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Last Updated: 04/22/2013Counterinsurgency has not worked: A conversation with Col. Gian Gentile
Col. Gian Gentile, a prominent critic of US counterinsurgency policy in Iraq and a history professor at West Point, speaks with Lawal Tsalha about the tactics and goals of counterinsurgency, the breakdown of leadership and discipline that led to Abu Gharib, the pros and cons of drones as a tactic for applying military force within an uncertain strategic framework, and America's strategic interest in Syria.
Please, could briefly tell us your biography?
I grew up in Northern California, in the East Bay, just outside of San Francisco. I was an undergraduate at UC Barkley. I was commissioned in the army in 1986; I’ve been an armor officer, I’ve been in a lot of different places – Korea, other posts in the United States. I did my graduate work at Stanford University, and have been teaching off and on at West Point for the last 15 years, and I’ve done different types of things in the operational army. I was in Iraq in 2003 as a Brigade Combat Team Executive Officer and back again in 2006 as a Calvary Squad Commander.
You were in Iraq as a US army officer during the 2003-2006 counterinsurgency – could you share your experience with us?
Well, there is a lot. What I did in 2003 was different in a lot of ways; in 2003 I was an Executive Officer for a Brigade Combat Team, which meant that I ran the brigade’s command post, coordinated different activities, and probably because I spent most of my time in the command post, I didn’t get out that much, and it was also a very different time in Iraq, where the Sunni insurgency was just starting up and the sectarian civil war really hadn’t come to the fore like it did a few years later. My second time in, Iraq 2006, I think, at least for me, was really the formative experience, because I commanded a Calvary Squadron in West Baghdad which has about 700–800 soldiers, and I was an Operator, I mean I did things out with Iraq people, tried to fight the insurgency, worked with Iraq’s security forces, and it was that year in 2006, that was really the formative experience that shaped a lot of my views on things since I returned.
The idea of counterinsurgency is to protect the population…
Yes, that’s the idea.
Can you call the Iraq counterinsurgency a success?
[pause] Counterinsurgency is a tactical method, right? And in war, tactics are never ends in themselves. Tactics are supposed to achieve some political goal, some higher good, right? What has United States has achieved in Iraq? Let’s just look at the numbers – not just for the United States, also Iraq, but first the United States: the government has spent close to $3 trillion dollars for 8.8 years of occupation and war in Iraq, has had 4,883 soldiers killed, tens of thousands with life changing wounds, that many more thousands suffering from PTSD, right? Then let’s look at the Iraqi side: close to a quarter of a million killed, close to a million displaced from their original homes, only a few of them returning. And then, back to the American perspective, we’ve replaced one dictator, Saddam Hussein, with arguably another, Nouri al-Malaki, who is allied closely with USA’s regional adversary, Iran. So looking at all of that, to say the counterinsurgency as a tactical method has worked – I don’t see how one can justify that based on what it cost the United States and what outcome has been achieved there.
And then, the other question you’ve asked: did counterinsurgency work in terms of protecting the population, well, it’s hard to say that counterinsurgency worked to protect the population if close to a million Iraqis have been killed. And then, further with that, if you look at the narrative that tries to show that, once General Petraeus took over in February 2007, he instilled new, better counterinsurgency methods, the fact is that in 2007, the number of Iraqi civilians that died at the hands of American operations and firepower tripled during the surge as compared to previous years.
So that’s why I say, with all of that: no, counterinsurgency has not worked.
Have you ever visited Abu Ghraib prison during the counterinsurgency?
No, I was in Tikrit the first time I was there in 2003, and in my second tour in 2006, I was in Baghdad. So, I was never physically at Abu Ghraib.
But were you aware of the torture of inmates in the prison?
I think it was a breakdown… of a number of different factors. First, I think it was a breakdown in basic discipline and leadership on the part of the American military. That doesn’t take away the individual responsibility for the soldiers who were doing the torture at Abu Ghraib, but their leaders also had a hand in it. And, there seemed to be a vacuum, or an emptiness of leadership, of people who should have been there watching what was being done, who could have seen what was happening and acted on it. So I think it is a combination of leadership failure and personal failure on the part of the individuals involved.
And I think, also, a failure of understanding, that was based on a wrong-headed idea that torture works. There have been a lot of studies that have shown that people, when they are tortured, will tell you anything you want them to say in order to get the torture to stop. So the effectiveness of torture as a tool to bring out information is also highly problematic – in a practical way – in addition to the whole moral/ethical problem of doing it on its own.
Technology has brought something called the ‘drone’, please, could you explain it is all about to layman’s level of understanding?
A drone, simply stated, is a aerial vehicle – an airplane – that is flown by a human being on the ground. So drones are unmanned, there is no pilot, like in an F16, a fighter plane, where there is a human being, a man or a woman, who is sitting in the cockpit, flying the plane. Drones are unmanned, that is why they are often called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). And a drone can do a number of different things, it can have a camera on it and provide surveillance through video recording, and it can also have weaponry attached to it – missiles, rockets – that can attack… an installation on the ground, for example.
The advantage of drones, from a military and state perspective, is that you don’t put your own people, your own military, in physical danger when you fly them, because the operator of the drone is safely back hundreds or thousands of miles away. So that’s how the drone is.
How the United States has been using them in the last couple of years – I don’t have access to policy or senior decision makers or anything like that, just what I read in the newspapers and through my own analysis and study – it has been reported that the number of drone strikes have increased over the last year or two, by the United States. And the criticism that I have of America’s use of drones – because I do think that there can be a time and a place where it makes sense for the United States to use a drone strike, to go after individuals who have an intent, an ability, and are planning to actively carry out an attack on the United States. But the criticism I would offer of American use of drones in last two or three years is that they almost seem to be a tactical use of military force, right? Because when I say “tactical use”, there are the tactics of taking a drone off, flying it, and then striking something on the ground – or an individual. So what we have come to is a tactical use of military force in search of a strategy.
How would you describe the US’s drone’s failure in Iran?
All I know is what I read in the paper about the supposed surveillance drone that was shot down by the Iranians – as far as the facts, I am not really sure...
What is your perception for the future of the US drone program?
I think the use of drones is an appealing use of military force for American political leaders, for one, because it doesn’t put American service members in harm’s way, right? And it is also appealing because, at least in a tactical sense, it is a low cost, relatively safe way for the United States to apply military force to get after what it thinks are individuals out there who are gonna do harm to the United States. So, I say that because I think that aspect of it is appealing to American policy makers, and I imagine that there will be a continuing, potentially growing reliance on the use of drones and drones strikes.
But that doesn’t mean that the use of those drone strikes are set within a strategic framework that makes sense. And I also think that there is a growing tendency by American political leaders to use drone strikes perhaps more than it should be, because they believe that if they don’t use it and America is attacked like it was during 9/11, then they will be held to blame because they didn’t apply the drone strikes like they think they should have. So all of that, I think contributes to the idea that drone strikes aren’t going away anytime soon.
The United State has intervened in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in Libya – why is it that the US seems not to have an interest in the current Syrian crisis?
I think there are a number of people in America that believe that the United State has a significant interest in Syria, to the point where there are a number of people in the United States who are arguing for American military intervention, some say minimal, some argue for a significant military intervention, but I think there are plenty of people in the United State who do believe that the United States has a strong interest in Syria.
I think the United States has an interest in Syria. It has interest in stability in the Middle East, the potential for the Syrian civil war to expand outwards, to involve Iraq, to involve other Middle Eastern countries. The question now becomes: how do you act on that interest? Is the best way to try to influence, shape, or protect that interest by using military force? And that, I personally think, is not the answer for the United States and Syria.
How do you feel being an army officer in the US military – a force that is being accused for violating international law by attacking foreign countries illegally?
Well, I think that, if the President of United States was here, or his legal advisers, they would make the argument that drones strikes are not illegal, that they are legitimate weapons for the use of the United States to protect itself from individuals and foreign lands who, based on their assessment of the intelligence, that those individuals are planning or in the process of executing an attack against the United States.
As an individual analyst and scholar, I think we should be concerned that our use of drone strikes and the numbers, and the frequency of the use of them, can have a potential backlash in terms of how the world community perceives the United States and its use of drone strikes, and the more practical fact of when the United States carry out drone strikes, when it kills innocent civilians as a part of the strike, which happens sometimes, then that produces a backlash of its own. And sometimes, in so trying to protect ourselves, we may be creating more enemies than we originally started out with.
Thank you very much.
Lawal Tsalha is a Nigerian journalist and an Intern with the Peace and Conflict Monitor.