Early this summer, after savage fighting, elements of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit forced Taliban fighters out of
The commander of Alpha Company, from the 6th Marine Regiment’s First Battalion, Capt. Sean Dynan, a soft-spoken
“I know that all of you want to just live your lives and that you don’t want us to interfere with what you’re doing on a daily basis,” Dynan told two dozen men gathered in the marketplace. “It is our intention to help and to protect you.”
But making friends was proving difficult in a country at war since the failed Soviet occupation of the 1980s. “America came here telling us they’re going to help us, but these are all tricks, the same tricks that Russia played – then they started killing us,” Sayid Gul, an opium-poppy grower and merchant, told Bill Gentile, a PBS journalist embedded with the Marines. “We don’t trust them any more, the foreigners.” Gul was trying to get the Marines to pay him for damaging his house during a battle with the Taliban.
Despite the villagers’ wariness, Dynan’s efforts at on-the-ground diplomacy reflect the Pentagon view that similar counterinsurgency tactics have led to a notable lessening of violence in
Support for counterinsurgency is a key tenet of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ new National Defense Strategy, which lays out a hearts-and-minds approach for the last phase of what the Bush administration once labeled the “global war on terror” and now dubs “the long war.”
“Military efforts to capture or kill terrorists are likely to be subordinate to measures to promote local participation in government and economic programs to spur development,” the document says, “as well as efforts to understand and address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies.”
That strategy may sound more Peace Corps than Army and Marines. But counterinsurgency advocates argue they’re guided by practicality, not bleeding-heart humanitarianism. Even after major fighting ends in
“Our conventional superiority is going to drive our enemies to fight us asymmetrically,” says Nagl, who served as operations officer of an armored battalion early in the Iraq War and later helped write the U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. But that doesn’t mean
Beware of such certainties, some military experts warn. One of the most vocal skeptics,
As an example, Gentile points to
“I use that as a way to think about conflicts the
After Gentile spoke, the Aug. 8 Russian invasion of the
In fact, the counterinsurgency-versus-conventional-warfare debate first began during the Cold War years, long before Gentile and Nagl – who both hold doctoral degrees – won their combat decorations in
President John F. Kennedy came into office in 1961 determined to challenge Soviet-sponsored guerrilla insurgencies in societies scarred by colonialism or social injustice. Kennedy expanded the limited
Military experts and historians still argue over whether attrition would have succeeded if the
Conventional warfare also dominated the early phase of the Iraq War, though Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld modified it by demanding use of a relatively small, highly mobile ground force, reinforced by massive airpower.
The planning focused solely on toppling Saddam Hussein and defeating his forces, not on what would follow the invasion. “We are not in
But nation-building found favor in the Bush administration after
Nation-building and counterinsurgency are closely related. “Counterinsurgency is nation-building in the face of armed opposition,” in Nagl’s definition. The Bush administration signaled its new strategy with the 2007 appointment of a new top commander for
Petraeus made his first priority the protection of Iraqi civilians, a shift in emphasis from pouring all resources into hunting and killing enemies.
For American military personnel, deaths have fallen to 221 in the first seven months of 2008 – from 740 during the same period last year. Meanwhile, deaths among Iraqi security forces and civilians have fallen from more than 14,000 during the first seven months of 2007 to about 4,300 during the same period in 2008.
One of Petraeus’ key tactics was forging ties with Sunni tribes who were rebelling against the group Al Qaeda in
Skeptics argue, however, that counterinsurgency strategy had little to do with the increasing stability – because the
Still, says Carter Malkasian, a military expert who has advised Marines in
Moreover, argues Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., treating counterinsurgency largely as a low-tech exercise of winning the trust of poor villagers downplays what modern air power can accomplish.
“In the early part of the
Nevertheless, air power without solid intelligence on the ground can be catastrophic. In late August, U.N. investigators and an Afghan government commission said a
Gen. David D. McKiernan,
Taliban adaptability to
That’s one reason why Alpha Company’s Marines made sure that farmer-merchant Gul finally got reimbursed for his damaged house.
Even so, Gul and his fellow villagers could be forgiven for still keeping the Americans at arms’ length. Soon after the Marines entered the
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