Author Interviews
1:05 pm
Tue January 29, 2013

'The Insurgents': Petraeus And A New Kind Of War

In a new book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, journalist and author Fred Kaplan tackles the career of David H. Petraeus and follows the four-star general from Bosnia to his commands in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Central to the story are ideas of counterinsurgency. Kaplan says that while counterinsurgency is not a new kind of warfare, it's a kind of war that Americans do not like to fight.

"We tend to call it irregular warfare even though this kind of warfare is the most common," Kaplan tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. Kaplan, who writes the War Stories column for Slate, explains that Petraeus and a number of his West Point peers were interested in the writings of counterinsurgency theorists who believed that "insurgencies grow out of something. They don't grow out of a vacuum. ... They respond to people's needs in a country where the government is not satisfying those needs. And so, what you have to do is not merely capture and kill the insurgents, but change the social conditions. ... It was a different kind of warfare that required not just fighting, but what we now call 'nation building' [and] that required cultural sensitivity to the people around them, required living among the people, protecting the population, earning their trust so that they, in turn, will tell us who the bad guys are."

Petraeus implemented these theories with some success in Iraq, but less so in Afghanistan, where he lacked the familiarity with the country he had had in Iraq.

"The problem was, by his own admission, he knew nothing about Afghanistan," says Kaplan. "He'd been in Iraq three times. He knew that place well. He comes in and what's in his mind is Iraq. ... I was told that in a meeting with President Karzai once, Karzai laid out a problem and [Petraeus] said, 'Well, you know, in Baghdad we did it like this ...' to the president of Afghanistan. And the aide who was with Petraeus in the room — who had been both in Afghanistan and Iraq — when they were walking out he said, 'You know, it might be an interesting intellectual experiment for you to not even think about Iraq,' and Petraeus said, 'I'm working on it.' "


Interview Highlights

On bringing the mentality of heavy firepower into a conflict of insurgency

"You anger a lot of people. You kill the wrong guy, all of his brothers and cousins not just distrust you, but they join the insurgency. You flame the insurgency. You swell the size of the insurgency. So it's not just the wrong approach to the conflict; it is counterproductive. It causes more problems than it solves."

On how Petraeus put counterinsurgency warfare theories into effect in Mosul, Iraq

"He vetted candidates for an election; he held the election; he opened up the economy; he brought in fuel trucks from Turkey; he opened up the university; he opened up the border to Syria in northern Iraq all on his own initiative. ... There were no orders. So it worked for about a year and he was rotated out and a brigade half the size of his division came in with commanders who had spent the previous three months bashing down doors and killing and arresting people in Tikrit, and that's what they did in Mosul and the operation fell apart for another year or two."

On Petraeus' mentality going into Afghanistan

"His whole MO and his entire life was that he had overcome the odds. That he had defied expectations. You know, everybody knows the story that at one time when he was an assistant division commander he had been shot in the chest by a fellow solider whose gun accidentally went off in a live-fire exercise. He recovered much more quickly than the doctors said. He jumped out of a plane once, the parachute ripped, he free-fell for 60 feet, broke his pelvis. He recovered. His surge worked in Iraq ... to a degree that nobody had anticipated, and so he went into Afghanistan leery, but thinking that, 'Well, maybe I can pull this off.' "

On why Petraeus went to the CIA from the Army

"He always wanted to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but anybody who knows the military bureaucracy knows that that can be an exceedingly powerful position. ... Petraeus was distrusted by many members of the Obama White House. They thought that he boxed President Obama in on troop options ... in the discussions about Afghanistan. The perception was, this guy was too clever; he was too powerful. You didn't want a powerful general to be given such a powerful position. And so, in December in 2010, Bob Gates comes to Afghanistan, tells Petraeus, 'You're not going to get the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, what would you like [instead]?' and [Petraeus] came up with the idea of CIA director."

On the exposure of Petraeus' extramarital affair

"I've never met an unassuming four-star general and I think if such a creature exists he's probably not a very good general. But Petraeus had gotten used to creating his own rules, going his own way and ... getting away with it and I think that sometimes, if you do that too many times, the boundaries of your ethos begin to shift and begin to distort and I think ... that's eventually what happened there."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. For 10 years now, Americans have become accustomed to seeing American soldiers fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our guest Fred Kaplan says that while America fought those wars, an internal conflict raged within the military about how to fight them.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, top commanders knew how to wage a conventional land war with devastating effectiveness. But they discarded long-studied principles of counterinsurgency: How to deal with a conflict in which the enemy lives and fights among the population, when the battle is more for the allegiance of civilians than for territory.

In his new book, Kaplan describes the efforts of civilian strategists and younger officers to turn U.S. military thinking around and pursue a more nuanced approach to the fighting in Iraq. Kaplan says the officers succeeded in selling their strategy, and while it helped in Iraq, it failed in Afghanistan. Fred Kaplan is a veteran national security journalist. He writes the War Stories column for Slate and has written three previous books. His latest is "The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War."

Well, Fred Kaplan, welcome back to FRESH AIR. After the debacle of the Vietnam War, you might think that strategists in the American military would decide that they need to focus on how you engage in limited war, how you fight guerrillas, how to more effectively, you know, engage in one of these limited conflicts. But you write they did almost the opposite.

FRED KAPLAN: Right, the generals decided they would never fight another war like this ever again. By coincidence, at the same time the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union were increasing their conventional armies in Europe, and so they turned their attention to that theater, and it was the kind of theater that they were comfortable with fighting, wars that depended on firepower and amassing men, and machines, and metal and dropping bombs and that sort of thing.

So they were never comfortable with Vietnam. They saw it a politicians' war. And so they decided not just to turn their attention to other kinds of war but to throw out, literally to throw out the field manuals, the training manuals, all the lessons, good and bad, that were learned in the previous conflict.

DAVIES: And of course that meant that officers that wanted to rise in the ranks, you know, study tank strategy and pursued that kind of war. But there were these younger officers who had a different interest, who read books about counterinsurgency. What made them think of that kind of war when top commanders were still thinking about the big engagements of tank and infantry?

KAPLAN: Well, you know, we're talking about the mid-'80s through the early '90s. So if you're a young officer coming up the ranks, where are you being deployed? You're being deployed in El Salvador, Somalia, Haiti, places like that. And yet at that time the Army defined war strictly as the big war, you know, major combat operations against foes of comparable strength.

They referred to these other small wars, they actually had a name for it. This was in capital letters, military operations other than war. They weren't even war. It was MOOTW, or mootwah(ph), and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time was once overheard saying real men don't do MOOTW. And yet these officers coming up the ranks in the '80s and early '90s - including David Petraeus and several others - you know, these places sure did feel like war to them.

And not only that, but they looked around them, and they saw these are the kinds of conflicts that the world is going to become engulfed in more in the coming years and decades. And as the Civil War tapered off and finally disappeared, this became more and more obvious to them. And yet the generals never really backed away from their Civil War proclivities toward the nature of warfare.

DAVIES: Now we're talking about David Petraeus, an officer named John Nagl, who wrote a dissertation, which is still influential on this stuff. Now, counterinsurgency, a lot of these ideas weren't exactly new. They - people read a former French officer named David Galula who had written a book about this. Do you want to just kind of outline some of the basic principles of fighting a counterinsurgency?

KAPLAN: Right, it's not new at all. It's just the kind of war that we don't like to fight. We tend to call it irregular warfare, even though this kind of warfare is most common. It should be called regular warfare. One of the characters in my book said basically the - the insight of Galula and other counterinsurgency theorists is that insurgences grow out of something. They don't grow out of a vacuum. They grow out - they respond to people's needs in a country where the government is not satisfying those needs.

And so what you have to do is not merely capture and kill the insurgents but change the social conditions. Galula, parroting Mao Zedong, wrote that these kinds of wars are 80 percent political, only 20 percent military, that in these kinds of wars a mimeograph machine can be as useful as a machine gun, sometimes, or cement can be as useful as mortar shells.

And it's not just that these wars were like the other kinds of wars but writ small, they were completely different kinds of things. It was a different kind of warfare that required not just fighting but what we now call nation-building, that required cultural sensitivity to the people around them, required living among the people, protecting the population, earning their trust so that they in turn will tell us who the bad guys are and that then you can use that as the basis for rebuilding the society.

DAVIES: Right, winning hearts and minds. Now, what happens if you bring the mentality of heavy firepower into that kind of conflict?

KAPLAN: Well, we saw it in the first few years of the occupation in Iraq. You bring that kind of mentality, you bash down doors, you kill or capture everybody that you think might be a bad guy, you anger a lot of people. You kill the wrong guy, all of his brothers and cousins not just distrust you, but they join the insurgency. You inflame the insurgency. You swell the size of the insurgency.

So it's not just the wrong approach to the conflict, it is counterproductive. It causes more problems than it solves.

DAVIES: Now if David Petraeus and John Nagl and a lot of these other bright, young officers got interested in these ideas in the '90s and were right about them and were talking about them, why then when the U.S. went to war in Iraq in 2003, when these ideas were swirling, were they so little valued at the time?

KAPLAN: Because they still weren't yet the three- and four-star generals. The three- and four-star generals were still the leftovers from the Civil War era. These were people who didn't want to get involved in those kinds of wars at all. And then you had a secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who had become very enamored of an alternative strategy of warfare very popular at the time called revolution in military affairs, which put all of its trust in smart bombs.

And, you know, you didn't need such big armies. You could have a very small army and just use smart bombs from the air to attack targets. And so he went into Iraq with a very, very small force, much smaller than the generals told him was necessary, and hey, he was right. He was right.

You didn't need very many forces to overthrow a government and to topple an army. But they did not anticipate that the whole country of Iraq would implode, that all the mechanisms of governance would fall apart, and then there would be, out of this vacuum, out of this anarchy, would grow a resistance, an insurgency, and they had no capability to deal with it.

They didn't even call it that.

DAVIES: Right, therefore they used heavy-handed tactics, which only inflamed the insurgency and made it worse. But David Petraeus had a command then. He was in Mosul, this was in the early period of the occupation, and got a lot of credit for doing remarkable things.

KAPLAN: Well, it's very interesting. He was commander of the 101st Airborne Division at the time, and he was stationed up in Mosul in Northern Iraq. The command structure of the U.S. Army in Iraq was completely fractured. There was no overall command for anything. So if you are a creative commander, you could do a lot on your own.

And so Petraeus, who had studied counterinsurgency for a couple of decades, who had set up what amounted - and this is almost completely unknown - what amounted to a counterinsurgency, very clandestine counterterrorist group in Bosnia a few years earlier. He just - he decided to put Galula into effect.

And so he vetted candidates for an election, he held the election, he opened up the economy, he brought in fuel trucks from Turkey, he opened up the university, he opened up the border to Syria in Northern Iraq - all on his own initiative, without telling - I mean, he told people what he was doing, but there were no orders.

And so it worked for about a year, and then he was rotated out, and a brigade half the size of his division came in with commanders who had spent the previous three months bashing down doors and killing and arresting people in Tikrit, and that's what they did in Mosul, and the operation fell apart for another year or two.

DAVIES: Right, so at this point, I mean, I guess it's 2005 he rotates out of there, is that right, 2004?

KAPLAN: 2004, yeah.

DAVIES: Right, and the insurgency is growing, and the country is falling apart. Casualties are mounting among the U.S. veterans, among civilians, and the Pentagon suddenly realizes it has a terrible problem, and they don't even know that there's somebody here who has the germ of a solution. He gets rotated back to an assignment at Fort Leavenworth, right.

And then he and these other officers, who are - who have studied and believe in counterinsurgency, begin to come together and say we have to change things. You say it was actually a plot.

KAPLAN: It was a plot. I mean, that's not my word. The people who did this, they called themselves the cabal or the West Point mafia because a lot of them came out of the social science department at West Point. But around this time that you're talking about, two things happened that ar