General David Petraeus: Softly, Softly?

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 1 month ago

It is important to understand just what the would-be savior of Operation Iraqi Freedom will do in Iraq. What is our way forward? In an important and provocative article on Petraeus, the Times Online gives us some insight into the man and his philosophy:

Having co-authored the US military’s counter-insurgency manual, General Petraeus believes that only by combining military strength and sensitive interaction with locals can an insurgency be defeated. He has been influenced by a study of the British in Malaya during the 1950s by John Nagl, a Pentagon official.

Colonel Nagl compared Malaya to America’s failure in Vietnam, where the US Army approached the conflict as a conventional war. The British defeated the insurgency in Malaya, he writes, because of a “civil-military strategy based on intelligence derived from a supportive local population?.

A key lesson General Petraeus draws from Vietnam, compared to Malaya, is that the US Army is historically unprepared to fight insurgencies. The American military has overwhelming force for conventional combat but, without the British experience of empire, is intellectually unequipped to deal with the subtleties of guerrilla war.

The British, with their colonial history, are far better at combining local diplomacy with military force, a model General Petraeus wants to emulate.

Under his command, US forces can be expected to take up positions in Baghdad neighbourhoods, instead of limiting themselves to raids from large, fortified bases. Units will set up street patrols and strive to involve local religious and political leaders in reconstruction and employment projects, heavily funded from Washington.

General Petraeus, Commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq in 2003, is largely credited with being one of the only US officers who succeeded in bringing order to his region of Iraq by establishing a British colonial model of civil-military interaction.

In Mosul he entered an area with 110,000 former Iraqi Army soldiers and 20,000 Kurdish militiamen. But unlike the tactics in much of Iraq, General Petraeus took pride in conducting raids with minimum violence. He introduced “cordon and knock?: Houses were surrounded, but not entered, and suspected insurgents were invited to turn themselves in.

Will this ‘softly-softly’ approach work?  Bill Ardolino, writing recently from Iraq, gives us a glimpse into the soul of the local Iraqi, attempting to survive the brutality of western Iraq:

The radio crackled: a M1A-1 Abrams tank was hit by a large IED while patrolling a notoriously active downtown street. The typically invulnerable behemoth was immobilized and set afire by a bomb laden with fuel accelerant, a fiery addition to the explosive arms and tactics race between terrorist insurgents and Coalition forces. The crew escaped the vehicle and made it safely to other tanks before getting burned or sniped in the ambush.

Updates poured in to the JCC: the rest of the patrol’s tanks set up a perimeter around the burning vehicle. Iraqi Army units from the 1-2-1 (1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade 1st Division) moved in to set up an outer cordon and evacuate the heavily populated area, lest the tank’s ammunition ignite and kill civilians. The Iraqi army units were hit by a second bomb while en route, killing an Iraqi lieutenant and his American Military Transition Team advisor, U.S. Army Major Mike Mundell. The Iraqi Army unit pressed on. With a cordon established and satisfied that the tank’s ammunition would not explode, Marines at the JCC radioed the Fallujah Fire Department to put out the remains of the blaze around 12:30.

But with the scene a mere 800 meters from the fire station, the Iraqis refused.

The firemen had heard reports of anti-Iraq forces in the area, and were afraid that insurgents would kill them at the scene or later retaliate against them for working with American and Iraqi government forces.

Even though the firemen were eventually persuaded to put out the fire, the fear of violence is as a norm, determinitive in the actions of the locals.  Why would it be any other way?  Michael Yon gives us a horrifying account of what one Iraqi went through for supporting U.S. forces and the fledgling government of Iraq:

The enemy follows different rules. Any attempt to explain the fate of two of our soldiers who were captured by terrorists in 2006 south of Baghdad would defy decency. It should suffice as coda that the enemy rigged their tortured and mutilated bodies with explosives. CSM Mellinger said that Iraqi forces had just caught one of the perpetrators and handed him over to our people. I asked if we were going to turn him back over to the Iraqis. The CSM said firmly, “We don’t give back people who kill Coalition Forces.?

Then he told me a story about a courageous and respected Iraqi commander who’d accompanied his patrols all over Iraq for nearly a year. When the dead body of this same Iraqi commander was brought into the morgue, doctors found gruesome signs of torture. His legs were beaten by planks of wood. A drill had been used to bore holes into all of his ribs, his elbows, his knees, and into his head. Doctors estimated the man endured this torture for days. Apparently when the fun was over, or they’d extracted what they needed, or the terrorists were worried about being discovered, or they had another victim waiting for their attentions, they shot him.

In my article The Broader War: Redefining our Strategy for Iraq, I said “the customary understanding of Galula’s COIN doctrine has the insurgent attempting to win the population, with the government forces attempting to hold them in submission. The Iraq model has this turned entirely on its head. The insurgents are holding the population in submission while we are attempting to win them, with insurgent terror proving to be more compelling than our so-called “nonkinetic? operations.”

In sentiments analogous to my own, Ralph Peters makes the following observation concerning General Petraeus:

Petraeus is the sort of soldier who would have stayed on indefinitely in Iraq, setting aside all personal concerns in the interests of the mission. President Bush respects him and even the media admire him.

So what could possibly be doubtful about the choice of Gen. Petraeus to take over the leadership of our forces in Iraq?

Having known him – a bit – for years, I have unreserved respect for his talent and dedication, his quality of mind and selfless service. He’s the greatest peacekeeping general in the world. But I just don’t know if he can win a war.

Regaining control of Baghdad – after we threw it away – will require the defiant use of force. Negotiations won’t do it. Cultural awareness isn’t going to turn this situation around (we need to stop pandering to our enemies and defeat them, thanks). We insist it’s all about politics and try to placate everybody, while terrorists, insurgents and militias slaughter the innocent in the name of their god and their tribe.

Meanwhile, we’ve been pretending we’re not at war.

Our enemies aren’t pretending. They’re not only waging war with everything they’ve got, but reveling in breathtaking savagery. They’re no longer impressed when an American patrol zips by. They know they own the streets, not us. To them, we’re just military tourists anxious to go home.

In my contacts with Petraeus, we’ve sometimes agreed and sometimes argued. But we diverged profoundly on one point: The counterinsurgency doctrine produced under his direction remains far too mired in failed 20th-century models. Winning hearts and minds sounds great, but it’s useless when those hearts and minds turn up dead the next morning.

The Iraqi government has vowed a crackdown on all violence, including that perpetrated by the Sadrists.  The militias will be disolved, they claim.  Yet the Sadrists have said that they will send home U.S. reinforcements in coffins.  On the one hand, Maliki claims to understand that the Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs must stop, but on the other hand, Iraqi leaders (even the Kurds) support the release of the recently captured Iranians inside Iraq.

The open duplicity continues unabated.  We have been in Iraq for four years now, and more than three of them have been a counterinsurgency campaign.  Does it seem that the ‘softly-softly’ approach is the right one to take at the present time?

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  • michael ledeen

    I wonder if we’re going to find out if the doctrine works in Iraq. My guess is that the Sadrists will be too smart to fight us in the streets of Baghdad. They’re already disarming, and leaving town for better hunting grounds.

    I am still Johnny one-note: it’s a regional war, and so long as Iran and Syria are free to shoot at us when and where they choose, we can’t possibly provide decent security for Iraq.

  • SSG Rock

    Patraeus is brilliant in my estimation and he is a great choice for this effort. I would guess that he alrady knows that Sadr is going to order his militia to put their arms down and lay low for awhile. The tactic is obvious to me anyway and I’m no campaign planner, the insurgents or anyone basically opposing the American lead effort to stand up the new Iraq Government is to out-wait us and then pick up the fight in earnest when they have the advantage.

    I’ve seen Patraeus in action, I have faith in him. If it can be done, he is the man who can get it done.

  • http://na barbara guillette

    I believe the only way we will win this war and it can be won is if we level the country. Leave everything a pile of rubble.
    That is the first rule of the formula for destruction.
    1. destroy the infrastructure.
    In this way all the muslims in iraq will have to immigrate,and their rules of religion state they must immigrate first to a muslim country,, hopefully to Iran and other muslims countries, putting stress on those countries infrastructure as well.Give everyone 24 hours to leave the country. Don’t pussyfoot around, do it.gardens farms cities, everything, but we dont’ have the inclination to do it so it won’t happen. Only then will we win.
    Looking for the people’s good will is long gone.Killing our young men and women to protect the oil fields is not acceptable.
    anyway that is my thought.
    barbara guillette, dissident, scholar,democracy in america.

  • Breakerjump

    I’ve long been the advocate of turning the damn place into a parking lot. If a people cannot rise up and prevent their own resources and land from being utilized as breeding grounds, training grounds and launching areas for attacks, then they forfeit their collective ownership of said resources and land.

    I would not level the entire country. I would obliterate almost all of it, though. There are areas of sanity, peace and resolve in the country. I would obliterate everything else and provide the sane, kept areas with unbelievable amounts of security, support and protection. Provide these areas with influx/efflux control and once the rest of the country is empty and Iran, Syria and Jordan have sustained mass immigrations to their lands, move almost all of the troops to the border. Let the sane, rational people whom have already demonstrated ability and willingness to maintain peace and work hard for improvement run the country.

  • Herschel Smith

    Of course, as you can tell from the article, I do not advocate the “turn it into a sea of glass approach” (recollecting what the physicists saw after the Trinity test). If for no other reason than pragmatic, to take this approach would surely lead to a million jihadists desirous of killing Americans. Better simply to leave than to take this approach.

    On the other hand, I have advocated more robust ROE. I have, in various articles, advocated preventing jihadists snipers from taking position in minarets, kinetic operations against Mosques when suspected insurgents are involved, and in general, pushing individual decision-making on issues and instances of ROE downward in the organization rather than the reflexive upward push (i.e., trust the NCOs).

    We simply don’t have ten years for a classic counterinsurgency, primarily because of the religious element (I firmly believe that the truest failure of our COIN efforts thus far have to do not with tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs). It has to do with the lack of understanding of what religion brings to the table in this epic struggle against radical Islam.

    But that is a discussion for another time.

    In a display of (a) the lack of robust ROE, (b) politics and (c) the lack of adequate forces in Iraq, see the article below:

    Mahdi Army Takes Security Role in Protection of Shrine: U.S. Prevented


You are currently reading "General David Petraeus: Softly, Softly?", entry #449 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Iraq,Rules of Engagement,Small Wars and was published January 15th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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