of significant inroads and substantial advances, often without having to resort to invasion and/or occupation.

And, even in those cases where the foreign power intent on advancing communism did have to resort to invasion and occupation, this did not mean that the people within these invaded and occupied countries became "irretrievably opposed" to the version of modernity and socioeconomic change that came with communism.

Indeed, and given sufficient time, many people around the world tended to warm to and embrace communism; this being the case whether this version of modernity and socioeconomic change was achieved via force of arms and subsequent occupation or by other means.

Can we agree, however, that, much as with communism in the 20th Century, likewise again today re: our version of modernity, there always has been, and there probably always will be, members of various populations who will remain vehemently and violently opposed:

a. To modernity (in one, more or all of its various forms),

b. To the radical political, economic and social changes that various forms of modernity bring with them and

c. To those indigenous and foreign forces whose mission is to (1) bring about these significant changes and to (2) deal with those (the conservatives/the "radical extremists"?) who would stand in the way of "progress" (viewed differently based on whose version of modernity one is referring to)?

Are you assuming that resistance to invasion and occupation is necessarily driven by resistance to modernity and socioeconomic change? If so, why?

I'm not convinced that spreading modernity to the unmodern is really a significant goal of US policy, and I'm not convinced that opposition to "modernity", as opposed to simple opposition to invasion and occupation, is a significant driver of insurgency.

So true, I haven't any nation opposed to modernizing in their own way and at their pace, but there will always be a fight when we try to force change and our form of governance on them.


Is this what "a better peace" might look like:

"Today, from the Maghreb to Pakistan, the order created by the West to serve Western interests is succumbing to an assault mounted from within. Who are the assailants? People intent on exercising the right of self-determination that President Woodrow Wilson bequeathed to the world nearly 100 years ago."

Now consider this trend on a world-wide rather than single region scale.

On a world wide scale people have simply moved on, achieved self-determination and embraced modernity: there's no particular backlash against modernity in Latin America, Southeast Asia, or most of the other regions that have moved on toward peace after the devastation of the Cold War, and their progress has in no way impaired "western interests".

I see no reason at all to assume that self-determination in the Middle East is incompatible with Western interests, beyond a certain degree of short-term crisis management. The so-called "order created by the west to serve western interests" was created to serve the western interests of the post-colonial age, and those interests have changed.

I see no reason to fear change per se, though attempts to direct or impose change are generally, I suspect, ill-advised.

Everyone has probably seen this at Ricks' Best Defense:

The comments there are frustrating and I think the debate is a lot of talking past each other in a sense because COIN, like, er, 4GW, now seems to mean whatever people want it to mean. For the purposes of that discussion, they should have talked about the pop-COIN theories codified in manuals everyone is now sick of talking about.

The real place to go, though, is this:

One of the classic rivalries in academia is that between political science and history as fields of study. One year ago — while most of our staff were wee little undergraduates — we hosted a debate between Ken Schultz and Thomas Mullaney, professors respectively of polisci and history at Stanford. Neither won the exchange, but the differences between the two were clear: political scientists emphasize “what makes things the same” and historians focus on “what makes things idiosyncratic.”

We see some of this at work in discussions about counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. For example, calls for an Iraq-style troop “surge” into Afghanistan have been accompanied by warnings that Afghanistan is not Iraq; similarly, calls to negotiate with the Taliban just as we negotiated with the Sunni tribes have been countered by assertions that the Anbar Awakening won’t be easily repeated in Afghanistan. We are reminded of Robert Conquest’s 1993 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities

The various envisioned models and the sameness versus difference is the key conversation to have, IMO.

Also, I used the Hinglish colloqialism Talibans in an earlier comment, which is apparently a no-no because Taliban is the plural. Tell it to the editors that allow things like the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban, also, the entire 'desi' community. Don't use language in your own way, use it in the way the DC policy community best likes....

Oh, ignore the Hinglish stuff, it won't make sense if you don't read a lot of South Asian sites, South Asian itself being a western construct that drives some people crazy.

Sameness can be looked at in a million ways which is more to the point, for instance the paper by Stephen L. Melton looked at conflicts in one way of "sameness," while pop-COIN proponents have pulled out different variables as the key "sameness". This is what makes reading Galula sort of difficult for me, the statements don't make sense outside a certain colonial context, IMO. Then again, I've never done this stuff on the ground and there are a million comments around here from 2007 saying the 28 articles variation really helped. Move the debate forward, it goes in circles sometimes!!!!

Watched it last night and took notes. Here's what they said:

COL Gentile:
* Myth of enlightened savior Generals, Casey and Petraeus not that different, Vietnam: Westmoreland and Abrams similar
* Myth of non-learning, non-adapting Army that suddenly gets it after FM 3-24, COIN was released
* Core political objective of destruction of Al Qaeda occurred early followed by mission creep
* Did either war "work" at a reasonable price in blood/treasure and if we had left shortly after "mission accomplished" would there have been fewer Iraqi and Afghan deaths?
* Just because small wars have been fought in the past using COIN does not mean we should do it again.
* Small wars cause Armies to forget how to fight larger wars. Armies able to fight big can adapt more easily to fight small.
* The Brits won in Malaya by resettling half a million and there was no external support for the insurgency
* Vietnam involved 3 primary tasks 1) Defeat NVA/VC main force, 2) Pacification, 3) Build ARVN. Westmoreland's priorities were the first only because it had not been accomplished and he too would have evolved.
* No analytical basis for notion that 10% against the counterinsurgent, 10% favor, and the vast middle majority are fence-sitters

My conclusion: Overly fixated on hating savior Generals. Too willing to accept counterfactuals of similar outcomes without the Surge, if Westmoreland had stayed, and if we had pulled out right away thus claiming savings of Iraqi/Afghan lives, and Americans/coalition forces and money.

Dr Nagl:
* COIN can't be dead as long as insurgency is alive and well.
* Galula and other historical basis for COIN says protect population first
* Steven Biddle study showed that Surge worked with 76 COPs created
* Messy wars are the future
* Vietnam could have been won if we had bombed in 75 like we did in 72. ANA will survive if we learn from that error and continue to support with money and airpower
* Only reason to go to war is to build a better peace
* Historians mistakenly believe what is written in archives, ignoring that even primary first-person accounts can either mislead, lie, distort, or shade the truth
* The President does not say that a primary reason we stayed in Afghanistan was because Pakistan is troubled and has nukes. Pakistan would not take kindly to him or anyone else in the administration saying as much.
* We literally burned the book on how to do COIN after Vietnam
* Hardcore ideologues must be killed/captured but many of the rest can be won over by providing them jobs. A mere $100+ a month saves Soldier/Marine lives that a would-be insurgent otherwise might have taken.

My conclusion: Nagl won. However disagree that it will be a whole generation before another major land war. A 9/11-like event inflicted on us or the Israelis will force intervention based on the panic resulting from something relatively minor like Boston. Humanitarian tragedies may be ignored, however easily-forecast continued trouble in the Middle East, North Korea, and in the first island chain will force our hand.

Based on your summary only, I won't be able to listen to the debate until this weekend, I would not identify Nagl as the winner. His points are the same misleading points that got us into the mess we're in now. I do agree COL Gentile undermines his credible arguments by focusing his attacks on the Generals. It is subjective, so I'll say in my opinion leadership is decisive in war, and we needed Petraeus when he arrived to help us change course, but in the long run the results of our effort in Iraq are still very much in doubt. Nagl is dead wrong that we threw out the book on COIN after Vietnam, Special Forces and others (to include Army leaders) we're conducting COIN the three decades between the end of Vietnam and 9/11. That is what kills me about who gets identified as an expert, Nagl a conventional soldier who never practiced COIN prior to Iraq, gets recognized as an expert by writing a flawed thesis comparing Malaya and Vietnam COIN efforts. We had senior COLs in SF and the Army (and retired) that had years of practice and study, yet their voices weren't heard when the "new" COIN doctrine was developed. Why develop senior officers through various assignments and spend tax payers dollars to educate them if we're not going to use them?

I'll wait to see what you perceive after watching it to see if it was just my perception or a personal bias on my behalf...or yours.:) I meant to mention this article the other day as a possible solution where active GPF and SF units work together.

What nobody noted was that the primary author was the company commander at Wanat back in 2008 when the Taliban, HiG, and foreign fighters massed and killed 9 American troops. Was glad this officer overcame the accusations that originally led to a letter of reprimand that was overturned. He and the battalion commander both have gone on to excel. I challenge anyone to claim that a SF/SOF unit would have fared any better at Wanat. I've read about SF units in nearby Korengal valley during Operation Red Wings in 2005 and they too had the same problems experienced by 173rd Airborne. Likewise at Shok Valley, SF units proved to be just as human as GPF Soldiers. Finally, in Lions of Kandahar, despite a pretty super-human effort by SF Soldiers, they also were aided by upwards of 75 air sorties that saved their collective necks.

With that said, perhaps you will acknowledge that SF/SOF units alone in Vietnam could not have held off the NVA/VC without hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops. There also does not appear to be a case for SF/SOF to be able to stabilize either Iraq or Afghanistan on their own let alone could they have trained the Iraqi Army and 350,000 ANSF while also preventing ethnic cleansing and destruction of infrastructure. SF/SOF are the right tool for the right FID job. However, neither Iraq or Afghanistan were FID situations and the task was too large in Vietnam.

I see in the news that the President just appointed James Dobbins to be an Ambassador of sorts between Afghanistan and Pakistan ala the prior Holbrooke days. Great choice after seeing his debate with COL Gentile a few weeks ago. Also I note that the Israelis may have bombed Syria again.

I found myself sharing some agreements and disagreements with each, and I didn't think either won over the other. COL Gentile stayed on message with what he wrote in his articles and with his numerous posts on SWJ. John Nagl showed a side I haven't seen before which somewhat softened my negative perception on his views, but more than once he came out of left field with some wild assertions that hurt his credibility in my opinion.

Where they converged:
They tended to agree on the most important point for the future of our Army. First and foremost they must be competent warfighters. Competent war fighters can adapt quicker to COIN than an Army focused on conducting COIN can transition to being competent at high end combat.

From a policy perspective they both agreed that invading Iraq was a major mistake and that we didn't achieve much in the end. John added that he hopes the students sitting there today wouldn't make the same bad decisions in the future.

Where they diverged

COL Gentile argued that the idea COIN worked to achieve our ends at responsible cost is dead. Not that COIN is dead. John countered that our COIN doctrine was effective and based on history (even though he agreed we didn't achieve anything in Iraq, and we wouldn't achieve much in Afghanistan). John came out of left field trying to justify his argument by stating more books written about the Iraq war support his position than Gian's. What he failed to mention is that most of the books were populist books by authors jumping on the COIN band wagon because it was selling. He lost a lot credibility in my view with that argument.

Gian of course attacked the perception that a savior general turned the Army around in Iraq and defeated the insurgency, and added there was no major change in Generalship between Casey and Petraeous. John on the other hand felt GEN Petreaus's leadership was transformational. I agree with John on this one. I'm not supporting our COIN doctrine, because we didn't use COIN doctrine to suppress the insurgency, we used very aggressive combat operations combined with getting out and controlling the territory and population. That resulted in a tactical victory, or as some have offered created enough space for us to pull out.

John while arguing against invading Iraq, seemed to make an argument for staying in Iraq based on Syria. He claims the only reason Assayd remained in power is because Iraq allows Iran to push support to Assayd. I'm sure it is a factor, but it demonstrates that John embraces the popular liberal argument that the Syrian resistance has the support of the majority of Syrians (doubtful, at least until recently). He also failed to mention Russian support which is probably more decisive than Iranian support. Then it got worse when John argued that the Boston Bombers were tied to the insurgency in Chechnya and Dagestan, which is why COIN is so important to the U.S. Neither of the Boston bombers involved in or were motivated by the insurgency according to the news. They were motivated by global jihad and if you take the 19 y/o bomber at his word, they acted out of revenge because Americans were killing Muslims in Afghaninstan and Iraq (doing COIN). Still too early to say, but that didn't stop John from making the assertion.

A point John made that I believe Gian agreed with was that we can't always start off right in COIN, so if we embrace protecting the population, then we can create some space to learn and adapt, but we must learn and adapt. I agree with that, but that isn't exactly new and you find similiar language in the COIN manuals that John claims were burned after the Vietnam War. GEN Shinseki and SECSTATE Colin Powell also understood this based on their study of history and doctrine, but unfortunately Rumfield saw it differently.

In the end, while I didn't agree with some Gian's arguments I think his arguments were more logical than John's. Gian's main point was large scale COIN operations are not worth the return on our investment. John believes if we don't do armed nation building we'll have to come back and fight them again. In my opinion that assumes armed nation building works (where has it?), and it also assumes we would have to fight them again. It isn't illogical to assume that a major punative defeat at the tactical level wouldn't serve as a deterrent against future attacks, but even if it didn't it would have still been cheaper to conduct three major punative raids over the past 10 years than to park our forces persistently, spending billions and losing thousands of men to accomplish what exactly? Did our COIN activities address the underlying issues of terrorism or fan the flames?

Bill M.:

Your statement:

"Competent war fighters can adapt quicker to COIN than an Army focused on conducting COIN can transition to being competent at high end combat."

is a false comparison because you are comparing an individual, the soldier (I hate the term war fighter or warrior. I read that Scipio did too.), with an institution, the Army. To my mind most intelligent soldiers can adapt to whatever comes along. The role of the institution should be to make sure intelligent, talented leaders and soldiers are selected in the first place and then allow them to adapt to the situation. The key is the selection and retention of good men and having an institution that allows them to do what needs to be done. They should get the basic fighting training and the more complicated fighting training. But they should also get some exposure to the small war stuff that worked in the past. If you do that and ALLOW THEM THE ABILITY TO ADAPT TO THE SITUATION when the small war comes, you will have it both ways.

To me the civilian, so much of this argument is about which books are on the doctrinal shelf, not about fighting the war that is there the best way it should be fought.


Not sure where we disagree on your points, and I largely agree with Ken's points made during previous discussions that we need to improve the quality of our training. Small Wars aren't new and there will always be aspects in any conflict that are irregular, so while some don't like the term, I agree with the concept of training the force for hybrid operations. First and foremost the Army's primary mission is to prevail in ground combat, whether that means defeating high end conventional forces or doing wide area security operations to defend against irregulars or a combination of those (most realistic).

I'm curious, who in your opinion prevents the Army from adapting? Is it within our ranks or is it our civilian leadership? Didn't the Bush administration go out of its way to deny the fact there was an insurgency in Iraq for two years? Not that our military leaders are blameless, far from it, but they operate in a context.

I really think much of what we debate is out of context. We practiced COIN (during FID missions) between Vietnam and 9/11, but it was largely SF (although frequently led my non-SF Army officers who understood it). What Nagl should have said is the Army didn't emphasize training on its COIN and FID doctrine, not that we didn't have it. SF did, but even SF was discouraged from doing so by senior Army leadership who wanted SF to focus on SR and DA because they felt that was more valuable in support of their decisive fight. Not sure how we got to that point in our history, especially based on our history, which should have informed us to keep the aperture open wider but we did.

Regardless, even if we had trained on our COIN doctrine and executed it well in both Afghanistan and Iraq I suspect we would still be in the same place because our strategic policy objectives were not grounded in reality. As a civilian you have every right, and I would argue duty, to criticize our military leaders, because major errors were made; however, don't let our politicians off the hook. I wish Americans would take a closer look at our foreign policy and challenge it when it needs to be challenged. Don't let a group of self appointed elites put our country at risk with their naive idealism.

Bill - Ref "Competent war fighters can adapt quicker to COIN than an Army focused on conducting COIN can transition to being competent at high end combat."

and your response, “The role of the institution should be to make sure intelligent, talented leaders and soldiers are selected in the first place and then allow them to adapt to the situation.”

No, the role of the institution to prepare a force (leaders included) to defeat the threat. Just fertilizing and growing smart soldiers doesn’t get us there especially when high OPTEMPO ops don't allow for a lot of OJT.

The logistics and warfighting skills honed in a conventional army can be translated to do counterinsurgency. Not true the other way around. A firefight is a firefight at the squad level. The logistics/planning required to execute a COIN operation/nation building at the BN and higher level are significantly different than conducting high OPTEMPO ops (if nothing else in the criticallity of time but it’s much more than that).

COIN environments allow armies a certain level of time and flexibility to develop necessary competencies. Not so for high OPTEMPO ops. It can be argued the Iraqi Army was quite successful repressing its people in a manner, occupying or conducting brutal COIN warfare. They didn’t last a month against the US Army.

Name one withdrawl under pressure an SF group (the equivalent of a BDE) has ever conducted in history or the immediate pursuit of a defeated force? Smart guys are key but understanding how branches and combat multipliers work together in high OPTEMPO battlefields is a different discipline than counterinsurgency.


Bill M. didn't make the comment you disagree with, I did.

After making that comment I also said the men should get basic fighting training and the more complicated fighting training. I figured people would understand that to mean learning how to combat load transports and coordinate combined arms in addition to knowing how to lay out night ambushes. When I used the word 'adapt', I didn't mean 'create from nothing.' 'Adapt' was meant to convey taking a pre-existing base of knowledge and changing it, or even discarding it to meet the situation. I didn't not write clearly enough and will try to do better.

Your statement about the role of an organization is correct in a very narrow sense, but it implies that the nature of the preparation can be known perfectly beforehand. It can't. The Royal Navy's struggles with the U-boats in two world wars, the AEF's struggles with everything and hundreds of other examples are proof of that. You do your best to prepare for what may happen but the key to actually dealing with what does happen, in my opinion, are those smart guys AND an organizational culture that will allow them to influence things based upon their immediate experiences. That applies to both large wars and small wars.

As far as your final question goes, it is sort of loaded given the BDE qualifier but I'll take a stab. How about the first Chindit mission for a SF group withdrawing under pressure? Or the march of the 10,000 as related in the Anabasis? For pursuing defeated enemies, how about the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), the Marauders? Or for just about everything under the sun given the time, Cortes' Conquistadors?

From a policy perspective they both agreed that invading Iraq was a major mistake and that we didn't achieve much in the end.

Agreed, they both said as much but obviously hindsight is easy and the bulk of intelligence said Saddam had WMD. Hussein even promoted that notion to keep the Iranians afraid. He had already used chemical weapons on the Kurds killing as many as 5,000. He already had launched long-range missiles at Israel. Then there is this Nagl comment:

John believes if we don't do armed nation building we'll have to come back and fight them again.

He cited Desert Storm where the job was left unfinished and the no-fly zone solved little. We did have to return at a time when Afghanistan required our full attention. By having to fight two simultaneous wars, instead of one that would have been finished through a longer Desert Storm, we shortchanged and prolonged OEF, and stressed our ground forces to a near breaking point through long and repeated 12 month deployments.

In my opinion that also assumes armed nation building works (where has it?), and it also assumes we would have to fight them again. It isn't illogical to assume that a major punitive defeat at the tactical level wouldn't serve as a deterrent against future attacks, but even if it didn't it would have still been cheaper to conduct three major punitive raids over the past 10 years than to park our forces persistently, spending billions and losing thousands of men to accomplish what exactly?

Counterfactuals work against that argument, too. We already had far more forces in Iraq during Desert Storm so why not finish the job as Dr Nagl implied? The Saudis and others were paying for Desert Storm, too. Why didn't we require the Iraqis to pay us back for OIF?

In Afghanistan, it's easily argued that Pakistan would not have allowed us repeated overland or overflight rights for return engagements if we had pulled out in 2002 and no longer had the clear 9/11 justification. Bin Laden and other al Qaeda and Taliban leaders would still be alive and planning attacks. They could have conducted C2 far more effectively and planned more stateside and European attacks without the constant threat of a Hellfire in their lap and the diversion of dealing with coalition troops.

As for where armed nation-building has worked, I would cite:
* WWII occupations
* post-Korea assistance to South Korea that now has 20 times the GDP of the north
* FID efforts of SF in smaller areas with lesser threats where existing effective armies and governments already welcome us and our chief of mission

Neither effective armies nor governments existed in OIF and OEF so more than SF was required to build effective militaries, restore and secure basic services, and try to forge a better peace and government. If we had split those two colonial-boundaried nations up into about five, that armed nation-building effort may well have worked pretty well.

If there is no security, it kind of is a no-brainer that whatever "build" efforts you attempt must have security, which implies armed. If more armed wide area security exists because there are adequate GPF to cover broad areas with multiple COPs, you will see far more NGOs, State Department, USAID, and Dept. of Agriculture civilians venturing into the countryside where they are needed.

Did our COIN activities address the underlying issues of terrorism or fan the flames?

Often folks cite that our mere presence in the Middle East promotes terror and "fans the flames" particularly citing drone strikes and the claimed "kill one make 10 enemies argument." Yet, we no longer are in Iraq but the civil war between the Sunnis and Shiites remains problematic. We aren't in Syria however many foreign fighters still are flocking there. If COIN activities don't appear to work for us, they do seem to work for Hezbollah and Syrian extremists:

Major expenditures and projects through corrupt contractors and officials may not work, but CERP funds seemed effective for smaller efforts dispersed over broader areas because more GPF could cover large areas and establish multiple COPs during both surges.

That aspect of local "build" is not easily accomplished if forces are fixated on clearing mountains in Afghanistan or jungles in Vietnam. That is terrain the enemy can better exploit to even the odds and remove our asymmetric advantages in airpower and night vision optics when there are clear fields of view.

Gian's main point was large scale COIN operations are not worth the return on our investment.

Compared to Westmoreland's efforts at COIN in Vietnam with 58,000 dead? Was search and destroy worth the blood and treasure we lost...far more of both lost in Vietnam.

If you ignore the cost of moving large air and ground forces deep inland to Afghanistan where there is little infrastructure, the costs in treasure is far less. We continue to keep Army troops in Korea, Europe, Kuwait, the Balkans, the Sinai, Africa, the Philippines and who knows how many Air Force, Navy, and Marine bases. Take away the word COIN and substitute large scale Army forward presence deterrence. Now picture regionally aligned BCTs practicing deploying battalions to regional bases.

If forces are safe in Kuwait, could they also not be safe in Jordan and Turkey adjacent to Syria without entering it. Would that cost much in blood or treasure? Near as I can tell, rotorcraft forces could strike anywhere in Syria from the sea, Jordan, or Turkey. I've asked before, when does the ground force get a relative sanctuary like the other services? By staying outside Serbia in the Balkans, ground forces still were able to deter genocide. Doesn't the same principle apply to Syria?

We'll probably just have to agree to disagree on a few points. I find your arguments on why we invaded illogical, but would rather focus on how successful our COIN/occupation actually was. What did it accomplish? Even Nagl agreed we didn't accomplish much and actually made the situation in the region worse all at great expense. Yet Nagl continues to champion the doctrine, why? In my opinion it has nothing to do with national interests, but everything to do with making with a living (the COIN think-tank military-industrial complex).

You can't compare our occupation in Germany and Japan to Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither Iraq or the Afghanistan nations (the people) were defeated, unlike Japan and Germany. Additionally both Germany and Japan were industrial nations with educated populations, so we didn't build squat, they rebuilt themselves for the most part. Our occupation of China at the end of WWII wasn't successful because the people were still fighting. Gian is right you cannot enable the economy to grow in the conflict zone (other than illicit trade to facilitate the conflict). We're delusional when we believe otherwise. The bottom line is we can't build nations, like Dayuhan said nations grow, we don't build them.

You keep bringing up the limitations of SF, yet no one has argued that SF could do any of this alone. SF more than anyone else knows their limitations.

Our presence in the Middle East does provide supporting rhetoric to motivate people to conduct acts of terror. We created the conditions for AQI to exist, and now AQI is active in Syria. If we're the one's that kick the hornet's nest and leave, that doesn't mean we didn't have a role in destabilizing the region.

Not sure why it is illogical to say we entered Iraq because we thought they had WMD. As I said Hussein had used chemical weapons many times before and had previously attacked Israel with missiles. That combined track record of willingness and means to deliver WMD is indisputable. We simply erred on whether he still had a nuclear program.

As all now know, things did not turn out well after "mission accomplished." That wasn't the ground component's fault, nor can anyone prove anything would have been better had we left precipitously in either OIF or OEF without any attempt to stabilize. If we believe that we could always return at a later date simply look at Iraq now and speculate whether we would conceivably return to try to stabilize, even if Iran gained a bigger influence foothold. Not a chance.

Neither can anyone prove the surge was unnecessary. However, we can state unequivocally that 76 new COPs were created in Iraq with the additional troops available. That combination of more troops in more areas outside of FOBs is what Gen Petraeus brought to Iraq and the later surge brought to Afghanistan. That is one of many COIN lessons worth keeping, while the notion that dissimilar peoples can be made to coexist and like us if only we practice COIN techniques should perhaps get deep-sixed.

In my opinion it has nothing to do with national interests, but everything to do with making with a living (the COIN think-tank military-industrial complex).

Those same think-tanks also make claims about the game-changing nature of Anti-Access/Area Denial strategies and technologies despite ample historical and common sense evidence that 1500 non-nuclear missiles are not particularly show-stoppers to any force that digs in, is armored, disperses, and has BMD capability. A2/AD is far more a problem for Air and Sea forces than Land. Yet think tanks never seem to admit how difficult it would be for the PLA to cross 100 miles of Strait and make a successful the face of far more than 1500 missiles worth of existing Taiwan dug-in ground, and coalition sea and aircraft opposition.

I saw another recent think tank photo that still will not acknowledge that we could have aerial tankers over Turkey or Saudi Arabia in most Iran-attack scenarios...instead portraying them only in the Arabian Sea to exaggerate distances for the F-35. Even if the DF-21D worked and was fielded in greater numbers, and had survivable satellites and over-the-horizon radars, and stealthy UAS, and on and on, we still could park aerial tankers between carriers and Taiwan or the Philippines to achieve air superiority.

Unequivocally, SF/SOF are critical. Because they are so good at some things, too many civilian policy-makers assume they can do it all, even if you quiet professionals know that isn't the case. The Army and Marines GPF and Joint SF/SOF bore the brunt of these wars in casualties and repeated long/austere deployments. Yet think-tanks are perfectly willing to overlook that and kick Soldiers to the curb. They would shift emphasis away from historically-essential ground forces required to stabilize on the ground where people actually live. Instead of likely messy smaller wars to deter rogue states and terrorists, think tanks market hypothetical and unlikely major AirSea conflicts deterred by MAD and mutually assured economic destruction.

Admittedly our Middle East presence promotes terror. But when we helped Muslims in the Balkans, terrorists still attacked us. When we freed Shiites from Hussein, Shiites still attacked us. We helped Afghans defeat the Soviets and freed them from Taliban oppression, yet still get treated like infidels. Bottom line: we're damned either way and if we left things would not improve, resources would be at risk, and Israel would be more aggressive out of necessity. If we do nothing in Syria and prematurely stop supporting Afghanistan things likely will get worse with Islamic extremists in charge of both Syria, Iran, and gaining strength in Pakistan and Turkey just as lack of secularism in Egypt already poses risks.

You can't compare our occupation in Germany and Japan to Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither Iraq or the Afghanistan nations (the people) were defeated, unlike Japan and Germany. Additionally both Germany and Japan were industrial nations with educated populations, so we didn't build squat, they rebuilt themselves for the most part.

Come on Bill, do you really believe Germany and Japan would have recovered as rapidly without the Marshal Plan or the Japanese equivalent? I was an enlisted man in Germany in 1975 and many area were still bombed out and even in the early 80s there was ample evidence of bomb damage. When the wall fell, the disparity between West and East Germany was nearly as bad as that between North and South Korea. The difference? The effects of capitalism and U.S. help vs. communism and Soviet "help" on otherwise identical cultures.

Agree to disagree. Usually we see eye to eye on most things. I just hate to see the Army take it in the shorts because think tanks try to make the Chinese ten feet tall and claim they willingly would forfeit Walmart and other world sales by attacking us, Taiwan, or seizing other inconsequential islands.

Only addressing the last point because I have to run. We didn't conduct armed nation building in Germany and Japan, with the exception of a very minor resistance element in Germany the fighting was over. I think there are many variables that will determine the success or failure of so called nation building (geography, culture, education, etc.), but my two main points are:

1. You can't do it when you're still fighting a major civil war.
2. Even if we're successful, it has nothing to do with the underlying causes that people are fighting for, so we diverted our focus.

Thanks for posting this. I have a feeling COL Gentile will have to give variations of this talk for some time:

Gen. Petraeus made a push to stave off this corruption when he took over from McChrystal as commander in July 2010. As the lead author of the Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency and as former commander in Iraq, he knew that the most brilliant military campaign would be for naught if Karzai’s regime remained less than legitimate in the eyes of his people. So he formed an assessment team of advisers to come up with a plan for reform.

- Fred Kaplan, Slate

Honestly. On Afghanistan, the military blames the CIA, the State Department blames the military, the CIA is being mum on how much bounty it paid to liaisons to get Al Q before it finally figured out it was being gamed, the current WH thinks it didn't get enough options from the military and State was no help in crafting policy (they may be right about that), NATO as an organization 'out of area' failed to impress with its committee-itis governance structure, and so on....

Come on. You all know this was a team effort for good or bad, and you all know where I stand on the good versus bad.

You all thought you could change essential regional realities, nation building or no.

Funny, searching around I found a late 1980's letter to the editor in the NYT warning the United States that there was no full bore pro- or anti-communism in the region, only a regional competition by various actors. We misunderstood regional South Asian motivations, utterly and completely.

That letter was more accurate than darn near all of the think tank punditry and military commentary that I have read over the years. How is it that one guy writing to the NYT over twenty years ago figured out what so many DC institutions couldn't, that the US or its partners can't bribe or militarily threaten away national existential instincts in South or West Asia?

It took me so long to finally understand what COL Gentile has been saying about Afghanistan because I don't necessarily agree on the COINTRA point of view regarding Al Q and its relationship to the various Talibans.

Doesn't matter for the purposes of military operations, I now see....

The sons of the soil insurgency related to the Karzai regime is not our concern because they have only regional concerns.

Neo-, narco-, or ideological Talibans either can be dealt with in a non-military fashion or can be lumped in with the CT focus toward Al Q.

Building will take place when the region calms down, it simply cannot be done in a timely enough fashion or at a money cost to satisfy the American system any other way.

I think CATO had a talk with Dr. J Davidson where she said that the principles in the military thought they would get more troops and were surprised? Paraphrasing, hope that's correct. Did you think you could rely on a sunk costs argument? That's not right.

Corruption wasn't just facilitated by the CIA, it was facilitated by the large amounts of pop-COIN money for various local developmental projects and monies siphoned off logistical and training funds both in Afghanistan and across the border of the Durand Line

What a squabbling mess as each cohort tries to play CYA.

Too bad, you've all got a point if you'd just grant the others their point.

The late Sen. John Glenn made warnings that proved eerily accurate on Iraq and other matters, didn't he?

We everyday people are not all sheep, you know. We can--finally!--figure things out.

Why did I write "late Senator"? I am a mystery to myself at times. Apologies. Too much time digging around newspaper archives and living in the past. It's oddly addictive. My search suggestions? The 1988-1992 period, key words: Afghanistan, various 'father' Bush administration officials, Bhutto, Cheney, F16, Kerry and, of course, Glenn. No gotchas, nothing conspiratorial or Alex Jones like found, just a messy interesting period that seems hard to fathom now because it was so under the shadow of our conflict with the Soviet Union and desire to globalize and trade with China and others. Terrorism and non-proliferation followed a very ritualized kind of thinking. It's hard to read parts of The Clinton Tapes because it's clear in retrospect that there was a lack of nuance in understanding various regional behaviors. Policy was based more on DC sensibilities than ground realities, IMO.

The emotional feel of that period is so hard to channel now, for me, but I do remember that everything had an "either or" feel to it, either you were on the right side of history regarding the Soviet Union, or the wrong side. The approach to allies was very emotional, very personal.

It reminds me of dealing with today and terrorism, a point made by many others over the years.

You can always find parallels to current times, can't you, depending on how you look at a period from the past.

I also don't mean to be a know-it-all. It's a rotten habit I've gotten into around here. I am deeply sympathetic on a personal level to everyone involved in this conversation that has a personal experience of both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Kaplan book really gets to me (the Insurgents) because it brings home the terrible situation the military found itself in Iraq and how hard some tried to bring any kind of order to chaos. There are scenes that really get to me in that book for some reason.

Here's my penance for writing "late Senator" (digging up and posting the following):

The last line of an op-ed from Glenn (1992):

Keep this in mind the next time someone in the administration extols the need for military action to deal with some power-hungry dictator seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.

But this is not about anyone else or any other country, it's about the attitudes and behaviors of some American officials over the years, even the non-proliferationists, some of whom live in a fantasy land. It's a bit disconcerting to read something like James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans and then come across an old op-ed line like that above. The issues are complex and I no longer feel so confident about making an opinion. I keep getting things wrong. The more you learn, the less you know it seems.

(I don't always read all these books, sometimes I just read parts of them. Come on, I am basically normal, not some bibliophile freak).