If you’re going to send an anti-COIN advocate into the COINdinista lion den you probably couldn’t get a better person to do it than Col. Gentile. He’s been on the record for awhile with his clear opposition to the Army emphasis on COIN and I was very happy to see him on the speaker list for the conference. Since what he said was at odds with the positions of many other speakers I’m going to inject my comments (in italics) along with points made by other speakers during their presentations (identified by name). None of these speakers referred to or spoke directly about Col. Gentile’s comments, rather I’m picking what I found as relevant in their presentations and inserting them here.
Ok, colonel…help me see the error of my ways. His argument:
His presentation focused on 4 fundamental premises:
- Army COIN doctrine is in need of serious and fundamental revision
- For many reasons the Army has found itself straightjacketed by COIN from the tactical to strategic levels
- The defense establishment generally and the Army specifically have been seduced into thinking COIN and nation building can actually work
- The above prevent us from seeing alternatives to COIN
COIN doctrine is based upon methods of fighting insurgencies in the 1950s and 1960s that is:
- nothing new
- historically inaccurate (the narratives put forward by Killcullen, Patreaus, et. al. does not reflect reality)
- underpinned by dubious cause-effect theory
There was no debate during the creation of FM 3-24 (the COIN field manual) despite what the party line is. We need one for its revision.
He then argued that the Army is actually pretty good at population-centric COIN and that are lack of success is more a demonstration of it’s ineffectualness rather than any failure to adopt or implement COIN principles.
I find this to be complete nonsense. There’s a big difference between understanding the principles of COIN (or even just being able to parrot them without understanding) and actually implementing them. COIN training remains unfocused and treated as something separate than ‘regular’ army training. I spoke to one person who conducts COIN training for deploying soldiers. Out of a 60 day mobilization training schedule, 2 weeks are devoted to a COIN course and, according to this person, only the second week actually focuses on COIN principles (plus the COIN course is generally only for leaders so you have to hope the COIN message is translated correctly). So you have about 10% of your training time devoted to COIN. Less when you consider the amount and type of training soldiers go through before their mobilization training.
Rupert Jones (UK) – Traditional war-fighting techniques are deeply ingrained in our soldiers. When faced with a high stress situation (insurgent attack, etc.) what are soldiers going to do: rely on muscle memory of innumerable trainings on how to respond to a conventional attack or hope they remember the brief training they received once or twice and may have infrequently trained with?
Our skills at combined operations warfare have atrophied over the past 3-5 years. If we don’t address this we can expect to get spanked in the future. He argued that we can’t possibly predict what kind of conflict we might face in the future so we should train for the most dangerous which would be a conventional war.
We can’t? Isn’t the whole defense acquisition process is based upon predicting future conflicts and arming ourselves for them. So we undertook the F22 and F35 projects on a wild guess? Hmmm….color me dubious of this line of reasoning. I think what he’s saying is that there’s no indication we’ll need a conventional force for the foreseeable future but he really WANTS a conventionally focused force and so we should train for one just in case. That being said, I think there’s probably some truth to the assertion that we’ve sacrificed conventional capabilities recently. I’m guessing that a big part of that is the huge requirement of troops in both the Iraq and Afghan theaters. Once we get the Iraq albatross off our neck I imagine we should be able to maintain both a COIN and conventional capability. The lesson here is that we shouldn’t go diving into unnecessary wars AND expect to maintain our full peacetime capability not that we shouldn’t train for irregular warfare.
A knowledge of combined arms warfare is needed to learn COIN. Combined arms warfare teaches initiative which creates an environment for the force to learn and adapt.
Hmmm…file this under ‘combined arms will cure cancer’. If your argument is that people have become seduced by the siren song of one line of thought (COIN), I’m not sure the answer is to get a competing singer with promises that the answers to all your problems are really with combined arms. If combined arms is so good at preparing armies to fight insurgencies please explain Iraq 2003-2007 and Afghanistan 2001-now.
Col. Gentile also strongly objected to the cliche that ‘COIN is the graduate school of war’. He argued that ALL war is very complex. I’d agree but say that while all war is complex the complexity moves further down the chain of command in COIN. A private in a fighting position on the Fulda gap has a limited number of responses to a Mechanized Rifle Regiment bearing down on his position and whatever his individual response is, it’s unlikely to have long lasting strategic impact. That is not true in COIN. A junior enlisted soldier could make a decision which could have serious strategic implications (just ask the soldiers at abu Gharib).
While he didn’t reference it specifically, Gentile seemed to be advocating what was known as a ‘counter-terrorism’ focused strategy. Focus on applying ‘precise military force’ against insurgents without nation building.
His argument suffered from (at least) two significant flaws:
He never really defined ‘precise military force’ and how many wedding parties can get nuked while still using the term unironically. And if you’re going to abandon the whole ‘nation-building’ (or population centric…they AREN’T synonymous terms as one questioner pointed out) approach how exactly is one to develop the intelligence gathering capability that will allow one to do that precision targeting?
Imagine if this president (or, for that matter any president) announced to the nation: “I’ve decided our strategy can’t succeed. Therefore I’m abandoning our efforts to support the Afghan government, withdrawing virtually all our forces and we’re going to work on plinking terrorists off from a distance. You remember how we did things before 2001? Yeah, we’re going back to that.” Now, that might be a good strategy BUT does anyone think there wouldn’t be a virtual revolt in Congress, the media and the public at this? Remember all the hoopla over bringing a couple of terror suspects to trial on U.S. soil? In what bizarro world would this decision NOT have immense and terrible domestic repercussions? Like it or not, our partisanship has boxed us in and there are some courses of action that are just plain closed off to us.
Now, Gentile might respond by saying something like ‘Hey, that’s a political decision and I’m a military man.’ or ‘Leadership is about making tough decisions.’ but to not even acknowledge that his recommended course of action would cause huge fissures in our domestic political environment is being naive at best and disingenuous at worst. For such a program to even be conceivable the military would need to get into the political field as it’s never done before in order to provide the president with cover to avoid the inevitable charges of treason, cowardice and selling our our ‘brave young men and women’. It’s unclear just how far Col. Gentile would be willing to stick his own neck out to bring about the changes he recommends.
Col. Gentile also made the claim that there appeared to be a disturbing trend that there was some sort of a COIN purity test and officers that didn’t drink the Kool-Aid might suffer accusations and professional harm. His one bit of ‘evidence’ for this claim was a story in the Army Times a few months ago that identified a battalion commander who was much more kinetic focused than his peers and some of his subordinates made the claim that the commander didn’t ‘get it’. Maybe, Gentile argued, a more kinetic environment was appropriate for the conditions in the commander’s area of operations. I have no idea about that but the idea that ONE unfavorable article in the Army Times translates into some sort pattern of official sanctions and retribution against officers that don’t fall down and sing the praises of COIN is ridiculous.