Eliot Cohen, Bush State Department official: I want to make some somewhat nihilistic remarks. [LAUGHTER] The first thing is just to remind us all, counterinsurgency is a kind of military operation. There's an American style to counterinsurgency; there was a German style to counterinsurgency; there's a Soviet or Russian style to counterinsurgency. It's just a kind of operation that militaries do, and I think particularly in the popular discussion there's this tendency to call counterinsurgency the kind of stuff that's in the manual.
Three points. One, we didn't take much away from Vietnam because we stopped thinking about Vietnam after that conflict. And I saw that up close doing some work for the Army War College in that immediate post-Vietnam period. That doesn't necessarily mean that there were "lessons" with quotation marks around them that should have been chiseled in the forehead of every lieutenant colonel. Just we stopped thinking and reflecting about it.
Second, to my mind, the critical point, we do not know the other side's story. Vietnam, we are only now really learning their story, and it's partial. It's going to be much harder for Iraq because there's a whole bunch of other sides. We've talked al Qaeda in Iraq as if we all know what that is. I'm not sure I know what al Qaeda in Iraq is -- what connection it had with Osama bin Laden, how it was structured, who it took its orders from, where it grew from.
And the Anbari sheikhs, their story of the Awakening is different than our story of the Awakening. We just need to be very sensitive to the American tendency to be completely solipsistic and tell the story of the war as if it's us and some kind of ill-defined other.
And finally, having played a very modest role in helping get the COIN manual launched, I've got two big reservations about it. Actually three. One is a technical one, which is it underestimated the killing part of counterinsurgency and particularly what Stan McChrystal and his merry men were doing [with special operations]. I think that is a large part of our counterinsurgency success. We killed a lot of the people who needed to be killed, or captured them, and that's not something you want to talk about. You'd rather talk about building power plants and stuff, but the killing part was really important, and I think we have to wrestle with that one because it's obviously problematic.
But more problematic, I really wonder about this stuff about protecting the population as opposed to controlling the population, and I have real doubts now, which I did not have before, about a lot of the development stuff that we did. I'll just give you one vignette from a visit to Iraq, where I think it was around Tikrit, and our wonderful PRT leader was telling me what happened when a commander read all the stuff about COIN, decided, you know, these people don't have good water, we're going to buy them a water purification plant. So he buys them a water purification plant.
The only problem is nobody's told the Iraqi ministry concerned that they now have that. Nobody has been trained to maintain that thing. There's no money anywhere for spare parts, so the thing works for 6 months and dies, and then the locals say, you bastards, you did this to us deliberately, didn't you? You know, you deliberately gave us a water purification plant that you knew was going to blow up in 6 months. We hate you even more than before.
I think we need to take a really close and somewhat jaundiced look at a lot of the development spending that we're doing, as opposed to simply bribing people to stay off the battlefield, which is a different matter.
Glasser: You're in favor of that --
Unknown voice: Bribing people?
Cohen: Yes, and I mean, I have a much harder-edged view of the whole problem I think than I used to.
Col. Peter Mansoor (ret.): I have four points. One, we hate COIN, we hate counterinsurgency, and we will never do it again until we do it again. And that's, I think, the lesson of the last 30, 40, 50 years. Great little pamphlet by Conrad Crane called "Forgetting Vietnam," in which he was trying to develop a course in counterinsurgency warfare [and] low-intensity conflict at Fort Leavenworth in the '80s, and he goes to the JFK School of Special Warfare thinking these guys are the COIN experts. [He asked] can I see your files on Vietnam only to be told, they were ordered to throw them away in the 1970s because we will never fight that kind of war again.
The second point is on this idea that we can kill and capture our way to victory in counterinsurgency, and I respectfully disagree. Where these networks are so robust -- and Iraq was a very robust insurgent terrorist network -- you cannot kill or capture your way to victory. We tried that for three years. And it's only when you have the synergy of conventional and special forces working together that you can eventually collapse a network.