Chimera of Victory
By GIAN P. GENTILE
Published: October 30, 2009
If history is a guide, then the recent suicide bombings in Baghdad show that the insurgency in Iraq is far from over.
Contrary to much of what is written and said, victory is not near and the notion that the “surge” of troops was some great, decisive military action that set the stage for political reconciliation is a chimera.
It was a chimera for the French in Algeria that their bloody counterinsurgency there defeated Algerian nationalists.
After the war, which lasted from 1956 to 1961, a myth started to build in the French Army and then found its way into American Army thinking, where it lives on today, that the French military operations defeated the insurgents.
Not true. In fact, the Algerian insurgents chose to lay low while the French Army and people impaled themselves on the political problems of colonial rule. In the end, President Charles de Gaulle ordered the French Army out of Algeria in 1961 and Algeria got its independence.
About 10 years later, some chroniclers of the Vietnam War began to write that the U.S. Army could have pacified the country and defeated the insurgents toward the end of the war with the counterinsurgency tactics introduced by Gen. Creighton Abrams.
According to this myth, if it hadn’t been for the fickleness and weakness of the American people and politicians, the war could have been won.
This notion, which dominates current army thinking on Iraq and Afghanistan, is also a chimera.
The Communist insurgency in Vietnam was not defeated by the early 1970s, but rather adjusted its actions based on the conditions prevailing in Vietnam.
The Tet offensive of 1968 so reduced Vietcong capability that the insurgents had to take a breather, so to speak, of a couple of years while North Vietnam prepared the final and successful military assault into the South in 1975.
So too with Iraq today. The fundamental political and social problem of who will hold power in Iraq has yet to be resolved, and the final reckoning may still have to be determined through fighting.
The ongoing ability and wiliness of insurgent groups in Iraq to carry out suicide attacks undermines the notion that the surge worked and, through military force, put an end to the violence.
These histories should also inform our thinking on Afghanistan.
History shows that occupation by foreign armies with the intent of changing occupied societies does not work and ends up costing considerable blood and treasure.
The notion that if only an army gets a few more troops, with different and better generals, then within a few years it can defeat a multi-faceted insurgency set in the middle of civil war, is not supported by an honest reading of history.
Algeria, Vietnam and Iraq show this to be the case. Regrettably we don’t seem to be learning anything from history with regard to Afghanistan. We are making the same blunders.
When I was a combat battalion commander in West Baghdad in 2006, I asked an Iraqi Army general how long it would be before the civil war ended in Iraq. “Four hundred years,” was his answer.
It took the United States almost a hundred years to end its most divisive political and social issue, slavery, and it required a cataclysmic civil war. Could an outside force have come into the United States in the 1850s and resolved its internal conflicts at the barrel of a gun?
So why do we think we have ended Iraq’s civil war at the barrel of a gun over the past two years — or that we can do it in Afghanistan?
Gian P. Gentile, a colonel in the U.S. Army, heads the Military History Program at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served in Iraq in 2003 and 2006.