The Petraeus Thinkers: Five Challenges

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 1 month ago

The Small Wars Journal has a fascinating discussion thread that begins with a Washington Post article by reporter Thomas Ricks, entitled “Officers with PhDs Advising War Effort.”  Says Ricks:

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, is assembling a small band of warrior-intellectuals — including a quirky Australian anthropologist, a Princeton economist who is the son of a former U.S. attorney general and a military expert on the Vietnam War sharply critical of its top commanders — in an eleventh-hour effort to reverse the downward trend in the Iraq war.

Army officers tend to refer to the group as “Petraeus guys.” They are smart colonels who have been noticed by Petraeus, and who make up one of the most selective clubs in the world: military officers with doctorates from top-flight universities and combat experience in Iraq.

Essentially, the Army is turning the war over to its dissidents, who have criticized the way the service has operated there the past three years, and is letting them try to wage the war their way.

“Their role is crucial if we are to reverse the effects of four years of conventional mind-set fighting an unconventional war,” said a Special Forces colonel who knows some of the officers.

But there is widespread skepticism that even this unusual group, with its specialized knowledge of counterinsurgency methods, will be able to win the battle of Baghdad.

“Petraeus’s ‘brain trust’ is an impressive bunch, but I think it’s too late to salvage success in Iraq,” said a professor at a military war college, who said he thinks that the general will still not have sufficient troops to implement a genuine counterinsurgency strategy and that the United States really has no solution for the sectarian violence tearing apart Iraq.

The related conversation in the discussion thread at the Small Wars Journal ranges from doctrinal observations on counterinsurgency strategy to personal reflections on the public’s view of the military concerning whether there is sufficient brain power in the conventional military to develop a strategy to pull off a victory in Iraq.

I do not find it at all odd that ‘warrior-philosophers’ or ‘warrior-scholars’ would be involved in the development of strategy, while at the same time I see no compelling argument to suggest that they are situated any better than their predecessors or the balance of the military to develop the going-forward doctrine for OIF.

While a wildly unpopular view, I have been critical of the recently released counterinsurgency manual on which General Petraeus spent much of the previous couple of years developing.  In War, Counterinsurgency and Prolonged Operations, I contrasted FM 3-24 with both Sun Tzu (The Art of War) and the Small Wars Manual, regarding the understanding of both of the later of the effect of prolonged operations on the morale of the warrior, and the reticence of the former on the same subject.  In Snipers Having Tragic Success Against U.S. Troops (still a well-visited post), I made the observation that while snipers were one of two main prongs of insurgent success in Iraq (IEDs being the other), FM 3-24 did not contain one instance of the use of the word sniper.  The retort is granted that FM 3-24 addresses counterinsurgency on a doctrinal level rather than a tactical level, but the objection loses its punch considering that (a) the Small Wars Manual addresses tactical level concerns, and (b) the fighting men from the ‘strategic corporal‘ to the field grade officer work with tactical level concerns on a daily basis.  If FM 3-24 does not address tactical level issues, one must question its usefulness.

I have also questioned the Petraeus model for Mosul, stating that at all times and in all circumstances, security trumps nonkinetic operations, politics and reconstruction.  The question “what have you done to win Iraqi hearts and minds today,

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One Hand Clapping » Blog Archive » Dubts about The Surge

[…] is called, “The Petraeus Thinkers: Five Challenges,” and worth your time.   [link] Posted @ 9:01 am. Filed under War on terror, Iraq, Analysis Comments policy Commenting isprovided as a courtesy only. I review all comments before they appear. I do not edit comments, I only approve or delete. My criteria for approving or deleting generally correspond to the following guidelines but in the end are subjective. Comments using profanity automatically get tossed into the bit bucket – I never see them and neither does anyone else. No personal attacks, name calling or commercial commenting. Links to your own blog site or relevant other web pages are fine. Please be brief and relevant to the post. I rarely answer comments, I just don’t have the time. […]

Denis Murphy

Six years ago Iran was constantly being squeezed and hemmed in by the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the east and Saddam Hussein in the west. Since then, the U.S. removed Iran’s enemies in both Afghanistan and Iraq and put Iran in the comfortable position it now occupies.

What do the anti-Iran hawks want now? Do they want us to reconstruct another Sunni dictatorship in Iraq and bring the Taliban and Al Qaeda back to Afghanistan? Or do they want the U.S. to conquer Iran alone?

In all other respects, I agree with the assessments of the situation(s) in Iraq. The question I keep asking here and on other forums is, when is this commander-in-chief going to come clean about how many troops it will really take just to get Iraq under control? — Denis


Petraeus and a court of thinkers…

The Captain’s Journal has an interesting post that begins with the WashPo’s article on Petraeus desiring opinions from creative thinkers with PhD’s and then moves into a great discussion on the challenges that they (we) will face….The Petraeus str…


Nibbles– 2007.02.08…

(Frequently updated, occasionally bumped) Definitely shaping up as one of those Some days there just ain’t enough coffee days, on top of (because of?) the fact I’m not feeling well. Just read ’em. The Petraeus Thinkers: Five Challenges (H/T) Challen…


Bill’s Nibbles– 2007.02.08 …

Some Bill’s Bites posts, some things I excerpted and linked but I’m sending you to the original post. I may rearrange the order of the items within this post as I add new things that I think belong above the…


Well, well, after reading the vapid hate filled postings at Blackfive, I come to a more intelligently written website.

The trouble is, that at the end of a well written analysis of our troubles in Iraq, you elide that the obvious solution is to attack Iran.

Well no it’s not.

If the Shia and Sunni ever made common cause and attacked our installations simultaneaously and in depth, we could lose our entire force very quickly. AN attack on Iran could trigger such a situation.

You are correct about the need for security to come first, but you seem to miss the reason WHY securioty is so critical in counterinsurgency, which is to creat an environment where the local population can give itself permission to trust you, and engage in the process of reconstruction, democratisation etc.

Unfortunately after four years of occupation, I don’t think any Iraqis can now ever trust Americans at all, so the surge is pointless and we have lost. Of course if we had done this in the very beginning, we could well have won and been at home by now.

Dominique R. Poirier
Sorry to wander a little bit from the subject, but I cannot but surmise that some readers have heard already of this CFR Report explicitly titled After the Surge; The Case for Military Disengagement from Iraq (in which the works of General Petraeus is mentioned, however). The report has been released a few hours before I wrote this comment and I have read it already. Those who didn’t hear of it yet will soon, doubtless. For its publication is the object of much publicity I noticed here and there on the web already. Just in case, here is the link: The following paragraph is an extract of Steven S. Simon’s biography I found on the CFR website: Steven Simon is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Prior to joining the Council, Mr. Simon specialized in Middle Eastern affairs at the RAND Corporation. He came to RAND from London, where he was the deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Carol Deane senior fellow in U.S. security studies. Before moving to Britain in 1999, Mr. Simon served at the White House for over five years as director… Read more »
You are correct about the need for security to come first, but you seem to miss the reason WHY securioty is so critical in counterinsurgency, which is to creat an environment where the local population can give itself permission to trust you, and engage in the process of reconstruction, democratisation etc. I don’t think he missed that at all. you have to remember the first part of his post. But, I also must disagree with the Captain on one aspect: conflating the candy giving, etc with the entire strategy of COIN. It’s barely one tactic and even then may not be a tactic so much as some soldiers natural inclination to interact with the children. Still, I wonder at pointing to this or other basic steps as if it was part of the major failure of our COIN strategy, simply because, even if we had as many forces as some claim we should require, we would most likely still be handing out candy, etc. Unfortunately after four years of occupation, I don’t think any Iraqis can now ever trust Americans at all, so the surge is pointless and we have lost. Of course if we had done this in the… Read more »
Denis Murphy

My apologies for not emphasizing how much I’m just blown away by the detailed and subtle analysis of Petraeus and the Surge in the original article. I’m putting this one in my small “permanent” file of stuff to reread and refer to in the future. Excellent work, Captain. — Denis

Herschel Smith


You must be mistaken. I haven’t seen any vapid hate filled postings at Blackfive. You must have been reading something else.


With the greatest of respect Herschel (If I may call you that), calling Congress a “Parliament of Whores” and similar derogatory language that Blackfive indulges in, as well as abusing anyone who does not agree with their mindset, is inconsistent with the Bush Administration stated aim of producing a secular, democratic Iraq.

You don’t get to have a vision of a secular, “Marquis of Queensberry Rules’ Democratic Iraq, while at the same vilifying your political opponents. You need to live up to your ideals. The Bush Administration demonstrably does not do that. Where is the plurality of opinion and respect for the views of others? WHere is the reasoned debate?

Dominique R. Poirier
The few I have read on General Petraeus and his way of handling the problem now suggests that this man is certainly the most qualified, or at least one among the best, to carry on the task over there. However, we have to bear in mind that whichever the quality of the works and initiatives of General Petraeus are, it will be unlikely to drag significant success if not backed, at a wider scale, by undertakings of similar quality relevant to strategy and diplomacy. Those undertakings are under way, I assume. When attempting to see things as Iran (and even Russia, if I may say so) may see it, little intellectual efforts are required to understand that these countries may have interests and ambitions of their own in the region; ambitions which may be unlikely to fit those of the United States and some other countries at some point. Some of those interests may be the object of negotiations likely to lead toward consensus, somehow; some others not, I am afraid. As a matter of fact, a simple look at the map of the region tells us a lot about those interests Iran might have in the hypothesis of a… Read more »
George Singleton

OVerall I find the Captain’s analysis to be the view from the grassroots and rooftops level and pretty vaild. Others seem to have a combination of arm chair, knee jerk reaction coupled with the tired old addage of “if we just had an infinite amount of time and an infinite number of “our” meaning US only troops it would have/would work and have been/turn into a cake walk.

As for the politicians, we here in the US continue to overinform the pols and the general public, compared to how it was done during “the way” alias WW II.

Thanks to the Captain for his direct and frank analysis.

George Singleton

While your points about security are spot-on, I think you are wrong when you argue against non-kinetic operations. “Whack-a-mole” style direct action raids and presence patrols do not create a secure environment. Similarly, pulling our troops into insulated FOBs, billeting them in air-conditioned “cans”, and feeding them 3 hot meals and ice cream courtesy of KBR does not create a secure environment. We need to have small units out living among the people, on the local economy, if we are truly going to create secure neighborhoods. In reality, this strategy would largely be non-kinetic, as it would need to involve small scale civic action programs to help the towns or neighborhoods in which the units live. The reason we won’t put units out in the communities like this is that it appears to the higher ups to be a force protection nightmare. That is because they think of force protection in the terms of HESCO barriers, concertina wire, and guard towers. However, force protection can also include building a close rapport with the neighborhood, such that the locals provide early warning of impending attacks and report suspicious strangers to the embedded unit. These are techniques that we utilized in the… Read more »
Herschel Smith


In my opinion, the best, clearest, most informative and most compelling war reporting from Iraq is coming from Michael Yon, Bill Ardolino, and David Danelo and Andrew Lubin of US Cavalry On Point. I cite some of their work in recent posts. I do not argue against nonkinetic operations. I argue that security is determinative in defeating the insurgency, while nonkinetic operations are determinative in keep it defeated (i.e., not allowing it to re-form).

Roguely Stated - Measuring Success in Iraq: Is the U.S. Military Using the Wrong “Metrics”?

[…] The Petraeus Thinkers: Five Challenges – The Captain’s Journal […]


You are currently reading "The Petraeus Thinkers: Five Challenges", entry #461 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) al Qaeda,Ansar al Sunna,Department of Defense,Force Projection,Iran,Iraq,Jihadists,Small Wars,Syria,Terrorism,War & Warfare and was published February 7th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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