Will the COINdinistas Rise Again? By Zach Abels, The National Interest
… The intention here is not to wax poetic about how the mighty COINdinistas injected thirty thousand troops into Iraq, saved the day and galloped off into the sunset. Petraeus has been mythologized too often. The military historian Douglas Porch, Petraeus’s harshest critic, titled his scathing polemic Counterinsurgency Myths. Even sympathetic observers point to Petraeus’s preoccupation with his own glory and his cunning in spinning self-serving narratives.
Nor is it reasonable to paper over U.S. killing. Brought back to Iraq to oversee strategy during the surge, McMaster was vehement that some insurgents had too much blood on their hands to be politically accommodated. Under Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Joint Special Operations Command took scores of these irreconcilables, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, off the battlefield. But McChrystal opted for the scalpel whenever possible. His kill-and-capture missions were designed to be discriminate. Collateral damage would only breed more terrorists.
Besides, controlling territory is not the jihadist’s only concern. Al Qaeda and ISIS inflict the deepest wounds on the virtual battlefield. A suicide bombing at a market has little military value; it resonates as “propaganda of the deed.” ISIS recruits foreign fighters and radicalizes homegrown terrorists online. Viral, emotive images are its weapons of choice. And as Graeme Wood argues in The Way of the Strangers, ISIS’s weaponization of theology cannot simply be dismissed as a bastardization of Islam.
Mending social cohesion in Iraqi communities, therefore, is only part of the story. Suffice it to say, the combination of the surge and the “Awakening”—the widespread Sunni uprising against Al Qaeda, underway before Petraeus took over—dramatically reduced violence. From 2004 to mid-2007, more than 1,500 civilians died every month in Iraq. By December 2007, that number plummeted to five hundred. From June 2008 to June 2011, around two hundred civilians died every month.
The military could not occupy Iraq forever. America failed to establish a sustainable political order before withdrawing. Communities lacked closure, and tensions gestated. Maliki’s overt hostility toward the Sunnis stoked discord and violence. ISIS exploited these divisions, co-opted Sunni tribes who once fought alongside the Americans and, in short order, routed the Iraqi army. In June 2014, ISIS declared a caliphate over a broad swathe of territory. At its peak, it controlled 40 percent of Iraq.
In Washington, reluctance to intervene understably found voice. The Iraq War scarred America. Words like “quagmire” are never far from the lips of those who advocate for retrenchment. The Iraq War is as politically corrosive as ever, a reliable dog whistle that incites rabid denunciations of hegemonic overreach and paternalistic democracy promotion. But Iraq is more than just a trope. The decision to invade, among the worst foreign-policy blunders in U.S. history, and the prosecution of the war are two different things. Conflating counterinsurgency with the neoconservative worldview—just because they have Iraq in common—is reductive. Petraeus and McMaster did, in fact, make common cause with neocon stalwarts like Eliot A. Cohen and Frederick W. Kagan as they labored to convince President Bush to change tack. They were playing the hand they were dealt. Neocons broke Iraq; Petraeus and McMaster were tasked with putting it back together. Trump himself seems amenable to this sentiment. In March, he told Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s moderate prime minister, “We shouldn’t have gone in, but certainly we shouldn’t have left.”
Jettisoning the lessons of the Iraq War for fear of striking a political nerve would be feckless. Gaslighting the COINdinistas would be cataclysmic…