U.S. Army Soldiers in Kalagush, Afghanistan (Image: U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Isaac A. Graham)

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught the United States military a lot about how to fight insurgencies. But the question is, what lessons should be learned from these wars? And how should the Pentagon prepare for future conflicts? There's a debate among military experts about that very topic, as "The World's" Matthew Bell reports.

The U.S. military is big on lessons learned. And learning from its experience in Afghanistan and Iraq is no exception. The officer corps is trying to take the right lessons from these wars to prepare the military for future wars. But many experts believe that the lesson taken from another relatively recent war - the one in Vietnam - was the wrong one. And, they say, that fact didn't help the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vietnam was an unconventional war. There were few big battles. Enemy fighters were hard to find because they hid among the civilian population. In many ways, what the U.S. military ended up fighting in Vietnam was a counterinsurgency campaign. But after the American withdrawal, military commanders chose not to rebuild and re-train U.S. ground forces to wage future counterinsurgencies. Instead, they made a decision; not to get stuck in another messy, guerilla-style conflict.

Retired Army officer Andrew Exum says there was a big problem with that: "This idea that we just weren't going to get involved in Vietnam-style operations, that we weren't going to go in unless we had overwhelming force, clear defined objectives, clear exit strategy. This was in large part fantasy."

Fantasy, because it was never going to be solely up to American military commanders to decide which wars to fight and which ill-defined, peace-keeping or nation-building operations to stay out of.

Exum: "It was always going to be up to the civilian leadership. And if the civilian leadership decides, that, hey, you know what, you are going to build nations, you are going to be stuck in nebulous operations other than war, well, that's exactly what you're going to be stuck with. And in the same way, the institution, the Army and Marine Corps as institutions, also failed after Vietnam. They failed to really institutionalize the lessons that we should have learned after Vietnam."

Exum served with a Special Forces unit in Iraq early in the war, and he saw firsthand how American ground forces were not prepared to fight an insurgency. They were trained to fight conventional wars. Think, 1991 Gulf War, part two. Lots of tanks, big guns, open spaces. Then, would come the clean up phase. Exum says that was about chasing down, killing or capturing what remained of the enemy. But in Iraq, that phase turned out to be just a beginning.

Exum: "If you just start breaking down doors and pulling people out of their houses in the middle of the night, you may get the 50 people you're looking for, but at the end, then you'll have a list of 200. And so you go after those 200 people. And kind of this target list just keeps growing because you're inflaming the early embers of the insurgency. So, I think we not only weren't doing the right things in Iraq in late 2003, when I was there, and early 2004, but, in fact, I think we were making things much more difficult for the soldiers that followed on."

Bell visited National Guard troops training for deployment to Iraq back in 2004, and at the time, they were starting to work on some of the basics of counterinsurgency. Guard soldiers rehearsed things like how deal with an angry crowd; how to tell dangerous insurgents apart from irate citizens. But in Iraq, it took almost three years for the U.S. military to turn the tide. General David Petraeus implemented a broad counterinsurgency strategy in 2007. He sent thousands more U.S. troops to live in Iraqi neighborhoods. They struck deals with former insurgents. They separated insurgent hold-outs from the civilian population, and helped bring back a sense of security. The success of this bottom-up approach was a shot in the arm for proponents of counterinsurgency doctrine. And it's become something of a guiding light for American military trainers, especially in the Army.

Retired Army lieutenant colonel John Nagl is the president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington. He's an Iraq veteran himself. And a long-time scholar of counterinsurgency doctrine: "It's a lot more like breaking up a mafia crime ring than it is like fighting a conventional enemy.

"I'm certainly not averse to killing bad guys. I've done a little of it myself here and there. But that isn't how you win this kind of war. The important thing isn't just killing or capturing the enemy. But changing the conditions, overturning the conditions, that led to the enemy deciding to fight you illegally."

Before he retired, Nagl helped General Petraeus write the Army's counterinsurgency manual. But now that he's out of uniform, Nagl is no less passionate about transforming the service into a first-rate counterinsurgency force.

Nagl: "We need the ability to kill people and break things with our Army, absolutely. But we also need, in this modern era, we need an Army that can protect people and build things. And what we're doing is looking for the right balance between those two. My argument is that we still don't have it exactly right."

Nagl adds that this isn't just an academic debate for him: "When I'm falling asleep at night, I see the faces of friends I've lost in these fights in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And I'm doing everything I can to help us adapt to those wars and help us win those wars and keep as many of my friends around as I can so they can live to fight another day."

But there are voices of dissent within the ranks. Gian Gentile is an active duty Army colonel. He also fought in Iraq. He lost soldiers there too. He's concerned about the service taking the right lessons from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And like Nagl, Gentile says the military should be improving its counterinsurgency capability.

Gentile: "What I don't think we should be doing is using these two wars as a model that encompasses completely what the future of conflict will hold. Because, if we do that, we're then, potentially, going to build an Army that can only do more Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s and might not be able to deal with other conflicts and threats that might present themselves to us in the future."

Gentile says turning the Army into a nation-building force means neglecting important war-fighting capabilities. And he says that's already beginning to happen: "Many of our artillery battalions and units that go to Iraq or Afghanistan don't predominantly focus on firing their guns. Now, there are parts of their units that do, but they also get other missions that relate to counterinsurgency, like detainee operations, convoy escorts, those kinds of things. So, if they're doing that, they're not firing their guns predominantly and their skills in that regard probably have atrophied."

And if conventional fighting skills have atrophied, Gentile says that could be a real problem. He says the military should be preparing itself to win all wars, big and small, conventional and unconventional.

John Nagl agrees this concern is a valid one, however: "I believe that we have excess conventional capability, particularly in the Air Force and Navy, against any conceivable conventional enemy that we would fight today. So I'm willing to sacrifice, strategy is about trade-offs and priorities, you're applying resources to achieve desired objectives. If the desired objective is to win the war in Afghanistan at the lowest possible cost in American lives and Afghan lives, then we need to give up some more artillery capability."

The Obama administration appears to be embracing the idea that counterinsurgency doctrine is vital. Because that's the kind of conflict American soldiers and Marines are mostly likely to face in the future. It's worth pointing out though that counterinsurgency experts are the first to say that preparing to fight insurgencies is no guarantee of victory. Because even for the very best-prepared military forces, these kinds of foreign wars are extremely difficult to win.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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