A Legacy of Ash: COIN and the Failure of American Foreign Policy
by Joshua Hood
This first appeared in The Havok Journal December 20, 2015.
COIN, an examination: Hidden amidst the media scrutiny following the recent terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino is an interesting aside. In January, David Petraeus, co-author of the Counter Insurgency manual, and disgraced director of the CIA, is going to testify before the special house subcommittee on the 2012 Benghazi attack that killed four Americans.
While our political betters will no doubt use hearing as an opportunity to make political hay, Petraeus is one of the few people who can answer a question he posed in 2003.
The Legend is Born
David Petraeus is an interesting character. He has many admirers, and even more detractors. He goes by many names: the man who saved Iraq, General Betray Us, and my personal favorite, the Perfumed Prince. But where did he come from?
In 2003, Major General David Petraeus deployed with the 101st Airborne Division during the invasion of Iraq. Up until that time he was just another officer, but when he famously asked Rick Atkinson, an embedded reporter from Washington Post, “tell me how this ends,” a legend was born.
This quote, brilliant in its simplicity, would later become the cornerstone of an altar built for the unknown general. It was the first seed planted in the mind of the collective consciousness that Petraeus had a preternatural ability to answer a question that no one had yet to ask.
Peter Bergen of CNN would later say “General Petraeus is the most effective American military commander since Eisenhower,” a fact that he was soon to “prove” by running a “textbook” counter insurgency strategy in Mosul.
He ended his first tour on a high, earning a Bronze Star with Valor device, and a Combat Actions Badge, despite the fact that he never came under direct fire. Newsweek would later laud that, “it is widely accepted that no unit did more to win the hearts and minds in Iraq than the 101st under the leadership of General Petraeus.” His mantra at the time was, “money is ammunition,” an idea he later would repeat over and over.
Six months later, now Lt. General Petraeus was put in charge of the Multi National Security Transition Team. His job was to set up a security force in Iraq, and lay the foundation for nation building.
However, when put to the test, both the illusion he’d created in Mosul, and the 11 billion dollars he spent on the Iraqi security force faded like smoke in the wind when the insurgency in Iraq burst on the scene. Violence slithered into Mosul, which was now being held by a Stryker Brigade roughly one quarter of the size of Petraeus’ force, and in no time the enemy Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, referred to as “political dead enders” began stacking bodies.
By this time Petraeus had been in Iraq for 14 months and was assigned to Ft. Leavenworth where he began crafting what was to become FM 3-24, the manual for Counterinsurgency or COIN.
The document he released in 2006 begins with, “this manual is designed to fill a doctrinal gap… and provides principles and guidelines for counterinsurgency operations. This manual takes a general approach to counterinsurgency operations (Petraeus FM 3-24). These guidelines were quickly dubbed the Petraeus doctrine when he took command of Iraq in 2007.
Look What I Did
At the heart of FM 3-24, we find a magical bait and switch. For those who have taken the time to read the manual, it becomes abundantly clear that at its core, COIN simply offers a new yardstick to measure success.
America was tired of the endless footage of dead and dying soldiers, and quickly lost faith in the White House’s strategy. It was becoming evident that the old days of enemy-centric warfare didn’t fit. Holding ground and calculating body count, meant nothing in this war, and President Bush looked to Petraeus for a new path.
Where his predecessors were rebuffed in their attempts to get additional troops, General Petraeus’ request was granted, and in 2007, 20,000 additional troops were sent to Iraq. But, this was no longer the war Petraeus had seen in 2004. The fragile nation was locked in a civil war between the Shia and the Sunni, and there was no end in sight.
With deployments extended from 12 months to 15, Petraeus threw away the concepts he’d created in FM 3-24, mainly the long-term commitment to the local government he’d help stand up. Instead, he began paying off the Sunnis to fight a war by proxy.
The people in al Anbar were tired of the sectarian violence and had grown weary of the coalition’s empty promises. Local emirs had begun fielding their own militias, in what was later dubbed the “Anbar awakening.” Sensing an opportunity, Petraeus used coalition forces to shore up a weak government and armed over 100,000 Sunni fighters to do his fighting for him. It didn’t matter that the majority of the fighters were known insurgents, all that mattered was the result.
The Beginning of the End
In his 1987 Princeton dissertation, David Petraeus wrote“What policy makers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters — more than what actually happened.” Perception is reality. The perception in Washington was that General Petraeus had saved Iraq, and after a Rolling Stone article condemned General McChrystal, President Obama wanted Petraeus to do the same thing in Afghanistan.
In reality, all Petraeus had done was create, arm, and train a massive militia, and got the hell out of dodge before the vacuum created by the coalition’s early withdrawal from Iraq went high order.
COIN never had a chance in Afghanistan. The shifts in ROE, or rules of engagement, and partnership General McChrystal made with Hamid Karzai came to nothing. Not even the vaunted Petraeus could work out the failures embedded in the tribal centric country, but before he got called on the carpet, he was selected as the Director of the CIA.
Petraeus was sworn in as the Director of the CIA, and there was even talk that he had the juice to become the next President of the United States. But then a little thing called ethics got in the way. In 2012, the FBI accused Director Petraeus of having an affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell. To add insult to injury, Petraeus was accused of giving her access to classified information, which he denied.
When the proof came out, Petraeus made a deal and plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of “mishandling classified information.” His punishment: two years of probation, and he was forced to pay a $100,000 fine. No big deal to a man who is reported to have a net worth of two mil.
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