Small Wars Journal

Ten Whats With... Col. Gian Gentile

Ten Whats With... Col. Gian Gentile by Micah Zenko, Council on Foreign Relations. On COIN and IW: "I think with the current fad and fetish of counterinsurgency, irregular wars, often times caricatured as "wars amongst the people" fought to win the allegiance of local populations and to suppress so called "irregular threats," we may be losing the bubble on the fact that states still exist, and potentially in the future we may one day have to face a hostile state again."


motorfirebox (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 11:06pm

The article implies, unless I misread, that COL Gentile sees the military reducing its ability to fight conventional wars as part of increasing its ability to fight small wars. In what ways is that reduction in conventional combat effectiveness taking shape?

"we have been in this country 10 times (not 10 years. That gives the illusion of consistency."

Dead right about that. Not only have we been there ten times in ten years the mission has constantly changed. Try running a company like that and any MBA doctrine would fail. Read From Good to Great and Built to Last.

In Afghanistan we havent only been attempting to defeat an insurgency we have been doing this alongside a building new Government with poor administrative and governance ops experience in Kabul let alone in the Provinces and Districts.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., astutely pointed out in his 1977 biography of Robert Kennedy, the notion that reforms can be carried out in a wartime situation by a beleaguered regime is "the fatal fallacy in the liberal theory of counterinsurgency, with the United States so often obliged to work through repressive local leadership, the reform component dwindled into ineffectual exhortation."

The operating environment in Afghanistan is more than simply an insurgency. The fundamental failure in governance to meet the needs of the population underscores a deteriorating situation that is further exacerbated and complicated by criminal activity, narco-trafficking and spoiling actions by third parties (including most prominently Iran and Pakistan). Even if the US and its Coalition allies could roll out FM 3-24 it is the GiRoA that must eventually take over and contend with an environment that any member of the G-8 would struggle to contain, let alone the second least developed country in the world.

A complete approach to COIN involving military, foreign affairs, governance, law and order, building the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and development has only really been applied in Afghanistan with the full attention of the US administration since 2006-07. Even then with too few troops and even fewer civilian implementing partners who are prepared to get out from behind their fortresses in Kabul. The Rand Corporation in 2007 was accurate and frank in its assessment when it pointed that is wasnt until 2006 that the UK and the US began coordinating Departments within their own administrations; then came the realisation of the need to coordinate between the various governments and international agencies.

The ramification for the US military is that an array of loosely connected national governments and their various departments are conducting a COIN campaign. IT IS NOT JUST THE US MILITARY! In Afghanistan each sector is represented by one or more government departments at the national level, and this escalation of complexity and scale is further amplified by an international dimension. Rand Corporations constructive analysis suggests that the better coordination on paper has actually led to further obfuscation in practice.

As we have seen in the deconstructing Galula debate, nothing is pretty in practice nor does it romantically unfold where we all ride off into the sunset. And when some retell their story the day to day dirt, grit, blood, sweat and tears is overlooked. The fact that this discussion and scrutiny is happening, thanks to Col. Gentile, should be welcomed.


Bob (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 4:01pm

To Col Gentile: Firstly, I would hope that we are in fact in Afghanistan for a very long time, albeit at a greatly reduced force levels and with non combat roles. So, I do not advocate "militarism run amok" although my somewhat rambled comment may imply this. The reason is not purely so we can win: the goal of a stable Afghan ally in a volatile region, next to the crumbling nuclear armed Pakistan who are potentially China's big regional ally if they hold together, is a decent one.

But you are right that it is time for the ANA to start defending their nation. Then we can and must re-assess the new post Afghan/ Iraq environment and the focus on small wars and failed states. It is vital that people such as yourselves are already looking to that, so no disrespect was intended.

To Milprof:
I was not trying to imply that leaving Afghanistan takes us back to 1998 when I mentioned 9/11. My point was that while defending our shores is priority, leaving Afghanistan before the government and army there are ready would immensely embolden terrorists and tin pot dictators the world over. Some of those may one day take up arms alongside a conventionally armed state, threatening our allies around the world. Democracies may start to be seen as lacking in resolve by our enemies. Does America and NATO have a moral obligation to help these nations?

Yes, but I believe the course we are on now is diplomatically and militarily building numerous regional allies. China is doing the same the world over now. I believe that in the end this supports our conventional military objectives- America's interests around the world would be safer for that, and to an extent that is protecting her shores.


Thu, 06/23/2011 - 2:07pm

I look forward to reading "Wars That Never Were." A little disappointed that it will be coming out just in time for basically what will be the end of the major part of the latter two conflicts.

I'm still confused on why the elements of strategy on both sides of this debate are mutually exclusive. Maybe the book will paint that picture for me.

John (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 12:43pm

The problem with the Generalship is who is selected. When Generals are selected for any other reason than warfighting ability, we lose. Now you have a non-warfighter developing a stratgy... Would we select an builder to build us a bridge based upon his personality OR his ability? You want to get back to full spectrum operations... Fine, but don't discount the lessons from these wars. One of the. What does full spectrum mean to the average infantryman? The ones who need the training in full spectrum are the staffs and CDR's. The Army and Marines are not going to be transformed, just because we started digging foxholes again. During the American Revolution we had to adapt, in order to survive. So a small under equiped force, with limited train, whiped the Best conventional army of the period??? What were we doing right then that we arn't doing now? Many things is the answer and until we do we have become that big Army that gets defeated

John (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 12:43pm

The problem with the Generalship is who is selected. When Generals are selected for any other reason than warfighting ability, we lose. Now you have a non-warfighter developing a stratgy... Would we select an builder to build us a bridge based upon his personality OR his ability? You want to get back to full spectrum operations... Fine, but don't discount the lessons from these wars. One of the. What does full spectrum mean to the average infantryman? The ones who need the training in full spectrum are the staffs and CDR's. The Army and Marines are not going to be transformed, just because we started digging foxholes again. During the American Revolution we had to adapt, in order to survive. So a small under equiped force, with limited train, whiped the Best conventional army of the period??? What were we doing right then that we arn't doing now? Many things is the answer and until we do we have become that big Army that gets defested

G Martin

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 12:32pm

I just read last night the part of Woodward's <em>Obama's Wars</em> where he describes Patreaus in an NSC meeting on Afghanistan starting off with "In Iraq we learned..." and everyone in the NSC groaning...

JackC (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 12:06pm

Anyone want to place bets on whether Iraq will still be seen as a success in 10 years? How many people seriously believe that the local actors are going to get along with each other and the country won't be facing the exact same questions then as it does now? I suspect that, despite all of the effort and power-point slides, we didn't fundamentally change anything on the ground.

Bob's World

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 8:21am


A fine string of comments. Yes, in Iraq we empowered a total Iraq solution. If our solution had excluded any one of the three, or even if any one of the three had reasonably perceived themselves to be excluded, it would be as bad today as it was at the peak.

In Afghanistan we began from a position of exclusion, and have been riding that broken horse the whole way. That is why reconciliation and an new constitution that represents ALL Afghans is so important as step one to getting to stability. Gen Petraeus took that step in Iraq, and it was lost in the military noise of the surge. We (no surprise) defined the success their on the terms we understood, rather than based on a sophisticated understanding of the illegal political conflict that is insurgency.

We need to take that step in Afghanistan as well, once it is done we will (I predict) see a shockingly rapid transition to stability (no nation building or massive security force build-up required) Oh, but we will not get to define the answer, and we need to learn to swallow that pill.


John (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 8:20am

COIN is in theory makes alot of sense. COIN in practice is an expensive failure. In Utopia it would work, in the real world is just dosn't. Best strategy for counter insurgency, see what the Brits did in Malsiya in the 60's or what the Rhodisians were doing.


Thu, 06/23/2011 - 8:09am

I think the Col. is spot on with much of what he has to say. I especially look forward to this new book he is working on.

I would have to question the first commentators statement that COIN doctrine remains valid until Iraq and Afghanistan are over. Why? Just because we are in the midst of such an approach? The question that must remain in the fore front, when deciding what approach to take to in a conflict, is what is the political objective policy makers are seeking to accomplish through the use of US military resources and does the necessary military investment to accomplish such a goal justify the investment. These are not questions that have really been answered properly. If the goal truly is hunting Al Qaeda then the approach articulated in FM 3-24 is massive over kill. I would also be interested to know why he thinks CIA and SpecOps can't accomplish the goal of hunting Al Qaeda on their own, different environment obviously (friendly government) but it worked in the philippines. They cant rebuild a nation on their own, but they would seem well prepared to fight Al Qaeda on their own.

Jimbo why so little love for pure intellectual curiosity? You never know where it may end up.

Bill M. not to continue to sound like a Col Gentile cheerleader, but I think it is safe to assume that he understands that states will leverage the population, see Clausewitz's On War Book VI, Chapter 26: Arming the Nation, in which Clausewitz talks about, essentially, nations leveraging the population.

Does any one know if Col Gentile believes that FM 3-24 is a an approach to COIN that does not work because of the fundamental differences between insurgent grievances in the anti-colonial policing action (French Algeria), the political-ideaologoical insurgency (Mao, Vietnam, the target of FM 3-24) and multi faceted international regime change inspired insurgencies (Iraq and Afghanistan, what Steven Metz refers to as a liberation insurgency in his article Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in 21st Century). I wonder what he thought of Kilcullens recent article in JFQ An Actor-Centric Theory of Warfare?

Col Gentile, I am currently working on my Masters Thesis (although I leave for army OCS in July) and it would seem to cover some similar historical ground, is there some way I could get a hold of your bibliography, see where some of the gaps in my reading are?

COL Jones, would you say that your final point about Iraq is the same as saying success in Iraq has been about getting the Iraqis to take responsibility for themselves?

RCS (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 7:58am

I think one of the more frightening things that is brought up is that an entire generation of officers now view conflict purely through the lens of COIN. One day us JO's will be senior day we may have another seemingly large conflict that requires military day we'll have to decide to think first and see the alternatives.

Here's hoping that with the drawdown that we can learn to train again and that we can learn to develop capabilities internally without outsourcing it all to contractors...

On the otherside - here's hoping we develop a coherent grand strategy and properly implement policy to attain it.

Bob's World

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 7:52am

(First, I am not the "Bob" who made the first post - rumor has it there are more of us out there....)

I completely agree with Gian in regards to the need for our military to be prepared for war rather than COIN, SFA, IW, etc as defined over the past 10 years by "SMEs" whose expertise I frankly question. We disagree on other things, because as Bill Moore points out, Gian is an advocate for a position, and advocates tend to take polarizing positions.

As to "COIN" I hate what has been done with that term, much like I hate what the American League has done with baseball. To the untrained eye Big Army/USMC FM3-24 looks, smells, tastes like COIN, but as my life-long die-hard SF Giants fan wife is quick to tell me "it's not real baseball" (or rather, "COIN")

We've lost our way; we have missed the critical nuances of a critical form of governmental response to lend stability to domestic or foreign conflicts between a populace and their government. We have bastardized a concept to do what we want to do, rather than apply a concept for what it was intended to do. We have failed to distill the centuries of colonial and cold war containment bias from the historical references we crafted our current doctrine from. Lastly, we attempt to apply it in places where our overly broadly defined interests and outrageously broad current definition/list of "threats" have taken us.

So, if Gians advocacy helps to pull us back from the abyss, I say don't quibble over the details of one's disagreement with the totality of his position, just grab the damn rope and help pull! (We'll sort out the detail later)

(Oh, and for the record it was not the "surge" or "COIN" that succeeded in Iraq, it was empowering a government that included all three of the major stakeholders in the future of that country, and gaining their confidence in that condition. In Afghanistan we dedicate ourselves to the promotion of one half against the other.)


COL Robert C. Jones, USA, (Ret)
Director of Strategic Understanding
Center for Advanced Defense Studies


Thu, 06/23/2011 - 5:16am

I was a "coindinista" during my deployment to Iraq. COIN worked there. Of course, I was at a BN level and could have a direct impact on the local community.

Today, I'm sitting in Afghanistan as part of an ADT. Here's what I'm seeing from COIN, now. It's not efficient and I question the long term effectiveness. The reason is not necessarily the doctrine itself but the implementation. COIN works partly because there are extensive CIV-MIL relationships. Since 2002, we have been in this country 10 times (not 10 years. That gives the illusion of consistency). The coordination between USAID, DoS, USDA, and military organizations have been nearly useless. There is no coordination or unity of effort. There are some GREAT powerpoint slides, though. Instead of empowering the people, we've created an environment of corruption. We are not buying off the insurgents, we're just renting them until we leave. It's beginning to turn around, however, just in time for the President to call for a reduction in troops. How ironic.

Where we will see that COIN was a success in Iraq, we are going to be in for a very big disappointment in Afghanistan, I fear. Let's just kill bad guys, empower the ANA/ANP to kill bad guys and tell Karzai to run his own country.

What bothers me in this COIN debate is the all or nothing approach. Any nation or military that only planned for State vs State conflict or small wars is equally irresponsible. As far as the basic tenets of COIN it makes perfect sense.
Equally unhelpful is forgetting that these countries within which we have engaged in an insurgency conflict are complete basket cases with a population (forget the bad guys) who dont really like us anyway. Quite frankly Im not interested in whether the people in Afghanistan like us as long as they dont hate us enough to allow our enemies (terrorist or States) to set up shop.
Thats why all this hearts and minds nonsense is so misleading.
"Americans [and their allies] tend to think that deep down we all have the same values. Americans believe that all these terrorists, if you scratch beneath the surface, are looking for religious equality and justice. That's complete and utter nonsense. American [and their allies] can't face the reality that different people have different values." (Ibn Warraq; Why I am Not a Muslim. 1995)

One thing is for sure there is far too much jargon in the whole COIN debate that it clouds our perception and expectations and has become meaningless.

Finally, stop beating yourselves up. Unfortunately for the US you have been relying on pretty mediocre partners. This comment isnt meant to be disrespectful to a single soldier from the Coalition - they dont set the rules. However, Im sure many of us have worked alongside NATO partners where it would be better if they went home because State vs State or insurgency fight their political leaders have been poorly resourced, equipped and prepared their military they would struggle in either form of engagement without the backbone and teeth of the US.

In Summary:

1.We need to be preparing for a range of conflicts
2.Get back to basics in how we describe the doctrines that we employ i.e. clear and simple language
3.Forget trying to get everyone to love us
4.Apply pressure on our Coalition / NATO partners in taking full responsibility for how they engage in current and future wars

Apologies for the eclectic discourse. Im in the US and the time zone playing with my logical thinking.

G Martin

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 12:55am

I'm curious as to a doctrine that dictates the same lines of effort in every counterinsurgency no matter the context. Maybe that's us putting the doctrine into practice incorrectly- but since we all seem to make that mistake either our education systems are failing us or (and?) we might as well forget doctrine because none of us seem to know how to use it.

I know "muddling through" isn't a preferred technique by the armed forces- but if that's what we're really doing we might as well admit that instead of refusing to learn how to do it better...

Gator 2-6

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 12:52am

COL Gentile - Sir, do you consider SFA directly correlated with nation building? I was definitely part of the disease rather than the cure whilst tramping around as a PL who consistently downplayed the ability of the ANSF, therefore my hypocrisy on the subject cannot be downplayed...however I have trouble finding many issues with the strategy of low troop numbers and direct ANSF advisement / support.

Bill M.

Wed, 06/22/2011 - 11:11pm

I think COL Gentile serves an important role by being an informed cheerleader for the anti-COIN crowd, and at one time was the sole credible voice questioning the CNAS version of COIN strategy. If left unchallenged, the CNAS crowd would have pulled us into the new Fulda Gap myopia that the future of our security is only COIN. The downside of COL Gentile's views, is they are not balanced. I hope someday we can move away from the extrems in this debate and argue over relatively minor points, but agree that a balanced approach to our national security is needed, and that includes being prepared for irregular warfare. I won't touch FM 3-24 for now other than to state I don't think Gian has made a supportable case that it is entirely flawed (it definitely has its flaws, or more importantly our interpretation and practice of it are flawed).

Gian, as have others, reminds us that we are still living in a world composed of States, and they each have their interests, so it is foolish to assume there will not be another State on State conflict. However, what he doesn't address (perhaps he assumes it) is that States will leverage populations where feasible to help pursue their aims, just as Iran leveraged the Shite population in Iraq and Lebanon, and the U.S. leveraged the Contras and Afghan resistance, etc. Irregular Warfare is and will remain an important aspect of our national security, so we can't simply wish it away. Furthermore, there has been a trend recently to narrow the scope of IW to COIN, and that needs to stop. We need to look at the full spectrum of IW and develop appropriate doctrine beyond COIN to address its opportunities and potential threats.

I do take issue with the comment that our focus on hearts and minds doesn't work. I agree our focus on CMO and development has not been effective in defeating insurgents (directly or indirectly), and many American officers and NCOs interpret HAM as strictly soft power (how do you like me now acts), but convincing the population that the State is going to win (or the insurgents convincing the population they're going to win) is a "major" aspect of HAM, and that clearly means being dominant in combat operations (operations that support a logical strategy and produce "tangible" results that the populace can see and understand).

milprof (not verified)

Wed, 06/22/2011 - 11:09pm

Does anyone really think that closing out the war in Afghanistan means we'd be right back to 1998? That's what Bob's comment seems to imply. Wrong from a number of sides, not least being that the Al-Q organization is a faint shadow of what existed then. Nor are we likely to end up with an Afghan govt as tolerant of such groups as back then, even in a bad scenario. We have much better ISR and strike capabilities for CT missions now -- both high tech things and JSOC dudes -- and we'd have a hell of a lot more willingness to use them than there was in the Clinton era (or Bush's first 8 months).

More to the point, they did not and do not need Afghanistan!!! The most relevant parts of the 9/11 planning happened in Germany, the key training happened in the US itself, and the money sure wasn't raised from Afghan goat herders.

I was actually just chatting today with a senior field-grade guy from ISAF staff, very close to the GOs, and he said flat out that "No one seriously believes that we'd be threatened by 'terrorist safe havens' if we left right away". Actually said that. Instead cast our involvement as nation-building and creating a secure future for the Afghan people -- and enthusiastically believes that's worth the cost in lives and treasure.

I suppose at least that's a better reason than continuing to fight just so that we can put one in the self-defined "W" column for the Army, as Col Gentile notes.

Jimbo (not verified)

Wed, 06/22/2011 - 11:00pm

While I find much to agree with in the interview, the one answer that struck me as most telling was this:

"What would you research if given two years and unlimited resources?

Either of these two medieval battles: Poitiers or Agincourt. I have always been quite interested in the military history of the medieval period, but have never had the time and resources to devote to primary historical research in that field."

Unlimited resources gets an academic answer, not vision.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Wed, 06/22/2011 - 10:35pm

Bob said: "We must finish what we started on the ground."

why, because the army says it cannot lose a war, and has defined for itself what victory and losing means? Or is this just another bowing to the tactics of Coin which dictate that any coin campaign necessarily takes a long, long time?

With such thinking we will never leave the place.

It is militarism run amok.



Wed, 06/22/2011 - 9:54pm

I don't agree with all of Gentiles assertions here. While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have indeed been immensely costly, COIN doctrine remains valid until those wars become a distant memory: our force levels and assistance decline as they "step up" to their governance and defence. Therefore, COIN is neither an addiction or doctrine, nor a fad. Is it the soft, gentle war option? Was McCrystal's JSOC approach during Iraq soft and gentle? No. Was it conducted in the context of a comprehensive COIN strategy? Yes.

If COIN doctrines sudden revival seems faddish, we seem to have forgotten the severity of the crisis in Iraq that led to the Surge. Remember the other proposals? Speed up transition to the Iraqis was a popular one as Iraq fell apart.

This is not an "obsession" with COIN at the expense of conventional warfare. It is merely the coalition adapting to the war at hand. COIN exponents do not believe state on state is extinct.

Furthermore, no sensible proponent of COIN doctrine advocates initiating or getting involved in a counterinsurgency. Is Gentile mixing up the doctrine with the desire to get involved in the first place?

Was FM 3-24 the demon book that inspired the Afghan and Iraq invasions? No, it is a rough, flexible guide to best practice in the advent of such a foreign policy quagmire.

This is not about jumping ship from our current wars to get back to defending our shores so we can focus on a cyber or conventional threat again. The American armed forces were defending Americas shores on 9/11.

We must finish what we started on the ground. To disrupt and dismantle Al Qaeda from the air or using the CIA/ special ops alone? I think this was the mentality that got us into the Afghan quandry to begin with: wild goose chases against terrorists while having only a shaky strategic vision for the region.

It's precisely the mentality that is causing Libya to drift off course. When was the Ho Chi Minh trail least effective? When it was interdicted by troops on the ground.

I would be interested to hear Col. Gentiles proposals for an AfPak strategy at a substantially reduced cost.