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The Limits of the Surge: An Interview with Gian Gentile

Friday, April 11, 2008

Gian P. Gentile is an active duty Army lieutenant colonel who has served two tours in Iraq, most recently as a combat battalion commander in west Baghdad in 2006. Last month, his World Politics Review article, "Misreading the Surge," brought a fierce internal debate over the Army's new emphasis on counterinsurgency operations and its potential impact on conventional capabilities to the attention of the general public. In the context of this week's congressional hearings on the Surge, WPR asked Gentile for a follow up email interview, to which he graciously agreed.



Describe the kinds of "classical" counterinsurgency methods you were applying in Iraq in 2006. Have any operational differences been introduced by the new COIN tactics? If so, why do you discount their impact on improving the security situation in Iraq?


Gian Gentile: In 2006 our primary purpose at the tactical level of platoons, companies, battalions, and brigades was, as it still is today in Iraq, the protection of the people. The cavalry squadron that I commanded, along with the sister battalions in the brigade that I was part of in 4th Infantry Division, did the same, too. We used what the Army calls "lines of operations" (or "loos"), that were focused on things like establishing local governance, improving essential services like garbage pick up, information operations designed to show that our interests were the same as those of the Iraqis, and we were killing and capturing insurgents -- both Shia and Sunni -- who were causing the violence and instability.


The only significant difference between what we did in 2006 (and before) as compared to 2007 onward is the use of combat outposts. We did not use them to the extent that they were being used in 2007. But their role in bringing about the lowered levels of violence in 2007 is vastly overstated. There is not a combat outpost in every Iraqi neighborhood in Baghdad; far from it. One needs to turn, therefore, to other explanations for the recent lowering of violence.



How do you explain the improved security situation in Iraq from July 2007 until now?


Gian Gentile: In my opinion, the two necessary and controlling reasons for lowering the violence in Baghdad in the second half of 2007 had little to do with the increased number of U.S. combat brigades practicing so-called new counterinsurgency tactics. Instead, the two necessary conditions were the decision by senior Americans to pay large amounts of money to our former enemies -- the non-al-Qaida Sunni insurgents -- to ally themselves with us to defeat al-Qaida and, as a by-product of this alliance, to stop killing Coalition Forces. That and Moqtada al-Sadr's decision to stand down attacks against American and coalition forces and against civilian Sunnis were the main causes. If those two conditions were not in place, I can not imagine how more American combat brigades using so called new methods would have lowered violence.


Recent increases in violence over the past two weeks between different Shia militias and between Sadr's militia and Coalition Forces indicate that at least one of these necessary conditions might be changing. It also suggests how critical these conditions are, and the amount of control that they have relative to what impact we think the additional American brigades practicing so-called new counterinsurgency methods have had. A question to consider is this: If the Surge was the primary cause for the reduction in violence in the second half of 2007, and if the majority of the Surge brigades are still in place, and if they are continuing to practice these so-called new counterinsurgency methods, then why has violence increased?



Do you believe the security gains, whether due to the Surge or not, are stable?


Gian Gentile: My assessment when I commanded a combat battalion in 2006 was that Iraq was in a complex, multifaceted civil war. My current assessment is that that fundamental condition has not changed. The basic issues in Iraq have yet to be resolved, namely, who will ultimately hold power: Shia (and as recent weeks have shown a battle is occurring within Shia Iraq over who will hold power over that sect) or Sunni. Sometimes, as fatalistic as this may sound, these kinds of deep-rooted social issues are only solved through fighting and war. The issue of slavery and the American Civil War provides a good historical analogy to think of when considering Iraq today. That issue in American history was not ultimately resolved until a bloody civil war was fought between the North and South.


There are definite limits to what American military power, even when applied by good American combat units executing best practices in counterinsurgency operations, can accomplish in a place like Iraq.



What success claims made by proponents of the Surge do you take particular issue with?


Gian Gentile: I have made known through postings on the Small Wars Journal and Abu Muqawama blogs and in published op-ed pieces that I disagree with assertions that prior to 2007 and the increased number of combat brigades, American forces in 2006 had pretty much quit the country and were standing by passively as the Iraq Civil War raged around us. Nothing could be further from the truth.


I am also often bothered by statements that fall within this flawed conception that we were "hunkered down on forward operating bases," which in my mind implies cowardice, or that we "commuted to the fight," which in my mind implies both poor counterinsurgency tactics and operations and an unwillingness to face dangers. We did counterinsurgency operations prior to the Surge pretty much by the book as far back as early 2004.



Next Page: 'There are definite limits to what the American military can accomplish' . . .

You've also argued that as a result of the Surge's triumphant narrative, the Army is at risk of relying too heavily on COIN tactics to the detriment of conventional warfighting capacity. How exactly do you feel that impact will be felt? To what extent is it already being felt?


Gian Gentile: There is much to be proud of in American soldiers serving in outfits in Iraq (and Afghanistan). They face dangers every day and continue to serve. Their families go through a lot, too, and are critical to the well being of the army. Nothing of what I have said in terms of my assessment of the security situation in Iraq and understanding the causes for the recent lowering of violence should take away from the credit American military forces fighting in Iraq deserve for their hard work and commitment in the service of the nation.


However, I have argued in other places that misreading the Surge threatens the U.S. Army's conventional capabilities because it reinforces the idea that good units using best counterinsurgency practices can win in any counterinsurgency environment. If we believe that as an Army, then we might be tempted to further our focus on counterinsurgency to the detriment of preparing for other more intense types of war.


Moreover, misreading the Surge and claiming success for so-called new counterinsurgency methods might suggest to policy makers that any problem in another country is solvable through the use of American military power. There are definite limits to what the American military can accomplish, as Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be suggesting.



You argued that the COIN doctrine was being embraced without adequate internal debate. Recently, though, it seems like more of the Army's top leadership has been echoing the idea of imbalance (Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody, for instance, last week in congressional testimony). Do you feel like your message is getting through?


Gian Gentile: From 1976 to 1982 there were over 110 articles published in the Army's Military Review that fundamentally challenged the emerging doctrine that would become known as "Airland Battle." This in my mind is an example of a wide-ranging debate about an Army's operational doctrine. We have had nothing like that in today's Army for either the new counterinsurgency doctrine, FM 3-24 (.pdf), or the new Operational doctrine, FM 3-0 (.pdf). There are, of course, good reasons why we have not. Unlike the early 1980's, our Army is now at war and has been for the past 6 years, and has not had the luxury of relative peace to think deeply about these matters. But we should at least acknowledge where we are at now with our Army, the actual conditions that we are in, and start thinking hard about where we are headed.


Gens. Casey and Cody know the overall condition of the American Army better than anyone else, so I must defer to them for specifics on the condition of the Army caused by over 6 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. They both have commented that the Army is under great strain and is out of balance. And these concerns are not just held by the Army chief of staff and his vice chief. The senior military commander in Iraq, Gen. Petraeus, also understands, as he testified to Congress about the strain that the war in Iraq is placing on the American Army.


I personally believe that the American Army is not just out of balance but is actually close to breaking, if not already broken. History has shown what happens to armies when they are stretched to the limit. In World War I, against the German Army in the trenches of the western front, the French Army in 1917 saw a few of its frontline units mutiny against senior military authorities and refuse to fight after a series of disastrous offensives. The American army will not mutiny like some French Army units did in 1917. Indeed the American Army's professionalism and commitment to duty will cause it to continue to persevere as long as it is ordered to do so in Iraq and Afghanistan. But through its perseverance it will be ground down to a shell of the American Army that existed before to 2001.


I certainly don't see myself in any way as the driving force for this "message." What I have done, I think, through published writings is highlight concerns that many other soldiers hold in the Army today.



Finally, where would you situate this debate in the context of the program to "transform the Army" set into motion by former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld? Does COIN and the emphasis on stabilization operations represent a repudiation of the "Rumsfeld Doctrine"?


Gian Gentile: In COIN, a precondition for success is the existence of a legitimate government. The United States has one success in the history of counterinsurgency since WW II to its credit: it succeeded in assisting the legitimate government of El Salvador defeat an internal communist insurgency. However, it was not the U.S. military that defeated the FMLN guerrillas, but the Salvadoran military under the control of its own government, with U.S. encouragement and no more than 50 or so U.S. military advisors. Moreover, El Salvador was not simply a sovereign state: El Salvadoran society was and is a single identity -- an essential prerequisite for successful internal defense of a government struggling for survival and legitimacy.


None of these conditions apply to Iraq, where the Iraqi government does not appear to be legitimate in the eyes of its people -- whether Shia, Sunni or Kurd -- and it seems that one Iraqi society does not exist.


In the end, the real question that must be answered before any transformation can occur is: What is the strategic purpose for which a transformed armed force will fight?

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