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‘Savior General’ Petraeus Gave Us the Wrong Bible

The fatal flaw in his vaunted counterinsurgency strategy.

For the last decade, a rough consensus has emerged about the 2006 revised U.S. counterinsurgency manual written by General David Petraeus. Its boosters say it improved Army and Marine Corps tactics against insurgents and led to the deescalation of violence and stabilization of a number of areas in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, it is beyond dispute that the manual failed to achieve its most important goal—political reconciliation in those two nations. While there has been endless analysis of the counterinsurgency strategy’s success during the “surge” in Iraq, there has been very little consideration of other essential questions. Why has this new strategy ultimately failed to win these wars? And why have the short-term successes on the battlefield had no long-term political resilience?

The new counterinsurgency strategy may have provided some valuable tactics for fighting insurgencies, but it was also deeply flawed. It was based on a superficial political theory that discounted the most important motivational factors in politics and life generally: culture, history, and religion.

On February 22, 2006, a powerful blast destroyed the Askariya Shrine in Samarra, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam. This set off a wave of mob retaliatory attacks on Sunni mosques across Iraq. The Iraq War was spinning out of control and the dream of a shining Iraqi democracy was meeting the realities of history and culture. By coincidence, the next morning at Fort Leavenworth, Lieutenant General David Petraeus convened the “Counterinsurgency Field Manual Workshop.”

The destruction of the Askariya Shrine should have provoked deep reflection on the part of American strategists. No dispassionate, rational observer could any longer deny that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had opened deep historical, religious, tribal, and cultural clefts in Iraqi society and given birth to an insurgency rooted in those divisions. The ferocity and success of that insurgency called into question the entire intellectual superstructure of American foreign policy. The U.S. military, after all, marched under a banner of putatively universal ideals, and it was assumed that, with enough firepower, all peoples would eventually embrace democracy and freedom. With a failing Iraq, the moral and intellectual authority of the entire bipartisan foreign-policy establishment was collapsing.

Foreign-policy intellectuals and politicians who supported the invasion of Iraq were suddenly facing historical ignominy and a long period of wandering in the desert. Then, like Moses descending from Mount Sinai with the tablets, David Petraeus emerged with the famed counterinsurgency manual. The document was a sensation, favorably reviewed as a “landmark” by Obama confidante Samantha Power on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. Petraeus himself became a rock star, and after he was nominated to assume control of the Iraq War in 2007, John McCain remarked, “It is hard to imagine a more important military nomination.”

The cause of interventionism had its sacred text written by a savior general. There was enormous relief among the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment that their grand strategy of remaking the world in the image of American ideals could now continue successfully on the basis of smarter tactics complemented by a “surge” of firepower. Among committed interventionists, counterinsurgency doctrine became theological, a form of apologetics against criticisms of the Iraq War and interventionism generally. The manual implied that the Iraqi people had failed to embrace the American invaders, not because of their history and culture, but because the U.S. military had used firepower in an indiscriminate manner and failed to provide generous welfare benefits.

The manual’s strategies were intended to incorporate the historical lessons of fighting insurgencies in places such as Malaya and Vietnam, but more recent inspiration had come from then-colonel H.R. McMaster’s 2005 subjugation of the Sunni insurgency in Tal Afar. McMaster, the commander of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, brought the insurgency to heel through an aggressive military assault followed by huge expenditures on social programs, infrastructure, and funds for local police and city employees. One can only admire the tactical achievements of commanders such as McMaster who, for a period, turned a seemingly hopeless war in a direction favoring Washington.

As Donald Trump prepares to send thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan, military intellectuals are again arguing that the only path to victory is the adoption of counterinsurgency strategies. As the famous strategist John Nagl recently wrote in The National Interest, “There are only three strategies when your enemy chooses to fight you as an insurgent: quit, conduct a scorched earth campaign that kills everyone and destroys everything, or commit to counterinsurgency.”

One should certainly pay heed to the advice of thoughtful combat veterans like Nagl, particularly because the counterinsurgency strategies adopted in Iraq and Afghanistan did, at certain points and for a period, create a more peaceful order. Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the beneficial effects of these approaches had little staying power. Within a few short years, and even as American troop levels were peaking, cities like Tal Afar returned to horrific violence and many of the cities pacified during the surge were ultimately overrun by ISIS. Meanwhile, commanders in Afghanistan such as Stanley McChrystal, many with the manual in hand, had for nearly a decade failed to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people despite a “surge” of troops by President Obama. 

What in U.S. counterinsurgency strategy produces short-term tactical success and long-term strategic failure? The manual falls short in its basic assumptions, which betray a highly questionable larger political philosophy. As John Nagl summarized, “In a counterinsurgency campaign…the primary objective is to build a local government that earns the support of its people by meeting their needs.” The manual’s political philosophy represents a facile fusion of the social contract theory of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Governments become “legitimate” and are embraced by the populace when they reduce violence (Hobbes) and protect property (Locke). If the American military can prove to the people that it can keep the peace and pick up the trash—“meet their needs”—the U.S. military can generate a political reconciliation.  

Yet it should have been obvious to American strategists that the people who blew up the Askariya Shrine would never be assuaged by just a more effective police force and more generous social services. The insurgents’ cause was cultural, religious, and existential, a combination that would not take a back seat to abstract social contract theory. And, in fact, some critics of the early drafts of the manual pointed out that religion just might be an important factor in a conflict that featured many religiously motivated suicide bombers. In a blistering New York Post column, Ralph Peters argued that the restraint in the use of violence urged by the manual was “utterly inappropriate for the religion-fueled, ethnicity-driven hyper-violence of our time.”

Petraeus was surprised by these criticisms—after all, the manual did indeed advocate the killing or capturing of religious extremists who were a threat to the public order. After the Peters’ column, Petraeus promptly revised the manual and made an addendum to its social-contract theory that gave a modest nod to the role of religious belief in insurgencies. There were, it seemed to Petraeus, two existentially different types of people in Iraq who had fundamentally different natures. There were those insurgents and other members of the general public who could be coopted by social-contract theory (and the generous social programs associated with it), and then there were the “true extremists,” or religiously oriented ones. “True extremists,” wrote Petraeus, “are unlikely to be reconciled to any other outcome than the one they seek; therefore, they must be killed or captured.”

Petraeus might have considered the possibility that invading a large nation in a foreign civilization would create enormous cultural challenges and tensions that might not ever be solved—particularly not by an invading military. Instead he stuck to his abstract social-contract theory assumptions, now with the caveat that a certain sect of religiously oriented extremists were trapped in history and would never embrace an invading army even when the streets were safe and social services were provided. Yet, Petraeus argued, the large majority of Iraqis would come around once they were provided with safety and material comfort. These abstract, simplistic, and ahistorical political assumptions were the counterinsurgency theory’s fatal flaw.

The manual largely views history, religion, and culture as local peccadillos that must be ignored. Action should be taken on the firmer foundation of social-contract theory. The manual teaches that, “counterinsurgents—especially commanders, planners, and small-unit leaders—-should strive to avoid imposing their ideals of normalcy on a foreign cultural problem.” Today’s military leaders seem to lack the cultural confidence of a General McArthur, who, with 400,000 troops during the American occupation, set out to smash Japanese imperial culture over his knee by defrocking the emperor, abolishing Shinto as the state religion, raising the social status of women, confiscating the land of war supporters, and overhauling the entire culture of the Japanese military. Today’s military leaders are so culturally agnostic that they refuse even to punish the widespread buggery of Afghan boys by our local allies.

The fact is that all political order at all times and everywhere emerges from an extremely complex set of unique symbols, practices, and beliefs that are rooted in history, culture, and religion. Political order does not merely flow from safety and the protection of property but out of a cultural inheritance that provides citizens with a sense that their society embodies something larger than themselves. To them, the symbols and traditions of their society reflect a certain divine order. An invading army from a foreign civilization will always be seen as a threat to that order whether citizens embrace violence or not. Without a major revolution in culture an occupying army will be in no position to generate more than a skin-deep and transitory political reconciliation. Even if it were a good idea to transform Iraq into an American-style constitutional republic, as a practical matter, there is neither the political will nor the cultural confidence in today’s American leadership to overhaul an Islamic country the way McArthur did in Japan. For example, no elected American politician would have supported the number of troops and the level of violence that would have been required to enforce Western-style cultural changes in Iraq, such as limiting the role of Islam in political matters.

U.S. military planners must realize that political disorder and insurgency is the default outcome when an army from an alien civilization invades another civilization. They should therefore consider what it will require to overcome the level of resistance that will emerge when it is deeply rooted in history and culture. It is not only the religious “extremists” who will balk; large portions of the general population will view the invaders as existential outlaws. As Robespierre ironically remarked when he was told the French revolutionaries wanted to invade Austria, “No one likes armed missionaries.”

Unfortunately, for those who have backed U.S. military interventions, setting aside issues of history and culture is a part of the great appeal of the manual. Supporters tend to think in terms of abstract secular ideals, not concrete cultural obstacles. Understanding the yawning differences in culture between the U.S. and, for example, a Middle Eastern country, should give great pause to planners contemplating the invasion of a foreign nation. But it is precisely this pause and reflection that our military planners and policymakers have been lacking.  

William S. Smith is managing director and research fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America.



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