And what if the next war is in Colombia?
Can we "over learn" what is going on in Iraq? As Spencer Ackerman reports, The debate has already started in the "COIN" or counterinsurgency community in the US Army and continues:
In the spring of 2007, as the first wave of new combat brigades arrived in Baghdad to execute President George W. Bush’s troop surge, an Army lieutenant colonel named Paul Yingling booted up his computer at Ft. Hood, Tex. He received an email accusing him of moral cowardice. It was from Yingling’s friend, a fellow Iraq veteran and Army lieutenant colonel named Gian Gentile.
Gentile was concerned about a highly influential article that Yingling had written for the magazine Armed Forces Journal titled "A Failure In Generalship." The piece was incendiary. Yingling, barely 40 and an Iraq veteran twice over, had issued a j’accuse to the entire general officer corps for failing, over the previous 15 years, to anticipate low-intensity conflicts with insurgents and prepare U.S. troops accordingly. He further contended that the generals failed to deliver their best military advice to the Bush administration about the true costs of the war in Iraq, preferring not to challenge the White House’s optimistic fantasies. "Failing to visualize future battlefields represents a lapse in professional competence," Yingling had written, "but seeing those fields clearly and saying nothing is an even more serious lapse in professional character." The people he criticized have the power to end his career.
But to Gentile, Yingling was the lapsed officer. In his email, and then in a volley of op-eds and blog posts over the next year, Gentile derided Yingling for failing to call any general out by name. Worse yet, Gentile now contends that blaming the generals represents a myopia on the part of Yingling’s fellow counterinsurgency enthusiasts—until recently, he counted himself one—to accept the U.S. failure in Iraq. "By not naming names," Gentile, now a history professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said in a phone interview, "he has left it open for the generals themselves to interpret who’s in the Yingling-screw-up crowd. The way that comes out, until the early months of the surge, he doesn’t want to say who but he really means [former Iraq commander and now Army Chief of Staff Gen. George] Casey, only a few units got it right and finally, maybe, we’re on the right track with Gen. Petraeus and the surge." Both Yingling and Gentile claim to have received heaps of supportive email from soldiers.
I think it's great that two eminent thinkers are having this debate in public, but what purpose does it serve to debate the surge in Iraq when the answer is right in front of you? And the question, in my mind, has always been, do you really think it was wise to occupy Iraq for as long as we have without forcing the Iraqi government to adhere to a strict timetable of political reconcilliation with the withdrawal of US forces as the ultimate goal? By my reckoning, US troops have handed the Iraqi government enough time for them to get the job done. Now that we see that they cannot accomplish reconcilliation, what does it serve our long-term interests to keep rewarding their failure with our blood and treasure?
That's my definition of victory--can we pull our troops out and leave behind a stable country? If not, then quit pretending our troops should be bled dry to kick the can down the road. We put them there, they gave the Iraqi government all the time it needed to mature, grow up, and decide its own fate. No amount of propping up the current Iraqi government is going to prevent an eventual collapse. And not one US soldier's life is worth propping up a failed government. Not one.
The chances of the next war looking like the Iraq war are what, exactly? If we're smart, we'll never get into another war like the Iraq War. Therefore, what good is a fundamental shift to COIN going to do us? We'll have a military outfitted to fight insurgents with the wrong gear and the wrong vehicles for a different kind of fight.
What if that next conflict is to be found in the region between Colombia and Venezuela? What if the flashpoint for the next war is a border fight for the bridges and crossing points in the city of Arauca? Does the US military have a plan to fight a war in the jungles of Southern Colombia or in the river country of Northeastern Colombia? You can find many distinct types of terrain in Colombia--and if we internalize an ability to fight in deserts or in urban areas, are we going to be ready to fight along rivers in jungles? What if we need US troops to cross numerous streams and rivers on foot--do they have the right boots? Who would we turn to when it came time to ramp up fast? We know that US troops have been going back and forth to Colombia for years. There are Special Forces advisors who have a lot of experience there. Will they be tapped to train others quickly enough if there is a conflict? Or will they be ignored because we are hell-bent on fighting the new war the way we fought the last war? What if most of those men are being snapped up by Blackwater to fight as Uribe's personal bodyguards?
What if they're all still in Iraq?
Say we spend the next few years reorganizing the military into smaller brigades equipped with Stryker vehicles. Say we build several divisions worth of these troops into a battle-ready force that can deploy quickly.
Well, what if the next challenge for America is to head off disaster in Colombia? Say, for example, that the larger. US-backed Colombian military is caught fighting a two-front war against Ecuador and Venezuela. And the outcome is a victory over Ecuador but a stalemate with Venezuela. I would speculate that a drawn-out, costly fight with Venezuela could deplete Colombia's Army just enough to force the population of Colombia to turn on the Uribe government. Now add in the possibility that Hugo Chavez would up the ante by ordering his troops to assist the FARC in their campaign against Uribe all throughout the country, timed with an offensive by Venezuelan troops against the border crossings on the frontier between the two countries.
The FARC are a completely different animal from what we fight in Iraq. They are made up of seasoned fighters who have fought in terrible terrain for decades. They are closer in zeal to what we fought in Vietnam than what we're fighting now in Iraq. A COIN mindset would probably help us if we were forced to intercede and help Colombia defeat the FARC.
But what good would it do if the Colombian Army collapsed and we had to drive back the convetionally-equipped Venezuelan Army? What if the only forces available to send were 82nd Airborne [light infantry] as opposed to troops more suited to fight in that terrain [air cav or the 101st Airborne]. What if neither were available, and we had to send a mixed bag of heavy and light combat units from different posts and different divisions? What if we had to send the 7th Special Forces Group and a patchwork of Guard units to support them?
Would there be a fundamental examination of what went wrong if we screwed up and sent the wrong troops? Who would be held accountable? If Yingling can't speak up (and this goes for Colonel H.R. McMaster and a few others as well) without fear of recrimination, when are we going to learn anything?
Let me pause and go back to the Ackerman article:
Gentile considers the counterinsurgents’ sense of beseigement to be ludicrous. To him, the military is undergoing a titanic shift in favor of counterinsurgency with little debate over the implications. "I worry about a hyper-emphasis on COIN and irregular warfare," he said in a phone interview, with "less mechanization, less protection and more infantry on the ground walking and talking with the people. It’s a potential recipe for disaster if our enemies fight the way Hezbollah did against the Israelis in the summer of ‘06."
He continued, "Petraeus sat on the promotion board. Do we really think H.R. won’t have a star on his shoulder? They’re the ones in control. I don’t see how they can think otherwise. They’re almost like the minority party that finally becomes the majority party and can’t get over the fact they’re the majority!"
Gentile even has a term for the counterinsurgents’ view of their place in the Army: he calls it The Matrix, after the mind-controlling Baudrillardian machine that alters the perception of reality in the eponymous Wachowski Brothers films.
There was a time when he would have swallowed the blue pill. Gentile served two tours in Iraq, first in Tikrit in 2003 under Odierno and then in western Baghdad in 2006, commanding an armored cavalry squadron. Despite what he calls a counterinsurgents’ "master narrative," whereby counterinsurgency arrives in Iraq first in Tal Afar with McMaster and then in Baghdad with Petraeus, Gentile said that units—including his own—applied COIN practices throughout the war. "Clearly, there are examples of units not getting it," he said. "But I believe that at the tactical level—infantry scouts, platoons, companies and battalions—performed [counterinsurgency operations] by the book even before FM 3-24." Yet, Gentile observed, conditions in Iraq got worse, not better.
That realization turned Gentile from a COIN practitioner to a COIN skeptic. Essentially, he swallowed the red pill to escape the Matrix during the triumphalism surrounding the troop surge in 2007. Counterinsurgency, he now believes, has a role in a modern military, but an excessive focus on it serves as an alibi to avoid recognizing that the U.S. military is not omnipotent. "I think Andrew Bacevich, at the policy-strategy level, has basically nailed it," Gentile said, referring to the retired Army colonel who contends that Iraq is an irredeemable strategic mistake. "He points out the limits of what American military power can accomplish."
Yingling finds his friend’s argument to be, at the least, premature. To him, there are too many vestiges of an improperly-footed military encumbering counterinsurgency to conclude that it has been fully tested and found wanting. "Why are our acquisition priorities the same as before 9/11?" he said from Ft. Hood, where he commands the 1st Battalion, 21st Field Artillery. "My field artillery battalion, we’ve got a multi-launch rocket system to guard detainees. We built the wrong Army in the 1990s and now we’re breaking it apart to fight the war we’ve got." He continued, "The notion that America’s power as a nation is somehow at its limits today as we spend four percent of our GDP on defense and have an active-duty Army of half a million just doesn’t square with history."
Nor can he accept Gentile’s argument that "A Failure In Generalship" needed to name names. "The failures of our general officer corps, through Vietnam and Iraq, occur independently of a single individual," said Yingling, who learned counterinsurgency while soldiering for McMaster in Tal Afar. "To focus on individual culpability misses the point. There’s a structural problem with how the armed forces develop senior leaders. And until we address it, we’ll keep getting the same result."
Just as Gentile believes there’s a place for counterinsurgency in the military, neither does Yingling adopt a zero-sum approach to conventional warfare. "The high-intensity [side of things], I certainly don’t want to abandon it," he said. "There’s a good debate to be had about what that balance should be."
We should always strive to have the right troops to send to the right kind of fight. We should NEVER be in a position to send "whoever's available" to fight in a harsh climate with the wrong gear. Anyone remember the Korean War, and how we sent National Guardsmen from the Dakotas and over-pampered occupation troops from Japan with the wrong uniforms and with outdated equipment without any training for the geography that they were expected to fight in? It would be criminally incompetent to send US troops to a South American conflict with the wrong uniforms and the wrong gear. We should have a ready force to send--not a mixed bag of troops from several different commands who were unlucky enough to be on alert when the shit hit the fan.
Has the US military addressed the fundamental problem of air lifting large formations to the battlefield? Virtually every military operation in Colombia requires navigating terrain that isn't suited to vehicles and is much better suited for the use of helicopters--so do we have enough helicopters to send? Or do we rely on the Osprey-equipped Marines? And isn't it time to focus on what we should be using the Marines for? Do we have a big enough Navy to secure transport of a heavy unit to Colombia? Do we take control of the Panama Canal to prevent half of our forces from being separated from the other half if Venezuela decides to move on Panama? Relations between the two have been chilly for years.
It's all well and good to internalize COIN. But what good will it do us if the next war has a fundamentally different set of goals and situations that have nothing to do with scenarios taught by officers who have embraced COIN as their central organizing principle?
UPDATE I - PALE RIDER
The next thing I should do is explain why I think this:
"If you organize the military to fight a Counterinsurgency War, then the civilians who control the military are probably going to involve the military in a Counterinsurgency War."
Organizing yourself to get into another strategic blunder probably isn't the smartest way to effectively prepare our troops to defend American interests.