Monday, 5 August 2013

Petraeus, Counterinsurgency and the new US military in The Insurgents

From The Week of July 29th, 2013

There is no activity with which humanity has more familiarity than war. From the earliest tribes to present-day superpowers, it has been practiced so ubiquitously that it has defined the destinies of virtually every culture we've ever created. And yet, for all this expertise, we are, by and large, miserable, shortsighted wielders of the discipline, profoundly trapped by our biases of the enemy, an overinflated sense of our own martial past, and a rigid adherence to structure and tradition that eschews the bold in favor of the safe. Perhaps, in times past, when men like Alexander the Great could rise out of relative obscurity to conquer half the world, these afflictions were surmountable by the all-but-divine will of a single man, but in this age of massive armies and technological warfare, there is little room remaining for individual geniuses to operate and affect both their futures and those of the nations to which they've sworn fealty. Still, some will try. And Fred Kaplan has, here, chronicled at length the most famous of these revolutionaries.

The son of a librarian and a sea captain, David Petraeus has lived a remarkable life. From 1974 until his retirement from military service in 2011, he served the US Army with distinction, holding numerous commands both domestically, in the training of special forces, and overseas, in hot wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But though, by all reports, he was a relentlessly driven soldier with a legendary work ethic and capacity to endure punishment, he is best known for his defining role in championing the doctrine of Counterinsurgency, or COIN, which is credited with having helped to empower the Sunni Awakening of 2007 in Iraq which changed the fortunes of that doomed war dramatically, permitting the United States military to deal a devastating blow to Al-Qaeda and their allies. Though his application of COIN in Afghanistan would be less successful, it would do little to tarnish the reputation of this new, intellectually driven form of warfare.

Technology has forever changed our world and this is no more true than for the practice of war. Terrorism has empowered non-state actors, giving them the ability to stand up to much larger nations, at least for a time. Successfully eliminating these insurgent groups would require very different tactics than those nations have traditionally used. The holder of three degrees, David Petraeus believed so deeply in this consequential shift that he devoted his career to compelling the US Army to evolve, to be smaller, trimmer and smarter. After years in the wilderness, after having his reforms blocked by generals and defense secretaries uninterested in coloring outside the lines, he and several key allies both military and civilian, successfully agitated for a new approach to 21st-century warfare, one that relied upon cultivating the trust of leaders in the warzones in question and using those contacts to uproot the enemies hiding in their midst. And though ambition, along with a scandalous affair, would eventually doom his career, his disgrace would come long after he'd left his scholarly mark upon one of the world's most rigid institutions.

The Insurgents is a thorough, well-paced, and engrossing examination of the Counterinsurgency Doctrine and the men and women who fought for it in the face of stiff resistance from well-entrenched traditionalists eager to ignore the evolution of modern warfare. Mr. Kaplan, an author and journalist, uses David Petraeus' career as a focus, a touchstone from which he can cast a wide net that captures not only COIN and its impact on the United States' most recent wars, but the shambolic manner in which the US military is run. Given how infrequently the US military has been defeated, this would appear to be an absurd claim. And yet, this organization suffers from the kind of institutional rot present in all bloated organizations, a decay that results from the self-interested motivations of powerful individuals within the organization who, because they cannot be sure of their place in a changing environment, resist such change with all their might. One need only look at the manner in which the Iraq War was justified and then prosecuted to understand the shattering, real-world consequences of such stubbornness.

As much as the US military comes off poorly here, let it not be said that Mr. Kaplan is in the bag for David Petraeus and his famous doctrine. Quite the contrary. The author is clearly sceptical of the degree to which COIN influenced the outcome of the Iraq War. And he's wise to be. For it seems almost impossible to separate COIN's impact from the abject misery of local Iraqis who, having finally had enough of being victimized by thuggish Al-Qaeda, rebelled against them and, with the eager aid of the United States, crushed their operations. Given that the whole purpose of COIN is to give breathing space for good people to organize against the destructive elements inside their own societies, it is hard to argue that COIN was not a benefit in Iraq, but its fairly evident failure to improve the situation in Afghanistan is a serious blow to its credibility. COIN's defenders will argue that Afghanistan is a uniquely atomized country, one that simply cannot be fairly governed in the modern world and, given its miserable history, that may well be true, but this in no way helps COIN's case.

The Insurgents has its sketchy moments. It seems evident that this book had all-but-come to print when the story of Petraeus' affair broke, compelling Mr. Kaplan to pen a hasty and uninformative coda to his chronicle. Moreover, the author doesn't appear to have had any access to Petraeus himself which is somewhat problematic given the heavily biographical nature of the work. However, these are minor knitpicks in what is otherwise a balanced, rational account of two bad wars, the men who prosecuted them and the ideas that bubbled up to impact them.

An excellent primer on the new face of war... (4/5 Stars)

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