Lessons from Petraeus
In 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called on service members and the defense industry to help transform the military. This transformation would, in broad terms, entail high-tech combat systems, reliance on air forces, and small, nimble ground forces. What that looked like in practice at the time was anyone’s guess. But by the following year one man took on the task of manifesting Rumsfeld’s 21st century military and leading it into combat.
General David Petraeus has been called the most consequential military officer since Eisenhower; certainly he is the most celebrated. From the halls of West Point to the commanding heights in Iraq and Afghanistan to his recent appointment as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Petraeus has crafted a legacy as an innovator and the quintessential solider-scholar-statesman. Indeed, he wrote the book on 21st century warfare.
In All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, Paula Broadwell tracks the influences that shaped the thinking and work of Petraeus across his life. She intersperses biographical vignettes against the backdrop of his year in command of the forces in Afghanistan. Supported by hundreds of interview hours with the general as well as with his closest confidants, family and colleagues, Broadwell finds that Petraeus was heavily influenced by his education, top-brass mentors and by personal experiences in Haiti, Bosnia and Central America. The result is an account one-part biography, one-part layman’s guide to Petraeus’ greatest contribution to the U.S. Armed Forces—the Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
Petraeus began his rise to superstar status with the publication of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual in 2006. For this groundbreaking work, he was sent to Iraq by President George W. Bush to implement his counterinsurgency ideas. As commanding general of the Multi-National forces, Petraeus oversaw the “surge” of 30,000 additional troops, ultimately turning the tides of war in Iraq.
Three years later Petraeus returned to theater, only this time in Afghanistan. After the Rolling Stones debacle, President Obama replaced General McChrystal with Petraeus as Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. With only one year before the draw down, Petraeus began to implement counterinsurgency operations across Afghanistan.
Petraeus’ military doctrine outlined in the COIN manual is a dramatic shift from the military establishment’s reliance on heavy machinery. Borrowing heavily from lessons learned during the Vietnam War, COIN is a hearts-and-minds approach to warfare requiring light, quick forces dedicated to winning the peace. As Petraeus writes in the manual’s foreword, “Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation builders as well as warriors” and must be ready “to be greeted with either a handshake or a hand grenade . . .” In short—balance.
The tenets of COIN are simple, but highly uncharacteristic of traditional military doctrine. At its core COIN boils down to focusing on protecting the citizens rather than destroying the enemy. In her book, Broadwell writes, “The key to victory lay in protecting the indigenous population, not just in killing the enemy. That was the insight Petraeus stressed over and over. Killing the enemy was certainly part of his counterinsurgency doctrine—a key part. But he knew only too well that, without the support of the Afghan people, you could never kill your way out of an insurgency.”
In a 24-point memo to the forces in Afghanistan, Petraeus laid out the imperatives of counterinsurgency. At times his letter reads more like a sermon or like a seminar on corporate leadership rather than a Patton-esque speech one might expect from a general. What is astonishing is that many of the principles transcend their use in theater and can be applied to communities, businesses, NGOs, and civilian life and leadership.
Secure and serve the population. The decisive terrain is the human terrain. The people are the center of gravity. Only by providing them security and earning their trust and confidence can the Afghan government and ISAF prevail.
Live with the people. We can’t commute to the fight. Position joint bases and combat outposts as close to those we’re seeking to secure as is feasible. Decide on locations with input from our partners and after consultation with local citizens and informed by intelligence and security assessments.
Help confront the culture of impunity. The Taliban are not the only enemy of the people. The people are also threatened by inadequate governance, corruption, and abuse of power—recruiters for the Taliban. President Karzai has forthrightly committed to combat these threats. Work with our Afghan partners to help turn his words into reality and to help our partners protect the people from malign actors as well as from terrorists.
Help Afghans build accountable governance. Afghanistan has a long history of representative self-government at all levels, from the village shura to the government in Kabul. Help the government and the people revive those traditions and help them develop checks and balances to prevent abuses.
Pursue the enemy relentlessly. Together with our Afghan partners, get our teeth into the insurgents and don’t let go. When the extremists fight, make them pay. Seek out and eliminate those who threaten the population. Don’t let them intimidate the innocent. Target the whole network, not just individuals.
Identify corrupt officials. President Karzai has said, “My government is committed to fighting corruption with all means possible.” Help the government achieve that aim. Make sure the people we work with work for the people. If they don’t, work with partners to enable action, or we will appear to be part of the problem. Bring networks of malign actors to the attention of trusted Afghan partners and your chain of command. Act with your Afghan partners to confront, isolate, pressure, and defund malign actors—and, where appropriate, to refer malign actors for prosecution.
Foster lasting solutions. Help our Afghan partners create good governance and enduring security. Avoid compromises with malign actors that achieve short-term gains at the expense of long-term stability. Think hard before pursuing initiatives that may not be sustainable in the long run. When it comes to projects, small is often beautiful.
Money is ammunition; don’t put it in the wrong hands. Institute “COIN contracting.” Pay close attention to the impact of our spending and understand who benefits from it. And remember, we are who we fund. How we spend is often more important than how much we spend.
Walk. Stop by, don’t drive by. Patrol on foot whenever possible and engage the population. Take off your sunglasses. Situational awareness can only be gained by interacting face-to-face, not separated by ballistic glass or Oakleys.
Act as one team. Work closely with our international and Afghan partners, civilian as well as military. Treat them as brothers-in-arms. Unity of effort and cooperation are not optional.
Promote local reintegration. Together with our Afghan partners, identify and separate the “reconcilables” from the “irreconcilables.” Identify and report obstacles to reintegration. Help our partners address grievances and strive to make the reconcilables part of the local solution, even as we work with our partners to identify and kill, capture, drive out, or “turn” the irreconcilables.
Be first with the truth. Beat the insurgents and malign actors to the headlines. Preempt rumors. Get accurate information to the chain of command, to Afghan leaders, to the people, and to the press as soon as possible. Integrity is critical to this fight. Avoid spinning, and don’t try to “dress up” an ugly situation. Acknowledge setbacks and failures, including civilian casualties, and then state how we’ll respond and what we’ve learned.
Manage expectations. Avoid premature declarations of success. Note what has been accomplished and what still needs to be done. Strive to under-promise and over-deliver.
Live our values. Stay true to the values we hold dear. This is what distinguishes us from our enemies. We are engaged in a tough endeavor. It is often brutal, physically demanding, and frustrating. All of us experience moments of anger, but we must not give in to dark impulses or tolerate unacceptable actions by others.
Be a good guest. Treat the Afghan people and their property with respect. Think about how we drive, how we patrol, how we relate to people, and how we help the community. View our actions through the eyes of the Afghans and, together with our partners, consult with elders before pursuing new initiatives and operations.
Consult and build relationships, but not just with those who seek us out. Earn the people’s trust, talk to them, ask them questions, and learn about their lives. Inquire about social dynamics, frictions, local histories, and grievances. Hear what they say. Be aware of others in the room and how their presence may affect the answers you get. Cross-check information and make sure you have the full story. Avoid knee-jerk responses based on first impressions. Don’t be a pawn in someone else’s game. Spend time, listen, consult, and drink lots of tea.
Empower subordinates. Resource to enable decentralized action. Push assets and authorities down to those who most need them and can actually use them. Flatten reporting chains (while maintaining hierarchical decision chains). Remember that it is those at tactical levels—the so-called “strategic sergeants” and “strategic captains”—who turn big ideas in counterinsurgency operations into reality on the ground.
Win the battle of wits. Learn and adapt more quickly than the enemy. Be cunning. Outsmart the insurgents. Share best practices and lessons learned. Create and exploit opportunities.
Exercise Initiative. In the absence of guidance or orders, figure out what the order should have been and execute them aggressively.
All In also offers important lessons from Petraeus’ transformational leadership style. According to Petraeus, the “four big tasks” of a strategic leader are getting the big ideas right, communicating those big ideas, overseeing their implementation, and capturing best practices and lessons to reapply. Petraeus used these tasks throughout his military career including Afghanistan. Broadwell writes that upon arriving in Afghanistan Petraeus laid out his three big ideas. One: that the military couldn’t win the war alone. Two: that the U.S. forces were in Afghanistan to win. And three: that U.S. forces have an enduring commitment, but it might evolve as authority is transferred to the Afghans. He continued to communicate these concepts throughout his time in Afghanistan. Other lessons we learn from Petraeus include the importance of mentoring and listening to good ideas throughout the entire chain of command.
General David Petraeus’ efforts in Afghanistan have not won the same acclaim that his surge in Iraq did. As forces are withdrawn from the country, time may better shine light on how effective COIN actually was on an Afghan landscape. Whatever story history tells, Petraeus remains the solider-scholar-statesman that wrote the book on 21st century warfare and institutionalized it. The lessons laid out in All In and others will provide the subject of study for generations to come.
Some of these lessons are being put to practice and refined in the Heartland. Major General Omer “Clif” Tooley of the Indiana National Guard is a key agent in helping to sustain COIN operations. As Commanding General of Camp Atterbury—Muscatatuck Center for Complex Operations, Tooley is working to develop the facility into a Joint Interagency, Intergovernmental, Multinational and Non-Governmental training and testing center capable of meeting the national security requirements of the 21st century. Camp Atterbury—MCCO is considered the largest, fully functional real brick-and-mortar urban training environment in the United States. Together the two facilities provide a realistic training and testing environment for the full spectrum of complex needs required by the 21st century warfighter.
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