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The U.S. military has been retraining to face even more extreme forms of disorder in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. The Army struggled in recent years to change its focus, to worry less about big conventional battles with rival armies and learn more about counterinsurgency battles among civilians with the regular groups.

Now an internal Pentagon report is asking if that shift went too far. The authors of the report are all Army colonels with significant combat experience and they write that, quote, "The Army is mortgaging its ability to successfully fight in future conventional battles."

The report obtained by NPR is the latest twist in an ongoing debate. And as NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz reports, that debate is getting personal.

GUY RAZ: A couple of weeks ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates sent a subtle but unmistakable message to the Army when he announced...

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Defense Secretary): General David Petraeus is the new commander of Central Command.

RAZ: As head of Central Command, Petraeus will oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The post is arguably the highest-profile assignment in the U.S. military today. And Patraeus's elevation to head Central Command is in a sense an affirmation.

Lieutenant Colonel JOHN NAGL (U.S. Army): An affirmation of the fact that the counterinsurgency doctrine he wrote and the counterinsurgency strategy he implemented in Iraq was successful.

RAZ: This is Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl. Nagl's one of the Army's top experts on counterinsurgency doctrine. His book on counterinsurgency, "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife," is a modern classic on the subject. Nagl served a tour in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, where he was based in Anbar Province. It was there that he realized the U.S. Army had gotten itself tangled up in an insurgency.

Colonel NAGLE: And so what I saw was an Army that was not as ready to fight this kind of war as it should have been, and so I came back from Iraq determined to help the Army learn how to do this kind of war more effectively.

RAZ: So Nagl got to work on the Army's counterinsurgency handbook, better known as Field Manual 3-24. The manual is like a road map for officers: It emphasizes the use of minimal force. The idea, Nagle explains, in a counterinsurgency campaign is to drive a wedge between the civilian population and the insurgents who live among them.

Colonel Peter Mansoor, a top aid to General Petraeus, also helped write the manual. Mansoor, who spoke from Baghdad, is part of General Petraeus's famed brain trust of advisers - a group of officers and civilians who live and breathe counterinsurgency doctrine.

Colonel PETER MANSOOR (U.S. Army): The people are the prize in a counterinsurgency operation. They are the key terrain, if you will, on which victory or defeat rests.

RAZ: Now, the man most closely identified with counterinsurgency doctrine is General David Petraeus. Petraeus oversaw the writing of Field Manual 3-24. And when he testified in front of Congress last month, Petraeus highlighted the doctrine as a reason for the decline in violence in Iraq.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (U.S. Army): A second factor has been the employment of coalition and Iraqi forces in the conduct of counterinsurgency operations across the country.

RAZ: Within the obsessive and rarified world of what's known as the counterinsurgency community - or in shorthand, the coin community - Petraeus is practically regarded as the son of god, and soldiers like Peter Mansoor and John Nagl are viewed as the apostles. So is an Army colonel named Sean MacFarland.

MacFarland was among the first to successfully apply counterinsurgency doctrine in Iraq back in 2006. And yet a recent internal Army report MacFarland co-authored implies that the Army is far too focused on counterinsurgency training, and this singular focus, he writes, is weakening the Army. The example he gives is what he calls the alarming deterioration of the Army's field artillery units.

Since 1775, the year America's Army was founded, artillery units have served as the backbone of the force. But today, 90 percent of artillery units are uncertified. They're not ready for battle. And a major reason why is because artillery soldiers are doing other jobs.

Now, MacFarland declined to be interviewed for this story. But views like his have been amplified publicly by an iconoclastic, Berkeley-educated officer named Lieutenant Colonel Gian Gentile.

Lieutenant Colonel GIAN GENTILE (West Point): The high public profile of the new counterinsurgency manual, combined with the perception that its use and practice with the surge in Iraq has lowered violence, I think has had a Svengali effect on us. It's almost like we have a secret recipe now for success in almost any situation involving counterinsurgency and irregular war.

Gentile, who now chairs the history department at West Point, has many silent supporters in the Army, but he's also been loudly criticized. In a recent posting on a counterinsurgency blog, Colonel Mansoor accused Lieutenant Colonel Gentile of misreading the history of what's happening in Iraq. In response, Gentile charged Mansoor with overstating the success of counterinsurgency tactics.

Still, Mansoor insists that the Army's current training regimen is spot on.

Colonel MANSOOR: The wars we're fighting now are counterinsurgency wars, and for those who argue that the Army and the Marine Corps and in fact the whole military should go back to training for high-intensity combat operations, my response would be we have two wars that we're fighting now, and we need to prosecute them to the best of our ability.

RAZ: Mansoor's fellow counterinsurgency guru, Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, is convinced that irregular warfare and counterinsurgency campaigns will define what the U.S. military will do in the future.

Colonel NAGLE: War in the Information Age is war that - in which our enemies will fight us using Information Age weapons - precision-guided missiles, cell phones, the Internet - all of the implements of technology that the Information Age allows. But they will also use them in an Agricultural Age manner, drawing upon the strengths of tribes and basic family units, and they will wage war from among the peoples.

RAZ: Retired Army Colonel Douglas MacGregor doesn't necessarily dispute that. His problem is with the way the Army defines counterinsurgency doctrine and the narrative the Army's attached to its purported success in Iraq.

MacGregor, a man whose research helped transform the Army's organizational structure back in the 1990s, disputes the idea that the Army's adoption of counterinsurgency has made it into a better force. And he argues that that viewpoint encourages a more interventionist posture within the Army - a position that will make it far easier, he says, for the Army to wage war in the future.

Colonel DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (U.S. Army, Retired): I think it's downright dangerous because it suggests that we can repeat the folly of Iraq, that somehow or another next time we can get it right without understanding that if the population is living within a social structure that doesn't want to change, if the population doesn't want you in the country, if there is no legitimate government to begin with, your intervention is doomed to inevitable failure.

RAZ: But men like MacGregor and Gentile are swimming against a powerful current. Counterinsurgency doctrine is intimately tied to a new role the Army has formally carved out for itself.

Earlier this year, the Army added stability operations to its growing portfolio of jobs, and so a mission once derided as nation-building and peacekeeping by powerful figures in the Bush administration is now a key part of how the Army sees its role around the world.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: That report is at npr.org. It's a story you'll only hear on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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