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Petraeus’s COIN Gets Flipped

The general's counterinsurgency doctrine is as disgraced as he is.

During the course of the developing scandal involving former CIA Director David Petraeus, his biographer Paula Broadwell, Gen. John Allen, and Tampa social planner Jill Kelley, one journalist on Twitter, Max Fisher, commented that he was “having a tough time understanding why Petraeus’s scandal means that counterinsurgency doesn’t work.”

To which a prominent think tanker who spent much time in the field advising the former Gen. Stanley McChrystal on his counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, Andrew Exum, added, “the scandal quickly became an excuse for everyone to grind their favored policy-related axes: Iraq, Afghanistan, COIN, drones…” Another national-security writer, Peter Munson, responded almost immediately: “while not germane to validity of COIN, I do think the scandal has much to say about national security dysfunction writ large.”

Exactly — while the sex scandal and whatever else may come out of this hot mess may not be “germane” to whether COIN worked in Afghanistan (the prevailing view today is that it did not), this is an opportunity to talk frankly about counterinsurgency. Now dethroned, Petraeus and his war policy are fair game.

“First, even if Petraeus eventually gets somewhat rehabilitated and doesn’t disappear from public life, these events will puncture the image of a superhuman general that he has carefully cultivated over the years,” writes Stephen Walt, a longtime critic of the Bush and Obama foreign policies. “More importantly, this embarrassing personal failure will open the door to a more toughminded and dispassionate look at his actual record in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as his brief tenure as CIA head.”

Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone reporter largely responsible for General McChrystal’s firing from his post as commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, was quick to trigger such a conversation last week. As a former embed in Iraq, Hastings has criticized how the cult of Petraeus was used to sell the Surge and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. He recalled how Petraeus became the greatest of all “celebrity generals,” not by winning wars, but by cultivating compliant journalists who gave him glowing coverage in the press. As a result, the counter-narrative — that the tide had started turning against the insurgents in Iraq before the “Surge” in 2007, that COIN was failing in Afghanistan, and that the Taliban was not losing traction — was conveniently lost in the din of hero-worship and runaway military idolatry (see Ret. Col. Doug Macgregor’s “Epitaph for a Four Star”). Writes Hastings:

The fraud that General David Petraeus perpetrated on America started many years before the general seduced Paula Broadwell … More so than any other leading military figure, Petraeus’ entire philosophy has been based on hiding the truth, on deception, on building a false image. “Perception” is key, he wrote in his 1987 Princeton dissertation: “What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters — more than what actually occurred.”

Yes, it’s not what actually happens that matters — it’s what you can convince the public it thinks happened. Until this weekend, Petraeus had been incredibly successful in making the public think he was a man of great integrity and honor, among other things.

Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman, who has a sound reputation as a thoughtful and fair national security writer, came forward and actually confessed he had fallen under the Petraeus spell as a war correspondent and analyst. In an admirable fit of journalistic honesty, Ackerman explained:

To be clear, none of this was the old quid-pro-quo of access for positive coverage. It worked more subtly than that: the more I interacted with his staff, the more persuasive their points seemed. Nor did I write anything I didn’t believe or couldn’t back up — but in retrospect, I was insufficiently critical … Another irony that Petraeus’ downfall reveals is that some of us who egotistically thought our coverage of Petraeus and counterinsurgency was so sophisticated were perpetuating myths without fully realizing it.

Military writers like Andrew Bacevich, Col. Gian Gentile, Carl Prine, and Macgregor have been charting the counterinsurgency myth for sometime. But the “end of COIN” narrative accelerated over the last year, with thoughtful postmortem analyses of the Iraq Surge and its ill-fated exportation to Afghanistan (See: Joshua Rovner’s “The Heroes of COIN”).

And the floodgates of mainstream criticism opened last week, some remarks taking on an almost funereal tone: “The disgrace of David Petraeus has ended more than a great military career. It is also the symbolic end of a major chapter in American security strategy,” wrote Time‘s Michael Crowley. “The fall of the former Iraq and Afghanistan commander adds a tawdry exclamation point to the decline of counterinsurgency, the military theory for which Petraeus offered a heroic public face.”

Crowley explained that “even before he was sworn in as CIA director in September 2011, Petraeus was bending the rules of his own doctrine in Afghanistan,” relying more on air strikes and night raids than the hearts-and-minds, “all of government” exercises he had touted back in 2009. “By the end of his career — in a country exhausted by war and slashing its budget — Petraeus had embraced that shift,” Crowley continued. “He had lowered his profile too far to become the drone war’s public face. But to those watching closely, the Petraeus Doctrine had morphed into something different. Counterinsurgency was finished. Much like the general’s career.”

Meanwhile, Maureen Dowd felt liberated enough to compare the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle to the Cult of Petraeus circa 2009:

Petraeus rolled the younger commander in chief into going ahead with a bound-to-fail surge in Afghanistan, just as, half a century earlier, the C.I.A. had rolled Jack Kennedy into going ahead with the bound-to-fail Bay of Pigs scheme. Both missions defied logic, but the untested presidents put aside their own doubts and instincts, caving to experience. Once in Afghanistan, Petraeus welcomed prominent conservative hawks from Washington think tanks. As Greg Jaffe wrote in The Washington Post, they were “given permanent office space at his headquarters and access to military aircraft to tour the battlefield. They provided advice to field commanders that sometimes conflicted with orders the commanders were getting from their immediate bosses.”

So many more American kids and Afghanistan civilians were killed and maimed in a war that went on too long. That’s the real scandal.

Jed Babbin, former George H.W Bush defense official and writer for The American Spectator, joined a chorus of writers on both sides of the political spectrum who now dismiss the “success” in Iraq as though this has come to be the conventional wisdom. How times have changed! Notes Babbin:

Petraeus leaves as an historic figure whose legacy is not as bright as many people say. His counterinsurgency strategy didn’t defeat the enemy in Iraq or Afghanistan. It merely propped up tinfoil regimes that will either turn to be our enemies — as in Iraq — or will fall quickly and be replaced with enemies we’d fought before, as in Afghanistan.

Of course, there are plenty of establishment writers who still insist Petraeus “won” Iraq but mucked the whole thing up in Afghanistan. One wonders where they were years ago when it was clear COIN was a disaster, starting with the replacement of poor Gen. David McKiernan with the COIN-friendly McChrystal, the showy summer 2009 Marine offensive, and then the disappointing 2010 Marjah operation, which brought to us the cringe-worthy promise of a “government in a box.

Meanwhile, hardline neoconservatives who never quite warmed to post-Bush humanitarian interventionism are turning on their hero at last. While Diana West is hardly the best messenger, her complaints about how COIN’s “population centric” dictum did not translate well for the complexities of the Afghan battlefield are nevertheless widely shared in the military community.

COIN doctrine approaches war from an ivory tower, a place where such theories thrive untested and without hurting anyone. On the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, however, the results have been catastrophic. Tens of thousands of young Americans answered their country’s call and were told to accept more “risk” and less “protection.” Many lost lives, limbs and pieces of their brains as a result of serving under a military command structure and government in thrall to a leftist ideology that argues, in defiance of human history, that cultures, beliefs and peoples are all the same, or want to be.

West’s Islamophobia, as usual, gets in the way of a cogent argument (amputations due to IEDs, including the newer “dismounted complex blast injuries,” had risen in 2011, even while Petraeus was testifying to the contrary). But there is no denying that what seemed like an attempt by Clinton-era Democrats (Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Samantha Powers, et al) to join forces with Petraeus to carry out a kinder, gentler war, had backfired, badly, and the warhawks-turned-vultures, perched and eager to pick the bones of this thing, know it.

There is little solace for the once-anointed king. If anything, it’s that not everyone has abandoned him. There’s always Sen. John McCain, neoconservative stalwart Max Boot, and author Bing West, a former Reagan assistant secretary of defense, who not only offers valuable moral support to Petraeus and his family (he lauds him for stepping down), but makes it clear the ex-general’s legacy is still up for grabs:

What, then, did Gen. Petraeus accomplish that deserves admission to the pantheon of military heroes? The answer is clear: He saved America from an appalling disgrace—the bloody disintegration of Iraq. … His legacy is twofold. As a general, he won a war. As a man, he took responsibility. In his common humanity and his exceptional dedication to his ideals, he showed nobility.

Funny, West spent most of last year criticizing COIN in Afghanistan as a futile nation-building exercise that put U.S. troops in harm’s way. He skims over this quickly in his Petraeus encomium, claiming that it “wasn’t his fault.”

Nonetheless, no one thought there would be this much conversation about COIN and Afghanistan after the election and this is a good thing. Too bad it had to happen under such salacious circumstances.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor.



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