Blaming Gen. Petraeus for the Wrong Mistakes: Remembering Afghanistan (Cook)

Regular readers know that I have been critical of Gen. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrine because I found it unrealistic, and I wish the US had just withdrawn militarily from Afghanistan in 2002. Lt. Col. John L. Cook, Ret., argues in his new book that the counterinsurgency doctrine made for bad military tactics and strategy on the battlefield. It is a different point of view than my own, but it comes from someone who knows war in a way that I do not, and IC has a tradition of presenting points of view at variance to my own. Here is Cook’s guest column for Informed Comment:

For a solid week now, the national news media have been obsessing over the Petraeus-Broadwell affair.  The common theme tying these stories together is the tragedy of a great general, combat leader, diplomat and statesman brought down by an all too familiar story of infidelity.  The story has sucked the oxygen out of any other story competing for air time.  As if that’s not enough, it has inspired conspiracy theories over what he knew and when he knew it concerning the Benghazi debacle.  Did the Obama administration know of the affair and kept quiet before the election?  Was Petraeus, director of the CIA, forced to resign in disgrace last week – blackmailed into towing the administration’s line that Benghazi was nothing more than a riot inspired by an anti-Muslim video?  What did he know and when did he know it? And so on and so on until all the stories merged into a hazy blur of truths, half-truths, rumors and opinions.  

What’s missing in this media feeding frenzy is analysis and perspective.  Once the news broke that Petraeus admitted to an affair with Paula Broadwell, it was game on.  Some of the same journalists and reporters who had praised him in the combat zone joined the pack of attackers looking for the next juicy detail in this affair.  To a certain degree, that’s understandable because sex sells.  No one bothered to check the facts behind the carefully constructed image of General David Petraeus.  

Why, exactly, was he considered a great military leader in the first place?  Sadly, that question was never asked and, as a result, it was never answered.   It was simply understood that he had accomplished great things in Iraq and that he had put Afghanistan on the road to a successful conclusion.

Is that the case?  Did he actually do all that?  The short answer is no and it is his failure on the battlefield, with American lives hanging in the balance, that David Petraeus should be judged and it is here, where it mattered most, that he failed.  It was in Afghanistan where he embarked on his own risky, unproven counterinsurgency strategy, which cost countless American lives, that we should judge him, not the bedroom.

There is no higher honor or greater responsibility than leading young Americans in combat.  Not everyone can do it and even fewer can do it well.  We were all taught this as young, green Second Lieutenants.  We were also taught that we must do everything in our power to keep casualties to a minimum because combat itself is dangerous enough and the men entrusted to our care have complete trust in us to do this and not violate this most sacred of all trusts.  Because the soldiers entrusted to us in combat believe it to be true, they are the best in the world and that’s why they follow orders without question.  It is the bedrock of the American military tradition and explains the bond that unites us all, regardless of age or rank or era and it is proudly passed down from one generation to the next.  It is the one thing that separates us from the rest of society we keep safe and it explains why we willing risk our lives to save each other.  In short, it defines us.

David Petraeus violated this most sacred trust in Afghanistan, by putting a political project of “counterinsurgency” — i.e. winning hearts and minds throughout the country — ahead of defeating the enemy. In pursuit of a local popularity unlikely to be achieved, he imposed unrealistic Rules of Engagement on our forces. The last thing a good combat commander wants his soldiers to do is hesitate in the fog of war.  Yet this is what Petraeus’ strategy required.  

This is Petraeus’s legacy and is the real reason why he should have resigned.  After all, he wasn’t hired to be a saint – all great military leaders had flaws and we can forgive them because they’re human.  However, they didn’t violate the most sacred trust. Petraeus did.

Lt. Col. John L. Cook, Ret. is author of the just-published Afghanistan: The Perfect Failure: A War Doomed By The Coalition’S Strategies, Policies And Political Correctness


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16 Responses

  1. This article is embarassingly histrionic and silly; it would not get past the critical thinking skills of a child. Thus:

    “his own risky, unproven counterinsurgency strategy, which cost countless American lives”

    1,955, actually, at least according o icasualties. I should have stopped reading there but it was instructive to see the emerging Dolchstoß narrative. The gluurrrious troops were prepared to die to the last… yeah, yeah, yeah.

    The whole war was a crime, although few people had the courage to say so when it started. The real tragedy are the ‘countless’ Americans who died since Obama authorized his ridiculous surge in the face of many arguments against.

    The real heroes of this war are the lonely drone operators and high-flying bomber aces who racked up impressive body counts, where the ‘rules of engagement’ include any wog over the age of 21.

    The ground troops were given a political mission. If they failed, they failed. Poncing around like the old guard is silly and counter productive. Petraeus was a hack – Obama promoted him.

  2. “counterinsurgency” — i.e. winning hearts and minds throughout the country = a false description by Cook

    *counterinsurgency, DOD — Those military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and
    civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency. Also called COIN.

    FM 3-24 – COIN
    Legitimacy Is the Main Objective
    1-113. The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.

    Logic 101: You can’t have a counterinsurgency without an insurgency. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan was an insurgency, a revolt against an established government. Instead they were resistances against brutal US military occupations and their puppet governments.

    • Great point, let me add something if I might:

      Per the DoD Dictionary of Military Terms:

      insurgency — The organized use of subversion and violence by a group or movement that
      seeks to overthrow or force change of a governing authority. Insurgency can also refer
      to the group itself. (JP 3-24)

      “governing authority” is undefined, but it has come to include our brief proconsular rule of Iraq and presumably “things” like the Karzai mob in Kabul. No reference to “legitimacy” or any of its correlatives anywhere in the DoD Dictionary. Maybe in some other War Department text?

      Sure seems to me that like the Vietnam thing, the whole operation is built and based on a fundamental ILlegigitmacy, invasion and occupation.

  3. also:
    *insurgency, DOD — An organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through use of subversion and armed conflict.

    • That’s the old definition, by the way. It was inconvenient, PR-wise, for the Coalition Provisional Authority and the “Coalition” carrying water for whatever Karzai’s mob is (neither are a “constituted government”), and changed, as best I can make out, in a 2003 revision of the DoD Dictionary. It is hardly the only entry that has been revised to support the political bullshit underpinning the War-is-a-Racket.

  4. ” We were also taught that we must do everything in our power to keep casualties to a minimum…”

    Interesting statement. It implies, to me, that “force protection” has a higher priority than mission accomplishment. That is consistent with quite a lot that I have read in discussions from and about the military, but I have never seen it stated quite so openly.

    • Yes. As long as the military places its priority on protecting AMERICAN lives, they will continue to forfeit mission successes and thus lose wars. Soldiers are conditioned to expect to sacrifice their lives for each other and only sometimes for “the mission’ and almost never for non-combatants — the reason the “mission” exists. In insurgencies, the PRIME focus of an outside force (e.g., the US in Afghanistan) has got to be to protect civilians even at the cost of greater military casualties. Otherwise you alienate the locals and lose the political struggle, and any tactical military successes are so much dog-wash.

      You’d think Vietnam would have taught this lesson, but no. I see that once again a concerted military effort is underway to portray the latest wars as lost by namby-pamby politicians, craven diplomats, and weasely generals and REMFs, same as in the post-Vietnam era.

      Going into Afghanistan with guns blazing and no-holds barred didn’t succeed for the much more ruthless Soviets, so why do some American officers think we only needed to “take off the gloves” to blast the Taliban away? The idea that any army can kill its way into victory in a guerilla war has been proven wrong countless times in the modern period. Why doesn’t the US military get it?

      • Maybe if the US military brass were smart enough to not “invest” us in wars that make no sense, and where there is no definition of “winning” and no measure of success other than body counts and money spent and really puffy articles inflating the General Reputation of the Brass.

        And I have to note that from what I see, the Brass are in no way committed to “protecting AMERICAN lives,” not where things like Pat Tillman and so many other friendly-fire (that sick notion) “incidents.” And where hundreds of billions are spent on technical approaches to “defeating IEDs” but out in the real world, GIs are still being used as protoplasmic explosives detectors, and they either have ESP or magical powers of perception to spot the tiny clues and tells, or they get blown up, often with US-made bombs and artillery shells.

        Just curious — do you really think that the US military establishment is capable of “protecting civilians” in Afghanistan, to the point needed to allow a legitimate government of all the people (who seem disposed to resist any such thing)? The military can’t even define, let alone achieve, “success” or “victory.” Let alone a “mission,” which in theory ought to be a sort of NATIONAL decision, not one to be delegated to people who get rich and important off continued conflict, right up to an dincluding the Great Global Interoperable Networked Battlespace. But them folks are real good at playing the same game that made them rich through the Cold War and is still working well for them.

        One of my little personal 3×5 cards is a scene from an “embedded” moment: A Marine squad leader is confronting a villager among a bunch of others who had moved out of a market town after repeated “insurgent” attacks and threats. The Gyrene tells him he is supposed to move himself and his family and people back into the town, and that the Marines will “protect them.” He says that he has orders from the Brass that this village is to be a linchpin of the Rebuilding Doctrine in this valley, so the people just have to move back in, that’s all there is to that.

        Says the villager (as translated, I don’t speak the lingo so who knows if it was accurate) “With all your weapons and your technology, you Americans can’t even protect YOURSELVES against the fighters. How do you expect us to believe you are going to protect US?”

  5. Petraeus was a windbag and a stuffed uniform, more a politician than a military leader. Now that he has popped, all this flapping around is an impressive thing to see.

    Why would the author think that unleashing the military would be successful? Was that not the Soviet strategy in Afghanistan? How well did it work for them? The choices are: kill lots of people and see if they are subdued or try to win their hearts and minds and see if they are subdued. Both have been tried and failed. Does the author have any other strategy to try?

  6. I suspect this author never bought into the army adopting either counterinsurgency OR nation building as its mission.

    I recall under McChrystal fairly early on that troops were not.happy to pause to consider before calling in close air support, which they seem to have felt necessary to do at the slightest provocation. (I’m curious about the percentage of patrols needing air support and the relative use of air support by our coalition partners).

    Accepting that COIN failed, many have said it was doomed with so few troops which, if true, is an even more damning indictment of Petraeus’ willingness to send troops on a futile mission — however, the Obama/Petraeus surge in Afghanistan was supposed to be a new “smarter” and more humane beginning. Most Americans never noticed or cared that COIN was so quickly abandoned.

    Could it work? Not in Afghanistan, not with this Army.

    • The American army is just so top-heavy, reliant on excessive logistical support and massive firepower. They are usually both ignorant/contemptuous of and frightened of local civilinas and call for heavy weapons or aerial support at the slightest whiff of hostile fire. They can’t seem to survive overseas in combat zones without huge bases, junk food and drugs, creature comforts, and overwhelming conventional superiority. The guerillas, innurred to the land, culture, and hardship, run rings around the ponderous Americans and their body armor, cyber-weapons, and vehicles. This war was never going to be won. What Afghan would regard these alien, robotic-looking infidels with their invisible eyes, profane speech, arrogant attitudes, and callousness toward Afghan lives as any sort of trustworthy allies or friends? Our presence breeds enemies. The sooner we learn this, the better.

    • “I suspect this author never bought into the army adopting either counter-insurgency OR nation building as its mission.”

      Understood properly, counter-insurgency is nation-building. They are not separate, discrete activities. The only successful counter-insurgency effort in modern times was the British effort in Malaya during the “Malayan Emergency” spanning the period 1948 to 1960. I have described the reasons for its success in previous posts, but suffice it to say that the circumstances of the British in Malaya that led to their success are almost wholly absent in areas where we have attempted it, from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

  7. “There is no higher honor or greater responsibility than leading young Americans in combat.”

    Oh, really? Leading people to kill other people is absolutely the best thing any human being can ever possibly aspire to do? Seriously? Killing is superior to educating? A better thing than saving lives as a medical professional? Battle is morally superior to discussion, negotiation, mutual understanding in order to avoid battle?

    I’m with JR786 – this little screed is silly histrionics, and I’m glad so many other commenters are rejecting it. The frightening part, however, is that this attitude is pretty much American orthodoxy. The “young Americans” whose occupation is killing are “the best of us”, the self-styled “warriors” – even if all they do is sit in cushy chairs, manning a joystick, while raining down high tech death on less technologically-gifted folks in far, far distant lands.

    Admittedly, combat has its dangers. But it’s not unique. There are police officers and fire fighters whose jobs are similarly dangerous, but have less legal ability to strike back. Other workers – like miners and meat packers – endure unnecessarily hazardous jobs, and get no respect, much less adulation. The US needs to back away from its cult of “the Warrior” and belief that every problem should be solved with greater firepower.

    • What’s the chances that the US can back away from the cult of the Warrior? “Call of Duty: Black Ops”, the wonderfully exciting “simulation” that involves a whole lot of killing others, sold $500 million worth of copies on its recent release. And the content of TV and youtube and all the rest of how we learn about the world…

  8. Has anyone noticed what this piece is actually saying? It’s only slightly encoded. It’s saying Petraeus violated his sacred trust by laying down rules of engagement that put American soldiers at risk because he told them not to fire if there was a likelihood of killing innocent noncombatants, old people, women and children. (You know, in order to “win hearts and minds” because people don’t like it when you kill their wives, grandparents or infant children.) The author seems to think this was a terrible, terrible thing to do because it’s much more important to protect the lives of volunteer soldiers in an invading army than innocent civilians in a country they invaded.


    • Seamus Milne and others (Adam Hochfield, notably. but others too) have been laboring to de-romanticize colonial era. Some how in the backlash against the 1960’s (and the French Revolution), there has arisen a blinked “good old days” nostalgia about some “progressive” colonial movement (usually but not always British) in which “we” (I’m an American) — imperfectly but with “good itent” — at least raise the colonized (heathens) above their squalor.

      As Howard Zinn, iirc, said, “We judge others by their actions; ourselves, by our intentions.”

      Bernard Lewis, Nigel Ferguson and others believe somehow that we have some “god given” and/or dynastic mission to impose “enlightenment values” on lands and people to whom, in fact, ideas of “equality” under god or the sky, is not just foreign, but far from self-evident…

      I think much of “american exceptionalism” is based on the enlightenment “self-evident” assumption of equality … while I passionately believe in it, I am unsure how to convince other cultures of the validity of this concept, certainly not by subjugation or decimation.

      We have strayed so far from the idea that “all men are brothers under the skin” … so far from the idea that all people share values — like love and protectiveness of family and hope for the future — more important than ideology and independent from idiology — a place of “common ground” ….

      Where we are is not sustainable … the extremists seize and hold the stage … I am despondent.

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