Book Reviews

Petraeus the Progressive

The surge in Iraq is a success, and we must claim it as our own.

By Rachel Kleinfeld

Tagged CounterinsurgencyDavid PetraeusIraq

Tell Me How This Ends: David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq By Linda Robinson • Public Affairs • 2008 • 432 pages • $27.95

In post-invasion Iraq, Shiite death squads developed a signature tactic for dealing with their victims. Using power drills and nail drivers, they would drill holes in their victims’ torsos, heads, and hands. Then they would kill them. If that kind of thing had happened in, say, Burma, it would have been just one of many horrors detailed in an Amnesty International dossier, gathering dust. But this was Iraq, circa 2006. Over thirty thousand Iraqis had died in what had become a communal conflict, Iranian-funded proxy war against America, and extremist insurgency wrapped into one ticking time bomb. With the whole world watching, the U.S. had its hand on the detonator. And we needed to decide what to do.

Linda Robinson’s carefully researched Tell Me How This Ends is a probing look at how the decision to abandon traditional, enemy-centric warfighting in favor of a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy turned the tide in Iraq. With attention to detail across a sweeping cast of characters, Robinson describes how President George W. Bush and his administration were deadly wrong in their early decisions to disband the military and oust the Baathists, and how battle-lines were drawn across the military establishment as the situation turned sour. But all this is prelude to her exacting analysis of the 18 months following the installation of General David Petraeus as commander in Iraq and the implementation of the surge. During that time, Iraq metamorphosed from killing fields to a functioning society. Robinson makes a strong case that these changes would not have taken place without the shift to counterinsurgency strategy, and that the strategy would not have worked without the extra manpower of the surge.

It may sound counterintuitive, but for progressives, Petraeus’s victory is our victory. His strategy bucked traditional ideas, lauded by many conservatives, that we could win by outgunning and outmanning the enemy. Instead, Petraeus incorporated insights, such as the importance of legitimacy and privileging civilian life in order to gain hearts and minds, that progressives have been promoting for years. However progressives feel about the decision to enter the Iraq War, we should own its success.

To examine these conclusions more closely, we need to travel back to 2006. Daily headlines proclaimed the deaths of U.S. troops, often accompanied by a full-color photo of terrified, bleeding Iraqis surrounded by rubble and the detritus of yet another suicide bombing. The daily drumbeat of destruction had hardened political positions into two camps: “Stay the Course” and “Withdraw Immediately.”

Dick Cheney and other administration figures pushed the “Stay the Course” strategy, though they offered no explanation for how more of the same was going to create peace. Instead, their argument was based on the costs of losing: If we withdrew, we would lose the war as well as our honor. Communal violence would become genocide. And we would inevitably have to return when violence spiraled across the Middle East and terrorists took up camp in the failed Iraqi state. Things were bad, they conceded, but leaving would make them even worse.

The pro-withdrawal camp did have a theory. “The cause for the violence is that the Americans are staying,” said Nassar al-Buraie, head of the radical Sadrist bloc in Parliament. American troops were a target: reducing troops would, ipso facto reduce violence.

But al-Buraie added a twist absent from the American political conversation. “American military operations show that they are just protecting themselves and not the Iraqi people.” By implication, should American forces focus on civilian security and not their own, public sentiment could turn, and support for insurgent violence could decline.

The U.S. faced two separate questions: How many troops should we devote to the war in Iraq? And how should we use these troops? But the political fight had conflated the two: Either we could continue fighting a kinetic war requiring us to maintain troop levels, or we could reduce troops in Iraq, and therefore use those that remained to train Iraqis, so that they could take control of their own security. General Petraeus stepped into this dichotomized conversation, and cut the Gordian knot.

Petraeus’s crucial step was to focus on the Iraqi people, a solution that grew from an immensely talented group of military leaders and academics whom Petraeus convened in early 2006 to craft a counterinsurgency doctrine. It is a pity that Robinson devotes few pages to this meeting of the minds, preferring to detail the battles that flowed from its conclusions. In an age where wars are won via publicity campaigns, public services, and election outcomes as much as on the battlefield, the rediscovery of counterinsurgency doctrine may be one of the turning points of modern military strategy.

Like all counterinsurgency strategies, Petraeus’s was premised on a simple idea: We cannot kill our way to victory. Instead of focusing on body counts–the typical metric of “enemy-centric” warfare–Americans would focus on protecting the Iraqi population. The military would provide security, then public services, to win their hearts and minds. Only with those preconditions secured could the United States press for a political solution.

While “political solution” often sounds like meaningless jargon, what it means is straightforward. Peace would only be attained when Iraqis made decisions about the balance of power in their country that all sides felt were reasonable enough not to try to change by force. And that balance of power depended, Petraeus realized, on paying attention to Iraq, in all its particularities. America would need to be attuned to issues of culture, honor, and power, from tribal councils to Baghdad ministries. Awash in jingoism and bombast, the conservatives who led the nation into the war had ignored these factors, assuming that respect for other cultures was somehow equivalent to moral relativism.

Petraeus’s strategy was deeply progressive. Not surprisingly: Sarah Sewall, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, was a driving intellectual force behind it, as were other leading progressive experts such as Janine Davidson and Montgomery McFate. They believed deeply in the need to protect the population in Iraq, just as progressives wished to do in Darfur, Rwanda, and Tibet. But as military as well as moral thinkers, they intuited that population protection was also crucial to winning modern war.

Finally, Petraeus was adamant that military strategy could only set the stage for political success, which would be achieved by other government agencies–yet another long-held progressive belief. The State Department needed the same billing as the Department of Defense, and all segments of government needed to contribute their comparative advantages. Chapter II of his counterinsurgency doctrine, “Unity of Effort,” embodied the progressive desire for a more balanced national security strategy, one that re-apportioned many of the roles the Pentagon was not designed to serve, such as civil affairs and diplomacy.

Despite its provenance, Petraeus’s strategy was rejected by MoveOn and other leading progressive voices. They wanted to end the war, and to do so, they wanted to cut troops immediately. But a progressive approach to winning the war required captains spending days sipping endless cups of tea with tribal chieftains or negotiating with Iraqi politicians, and soldiers and marines spreading across scores of neighborhoods to provide the Iraqi population with security. That meant more troops in the short term. Unwilling to grant Bush a political victory, many progressives rationalized away their belief in principles such as preventing genocide.

Nevertheless, the strategy worked. American soldiers and marines changed the lives of Iraqis. Civilian deaths in the Ameriya neighborhood of Baghdad declined from around 26 a month in May to .6 in August. In the South Baghdad neighborhood of Dora, Iraqi murders plummeted from 563 in January 2007 to 35 in December. Nor were these neighborhoods so “ethnically cleansed” that there was no one left to kill–a military census taken in August 2007 makes clear that much of Iraq remains heterogeneous.

The progressive goal of withdrawal is on the verge of being achieved–but now, we will leave behind a more stable Iraq. To be sure, not everything can be attributed to the new American strategy. Al Qaeda in Iraq overplayed their hand, creating enemies among Iraqi Sunnis sick of the wanton killings. But the ensuing Anbar Awakening would not have occurred on its own, despite what many have said. As Robinson shows, it needed American manpower, persuasion, and money. It took the massive combined efforts of our military and State Department to force Iraqi President Nouri al Maliki and his increasingly sectarian, Shia government to allow Sunni “Sons of Iraq” to enter the police academy and be trained to protect their own neighborhoods against insurgents. It took U.S. money to pay them to switch sides, and U.S. military support to help them win. It required American troops to display almost super-human discipline as they patrolled side-by-side with Iraqis who had very likely been shooting at them just weeks before.

Ultimately, Iraqis held the cards. The United States did not create Sunni tribal anger at Al Qaeda in Iraq. Nor did it have a hand in the sectarian Maliki finally becoming sickened by Shia violence–a crucial turning point. But by being attuned to Iraqi political dynamics, and having troops available to protect the population while clearing insurgents, the United States was able to capitalize on windows of opportunity.

Despite Petraeus’s military success, things aren’t safe yet. As counterinsurgency doctrine states, the military can only create the conditions of stability needed for a political settlement to create lasting peace. The Bush Administration continues to build the largest U.S. Embassy in the world in Iraq, threatening Iraqi’s shaky sense of sovereignty. And Bush continues to hold twice-monthly video conferences with Maliki, providing unconditional support for a leader he instead needs to press with carrots and sticks. The question, then, is with the surge having provided an opening toward an endgame, how do we get there?

Since the war’s beginning, conservatives have failed to appreciate the nuanced way in which American power affected the power equation in Baghdad. If Maliki continues to govern as leader of the Shia rather than all Iraqis, Iraq will never stabilize. Yet as long as Maliki has America’s unconditional support, why should he reach out to other sects and risk destabilizing his power base? Only the threat of withdrawal could pressure Maliki to move out of his comfort zone. But Bush refuses to use it.

Some changes are hopeful. The Iraqi army is helping Sunnis regain homes lost to Shia squatters in the 2006 violence. But other recent news is disturbing. Iraq’s army and its Special Operations Forces, which report directly to Maliki, are arresting the Sunni Sons of Iraq that American troops worked so hard to place in official roles within the Iraqi Army and police. While some may indeed be guilty of serious war crimes, the rhetoric against them is often sectarian, not punitive. One Iraqi army general in a Baghdad suburb told a reporter last month, “These people are like cancer, and we must remove them.” That line of thinking is deeply troubling.

If the vicious cycle of sectarian killings begins again, Saudi Arabia, the main source of Sunni extremist insurgents in Iraq, will undoubtedly allow its porous border to fuel the fight on behalf of their brethren. Iran, which had been
providing between $750,000 and $3 million dollars a month to its fighters in Iraq, will back the other side. Another proxy war would wreak devastation on the Middle East.

American influence will be decisive in ensuring that this possibility does not become reality. Using that influence will require an end to white hat/black hat thinking. It requires the pragmatism of counterinsurgency–someone who shoots at us one day might be our ally the next. America can no longer back Maliki at all costs. Instead, it needs to be seen as an honest broker among the sects in Iraq and the region. President-elect Barack Obama certainly understands this. But he will need the backing of his own political base. With the bogeyman of George W. Bush out of the way, progressives must re-embrace our own distinctive counterinsurgency strategy.

The endgame in Iraq is not the whole story. It is embedded in a larger issue: the fate of the U.S. military as a whole, and its readiness for the wars of the twenty-first century. Robinson recognizes this broader problem, though her tale’s focus unfortunately obscures it.

The strategy required to win in Iraq was diametrically opposed to reserving enough military force to meet other potential threats. By 2006, the hollowing of the U.S. military was apparent. Mid-career military officers were resigning their commissions in droves. Army recruitment levels were being maintained only by dramatically lowering recruitment standards. The surge’s operating tempo, which provided little time to spend with family and virtually no time for training or reequipping, yielded sky-high rates of divorce, suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorder. As units fell apart, service members were increasingly sent on second and third deployments with new units whose other members they barely knew. Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker estimated that “resetting” the force–getting it back to the shape (and more controversially, composition) it was in before the war–would cost at least $17 billion a year, for years on end.

Should America have chosen to leave Iraq in 2006 in order to save its military? Former generals like Barry McCaffrey said yes. Their concerns were legitimate, and they were seized upon by many civilians to argue for withdrawal. However, as Robinson writes, “The Iraq War was a folly as egregious as Vietnam. But it was a war with far higher stakes, and the consequences of defeat would reverberate throughout the Middle East.” Bad as the hollowing out of the army had become, leaving Iraq in that state would have been even worse for America’s national security. It would also have betrayed progressive values. Many progressives may not have wanted the war. But protesting genocide in Darfur, while allowing the possibility for genocide to take place in Iraq, would not have made sense. Upholding our deepest values of human rights required that we side with the Iraqi people, whose country we had broken.

When confronted with two bad choices, it is worthwhile to start expanding one’s options. If the greatest military on earth, with a budget larger than the militaries of the entire rest of the world combined, is too small to do what we want, perhaps American policymakers need to rethink their fundamental strategy. Certainly, as many in the military have argued, America may want to shift funds from Cold War equipment to troops. The drawdown in troop levels started by George H.W. Bush after the collapse of the Soviet Union went too far.

But we really need to consider a broader question: What should the military be expected to do? And who should perform other jobs that need to be done? Contractors, for instance, have become a virtual fifth service. And while many rightfully decry their role as trigger-pullers, a job that should require public oversight and allegiance to something greater than a corporation, that role is a tiny part of the contracting universe. Contractors now hold jobs ranging from potato peeling–hardly a career that should be reassigned to expensively trained troops–to intelligence analysis, which may be something Americans do want back in the public purview. In other words, many contractors make the military more efficient, while a small but very public segment reduce its accountability and garner so much disdain, in a war for hearts and minds, that they may not be worth the cost savings. These are tough questions that need to be answered quickly.

Policymakers also need to gain more military assets from countries outside the United States. That means giving credit to the United Nations for the work it does, and bolstering its abilities rather than tearing it down. The U.N. is not a rapid-reaction force, and its rules of engagement generally mean that it cannot make peace as the U.S. military can. But it could take on many roles around the world now served by U.S. troops, freeing service members for the work that only the United States can do. Similarly, the EU should be encouraged to build up its rapid reaction forces. And policymakers need to recapture the idea of NATO as a military force, whose members must be willing to take casualties.

Finally, the United States needs to explore new ways of strengthening other elements of our government to stand alongside the military, particularly a deployable civilian reserve force. Counterinsurgency strategy stresses that the Pentagon cannot win most of today’s wars alone. The negotiations that junior officers were having with tribal chieftains may have been handled even better by State Department junior diplomats. Rebuilding basic public services might not be the best job for warfighters–we might instead wish to call on mayors, engineers, school principals, public sanitation employees, and other civilians. But right now, many of these jobs are held by civil affairs units in the Reserves. Their numbers are too few, and their training too rudimentary. We need to consider a real call to service across America, asking people in all walks of life to serve, even in dangerous parts of the world. They would need to be equipped with security training, and civil affairs officers would need to serve as an interface with a military structure that can be confusing to civilians.

No one knows what will happen next. No one can answer the question posed by the title of this book. The dénouement is told in extremist graffiti found in Mansour province: “We will be here long after the Americans are gone.” The rest of the world will, indeed, be in their countries long after we have departed. To treasure human life, and to maintain a more stable world, we need modern military strategy that acknowledges this reality.

Read more about CounterinsurgencyDavid PetraeusIraq

Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

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