Officer Questions Petraeus's Strategy

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Wall Street Journal
April 7, 2008
Pg. 3
Iraq War Veteran Says Focus on Counterinsurgency Hinders Ability to Fight Conventional War
By Yochi J. Dreazen
WEST POINT, N.Y. -- When Gen. David Petraeus testifies before Congress on Tuesday, lawmakers from both parties will praise him for reducing violence in Iraq. President Bush will try to use his popularity to bolster support for the war. Some Republicans will muse about the general as a vice-presidential candidate.
Lt. Col. Gian Gentile, a history professor here who served two tours in Iraq, begs to differ. He argues that Gen. Petraeus's counterinsurgency tactics are getting too much credit for the improved situation in Iraq. Moreover, he argues, concentrating on such an approach is eroding the military's ability to wage large-scale conventional wars.
"We've come up with this false narrative, this incorrect explanation of what is going on in Iraq," he says. "We've come to see counterinsurgency as the solution to every problem and we're losing the ability to wage any other kind of war."
Col. Gentile is giving voice to an idea that previously few in the military dared mention: Perhaps the Petraeus doctrine isn't all it's cracked up to be. That's a big controversy within a military that has embraced counterinsurgency tactics as a path to victory in Iraq. The debate, sparked by a short essay written by Col. Gentile titled "Misreading the Surge," has been raging in military circles for months. One close aide to Gen. Petraeus recently took up a spirited defense of his boss.
It's hard to quantify how many people stand in Col. Gentile's corner; his view is certainly a minority one. But increasingly, the Pentagon's top brass are talking in similar terms. Two of the five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have warned recently that the military's ability to fight another kind of conflict -- say a war with North Korea -- has eroded.
At a February hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, said troops have been unable to train for any other type of conflict because of the short time between deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gen. James Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that month that the focus on counterinsurgency means the Marines will "have to take extraordinary steps to retain the ability to serve as the nation's shock troops in major combat operations."
Other testimony from military brass as recently as last week has echoed these complaints. Some of the griping is likely geared toward protecting big expenditures on new equipment.
The gist of Col. Gentile's argument is that recent security gains in Iraq were caused by the ceasefire declared last year by Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr as well as the U.S. decision to enlist former Sunni militants in the fight against Islamist extremists. Col. Gentile notes that violence spiked after Mr. Sadr's militia briefly resumed fighting last month.
More fundamentally, Col. Gentile, 50 years old, worries that the military's embrace of counterinsurgency -- limiting the use of heavy firepower and having soldiers focus on local governance -- means it isn't prepared to fight a traditional war against potential foes such as Iran or China. He says the more time soldiers spend learning counterinsurgency, the less time they spend practicing combat techniques like fighting alongside tanks and other armored vehicles.
Gen. Petraeus, 55, who is set to appear on Capitol Hill on Tuesday and Wednesday, has the highest public profile of any Army officer since General William Westmoreland during Vietnam.
His reputation as one of the military's pre-eminent thinkers was capped with the 2006 release of a new counterinsurgency manual for the Army and Marine Corps., which he helped draft. It outlined the long list of tasks from rebuilding infrastructure to training local security forces that would have to be accomplished to defeat insurgencies. This February, the Army added "stability operations," a subset of counterinsurgency, to its core missions of offensive and defensive operations, the first such change in more than 232 years.
Col. Steve Boylan, a spokesman for Gen. Petraeus, said the surge deserved credit for enabling the other dynamics contributing to Iraq's security gains. "The surge was definitely a factor," he said. "It wasn't the only factor, but it was a key component."
Col. Boylan said that he was familiar with Col. Gentile's arguments but disagreed with them. "I certainly respect the good lieutenant colonel," he said. "But he hasn't been in Iraq for a while, and when you're not on the ground your views can quickly get dated."
Col. Gentile joined the ROTC at the University of California's Berkeley campus, an unusual military recruiting ground, before earning a doctorate at Stanford. He served two combat tours in Iraq, first as the executive officer of a combat brigade in Tikrit in 2003 and then as the commander of a battalion in a restive area of northwest Baghdad in 2006.
The colonel acknowledges being bothered by the suggestion that the U.S. was losing in Iraq until Gen. Petraeus took command. Five of his soldiers were killed in Baghdad, including one sergeant shot by a sniper shortly before the squadron returned to the U.S. "If I and my men had pretty much quit the country in 2006, then how did soldiers under my command 'just get dead?' " he wrote in an op-ed article for the International Herald Tribune.
Col. Gentile bases his broader critique in part on his own experience. When he returned to Texas' Fort Hood after his second stint in Iraq, the colonel wanted to give a refresher course on basic combat techniques.
His brigade commander vetoed the idea, Col. Gentile says. "You have to go train your guys to deal with a sheikh," he says he was told.
He also argues that Israel struggled in its 2006 war with the Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah -- which operates more like a traditional army than a terrorist group -- because the Jewish state had spent years focusing on counterinsurgency. His conclusion is echoed by a historian at the Army's Combat Studies Institute, who concluded in a recent paper that Israel lost the war because "counterinsurgency operations had seriously diminished its conventional war-fighting capabilities."
Col. Gentile's arguments have drawn fierce criticism from counterinsurgency advocates, in particular from Gen. Petraeus's chief of staff, Col. Pete Mansoor, who is retiring from the military to teach at Ohio State.
In a posting to Small Wars Journal, a blog devoted to counterinsurgency issues, Col. Mansoor wrote that Col. Gentile "misreads not just what is happening today in Iraq, but the entire history of the war."
"I do not agree that the U.S. Army's growing focus on counterinsurgency is leaving the service unprepared to fight high-intensity conventional wars," Col. Mansoor said in an interview. "The belief that an army that focuses on counterinsurgency warfare cannot at the same time fight well in conventional combat is a false dichotomy."
Col. Gentile relishes his self-appointed role as military gadfly. He has already been scheduled to be promoted this summer and his teaching post here is effectively tenured.
"Really, what's the worst they could do to me?" he says.