In Iraq and Afghanistan, General David Petraeus applied all the lessons learned in Vietnam—except for the one that mattered most.
The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War
by Fred Kaplan
Simon & Schuster, 448 pp.
In late 2005, after a grueling year training Iraqi security forces, Lieutenant General David Petraeus returned to the U.S. to take on his next assignment. Then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, unhappy with the general’s growing media stature, wanted to ship him off to West Point, where he would have counted down the days to his retirement as the academy’s superintendent in relative obscurity.
But fate—and the Army—had other plans for Petraeus, who was instead sent to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to run the Combined Arms Center, the main hub of the service’s leadership development program. The post could have been seen as another career-ending disappointment, but General Peter Schoomaker, the Army’s chief of staff at the time, advised his protégé to think about it differently. From Leavenworth, he would have the authority to rewrite Army doctrine and revamp training standards. And it would give Petraeus, who took an interest in counterinsurgency operations early on in his career, the chance to reshape the military’s futile approach to the bloody chaos engulfing Iraq and Afghanistan. “Go out there and shake up the Army, Dave,” Schoomaker urged.
It’s a small but pivotal moment in Fred Kaplan’s new book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. Kaplan, who writes Slate’s “War Stories” column, notes that Petraeus had been agitating for the Army to overhaul its attitude toward unconventional conflicts for two decades. In the late 1980s, he wrote his Princeton doctoral thesis about the lessons of Vietnam, concluding that the conflicts of the future would be smaller wars against amorphous enemies that blend in with civilians. As he rose through the ranks, Petraeus advocated for building up rapidly deployable light-infantry units, not the lumbering tank battalions the Pentagon was heavily investing in to thwart a Soviet invasion of western Europe. For the most part, his pleas to take counterinsurgency seriously fell on deaf ears.
Kaplan’s book opens with an anecdote about tanks rolling across the Iraqi border during the first Gulf War, but his story really begins in the jungles of Vietnam, where nearly 60,000 Americans lost their lives fighting a bloody guerilla war with little support back home. So painful is the legacy of the American experience in Southeast Asia that it continues to color the military’s perspective three decades on.
Generations of senior leaders within the Army have taken great pains to avoid getting drawn into another conflict with ill-defined goals and fuzzy battle lines. Their strategy was clear: they wouldn’t train, equip, or otherwise prepare for a Vietnam-like counterinsurgency operation, in the hope that they wouldn’t be asked to participate in one. It was against this backdrop that the Pentagon drew up plans to invade Iraq in 2003 while ignoring the possibility of postwar instability. Baghdad was conquered with remarkable efficiency, but the situation on the ground was catastrophic. A violent insurgency emerged to challenge the American occupation, and the troops did what they had been taught to do—rack up enemy kills. But that wasn’t stopping the carnage. U.S. service members were dying by the dozens along with hundreds of civilians each month. It was beginning to look like Vietnam all over again.
Who could fix Iraq, and, by extension, Afghanistan? As early as 2004, the media anointed Petraeus the savior of the war, lionizing his efforts to provide government services to the people of Mosul. He was one of a few on the ground in Iraq to recognize that success wouldn’t come at the end of a rifle. His plan was a classic counterinsurgency strategy, the very same theory he revamped at Leavenworth. By late 2007, after orchestrating the troop surge in Iraq and quelling much of the sectarian violence, Petraeus was a rock star in Washington circles. President George W. Bush made him the face of the war and paraded him around Capitol Hill, assailing anyone who would question the general’s judgment. Pundits were drawing comparisons between Petraeus and Dwight D. Eisenhower, calling the former the brightest military mind of his generation.
We now have the benefit of hindsight to review Petraeus’s achievements and gauge their sustainability over the long term. Many journalists have retracted their glowing approval of his work in the wake of his affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. That dalliance, which cost him his job running the Central Intelligence Agency, has accelerated the revision of his record as the pundit class scrambles to point out that much of the progress he made in Iraq has since evaporated because American troops aren’t there to keep the violence in check.
Most of Kaplan’s book, written before the affair with Broadwell was made public, positions Petraeus as the right man to confront Iraq’s postwar problems, but gives a much more nuanced view of how circumstances—and a few key allies—conspired to push the general into the right place at the right time. The Leavenworth assignment figures heavily in Kaplan’s narrative. Petraeus finally had the authority to rewrite the Army’s long-atrophied counterinsurgency manual, the overarching strategy document that guided the military’s course of action on the battlefield. By the time he got to Kansas, there was growing concern within pockets of the greater defense establishment that Iraq was spiraling out of control. Their ranks were still thin—there were a handful of other commanders in the field, a few civilian policymakers, and a small group of think tank scholars—but they were adamant that waging a counterinsurgency was the only chance to turn things around.
Petraeus and his collaborators set about codifying crucial COIN principles that would roil the greater defense establishment, namely the idea that economic stability and a legitimate government were more important to achieving victory than superior firepower. The overarching idea was to give the locals an appealing alternative to the insurgents with the hope that they would align themselves with the U.S.-backed government. The plan required more troops to spend more time living among local populations to establish trust, a recipe that would likely create more casualties in the short term. And they put Petraeus directly at odds with the top commanders in Iraq at the time like General George Casey, who felt the American presence was fueling the violence and wanted to withdraw as many troops as possible. But larger political forces were on Petraeus’s side. Republicans had suffered a massive defeat in 2006 midterms thanks in large part to the mayhem in Iraq, and the White House was finally ready to make a change. President Bush sent Petraeus to Iraq with the extra troops he wanted and put him in charge.
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