The Petraeus Revolution: How He Changed the American Way of War

The general overthrew the old guard, but will the revolution stand? John Barry on Fred Kaplan’s 'The Insurgents.'

Haraz N. Ghanbari/U.S. Navy via Getty

“Let us admit it fairly, as a business people should.We have had no end of a lesson: it will do us no end of good.”

Rudyard Kipling’s verdict on the Boer War—Britain’s 1899–1902 assault on the Dutch-Afrikaner settlers declaring independence in South Africa—can stand as an interim verdict on America’s expeditions into Iraq and Afghanistan. These are military and political debacles to rival the Boer War. Iraq lurches sullenly toward civil war or dictatorship; the Afghan elite prepare for America’s withdrawal by sending out so much cash that a special channel at Kabul airport handles the stuffed suitcases.

Where did it all go wrong? Unraveling the decade of America’s wars since 9/11 is already a historical cottage industry. Multiple memoirs, at least three serious efforts at historical reconstruction, half a dozen narrative accounts, a rising pile of combat memories transmuted into novels. It’s an outpouring utterly different from the stunned silence that followed Vietnam, and America is the healthier for it.

Fred Kaplan’s new book goes over this war-torn terrain from a different perspective. Just over 20 years ago, Kaplan produced The Wizards of Armageddon, chronicling the evolution of America’s nuclear weapons strategy after Hiroshima. There is no lack of tomes on this topic, but Kaplan’s account remains essential reading because he reconstructed a debate as a narrative driven by the lives and views of the participants. In The Insurgents, Kaplan does the same for Iraq and Afghanistan—using personal narratives to explore, as his subtitle says, “David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War." Kaplan’s subject is the counterinsurgency strategy midwifed by Petraeus: its creation, adoption, and what Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed about its limitations. For anyone interested in figuring out what went wrong, Kaplan is essential reading.

Forty years on, the passions of Vietnam have faded into history. Yet they’re seminal in the story Kaplan reconstructs. For the U.S. Army, Vietnam was so traumatic—such a humiliation—that, in its aftermath, the Army leadership of the time drew one overarching lesson: Never Again. The Army’s job was to prepare for the Big One: the armored showdown against the Soviets on the plains of central Europe. That war, thankfully, never came. But Desert Storm, the expulsion of Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in 1991, was essentially a dry run: the divisions and air wings came to Saudi Arabia from Europe; the tactics were those of “AirLand Battle,” the fighting doctrine devised for Europe. Afterward, as the collapse of the Soviet Empire brought defense budget cuts to shrink the U.S. Army, the officers retained were those who had done well in that comfortably conventional conflict.

The problem was that American forces were increasingly responding to crises—Haiti, Somalia, Central America, the Balkans—where firepower, mass, and maneuver weren’t the answer. The Army hierarchy recognized this: “low-intensity conflicts” or “military operations other than war” these small but complex engagements were labeled. But there was no coherent effort to prepare U.S. soldiers for them.

Roughly the first half of Kaplan’s book reconstructs the efforts of a handful of officers, serving and retired, to remedy this: to establish what they christened “counterinsurgency” as a recurrent challenge for which the modern army must prepare. Aside from Petraeus, the names of most will be familiar only to students of the military: John Nagl, Andrew Krepinevich, Conrad Crane, Kalev Sepp, Bob Killebrew, Mike Meese, David Kilcullen (the lone Australian), H.R. McMaster, and a handful of others. Kaplan deftly sketches them all, but what fascinates him is how the group—“a mafia” they sometimes jokingly called themselves—came together. The answer is what he calls “professional networking.” At the heart of the web lay the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and especially “Sosh,” its social sciences department. Sosh was created after World War II to be an intellectual forcing house where the brightest cadets would be tutored by the smartest young officers, brought back midcareer to teach for a few years—while, commonly, finishing their own advanced degrees. Sosh and its alumni network were the agents of change.

Petraeus, himself a Sosh alum, became the central figure for a mix of reasons. He was the most senior in rank. He was also the most politically adept. It is widely believed that one reason why, years later, President Obama declined to make Petraeus chairman of the Joint Chiefs was because the White House feared Petraeus could be a political rival. Petraeus always denied any political ambitions. But Kaplan’s meticulous account of the ways Petraeus found to bring together and nurture the counterinsurgency “cabal” might profitably be read by anyone interested in bringing change to a giant bureaucracy.

Even so, it took a crisis to give Petraeus the opportunity he’d been preparing for close to 30 years. Conquering Saddam’s forces for a second time in 2003 turned out to be the easy part. America and its military found themselves in charge of a broken nation for which they had made no preparations to administer—and had no training to do so. It was Petraeus’s chance. Running a slice of northern Iraq more or less as a viceroy, he put into practice the pacifying principles of counterinsurgency that he and his cabal had debated for a decade. Then he made sure this was noticed. One who did notice was Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Special Forces veteran called out of retirement by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to be Army chief of staff. As the Sunni insurgency gathered momentum and Iraq began its spiral into bloody chaos, Schoomaker tasked Petraeus to write a manual that would instruct the Army on how to cope with insurgencies. Field manual FM 3-24 appeared in 2006. Petraeus spent virtually all his remaining military career trying to put its precepts into effect, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. Kaplan gives those efforts a mixed verdict. An old adage—Kaplan traces it back to one of Mao Zedong’s commanders on the Long March—is that revolutionary war is 80 percent political and only 20 percent military. The core of Petraeus’s doctrine is that this ratio applies equally to counter-insurgency warfare. But foreign forces cannot command that political element: it has to be led by the indigenous politicians. Thus, it’s a reasonable judgment that how Petraeus used the “surge” of additional forces that President George W. Bush sent to Iraq in 2007 saved that nation from an even worse bloodbath of ethnic cleansing. But Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador with whom he worked in Baghdad, could only argue, plead, and cajole Nuri al-Maliki and other Iraqi political leaders to adopt policies of reconciliation between Sunni and Shia and Kurd. They couldn’t command them. And so the sectarian divides remain, the car bombs kill innocents, and Maliki continues to tack toward authoritarian rule.

The limits of counterinsurgency doctrine are visible even more clearly in Afghanistan. In his year there from the middle of 2010, Petraeus kept a frenzied pace, doing everything he knew to roll back a Taliban tide. But the political realities nullified any military gains. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was unable or unwilling to rein in the kleptocracy in Kabul; from there the tentacles of corruption spread across Afghanistan, destroying any serious prospect of a central government recognized as legitimate by the Afghan population. By the time he left Afghanistan, exhausted, Petraeus knew it.

It’s unclear whether President Obama will stick to his announced decision to end the U.S. forces’ combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014—or how many troops he will be prepared to leave to support the Afghans’ own efforts. But Obama’s verdict on counterinsurgency as a military mission is in no doubt: he sees it as a slippery slope paved with good intentions and greased by an inflated sense of American power. Exactly a year ago, Obama stood at the lectern in the Pentagon briefing room to announce new “strategic guidance” for the American military. Winding up Iraq and Afghanistan would mean “the end of long-term nation building with large military footprints,” he said. Carefully, he didn’t say never. The military must remain “ready to conduct limited counterinsurgency and other stability operations if required,” he said. In other words, the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan must not be allowed to disappear into the Army’s memory hole as the lessons of Vietnam did. “However, U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale prolonged stability operations.”

Presidents propose; the Fates dispose. Robert Gates in his wind-up speeches as secretary of defense reminded audiences: “Our record of predicting where we will use force since Vietnam is perfect: we have never gotten it right. There isn’t a single instance … where we planned for such a conflict six months in advance.” So what role counterinsurgency plays in the future U.S. military—what importance it’s given as a mission to be trained for—will depend partly on how American public opinion comes to regard the past decade-plus of war. It will also depend on happenstance: how important a future president regards the preservation of some valued ally whose survival is under threat.

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Aside from the counterinsurgency doctrine, what will David Petraeus’s legacy be? Inevitably, there will be might-have-beens: how would he be tackling now, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the task of reshaping the U.S. military? Within the Army, I suspect, he will be best remembered for his unremitting efforts to find, mentor, and open doors for the smartest young officers of each West Point generation. “The best and the brightest” is a phrase unfashionable since Vietnam. But that’s what Petraeus sought to assemble to fashion a new way of war. Kaplan’s book is a riveting account of how he did it.