As it happened, after the publication of Fiasco, Gentile had published a series of articles that were critical of counterinsurgency. In one of Gentile’s articles, an August 2007 Washington Post op-ed titled in the middle of a civil war, he described how Iraq was being divided along sectarian lines and argued that the divisions had made it difficult, if not impossible, for the American forces to provide enough stability to allow the Iraqis to rebuild their country. The following month, Gentile argued in Armed Forces Journal that the theoretical framework of Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrine, which was outlined in the military’s new Field Manual on Counterinsurgency, was simplistic and even dangerous. “The essence of war, even counterinsurgency war, is fighting,” Gentile wrote, explaining that the new field manual struck him as naïve. It placed too much emphasis on protecting the population, in his view, and not enough on shooting the insurgents. He also claimed that the surge was not providing sufficient troops to fight in Iraq. In this and other articles, Gentile was deeply pessimistic about the chances for U.S. success in Iraq.
Carl Prine, a reporter for The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review—who is also a board member of a nonprofit press group, Military Reporters & Editors, as well as a friend of Gentile’s—believes that Ricks went after Gentile in part because Gentile had decided to challenge a faction that Ricks enthusiastically supported. And he is right. Ricks himself concedes that this was one of the reasons Gentile was presented negatively in The Gamble.
Ricks says his portrayal of Gentile was “like a developing photograph” that became sharper with time. Part of that developing picture: Ricks was traveling in Iraq when Gentile’s work began appearing in U.S. publications, and he heard officers talk about the articles in a disparaging way. “One of the themes that came up in those interviews was that he was judging their war without having seen it first-hand, or, in their view, even understanding what they were doing” in this new phase of the war, Ricks explained in an e-mail. He told me that he thought Gentile was not doing a good job in Baghdad in 2006, and that he and many other leaders in the military at the time were failing. But he said he also took issue with Gentile’s writing about the surge and the new counter-insurgency in Iraq, adding, “He’s presented negatively in The Gamble partly because of his op-ed.”
Over the past three years, Ricks has been an enthusiastic supporter of counterinsurgency and has engaged in robust discussions about its theoretical foundation and current tactics on his blog. He writes and researches in his office at the Center for a New American Security, which has become counterinsurgency central in Washington. The center is home to the top proponents of the doctrine, a group of one-time military dissidents who have become in many ways the core of the new military establishment. The organization was founded in 2007 and has close ties with the Obama administration, providing much of the underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia.
The center is headed up by John Nagl, the charismatic author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, who has, for example, promoted the idea of a military advisory corps as a way to enhance the military’s ability to assist government leaders in other nations. President Obama has embraced Nagl’s proposal, explaining that an advisory corps “will enable us to better build up local allies’ capacities to take on mutual threats.” Another important figure at the center is CEO Nathaniel Fick, who wrote a book, One Bullet Away, and has taught classes in counterinsurgency in Kabul. Meanwhile, Army Captain Andrew Exum, whose blog, Abu Muqawama, has been described as the “go-to for the coin set,” has also become part of the organization. And David Kilcullen, the handsome, highly-quotable Australian who was an adviser to Petraeus, is a close friend of Nagl’s and also a member of the center’s board of advisers.
President Obama has embraced the doctrine of counterinsurgency for Iraq and Afghanistan and has hired a number of people from the center, including one of its co-founders, Michèle Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, along with two former fellows, Shawn Brimley and Vikram Singh, Flournoy’s advisers. Kurt Campbell, who had been the think tank’s chief executive officer, is serving as assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department. In addition, James Miller, a former senior vice president at the center, is principal deputy undersecretary for policy at the Defense Department, and Susan Rice, a former member of the center’s board of advisers, is U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.