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.

Essay Types: Essay