Mar 12th 2009
From The Economist print edition
AMERICA’S disastrous war in Iraq was salvaged by an unlikely collection of dissident generals, think-tank scholars and foreign experts. The “surge” of troops launched in 2007, along with the adoption of new counter-insurgency tactics and a favourable realignment of political forces, all combined to pull Iraq back from a full-blown civil war—and made a celebrity of General David Petraeus.
Thomas Ricks, a military correspondent for the Washington Post, and David Kilcullen, a former Australian army officer who served as an adviser to the general, further burnish his reputation with two new accounts of the surge. Mr Ricks’s acclaimed previous book, “Fiasco”, chronicled America’s march towards perdition in Iraq. “The Gamble” tells the story of its (partial) redemption, led by General Petraeus and the other prophets of counter-insurgency such as Mr Kilcullen.
The book recounts the manoeuvres that led to the 11th-hour change of course in January 2007 to try to avoid a humiliating defeat. General Ray Odierno, then the second-most-senior commander in Iraq, went behind the backs of his superiors to seek extra troops at a time when the top brass was set on reducing forces. He was greatly helped in Washington by a retired general, Jack Keane, whose advocacy was so successful that there were some who regarded him as the real chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, America’s overall military commander.
General Petraeus, who had just written a mould-breaking new manual on counter-insurgency, was put in charge. Instead of trying to capture and kill insurgents—standard procedures required soldiers to kick down doors and fire two bullets into the chest of any suspected insurgent—the general told his soldiers their main task was henceforth to “protect the population”. In a further move, he had soldiers set up small outposts to live among the people and reclaim areas lost to insurgents instead of commuting from their bases along predictable routes to different hotspots.
Until then American commanders had been operating under the assumption that their presence among Iraqis was feeding resentment. Yet the more they withdrew from towns, the more the insurgency intensified. Mr Ricks quotes one key commander as recounting how American forces would tell Iraqis: “Don’t worry, we’re leaving.” With the new tactics, they would tell them: “We’re staying until we win this fight.”
General Petraeus benefited from some good luck too. Sunni tribes were already rising up against al-Qaeda’s murderous followers before the surge, and the Shia militia led by the hardline cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, declared a ceasefire. But fortune smiles on a military commander who knows how to exploit a good opportunity. Perhaps the best assessment of General Petraeus (intelligent, fiercely competitive, fanatical about fitness and, probably inevitably, also arrogant) comes from an unnamed American officer who says: “David Petraeus is the best general in the US Army, bar none. He also isn’t half as good as he thinks he is.”
However, despite material that is rich in both vignettes and interviews, Mr Ricks’s book comes as something of a disappointment. It has the feel of a manuscript written in a hurry. The structure is messy and the author makes use of too many long quotes, tediously parsing speeches at the expense of providing rigorous analysis. He treats counter-insurgency doctrine as a fixed revelation, divorced from history or culture, without much discussion of its limits or contradictions.
For a wider perspective on the lessons drawn over the past seven years of the “war on terror”, the reader can do no better than turn to Mr Kilcullen’s excellent book. “The Accidental Guerrilla” has an anthropologist’s sense of social dynamics and a reporter’s eye for telling detail. If T.E. Lawrence evoked the means of waging irregular warfare in his 1926 classic, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, Mr Kilcullen describes the practitioner’s art of combating insurgents. For instance, his account of how the Americans use soft and hard power to pacify parts of eastern Afghanistan—combining road-building with focused operations—should be compulsory reading in military academies on both sides of the Atlantic.
Mr Kilcullen draws on experiences from many places—not just Iraq, but also Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia and even Europe—to try to understand the nature of global jihadist militancy. He offers four overlapping, if imperfect, ways of analysing the phenomenon: as part of a reaction against globalisation; part of a global Muslim insurgency; the result of a civil war within Islam itself; and a rebellion of the weak against America’s might.
All this makes the Iraq war fiendishly complex; it is “an insurgency plus a terrorist campaign plus a sectarian civil war, sitting on top of a fragile state within a divided, unstable region,” says Mr Kilcullen. Classical notions of counter-insurgency, which emphasise building up indigenous forces, may be counter-productive if that ends up strengthening one side of a sectarian war. Conversely, creating Sunni tribal militias, successful against al-Qaeda in the short term, may ultimately weaken the central government. Mr Kilcullen quotes one Iraqi officer as warning him: “You have taken a crocodile as a pet.”
Mr Kilcullen is a reluctant warrior. Many of those fighting the West, he argues, are “accidental guerrillas”, driven to making common cause with violent extremists by the perceived need to defend themselves against American intervention. The invasion of Iraq, he says, was a grievous self-inflicted wound. Having learnt, impressively but painfully, how to do a better job of fighting insurgencies, America should not rush into more such wars. The watchword, he says, should be “never again”. But nor should it give up its hard-won expertise. It may need it in future.