From the time following the election, there was an increasing pace of articles, papers and interviews geared towards “informing the President’s decision” about the way forward in Afghanistan. Since the plan was announced just over a month ago, there has been a swelling cry amongst those who did not find their opinions well-represented in the new plan. These people knew, with the appointments of a number of those who champion opposite views to influential positions in the Pentagon and elsewhere, that their chosen paths were probably not going to carry a lot of weight. The reaction has been to raise a hue and cry in an attempt to catch hold of any lack of commitment or loss of enthusiasm due to difficulty.
This has resulted in some strange actions, such as calling Andrew Bacevich during Senate hearings dedicated to hearing from Afghanistan veterans. It has also made for some strange bedfellows. The website AntiWar.com recently published an interview with COL Gian Gentile, which many would find odd, in that a serving officer and department head at West Point would grant such an interview. The author of the article does rather stridently go after Gentile’s ideological opponents, presenting his opposition argument in a purposely dim light. This prompted one commenter on Abu Muqawama to point out that the author, Kelley B. Vlahos, is a correspondent for Fox News and a writer for conservative publications, labeling her among the “Paleo-Conservatives.”
Regardless of the political affiliation of the author, it is very odd that a military officer who has become a lightning rod for the traditionalists in the military establishment would find, or accept, such a warm embrace from AntiWar.com. In fairness, COL Gentile explains that he did clear the interview with the West Point PAO. I would expect nothing less, really, nor would I expect a different answer from that PAO. That does not make the interview less odd in its character.
Those who are on the side of the argument that hasn’t found favor in the administration are arguing strenuously that the administration is continuing to pursue “failed policies of the Bush administration,” which has become the ultimate political slam, the equivalent of labeling someone a racist to those who use it. Of course, those who advocate the adoption of the “new” strategy for what has come to known as “AfPak” are painted with that same brush here. COL Gentile comes out looking like the great patriot, while those who differ with him are painted as, well, not as patriotic. In fact, Gentile is painted as being the one who is sincere for simply being willing to embrace AntiWar.com, while his opponents receive a slightly different treatment.
Gentile laughed when he thought of the ribbing he might get among the COIN-set, being interviewed by a site with the name “Antiwar.” Ultimately, he doesn’t care. He is driven by a sincerity his detractors cannot touch, and a personal mission not to let current war doctrine go unchallenged. He might just have a ghost of a chance.
A sincerity his detractors cannot touch. Nice. Sincerity, for a military officer, is now defined by their willingness to interview for AntiWar.com. We’ve come a long way, baby. Note the overwhelming sincerity below that cannot be touched by the likes of Nagl:
Deny it they may, says Gentile, but today’s policymakers are promoting a similar Surge strategy for Afghanistan (See congressional testimonies by Flournoy and Chief Af-Pak envoy Holbrooke this week: clear, hold and build, with more boots on the ground, more civilian experts, more COIN). As an active duty officer, Gentile won’t question current plans outright, but he left me with this:
“As soldiers, our role is to do whatever we are told to do by our civilian masters. However, my experience is, that the idea of using military force to change entire societies — to use John Nagl’s words — at the barrel of a gun, is highly problematic and it is not as clean and as clear and as sensible as I think our own COIN doctrine makes it seem to be,” he said. “I saw what it is like changing the entire society at the barrel of a gun in Baghdad in 2006, it wasn’t as simple.”
The wording of this quote is unfortunate. Nagl has made the statement about changing societies. I cannot find any reference to this change being, “at the barrel of a gun.” There are several instances of Gentile saying this, however. It’s actually a phrase that he resorts to repeatedly. It’s part of his schtick. Now, I may be wrong, and I’d have no problem with having it pointed out, but while I have found those two elements linked together frequently in Gentile’s writing and again in quotes from him, but I have not found an instance of it said by Nagl.
It may also be cleverly worded, especially in the quote above, to appear that Nagl has said that the Army, “can change entire societies at the barrel of a gun.” Now that’s sincerity that cannot be matched. Clever = sincere.
Overall, this is an exercise in First Amendment rights, and I support it as such. No problem there. Other than that it is quite the display of odd bedfellows. It was also a great way to challenge the patriotism of his ideological opponents, and specifically Nagl, without having to say so himself. Nicely played. I can’t say that it added to COL Gentile’s stock in my book, but it was well played.