COUNTERINSURGENCY….In Vietnam, the Army figured out too late that it needed to fight a counterinsurgency, not a conventional war. In Iraq, Lawrence Kaplan writes, the Army has once again figured out too late that it needs to fight a counterinsurgency, not a conventional war:

Having been drained of blood and prestige in Southeast Asia, the Army responded by banishing “counterinsurgency” from the lexicon of U.S. military affairs. And, in Iraq, where the Army has spent nearly three years launching big-unit sweeps, relying heavily on firepower, and otherwise employing conventional tactics against an unconventional foe, it shows….”[I] don’t think we’ll put much energy into trying the old saying, ‘Win the hearts and minds,’” ground commander Lieutenant General Thomas Metz said last year. “I don’t look at it as one of the metrics of success.”

….After combating the insurgency for nearly three years in Iraq, the Army is finally starting, slowly and fitfully, to incorporate these lessons into doctrine….But why didn’t such a strategy emerge 30 months ago? Last month, for example, an excited David Ignatius revealed in his Washington Post column that General Abizaid and other senior officers in Iraq were reading Lewis Sorley’s A Better War, the definitive account of America’s improved counterinsurgency efforts in South Vietnam after the Tet Offensive. One can take this as evidence that the generals correctly grasp the nature of the war in Iraq, as Ignatius does. Or one might ask what the discovery of a standard text on Vietnam, without which no college course on the subject would be complete, says about the strategic literacy of leaders who get surprised by problems and then go read a book to resurrect a dubious answer from the past.

This has been by far one of the biggest mysteries of the Iraq war: why did no one in the military leadership foresee the insurgency? And once it started, why did they turn a blind eye to it ? despite advice from counterinsurgency experts in their own ranks? And now that they’ve finally figured out what they’re up against, why are they still only haltingly ? and far from unanimously ? willing to change doctrine?

This is probably the single biggest reason that I think we need to figure out a way to withdraw from Iraq. Contrary to current conventional wisdom, which suggests that it’s OK to criticize the war but not criticize the troops ? including the top brass ? the fact is that the military leadership’s longstanding refusal to take counterinsurgency seriously is little less than a dereliction of duty. They’ve insisted on planning for the kind of war they’d like to fight instead of the kind of war they should have known they were likely to fight.

Would a focus on counterinsurgency ever have worked? I’m skeptical, although it might have. But it’s almost certainly too late now, and without a robust and well thought out counterinsurgency plan our presence in Iraq is now doing more harm than good. Leaving Iraq may not guarantee a happy outcome, but at this point it’s the best chance we have.

UPDATE: I’ve modified the post slightly to make it clear that I’m talking about a lack of attention to counterinsurgency among the highest ranks of the Pentagon’s leadership, both civilian and uniformed. In fact, there have always been counterinsurgency experts at lower levels in the military, but they’ve never had much success getting the top generals to take it seriously.