19 Nov 2008 @ 3:46 PM 

Gentile Vs. Nagl: The Army In Microcosm


When I first arrived home from Afghanistan, many of my observations about the conduct of operations in Afghanistan were not entirely rosy. I was encouraged to write about them, perhaps in an Op-Ed piece, by a journalist friend. She stated that these observations needed to be heard, to contribute to the larger discussion. I felt it imprudent, though.

I am not a recognized expert, theorist, or even a man of significant rank. I am merely a moderately articulate NCO; a pawn in the larger game; of relatively light experience compared to those who have served multiple tours. I have no experience in Iraq, and am only an observer of those events. I was a participant in what was at the time the most violent year in Afghanistan, and I was present through the first quarter of what has now become the most violent year there. I do not possess any significant education upon which to build a pulpit. The most significant unit I have ever led in combat was not even my own command. I advised a company-sized element of Afghans as part of a larger operation.

Speaking out on much greater issues in a huge public forum would have been imprudent indeed, not to mention potentially insubordinate. Yes, many of my observations were not complimentary; some would be regarded as harsh. It is not unusual for men who operate at my level to be disillusioned with numerous aspects of the organizations which I functioned in during my tenure as a combat advisor. If you read Afghanistan Shrugged, you will see that many of those problems have still not been ironed out.

Now there is an existing debate which stirs in me the courage of my convictions. Over at SWJ they are tracking the debate between two accomplished men, COL Gian Gentile, veteran of two tours in Iraq as an S-3 and squadron (battalion level) commander, and Dr. John Nagl, retired Lieutenant Colonel, co-author of FM-3-24, author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Viet Nam, and widely recognized counterinsurgency theorist/proponent.

Both are accomplished officers and both are, no doubt, most sincerely interested in what is best for the nation and the service’s ability to do the job for this nation. It is an honest debate, and other than a few sharp words, a gentlemanly debate. It is also a microcosm of two schools of thought within the Army itself. These two men are on the same team. So am I.

Robert Haddick at SWJ writes that Nagl and Gentile are both right. There is a hole in the basic premise of COL Gentile’s argument, however, that makes it untenable in its present state. While correct in his assertion that the Army’s job is win its nation’s wars; all of its nation’s wars, his assumption that we have in fact become a culture of counterinsurgents is incorrect. This is my personal observation as a graduate of the Combat Advisor Training Course at Ft Riley, as a veteran combat advisor, and having functioned in, around, under, and beside various units in the hinterlands of Afghanistan. So I must respectfully disagree.

We, as an organization, have not “gotten it.” Our practical application of COIN principles, strategies, and tactics is hit-and-miss at best. While you see successful COIN operations in one area, in another they are lacking to abysmal. The application of the current doctrine for the war in which we are actively engaged is so spotty that within the same area you will have units who are attempting to accomplish appropriate goals while other units within the same battlespace are seemingly doing all they can to disable those same efforts.

As Dr. Nagl points out, there is no consistent education in COIN doctrine. The level of expertise of any leader in basic COIN principles is left entirely to the individual in most cases. Before arriving at Ft Riley, a package of books arrived in the mail. Among them was David Galula’s book, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. It was an eye-opener. A thin book, it is a primer on counterinsurgency. Abu Mukawama has this to say about it:

This slim volume has probably had more effect on the way in which Abu Muqawama views counterinsurgency warfare than any other book or article. FM 3-24 is great doctrine, but Galula gives his reader a feel for counterinsurgency warfare in a way the field manual does not. It is also very short, and to-the-point. Which is why, over the past few years, Abu Muqawama has taken to mailing photocopies of this book to friends in the field. One friend, an infantry company commander outside of Baghdad, read the book a little over a year ago while deployed to Iraq and had this to say:

Just finished reading Galula’s book. What a great read! It’s so common sense, so right, so easy to understand, it begs the questions: Why haven’t I heard of it before, and Why aren’t they teaching this stuff at the Advanced Course?

He’s referring to the Advanced Officer’s Courses. My question is, why isn’t this being taught at the NCO academies? Why isn’t it being taught at the soldier level?

The book was my first exposure to counterinsurgency theory, and I became a believer. I thought that I was among the very few who had not been exposed to this theory, attributing the failure to the fact that, as a National Guardsman, we were once again missing the point. I was to find out that much of the Army is missing the point. FM 3-24 was published just prior to my heading off to Ft Riley, again surprising me. “What?” I thought, “How can we be five years into a war and just now be publishing doctrine on how to fight it?”

How indeed.

COL Gentile, in his essay, Let’s Build an Army to Win All Wars asserts that the Army did in fact smoothly shift gears from conventional operations to counterinsurgency operations after defeating Iraq’s military in the first three weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I find this assertion to be lacking in substance. Now, while recognizing that I was not there, what I saw was a tremendous conventional thrust which decapitated a nation, immediately followed by a complete breakdown in law and order. The Iraqi Army, Police, and all governmental officials were summarily fired and a vacuum ensued.

This was not a smooth transition from conventional to stability operations. There was no transition other than the transition to generalized lawlessness. I remember watching the statue of Saddam fall, immediately (and I mean immediately) followed by looting on a grand scale.

This was unplanned for. There is no other explanation for the mayhem. The Army can execute any kind of operation that it plans for. This was not planned. The generals and our nation’s civilian military leadership honestly thought that we would decapitate a country and a new, smiling, friendly head would immediately sprout in its place. Obviously, this did not occur.

Nature and politics abhor a vacuum, and by sheer suction a hydra of forces large and small emerged to fill the vacuum. None of these forces were friendly towards Americans and were just as brutal to their civilian opposition. What began as a general sense relief on the part of the people degenerated into angry terror. We had plunged them from rigid dictatorship to unpredictable, violent chaos.

No, Sir. I don’t see the smooth transition. I don’t see unity of effort. I don’t see properly planned stability operations, and I don’t see well thought-out and executed COIN operations in the following three years; except in local cases. Again, the hit-or-miss approach to this war.

My experience in Afghanistan would demonstrate the same hit-or-miss application of the only doctrine that has a chance of success in this war; AirLand is certainly not the doctrine that will win this one. Which brings me into agreement with Dr. Nagl on his first paragraph:

A stunning if predictable development in the military community over the past 2 years has been the backlash against the promulgation of counterinsurgency learning in the midst of the ongoing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. ~Dr. John Nagl

I do disagree with him on one point; it’s not a backlash, it’s resistance. A backlash would come from people who studied, became expert practitioners, and then revolted against the doctrine due to some negative experience. This is resistance to learn, practice, or even submit to the doctrine.

These two well-educated men are indeed engaged in a debate over how our Army should proceed in the coming years. While Dr. Nagl proposes the establishment of an “Advisor Corps” as a solution and points out his opposition, COL Gentile offers no solution to the problem he perceives and stridently decries Dr. Nagl with phrases like “deeply troubling,” “crusader,” “cocksure,” “fabricates,” and “breathtaking statement.” These are not reasonable, analytical words to my ears. They are strident, oppositional, and emotional.

What emotion would drive such an instinctive opposition to a doctrine which, given the failure of AirLand Doctrine to effectively suppress insurgency, offers the best chance of success in an insurgent environment?


The kinetic warriors of the Army, COL Gentile being the spokesman, reject the war that they don’t want. It’s not a war of maneuver and tank-on-tank. It’s not a war of clearly defined objectives, massed artillery in support of brigade maneuver, assaulting through the objective and planting the flag of victory. The elite warriors, the killers, don’t want nation-building; and they’ve been dragged, sulking, into it.

The authors of the Army’s 1986 AirLand Battle doctrine premised their manual on fighting as the essence of war. Fighting gave the 1986 manual a coherence that reflected the true nature of war. The Army’s new COIN manual’s tragic flaw is that the essence of war fighting is missing from its pages. ~COL Gian Gentile, Eating soup with a spoon

This is a war where the enemy nearly always gets to pick the fight. It’s a war of IED’s and civic leader engagement. It’s a war of Information Operations. The enemy doesn’t wear uniforms. It’s not a chess game; it’s a multiplayer Rubik’s Cube.

But today, with the new doctrine, that singular focus is gone and replaced by a fuzzy notion of combining different types of operations. If a rifle company commander sits down and reads the Army’s high-profile doctrinal manuals, he learns to be an occupier, a policeman, and an administrator—but not a fighter. In the Army’s current operational field manual, there are no maps, no arrows, and no symbols representing friend and foe, only a loose collection of blocks, squares, and figures representing fuzzy conceptual notions of different types of operations and suggestions of how to combine them. This observation may seem simplistic and trivial to some, but it does point to the larger problem of the Army’s shift away from fighting as its organizing principle. The key assumption that underpins the Petraeus Doctrine is that the threat most likely to face American ground forces will be little more robust and capable than a lightly armed insurgent on the model seen in Iraq. ~COL Gian Gentile

It’s not sexy. It’s tiring, frustrating, ponderously slow, impossible to accurately judge the progress of, and fought at impossibly small local levels. It has nothing to do with any Audie Murphy, John Wayne, or even Stephen Spielberg war movies other than the wearing of helmets, carrying of weapons, and violent, bloody death.

It is fighting without, sometimes, fighting. I’m not saying anything he doesn’t know. He just doesn’t like it.

The eminent scholar and strategic thinker Eliot Cohen noted that counterinsurgency war is still war, and war in its essence is fighting. ~COL Gian Gentile, Eating soup with a spoon

Pride. Warrior pride and the dilution of the warrior way of fighting. Now, add to this a bit of insult:

They tell us that we failed in Iraq from 2003 until 2007 (but were rescued by the surge in 2007) because we did not learn the lessons of the past that provide clear templates for victory in counterinsurgencies and irregular war. In a recent interview on National Public Radio, General Caldwell told the story of the Army conducting military occupations over many years and failing to learn and retain lessons each time. His implicit point was that if the Army had paid attention to these lessons learned and formalized them into doctrine, the first 3 years of the war in Iraq might have turned out differently. ~COL Gian Gentile

“They tell us that we failed.” No wonder that he’s not happy.

There is another quote from his writings; a piece in World Affairs Journal:

The counterargument—that American forces had settled so comfortably on forward operating bases that they all but quit the country around them—is flatly and directly contradicted by the operational record. My squadron, 8-10 Cavalry, Fourth Infantry Division, conducted close to 3,500 combat patrols and operations during our year in west Baghdad. ~COL Gian Gentile

This again looks like a man who is saying, “Hey, I was doing it right, too!” There are officers whose efforts are particularly lauded; COL McMaster and COL MacFarland are examples. They are credited with amazing successes pre-surge and peri-surge. COL Gentile and his unit were not so recognized; and by that omission lumped into the “failure” group. That never sits well with a commander who is rightly proud of his troops. He as a commander knows that his troops were not failures.

I read COL Gentile’s “Eating soup with a spoon” in Armed Forces Journal while I was in Afghanistan. With no idea of who he was, I found it to be an oddity to the extent that it still resides on my desktop where it was saved. To read that and to read the articles that have come after it are to witness a significant ratcheting-up of the rhetoric from then to now. COL Gentile has gone from objecting to the lack of fighting being stressed in FM 3-24 to the entire thing now being a threat to the future of the Army’s ability to serve the nation. He has become downright belligerent in his language towards Dr. Nagl.

To me, tactical success could guarantee a lot. The high points for my squadron in 2006 were when we achieved tactical success by conducting a small ambush team operation that resulted in killing either Shiite militia or Sunni insurgents who demonstrated hostile acts or intent. Those times were few, but they meant a lot and they guaranteed, at least for a time, the regaining of the initiative and increased morale among my soldiers. There are other forms of tactical success: raids that captured Sunni insurgents or Shiite militia; cordon-and-search operations that seized large caches of weapons; even operations that removed garbage from the streets could be all seen as tactical successes in COIN. But if the fundamental element of war is fighting, then the tactical success that means the most to the combat soldier is when he can engage and potentially kill the enemy. And the COIN manual’s paragraph that defines the meaning of the term “tactical success” as part of the paradox implies that “tactical success” revolves around “military actions” that involve fighting the enemy. ~COL Gian Gentile, “Eating soup with a spoon”

A couple of months after reading this, I was to be reminded of it again in my conversations with SSG Smokey Jackalacker, who was insistent that he came to Afghanistan to kill bad guys and that he was already tired of hearing of COIN. COIN interfered with his whole vision of war. It just wasn’t kinetic enough. He talked of assaulting through the objective, killing the enemy and double-tapping anyone he saw there. I can empathize.

He goes on:

The natural instinct for a combat soldier when attacked is to protect himself and his buddies. Yet the paradox that “the more you protect yourself, the less secure you are” becomes counterintuitive to the soldier. It does not make sense because he experiences the essence of war fighting almost every day. So the paradox creates cognitive dissonance in the mind of a combat soldier in Iraq because it essentially tells him to do something that is unnatural to him and his environment — to not fight.

I am not arguing that a counterinsurgent force should hunker down on large bases and focus solely on force protection. But the “surge” plan for securing Baghdad tries to replicate as a tactical method what the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment under Col. H.R. McMaster did successfully in Tal Afar, Iraq, in 2005 without the requisite number of combat soldiers to do it. And in trying to replicate Tal Afar in Baghdad, without adequate forces, we have produced supreme tactical vulnerability to the combat soldiers in these combat outposts. In these outposts, they now experience viscerally the opposite of the paradox that “the more you protect yourself, the less secure you are.” They see things now as “the more I protect myself in these combat outposts, in terms of tactical security, the more secure in them I actually become.” ~ COL Gian Gentile, “Eating soup with a spoon”

Nothing in the doctrine advocates not protecting yourself tactically. What it does advocate is getting close to the people in order to provide security for them locally. This does appear to put troops closer to being in harm’s way, but what it really does mean is not staying in the large, centralized FOB’s. Force protection measures at the COP’s (Combat Outposts) are certainly not meant to be ignored. Here COL Gentile begins to touch on security for the people (which he argues in later are not the center of gravity in counterinsurgency warfare, arguing instead the the enemy is truly the center of gravity.)

The thing is that providing for the security of the population is not the end state; it is the beginning state for a successful counterinsurgency. It is where all the other stuff begins; the infrastructure, the economic development, the good governance, even effective information operations. All of that flows from providing local security, and in turn local security becomes better because of all of those things.

He goes on to discuss non-kinetic operations:

When I was in Tikrit as a Brigade Combat Team Executive Officer in mid-2003, my unit was already executing counterinsurgency operations, rebuilding the area’s economic infrastructure, restoring essential services, and establishing governance projects. ~COL Gian Gentile, “A (Slightly) Better War: A Narrative and Its Defects”

Okay, now we’ve gotten to where COL Gentile has a point that I don’t feel that he states clearly, but that I’ve been touching on for awhile; the Army is not suited for all of the aspects of counterinsurgency. The Colonel is correct in respect to what the Army is good at; killing people and breaking things. What is the Army not well-suited to?

Nation-building. At least, not all aspects of nation-building.

The Army is well-equipped, but not well-organized for advising and mentoring a variety of indigenous personnel. The Army and Police come to mind. Dr. Nagl attempts to offer a solution for that failure in organization. His idea of an Advisor Corps is not well-received within the Army (my perception.) I don’t really see his Combat Advisor Tab ever coming to fruition, either. The lack of support that the combat advisor mission receives is a story all its own. It is a mission that many avoid. There is no professional benefit, and until recently it was actually a career-slower if not a career-killer. That’s what really demonstrates the importance of the mission to Big Army.

Say it’s a priority, but then make it so that it’s unappealing. On top of that, provide no clear guidance to commanders on the ground what the mission really is or how to deal with Combat Advisors who are working in their battlespace. Provide no support. It’s a backwater, under-resourced mission. If you are an advisor, you will likely be on your own a lot. You will be an unwanted guest on a FOB, constantly questioned as to why you are doing certain things with your people, and sometimes even told that you cannot move because you don’t have enough assets.

Local commanders will see you and the indigenous forces which you advise as their assets. If you are not doing what they want for you to do, they will exert great pressure upon you to do so. You will not be answerable to your owning command, you will be answerable to the local battlespace commander, to whom you will also report, and who will pay more attention to your reports than the advisor command. This can be beneficial when you have a battlespace commander who “gets it.” It is the worst imaginable case if he doesn’t.

Dr. Nagl’s recommendations will not be adopted by the Army. However, Big Army has no better plan. Things will continue to go as they have; there hasn’t been enough pain to make it otherwise. That’s part of why I say that Big Army isn’t under the thrall of counterinsurgency doctrine, as COL Gentile fears. He describes it as “Svengali-like.” Trust me, having been there at the ground floor, it’s not. Having worked with line units, some of whom were totally lousy at working with indigenous forces, it isn’t. Much more of the Army is in his camp than in Dr. Nagl’s.

The point is that the Army should be good at those aspects of counterinsurgency that it is well-suited to. It’s hit-or-miss with those aspects, with no consistency of the quality of the effort. However, as far as the aspects of nation-building that the Army is not suited to, something needs to be done. There are NGO’s out there that can do a lot of good things. True economic development is not the realm of the Army. Not the United States Army, anyway. The People’s Army is a very enterprising Army; it owns a lot of businesses (NORINCO, which makes weapons that are sold in the United States, is owned by the People’s Army.)

The NGO’s usually provide human services of various types. Most of them are not economically oriented, unless they are trying to assist farmers. Where is the great industrial might of the United States? Well, they aren’t allowed to play. Witness Free Range International’s post. The whole story isn’t about economic development, but when he says that the State Department says that Americans aren’t supposed to travel in Afghanistan, and that they won’t help you if you get into trouble, that’s a pretty good indication of why there isn’t a lot of economic development being done in Afghanistan.

It’s left up to the Army. No wonder we’re struggling. That and the corruption that Tim describes in his post. It’s crippling.

To Sum It Up

Dr. Nagl wins this round. He is correct that this is the war that we are fighting, and that COIN is the doctrine that will bring success. He’s also accurate in his assertion that the Army is not doing a very good job of evangelizing the doctrine.

COL Gentile’s has a great point in that nation-building in all its manifestations are not best left to the Army alone. He also loses his point in opposing COIN doctrine due to its treatment of kinetics. In his writings he frequently mentions fighting or the lack of emphasis on fighting. Those days are not likely gone forever, but that is not the present. We are not doing a good enough job of living in the present. When we truly are expert counterinsurgents, then we can probably spend more time thinking about how we need to be prepared for the future.

In the meantime, don’t sell the tanks or the howitzers. What I’d like to see is COL Gentile offering a solution that allows us to pursue this war to a successful completion while maintaining the core competencies of AirLand Doctrine. Dr. Nagl offered a plan, but it has died for lack of enthusiasm. Lamenting the problem while offering no viable solution other than decrying COIN doctrine as a danger to our national interests is no help.

Tags Tags:
Categories: Afghanistan, COIN
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 19 Nov 2008 @ 03 46 PM


Responses to this post » (3 Total)

  1. David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 11/20/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  2. membrain says:

    “Dr. Nagl wins this round. He is correct that this is the war that we are fighting, and that COIN is the doctrine that will bring success. He’s also accurate in his assertion that the Army is not doing a very good job of evangelizing the doctrine.”

    This is an excellent piece of analysis on your part Blue. ‘Victory’ in Afghanistan, as I see it, is if the new Commander in Chief stays the course with Petraeus. As far as I can gather Gates gets it but apparently plans to retire.

    The Army has to fight the enemy they face. Not the one they wish for.

    I wonder which way Hal Moore would have gone in this situation.

  3. Susan Katz Keating says:

    This is exactly why I wanted you to write – and still want you to write – that Op Ed piece. We need your perspective.

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