The Art of Petraeus

October 30, 2008 Topic: Security Tags: Troop SurgeInsurgencyHeads Of StateIraq War

The Art of Petraeus

Mini Teaser: There is no doubt that General Petraeus’s strategies salvaged Iraq. His successes, however, mask a vital policy debate about the future of our armed services.

by Author(s): T. X. Hammes

IN A lively, ongoing debate, some authors have credited General Petraeus with transforming the United States military and wonder if his success will have long-term impacts. The most visible part of the debate over this legacy concerns whether the future of the United States Army lies in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations or a return to conventional combat. Initially an internal debate, it has become wide-ranging and moved from internal Department of Defense (DOD) journals like Military Review to industry publications like Armed Forces Journal to general press such as the Atlantic.

The fiery back-and-forth has focused on answering three pressing questions: whether or not a "surge" will work in Afghanistan; what types of wars we will fight in the future; and how the United States government should invest and train for what is to come. But the entire discussion rests on a false premise. The debate has identified the General's legacy as that of counterinsurgency strategy or, even further from the mark, as the success of the surge. But in fact, what the General has succeeded in doing is far more complex, far more important and potentially far more universally applicable than the simplistic notion of debating the value of preparation for counterinsurgency or conventional warfare-or worse, a simple "surge."

Petraeus's real legacy is that of a general who understood and then adapted to fight the war he was in. It seems obvious, and is even one of Clausewitz's most widely quoted passages, but the fact remains our system has not been particularly good at that "first, most far-reaching act of judgment . . . to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking. . . . "

As Linda Robinson carefully documented in Tell Me How This Ends, General Petraeus did not set out to completely change and restructure the United States Army, much less the entire armed forces. Rather, he did what was needed to put one of the wars we are in on the path to success. Petraeus started by carefully analyzing the situation on the ground, which forced the administration to see that the conflict was morphing into a civil war between Sunni and Shia. Thus, if there is a Petraeus "doctrine," it appears to be based on the concept of planning your campaign based on facts on the ground. While apparently simple, doing this requires serious intellectual effort both on the part of the individual and the institution, and the flexibility of both to adapt as understanding grows. But the greatest challenge is for the commander to rise to a level of exceptional judgment and will in order to guide the campaign based on that understanding.

Thus Petraeus's campaign in Iraq (and hopefully his tenure as CENTCOM commander) will provide fodder for staff studies for generations of new officers and NCOs. However, whether or not it endures is not so much a measure of the man as it is of the military system.

Believing a simple "surge" of a few brigades essentially solved the conflict in Iraq shows both a misunderstanding of how Iraq changed and a woeful underestimation of the difficultly of achieving its remarkable results. Thinking that a similar outcome will be easily accomplished in Afghanistan incorrectly views the Petraeus legacy as a cookie-cutter approach to counterinsurgency.

As General Petraeus demonstrated in Iraq, one must first understand that there is no universal approach to counterinsurgency. All wars flow from the economic, political and social conditions of the adversaries. Due to its character as an essentially political struggle for power, COIN is even more dependent on these conditions than conventional war. Thus, what works against one insurgency will not necessarily work against another. Further, like all complex situations, COIN does not respond to a single input-such as the surge of thirty thousand troops to Iraq. It is more than just throwing troops at the problem. Such wars respond only to a careful analysis followed by an integrated strategy grounded in an understanding of the unique characteristics of that particular fight.

Based on such an analysis, the surge in Iraq brought together a number of mutually reinforcing factors on top of the addition of five combat brigades: a major political effort to reconcile the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish factions; a shift of emphasis from hunting terrorists to protecting the Iraqi population; a shift in operational approach from operating from large hard bases to living among the people; the application of a new doctrine based on an understanding of the insurgency across U.S. forces in Iraq; a shift in the political stance of many Sunni tribal leaders from fighting the Americans to assisting us in providing security for their neighborhoods; and Moktada al-Sadr's declaration of a truce. None of these factors individually would have led to a decrease in hostilities; even this comprehensive approach has not resolved the situation. The willingness to share power among factions remains tenuous and will require patient, long-term confidence building-backed by U.S. troops.


BECAUSE OF Petraeus's success, murmurs of a COIN takeover of the military sent the strategists sharpening their swords. It has become a battle between the COIN supporters and the COIN naysayers. One side sees the future of conflict as being dominated by irregular war. The wars we are fighting today represent the wars we will fight for the next decade or longer. They will not be wars of choice like Iraq but wars of necessity like Afghanistan. As articulated by retired-army officer John Nagl, threats will arise in undergoverned spaces and it will be essential that the United States assists those governments in building functioning societies. Thus our forces must focus on preparing to fight these irregular wars, putting an emphasis on early intervention with advisers and building capacity across the host-nation government. This argument draws strength from the fact that we are currently deeply involved in two such wars and continue a global effort against terrorists. Only after four years of conflict did our ground forces adjust to dealing with these threats. In addition, the current absence of a near-peer competitor makes such wars seem the most likely to engage the United States in the next decade or two.

Those on the other side of the argument fear that today's conflicts are an aberration. They worry not only that our future enemies will be major powers rather than guerilla fighters, but also that the concept of a COIN-dominated force has already swept the military establishment and seriously damaged our ability to conduct conventional operations. They fear this will result in our being unable to fight the near-peer competitor they feel represents the real threat to the United States.

A leading voice arguing on this side of the aisle is Colonel Gian Gentile. An Iraq War veteran, Gentile has made the case in magazine articles and blogs, and in personal appearances, that the army has shifted focus almost exclusively to COIN and thus will not be ready to fight a conventional war. In particular, he interprets the Israeli failure in the Israel-Hezbollah war as a demonstration of what happens to an army that focuses too heavily on COIN. He also points to the Russian incursion into Georgia as an example of the dominant role of conventional combat. He bolsters his argument by citing a paper written by three artillery colonels expressing concern that army artillery, forced to take on nontraditional roles in Iraq, is losing the ability to perform its core tasks.

Gentile and his supporters feel the real mission of the armed forces is to be prepared to fight major conventional enemies. This mission requires specific, difficult-to-maintain skills and therefore is the rightful focus of the armed forces. Military leadership should resist commitment to the kind of long-term nation-building efforts we see in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such a future rejects a focus on irregular war and provides justification for our current spending as well as robust research-and-development programs to ensure we can stay technologically ahead of such a near-peer competitor.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, and China at least ten years away from being able to project power outside its immediate area (as the Pentagon acknowledges), this idea has had a difficult time gaining traction. Its proponents point to China's modernization and Russia's recent aggressiveness to justify major investments. However, as the actual events in Georgia have clarified, Russia is much less threatening than is portrayed. While still possessing the second-most-powerful nuclear arsenal in the world, Russia required months of preparation and training to be ready to project a relatively small force barely fifty miles across its own borders. Given that Russia's borders are now more than five hundred miles further east than the Soviet Union's were, and that the country is suffering a population decline of one million people per year, it is difficult to imagine Russia as a major conventional threat.

That leaves China. According to the near-peer-competitor scenario, the United States must invest heavily in air and naval forces to fight the dragon. In particular, we must defeat China's so-called anti-access program, which is designed to prevent U.S. forces from moving into an ever-increasing "denied area" in the western Pacific. This scenario sees the United States taking the fight close to China rather than adopting a distant strangulation strategy that cuts off Beijing's essential trade routes. However, proponents who seek increased naval and aviation funding based on this scenario assume that we will not attempt to project land forces into China and thus do not need a massive increase in spending in this area. Interestingly, the proponents of this strategic-investment plan have also not discussed what would trigger a conflict with China or how two nuclear-armed powers can fight a war that threatens vital interests of both.

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