The Mythology Surrounding Petraeus' Surge in Iraq Will Keep Us Trapped in Afghanistan

The United States is stalled in a hopeless conflict in Afghanistan in large part because its foreign policy establishment, aided by an often-vacuous media, has come to believe its own spin about General David Petraeus’ "success" turning around the occupation in Iraq. The fact that Iraq remains a shattered country with an active insurgency seven years after the United States invaded -- and that any improvement in security was due to developments on the ground that were unique to the country -- hasn’t shaken their faith.

That the Iraq surge was a success is almost a universally held belief, despite ample evidence to the contrary. That belief lends unearned weight to Petraeus’ counter-insurgency doctrine, known as COIN. The idea is not only to kill as many of the enemy as possible, but to create a functional, legitimate state that can police its own territory and win over the hearts and minds of the population. The efficacy of COIN has become an article of faith across the ideological spectrum, a belief held tightly by neocons and liberal interventionists alike. But it has no track record of success whatsoever, either in Iraq or elsewhere in the world. At best, it remains an unproven theory of warfare. 

David Petraeus, President Obama’s new commander in Afghanistan, is COIN’s most vocal champion. Widely seen as a golden-boy genius, Petraeus is the personification of America’s über-professional post-Vietnam military -- a military that supposedly embraces a more holistic view of modern warfare than its kill-'em-all predecessor. 

In 2007, when American opinion of the Iraq conflict was at an all-time low, George W. Bush named Petraeus the commander of Iraqi forces. Earlier that year, the late congressman John Murtha, D-Pennsylvania, accused the administration of calling Petraeus back to Washington on the eve of a major vote pertaining to the Iraq project to serve as a “prop.” “I’m saying he came back here at the White House’s request to purely make political statements,” Murtha said while dismissing Petraeus’ claims about the course of conflict as “absolutely untrue.” At the time, the Washington Post reported that “the Petraeus card is about the only one left to play for a White House confronting low poll numbers, an unpopular war and an opposition Congress.” 

Now, with Americans growing weary of the longest conflict in the nation’s history -- an occupation that has taken a heavy toll in blood and treasure in an effort to support an Afghan government whose president says he has “lost faith in the Americans and NATO to prevail” -- Barack Obama has ripped a page from the Bush playbook and brought in Petraeus, whom the Associated Press calls the “architect of the Iraq war turnaround,” to  “once again to take hands-on leadership of a troubled war effort.” 

The appointment has been a great success, at least politically. Time magazine’s Mark Halperin noted that it was met with “rare bipartisan praise” on Capitol Hill, an event he praised as “a mature and sensible reaction.”

But one could just as easily describe it as a psychotic reaction in the sense of trying the same thing again and again and expecting a different outcome. The reality is that the United States entered Afghanistan while it was embroiled in a longstanding, chaotic civil war. The country’s instability is deep, and the U.S. lacks a coherent strategy for reconciling the various factions of its fractured polity, traumatized as they are by decades of bloodshed. The occupation of Afghanistan is a systemic disaster, and it won’t be resolved by firing a wayward general or bringing in a specialist. 

The Petraeus Factor 

A recent news feature in the New York Times typified the sycophantic adulation Petraeus enjoys from the mainstream media, describing him as a man possessed with an “extraordinary set of skills,” including “a Boy Scout’s charm, penetrating intelligence and a ferocious will to succeed.”  

There is no doubt that this Princeton-educated "warrior-scholar" is a smart man and a savvy careerist. But the lion’s share of his reputation is based on the perception that with his “penetrating intelligence” and “ferocious will to succeed,” David Petraeus single-handedly turned around a failing state-building project in Iraq, proving the naysayers wrong and once again demonstrating the exceptionalism of the U.S. military. 

When U.S. forces first toppled the government of Saddam Hussein in 2003, most Iraqis, for a brief period at least, looked toward the future with optimism and embraced the coalition with at least some hope, if not the open arms the war’s supporters claimed.  

Seven years, thousands of American and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives later, the conventional wisdom is that Iraq is well on the way to fulfilling its promise. This is how the New York Times’ Dexter Filkins and Alissa Rubin describe the country -- and Petraeus’ contribution to the war effort -- today: 

In Iraq, General Petraeus helped turn the tide not just by sending 30,000 more American troops into Baghdad, but also by fostering deals with insurgent leaders who had spent the previous four years killing Americans. As much as the surge, the movement in Iraq known as the Sunni Awakening helped set in motion the remarkable decline in violence there that has largely held to this day.  

Reports from Iraq are less sanguine than Filkins and Rubin. NPR reports that in the past three weeks alone, “at least 19 members of an Iraqi paramilitary force that was supported by the U.S. military have been killed,” and “scores more of the so-called Sons of Iraq have been wounded in assassination attempts… scores have been arrested over the past year by the government,” and “others have fled the country, leaving a sense of bitterness among the remaining Sons of Iraq.” The Times of London, reporting on the recent assassinations of several members of Iraq’s parliament, added that “fears are growing that simmering sectarian tensions could once again explode,” and noted that “May was the most violent month so far this year.” 

As I write this, a sampling of today’s headlines out of Iraq: “12 killed in Iraq attacks, including army general,” “14 Officials Killed in Blistering Violence Across Iraq,” “Turkish warplanes bomb northern Iraq” and “Iraq rivals meet to bring premiership row to head.” The country’s leadership has been deadlocked in an “election crisis” that has persisted since a vote marred by charges of violence and fraud on March 7. Middle East scholar Juan Cole describes Iraq today as “the scene of an ongoing civil war between Sunnis and Shiites that is killing roughly 300 civilians a month.”  

The United States and its allies have sunk hundreds of billions of dollars into the country. But despite the investment, last week “security forces opened fire and killed two people” during a protest “against repeated power cuts that have reduced electricity supply there to less than two hours a day.” Reuters reported that farmers are “killing for water” in some rural areas. "Today, we don't have a fully functioning government as it is totally preoccupied by the security situation and political wrangling so we don't have a strong role to deter any possible widespread conflict" over resources, Karbala-based analyst Jaafar Moahmmed Ali told the wire service. "Besides, we have an acute shortage of water nationwide and a very bad economic situation that makes it very hard for farmers to do other work." 

Comparing Iraq today with the situation during the very worst days of the occupation is setting the bar extraordinarily low, yet it appears to be the metric embraced by much of the corporate media. The standard should be what Iraq might look like had it not been managed by blind ideologues more committed to the politics of the conflict back home than any meaningful and sustainable attempts at reconciliation. (As Raed Jarrar and I reported in 2007, U.S. officials had rejected and at times obstructed a number of promising Iraqi peace proposals -- locally grown initiatives -- because they didn’t square with American objectives at the time.) 

The worst decisions were made in Washington, and don’t reflect poorly on General Petraeus. But his reputation was built in Iraq, despite the fact that his record there was less than stellar. On his second tour of Iraq, serving as commander of the Multinational Security Transition Command, Petraeus was charged with a crucially important mission” to “organize, train, equip, and mentor Iraqi Security Forces, in order to support Iraq's ultimate goal of a unified, stable and democratic Iraq.” It’s a mission that essentially justified our continued presence in the country, as it does today in Afghanistan, and it was considered our ticket out of the mess. 

As the Washington Post’s William Arkin would write three years later, on the eve of Petraeus’ appointment to command all Coalition forces in Iraq: 

Ministries were "mentored;" procedures were established; regulations were written; training centers were created; barracks were built and renovated; equipment was procured and issued; a myriad of diverse organizations were created; divisions, brigades and battalions were stood-up; sunglasses were donned…. 

[But] we all know what really happened, the "national" army wasn't national at all; the combat forces weren't quite what the numbers suggested; insurgents had infiltrated almost all formations; the Ministry of Interior was riddled with Shi'a militia members and spies; the Iraqis weren't battling the insurgency, they were the insurgency. 

Petraeus is widely credited as “the architect of George W. Bush’s surge” -- it’s the basis for much of the patina of greatness that he enjoys in Washington. But the surge didn’t work. The additional troops were deployed by May 2007. What followed was a bloodbath --June and July were the most violent summer months of any year of the occupation. August was one of the bloodiest months, period. Then, that month, the powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mehdi Army to stand down. The number of Iraqi civilian deaths fell by about 50 percent the next month and decreased again in October and November. The militia was estimated to be 100,000 strong and was arguably the most powerful ground force in Iraq after the U.S. military.  

Juan Cole noted that the violence also decreased as a result of communities that had been fully "cleansed" of one or another ethnic or sectarian group. “In some ways,” he wrote, U.S. forces “inadvertently hastened a Shiite victory” in a simmering civil conflict. Petraeus then paid off Sunni resistance groups -- the Sons of Iraq -- to put down their weapons and support the central government, a tactic that’s being replicated to a lesser degree in Afghanistan and that proved effective, but only in the short term.  

Now, as we head into the second decade of the Afghanistan war, the New York Times assures us that “General Petraeus will probably also try to employ some of the same novel tactics that worked so well in Iraq.”  


The doctrine that made Petraeus an exalted figure has no track record of success according to any measure other than comparing violence in Iraq today with the level it reached during the height of its civil bloodshed. 

Last week, I wrote that the campaign in Afghanistan “is all about tactics dressed up as a strategy.” Another way to look at COIN as a strategy in theory that devolves into tactics when the rubber meets the road in real conflict situations.  

COIN is supposed to represent a holistic approach to state-building. It isn’t simply a martial exercise, but a comprehensive project that brings all of the United States’ power and know-how to bear -- civil, economic and diplomatic objectives go hand-in-hand with the military’s firepower. The ultimate objective is to push those on the fence into supporting American goals, lure some of the resistance to the sidelines and isolate and destroy those who can never be won over. 

It represents a classic example of technocratic hubris. Petraeus famously prepared this slide to render COIN in all its visual glory: 

Click for larger version

(click for larger version)

According to NBC’s Richard Engel, “detractors” call this “spaghetti logic” and say the “slide is what happens when smart people are asked to come up with a solution to the wrong question.” 

The bigger problem is that it’s largely impossible to implement such a grand strategy in a military with an entrenched warrior culture. When General Stanley McChrystal was axed last week after making inappropriate comments to Rolling Stone, it generated tons of press because of the political intrigue surrounding the move, but the most important part of the story was largely missed. Petraeus had mentored McChrystal, who became an equally ardent advocate of COIN. But the Rolling Stone article revealed a high command that has little interest in giving equal weight to the work of its civilian counterparts. It portrayed senior staffers as dismissive of other branches of government, and showed that even COIN’s strongest adherents weren’t buying into the strategy fully where it counts the most. As I wrote at the time, “McChrystal and his aides are protecting his legacy against history’s harsh judgment of what will prove an incoherent policy from its inception.” 

McChrystal had been tasked with a “state-building” project that was supposed to enhance our security by fostering the kind of stability and economic progress that would make the insurgency unappealing to its supporters. But as the New York Times reported earlier this month, the leader of that government, Hamid Karzai, has “lost faith in the Americans and NATO to prevail in Afghanistan.” After seven years of fighting, less than a third of the country is under the control of the central government in Kabul. And according to a report released in January, we’re fighting to bring legitimacy to a government that’s awash in corruption, which Afghans now view “as a bigger concern than security and unemployment.”  

While nobody can say for sure that COIN won’t turn Afghanistan around eventually, even its adherents admit it is a long, costly and deadly grind that can drag on for years, if not decades. As national security analyst Robert Parry put it:  

Petraeus’s COIN policy logically demands a decade-long war, involving labor-intensive (and military-centric) nation-building, waged village by village and valley by valley, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and countless U.S., NATO, and Afghan casualties, including civilians. That idea doesn’t in the least square with the idea that significant numbers of troops will start leaving Afghanistan next summer. 

Historian Gareth Porter believes General Petraeus will ultimately abandon COIN in Afghanistan. “Petraeus will not try to replicate an apparent -- and temporary -- success that he knows was at least in part the result of fortuitous circumstances in Iraq,” he wrote.  “Instead he will maneuver to avoid having to go down with what increasingly appears to be a failed counterinsurgency war.”  

That may prove to be the case. But in the near term, what Robert Parry calls the “cult of COIN” will maintain the fiction that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel in Afghanistan. Most of Washington believes the surge worked in Iraq, that it can be replicated in “Af-Pak,” and that Petraeus has the Midas touch to do the job. As long as it does, Americans will continue to fight and die in a war in which nobody seems to be able to define victory.


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