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TCF Fellows Thanassis Cambanis and Michael Cohen Debate The Insurgents and Post-invasion Iraq

A dialogue between Century Foundation fellows Thanassis Cambanis and Michael Cohen on The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War by Fred Kaplan. Cambanis has the review of the book in The New York Times

Read the Twitter Chat between THANASSIS CAMBANIS and author FRED KAPLAN.

UPDATE Jan 24 5:30PM EST: 

Thanassis: Fred Kaplan is a grim historian of ideas, and in his book The Insurgents he tells us that after years of ignoring reality in Iraq, officers in the Pentagon opened themselves up to criticism and innovation. Even if counterinsurgency doctrine, or COIN as it was known, was intellectually a Potemkin doctrine, it yielded bureaucratic change and reform. So what do you think? Is there anything redeeming we can find in the tale of COIN, Iraq, Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, and the officers who briefly changed the way the Pentagon thought about war?

Michael: No. Here's my problem with this narrative. COIN was much less than meets the eye. The COINdinistas liked to believe they were doing something different and innovative - and they bought into this hoary COIN canard that getting the inputs right would change the situation on the ground. But the reality is that what turned Iraq around in 2007-8 had far less to do with what is described in FM 3-24 [Field Manual 3-24, the new counterinsurgency doctrine produced by Petraeus in 2006] and far more in the traditional elements of war-fighting. This wasn't an effort to win over hearts and minds; it was "kill the enemy" - and it worked because the US chose sides and cultivated a partner that helped to end the conflict.

Thanassis: I think you have a lot in common with Fred Kaplan's jaundiced view of the defense intellectuals in Washington, but I bet you depart on your assessment of the grand narrative. Kaplan thinks that COIN was essentially a small idea whose boosters oversold it. But he also believes that creative officers, practicing counterinsurgency, helped turn around the war in Iraq and in earlier periods did well in Afghanistan. You'd say that what little went right in Iraq was essentially divorced from American actions.

Michael: I wouldn't say “divorced from US actions.” US actions mattered but a lot less than we are led to believe and certainly not because the US waged a population centric counter insurgency as described in FM 3-24. There was no magic wand COIN solution; it was as you note in your review of Kaplan’s book a confluence of factors that turned Iraq around. To believe that it had something or everything to do with US arms is to believe that only the US had agency in Iraq. 

UPDATE Jan 25 9:30AM EST:

Thanassis: Kaplan finds hope in one place: young officers -- briefly -- convinced their superiors at the Pentagon to act with flexibility.

Michael: To your question of what went right - let me ask this (since you were there). If in 2005 the US “did COIN” in Iraq, would it have ended the war and decreased violence?

Thanassis: My feeling was always that if most American officers had behaved intelligently and creatively, as a small minority did, then the war in Iraq would not have been such a grand screw-up. And the worst of the civil war might have been averted. But this would not have been COIN, but simply, common sense. And it couldn't have happened because that's not how our military works.

Michael: But as Gian Gentile and others have argued, the US was doing a variation of COIN in Iraq will before Petraeus took over. What changed wasn't the inputs but instead the realities on the ground in Iraq. To which Petraeus took advantage and for this he deserves great credit.

UPDATE Jan 25 5:05PM EST:

Thanassis: One big question from Kaplan, which I'd like to hear you answer: do you think the US military improved in its ability to learn as an organization, from failing so much during the GWOT?

Michael: I'm not in a good position to answer that question, but one thing that really struck me in your review was the idea that Petraeus and his crew were pushing back on tunnel-vision thinking in the Pentagon . . . and they replaced it with their own tunnel vision thinking in believing that COIN was a catch-all solution to fighting insurgency. The new boss looked a lot like the old boss!

UPDATE Jan 28 9:30AM EST:

Thanassis: Right -- So Petraeus was smart in responding to the hand he was dealt, but he didn't actually create change in Iraq. Where Kaplan argues that Petraeus really did create change was inside the Pentagon, and while I'd like to believe he's right, I'm not so sure. Perhaps the Joint Chiefs got on board with the "cool" COIN officers when COIN was vogue in the White House, and as soon as the White House soured on insurgencies, occupations and nation-building, then the brass could dump that spiel they had opportunistically embraced.

Michael: Yes, Petraeus changed Pentagon thinking. The problem is that he convinced everyone to drink the COIN Kool-Aid. And we saw this of course in Afghanistan when McChrystal writes his review for the President and concludes the ONLY approach for US strategy in Afghanistan is to adopt a population-centric COIN model.

Thanassis: That's a depressing, and possibly correct diagnosis: that during the "war on terror" and the failed occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military actually didn't evolve to become a learning organization, but merely traded old dogma for new.

UPDATE: Jan 29 6:30PM EST:

Michael: Exactly

Thanassis: And we've all heard the joke: my karma ran over my dogma

Michael: And that new dogma led the US to adopt a completely inappropriate and ineffective strategy for Afghanistan - one that has failed. And now you barely hear a peep from the COIN folks

Thanassis: Do we have any major points of disagreement you expect we’ll get into on BloggingHeads?

Michael: I think your telling of the Iraq story is overly generous to Petraeus. The thing that I find so frustrating about the whole COIN debate is that the COIN theory discussed in FM 3-24 and propagated by a bevy of eager COINdanistas was basically horseshit. There was no winning hearts and minds in Iraq; we increased air strikes, increased the number of people in detention, increase military operations and in so far as we won hearts and minds it meant paying off Sunnis to take out AQI. And in Afghanistan once Petraeus took over from McChrystal he ramped up kinetic operations - increased air strikes and changed rules of engagement.


Thanassis: Maybe you're right and I haven't been hard enough on Petraeus. I've always been suspicious of the hero narrative, but I also think the guy deserves credit in Iraq, along with a handful of others, for at least looking reality square in the face when the nation was collapsing and the US was mostly doing the wrong things, and being willing to try something new. Let's duke it out when we meet on Bloggingheads later this week.

Michael: Well I'll say this, he deserves credit in Iraq but not for the things that he takes credit for!

Tags: petraeus, kaplan, iraq, cohen, cambanis
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