Monday, April 7, 2008

Is counterinsurgency the solution?

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....

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.

-Officer Questions Petraeus's Strategy

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