Learning from General Petraeus

petraeus_12311“Tell me how this ends” asked David Petraeus of a reporter embedded with the 101st Airborne Division as the U.S. army rolled through Southern Iraq en route to Baghdad.  It was March 2003 and a few weeks later President George W. Bush famously stood in front of a banner that declared “Mission Accomplished” on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln which was sitting off the San Diego coast and had just returned from the Persian Gulf.

General Petraeus was in the 30th year of a military career much of which was spent reading and theorising on counterinsurgency warfare.  His PH.D thesis focused on the U.S. army’s shortcomings in Korea and Vietnam, and without pointing the finger surmised that “America’s doctrine, tactics, and perennial practices were inappropriate.”  The army, as Petraeus saw it, was incorrectly constituted to fight the unconventional war it found itself fighting.   While the army won every head-to-head battle in Vietnam the “Search and Destroy” tactics espoused by Generals Westmoreland and DePuy were useless in vanquishing the Vietcong who kept on coming.  America’s approach in Vietnam was similar to that used during a conventional and open war across the rolling plains of Europe.

According to Fred Kaplan in The Insurgents (2012) Petraeus ghost-wrote an article for General John Galvin where he observed that the military had a tendency “to invent for ourselves a comfortable vision of war, a theatre with battlefields we know, conflict that fits our understanding of strategy and tactics…that fits our plans our assumptions, our hopes, and our preconceived ideas.”

As he stood there musing with that embedded reporter Petraeus understood  that the conventional war that Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon had planned and banked on would be anything but and would disintegrate into a messy quagmire that would mirror the army’s previous experiences in Vietnam and Korea.

In a paper called “Twenty-Eight Articles” published in Military Review in May 2006, David Kilcullen provided a simple definition for counterinsurgency:  “Here it is in a nutshell.  This is a competition with the insurgent for the right and the ability to win the hearts, minds and acquiescence of the population.”  He went on to stress the need to strike the correct balance between nation building, protecting the population, giving them a stake in the society’s future and the use of firepower.  “Injudicious use of firepower” Kilcullen said “creates blood feuds, homeless people and societal disruption that finds and perpetuates the insurgency.”  Prominent commentators feel that an 80:20 ratio in favour of the political and social is about right.

During the first year of the Iraq war Petraeus’s intellectual approach and inquiring mind stood to him as he was the only U.S. general toThe Gamble have a successful tour of duty as a division commander.  In The Gamble (20009) The Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks tells us that as head of the 101st Airborne Division, Petraeus “laid down three rules for his subordinate commanders: We are in a race against time, give the locals you deal with a stake in the new Iraq, and don’t do anything that creates more enemies than it removes.”  According to Thomas Powers in the New York Review of Books (March 2013) “at the top of his to-do list were money, politics, electricity, and jobs – all the daily grind of getting a city up and going after war had turned the country upside down.  In the background there was plenty of shooting, soldiers on patrol, night-time raids, and the like, but Petraeus’s effort was mainly  – say 80 percent –  devoted to buying and talking peace.”

What’s remarkable about General Petraeus’s approach in Mosul is that he did it without asking for the approval of his superiors.   When he moved on from Mosul all his work was undone as his successor adopted the conventional approach approved by General Casey and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Petraeus’s success in Mosul was brought to mainstream attention by Thomas Ricks in Fiasco (2006).  Fiasco is an account of the numerous strategic blunders that eventually led to the U.S. administration to acknowledge that they were on the wrong path.  Donald Rumsfeld had never planned for the stabilisation of Iraq post-invasion and refused to acknowledge that an insurgency was unfolding across the nation.  He even went as far as banning the use of the term “counterinsurgency” in the Pentagon.

Petraeus was assigned to head up the army’s “engine of change” in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  Fort Leavenworth was responsible for writing field manuals, running schools for officers, and penning military “doctrine”.  He took the opportunity to write the U.S. Army’s official Field Service Manual 3-24 on Counter-Insurgency operations.  The task took a year and the replacement of Donald Rumsfeld by Robert Gates as Secretary of Defence set the scene for Petraeus being awarded a fourth star and appointed Commander of U.S. and Coalition forces in Iraq by President Bush.

Petraeus presided over the successful troop surge of 2007 that was instrumental in quelling the insurgency and set the stage for the withdrawal of U.S. troops which was completed in December 2011.  His efforts and successes has brought a lot of attention to counterinsurgency works such as David Gallula’s classic Counterinsurgency Warfare (1964), along with John A. Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (2002), David Kilcullen’s The Accidental Guerrilla (2009) and T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922).

Organisations and their leaders can learn as much if not more by studying some of the themes that emerge from these writings and Petraeus’s experiences than they will from a typical business leadership book.  I will look at a number of these themes in subsequent posts


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