The Petraeus Thinkers: Five Challenges

BY Herschel Smith
17 years, 2 months 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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  1. On February 8, 2007 at 12:31 pm, Denis Murphy said:

    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

  2. On February 8, 2007 at 4:18 pm, walrus said:

    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.

  3. On February 8, 2007 at 8:32 pm, Dominique R. Poirier said:

    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.

  4. On February 8, 2007 at 9:10 pm, kat-missouri said:

    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.

  5. On February 8, 2007 at 10:20 pm, Denis Murphy said:

    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

  6. On February 8, 2007 at 11:42 pm, Herschel Smith said:


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

  7. On February 9, 2007 at 5:41 am, walrus said:

    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?

  8. On February 9, 2007 at 6:35 am, Dominique R. Poirier said:

    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

  9. On February 10, 2007 at 9:58 am, George Singleton said:

    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

  10. On February 11, 2007 at 6:02 pm, Charlie B. said:

    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

  11. On February 14, 2007 at 1:52 am, Herschel Smith said:


    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).

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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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