Small Wars Journal

Will the Petraeus Strategy Be the Last?

In a 17 September The Atlantic Dispatch article (Will the Petraeus Strategy Be the Last?) I offer a view from Iraq's restive Anbar province on Congress's recent Iraq hearings.

... We learned from the hearings that Petraeus has established a new model that hinges on local police control, a goal that I advocated several months ago in The Atlantic. This approach has been bringing security to the Sunni areas. To prevent a flare-up of sectarian killings in Baghdad, though, the rogue JAM elements that have burrowed into the social fabric of the majority-Shiite areas must be removed.

The Democrats don't have the votes to force a rapid withdrawal. That the Iraqi politicians will have reached reconciliation agreements by March, mollifying the Democrats, seems highly unlikely. Yet when Petraeus testifies in March, if progress on the military front has continued and he recommends further withdrawals, the Democrats will be hard pressed to urge an even faster pullout. It seems likely that the presidential debate about Iraq will then focus on past mistakes, not on an immediate drawdown.

The intent of the hearings was to drive a wedge between the military and the administration. "We trust the military to tell the truth, but not the administration," was the message of the Democratic leadership. Apparently not understanding that, some questioners proceeded to challenge the veracity and independence of the witnesses. Many of the "questions" during the hearings were rants, with the questioners coming across as self-absorbed whiners who diminished their political cause.

President Bush was also opportunistic. In his television address on September 13, he advanced his policies as if they'd been designed by General Petraeus. While President Bush has the virtue of wanting to prevail, spare us from politicians of both parties who seek partisan advantage by wrapping themselves in the flag.

Insisting that a professional soldier—and a professional diplomat—testify, and then attacking the policies they did not create but were duty bound to carry out, sets a terrible precedent. This hearing, with its querulous, self-pitying tone, was a bad idea badly executed. It should not be repeated in March. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is the proper official to defend administration policy.

Our military should be kept separate from political debate.

Read the entire article at The Atlantic.


Related link (Update): Eating Soup with a Spoon - LTC Gian Gentile, Armed Forces Journal


Tyson Lewis (not verified)

Thu, 09/27/2007 - 1:32am

I read a very good article yesterday by Richard Betts ("The Delusion of Impartial Intervention") and before I go on let me say flat out that I'm borrowing his argument though not its' application...

The Patraeus strategy in Iraq is doomed to fail because, ultimately, it is unsustainable. Protecting the population works if and only if you have the manpower and political will to stick around for the long term, because as soon as we drawdown in any significant numbers, sectarian fighting and ethnic cleansing will begin anew in Baghdad. Perhaps the dumbest thing we could do as occupiers is to try to stop and reverse the Ethnic cleansing that has/is happening in mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods. The solution to ethnic cleansing is, well, to be ethnically cleansed. By trying so nobly to stop this process we undermine ourselves and build instability into the system itself. The only way to prevent that process from happening is to sustain the surge and the shift in tactics that accompanied it, and we all know that's impossible.

So, Patraeus' strategy will not in fact be the last. We have neither the manpower or the political will to be the permanent keepers of the peace.

And oh, what about that Iraqi parliament and the political solution they're supposed to reach as we give them breathing space? The Shia are waiting for us to leave, and once that happens they know that the balance of forces are in their favor. So it is simply not in their interests to bargain now--they know this and have acted accordingly. War is a rational act in the struggle for power, and peace without victory is not in their interests. Period.

So what will and/or should be our final strategy?

We need to stop pretending we can keep the peace indefinitely and let peace come about more organically, which is to say through decisive battle--not on our part, but amongst the warring parties themselves. And that means we need to pick a side, Sunni or Shia. Yes, the alliances shift and twist depending upon the salience of the conflict, but ultimately this is what it's about. And that means returning to our old practice under Reagan: use the Sunnis in Iraq as a constraint against Shia-Iranian ambitions. Yes, the Iraqi state is fundamentally broken and will eventually be partitioned in practice if not in theory. But the only way to change the Shia calculus and end the current political stalemate is to put the weight and energy of the United States military behind our old friends turned enemies turned friends again, the Sunnis.

What we have started in Anbar is only the beginning. Our interests, as they have for decades now, coincide. The stronger the Shia are in Iraq, the stronger will be the Iranian presence. And the only way to check that strength is with strength. (Besides, they already know we make better allies than IQA)

And thus, so rather than continue building instability into the system and trying to keep the various factions from tearing each other apart only to keep the fundamental imbalance alive, we should be waging a proxy war against Iran vis a vis their natural allies, JAM + friends.

This is the only politically sustainable solution. On a visceral level, it makes sense: "We're fighting Iran." Joe voter will understand that much more than "We're trying to build a cohesive Iraqi state (when no one who lives there wants one.)" And moreover, we don't need nearly as many troops or equipment to provide a decisive edge in the Iraqi civil war as we do now.

This is why we backed Saddam against the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq War, this where our interests lie, this is why toppling Saddam was not in our national interests, and this will, I believe, once again be the strategy that we ultimately follow.

Gian P Gentile

Mon, 09/24/2007 - 8:52am


I am not looking for the last word on this either.

I played with these metaphors because I tread cautiously here and rely on some good guidance that Bob Bateman gave a few weeks ago in a blog posting on serving soldiers commenting on things that are in "their lane." So with that guidance in mind and to comment on what Steve has to say, I think we should accept the fact that there are limits to what military force, even a military force completely indoctrinated and trained in the ways of coin and even built for it, can accomplish. Unfortunately, it is not I who needs to realize those limits nor in our system can I really do anything about it. I continue to serve and will do my duty as told to do so.

I have become the target of opportunity on this blog because so many writers see me as the Harry Summers incarnate. That is to say they see me as the one who fits their constructed narrative as the conventional minded, locked-in-a-straightjacket battle focused combat arms officer. I for many people am like Harry Summers after Vietnam who wrote that the American Army screwed up because it became too focused on Coin to the point of dogmatism and should have been concentrating on strategy and destroying the NVA which he saw as the primary threat. But I am not Harry Summers. I accept the need for a full spectrum force that can conduct, when conditions allow, counterinsurgency operations. Too, I say the next few sentences not out of self congratulation or arrogance. But in fact the Washington Post reporter, Tom Ricks, in his book Fiasco saw me as a commander who "got" Coin operations in Iraq in 2006. Los Angeles Times reporter, Borzou Darghai, not known to lavish compliments in his articles on the American military conceded that my Reconnaissance Squadrons methods in the Baghdad sunni district of Ameriyah in 2006 produced qualified but important successes in counterinsurgency operations. Again, I say these things not out of arrogance or self-congratulation and not as a resume for the Daily Show. I say them instead to establish my credentials as a tactical commander who understands Coin theory and doctrine and practiced it with relative success in west Baghdad in 2006.

I am currently in the middle of an excellent book written by Dr John Tierney on the history of unconventional warfare (notice I am not rereading Chandlers classic history of Napoleonic battles). What I am drawing from Tierneys book about unconventional warfare is not that the American Army needed a specific structure and specific capacity at all times throughout its history to do unconventional warfare but instead it needed creative thinking about how to deal with the situation at hand with the forces available to it. His book has shown me that commanders who understood their environment and could think creatively were able to use conventional forces successfully in an admittedly unconventional environment and vice versa. What I have argued continuously on this blog is that the hyper influence of Coin thinking on the United States Army has turned us into a dogmatic, doctrinaire force that is unable to think creatively now about the way ahead in iraq and even beyond; and from my perspective to the detriment of our army too.

And I disagree with Ironhorses statement that "Coin is fundamentally different than MCO." I think it only different in degree or to use your word "shade" and not in form: the form being still war itself. But when we see Coin as fundamentally different from other forms of war we get into the absurdities of calling it such things as "armed social science" which it is not.

To conclude with a counterfactual speculation instead of metaphor: If the American Army had focused on Coin training starting in 2001 and had the new FM3-24 been available to us then would, with all other conditions being the same, the Iraq war have turned out differently. Furthermore, would the march up to Baghdad in March 2003 have gone the same?


Steve Blair

Sun, 09/23/2007 - 1:37pm

If you're not built that way, maybe it's time to call in the contractor for some serious consultations.

In all seriousness, this is not the "either-or" question that some might wish it was. We need a major war capability. There's no real question about that. But should that capability come at the expense of our ability to function in other combat environments? We tried that before...under Eisenhower...and it didn't work very well.

In the long term, as Ironhorse points out, we stand to lose a great deal if we once again abandon Small Wars to the dustbin of unwanted operations. Many situations that we face in the world require a level of commitment that is less than that of MCO. Do we just ignore or abandon those issues? Do we really have the ability as a nation to look at humanitarian efforts and say "No...sorry...can't do that. It's not MCO. Sorry, folks."? Our track record has shown that, at least at a political and media level, we do not have that ability. And since we cannot as a nation look away (at least not for very long), we need to have the capability to deal with those situations. And it needs to be a robust, realistic capability...not just a brigade or two that does COIN on the weekends between getting ready for NTC rotations.

SWJ Groundskeeper

Sun, 09/23/2007 - 12:22pm

Sorry, I don't follow that metaphorical change step. I am popular culture impaired. But let me take a stab.

I would agree that the way we are built now must constrain what we do now. But I vehemently disagree that the way we are built now is inherently right, and do not believe it should overly constrain the way we see and interact with the world in the future. I guess the trick comes in defining where today ends and tomorrow begins, and on what is appropriate and reasonable constraint for today. Where is the sweet spot between excessive <a href="; rel="nofollow nofollow">self-imposed limitations</a> with their inherent lack of commitment to needed change, and <a href="; rel="nofollow nofollow">delusional fantasizing</a> that it will be just so easy and swell tomorrow?

We must be willing to realistically redefine our force and ourselves - all progress depends on the unreasonable man. The way we are today should not overly constrain the way we should be. I do believe that we are decisively engaged in COIN, that COIN is fundamentally different than Major Combat Operations, and that these ops are not going away as SWJED stated, so we must be a little bit unreasonable.

I will never suggest that it is inappropriate to consider the limitations of the military or the impact of the current fight on MCO readiness or posture. But I refuse to indulge any "stick to our MCO knitting" trumping COIN as a footnote. We can not retreat to Powell / Weinberger, get FCS back on track, and dismiss COIN as a lesser included capability that we got a little too wrapped around the axle about because we were silly in Mesopotamia for a couple of years. Certainly some of the tactics and capabilities do double duty. But the sloppiness of integration of the many arms of national power, which this blog entry addresses one element of, get subordinated once we allow the military to get back in its comfortable lane. And those are the issues that our sons and grandsons will still be going to the mat over, many small wars later.

We must synchronize our DIME capabilities with our willingness to venture off on PMESII interventionism. We must force ourselve to do that in a Small Wars paradigm (bigger than just COIN, I'll grant that). Beacuse if we indulge ourselves and let the test scenario fall back to one of Large Wars and MCO, we lose all the wonderfully painful points of incompetence and friction that are inherent to our current limitations, and must be embraced as we beat down our imperial hubris and right-size our definitions of acceptable interventions in the future. Definitions at the political / national level (executive or legislative), not in JP 1-02.

All of above at risk of being labelled a crazy stalker poster. I don't want to go tit-for-tat on this subject, please feel free to have the last word. I won't bird dog you again on this matter. Perhaps we differ on shades only, perhaps we must agree to disagree. Out here.

Gian P Gentile

Sat, 09/22/2007 - 8:53pm

My friend Ironhorse, good to hear from you. Let's change the metaphor. Think about the scene from the movie "Jerry MaGuire" when the charchter Jerry asks: "what if i am just not built that way?"

SWJ Groundskeeper

Sat, 09/22/2007 - 7:29pm

Well said, Gian. That issue of resolve and expectations is indeed the long pole in the tent.

But to wear out that metaphor a bit more, we must not just roll over and play conventional two up, one back major theater war just because that's what gets us a Milk Bone.

Our democracy has to evolve, too.

Gian P Gentile

Sat, 09/22/2007 - 9:28am

To further your metaphor, can dogs learn to speak english? And, who is doing the teaching?


Sat, 09/22/2007 - 9:09am

Time to teach an old dog new tricks. These types of wars are not going away no matter how hard we wish.

Gian P Gentile

Sat, 09/22/2007 - 8:36am

When have democracies not lacked time and patience in fighting these kinds of wars and in so answering that question what does it tell us about our ability to fight them?


Fri, 09/21/2007 - 6:40pm

I have a different take than 011121 on this issue.

General Petraeus, in his billet at TRADOC, along with Marine General Mattis at MCCDC, wrote a doctrine (FM 3-24) that the administration saw as their last, best chance to pull this thing back north.

Bush (after the departure of SECDEF Rumsfeld and others) stopped window-shopping at the Petraeus / Mattis Ye Ole COIN Store. General Petraeus was allocated certain resources and told to implement the COIN strategy as best as could be done under those resource guidelines.

A perfect answer to all our OIF-ills? No, but best for what could be done considering the years we effed this thing up. Kudos to those who, under enormous scrutiny and against all odds, are doing what they can with the resources at hand. COIN ain't pretty and takes a long time.

Time and patience seem to be two commodities we are serious lacking. Not to mention the politics surrounding last year's Congressional elections and next years Presidential.

011121 (not verified)

Fri, 09/21/2007 - 2:02pm

"Insisting that a professional soldier--and a professional diplomat--testify, and then attacking the policies they did not create but were duty bound to carry out, sets a terrible precedent."

Under normal circumstances I would agree. the difference here is that Bush had to shop around this strategy to find a a commander who would agree to it. That means that Petraeus did have a hand in setting the policy. He could have refused as several generals before him did. By choosing to give the policy political cover he made himself a political actor influencing policy, not a military actor conducting it.