Great debate in the New York Times about a discussion that few of us can even have outside of West Point without being accused of treason. By the time this article posts, two months will have passed. But this debate is timeless and I am encouraged that someone in uniform is asking “Was this all worth it?”
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, the head of the academy’s influential social sciences department and a top adviser to General Petraeus in Baghdad and Kabul when General Petraeus commanded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…
…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. “I’m talking 70, 80, 90 years,” he said.
Colonel Gentile, who has photographs in his office of five young soldiers in his battalion killed in the 2006 bloodshed in Baghdad, acknowledged that it was difficult to question the wars in the face of the losses…
….To Col. Gregory A. Daddis, a West Point history professor, the debate is also about the role of the military as the war winds down. “We’re not really sure right now what the Army is for,” he said.
To officers like Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, much of the debate presents a false either-or dilemma. General McMaster, who used counterinsurgency to secure the Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005 and returned recently from Kabul as head of a task force fighting corruption, said that without counterinsurgency, “There’s a tendency to use the application of military force as an end in itself.”
To John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who fought in Iraq, wrote a book about counterinsurgency and now teaches at the United States Naval Academy, American foreign policy should “ensure that we never have to do this again.”
Does counterinsurgency work? “Yes,” he said. “Is it worth what you paid for it? That’s an entirely different question.”