The Petraeus Thinkers: Five Challenges

BY Herschel Smith
10 years 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,? should have been replaced by the question, “what have you done to provide security today??  Yet the questioning attitude has not stopped with Petraeus and the Mosul experience, but extended to the previous defensive strategy in Iraq (in Habitually Offensive Operations Against Guerrillas).  While it is laudable that the previous strategy has led to low casualties (i.e., the withdrawal to safe FOBs for force protection and reliance on patrols), the argument goes that not only is withdrawal to FOBs a losing strategy, but in the end it will be more costly in U.S. lives and treasure.

The Petraeus strategy holds the promise to be more population-centric, and while this strategy is more aggressive than the previous, the model has some significant hurdles to jump in order to be an effective means of long term pacification.  I have previously addressed problems with the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, as well as made recommendations for moving forward.  Those main ideas will be recast in this article to address the going-forward strategy in Iraq in terms of five challenges that the “Petraeus thinkers” face: [1] unmet expectations for Iraqi behavior, [2] small footprint model, [3] single insurgency focus of the COIN model versus realities on the ground, [4] ‘security first’ versus violence as an exclusive-use procedure by the insurgency, and finally [5] the dynamic battlespace.

Unmet Expectations for Iraqi Behavior

The “we will stand down when the Iraqis stand up” mantra has been pivotal in the way in which the U.S. has approached the Iraq counterinsurgency for most of the four years since cessation of conventional operations.  But because of religious affiliations, tribal loyalties and years of brutality under the previous regime, trust and responsibility are hard to come by in Iraq.  The prevailing opinion of the Iraqi troops currently engaged in the Baghdad security plan is that they are ill-trained, ill-equipped and unprofessional as compared to the U.S. forces.  Retired Iraqi officers are said to have been ‘shocked’ at their performance during recent operations.

In addition to the lack of military readiness of the Iraqi security forces, the recent Karbala attack and kidnappings show once again that the apparent should not be confused with the real, and that deception is a way of life in Iraq.  This issue might mark the most serious failure of the U.S. strategy since the start of the war.  A counterinsurgency strategy must take into account religious and societal characteristics of the population, and in fact, these might be as important as the military approach.  I have previously covered this in Iraq: Land of Lies and Deceipt, from which I quote a contractor’s view of the cultural norms in Iraq.

Are lies being told to obtain blood money payments? Some insight comes in this response to the collapse of the British trial by Stephan Holland, a Baghdad-based US contractor.

I’ve been in Iraq for about 18 months now performing construction management. It is simply not possible for me to exaggerate the massive amounts of lies we wade through every single day. There is no way – absolutely none – to determine facts from bulls*** ….

It is not even considered lying to them; it is more akin to being clever – like keeping your cards close to your chest. And they don’t just lie to westerners. They believe that appearances–saving face–are of paramount importance. They lie to each other all the time about anything in order to leverage others on a deal or manipulate an outcome of some sort or cover up some major or minor embarrassment. It’s just how they do things, period.

I’m not trying to disparage them here. I get along great with a lot of them. But even among those that I like, if something happens (on the job) I’ll get 50 wildly different stories, every time. There’s no comparison to it in any other part of the world where I’ve worked. The lying is ubiquitous and constant.

This well-known fact about the Iraqi culture caused one astute commenter in the discussion thread at the Small Wars Journal to remark, ” … it sounds like the local Iraqi Police and Army is heavily infiltrated with militias. Getting rid of FOBs and setting up strongpoints with the locals sounds great but I’m not sure I would like to be bunking up with them.”

In “Surging Doubts,” published by the National Journal, Frederick Kagan goes on record conveying doubts about both the size and length of the so-called “surge.”

Despite his support for the Bush strategy, Kagan worries that the administration has fallen short in two areas — sending troops into Baghdad for too short a time and relying too heavily on the Iraqis’ taking the lead. In their report, Kagan and Keane recommend a surge in U.S. force levels lasting 18 to 24 months, a timeline that many experts doubt is feasible given the lack of political backing at home.

“When I hear Bush administration officials talk about this being an Iraqi plan with Iraqis in the lead, it also raises a big red flag to me,” Kagan said. “Iraqi security forces have not been up to the task in the past, and this plan needs to succeed even if they fail again.”

It appears that the current plan does indeed rely on the Iraqis for success.

The Small Footprint Model

The small footprint model has been used throughout OIF.  Its roots stem from just war theory, and specifically the tenet of proportionate force.  Its strategic justification stems from post-Vietnam counterinsurgency doctrine that attempts to prevent forces from appearing to be an occupying army.  Its pragmatic justification stems from the fact that the U.S. cannot field more troops in the Iraq theater, whether because of the troops or the equipment to support them.

But the promulgation of the small footprint model has prevented the force size and force projection necessary to provide security in Iraq.  Even if the U.S. has not formally and officially acknowledged that the force size was inadequate, Australia’s General Michael Jeffery has, stating that “there weren’t enough soldiers to seal Baghdad off.  Because that didn’t take place everything went counter to the way the coalition and the Iraqi Government were hoping.  A lack of troops, a lack of police, the structures weren’t there, the numbers weren’t there and this is a vitally important time immediately after the first battles.”

Further, force size is not equivalent to force projection, and I have pointed out that force projection is inversely proportional to the need to exercise that force.  For a reminder of the value of appropriate force projection, we can turn to Thomas Ricks again in his Making the Corps.

The diverse approaches of the Army and Marines to the use of force in the Somalia mission caused the two services to inflict casualties in ways that are counterintuitive … the Marines went into Mogadishu wielding firepower for all to see.  The Army tried to act more diplomatically.  Paradoxically, the Marines probably would up killing fewer than 500 Somalis, most shot by Marine snipers who were using force precisely, mainly to protect fellow Marines.  The Army was initially far more restrained, but then, as its mission fell apart, retaliated with greater firepower, using attack helicopters to fire on mobs in the alleyways of Mogadishu.  By some estimates, these tactics killed more than 5000 Somalis.

The contrasting approaches of the Marines and Army were noted by others on the ground, friend and foe.  Robert Oakley, the veteran U.S. diplomat who was the Bush administration’s special envoy to Somalia, observed that “the departure of the heavily armed, aggressively patrolling Marines from south Mogadishu obviously had a much greater psychological effect (sic) on the Somalis … than the continued presence of the QRF (Quick Reaction Force) from the (Army’s) 10th Mountain Division.?

The Small Wars Journal discussion thread mentioned above contains a query: will there be a surge-II?  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has hinted that the answer is no, and that forms the backdrop for the force size problems that the Petraeus thinkers have going forward.  The same small footprint model that at least in part led to the current lack of security in Iraq continues unabated as the going-forward strategy.  The “surge” is not large enough and does not last long enough.

The Single Insurgency Focus of Traditional Counterinsurgency Doctrine

The counterinsurgency doctrine outlined in FM 3-24 and flowing from the Vietnam experience is primarily tooled to address an insurgency.  That is, the current understanding of COIN addresses the insurgency as a monolith, subject to well-aimed and executed kinetic and nonkinetic operations to pacify the population.  As I have discussed in The Surge and Coming Operations in Iraq, contrary to the assertion by Gates that there were four wars going on in Iraq, I have asserted that there are no less than eight distinguishable wars:

  1. The sectarian violence in and around Baghdad, especially in areas where there are mixed religious traditions living together.
  2. The AQI war against U.S. and Iraqi forces.
  3. The AAS war against the same, coupled with the war between AQI and AAS for dominance in the region.
  4. The war of terrorism being waged by foreign fighters, jihadists whose suicide services are purchased by AQI and AAS from right across the Syrian border.
  5. The Sunni insurgency in Iraq (primarily in Anbar), populated by the Saddam Fedayeen and other diehard Baathists, coupled with internecine tribal warfare between tribes loyal to their own purposes and those loyal to AQI.
  6. The war between the Shi’a and Kurds for control of Kirkuk and its oil supply.
  7. The purported operations between the Turkish forces and the Kurds.
  8. The regional covert war being waged against the U.S. by Syria and Iran.

The difficulty with such battlefield chaos is that whether kinetic or nonkinetic operations, any action by the U.S. forces stands the risk of upsetting the balance within the region.  Some operations have consequences that are so upsetting to this balance that they attempt to achieve mutually exclusive goals.  What may weaken one group of insurgents serves to strengthen another.  The Shi’a applaud when U.S. forces target Sunnis, and AQI benefits as we take out AAS.

Security First

Continuing a long-standing theme, in Hope and Brutality in Anbar, I asserted once again that “so-called ‘nonkinetic’ operations to win the hearts and minds of the population (candy for the children, reconstruction for the adults, pedialyte for infants) are ineffectual when violence and torture win the day.  A piece of candy can’t compete with a few holes put into your rib cage with a power drill because you cooperated with the Americans … Security, i.e., a substantially defeated insurgency, is the antecedent for a successful Iraq.”  The insurgents and terrorists employ violence and torture as an exclusive-use procedure to keep the population in submission because it works.  They have not had to transition to government and caretaking of the population (as with traditional counterinsurgency doctrine) because their goal is not care of the population.  This concern is also raised in the aforementioned National Journal article.

Perhaps the biggest mistake in the effort to rebuild Iraq, in the view of some experts, was the belief that meaningful economic development was even possible absent a base level of security that was never met in Baghdad and in other parts of the country.

“Iraq today is essentially a failed state that cannot consistently enforce the rule of law, secure its own people, or even deliver services in the face of a violent civil war,” said Carlos Pascual, the former coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization at the State Department. “Frankly, in such an environment, it’s next to impossible to get governmental and nongovernmental civilians to come in and effectively establish programs to employ the tens of thousands of people who need jobs. If you look at Bosnia and other civil wars, what you find is that economic activities only take root after a peace accord is signed.”

Presupposing the accuracy of this view along with the salience of the first three challenges mentioned above, there may be too many insurgencies with too few U.S. troops and too many ill-prepared Iraqi troops to provide the needed security for Iraq to succeed.

The Dynamic Battlespace

In The Broader War: Redefining our Strategy for Iraq, I discussed the continual stream of insurgents crossing the border into Iraq, and the dynamic battlefield space that this creates, stating that “The battlefield, both for military actions and so-called “nonkinetic? actions to win the people, is dynamic. As one insurgent is killed, another pops up in his place, coming not from any action the U.S. has or has not taken in Iraq, but rather, coming from hundreds or even thousands of miles away due to a religious hatred that has been taught to him from birth. The war in Iraq is both figuratively and quite literally a war without borders.?

It has been said, and correctly so, that the loss in Vietnam didn’t cause the enemy to follow us home, while a loss in Iraq will.  Counterinsurgency doctrine flowing from Vietnam was unprepared for jihad – holy war – against U.S. interests, including the homeland, flowing from religious indoctrination of children from their infancy all the way through to adulthood.  Pacification of cities in Iraq has usually suceeded due to the elimination of the foreign threat from the population.

It is a painful thing for the administration finally to face and admit the significance of the role of Iran in the affairs of Iraq (and in fact, in support for terror world wide).  But without addressing this threat, the thinkers are surely in the unenviable position of knowing that there is nothing that can be done to win the counterinsurgency in Iraq.  It is a regional war, and will require a regional solution.  There is a chorus of voices urging talk with Iran and Syria, but the thinkers surely know that twenty five years of talking has placed us precisely where we are at the moment.

Will the thinkers be able to persuade the administration that we must engage the regional war in order to win in Iraq?  The latest Strategic Forecasting intelligence report waxes bleak.  Concerning the Karbala attack and kidnapping, along with the kidnapping of the Iranian embassy official Jalal Sharafi, Friedman and Bokhari summarize a lengthy and sweeping report with the following assessment of the U.S. situation.

An action like the Sharafi abduction allows the signal to be sent, while still falling short of mounting overt military strikes against Iran — something for which the United States currently has little appetite or resources. A covert war is within the means of the United States, and the Americans might hope that their prosecution of that war will convince Iran they are serious and to back off. Therefore, even if the kidnapping had nothing to do with the United States and Iran misreads the incident, it still could serve American interests in signaling American resolve. Given the state of the U.S. position in Iraq, the strategy well might fail — but once again, it is one of the few cards the United States has left to play.

Stratfor may be right.  Even now an Iranian agent is active in the Iraqi parliament (h/t Blogs of War).

A man sentenced to death in Kuwait for the 1983 bombings of the U.S. and French embassies now sits in Iraq’s parliament as a member of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s ruling coalition, according to U.S. military intelligence.

Jamal Jafaar Mohammed’s seat in parliament gives him immunity from prosecution. Washington says he supports Shiite insurgents and acts as an Iranian agent in Iraq.

U.S. military intelligence in Iraq has approached al-Maliki’s government with the allegations against Jamal Jafaar Mohammed, whom it says assists Iranian special forces in Iraq as “a conduit for weapons and political influence.?

This kind of open, blatant warring against Iraq and the U.S. interests suggests that there is more than just a covert war occurring, with the U.S. still not fully engaged.  But the importance of what is happening in Iraq cannot be underestimated.  Victor Davis Hanson has expressed it well, saying We are in a rare period in American political history, in which the battlefield alone will determine the next election, perhaps not seen since 1864. The economy, scandal, social issues, domestic spending, jobs, all these usual criteria and more pale in comparison to what happens in Iraq, where a few thousand brave American soldiers will determine our collective future.

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  • 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

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  • walrus

    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 for global issues and senior director for transnational threats. During this period, he was involved in U.S. counterterrorism policy and operations as well as security policy in the Near East and South Asia. These assignments followed a fifteen year career at the U.S. Department of State.

    Actually, I felt somehow compelled to write this comment since I am still puzzled by the striking discrepancies between Mr. Simon’s credentials and several points of his argumentation sustaining his strong recommendation of an immediate disengagement from Iraq.
    It is of my assumption that some among us who will spare some of their time to its reading will possibly arrive at the same conclusions as mine when stumbling across repeated marks of unexplainable candor or unlikely ignorance relating to politic and strategic stakes in the region the author is not supposed to ignore. Since one can hardly question the expertise level of such an experienced specialist I find myself unable to understand the reasons that justified the publication of this report; let alone the way this expert unexplainably indulges in self-deception.

    I am not in position to question the expertise of a specialist such as Mr. Steven Simon, and I am always ready to question my own assumptions; but even in considering things under this angle and in displaying the best modesty circumstances command this humble attitude does little to help me understand the way Mr. Steven Simon dismisses certain axiomatic realities pertaining not only the U.S. national interest and foreign policy, but to the universally admitted understanding of balance of forces and influences in the Middle East as well.

  • kat-missouri

    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 very beginning, we could well have won and been at home by now.

    You know, this is almost two opposing statements rolled up into one big ironically incorrect assumption. It is not four years of occupation that keep the Iraqis from trusting Americans, it is the lack of very apparent progress on any particular front. If we were building sky scrapers in downtown Baghdad today, even if random car bombs went off around the country, people would see “progress” and the car bombs would become growing pains instead of the giant amputation of Iraqi leg and limb it is today.

    Appearance is half the battle.

    Now, there are some things that I don’t know if the Captain has addressed before, but it seems odd that no one has put together all of the other reasons for a “small footprint” beyond material and human availability in our military or COIN doctrine.

    There is a large part that had to do exactly with the problems that we see today.

    Political posture: regardless of all the discussion of WMD and terrorist support, it was clear long before that it was Saddam who would be “demonized” and not the Iraqi people. Thus, our posture was a posture of “liberation”. This posture had multiple purposes:

    a) On a tactical/internal Iraq strategic concern, it was to provide the conscripts and generals a good reason or cover, if you will, to lay down their arms, thus reducing casualties on either side. Also to decrease the number of people who would take up arms. if i was being oppressed by a monster, but I feared the actions of the country threatening to take the country even more, I’d pick up a gun and fight the outside enemy off first.

    b) To keep allies or enemies from acting against us in the security council. While we might not have gotten unanimous support, no one actually stood up and threatened to shoot at us or withdraw other support, enforce a trade embargo, etc. All of these people and countries had something at stake in Iraq. many had oil wells and/or projects underway or had brokered fairly generous deals for food, medicine etc. It is obvious that, regardless of pronouncements to the contrary, Bush may have been overly concerned with our allies impressions and political or material concerns.

    C) To get allies to join us. the only way coalition forces from small countries like the Balkans or Italy or even Britain to assist us was to have a just reason for them to serve. FRankly, as much as people make out over the WMD issue and potential connection to terrorism, for many of our allies one of the main, if not only reason they could get popular support at home to assist us was in classifying this war as one of “liberation” from, of course, a nasty, murdering, bio-terristic brute, but liberation.

    d) World opinion. Interesting that Kerry in 2004 was lambasted for his “global test” comment when, in fact, our political posture and thus our military posture was impacted by exactly that: global opinion. It is well known that sanctions were failing if not a complete farce. It is also well known that across Europe and the Middle East, the general opinion was held that sanctions had in fact led to the deaths of millions of Iraqi children. Finally, there is the issue of “proportional force”. It was also a well developed opinion that the Iraqi army had been all but destroyed on the “highway to hell” or “turkey shoot” during Desert Strom. The televised images of that destruction had already caused a ripple in the thread a decade before. The United States was seen and is still seen as the big bully unnecessarily killing a fleeing military and would be again using it’s fantastical size and technology against a near flee, regardless of how often we touted the size and ferocity of the Iraq army.

    World opinion was definitely looking on us again as the “big bully”. If we didn’t classify this as “liberation”, regardless of WMD or terrorism, we would have had serious problems such as popular civilian demands for sanctions or joining a defensive war AGAINST us. thus, world opinion does matter.

    d) To insure exactly what is happening did not happen: ie, confrontation with Syria or Iran. It is pretty obvious that we hoped to apply economy of force while simultaneously hoping to convince Iran and Syria thatin no way were we planning to invade them next, regardless of the “axis of evil” comment. This as well as assure Saudi Arabia and other ME neighbors that it would be a limited war that would not directly impact them. If Saudi Arabia felt concerned it would expand to the region, they would very likely not have cooperated with the necessary flow of oil to keep national reserves level while supplying the increased needs of the military in action. We were hoping to keep the war within specific bounds since everyone insisted it would become a regional blood bath once we went in.

    In the end, aside from material and human concerns regarding our military, our political posture may have dictated the size of force as much if not more.

    On a separate, yet relevant note, I find it interesting that Bush was lambasted for his lack of consideration to our allies opinions and lack of diplomacy, when in fact he may have been so over deferential to their concerns that it caused us to attempt “war on the cheap” as some call it.

    finally, on the “we could have been home by now”, I doubt it. We could have been largely gone from Iraq, but I doubt it. There is the one part of this war that keeps getting ignored: foreign fighters and AQ jihadists. Regardless of how much control we would have exerted through force, it does not stand to reason that terrorists or foreign jihadists would not still have come to Iraq or that we would not be combatting them today in some or fashion. And, since they are our enemies, regardless of how well iraq was or was not doing, we still would have had to keep some force there to act against them. Secondly, if we weren’t in Iraq, we would be in Afghanistan in large numbers.

    Some folks would love that, but I rarely see anyone going through the thinking process where AQ and the Taliban would still pull in tens of thousands of supporters, just like the Afghan/Russo war. Instead of fighting and dying in Iraq (40k wounded; 3k+ KIA), we would have simply changed the numbers into the Afghan column because that is where those forces would have been and we would have seen them en masse from gun on gun battles, but also from the RPGs, IEDs and VBIEDs.

    It simply would have been in different places because there is nothing that would have stopped that recruitment. In fact, huge forces in Afghanistan may have led to an even bigger recruitment drive for fighters in Afghanistan.

    finally, on that note, we would have been in Iraq today, possibly not at this level of violence, because we would have still been rebuilding Iraq.

  • 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.

  • walrus

    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 U.S. failure in Iraq followed by withdrawal. I would hardly understand why Iran would repress from undertaking in Iraq what it is undertaking in Lebanon.
    Also, I believe that Russia, a country which has lastly taken an active, though careful, involvement in this game may find it obvious as well given its ambitions on energy and historic and well identified need for influence around the Caspian basin and beyond toward the south. If my assumptions proved to be true, then it would explain the lack of enthusiasm expressed by several other countries of the Arabic peninsula about Iranian proposals to join a Pan-Arabic front against the U.S.

    I would be consistently pessimistic about the chances of General Petraeus to succeed if our hope for peace in Iraq bears too much on his shoulder. I’m confident in the way the United States’ experts do carry on the task, despite critics sustaining contrary views. However, I am pessimistic about any hope to see this problem solved within so short a laps of time, at is expected by some U.S. politics.

    When I see the complexity and the intricacies of our modern conflicts, which have even no official existence in some cases, it is of my assumption that we have to forget yesterday’s security rules. The XXth century was marked by absolutes I find impossible to apply, or enforce, in our today’s world. The war against Hitler and the struggle against communism had to be won, and the only possible policy was absolute victory, or/and unconditional surrender.
    In a more complex and more ambiguous post-war world, we do not always face the same clear cut total threat or need to employ the methods of total war. So, for the most part I’m afraid we have to discard notions such as “unconditional surrender? as a military or political objective.

    In none of the three worlds we live in will complete victory usually be required or reasonably expected. As seen from the masses’ point of view, the problem is that the pill is going to be hard to swallow, doubtless. For any suggestion of withdrawal or disengagement in Iraq, for example, and as it has been recently recommended by Mr. Steven Simon, would inescapably lead to much bigger disappointments for the U.S. and several other countries and the mere idea to attempt such a thing, as a try, would tantamount to play dices; an option that cannot apply when the lives and freedom of so many people are at stake.

    Problems in Iraq resemble increasingly to those which happened in Lebanon from 1975 on, in my own opinion. That’s why I’m wondering whether we would not find any useful lessons in looking at how things ultimately went on in this other country until the happening of the recent troubles. But perhaps experts in charge reached to the same assumption already; this I don’t know.

  • 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

  • Charlie B.

    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 Philippines over 100 years ago, and again in Central America through the 1910’s, 20’s, and 30’s, and they worked for us. Unfortunately, the American military has so thoroughly abandoned its expeditionary roots (despite the fact that the term is now in vogue, as evidenced by the USAF’s “Aerospace Expeditionary Forces”, a laughable contradiction if there ever was one) that I doubt we will ever see such a strategy adopted.

    Suggested reading: The Village, by Bing West

    Interesting note on the above: The author, Bing West, is the father of Maj Owen West, team leader for 3-3-1 IA’s embedded MTT team in Khalidiyah, Iraq. Bill Roggio spent some time with Maj West and 3-3-1, and has several excellent articles about them.

    Habbaniyah and the 3-3-1 “Snake Eaters”
    The Iraqi Army and the MTT in Khalidiya
    Patrolling with the Snake Eaters

  • 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).

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

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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