Military history



David Petraeus and the Surge, 2007–2008

BEFORE HE COULD conquer Iraq, Petraeus first had to conquer the U.S. Army, an institution famously resistant to intellectuals such as this Princeton Ph.D. His most effective weapons were his fitness and his toughness. Even into his fifties, he was known for engaging in push-up contests with soldiers half his age—and winning. Intensely competitive, he interviewed potential aides by taking them out for a run and gradually ramping up the pace to see if they could keep up.

In 1991, while still a lieutenant colonel, he was accidentally shot in the chest with an M-16 by one of his own soldiers during a training exercise. He barely survived after emergency surgery performed by Dr. Bill Frist, a future Senate majority leader. Yet in less than a week he was demanding a discharge from the hospital so he could get back to his battalion. To prove to the doctors that he was good to go, he took the intravenous tubes out of his arm and dropped to the hospital floor to do fifty push-ups. Nine years later, while skydiving in 2000, Brigadier General Petraeus’s parachute collapsed seventy-five feet above the ground, and he landed so hard that he fractured his pelvis. He had to have a metal plate and screws inserted. But that did not keep him from returning to a punishing pace of work and workouts. Nor was he appreciably slowed in 2009 by a bout of prostate cancer that he kept secret and treated with radiation.

Petraeus had revealed that his slight frame—only five feet nine, 150 pounds—concealed impressive reservoirs of endurance. That enabled him to dispel doubts about whether he was too reserved and cerebral to lead men in combat, something he would not have a chance to do until 2003, when he was already a two-star general.

Unlike many officers of his generation, who hailed from clans with generations of military service, Petraeus was the first in his family to wear a uniform. He was born in 1952, an immigrant’s son. His father was a Dutch merchant-marine captain who had come to the United States after the Nazis overran the Netherlands and had captained American merchant vessels in some of the toughest convoys of World War II. His mother was a part-time librarian who imbued him with a love of reading. He grew up in Cornwall-on-Hudson a few miles from West Point, and when the time came to apply to college he could not resist the challenge of gaining admittance to this exclusive institution. The fierce competitiveness that would mark his entire career was exhibited at West Point, where he was a “star man,” meaning he was in the top 5 percent academically, as well as a cadet captain and a member of the ski and soccer teams. He even entered the premed program simply because it had the most demanding curriculum on campus. Shortly after graduation in 1974 he notched another accomplishment by marrying Holly Knowlton, the brainy daughter of the academy superintendent. Later he would become the only officer ever to finish first at both the Ranger School, a punishing nine-week endurance test, and the Army Command and General Staff College, a yearlong academic course for majors.

His insatiable hunger for accomplishment—his desire to win every contest, earn every ribbon, best every rival—along with his obvious intellect, which he made no effort to hide, irritated less driven and more low-key officers but was made somewhat more palatable by his disarming sense of humor, his seemingly low-key personality, and by his concern for the well-being of his fellow soldiers. At the Ranger School, for instance, he was credited with helping to push a buddy to complete the course. Later Petraeus would develop a reputation for nurturing junior officers. He was no Courtney Massengale, the self-centered, political general at the center of Anton Myrer’s best-selling novel Once an Eagle, a military favorite since its publication in 1968. But neither was he the sort of back-slapping, tobacco-chewing good ol’ boy (see: Franks, Tommy) who often rose to the top of the U.S. Army.

A different path was charted for him by one of his early mentors, General John Galvin, himself a soldier-scholar who would command NATO and in retirement become dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Galvin pushed young Captain Petraeus, then his aide, to pursue graduate studies in a civilian institution. He chose Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs and International Affairs, where from 1983 to 1985 he was exposed to viewpoints far outside the range normally heard in the army’s ranks. That experience helped make him comfortable in the academic and media worlds that are so alien to most soldiers.

While teaching at West Point’s Social Studies Department, Petraeus wrote his doctoral dissertation on the impact of the Vietnam War on the U.S. Army. It was a subject that had fascinated him since joining the army in the aftermath of that traumatic conflict. While on a training exercise in France in 1976, he had become an admirer of Marcel “Bruno” Bigeard, the legendary French paratrooper who had fought in World War II, Indochina, and Algeria; he later treasured an autographed photograph from Bigeard and corresponded with him until Bigeard’s death in 2010. He also read books by Bernard Fall, Jean Larteguy, David Halberstam, David Galula, and other authors who wrote about the French and American experience in Indochina. Most army officers in the 1980s were eager to put Vietnam behind them and to do as little as possible to prepare for counterinsurgency because this was seen as such a thankless form of warfare. Not Petraeus. In his Ph.D. thesis he argued “that American involvement in low-intensity conflict is unavoidable” and that “the military should be prepared for it.”

Petraeus’s own experience with such conflicts prior to Iraq had been distinctly limited. In 1986 he spent a summer working for General Galvin, by then head of U.S. Southern Command, during which he visited El Salvador and other Latin American countries to learn about their counterinsurgency operations. In 1995 he spent three months working for the United Nations on nation building in Haiti. Then, in 2001–02, he spent ten months in Bosnia on peacekeeping duty. These were the sum of Petraeus’s experiences not only with low-intensity conflict but with combat of any sort: he had missed out on the 1991 Gulf War, which for many of his peers had been a baptism of fire. While that conflict was raging, Petraeus, much to his frustration, had been in Washington as an aide to the army chief of staff, General Carl Vuono. Many of his peers looked down upon such assignments, far removed from the troops, and scoffed that Petraeus, like Colin Powell, was a “political general,” not a muddy-boots soldier. There was some truth to this gibe, at least prior to 2003, but such assignments gave Petraeus valuable exposure to the policy-making process and civil-military interactions at the highest level. He would draw on those experiences, which most of his peers did not have, when he entered Iraq at the head of the 101st Airborne Division in the spring of 2003. Like those other military intellectuals, Hubert Lyautey and T. E. Lawrence, he would show that he could not only think originally but act effectively in the cauldron of combat.73

FEW AMERICAN COMMANDERS were well prepared for the chaotic post-invasion phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Too many officers neglected nation-building and instead, like the Israelis in Lebanon or, two centuries earlier, the French in Spain, chased after elusive insurgents in heavy-handed combat operations that killed or incarcerated too many Iraqis and thus wound up alienating the population. They were abetted in this wrongheaded approach by senior civilians such as the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who had capably run the Department of Defense in 1975–77 at the height of the Cold War but appeared out of his depth facing a very different sort of conflict. In 2003 he went so far as to deny that there was any “guerrilla war” in Iraq. Rumsfeld spoke contemptuously of the rebels as “pockets of dead enders” and seemed to think that the greatest threat Iraq faced was “creating a reliance or dependency” on American aid.74

Petraeus, by contrast, was acutely aware that a powerful insurgency was growing and that it could not be stopped by firepower alone. In his headquarters in Mosul, he displayed a sign that showed his appreciation of the basic tenets of population-centric counterinsurgency as elucidated by David Galula and Robert Thompson: “We are in a race to win over the people. What have you and your element done to contribute to that goal today?”75 Without waiting for guidance from Baghdad—where Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the senior military officer, and Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, the senior civilian, were hopelessly out of their depth—Petraeus began nation building across northern Iraq. He did not neglect offensive action; the 101st scored a notable coup by locating and killing Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, on July 22, 2003. But he emphasized nonkinetic “lines of operation.” He set up a representative government in northern Iraq, restarted telephone service, paved roads, created a police force, and even struck deals with Turkey and Syria to swap Iraqi oil for badly needed electricity.

Petraeus joked to a reporter that his role was a “combination of being the president and the Pope,” and some Iraqis nicknamed him “King David.”76 His high-profile role grated on more conventional officers, who groused that this major general was getting outside his “lane,” but Petraeus understood what they did not—that it was vital to establish a functioning government quickly, and that required someone to take ownership of Iraq’s myriad problems. He also understood another truth of modern war—that it was vital to engage in the “battle of the narrative.” As a result he was more open to the press than most of his peers were, yet he avoided the kind of indiscretions that later would prematurely end General Stanley McChrystal’s command in Afghanistan. Petraeus managed to convey candor in interviews while always staying “on message.” His expert manipulation of the news media did much to enhance not only his own career but also the missions he was charged with carrying out.

IN MID-APRIL 2004, less than two months after returning home with the 101st, Petraeus came back to Iraq to assess the state of the Iraqi security forces. He found their performance to be poor. In June, by now a lieutenant general, he took charge of a new organization, Multi-National Security Transition Command–Iraq, charged with equipping and training the Iraqi forces—an effort he later described as “building the world’s largest aircraft, while in flight, while it’s being designed, and while it’s being shot at.”77 He increased the number of soldiers and police from 95,000 to 192,000,78 but his efforts could not keep up with the pace of the deteriorating security situation. Desertion, corruption, and militia infiltration were rampant. As violence levels continued to rise, the Iraqis proved unable to take over security responsibilities from coalition forces. There were many times when Petraeus, in the opinion of two reporters who followed him closely, “looked tired and dispirited” even as he tried hard to project an air of confidence and determination.79

In September 2005 he left Iraq to take command of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, charged with overseeing the army’s doctrine, training centers, and staff college. He later admitted, “Some suggested I was being sent out to pasture.” But he turned this backwater into an unlikely forum to remake the entire war effort.

The army’s doctrine for counterinsurgency, or, as it was known in the acronym-mad military, COIN, had not been revised for decades. Petraeus set out to create a new manual that drew not only on historical experience, especially in Algeria and Malaya, but also on the more recent experience of soldiers, including himself, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Petraeus chose an unconventional path for writing this manual of unconventional warfare—he enlisted not only brainy officers but also academics, journalists, aid workers, and others seldom if ever consulted by the military in the past. Petraeus explained that he sought their input because at Princeton he had benefited from his “out-of-my-intellectual-comfort-zone experience.” It would not have escaped the attention of this media-savvy general that involving influential civilians would help promote the product of the “COINdinistas” led by his old West Point classmate Conrad Crane. The resulting U.S. Army–Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual was published in December 2006 and was immediately downloaded 1.5 million times. It was even reviewed in the New York Times, an honor accorded to no previous military manual.80

The manual essentially encapsulated the best practices of population-centric counterinsurgency, drawing on classics written by the likes of Charles Callwell, T. E. Lawrence, Robert Thompson, and, above all, David Galula. It began with the basics: “The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance . . . by the balanced application of both military and nonmilitary means.” The manual stressed the importance of “unity of effort” between civil and military actors, the primacy of “political factors,” the need to “understand the environment,” and to provide “security for the civilian populace.” One of its most important pieces of advice was to “use the appropriate level of force”: “An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of fifty more insurgents.”

In a similar vein the manual counseled that “some of the best weapons for counterinsurgents do not shoot,” stressing the importance of information operations, political action, and economic development. The manual also warned, “Sometimes the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.” This was a direct criticism of the tendency of American units in Iraq to hunker down behind huge blast walls, cutting themselves off from contact with the population and making themselves easy prey for IED’s every time they ventured outside. There was also an implicit criticism of the misconduct committed at Abu Ghraib prison. Soldiers were warned to “treat non-combatants and detainees humanely.”81

Field Manual 3-24, as it was known in military circles, would become the most influential official publication on guerrilla warfare, at least in the English-speaking world, since C. E. Callwell’s Small Wars (1896) and the Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual (1935). It was not, however, uncontroversial within the military. It would face pervasive criticism from active and retired soldiers that its authors had inappropriately attempted to apply a template of mid-twentieth-century wars against leftist-nationalist guerrillas onto twenty-first-century wars of religion and race that were not as susceptible to appeals for “hearts and minds.” Critics did not, however, offer a compelling alternative of how the forces of a Western liberal democracy should conduct themselves in this type of warfare. Many of them seemed to be under the mistaken impression that scorched-earth tactics would be more effective—a myth that a study of counterinsurgencies from ancient Akkad in Mesopotamia to Nazi Germany in the Balkans and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan should have dispelled.

WHEN HE WROTE the manual, Petraeus did not know for certain that he would get a chance to implement its precepts in Iraq; there had been hints of such a future assignment but nothing assured.82 That rumored opportunity arrived faster than expected when General Casey was kicked upstairs to become army chief of staff. A newly promoted four-star, Petraeus arrived in Baghdad in February 2007 to find the situation worse than he had realized. Entire sections of the city had been transformed into a ghost town. Five extra U.S. brigades were coming as part of President Bush’s “surge,” but most experts, including Casey, doubted that those reinforcements would be sufficient to reverse the downward spiral. There would still be only 170,000 coalition soldiers in a country of 25 million. There were also more than 325,000 Iraqi security personnel, but their loyalty and competence remained suspect.

Petraeus was later to note, “Had we employed the forces as was the case previously, the results would have been the same.”83 But, acting in close concert with Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, a hulking, bald-headed artilleryman who was in charge of day-to-day operations, he implemented a new strategy straight out of the new field manual—and out of the annals of successful counterinsurgencies, from the Boer War to the Huk Rebellion. Rather than isolating troops on giant Forward Operating Bases, Petraeus and Odierno pushed them into smaller Joint Security Stations and Combat Outposts located in population centers. Soldiers would no longer “commute to work.” Now they would live where they patrolled so that they could familiarize themselves with the neighborhood and gain the confidence of its residents. Foot patrols of the kind described in this book’s Prologue were encouraged as an alternative to driving around in heavily armored vehicles. To help protect their “areas of operation,” troops were told to erect giant concrete barriers that would impede car bombs and control access. Their mission was no longer transitioning to Iraqi control; they were there to win the war. Petraeus outlined his “big ideas” in the “Counterinsurgency Guidance” he issued to the command: “Secure and serve the population”; “Live among the people”; “Hold areas that have been secured”; “Pursue the enemy relentlessly.”84

It is one thing to propagate a campaign plan; it is altogether more difficult to implement it across an organization of 170,000 people. Indeed there had been some isolated counterinsurgency successes in Iraq before. For example, Colonel H. R. McMaster’s Third Armored Cavalry Regiment had in 2005–06 significantly decreased the level of violence in Tal Afar, a city in northern Iraq, utilizing tactics that anticipated Field Manual 3-24. Yet at the same time other commanders had pursued a very different and much more conventional approach. For all of General Casey’s lip service to the concept of counterinsurgency, it had not been implemented across the country.

Petraeus was aware of the shortfall and addressed it much as the equally energetic and willful Templer had done in Malaya—albeit with some modern technological flourishes. Petraeus drove his ideas home in his morning PowerPoint conference with staff and subordinates known as the Battle Update and Assessment, in the nonstop emails he dispatched from two laptops that an aide always carried with him, and in twice-a-week “battlefield circulations” where he went to patrol with, and talk to, the troops. He made a point of sharing his email address widely and chatting with the lowliest soldiers under his command. He was a firm believer in flattening traditional hierarchies and giving his subordinates freedom to improvise. He was also an impressively hard worker, like most of the other officers in Iraq, routinely putting in seventeen-hour days, seven days a week.

More conventionally minded soldiers harrumphed that Petraeus was turning soldiers into social workers, but that criticism was far off the mark. The number of insurgents killed or locked up soared in 2007 (U.S. forces wound up detaining 27,000 Iraqis)85 but without generating the popular backlash that had accompanied offensive action earlier in the war. The difference was that now troops living in Iraqi neighborhoods were able to gain tips from the populace that allowed them to pinpoint insurgents and avoid the sort of counterproductive roundups of young males that had occurred in years past.

Senior commanders had hesitated to send troops to bed down in population centers before because they feared that this would lead to a spike in casualties that would erode public support for the war back home. This fear was not entirely misplaced. Indeed the summer of 2007 saw some of the most violent months of the entire conflict, with more than 100 U.S. soldiers dying each month in April, May, and June. But then, like a fever breaking, losses began to fall, ebbing to a low of 25 killed in December. A year later, in December 2008, only 16 American soldiers died.86 In all 4,484 American soldiers would die in Iraq by the end of 2011, but only 577 of those fatalities occurred after 2007. Just as significant was the rapid decline in civilian losses: from 23,333 slain in 2007 to 6,362 in 2008, 2,681 in 2009, 2,500 in 2010 and 1,600 in 2011. As of the end of 2011, the entire conflict would claim the lives of at least 70,000 Iraqi civilians and 15,000 Iraqi security personnel—and perhaps many more.87

Most of Petraeus’s focus in 2007 was on breaking AQI’s hold on Anbar Province and the Baghdad “belts.” He calculated that once the threat from AQI had been reduced, Shiites would no longer seek protection from Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdist Army. That gamble paid off in 2008 when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent Iraqi troops with substantial American backing to clear the Mahdists out of their strongholds in Basra and Sadr City. Iraq remained divided by deep sectarian and political divisions that threatened its future, but it had stepped back from the abyss. And the security situation continued to improve in 2009, 2010, and 2011 even as U.S. troops numbers fell, although there was no guarantee that the situation would remain stable after the last U.S. military personnel left at the end of December 2011.

Some skeptics claimed it was not the “surge” that had brought about a 90 percent reduction in violence but the decision by more than 100,000 Sunnis to switch sides after being paid to join the Sons of Iraq program. No question, their defection was vital to the outcome, but monetary inducements alone were not sufficient to explain their change of allegiance—any more than the gold that T. E. Lawrence disbursed could be used to explain his success in mobilizing Bedouin tribesmen for the Arab Revolt. Tribesmen, like most people, are interested above all in safeguarding their own interests. They would not accept payoffs unless they were confident that they would be alive to spend their newfound wealth. Only when the Anbar sheikhs were convinced, as one of them told the author Bing West, that the marines were “the strongest tribe” and would be staying in Iraq for the long haul (or so they thought) were they willing to join the American side. If U.S. forces had been drawing down, rather than ramping up, in 2007, it is doubtful that the Sunni Awakening would have occurred.

The emergence of the Sunni Awakening was not a repudiation but a confirmation of Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrine: it showed how improvements in the security situation could snowball by inducing waverers and even enemies to come over to the government’s side once they were convinced that this was the winning side. Yet, no matter how successful the surge was tactically, it could not by itself guarantee long-lasting stability. Successful security operations only create the potential for inclusive and effective governance that addresses minority grievances and binds the country together. That opportunity had been seized in countries such as South Africa in the 1900s, Malaya and the Philippines in the 1950s, El Salvador in the 1980s, Northern Ireland in the 1990s, and Colombia in the 2000s. It was far from clear, however, that Prime Minister Maliki, a militant Shiite leader, would have the perspicacity of a Magsaysay or a Uribe. Indeed his sectarian and divisive agenda, no longer checked by a U.S. military presence after 2011, threatened to undo the gains that American troops and their Iraqi allies had fought so hard to achieve—and to alter the historical assessment of the surge’s ultimate success or failure.88

THE FACT THAT population-centric counterinsurgency had worked in Iraq, at least temporarily and tactically, was, on one level, not terribly surprising, given its success in other lands and other years. But several aspects of the Iraq experience were unusual. In the first place, few if any countries, with the possible exception of Colombia, had ever recovered after being so close to collapse. In Malaya, Templer had prevailed after early setbacks, but the level of violence there was much lower than in Iraq, and Malaya was a much smaller country. Moreover Templer did not have to worry about much foreign interference, whereas Syria and Iran provided substantial support to the Sunni and Shiite insurgents, respectively. Finally in Malaya, as in most guerrilla conflicts, the insurgents had been isolated in the hinterlands far from the capital, whereas in Iraq the major cities—Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, Baqubah, Baghdad—were the battlegrounds. This was a double-edged sword: the sheer number of attacks in Baghdad and other urban areas magnified the crisis but also made it possible to improve the situation quickly by flooding the cities with American troops.

Equally ambivalent in its impact was the decentralized nature of the Iraqi insurgency: while AQI and the Jaish al Mahdi became the dominant groups among the Sunnis and Shiite, respectively, there were many other “resistance” organizations as well—by one count, fifty-six in all.89 Unlike Communist uprisings, this one had no central insurgent bureaucracy and no widely recognized leader like Ho Chi Minh or Fidel Castro. The lack of unity made it harder for the insurgents to prevail but also made it harder to stamp them out—“decapitating” strikes, such as the elimination of Zarqawi, could not defeat a diffuse uprising.

While urban insurgencies have traditionally failed, few insurgencies since the end of World War II had been defeated primarily by a foreign power. In most successful counterinsurgencies of recent decades, an indigenous government received substantial aid from abroad, even those where the bulk of the fighting was done by its own troops. This was not the case in Iraq, where American troops took the lead in 2007 despite the growing public opposition to the war in the United States. They were successful partly because they were not supporting a dictatorial regime, as the Russians had done in Afghanistan, but an elected government that, for all its faults, was broadly representative of the population. Like the British in Malaya, and unlike the French in Algeria and Indochina, the Americans made clear that they were not bent on an indefinite occupation by signing an agreement in 2008 calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011. It helped also that U.S. troops were seen as neutral arbiters in Iraq’s sectarian landscape. They were trusted by most Iraqis more than their own security forces.

As a result of his success in Iraq, Petraeus was given the thankless task of undertaking another difficult counterinsurgency effort, this one in Afghanistan—a country that had suffered years of neglect while the Bush administration concentrated America’s resources on Iraq. His task was made all the more difficult by rampant corruption in Afghanistan’s own government, by the presence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, and by growing war weariness back home. Petraeus arrived at President Barack Obama’s request in July 2010 and left a year later to become CIA director, having claimed some progress but no dramatic turnaround as in Iraq. The conflict against the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and other insurgents had started before the war in Iraq, and it would last longer. The war in Afghanistan showed that the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, however sound in its distillation of the lessons of history, offered no magic formula for instantly defeating determined guerrillas. Even under the best of circumstances any struggle against an entrenched insurgency would be difficult and protracted. And Afghanistan was hardly the best place to implement the precepts of counterinsurgency, as invaders from Alexander the Great to the British and Russians had previously discovered.

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