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The Pentagon's Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Rise and Fall of the 'Coindinistas


In the intervening years between the two world wars a powerful struggle emerged in the United States Army over the role of the tank. The tank’s proponents (including future generals George S. Patton, Dwight Eisenhower and Adna Chaffee) published articles and essays arguing that the tank’s speed and firepower could be decisive in a future war. They pushed for an armored force separate from the infantry, and they challenged the accepted doctrine of land warfare. Predictably powerful forces in the infantry and cavalry combined to squelch these voices. Eisenhower himself was summoned to Washington, D.C. for a meeting with the Chief of Infantry where he was warned that his views were wrong and dangerous. He was threatened with a court-martial should he publish anything incompatible with accepted infantry doctrine.

For years the tank corps advocates would meet secretly and share their frustrations, thoughts on mechanized tactics and discuss publications like German Heinz Guderian’s Achtung Panzer! which advanced a theory of blitzkrieg warfare using tanks. In 1940 the U.S. Army held war games in Louisiana between a cavalry division and a tank force. When the horse cavalry was trounced the cabal of tank advocates met secretly in the basement of a nearby high school and compiled a list of recommendations which would eventually be forwarded to the desk of the chief of staff of the Army, George C. Marshall. Despite a howl of protests from the infantry and cavalry, Marshall acted swiftly to create a new armored force.

Gen. Petraeus in Tal Afar, meeting with Iraqi local officials. December 2003. (photo credit: Michael Keane)

In his new book, THE INSURGENTS: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, author Fred Kaplan chronicles a similar struggle to transform U.S. Army doctrine. After the invasion of Iraq ignited a widespread revolt, a conflict would erupt within the U.S. Army over the adoption of a new Army doctrine to deal with the emerging threat. The traditionalists would resist the need for change arguing that the enemy simply needed to be engaged and killed or captured. They were opposed by a growing informal network of scholar-soldiers, many of whom were combat veterans bloodied by their battles with a stubborn insurgency, and all of whom had concluded that following the rigid contours of existing army doctrine was a certain path to defeat.

These soldiers led an insurgency of their own against the Pentagon bureaucracy. They championed the adoption of a counterinsurgency doctrine, frequently referred to by the acronym “COIN,” and hence became known as “COINdinistas.” Kaplan draws vivid portraits of the colorful characters that comprised this intellectual and bureaucratic rebellion where the battlefields would be the hallways of the Pentagon, the classrooms at the U.S. Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth or the plush upholstered offices of the White House. Three of the more significant characters Kaplan outlines include John Nagl, H.R. McMaster and David Kilcullen.

John Nagl, a brainy West Point graduate who had studied guerrilla warfare at Oxford (and now the president of a Washington DC think tank) was a key player in this drama. Nagl had published a book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, comparing the U.S. military’s painful experience in Vietnam (unfavorably) with the British success in turning back a rebellion in the Malay peninsula. (The book’s title was inspired from a sentence found in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence’s classic tale of guerrillas battling the Ottoman empire in the Arabian peninsula – “Making war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.”)  Nagl’s blunt conclusion: the U.S. failed in Vietnam because America’s military was not a “learning institution.” He was determined to do everything he could to change that.

H.R. McMaster, a brash and outspoken Army officer, had boldly published a book early in his career titled Dereliction of Duty which bluntly criticized the Joint Chiefs of Staff for failing to oppose President Johnson’s conduct of the Vietnam War. When McMaster’s promotion to brigadier general was threatened by the old guard, the COIN network came together to rejigger the protocol for the promotion board ensuring that McMaster and other COIN supporters were elevated. (“If McMaster weren’t such a smart-ass, he would have been promoted a long time ago,” groused Army Chief of Staff General George Casey.)

David Kilcullen, another key member of the COIN group, was a roguishly charming Australian Army officer with a Ph.D. in political anthropology who, like McMaster, was not inclined to filter his remarks. Kilcullen served as an advisor to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. She would be less than pleased when Kilcullen would make headlines by telling a reporter that “The biggest f-ing stupid idea was to invade Iraq in the first place.”

Of course the key protagonist in the battle between the COIN advocates and the Army traditionalists was General David Petraeus, a man who throughout his military career had worn his ambition like a strong aftershave. Even before pushing his counterinsurgency doctrine forward Petraeus had offended many of his fellow officers who, Kaplan writes, perceived him as “a schemer, a self-promoter, and, worst of all, an intellectual.”

The men (and some women) who Kaplan writes about, many of them combat veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, networked together to push forward a new strategy of warfare that challenged the conventional or “kinetic” approach to rebellions – simply killing the bad guys. COIN theorists reasoned that the kinetic approach would, in fact, only create more insurgents – you can’t simply kill your way out of an insurgency.

The Pentagon had historically derided insurgencies as “low intensity conflicts” and  labeled them with the acronym MOOTW (Military Operations Other than War), pronounced “Moot-wah” – “Real men don’t do moot-wah,” the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Shalikashvili is quoted as dismissively saying. However, the COIN advocates seemed drawn to these conflicts, fascinated by the complexity of the issues they presented – economic, military, political – like a stack of Russian nesting dolls. Indeed in many ways these men seemed to identify more with the rebels that they studied from conflicts long ago, as well as the ones they faced on the battlefield. As Kilcullen himself explained to a reporter: “The thing that drives these guys – a sense of adventure, wanting to be part of the movement, wanting to be in the big movement of history that’s happening now – that’s the same thing that drives me.”

What Petraeus, supported by his COIN disciples, achieved -- drafting a new doctrine on counterinsurgency, securing its approval by the Pentagon, and then successfully executing it in Iraq -- was arguably as audacious and dramatic as any achievement in American military history. It was like Babe Ruth’s called home run in the 1932 World Series. Petraeus had pointed to the center field bleachers and then knocked the ball out of the park.

Ironically all of the traits that Petraeus’s colleagues had found so annoying – the political maneuvering (in both Congress and the Pentagon), the incessant courtship of the media, the ability to brief using Powerpoint slides like a Shopping Channel pitchman, the seduction of academics and think tanks – were all brought to bear to salvage support for the failing war in Iraq. Petraeus had to publicly advocate for an untested strategy, and solicit thousands of new troops from a dubious Congress, before even being able to engage his enemy. For Petraeus, the warrior-scholar, “the playing fields of Eton” for the turnaround in Iraq were the seminar rooms of Harvard and Princeton, the think tanks of Washington D.C., and the salons of New York City.

With the war in Afghanistan, however, the COINdinistas may have fallen prey to the same stubbornness of their erstwhile conventional warfare advocates and clung to a strategy past its usefulness. Could the graveyard of empires also serve as the graveyard of counterinsurgency theory? At a minimum, failure in Afghanistan may empower the critics of COIN as a fad or, worse, remove it from the full spectrum of warfare that the American military is prepared to engage in. Kaplan recites a point made by David Galula in his classic book, Counterinsurgency Warfare (a favorite reference manual for the COIN proselytizers) that the prerequisites for a successful insurgency include “a weak government, a neighboring country that offers safe havens, and a predominantly rural, illiterate population – precisely the traits marking Karzai’s Afghanistan.” Petraeus’s own epic fall from grace means that the advocates of counterinsurgency doctrine have lost their most powerful and prominent patron, a man who would have been dedicated to protect the intellectual lessons that they had all fought so hard to hammer into a reluctant Army.

Michael Keane with then Major General Petraeus in Tal Afar, Iraq. December 2003. (photo: Michael Keane)

British military historian B.H. Liddell Hart once archly commented, “The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is getting an old one out.” The real victory of the COINdinistas may not be the elevation of their counterinsurgency manual to a secure position alongside other accepted military doctrines. Their true legacy will be that they nudged, shoved and outmaneuvered their Pentagon brethren into transforming the U.S. Army into a more flexible and adaptive place -- a learning institution.  Regardless of what type of enemy America faces in the future – a conventional army, a terrorist threat, a cyberattack – the ability to quickly adjust to a new idea will probably be the decisive factor between defeat and victory.

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