21 of 28 people found the following review helpful
The Fight Within the Army over How to Fight Insurgencies
, January 13, 2013
This review is from: The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (Hardcover)
The title of Fred Kaplan's excellent new book, "The Insurgents," has a double meaning. It refers both to guerrilla warriors, be they revolutionaries, partisans or terrorists, and to a group of U.S. Army officers who preach the doctrine of "counterinsurgency" [or "COIN"] warfare, often against the grain of the existing military establishment. I recommend this book highly to those interested in military history and U.S. military policy. Kaplan explains the dispute between those who believe the U.S. must have the capacity to deal with "low level conflicts" such as Somalia and Afghanistan or whether the U.S. should avoid those conflicts to concentrate on traditional war fighting. Kaplan is a skilled writer who provides vivid portraits of the principal U.S. Army officers in this dispute, including the most prominent proponent of counterinsurgency theory, Gen. David Patreaus. The book is well written and a page-turner. It's "dry" only if you think that how the U.S. fights its present and future wars is a dull subject.
Kaplan illuminates a doctrinal struggle in the U.S. Army since the Vietnam war. In some ways, it's a fight for the Army's soul. Should the U.S. Army fight only in traditional"big" wars, conflicts between nation states? Should it avoid the messy, involved and seemingly endless ethnic and religious conflicts where it is necessary for the soldier to do more than fight, but in addition be a diplomat, politician and "nation builder?"
Traditionally, the Army has sought to avoid "irregular" warfare and what is called "low intensity conflict." Part of this is a legacy of the Vietnam War, where the American soldier was placed in an ambiguous, limited conflict that he could not win. The Army was severely wounded by its loss in Vietnam. The Army brass disdained the notion of counterinsurgency. The United States should only employ force on a massive basis, where its superiority in firepower and technology could guarantee victory. The Desert Storm campaign in Kuwait in 1991 restored the Army's self-confidence and seemed to vindicate this thinking.
But a core group of intellectual Army officers, tutored in large measure by the West Point's Social Studies program, realized that the "firepower" approach had great limitations for the kind of warfare the U.S. should prepare for after the fall of the Soviet Union. No longer should the U.S. focus primarily on a hypothetical great power showdown on the plains of Europe, where tanks, missiles and artillery would fight a large-scale battle. Instead, the U.S. would need to project its power in the shadowy world of terrorism, insurrection and civil war. These strategists argued that the U.S. should revive its "counterinsurgency" capabilities. The objective in counterinsurgency is to protect the local population by separating it from the insurgents. Working with the local government, the Army should see that the population's needs are met, through the development of basic services like water, power and sewage. By winning the loyalty of the populace, the insurgents would lose their support and be defeated indirectly, rather than on the battlefield. One of the requirements for COIN success is that the U.S. is seen not as an an "occupier" but as a "partner" of a credible local government.
Kaplan traces the development and promotion of counterinsurgency through the careers of a group of Army officers, most notably Gen. David Patreaus. These officers risked their careers in promoting an unpopular doctrine. Andrew Krepinevich examined the Army's failures in Vietnam in a book called The Army and Vietnam and paid for it when his career was sidetracked. Patreaus wrote his doctoral thesis on Vietnam as well, but refused to publish it for fear of retaliation. As time went on, however, the generation of officers who had seen the Army's Vietnam mistakes first-hand as lieutenants and captains became generals. They appreciated re-examining Vietnam and the lessons it provided. General H.R. McMaster wrote a study of the failure of the Joint Chiefs to stand up to Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam, called Dereliction of Duty. By the time it was published, Gen. Hugh Shelton, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, not only read the book but ordered all his service chiefs and commanders to read it.
The reason the Army "insurgents" developed theories of counterinsurgency warfare is simply because they saw this was what the Army needed to fight conflicts today and in the future. We are not going to fight large tank battles on the plains of eastern Europe. Instead, we have sent troops to Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. By and large, our Army has been ill-prepared to fight these kinds of "irregular" wars. Rather than hope that these kind of engagements won't persist in the future, they argue, we should be realists. This type of low-intensity conflict is what we will be called upon to fight. We should understand it and prepare for it.
Still, the doctrine of counterinsurgency was unpopular with the more traditional Army brass, who looked askance at "low intensity conflict." They viewed soldiers as fighters. There job was to kill, not babysit the locals. Awards and promotions go to traditional fields such as gunnery and tanks. Officers who served in "low intensity" combat did not receive combat credit because they were not "real" wars.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wanted to rebuild the Army into a fast-acting "lean" organization that could project power globally, but he was no fan of counterinsurgency. In planning for the Iraq invasion, he forced General Tommy Franks to reduce his number of troops. Rumsfeld was right in seeing that we could quickly conquer Iraq. But he was totally wrong about the aftermath. He made overly optimistic assumptions about the ability of Iraqis to create a stable situation after Saddam was overthrown. He failed to develop an after-action plan to stabilize Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. He ignored the insurgency as it was developing and even criticized generals who even used the word "counterinsurgency." According to Kaplan, he got bored with Iraq and left the management of the war to underlings. The result of this willing blindness to reality and incompetence set the stage for the Sunni uprising against the Shiites now in power. Gen. Frank lacked the troops to manage the situation. The situation was made worse by Proconsul Paul Bremer's decision to disband the Iraqi Army and banning Baath party members from participation in government. This created a ready reserve of armed and angry insurgents.
The highlight of the book is Gen. Patreaus's success in the Iraq war in helping quell the insurgency through the use of counterinsurgency tactics. He saw that killing insurgents with remote weapons such as Predator drones typically created more insurgents than it killed because of the resentment and hatred it bred among Iraqis. The primary tactic was to "clear, hold and build." This required more troops in "the surge," which proved a success. But it also required threats to defund President Maliki's government unless it cleaned up its act and started protecting all the people, not just his fellow Shiites. (Maliki sanctioned or at least tolerated Shiite death squads who killed Sunnis.)
Patraeus was appointed commander in Afghanistan to replicate his Iraqi success. But he was not to have it.
Afghanistan illustrates the limits of counterinsurgency and perhaps an inherent internal contradiction in its theory. Patreaus attempted to win the support of the local population by making them allies, but realized that this could only be accomplished in partnership with a credible local partner, the Afghan government. Unfortunately for Afghanistan and the U.S., Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not that partner. Corrupt and erratic, Karzai replaced respected local governors with his corrupt buddies, syphoned off U.S. aid through his brother and generally undercut the ability of NATO forces to deal either with the local populace or fight the Taliban. As Kaplan points out, Karzai didn't want strong local governors, as they might pose a danger to his central government.
President Obama gave the Army a deadline for producing stability in Afghanistan. He bet American lives and resources that Afghanistan could be stabilized sufficiently for the U.S. to withdraw to a much more limited role. The Army was betting that if it showed progress, Obama would give them more time to finish the job. As Kaplan notes, both sides lost their bets. The Army made only limited progress and the Afghan Army appears unready to take over. Obama enforced the deadline and ordered the troops withdrawn.
Kaplan says Afghanistan highlights the great dilemma of counterinsurgency strategy. If counterinsurgency requires a strong and credible local partner, why is there an insurgency in the first place? In other words, isn't the fact of an insurgency sufficient proof that the government does not represent the best interests of its people? Maybe there is a gray area, like Iraq, where the government is bad but can be coerced to reform sufficiently for the U.S. forces to succeed in their mission and then withdraw. Maybe Afghanistan is just beyond the pale. After all, Afghanistan defeated Alexander the Great, the British, the Russians, and now, it looks like, the U.S.
The book ends with an epilogue on Gen. Patreus' resignation as CIA head. Kaplan says Patreus wanted to become Army Chief of Staff but was not promoted because President Obama saw him as a future Republican Presidential candidate. He was made CIA head as a consolation prize. Patreaus had hoped to remain on as CIA chief even after the disclosure of his affair with author Paula Broadwell. Kaplan says that in the end, the long war in Afghanistan "revealed COIN as a tool, not a cure-all - and David Petraeus as a man, not an icon."
I can't help reflecting that the Army and the American public lost a great leader when President Obama accepted Patraeus' resignation because of an affair that violated no regulation (he was no longer in the Army) and involved no intelligence disclosure. No one was "hurt" by Patraeus' love affair except the individuals involved and their families. Why should this disqualify Patraeus from future service to the United States?
The list of American generals who had affairs is extensive and includes Eisenhower, MacArthur and Patton. In a meeting between Russian and American generals shortly after World War II, a Russian general is supposed to have said:
"You Americans are hypocrites. We travel with our pretty Communist girlfriends. You travel with your pretty Capitalistic `secretaries.'"
Are we, as a nation, so dumbstruck by political correctness that we fail to understand that men and women in combat might need the attention and comfort of the opposite sex? We should understand that there is a cost to such prudery. We lose leaders of the caliber of Gen. Patraeus. And by applying the same unrealistic standards to candidates for the President, we could lose future leaders of the caliber of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and William Jefferson Clinton. Isn't the larger lesson of the Patreaus affair that we can't afford to hold such unrealistic expectations for our leaders?
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews
Was this review helpful to you?