Colonel Gian Gentile is, you could say, counter-counterinsurgency. He did two tours in Iraq, rising to cavalry squadron commander, teaches at West Point, and has emerged as a leading critic of COIN's role in U.S. strategy. All the new fence mending and hand shaking, he says, will atrophy the military, whose reason for existence – whose sole reason – is killing, without apology.
It's not that Gentile likes big, bloody wars. His political views are "far left," a product of growing up in California, he says, laughing. He's a large man with a tight haircut, but he wears a congenial, lopsided smile and swears more than he means to. He wears a carved wooden bracelet, a symbol of his wife's Buddhist beliefs. He's a hodgepodge. But he loves his country, he says, and too much counterinsurgency has "crippled" America's forces. "The American Army today has become so consumed with counterinsurgency tactics that COIN tactics and operations have now eclipsed strategy."
Strategy, in military terms, is a leader's vision. Tactics are the tools used to accomplish it. Clearing pirates from the Horn of Africa is an example of strategy; sending SEALs in inflatable Zodiac speedboats is a tactic. Gentile says America's leaders in Afghanistan have confused the two, and that gets him riled.
"When I hear a four-star general in Afghanistan, like Petraeus or [former Afghanistan war commander General Stanley] McChrystal, talking about separating the insurgents from the population," he says, "that's the language of tactics and operations. That'd be like Eisenhower in the summer of '44, giving a speech on strategy, but on how infantry squads were clearing 88 [calibers] from the hedgerows."
What option do the current generals have, though? Politicians made the decision to go to war, so the strategy is already set in motion. Good tactics are the only way out.
"How do you end a war that's lost because of failed strategy and policy?" Gentile says. "Do you just keep pushing and hope that you'll get better at tactics and operations, and that'll save you?" You can't persuade people to defend themselves, he says. "It's all such bullshit, man. This whole fucking fetish with behavior and influence, and that men with guns can somehow sway people's minds and change their behaviors."
That's the philosophical abyss that separates COIN advocates and opponents. Counterinsurgency advocates believe in war as a sharp instrument. Their opponents view war as a sledgehammer, a blunt and heavy object designed for killing.
Those opponents appeal to history. Counterinsurgencies lose, they say. Look at Algeria, site of the French debacle. Or Vietnam.
But, respond the COIN advocates, Galula defeated insurgents in his part of Algeria because he understood counterinsurgency. And what about Northern Ireland? Or Malaya? Oman? Or countless smaller counterinsurgencies in Colombia, El Salvador, Peru, western Sahel, the Philippines, and elsewhere? Yes, counterinsurgencies lose, but 60 percent of them are successful, COIN advocates claim. And consider the closest analogy we have for Afghanistan: Iraq. Didn't counterinsurgency work there? Petraeus dangled the carrot of dollars and swung the stick of increased ground operations, and violence plummeted. Now the place is finally climbing to its feet.
That claim touches a nerve when put to Gentile. "We don't know how Iraq is going to turn out," he snaps.
With that, the colonel returns to his binders. They hold reams of cable communiqués from Vietnam war commander General William Westmoreland and his successor, General Creighton Abrams. Westmoreland embodied the traditional approach: a hard-charging, hammer-swinging leader who used search-and-destroy tactics that focused on the enemy. Abrams favored counterinsurgent methods, focused on winning the hearts and minds of the population. History remembers Westmoreland poorly for his role in Vietnam, and Abrams as the general who would have rescued victory if he hadn't run out of time. Gentile feels otherwise. "People think we were losing in Vietnam, and oh, a better general with better tactics came in and saved the day," he says, waving his arms for emphasis. "Nonsense."
That's what led Gentile to dig through antique war correspondence from two dead generals. "There was more continuity than change in Vietnam after Abrams arrived," he says – people have it backward. And in a way he's right: Westmoreland once declared that the jungles of Vietnam were "no place for either tank or mechanized infantry units." And Abrams – well, the Army named a tank after the guy.
Abrams, Gentile feels, showed up just in time to snatch the scraps of glory. And Gentile hates that.
In 2006, before the surge, Gentile's cavalry squadron took a beating in Iraq, but it handed out more casualties than it suffered, by far. And still the observers back home and abroad said the Americans were losing in Iraq. Then a new general – Petraeus – showed up with an Australian adviser – Kilcullen – just before the war there turned around.
And now they want to do the same in Afghanistan.