Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Questioning Counterinsurgency

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Questioning Counterinsurgency

Article excerpt

Faculty at the U.S. Military Academy are debating what counterinsurgency gained in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For two centuries, the U.S. Military Academy has produced generals for the country's wars, among them Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, George S. Patton and David H. Petraeus. It is where President George W. Bush delivered what became known as his pre- emption speech, which sought to justify the invasion of Iraq, and where President Barack Obama told the nation he was sending an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

Now at another critical moment in U.S. military history, the faculty here on the commanding bend in the Hudson River is deep in its own existential debate. Narrowly, the argument is whether the counterinsurgency strategy used in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the troop- heavy, time-intensive, expensive doctrine of trying to win over the locals by building roads, schools and government -- is dead.

Broadly, the question is what the United States gained after a decade in two wars.

"Not much," Col. Gian P. Gentile, the director of West Point's military history program and the commander of a combat battalion in Baghdad in 2006, said flatly in an interview last week. "Certainly not worth the effort. In my view."

Colonel Gentile, long a critic of counterinsurgency, represents one side of the divide at West Point. On the other is Col. Michael J. Meese, head of the academy's influential social sciences department and a top adviser to General Petraeus when he commanded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Nobody should ever underestimate the costs and the risks involved with counterinsurgency, but neither should you take that off the table," Colonel Meese said, also in an interview last week. Counterinsurgency, he said, "was broadly successful in being able to have the Iraqis govern themselves."

The debate at West Point mirrors one under way in the U.S. armed forces as a whole as they withdraw from Afghanistan without clear victory and as the results in Iraq remain ambiguous at best.

But at West Point the debate is personal, and a decade of statistics -- more than 6,000 U.S. service members dead in Iraq and Afghanistan and more than $1 trillion spent -- hit home. On Saturday, 1,032 cadets graduated as second lieutenants, sent off in a commencement speech by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. with the promise that they are "the key to whatever challenges the world has in store."

Many of them are apprehensive about what they will find in Afghanistan -- the news coming back from friends is often not good - - but still hope to make it there before the war is largely over. "We've spent the past four years of our lives getting ready for this," said Lt. Daniel Prial, who graduated Saturday and said he was drawn to West Point after his father survived as a firefighter in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. "Ultimately you want to see that come to fruition."

At West Point the arguments are more public than those in the upper reaches of the Pentagon, in large part because the military officers on the West Point faculty pride themselves on academic freedom and challenging orthodoxy. Colonel Gentile, who is working on a book titled "Wrong Turn: America's Deadly Embrace With Counterinsurgency," is chief among them.

Colonel Gentile's argument is that the United States pursued a narrow policy goal in Afghanistan -- defeating Al Qaeda there and keeping it from using the country as a base -- with what he called "a maximalist operational" approach. "Strategy should employ resources of a state to achieve policy aims with the least amount of blood and treasure spent," he said.

Counterinsurgency could ultimately work in Afghanistan, he said, if the United States were willing to stay there for generations. …

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