June 25, 2024
In our recent four-part series on learning lessons from present conflicts, Gian Gentile questioned whether all lessons observed should be learned. Specifically he questioned the value of counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and whether they hampered strategic thinking. In this response to Gentile, John Nagl and Paul Yingling argue that though it may be messy and slow, counterinsurgency was the right right answer in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it will be the right strategy in many future conflicts.

The piece claims that the U.S. Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency, FM 3-24, imposed an “intellectual straight jacket” on the Army that prevented “creative thinking” about strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Having lost wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the United States would do well to reflect on the root causes of those debacles. To its credit, the War Room has contributed to such reflection through its four-part series on the lessons we may learn from war—not only America’s losses in previous conflicts, but also ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza. Unfortunately, the last installment in this series, “Ukraine, Gaza, and the U.S. Army’s Counterinsurgency Legacy” by Gian Gentile is marred by the contradictory impulses that have long colored the author’s perspective on what is perhaps the most important military strategy of this century.  

The piece claims that the U.S. Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency, FM 3-24, imposed an “intellectual straight jacket” on the Army that prevented “creative thinking” about strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. It does not, sadly, suggest an alternative to the approach that dramatically reduced violence in both countries, and similarly fails to provide a creative way that the United States might have won the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Either the straight jacket is so powerful that it has constrained even his thinking, or these wars were really hard, and the United States was completely unprepared for them.

The counterinsurgency critic has been caught in this same conundrum for a very long time. In a Washington Post op-ed in 2004, he argued for a “hard” approach to tactical problems in Iraq without extending his analysis to show how this “hard” approach might be employed at the strategic level of war. The same op-ed described efforts to win the support of the Iraqi people as a “velvet glove” approach but did not explain how the U.S. military operations, bound in an intellectual straight jacket and armed with velvet gloves, resulted in 200,000 civilian deaths.  Instead the 2004 article embraced the very counterinsurgency tactics that the War Room article derides, claiming that defeating insurgents “requires a complex and sophisticated strategy that separates the insurgent forces from the Iraqi people, strengthens the rule of law in Iraq, demonstrates the coalition’s will to win, enhances the political legitimacy of the fledgling Iraqi government and uses military force appropriately.”  

This approach prescribes a focus on separating the insurgents from the population by increasing the legitimacy of the Iraqi government, meeting the needs of the Iraqi people, and using the minimum possible level of force. This is exactly—exactly—what FM 3-24 dictates. If counterinsurgency doctrine is an intellectual straight jacket, the label should read “As designed in 2004 in the Washington Post, two years before FM 3-24 was published.”

The problem is not with the counterinsurgency strategy but in the fact that it was not universally adopted throughout the theater of combat in Iraq in 2004 as the author recommended. Indeed, it could not have been; the Army had not written COIN doctrine since 1975, had not trained on the doctrine it hadn’t written, and had no conception about what it was trying to accomplish across Iraq other than detaining military age males and leaving as quickly as possible.

Properly limiting the use of force in war—any war—is a legal requirement that has huge implications for the postwar peace. The War Room article quotes Civil War Union General William Tecumseh Sherman that war “is cruelty and you cannot refine it.” Sherman boasted that he would “make Georgia howl”, but the most vexing part of the American Civil War came when the “hard hand of war” was lifted and the attempt to build a better peace began; for all of the howling Sherman forced on Georgia, the South arguably won the postwar, maintaining a caste-based system of oppression of African Americans for the next century.  Similarly, Israel’s war against Hamas doesn’t end when the shooting stops and the question of who now governs Gaza begins.  War is not just cruelty; it is the use of force to accomplish political objectives. That’s the hard part, and that’s the part that counterinsurgency strategy can help achieve.

As all veterans of that campaign know, Iraq descended into madness at the hands of an American army that did not know how to use force to achieve political objectives in that country for the first three years of the occupation. Violence in Iraq continued to escalate until General David Petraeus, armed with the counterinsurgency manual that he and James Mattis had written over the course of 2006, implemented a comprehensive COIN strategy in Iraq in 2007.  Violence dropped by more than 75% over Petraeus’s eighteen months in command as he focused the entire command on implementing “a complex and sophisticated strategy that separates the insurgent forces from the Iraqi people, strengthens the rule of law in Iraq, demonstrates the coalition’s will to win, enhances the political legitimacy of the fledgling Iraqi government and uses military force appropriately.” Petraeus was helped greatly in this accomplishment by the simultaneous emergence of the Anbar Awakening, the Sunni decision to switch sides and fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq; the Anbar Awakening and the new American COIN doctrine were symbiotic, feeding off and reinforcing each other. 

Counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan focused on raising, training, and equipping host-nation security forces, creating Afghan security forces that were reliant on long-term American support.

Petraeus later implemented the same strategy in Afghanistan, which he had always considered a more difficult case than Iraq.  Counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan focused on raising, training, and equipping host-nation security forces, creating Afghan security forces that were reliant on long-term American support. Reasonable people (including the authors of this piece) may disagree on the wisdom of sustaining this approach for decades to come, but it was certainly fiscally and militarily sustainable over the long term. Instead, the Trump Administration’s deal with the Taliban and  the Biden Administration’s botched withdrawal produced a rapid collapse of Afghan security forces. An earlier and more focused effort to build capable security forces there, coupled with a generational commitment of American advisors and support, would have kept the Taliban out of Kabul with beneficial results for the Afghan people, the region, and global counterterrorism efforts.

There are significant lessons from the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan for today’s conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, but they are not the ones that the War Room article suggests. It argues that the Russian war against Ukraine shows the importance of preparing for “sustained large-scale combat between two conventional forces” while ignoring the fact that the United States is not directly engaged in combat in just such a conflict, instead providing security force assistance to Ukraine by aiding Kiev in organizing, training, equipping, and employing its forces. 

This practice of developing host nation security forces is a continuation of the security force assistance operations that the U.S. developed in Iraq and Afghanistan; it is, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted correctly some years ago, perhaps the most important of all American military tasks today.  Gates told the Association of the United States Army in 2007, “arguably the most important military component in the War on Terror is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we enable and empower our partners to defend and govern their own countries. The standing up and mentoring of indigenous armies and police—once the province of Special Forces—is now a key mission for the military as a whole.”  Our failure to get that task right in Afghanistan underlines the truth of Gates’s assertion, as does the success of Ukraine–with American help and weaponry–today.  Similarly, building capable Palestinian security forces is key to any lasting peace in Gaza.

Gates also pulled the rug out from under those who pine for a return to big wars of attrition; in the same speech, he noted that “our enemies and potential adversaries — including nation states — have gone to school on us. They saw what America’s technology and firepower did to Saddam’s army in 1991 and again in 2003, and they’ve seen what [improvised explosive devices] are doing to the American military today. It is hard to conceive of any country challenging the United States directly on the ground–at least for some years to come.” True when Gates said it in 2007, there is much more data since then to suggest that future enemies will fight great powers like America in irregular ways, including our ignominious defeat at the hand of insurgents in Afghanistan in 2021 and the horrific defeat Hamas inflicted on the vaunted IDF in 2023.  

Gates knows his history; since the advent of nuclear weapons, no great powers have engaged in sustained, large-scale conventional combat with another great power. This pattern is confirmed in numerous Cold War crises—Berlin 1948, Korea 1950-53, Suez 1956, Hungary 1956, Berlin 1961, Vietnam 1965-72, Middle East 1967, Czechoslovakia 1968, Middle East 1973, Nicaragua and Afghanistan 1979. This trend continues today; the U.S. has carefully avoided direct conflict with Russia in Ukraine due to reasonable concerns over nuclear escalation. When the U.S. wishes to confront aggression by a nuclear power, it does so through security force assistance.

The task of fighting irregular forces, armed with high tech weapons and embedded in civilian populations, under the glare of a global media spotlight, is warfare at the graduate level, as we noted in the opening words of the first chapter of the 2006 edition of FM 3-24.  It is hard to describe a strategy to defeat that threat better than Gentile himself did back in 2004; “winning requires a complex and sophisticated strategy that separates the insurgent forces from the Iraqi [Palestinian] [Afghan] people, strengthens the rule of law in Iraq [Gaza] [Afghanistan], demonstrates the coalition’s will to win, enhances the political legitimacy of the fledgling Iraqi [Gazan] [Afghan] government and uses military force appropriately.” That is a complex and sophisticated strategy with a good chance of working—when well implemented. While it’s messy and slow, it’s the best chance we’ve got to win the kind of wars that we’re likely to keep having to fight.

John Nagl is Professor of Warfighting Studies at the U.S. Army War CollegeHe is the author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.

Paul L. Yingling is a retired colonel and veteran of five combat tours in the U.S. Army and a professor of security studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus (far right) enjoys a cup of tea with a group of local Afghanis while Interpreter Nasir Ahmad (second to right) waits for his tea at a visit to Camp Kackeran in the province of Zabul, Sept. 13, 2005.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army Photo by Pfc. Leslie Angulo


  1. John Nagl and Paul Yingling argue in their War Room rebuttal to my piece that the Army’s counterinsurgency field manual FM 3-24 is, as they explicitly state,

    “…perhaps the most important military strategy of this century.”

    That is rich but not surprising coming from these two authors.

    It is rich because FM 3-24-style population centric counterinsurgency is equivalent to the failed U.S. Army tank destroyer doctrine of WWII.

    Yet they arrogantly state with overflowing intellectual elitism that with nearly a quarter of this century complete, their counterinsurgency “strategy” (fyi it was not and never has been a “strategy” and instead a tactical approach to counterinsurgency wars) will “perhaps” turn out to be the most important. An argument that I made in a “Parameters” article in 2009 was that FM 3-24 as the U.S. Army applied it in Iraq during the Surge and after and starting in Afghanistan in 2009 was a “strategy of tactics.”

    What Nagl and Yingling do not acknowledge in their rebuttal to my War Room article, and which I point out in it, is that they both were advocates back in those days for the U.S. Army to optimize for counterinsurgency wars which the authors believed would be the way of future wars.

    Such a U.S. Army and its soldiers transformed in that way, argued Nagl in a review essay in 2009, will be able to “change entire societies.” Yes, Nagl actually said that in 2009 that the U.S. Army’s soldiers when deployed to the far-flung troubled areas of world in the 21st century would be able to, again as Nagl asserted, “change entire societies.”

    If that statement isn’t social science gone wild, I don’t know what is.

    As I asked in my War Room article, had the U.S. Army listened to that type of argument then, where would it be today with the major conventional wars in Ukraine and Gaza and the trajectory these wars point to the future?

    Sadly, for Nagl and Yingling, they are still marred by, and wear, the FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency straitjacket.

    Their article should be read and evaluated by the readers of this important magazine War Room for their use of evidence in support of their argument.

    But in my humble opinion, metaphorically speaking of course and in good humor, Nagl and Yingling should wear the Scarlett Letter C on their chests until the end of time.

    Gian Gentile

    1. The clarity of thought here is precisely what one might expect from a first-rate historian who has also worn the uniform. Thank you on both counts. When reflecting on your writings, and placing you and Doug Porch in conversation with the likes of John Nagl, my tree-hugging civilian brain always returns to the seemingly inescapable conclusion that doctrine and tactics, no matter how brilliantly executed in the field, are no substitute for coherent policy and strategy coming out of Washington. And how anyone in the chain of command might translate FM 3-24 into an actionable RoE, must less a Sergeant kneeling with his troopers, among the many enduring mysteries of The Long War, as seen through the kaleidoscope of COIN doctrine. That some future POTUS might seize upon FM 3-24 like a cat does catnip thus becomes the “clear and present danger”. Rather than learning “how to eat soup with a knife”, perhaps among the better options is devising a “better spoon”, or considering whether the soup should be consumed in the first instance?

    2. In an attempt to view things in a broader and more overall light:

      If one’s political objective is to transform the states and societies of the world — to include our states and societies here in the U.S./the West — this, so that same might be made to better interact with, better provide for and better benefit from such things as capitalism, globalization and the global economy,

      (Threatens all status quos everywhere, and everyone, everywhere, who depends on same for their current degree of power, influence, control, status, privilege, safety, security? [Thus, much of the world, now, becomes your “enemy?”])

      And if, accordingly, one’s foreign and domestic policies, strategies, etc., must be directed toward achieving these such “transforming the world” ends,

      Then what, exactly, should the foreign and domestic policies — and the strategies — (a) designed to achieve such ends — and (b) designed to defeat such HUGE numbers of foes — (c) look like?

      (This question of for COL Gentile (ret.), LTC (ret.) Nagl and anyone and everyone else.)

  2. John, eating soup with a knife was, is, and will never be a good idea. The preposterous notion that Iraq and Afghanistan somehow needed COIN, yet another form of imperialism I.E. more of the same is breathtakingly simple minded. Give it up already please, enough blood and treasure has been forever lost thanks to COIN. Don’t bring it back to the fore.

  3. Heads I win, tails you lose. You can not and never will win the hearts and minds of the heartless and mindless. You COIN gurus are still trying to “get the inputs right” and can’t accept the reality of failure. Colonel Gentile has a penetrating mind and the power of truth when he points out the obvious failures.

    How exactly did that transformation of society go in Afghanland when the people there, after 20 years of counter-insurgency, decide they preferred the Taliban to a democratic society with religious tolerance and human rights? They choose the Taliban, get that through your head!

    1. Amen. The idea one might transform any society, much less a tribal one like Afghanistan, into some version of a “Jeffersonian Democracy”, or a “Hamiltonian Republic” for that matter, at the end of an M-4, or by delivery of “governance in a box”, singularly preposterous. A better discussion might include how we define “vital U.S. security interests” and then go on to consider how best to defend those interests, with military force and its lethality being deployed as a last resort, as opposed to a foreign policy of “shoot first and ask questions later”. Giving up the dangerous illusion that military force represents an instrument to be used in an imaginary laboratory of international social engineering is proving to be a very hard pill for our COINestta brothers and sisters to swallow.

    2. Bingo! Our attempt to project Western (liberal) values onto Afghan society failed utterly. They were happy to take our money and humor us as long as we were there passing it out. But when it came time to fight for those Western liberal values (on display in a few boutique places like the Kabul bubble) they voted with their feet. The whole Afghan Campaign was a 20-year self-delusion on our part.

  4. Secretary Gates was correct that “the most important military component in the War on Terror is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we enable and empower our partners to defend and govern their own countries.” However, in one key area of the world in which we are pursuing this policy, Africa, success has eluded us. Simply put, security force assistance in Africa is not working, as the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (https://africacenter.org/spotlight/mig2024-deaths-militant-islamist-violence-africa-rise/) and ACLED (https://acleddata.com/conflict-watchlist-2024/sahel/) both reported in January. And, of course, there are the coups which have forced us to pause military assistance and training in several countries.

    The literature on why this is so is extensive so I’ll just say that framing these conflicts as terrorism obscures more than it illuminates. In the Sahel they have long histories, antedating the current crisis of terrorism, the Tuareg rebellion, for instance. They are multidimensional and individuals are moved to participate by a complex of factors, a political métissage that may differ with individuals and dissident groups. For many these conflicts are rooted in local conditions and flourish not because their participants are driven by some chiliastic urge to create an Islamic state, but due to challenges that are immediate: tribal and resource competition, desire for local autonomy, government corruption, inadequate security, and military abuse. Terrorist groups take advantage of these problems, without a doubt. Our problem is we do not know how to help these governments enhance their legitimacy, incentivize them to strengthen the rule of law, purge their systems of corruption. Sophisticated and complex strategies are nice in theory, but hard to implement. In any event, these are not tasks that military assistance can accomplish.

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