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According to Fred Kaplan’s new book about General David H Petraeus and his attempt to re-envision American military strategy, the general had a philosophy about publicity. “I have a Front Page of The Washington Post’ rule,” he told attendees at a counterinsurgency field manual workshop in 2006. “If you don’t want to see something on the front page of The Washington Post, then don’t do it, don’t say it.”
But as Mr Petraeus would learn in 2012, when he made front-page news with an embarrassing personal transgression, not even the best-made rules cover all conceivable challenges. That point is central to The Insurgents, a thoroughly reported account of how, in American military circles, “counterinsurgency” became a policy instead of a dirty word.
In 2004 during the Iraq war, counterinsurgency “was still a frowned-upon term inside the Bush administration”. That kind of warfare – what were once called “irregular wars,” “asymmetric wars” or “low-intensity conflicts” – was also overlooked at West Point, Mr Petraeus’s alma mater.
But Mr Petraeus, who would develop a reputation “as a schemer, a self-promoter and, worst of all, an intellectual”, took an autodidact’s approach to a subject that fascinated him. He learned from Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by the British Army officer T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), and Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, by David Galula, both dated texts that had uncanny relevance to the Vietnam War and the post-Vietnam era.
The book begins with an epiphany for John A Nagl, a West Point-educated Army officer turned counterinsurgency theorist who, while driving a tank across southern Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, discovered that the tank-on-tank fighting for which he had trained was all but irrelevant. And yet he had not been trained for less hidebound forms of combat; he cites with approval one cadet’s idea of a new motto for West Point, “Two Hundred Years of Tradition, Unhindered by Progress.” While this book is by no means a valentine to Mr Petraeus and his fellow innovators, it does acknowledge that innovative military thinking was badly needed after the September 11 attacks.
Mr Nagl went on to write a book, Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife, which took its title and many precepts from Lawrence of Arabia’s lessons about desert fighting. This book became influential to Mr Petraeus, as he came to realise that American soldiers were being taught no exit strategy, no peacetime plan.
By the time he was a major general in 2003, leading the 101st Airborne to Mosul in Iraq, Mr Petraeus was ready to implement some of his thinking about how to conduct a counterinsurgency, which the military referred to as COIN. His plans relied on rebuilding, and it seemed to be succeeding.
Some of Mr Kaplan’s book is about significant events, like the handling of Mosul. But most of it concentrates on the theoretical arguments behind even the most minute-sounding differences in military dictums.
Even as the counterinsurgency thinkers fine-tuned their phrases – “clear and hold” evolved into “clear, hold and build”, and later into “shape/clear/hold/build” – their approach was viewed by some as a provocation. The book describes how blasts from The New York Post led to the insertion of words like “sometimes”, “some” and “most” into Mr Petraeus’s field manual, “FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency”, and how the manual’s way of answering old questions only prompted new ones.
What if the local people didn’t want what America wanted for them? What if the local governments were receptive and trustworthy but the national leadership was not? What if terrorists could not be isolated from the larger population because, as with Hamas and Hezbollah, they were a significant part of it? How could we think about the culture of Muslim countries without accounting for religion too? Mr Kaplan takes a resourceful, undogmatic approach to such questions. And he presents a full array of influential figures from the military and from government.
Mr Kaplan also conveys the thinking of General Peter Chiarelli, who brought a solid grasp of conditions in Iraq to the Pentagon, as senior military assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; Huba Wass de Czege, known for the innovative AirLand Battle field manual, who in 2002 was astonished to see that American training exercises tended “to devote more attention to successful campaign-beginnings than to successful conclusions”; and General Raymond Odierno, a convert to counterinsurgency after years of taking a door-bashing approach to strategy.
Then there is Paula Broadwell, the Petraeus biographer about whom Mr Kaplan has tacked on a one-page coda. In The Insurgents Ms Broadwell is only one of the miscalculations that an admirable but dangerously unrealistic Mr Petraeus has made.
David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War
Simon & Schuster; 418 pages; $28
©2012 The New York Times News Service