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.
The Insurgents makes clear that Petraeus didn’t accomplish the feat of reorienting the Bush administration’s attitude toward Iraq and counterinsurgency by himself. The book’s strength lies in the rich detail Kaplan offers the reader as he traces the network of colleagues all dedicated to stopping the violence in Iraq by employing classic counterinsurgency techniques. He untangles the web of professional connections much the same way an intelligence analyst might track down the associates of an al-Qaeda cell. (Many of the key players spent time either studying or teaching in West Point’s Department of Social Sciences, including Petraeus.) What emerges is a meticulously researched picture of the conferences, back-channel meetings, white papers, and PowerPoint presentations that culminated in the rewriting of the field manual.
There are dozens of supporting players in Kaplan’s telling of the story. Chief among them is Frederick Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. Kagan authored a widely read report published in December 2006 that concluded Iraq could be stabilized with about 30,000 more troops. The study was heavily promoted by General Jack Keane, the former U.S. Army vice chief of staff, who privately urged both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to heed its recommendations. Despite the growing unpopularity of the war, the administration was open to their arguments.
One other important factor would have to fall into place before things could come together. After years of ignoring the reality on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, Rumsfeld resigned in November 2006.
If Petraeus is the protagonist, albeit with flaws, in Kaplan’s telling of the story, Rumsfeld is one of its biggest villains. More than two years after invading Iraq, the defense secretary still wouldn’t allow his senior staff to use the word “insurgency,” even as it was clear the situation was deteriorating before their very eyes. General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was publicly chastised for uttering the term during a press conference. Rumsfeld “didn’t want to get bogged down in securing and stabilizing Iraq after Baghdad had fallen—so he didn’t make any plans to do so,” Kaplan explains. “It wasn’t an oversight; it was deliberate.”
It wasn’t until August 2004, a full seventeen months after the cruise missiles began pummeling Baghdad, that the Pentagon began crafting a comprehensive reconstruction plan. Individual mid-level commanders had tried to implement COIN tactics to a degree, working with local leaders to rebuild schools or recruit a police force. But without an overarching strategy, their efforts could not be sustained. Despite the urgent need in the field for guidance, the Defense Department quickly became bogged down by bureaucratic infighting. This, combined with an officer corps that was still reticent to take on nation building, stymied progress. It would take another fifteen months before the plan—called Defense Department Directive 3000.05—would be put into practice.
The fact that the secretary of defense simply wasn’t interested in stability operations further slowed things down. Rumsfeld was instead focused on what he believed was a more important task: transforming the military into a lighter, leaner force that relied on smart bombs, high-tech sensors, and laser-guided missiles to attack the enemy from afar. Counterinsurgency couldn’t be boiled down to a stealthy aircraft traveling at the speed of sound dropping GPS-enhanced munitions. It was slow, messy, and more risky. It required a large number of troops to occupy a foreign land, live among the people, and establish a level of trust. That could take years—if it ever happened.
It had taken close to forty-eight months from the time the war started to the point when counterinsurgency became the official plan. The lag made it difficult to deal with the deeply entrenched sectarian divide. The number of civilian casualties and roadside bombs started to decline in 2007, but the government of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, had been allowing (if not all-out fueling) an ethnic-cleansing campaign that resulted in thousands of its Sunni rivals being kidnapped and killed. Backing the government in this case meant undermining America’s ultimate goal of creating a unified Iraq. Two years later, when Petraeus would try to rectify the similar problems in Afghanistan, he would hit a similar wall with President Hamid Karzai.
Kaplan saves his most withering critique for the end of the book. Though he writes that Petraeus is “rather bright, even sunny, bursting with outside enthusiasm” and applauds the general’s rigorous work habits, Kaplan doesn’t ignore the major problems with the counterinsurgency doctrine. (If you don’t make it all the way through the last few chapters, you could get the impression that this book is a paean to Petraeus and his merry band of strategists.) Though the Iraq troop surge was deemed a success for reducing civilian casualties, the sustainability of the gains that were made remains an open question. The country continues to struggle with suicide bombings. The authoritarian Maliki government is busy arresting political rivals and siding with Iran to the detriment of U.S. interests. In Afghanistan, Petraeus’s efforts to beat back the Taliban and reign in government corruption were halted by a decentralized power structure that ran on bribes and the whims of rural tribesmen who felt little, if any, loyalty to Karzai.
Petraeus and most of those who bought into his doctrine made some crucial miscalculations. Even if the Army was able to provide security and services to local populations, there was still no guarantee they would in turn give their loyalty to a government propped up by U.S. forces. There was always a danger that the people would see any American-backed leaders as illegitimate. Perhaps more importantly, it won’t always be the case that our strategic goals will line up neatly with those of the host country. “As a commander, Petraeus had stressed the importance of getting ‘the big ideas’ right, but the ideas in COIN theory weren’t as big as he seemed to believe,” Kaplan writes. “Counterinsurgency is a technique, not a grand strategy.”
So why then was Petraeus built up to such mythical heights even within the military? In a sense, we needed to believe that Petraeus triumphed—that all we needed was a brilliant general with a grand new strategy to extract us from messes in Iraq and Afghanistan. We need Petraeus to achieve victory because otherwise we lose. And nobody likes thinking about that.
Kaplan concludes with the thought that Petraeus and others were able to change the military to be more flexible—and that is a good thing. Being able to perform stability operations, or at least not ignoring the fact that they might be called upon to do them, is a skill the modern military will need going forward. But Kaplan also notes, after the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan a president may be hard pressed to commit troops in a faraway land when the goals aren’t clear and national security isn’t really on the line.
Maybe the generals who fought in Vietnam were on to something after all.
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