June 1, 2008  

The war we have

Soldiers argue merits of surge and counterinsurgency doctrine

The appointments of Gens. David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno to the head of Central Command and of Multi-National Force-Iraq, respectively, send one clear message: The surge will go on. Its two key architects and most visible proponents, after all, are now at the helm of American military operations throughout the Middle East and Iraq. But as the generals settle into another stint of command, the military is agog in debate as to the success of the surge and what it means for both the Army’s future and its past.

Many of these arguments have been conducted on the Small Wars Journal website. Two leading voices so far have been Lt. Col. Gian Gentile and Col. Peter Mansoor. These two soldier-scholars are professors of military history and have combat experience in Iraq, where Gentile commanded a battalion in 2006 and Mansoor serves as Petraeus’ executive officer after having commanded a brigade in 2003-2005.

Gentile fired the first shot when he critiqued Army Field Manual 3-24, “Counterinsurgency” in the pages of AFJ [“Eating soup with a spoon,” September]. Gentile argued that the manual had “removed the essence of war — fighting — from its pages” and needlessly dismisses the value of tactical combat. This year, Gentile has taken even more direct shots at the new counterinsurgency doctrine, arguing in print and online that it is not only flawed in theory, but also ineffective in practice. His archetypal essay in this effort is “Our troops did not fail in 2006,” in which Gentile argues: “There is little difference between what American combat soldiers did in 2006 and what they are now doing as part of the ‘surge.’ The only significant change is that, as part of the surge strategy, nearly 100,000 Sunnis, many of them former insurgents, were induced to stop attacking Americans and were put on the U.S. government payroll as allies against al-Qaida.”

This distinction between the portrayal of the surge as a watershed and its similarity to previous operations is the locus of Gentile’s argument: If Army operations already had adapted by 2006, then why bother rewriting a field manual and retraining soldiers away from conventional warfare? Gentile is concerned that the focus on training the Army for counterinsurgency unnecessarily risks crippling the force in the future. In an article for the World Politics Review, he argues that setting the record straight about the surge is “essential for the future of the American Army” lest it “travel down the counterinsurgency path many times again, placing further strain” upon its ability to fight conventional wars.

Mansoor took his response to Gentile online in the Small Wars Journal (http://www.smallwarsjournal.com), where he argues that even though soldiers had adopted better tactics by 2006, they were undermined by the development of ever larger forward operating bases (FOBs) that isolated the troops from the Iraqi people: “The soldiers did not fail. The strategy did.” Moreover, he argues that the key to the Sons of Iraq movement was not mere bribery, but a sign of public trust: the dispersal of American forces from the FOBs and into small posts throughout Baghdad. “The sheiks and other community leaders turned against Al Qaeda-Iraq first, due to terrorist depredations on their communities and also due to their belief that they would be supported by U.S. forces willing to live among their people to protect them.” Without the change in strategy, the increase in troops or Sons of Iraq payouts would have been wasted.


Also looking toward the future, Mansoor argues that the greatest threat to American military operations today is not that the Army and Marine Corps will forget how to fight conventional battles, but that “our senior leaders will allow our newly developed counterinsurgency capabilities to lapse and, like Gentile, focus instead on preparing the Army to fight the next ‘big one.’” He concludes by suggesting that the military should “fight the wars we have, rather than the ones we want.”

Gentile and Mansoor lay out strong, contrasting views on the history of the war. Either the U.S. wasted its efforts through 2006 by executing a flawed strategy that removed American forces too quickly from the fight, or the U.S. just got lucky rather than better in 2007. Either the surge and the execution of FM 3-24 represents the culmination of years of military learning, or it is waste of military doctrine that will ultimately eat into the ability of American forces to fight conventional battles. And ultimately, either the U.S. is on the path to victory in Iraq, or else it is as contingent as ever upon the willingness of Sunni and Shiite factions to play nice.

Nonetheless, some element to the Gentile-Mansoor debate is not about the future but the aspersions that already have been applied to the past. This argument is not, after all, an academic debate: Both men have led soldiers in Iraq and buried them. Gentile’s articles and SWJ posts are deeply sensitive to the caricature of “FOBbits” and the blanket criticism from Washington that the Army failed its mission in 2006. He strikes back at what he views as personal criticism of his leadership and his soldiers: “My squadron conducted over 3,000 combat patrols and operations during 2006, and contrary to the myth created by the neo-con spin machine, we didn’t just drive by and look; we got out, walked, talked, fought, worked hard to protect the people.”

Although it is not the basis of his professional arguments, this personal sensitivity by Gentile points to a deeper, more problematic truth: His time in Iraq is now accepted by most accounts to have been wasted. In the popular narrative, 2006 is the nadir, the year that American forces turned away from a civil war and retreated to the FOBs. It was this perception of failure that fueled the argument over the surge in Washington that year and ultimately allowed a change in strategy.

One SWJ contributor, “Schmedlap” captures this problem when he observes that the popular narrative of the surge is unfair, but that it really does not matter that it is so: “I agree with the general theme that Iraq has not been turned around by some enlightened soldier-scholar with a Ph.D. rolling into to town and using intellect instead of firepower. That was an image that appealed to the media and academia and was politically expedient. However, Gen. Petraeus made a big difference by simply reversing the FOB consolidation trend.” It may indeed not be fair, and when the military’s historians review the Iraq war as it was fought year by year and town by town, they will certainly find more nuance than the current explanation that 2006 was a necessary condition before Iraq would experience its annus mirabilis in the surge. Perhaps the last sacrifice of the soldiers who fought in 2006 will be to patiently await the day that their efforts are given a full and proper accounting.