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The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War

The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War by Fred Kaplan. Simon & Schuster, 2013, 432 pp.

Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents, a New York Times best seller, is the most comprehensive account yet of the reframing of American military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan as counterinsurgency (COIN) campaigns. A masterful storyteller, Pulitzer prize–winning journalist, columnist for Slate, and an MIT PhD, the author is well versed in security studies, and in this case he has created a real page-turner. His previous publications include The Wizards of Armageddon (Simon & Schuster, 1983), a classic study of nuclear strategists and their theories.

Kaplan argues that David Petraeus and his fellow insurgents succeeded in changing the Army from an institution focused on fighting Cold War–style air-land battles against conventionally equipped uniformed opponents to a more flexible force prepared to conduct wars among the people. The larger context is an Army that turned its back on COIN after Vietnam even though the United States engaged almost continuously throughout the 1990s in such places as northern and southern Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. These engagements were euphemistically called military operations other than war (MOOTW). The prevailing ethos among top Army generals about such conflicts was that “real men don’t do MOOTW,” attributed to Gen John Shalikashvili, USA, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (p. 45).

Because of this prevailing ethos against MOOTW and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s policy of transitioning responsibility as quickly as possible to the Iraqis, the revival of COIN thinking required a revolutionary movement or insurgency within the Army. Its center of gravity was a network of Soldier-scholars who, as captains and majors, had taught in either the Department of Social Sciences (“Sosh”) or History at West Point. These officers kept alive the lessons of Vietnam and revolutionary warfare through their teachings. More importantly, they also developed bonds among themselves that would later enable them to become a critical mass for changing how the Army fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Authors David Cloud and Greg Jaffe advanced a similar thesis in The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army (Three Rivers Press, 2009), which featured Gen Peter Chiarelli and Gen David Petraeus as Sosh alums spearheading a more enlightened strategy in Iraq, compared to that of Gen John Abizaid and Gen George Casey, who supported Secretary’s Rumsfeld’s policy of rapid transition. Kaplan’s work picks up on this Sosh connection and expands it to tell a completer story about how the United States changed its strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kaplan’s heroes are the network of warrior-scholars who taught at West Point. They include John Nagl, Petraeus’s protégé, who earned a PhD at Oxford where he wrote Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaysia and Vietnam (University of Chicago Press, 2005). His book was widely distributed by the Department of Defense and Army officials as things turned south in Iraq. Nagl would coauthor Field Manual (FM) 3-24, Counterinsurgency, 2006, the new COIN manual. H. R. McMaster, another Sosh alum, studied for his PhD at the University of North Carolina where he wrote Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam (HarperCollins, 1997). The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Hugh Shelton, ordered all of the service chiefs to read it. Several other Sosh alums with PhDs, including some with equally impressive publications to their credit, constituted the movement’s core.

Kaplan’s study shows that the Army’s program of sending promising captains to graduate school to earn PhDs followed by instructor duty at West Point has proven a wise investment. The Army seems to have broken the code on how to get these young officers back to qualifying operational assignments so that at least some—Petraeus is a case in point—progress to the top ranks and affect the course of events for the better.

Kaplan portrays Petraeus as a master at bureaucratic politics, which he learned from previous mentors. He adeptly exploited and expanded the Sosh network to include like-minded civilian academics, think tanks, and policy wonks as he orchestrated development of the new COIN doctrine. They became known as “COINdinistas.” Kaplan does a remarkable job of tracing their influence as they build momentum for a new campaign strategy. As a result, efforts converge from different quarters supporting the appointment of Petraeus to implement it.

A strength of this work is Kaplan’s ability to relate the richness and complexity of the historical case without overwhelming the reader. To his credit, he shows that COIN strategies were already being implemented in Iraq before the troop surge of 2007 and the publication of FM 3-24. McMaster’s pacification of Tal Afar demonstrated this fact and set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the Anbar Awakening. The difference when Petraeus took charge, however, was a campaign establishing unity of effort on the COIN strategy throughout Iraq.

Kaplan’s identification of the central paradox of COIN campaigns is an important insight. The illegitimacy of the ruling elite causes insurgencies to exist in the first place. Yet, successful COIN campaigns require a legitimate host whose interests coincide with those of the intervener. Although the COIN approach produced stunning results in parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, the goal of stable, legitimate governments has not been achieved. The lesson is that COIN will probably not prove effective when the insurgents are out of reach, the government is too corrupt, or the intervening nation is unwilling to commit resources to a lengthy campaign.

Students of the art of war develop themselves by analyzing cases of challenge and response as well as the relationship between military theory and practice. Kaplan has a writer’s knack for crafting these themes in a gripping way. Change begins with ideas and is therefore an intellectual endeavor. As Jimmy Doolittle said, “If we should have to fight, we should be prepared to do so from the neck up instead of from the neck down.” The Insurgents is an excellent case study about the relationship among theory, doctrine, and institutional change.

Dr. Bert Frandsen
Air War College, Maxwell AFB, AL

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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