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

By contrast, forces adapt fairly rapidly to conventional war. In the two years between December 1941 and December 1943, U.S. Army ground and air forces increased from about 1.5 million to 7.5 million. Further, despite dire predictions about confrontations with future near-peer competitors, other states' conventional forces cannot be an existential threat as long as we have a viable nuclear deterrent to fall back on.

And any attempt by an enemy to create a capable conventional force will require industrial investment as well as highly visible training efforts. If a potential enemy should seek to create a powerful conventional force, we will have significant warning and can adjust our training accordingly. In contrast, an enemy who chooses to fight us in an unconventional manner can prepare with little visible effort. Thus our strategic preparations should be biased toward irregular war.

The future remains uncertain. But as Colin Gray predicted, we are well on our way to "another bloody century." We cannot predict the future, but we should prepare to operate with a bias toward the kinds of wars we are fighting today by carefully maintaining the full range of skills we need to fight across the spectrum of conflict.


A SERIES of well-documented, egregious mistakes by the administration from 2003-2006 left General Petraeus facing an unprecedented level of Iraqi inter-sectarian violence when he took command in 2006. With a thoughtful analysis of the situation and a well-developed, integrated political-military plan, Petraeus, along with Ambassador Ryan Crocker, changed the course of the war. Yet, as Petraeus noted in his change-of-command address, Iraq will continue to require careful attention and a long-term commitment from the United States.

With his promotion to commander of Central Command, General Petraeus is establishing a serious brain trust to conduct a similar analysis of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The challenge here is at least as great as Iraq. Increasing the difficulty is the fact that we have lacked a coherent approach since Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Lieutenant General David Barno left in 2005. Since then, we have turned responsibility for Afghanistan over to NATO-vastly increasing the political, economic and military negotiation and coordination required to develop a coherent international approach. Only when we understand the regional factors that are driving this conflict can the United States-in conjunction with our allies-devise an adequate strategy to ensure the stability of Pakistan and the development of a peaceful Afghanistan. Petraeus, as regional combatant commander, should bring the broader perspective required to this analysis. It is essential that the new administration look past simple solutions to determine the depth and breadth of the commitment needed. If the Petraeus legacy has shown us anything, it is that simple solutions do not exist.


T. X. Hammes retired from the Marine Corps in 2005 after thirty years of service, mostly in the operational forces. He works on national-security issues.

1Traditional refers to conventional war; irregular to insurgencies and terrorism; disruptive to the use of new technology or techniques that "disrupt" or negate our traditional strengths in conventional war; and catastrophic to attacks with WMD.

Essay Types: Essay